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Experimental ships 1861-65

Written by Sakhal

During the American Civil War (1861-65) entered experimental action some of the first ironclads and submersible boats, whose impact on the war was certainly not decisive, but these undoubtedly opened a new stage in the history of naval warfare. This article describes some of them: the ironclads CSS Virginia and USS Monitor, and the submersible boats CSS David and CSS Hunley. Properly, both the CSS Virginia and her counterpart USS Monitor were actually floating batteries more than proper ironclads, since their hulls remained almost entirely underwater and only their superstructures emerged from the waters, hence being their armament comparably poor. These were actually cheap, improvised projects created in a climate of confusion and despair, nothing comparable to the brilliant constructions created in the old continent, such as the Gloire and the HMS Warrior. Both the CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor were taken into action with haste, omitting the mandatory sea trials and crew training. During their engagement in Hampton Roads, none of them managed to bypass the armor of the other, even with many point-blank range shots. The USS Monitor however finally retreated after her pilothouse got damaged by a direct hit. The two ships would not meet again...

CSS Virginia (ex USS Merrimack)

This armored ship was built upon the remnants of the steam-powered frigate USS Merrimack, which had been partially burnt and sunk by the Union to prevent the enemy from capturing her. However, the Confederate refloated the ship and took advantage of the hull after removing the burnt timbers above the waterline, building on its place a casemated superstructure with oak beams and boards, reaching up to 60 centimeters in thickness, armored with superimposed iron plates and rails. The result was anything but beautiful, but the question was if this structure would perform adequately in combat. It was considered that this ship, which had as well a reinforced prow equipped with a cast iron ram and her entire hull lined with iron plates, would be able to withstand the artillery of any Union ship. However, the armament was relatively weak, consisting of six 229 mm smoothbore cannons, two 178 mm rifled cannons, two 160 mm rifled cannons and two 12-pounder howitzers. During the Battle of Hampton Roads the CSS Virginia performed acceptably well because the Union Fleet was all wooden-built and their artillery unable to pierce the iron armor. It is to be noted that in that period artillery still fired inert ball-shaped projectiles. After two months causing havoc among the Union Fleet at Hampton Roads, the CSS Virginia was finally cornered without place to go, and the Confederate gave her the same fate that her former owners: destruction to avoid capture.

Experimental ships 1861-65

Launched: N/A

Length: 83.8 meters

Beam: 15.6 meters

Draft: 6.4 meters

Displacement: 4100 tonnes

Propulsion: 1 x shaft, 2 x horizontal back-acting steam engines, 1200 hp

Speed: 5-6 knots (9.3 - 11.1 km/h)

Complement: 320

Armament: 6 x 229 mm Dahlgren smoothbore cannons, 2 x 178 mm Brooke rifled cannons, 2 x 160 mm Brooke rifled cannons, 2 x 12-pounder howitzers

Armor: 25-76 mm in belt, 25 mm in deck, 102 mm in casemate

USS Monitor

Surprised by the outcome of their former ship USS Merrimack, the Union did not lose their time and hastily built their own armored floating battery. If the armament in the CSS Virginia was relatively reduced, in the USS Monitor it was even lesser, however being the guns heavier and her mobility superior. The project for the USS Monitor was entrusted to Swedish engineer John Ericsson, who had made a draft for Napoleon III. This draft was the basement for the USS Monitor. The hull consisted of two parts: the underwater built with 16 mm plates, had a length of 37.80 meters, a beam of 10.36 meters and a height of 1.73 meters. Above the submerged part there was an armored hull made of teak wood, measuring 52.42 meters in length, 12.65 meters in beam and 1.50 meters in height. The armored hull dived in the water about 90 centimeters, so the hull barely showed 60 centimeters above the waters in a calm sea. This contributed to give these ships the appearance of the submarines that would appear some decades later. Amidships was installed the armored turret, which was rotated by steam machinery, and inside there were two large 279 mm smoothbore cannons. The turret's armor was composed of eight layers of 1 inch thick iron plates, jointed by rivets. In the hull the armor was applied in the same way, but with lesser thickness, from 3 to 5 inches. The cross section below shows all these details.

Experimental ships 1861-65

After the turret there were two removable funnels and further aft two vents, also removable. During combat the deck was cleansed of elements, presenting only the artillery turret and the small pilothouse at prow. A ventilator sent air to the different parts of the ship and another one to the forced draft boilers. The USS Monitor was not apt for open sea, and during the travel from New York to Hampton Roads, she was close to be sunk by the water that entered thru the openings on the deck. This defective characteristic would seal her destiny: surprised by a strong storm, the USS Monitor was lost in the sea near Rhose Island in the last day of 1862.

Experimental ships 1861-65

Launched: 30 January 1862

Length: 54.6 meters

Beam: 12.6 meters

Draft: 3.2 meters

Displacement: 1003 tonnes

Propulsion: 1 x shaft, 1 x vibrating-lever steam engine, 320 hp

Speed: 6 knots (11.1 km/h)

Complement: 49

Armament: 2 x 279 mm Dahlgren smoothbore cannons

Armor: 76-127 mm in armored hull, 25 mm in deck, 203 mm in artillery turret, 229 mm in pilothouse

CSS David and CSS Hunley

The Confederate were facing the blockade created by the numerically superior Union Fleet, and for solving this situation they resorted to unorthodox ideas such as the submersible boats. The CSS David was the first submersible boat employed in war actions and the first one that was propelled by a steam engine. This boat was able to navigate submerged at water level, looming on the sea surface only the funnel and the small superstructure. Obviously the steam propulsion was a disadvantage, being the smoke signature clearly visible. The explosive charge attached to a long pole on the prow caused the submersible boat to be seriously damaged by her own weapon. The capsule contained 60 kg of powder and a chemical detonator triggered by impact. The 5th October 1863 the CSS David attacked the ironclad USS Ironsides with her explosive charge, causing a considerable breach on her hull, which was however insufficient to sink the ship. On the other hand, the CSS David took the worse part, resulting destroyed by the explosion and most of the crew dead.

One year later, a new version of the CSS David was ready for trials, designed by Horace L. Hunley. The nefarious artifact sank twice during the trials, causing the death of the majority of the occupants, including Hunley. Once retrieved, the new boat was renamed after the infortunate engineer. Unlike the CSS David, the CSS Hunley was propelled by the manual force of eight men; so, despite being slower, the new boat was more discrete. The hull was totally closed, to allow full submersion, and two hydrofoils at prow allowed to dive or emerge as required. The oxygen inside the hull lasted for two or three hours; obviously, the effort made to manually propel the boat contributed greatly to its rapid consumption. Unlike in the CSS David, the explosive charge was not detonated by impact, but attached to the enemy ship and detonated by the very submersible boat by means of a cable when retreating from her victim. The 17th February 1864 the CSS Hunley became the first submersible boat that managed to sink a surface ship, the steam-powered sloop-of-war USS Housatonic; however, the CSS Hunley resulted sunk as well and the crew lost. When the remains of the USS Housatonic were examined some years later, the CSS Hunley was found lying on the seabed, with nine skeletons inside.

Experimental ships 1861-65

The illustration shows the CSS David and the CSS Hunley at the same scale, measuring 15 and 12 meters long, respectively.

Categories: Naval Warfare - Engineering - Industrial Revolution - [General] - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2014-09-24

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