Ironclads: Armored Ships of the Civil War

By Andreas Overmeer

Introduction: Ironclads were heavily armored battle ships used near the end of the civil war.
Ironclad USS St. Louis (Baron de Kalb). Click to see full size image.
Ironclad USS St. Louis (Baron de Kalb). Click to see full size image.
They were created because wooden ships were very susceptible to explosive shells, which were becoming more and more common in the 1860's. The ships were partially submerged and steam powered, providing for a small target that could move very quickly. Ironclads were usually equipped with about six high powered cannons, although some had as little as four or as many as ten. The South purchased the first ironclads from France and the North soon followed, realizing that they would be vital to success in naval combat.

Design: Ironclads were the strongest ships that had ever been built. They had heavy iron plating as a shell, as this was much stronger than wood, and had large timber beams underneath to give the iron further support. The hulls of the ironclads were typically slanted at up to a forty-five degree angle in order to deflect shots that hit it.

Use: Obviously, Ironclads were created for the sole purpose of battle, but were more specifically used in sea to sea combat, because they could not get close to shore, due to their
Union Ironclad Galena, James River, Virginia: if you look closely you can see several cannon blasts from confederate guns. Click to see full sized image.
Union Ironclad Galena, James River, Virginia: if you look closely you can see several cannon blasts from confederate guns. Click to see full sized image.
enormous weight.

History: France began building the first ironclad, La Gloire, in 1857, and it was launched in 1859. France was struggling to keep up with the navies of Britain, and realized that they needed an advantage over the steamship. La Gloire had iron plating that was 4.5 inches thick. Overtime, France created a total of sixteen ironclad ships.
England soon created its version of the ironclad, a longer, faster, and stronger ship than La Gloire called Warrior, launched in 1860. Navies all over the world soon started creating ironclads, and the first battle between ironclads was the Battle of Lissa, between Austria and Italy.
When the Civil War started, neither side had ironclad ships. The navy had stayed loyal to the Union,
so the Confederacy sought to gain naval advantage by purchasing ironclads from foreign countries. The South originally spent $2 million on ironclads in May 1861. In October the same year, the South's completed CSS Manassas became the first ironclad to enter the Civil War. The first battle between ironclads occurred on March 9 1862 between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia. The two ships rammed each-other and shot shells at each-other, with the battle attracting worldwide attention. As ironclads became more widespread, heavier guns were deployed in ships to attempt to penetrate the iron armour. Due to the Battle of Lissa, ramming became the most popular option for sinking ironclads.

Major Battles: The first fleet battle was the Battle of Lissa, between Italy and Austria in 1866. The Italian fleet
The Battle of Lissa. The reds are the Austrians and the blues are the Italians. Solid colored boats are ironclads. Click to see full size image.
consisted of twelve ironclads and the Austrian of seven. The Austrian fleet had inferior guns, and so they decided to form an arrow shape with their ships and ram the Italians. During the battle, the Italians lost two of their ironclads, Re d'Italia and Palestro.

Nearer to the end of the war, the Union launched several attacks on Confederate ports, the largest being the attack on Charleston, in which seven Northern monitors and two ironclads fired on the city and two smaller Southern ironclads. One Union Ironclad was sunk and the Confederacy won the battle.
Another large battle was when four monitors and eleven wooden ships attacked the CSS Tennessee, the South's largest and strongest ironclad and three gunships.
The most epic ironclad battle was between the
CSS Merrimack and the USS Monitor. The Monitor was a ship with two guns on a rotating turret and the Merrimack was a larger ship with stationary guns.
After a four hour battle the Merrimack retreated.

Weapons and Tactics: Many people believed that the ironclad had caused the ram to be the most important naval tactic once again. It had seemingly become so hard to sink ironclads by shooting at them that many believed that ramming was the easiest solution, even though the amount of ironclads sunk by ramming was minuscule. The traditional tactic for sinking ships was broadside cannons, and when ironclads rammed ships that were in a broadside position, it did dangerous amounts of damage and sent fleets into disarray. The ramming era ended in the 1880's, because mines could do the same amount of damage without danger to the ramming ship.
The HMS Warrior had a combination of 110-pounder breech-loading rifles and 68-pounder smoothbore guns. The advantage of breech-loaders were that the gun did not need to be moved to be reloaded, which took time and effort, as well as being lighter than their counterparts and being more accurate. The beech-loaders were soon pulled out of service, however, because of dangerous problems. The beech-loaders had the dangerous problem that if the beech was not secured properly, the explosive force of the gun could blow the screw off, endangering the crew and breaking the gun.

The End of the Ironclad: Ironclads are the descendants of modern-day armored ships such as armored cruisers and battleships. They ended the era of wooden ships. Ironclads continued to be used into World War I. The ironclad made wooden ships obselete, starting the era of iron battleships. The battle between the Merrimack and the Monitor set all other ships powerless. Ironclads began iron ships and are the basis for battleships and armored cruisers used to this very day. Eventually newer models of ships were created and called different names and the term ironclad slowly died off.
110-pounder beech-loading gun on the HMS Warrior. Click to see full size image.

Other Ships: Throughout the Civil War, ironclads were not the only armored boats. There were tinclads, which were similar to ironclads except with tin plating, which made them lighter. There were also woodclads, which were ships with very thick wooden armor. These two kinds of ships were not as popular as ironclads but still contributed to the war.

Battle Boats of the Civil War. 2007. Middle Tennessee State University. 19 May 2009

Ironclads and Blockade Runners. 15 Sept. 2002. Wide Open West. 19 May 2009

Battle of the Ironclads. 20 Feb. 2005. Civil War Home. 19 May 2009

Facts On File History Online. 2009. Facts on File. 19 May 2009

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