Thursday, October 18, 2018

In the Offing: Secrets of Confederate Steam Power

Engines of Rebellion: Confederate Ironclads and Steam Engineering in the Civil War

By Saxon T. Bisbee (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2018)
Reviewed by Joseph Miechle
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator
A diagram of the Martin vertical watertube marine boiler of CSS Virginia, which was exactly the same as the boiler aboard USS Merrimack, the vessel it was salvaged from, as it appears on page 19 of Engines of Rebellion
Saxon Bisbee has done a thorough and outstanding job of relating the histories behind the construction of 27 Confederate ironclads in his recent monograph, “Engines of Rebellion: Confederate Ironclads and Steam Engineering in the American Civil War.” Mr. Bisbee has combed through archival holdings scattered across the United States in order to compile a fascinating understanding of how the new Confederate States aggressively pursued an ironclad construction program. The book not only draws upon original plans, drawings, journals and previous secondary sources, but also more recent archeological discoveries to produce perhaps the most comprehensive analysis of Confederate ironclad engineering to date. While extremely insightful to those interested in the micro-histories of Civil War engineering, this book may not appeal to the average reader due to the inherent complexities of engineering. It is important to note that this book acknowledges that the Confederacy had some ironclads constructed for them outside the country but deliberately does not include them in discussion.
Plans for the Richmond-class ironclad CSS Savannah as redrawn by Robert Holcombe in 1978, which appear on page 89 of the book.  CSS Richmond, launched in an incomplete state from Gosport Navy Yard (today known as Norfolk Naval Shipyard) on May 6, 1862, was the only other Confederate ironclad besides the more famous CSS Virginia (converted from the remains of the USS Merrimack) to emerge from the shipyard on the Elizabeth River opposite the City of Norfolk, and was the first of six of the class completed at various locations under Confederate control. (Engines of Rebellion)   
The well-supported argument of the book is that despite steam engineering being a relatively new technology, lack of major manufacturing facilities in the south, and starting with no navy at all to begin with, the Confederate ironclad construction program was relatively successful. The ships utilized mostly existing machinery, yet they spurred advancements in propulsion and design for years afterward. The book is not only an exhaustive study on the design and procurement of the machinery of the Confederate ironclads but also draws on some rare primary accounts of Confederate engineers and shipbuilders. The book provides ample insight to the difficulties they faced in adapting under-powered engines for use on ships substantially different than they were originally designed for. 

Plan drawing, including the inboard profile, decks and two hull cross sections, inscribed at the top, "180 Ft. Iron Clad Gun Boat. As Altered July 6th 1863 ... Wm. A. Graves," which appears on page 134 of the book. This plan may represent CSS Virginia II, which was built in Richmond, Virginia, and participated with the other James River Squadron ironclads CSS Richmond and CSS Fredericksburg in the Battle of Trent's Reach. The original is plan # 81-12-2E in Record Group 19 at the U.S. National Archives. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
There are only a couple of very slight criticisms about this book. As previously mentioned the very nature of writing a book on engineering requires a vocabulary all its own. This makes the book somewhat difficult for a reader with no background in the field to fully appreciate. To be fair, though, a fine glossary has been provided near the end of the book that the lay reader can refer to as necessary. The only other possibly negative aspect of this book is in regards to illustrations. A book about engineering would benefit greatly from numerous detailed illustrations. This book does include a fair amount of illustrations, some previously unpublished, yet presents them in such a small scale it is difficult to comprehend them or really appreciate their intricacies
Although the machinery for the wooden gunboat CSS Chattahoochee was smashed and its hull set afire when Columbus, Georgia was captured by U.S. Army troops in April 1865, this photo taken in Columbus approximately 100 years later (which appears on page 12 of the book) showed that its two horizontal direct-acting engines, which each turned one screw on the opposite side of each cylinder head, survived as a rare example of Civil War steam technology. (Courtesy of the Confederate Salvage Association, Inc./Naval History and Heritage Command image)
If you have ever wondered how the ironclad ships of the Confederacy were constructed and powered, this book will prove to be a phenomenal resource to the serious scholar of the Civil War Navy or those interested in 19th century steam engineering. For the lay reader, while a bit overwhelming, the book still tells the story from construction to disposition of all of the Confederate ironclads that were constructed in the Confederate States. The appendix itself is a fine quick glance resource for understanding the “bare bones” of Confederate Ironclad steam machinery, as well as serving as a great list of the ships by various groupings. As previously mentioned, the glossary certainly helped this reader understand the content, and the notes and bibliography are helpful and complete as well. This book would make a fine addition to a reader’s library.

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