Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

“With one hand behind its back. . . .”

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on November 8, 2013



It’s August 29, 1863. At the shipyard of William Webb, on the East River in Manhattan, an enormous, state-of-the-art ironclad towers over top-hatted shipyard officials and dignitaries who’ve come to witness her launch. The new ship — her wood hull soon to be sheathed with iron plate armor — would be over 325 feet long overall, displacing nearly 5,800 tons, much heavier than the famous Confederate ironclad Virginia.  Behind 4½ inches of armor plate, she would ultimately carry two 10-inch rifles and twenty-six 6.3-inch smoothbore guns. Unlike Virginia and most other Confederate ironclads, this new seagoing behemoth was capable of considerable speed, up to 12 knots. Her speed and mass, in fact, were themselves weapons, directed through the heavy iron ram affixed to her stem. This new ironclad would easily dominate any Southern warship sent against her.

Would, that is, if she’d ever encountered one. The ship launched at Webb’s yard on August 29, 1863 was not a Union warship, though. She was built for the Italian navy and commissioned into that service as Re de Portogallo (King of Portugal). She was one of the major Italian ships at the Battle of Lissa in 1866, where the Italians were beaten by a smaller-but-better-handled squadron of Austro-Hungarian warships.

I came across this image while going through Harry Johnson and Frederick S. Lightfoot’s Maritime New York in Nineteenth Century Photographs. (The original is in the King’s Point Museum.) I’d never looked closely at this photograph before, but it immediately captured the enormous industrial capacity of the North. sufficient not only to build its own warships, but those of other countries at the same time. It also brought to mind Shelby Foote’s observation:


I think that the North fought that war with one hand behind its back. At the same time the war was going on, the Homestead act was being passed, all these marvelous inventions were going on… If there had been more Southern victories, and a lot more, the North simply would have brought that other hand out from behind its back. I don’t think the South ever had a chance to win that War.


Margaret Mitchell expressed a very similar idea, through Rhett Butler, in Gone with the Wind:


“Gentlemen,” said Rhett Butler, in a flat drawl that bespoke his Charleston birth, not moving from his position against the tree or taking his hands from his pockets, “may I say a word?”
There was contempt in his manner as in his eyes, contempt overlaid with an air of courtesy that somehow burlesqued their own manners.
The group turned toward him and accorded him the politeness always due an outsider.
“Has any one of you gentlemen ever thought that there’s not a cannon factory south of the Mason-Dixon Line? Or how few iron foundries there are in the South? Or woolen mills or cotton factories or tanneries? Have you thought that we would not have a single warship and that the Yankee fleet could bottle up our harbors in a week, so that we could not sell our cotton abroad? But–of course–you gentlemen have thought of these things.”
“Why, he means the boys are a passel of fools!” thought Scarlett indignantly, the hot blood coming to her cheeks.
Evidently, she was not the only one to whom this idea occurred, for several of the boys were beginning to stick out their chins.
John Wilkes casually but swiftly came back to his place beside the speaker, as if to impress on all present that this man was his guest and that, moreover, there were ladies present.
“The trouble with most of us Southerners,” continued Rhett Butler, “is that we either don’t travel enough or we don’t profit enough by our travels. Now, of course, all you gentlemen are well traveled. But what have you seen? Europe and New York and Philadelphia and, of course, the ladies have been to Saratoga” (he bowed slightly to the group under the arbor). “You’ve seen the hotels and the museums and the balls and the gambling houses. And you’ve come home believing that there’s no place like the South. As for me, I was Charleston born, but I have spent the last few years in the North.” His white teeth showed in a grin, as though he realized that everyone present knew just why he no longer lived in Charleston, and cared not at all if they did know. “I have seen many things that you all have not seen. The thousands of immigrants who’d be glad to fight for the Yankees for food and a few dollars, the factories, the foundries, the shipyards, the iron and coal mines–all the things we haven’t got. Why, all we have is cotton and slaves and arrogance. They’d lick us in a month.”


Butler’s timetable (“they’d lick us in a month”) was badly off, but what about his larger point? True?




9 Responses

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  1. Will Hickox said, on November 8, 2013 at 10:26 pm

    Mitchell and Foote were forgetting that, while a nation’s industrial capacity to fight a war may be infinite, its citizens’ will to fight isn’t. People are not machines. If there really had been “a few more Southern victories” war opposition in the North could have suffered a really damaging blow.

  2. Patrick Browne said, on November 9, 2013 at 5:55 am

    I like the twist. It was surprising to read that she went to the Italian navy. Not what I expected. I think your point is very well made.

  3. Foxessa said, on November 9, 2013 at 2:25 pm

    At the same time there were a lot of Northerners who were making a lot of money out of cotton — New York, particularly, the same place that built ships — and were not happy about having their bubble burst.

    As well, those who built slave ships for the slave trade out of Africa to Cuba and still, for a while longer, to Brasil, knew that once slavery was finished in the South, they would no longer be able to get away with shipping slaves out of Africa — and they were making huge fortunes doing that. So much so, they could afford to burn the ship after one cargo, to destroy the evidence. That’s where the clipper trade went — to this illegal slave trade (and some, rather earlier, to the illegal opium trade from India to China), forbidden by U.S. law, but nobody cared. There were ships run in this trade from Maine to Baltimore. But generally not from further south, because, the cotton kingdom did not build ships and had no carrying trade, which is why they were forever blaming the North for squeezing them on imports.

    • Andy Hall said, on November 9, 2013 at 2:32 pm

      All true. The first great, distinctly American vessel “type,” the Baltimore clipper, had its origins firmly grounded in privateering and the slave trade.

  4. Neil Hamilton said, on November 9, 2013 at 6:20 pm


    In my opinion, Rhett nailed it…

    Except for the time period. 🙂


  5. edwardbialek said, on November 20, 2021 at 7:13 am

    I don’t know if you know, but your argument was used in this video: time: 3:05

    • Andy Hall said, on November 21, 2021 at 4:09 pm

      Thanks. I saw it; I got a ping when the video was posted. The disparity in industrial and war-making capacity was real, although the Lost Cause frames it as part of the noble struggle of the valiant underdog, etc. The point I was trying to make was much the same as Rhett Butler’s — it was a damned foolish gamble to undertake.

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