Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator
Drawing of USS New Ironsides shortly after commissioning in Philadelphia, PA. The ocean-going ironclad was fully rigged for sails. (Harpers' Weekly)
When one hears mention of a Civil War ironclad, images of the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia- style ships may immediately come to mind. While these two styles were certainly the predominant designs during the war, engineers tried a few other innovative variations as well. One of the lesser known, yet most effective ironclads developed during the war was USS New Ironsides. The Hampton Roads Naval Museum is proud to have a model of this ship, as well as the original (functioning!) engine room clock in our Civil War gallery.
John Ericsson’s Monitor design was not the only plan submitted when contracts were awarded to northern shipyards for production of ironclad ships that could take on the Confederate casemate ironclad Virginia, then nearing completion in Norfolk. Production on USS Monitor began after Congress had already approved work to begin on USS Galena and USS New Ironsides. Ericsson’s “tin can on a shingle” was completed quickly and placed into service before either Galena or New Ironsides was complete. Because of this, the Ericsson design won fantastic public support and political backing in the aftermath of the Battle of Hampton Roads.
The Hampton Roads Naval Museum's model of USS New Ironsides as she appeared late in the Civil War, bow view (left) and stern view (right). (Photographs by M.C. Farrington)
|USS New Ironsides' powerful broadside of 8 guns could place many more shells onto a fortification than could the Ericsson style ironclads. (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)|
In stark contrast to the turret-based design of USS Monitor and her subsequent sister ships, New Ironsides maintained a more traditional broadside armament. The broadside configuration of fourteen 11-inch Dahlgren smoothbore guns and two 150-pound Parrot rifled guns required upwards of 200 men to operate them. The guns also required construction of special naval carriages so they could operate in the confines of a fully armored gun deck. The opening and closing of each armored shutter protecting the gun crews required ten men to operate. When New Ironsides was operating at peak efficiency, she could deliver withering fire upon the enemy.
The original crew of USS New Ironsides was patched together with volunteers and recent recruits to the Navy. Many of the crew had no experience aboard ship prior to in Philadelphia in 1862. Fewer than one in ten crewmen had joined the Navy prior to May 1862 and over 45 percent of them were rated as landsmen or boys. The crew was drilled vigorously at Hampton Roads prior to her first combat at Charleston, South Carolina on April 7, 1863, in which New Ironsides and several Monitor-style ironclads bombarded Fort Sumter, but failed to achieve a tactical victory.
Action by New Ironsides against Fort Wagner, S.C. in 1863 demonstrated the ship’s true ability. Confederate General Roswell Ripley wrote, “Our great enemy is now the [New] Ironsides.” The ship fired its guns in rotation, one after another. This allowed her to keep a steady stream of fire upon an enemy fortification. New Ironsides expended 464 rounds from her guns in just one day of action at Ft. Wagner. Colonel Charles Olmstead of the First Georgia Volunteers wrote:
Her broadsides were not fired in volley, but gun after gun, in rapid succession, the effect upon those who were at the wrong end of the guns being exceedingly demoralizing. Whenever she commenced there was a painful uncertainty as to what might happen before she got through.”
New Ironsides could put over ten times as much fire onto a target in an hour than a Monitor-class ship could. Ericsson conceded that the slow firing monitors could not contend with fortifications to the degree that New Ironsides could.
|(Photograph by M.C. Farrington)|
New Ironsides' armor also seems to have held up better than that of the other ironclad ship designs. USS Galena was shot through by Confederate guns at Drewry’s Bluff on the James River and Confederate gunners soon realized that damage to the seam, between the turret and deck, on Monitor style ships would quickly disable their ability to rotate. New Ironsides was struck over 150 times by heavy Confederate guns throughout the war and it never impaired the ship’s ability to fight.
New weapon evolution in the Civil War is a substantial topic in itself and no new design went unnoticed by the enemy. The Confederates in Charleston, South Carolina had been working on another weapon to destroy the blockading ships, the David boat. On October 5, 1863, under the orders of Captain J. R. Tucker C.S.N, a newly designed David-class torpedo boat succeeded in detonating a charge under USS New Ironsides and escaping into the night. The New Ironsides suffered little damage in the attack and one casualty, caused by gunfire from CSS David. The ship remained on station outside Charleston for the next several months before returning to Pennsylvania for routine repairs and maintenance.
The armor belt of the ship was constructed of solid iron plates, up to 4.5 inches thick at the waterline backed by oak, pine, and iron braces. The armor itself was applied in “tongue and groove” style of construction which in theory would add strength and support to adjacent pieces of plating should they be struck by a projectile. British gun tests of this design would prove to the contrary in late 1862, too late to change the design of New Ironsides.
After repairs and the addition of anti-torpedo fenders at the Philadelphia Naval Yard in June 1864, New Ironsides was recomissioned with Commodore William Radford of the former USS Cumberland, in command. New Ironsides returned to participate in the Battles for Fort Fisher, NC in December 1864 and January 1865. Rear Adm. David Dixon Porter wrote of the ship’s action in January:
The vessel did more execution than any vessel in the fleet, and even when our troops were on the parapet I had so much confidence in the accuracy of [Radford’s] fire that he was directed to fire on the traverses in advance of our troops and clear them out. This he did most effectually, and but for this the victory might not have been ours.
Eight members of the crew of USS New Ironsides received the Medal of Honor for their performance during the battle.
Despite all of the political support for the Monitor design and actual deficiencies and shortcomings in design, USS New Ironsides truly proved to be one of the most effective ironclad ships of the Civil War. The design demonstrated that superior firepower on large ships would continue to play an important role in naval strategies well into the 20th century. Many of the battleships of the Great White Fleet of 1907 carried a broadside of secondary guns in addition to their primary guns in turrets. Unfortunately, New Ironsides was damaged by a fire after the war and broken up for scrap by 1869. For more information about New Ironsides, see the book USS New Ironsides in the Civil War by William H. Roberts.