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Gary Johnson, Cincinnati CWRT Topic: Countering Mallory’s Infernal Machines
January 21, 2016 @ 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm
At our January 21st meeting, we were treated to a very interesting and well-researched powerpoint presentation titled “Countering Mallory’s ‘Infernal Machines’,” a deeper look into the Confederacy’s attempt to counter the strength and numerical superiority of the U.S. Navy. Our presenter, Gary Johnson, of the Cincinnati Civil War Round Table, is a U.S. Navy veteran who spent many years working on submarines. With this first-hand knowledge of the inner workings of the navy, Gary was able to attain a firm grasp of the organizational and political obstacles confronting the fledgling Confederate navy during the Civil War.
Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory was a former U.S. senator (1851-1861) from Key West, Florida, who prior to the war had served as the chairman of the Naval Affairs Committee. Mallory’s goals in 1861, as he understood it, were to demonstrate the Confederacy as an independent state, protect its territory, and break the Union naval blockade so that Great Britain and France would recognize the Confederacy as a sovereign nation. Unfortunately, from the very first shots at Fort Sumter, the Confederate States Navy (CSN) owned no significant fighting ships and no shipbuilding industry except for the works at New Orleans, Louisiana, which fell to Union forces on April 29, 1862.
Early in the war, the Confederates captured two Federal naval yards, but both were lost to the Union army by May 1862. Thus, the C.S. Navy was compelled to retreat to inland naval facilities that were ill-equipped to construct deep-water ships which were required to break the Union blockade. During the course of the war, the Confederate Navy built or acquired a total of 130 ships for its fleet, while the US Navy had 671 ships. Many of these CSN ships came from foreign countries, primarily Great Britain, but because of the political relationship that Britain wished to maintain with the U.S. government, the British could not arm the ships that the Confederacy bought.
From a manpower standpoint, the U.S. Navy dominated. In 1861, the U.S. Navy secured three-fourths of its pre-war naval officers to its side. This loss of experience for the Confederacy could not be recovered in the short time that the Civil War was fought. The Confederate Navy enlisted 5,133 men into its ranks, while the U.S. Navy employed a staggering 51,500 sailors! Overall, the Confederate Navy was outmanned and outgunned from the start.
Political obstacles also stunted Stephen Mallory’s efforts. The Confederate government felt the navy was less important than the need for ground troops. The CSA government also promoted a cotton embargo to try force Great Britain and France, whose economies depended heavily on the U.S. cotton trade, to back the Confederate cause. The latter decision is considered one of the worst mistakes that the Confederacy made during the war, because, before the war started at Fort Sumter, the Confederacy could have sold their cotton overseas to build up a war chest that would have exceeded that of the United States.
With the understanding that conventional means of defeating the U.S. Navy could not be used, Mallory chose unconventional methods to try to win the war on the water. He promoted privateering, better known as commerce raiding, as one method. Commerce raiders like Raphael Semmes and his CSS Alabama were quite successful; unfortunately, privateering caused so much political strife between the Union and the Confederacy over the question of piracy that the Confederacy cancelled the practice in 1863. Another method that Mallory used was accepting foreign blockade runners, primarily English mariners, to slip through the Union blockade to provide much needed goods. Nevertheless, this dangerous approach had only spotty success, and certainly not enough to change the course of the naval war. Another approach was the Confederate Navy’s investment in ironclad war vessels.
The C.S. Navy built twenty-six ironclads during the Civil War (five offensive type and twenty-one defensive type). However, the C.S. Navy’s biggest obstacle in constructing ironclads was obtaining two-inch iron plating for the ships’ armor. Only two or three of the Confederacy’s manufacturing facilities, one of which was the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia, had the capability to produce two-inch plating. On average, a single ironclad needed 16,000 tons of armor plating. For example, the CSS Georgia used the equivalent of 120 to 160 miles of railroad rails. The difficulty in harvesting and producing such large amounts of iron, along with the lack of obtaining good marine engines, naturally led to a limited production of Confederate ironclads. And, as the Union armies took more territory away from the Confederacy, the Confederate navy was forced to scuttle its ironclads to prevent them from being used by the enemy.
Most of the twenty-six CSN ironclads were destroyed by their own crews. As another approach, the Confederacy tried their hand at building submarines to break the blockade. The most famous example, the CSS Hunley, proved to be the world’s first submarine to sink an enemy ship, but the submarines were unreliable, dangerous, and too difficult to maneuver. In essence, Mallory’s attempt to take the war underneath the waves was too early in its conception and too limited to be effective.
Lastly, Mallory promoted the development and use of torpedoes (underwater mines) to stop Union naval incursions and disrupt enemy commerce. Confederate naval officer Matthew F. Maury helped perfect these torpedoes, particularly the electric detonation torpedo. Other torpedoes created for the Confederate Navy were the spar torpedoes, the floating (or drift) torpedoes, and the coal torpedoes (made to look like a lump of coal that would explode when placed inadvertently into an enemy ship’s boiler). By far, torpedoes proved to be the most effective method of Mallory’s unconventional arsenal. Confederate torpedoes accounted for the most damage done to the U.S. Navy (by nearly five times that of the next nearest method). Twenty-eight U.S. Navy vessels were sunk by torpedoes during the Civil War.
In the end, the U.S. Navy was able to develop effective countermeasures for Mallory’s unconventional methods of warfare. Mallory was never able to achieve any of the original goals that were set for him in 1861. Nonetheless, Mallory did a lot with the little he had. It was simply unrealistic to expect that the Confederacy could fight a naval war against a strong industrial nation like the United States.