Students of the Civil War often overlook the contributions of the naval services in the conflict. The Confederate Navy and Marine Corps, however, played significant roles in North Carolina. They not only hampered the ability of the Union Navy to do its job, but took part in some of the state’s largest battles.
Genesis of the Confederate Navy
At Montgomery, Alabama, the Confederate Congress created a Navy Department in February 1861. Stephen R. Mallory of Florida was selected by President Jefferson Davis to lead the department and was confirmed by Congress on May 5. Mallory appeared capable of leading the new navy due to his service on the U.S. Senate Naval Affairs Committee prior to secession. The newly created navy absorbed the state navies of South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Virginia, and North Carolina. These state navies, however, only consisted of about a dozen small ships, mounting few guns. By war’s end the Confederate Navy managed to put 130 ships into service–a far cry from the 670-vessel US Navy. The disparate numbers should not be considered a failure on Mallory’s part, however, for he performed as well as could be expected considering the circumstances; a lack of government interest and funding throughout the war hampered Mallory’s efforts.
The Confederate Navy’s mission was three-fold. First, it was to provide coastal defense and protection for inland waterways. Second, its ironclad construction program was designed to break the Union blockade of the southern coast. Third, it was seen as a function of the navy to raid enemy commerce. Today, students of the Civil War remember the Confederate Navy primarily because of the exploits of the CSS Alabama and CSS Shenandoah. Two North Carolinians commanded Confederate cruisers: James I. Waddell (CSS Shenandoah) and John N. Maffitt (CSS Florida). While the Confederate Navy was moderately successful at commerce raiding, it never provided an adequate coastal defense or broke the Union blockade.
The Confederate Navy and Marine Corps played a significant role in North Carolina because much of the war in the state involved coastal operations. Early in the war, North Carolina contributed what was nicknamed the “Mosquito Fleet,” a small force of lightly armed vessels, to the Confederate cause. During the 1862 Burnside Expedition in coastal North Carolina, these ships participated in the Battle of Roanoke Island, and all but the CSS Beaufort were subsequently destroyed during the Battle of Elizabeth City. These battles ended what little threat the fleet posed to the Union forces.
North Carolina Ironclads
The Confederate government attempted building ironclads in the state, and was successful in completing four ships: the CSS North Carolina and the CSS Raleigh on the Cape Fear River, the CSS Albemarle on the Roanoke River, and the CSS Neuse on the Neuse River. There were also naval yards and stations located across the state, including a large operation at Charlotte for manufacturing marine machinery and other facilities in Wilmington, Halifax, Kinston, and for a brief time in Tarboro.
Aside from the Burnside Expedition, the Confederate Navy and Marine Corps conducted numerous operations throughout coastal North Carolina. In early February 1864, Commander John Taylor Wood led a detachment of thirty-three officers and 220 enlisted sailors and Marines downriver from Kinston to New Bern, where they boarded, captured, and destroyed the USS Underwriter in one of the most daring missions of the Civil War.
The Kinston-built ironclad, CSS Neuse, was completed shortly after Wood’s expedition to New Bern. Confederates hoped that the ironclad might help recapture the old colonial capital. On its voyage downriver, the Neuse ran aground in a shallow portion of the river and was not freed until a month later. By then, all operations in eastern North Carolina had ceased because army units had been recalled to Virginia to assist in the defense of Richmond. The Neuse waited ten months to be called into service–this time to cover the evacuation of Kinston following the Battle of Wyse Fork in March 1865. The ironclad was taken downriver. Its cannons bombarded the Union Army while Confederate troops abandoned the town. Once the evacuation was complete, the Neuse was scuttled to prevent capture.
In mid-April 1864, the ironclad CSS Albemarle, captained by Commander James W. Cooke, helped Confederate forces recapture the town of Plymouth. The Albemarle rammed and sank the USS Southfield and successfully battled the USS Miami which lost its captain, Lieutenant Commander Charles Flusser in the fight. In early May 1864, the Albemarle steamed for New Bern to help retake the city from Union occupation forces. Not very long after departing Plymouth, the Albemarle and two smaller ships, the CSS Bombshell and CSS Cotton Plant engaged seven Union warships as they entered the waters of the Albemarle Sound. The ensuing battle was fierce, with the Union vessels firing over 600 shots. A riddled smokestack was the Albemarle’s most significant damage. The loss of the ship’s smokestack and the use of inferior coal caused a loss of draft, making the ship nearly inoperable. Without significant draft, the engines did not have enough steam to operate properly, so Cooke was forced to return to Plymouth. In the end, the most successful North Carolina ironclad, the Albemarle, was sunk on October 27, 1864, by a spar torpedo at her moorings by a Union Navy commando raid.
Approximately at the same time the CSS Albemarle battled the Union fleet in the Albemarle Sound, the CSS Raleigh undertook the only offensive action of the war by the Confederate Navy at Wilmington. At nightfall on May 6, 1864 the Raleigh escorted a number of blockade runners across the New Inlet bar near Fort Fisher and attacked Union ships on blockade. These targeted attacks continued throughout the night, and nearing daybreak on May 7, the ironclad came back into New Inlet and under the protection of the fort. On its return trip upriver to Wilmington, the Raleigh grounded on a sandbar. Before the gunboat could be freed, its keel broke and the Raleigh sank. The other Wilmington ironclad, the CSS North Carolina, never equipped with adequate engines, sank at its moorings in September 1864; marine worms had infested the hull.
The Confederate Navy and Marine Corps had significant involvement in the two battles at Fort Fisher and the Wilmington Campaign. The Submarine Battery Service was instrumental in placing electrically detonated torpedoes in the waters of the Cape Fear to deter Union blockaders from attempting to enter the river. The battery was also stationed at Fort Anderson to operate torpedoes in the river after the fall of Fort Fisher.
Battery Buchanan, detached from Fort Fisher, was built as a response to the ineffectiveness and loss of the CSS North Carolina and CSS Raleigh. It was commanded and manned entirely by naval personnel and armed with two seven-inch Brooke rifles and two eleven-inch Brooke smoothbore guns, all considered to be “naval” ordnance. The battery was commanded by Lieutenant Robert F. Chapman. A twenty-nine-man detachment from the raider CSS Chickamauga, under the command of Lieutenant Francis M. Roby, manned another battery of seven-inch Brooke rifles in another part of the fort. During the First Battle of Fort Fisher on December 24-25, 1864, both Brooke rifles, manned by Lt. Roby’s men, burst and injured nearly half the detachment and put the battery out of service.
Following the First Battle of Fort Fisher, fifty-one officers and men of the defunct Savannah Squadron (including nine African American sailors) arrived at Wilmington to reinforce the naval battery at Fort Fisher. The Second Battle of Fort Fisher was fought from January 13-15, 1865. Late in the battle, knowing that the fort was lost, Lt. Chapman abandoned his position, and his men escaped across the river. Sailors then temporarily manned Batteries Meares and Campbell on the west bank of the river but soon resumed retreating toward Wilmington as the Union forces pushed toward the town. All vessels, records, drawings, and buildings at the shipyards were destroyed while the navy evacuated Wilmington ahead of the Union army.
Throughout the war, the Confederate Navy and Marine Corps did their best to help protect the coast and rivers of eastern North Carolina. Though not always successful, the naval forces were almost always a factor in any action. The inadequate naval yards of the state managed to produce four ironclad gunboats as well as marine machinery and desperately needed parts. Native North Carolinians served in many capacities, from common sailors and blockade-runner pilots to cruiser captains, and contributed greatly to the war effort. The problems in North Carolina, however, revealed a much larger problem: the Confederate Navy never had enough resources, manpower, or time to accomplish strategic goals.
Leslie S. Bright, William H. Rowland, and James C. Bardon, CSS Neuse: A Question of Iron and Time (Raleigh, 1981); R. Thomas Campbell, Storm Over Carolina: The Confederate Navy’s Struggle for Eastern North Carolina (Nashville, 2005); Richard G. Elliott, Ironclad of the Roanoke: Gilbert Elliott’s Albemarle (Shippensburg, 2005); Chris E. Fonvielle, Jr., Last Rays of Departing Hope: The Wilmington Campaign (Campbell, CA, 1997); Rod Gragg, Confederate Goliath: The Battle of Fort Fisher (New York, 1991); Richard A. Sauers, The Burnside Expedition in North Carolina: A Succession of Honorable Victories (Dayton, 1996); William N. Still, Jr., The Confederate Navy: The Ships, Men and Organization, 1861-65 (Annapolis, 1998); and William N. Still, Jr., Iron Afloat: The Story of the Confederate Armorclads (Columbia, 1971).