CSS Manassas : The First Confederate Ironclad

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the first confederate ironclad

Of the many chapters of the Civil War, the Confederate States Navy is perhaps one of the least known. Apart from the exploits of the CSS Alabama or the CSS Virginia, a majority of the warships are unknown. Case in point is the Confederacy’s first Ironclad, the CSS Manassas. A ship with a design as radical as her career was short, she is largely overshadowed by the more famous CSS Virginia. This is disappointing as the CSS Manassas was a very unique and modern design for the time. With that being said, with this article I hope to shed some light on the first Confederate ironclad.

The ship that would one day serve as the gate guard of the Mississippi river started life as a standard steam powered icebreaker and tow boat, the Enoch Train. Laid down in 1855, the ship plied the waters off the coasts of the United States for a number of years. Unfortunately, she was off the coast of Louisiana when Confederate President Jefferson Davis authorized the use of Privateers. A New Orleans based privateer, the CSS Ivy, immediately set out and captured four Union ships, one of which was the Enoch Train.After arrival in New Orleans, the Enoch Train was purchased by a group of Investors who had the ship converted into an ironclad ram. The ship would become the first ironclad in the Confederate Navy.

The Confederate’s “Hellish Machine”

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In 1861, J. A. Chalaron saw the Manassas as it was undergoing conversion into an ironclad. He made a sketch of the ship. This is a 1903 reproduction of the original sketch.

 

The CSS Manassas was of a radical new design that in many ways was extremely forward thinking. Her upper hull was cut down and replaced with a curved armored deck 1.25″ inches in thickness. This curved deck rose only 6.5′ out of the water, presenting a very small target for enemy gunners. This incorporated two very important attributes of more famous ironclads like USS Monitor or CSS Virginia. Like Monitor, Manassas had a very low profile in the water. Like Virginia, what little hull remained out of the water featured heavily sloped armor. However, this lack of available space above the waterline diminished the ability of Manassas to carry weaponry. Her only gun was a single 64 pounder Dahlgren. However, the main weapon of Manassas was hidden below the waterline. Equipped with a heavy iron ram, Manassas was expected to stave in the hulls of Union ships, completely invulnerable to their defensive fire. Overall, Manassas was a very sinister contraption with several Union reports calling it “hellish” in appearance.

Into Battle

the first confederate ironclad

The completed Manassas was commissioned into service on September 12, 1861. However, the arrival of Union warships to blockade the Mississippi river caused a panic for the mosquito fleet of the Confederate navy which had no comparable warships. Hoping to level the playing field, Commodore Hollins of the Confederate State Navy, dispatched a boarding party to take command of the CSS Manassas. Wretched from the control of her private owners, Manassas now offered the small Confederate fleet a weapon capable of engaging the Union warships. She was immediately pushed into service on the lower Mississippi river. Exactly one month after commissioning, she was already heading into her first battle.

The Battle of the Head of Passes did not go well for Manassas. Directed to engage the heavily armed USS Richmond, Manassas moved to ram the large Union Vessel. Luckily for the larger warship, she was taking on coal from a barge during the attack. Manassas first collided with the barge before Richmond. Taking the brunt of the assault, the coal barge saved Richmond from series damage. However, the impact from the collision tore off the iron ram and smoke stacks from Manassas. One of her steam engines was also knocked from its mount, putting it out of action. Manassas limped away upriver, before being taken under tow to Fort Jackson.

Opinion of the Manassas following the battle was mixed. Confederate Forces learned that the Manassas was not fast or maneuverable enough to easily ram opposing warships. The weakness of her engine mounts and ram showed that she lacked the durability to perform successive ramming attacks. She was at best a one shot weapon. However, the Union Navy had a dramatically different opinion. For months after the battle, Union crews whispered of the “infernal ram” that was difficult to hit and even harder to penetrate. Naval commanders went to great lengths to post sentries to watch the rivers for the approach of the dreaded Confederate ironclad.

Final Stand of the Manassas

Following the Battle of the Head of Passes, the CSS Manassas was formally purchased by the Confederated Navy. For the next few months, Manassas acted as a fleet in being. The Union did not want to risk sending Naval forces up the Mississippi for fear of the Confederate Ironclad. However, that would soon change in April, 1962. The Union forces had finally built up enough strength to make an attack to capture the city of New Orleans. The only opposition were the formidable defenses at Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip. A small group of Confederate warships, including the CSS Manassas, were to provide additional support.

After the Union gave up on trying to bombard the forts into submission, they formed their ships up to make a dash past the forts and straight into New Orleans. Manassas attempted to engage the Union warships during their dash. However, the Confederate gunners on shore did not bother to distinguish friend from foe. Manassas found herself under fire from the Confederate forts. She retreated upriver to get out of range and wait.

As the Union fleet made its way upriver, Manassas came about and resumed her attack. She first attempted to ram the USS Pensacola. However, the Pensacola was able to avoid the attack and deliver a broadside. While accurate, the Union barrage did not damage the Manassas. Her attack foiled, Manassas was now exposed to the entire Union fleet and began taking heavy fire. She turned to attack the next closest enemy, the USS Mississippi. This time, her aim was true and Manassas collided with Mississippi. However, the ram did not penetrate the ship’s hull. Instead Manassas left a long gouge along the hull of Mississippi while also hitting her once with her gun. After disengaging, Manassas wheeled around and found USS Brooklyn in her sights. Manassas managed to ram Brooklyn and deliver a devastating hit from her gun. Brooklyn took serious damage but was not fatally injured.

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By this point, the Union warships had proceeded further upriver. Manassas followed along behind them, looking for an opportunity to strike. Unexpectedly however, the USS Mississippi spun around and made a beeline towards Manassas. As if to give the Ironclad a taste of its own medicine, Mississippi was going to run the smaller Confederate ship down. Manassas managed to dodge the larger warship, however she ran aground in the process. Seizing the opportunity, USS Mississippi came about and began pummeling the helpless Ironclad. With no possibility to float the ship off the bank, the captain of the CSS Manassas ordered the crew to abandon ship. The entire crew managed to climb out of the ship onto the riverbank without a single casualty. Manassas herself was not so fortunate. Whether by Union fire or one of her own crew members, Manassas caught fire. However, she did manage to slip off the river bank. Now ablaze, Manassas drifted downriver. Some Union sailors attempt to salvage the ship, but before any serious effort could be made, the ironclad exploded and sank.

Final Thoughts

Like most ships in the Confederate Navy, the CSS Manassas was fighting a superior enemy with little chance of success. Even with her radical design, she would have been hard pressed to make a major difference in the war.

The greatest legacy of the CSS Manassas is her unique design. Combining iron plating, heavily sloped armor, and a very low profile, the Manassas was a formidable foe to crack. Similar to Germany during WW2, the Confederacy tried to overcome quantity with individual quality. However, her design was let down by a weak power plant and poor maneuverability. This made employing the ram, her primary weapon, extremely difficult. Overall, her advanced design could not overcome her flaws.

As always, I hoped you enjoyed the article. My next piece will be a comprehensive look at the designs of the Iowa class vs. the Bismarck class battleships. In the meantime, check out our other articles, ship designs, or naval news. Also follow us on social media at our Facebook, Twitter, and Google+  accounts.

 

Chris Knupp

A student of military history, I am working to make history more interesting and accessible for everyone.

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