Battles and Campaigns
of the Ironclad Era, 1855-1880
During the Crimean War, a combined French-British fleet prepared to bombard the strong Russian fortress of Kinburn on the Black Sea. Among the French ships were three boxy "floating batteries" plated with iron, the Devastation, Lave, and Tonnante. These floating batteries sustained up to 75 hits each, but when the smoke cleared, the Russian fort had fallen. A plan to attack Kronstadt on the Baltic with two similar British floating batteries, Thunder and Trusty, was abandoned through lack of available land support.
At the beginning of the American Civil War, the Confederate government issued letters of marque and reprisal, authorizing privateering. In New Orleans, a privateer ironclad was constructed and christened Manassas. The Confederate Navy, represented by Lt. Alexander F. Warley, promptly seized the ship on completion. In company with several small gunboats, Warley took her downstream in the early morning of 12 October to attack Union blockaders at the Head of the Passes of the Mississippi River. The plan went somewhat awry and not much damage was inflicted, but the Union commanders were shaken enough to retreat to the Gulf, temporarily loosening the blockade. Union Captain "Honest John" Pope's (no relation to the general of that name) reputation took a major blow as a result.
In order to defeat the South, Northern planners envisioned a massive advance down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, cutting the Confederacy off from its western territories and securing the river system for Union use. Central to this plan was a group of hurriedly-built partially armored gunboats, operating under Army control in tandem with land operations. They struck first at Fort Henry on the Tennessee River on 6 February, as Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote's Cincinnati, St. Louis, Carondelet, and Essex pounded the fort into surrender even before Grant's troops could arrive on the scene, though the Essex was severely damaged when her steam drum was pierced. Attempting to repeat the performance on Valentine's Day against Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River, however, Foote's St. Louis, Pittsburg, Louisville, and Carondelet were driven off by heavier Southern fire from well-placed guns; the first three had to drop out of action and the Carondelet made a slow fighting withdrawal to cover the retreat. Still, the gunboats helped encircle the Confederate fort, enabling Grant to force it to surrender two days later.
In one of the most dramatic two-day battles in history, the Confederate Virginia invaded Union-held Hampton Roads at the confluence of the James and Elizabeth Rivers, sinking the sloop Cumberland, burning the frigate Congress, and driving the steam frigate Minnesota and other ships aground. Returning the next day to finish the job, however, the Virginia found the Union ironclad Monitor standing between her and the Minnesota, leading to one of the most famous drawn battles in history.
Newly cautious after the drubbing received at Fort Donelson, Foote approached his next target, the strong Southern positions at Island No. 10 in the Mississippi River, very deliberately. The ironclads Benton, Carondelet, Pittsburg, Cincinnati, Louisville, Mound City, and St. Louis, supported by mortar rafts, bombarded the island at long range for several weeks with little effect. Finally, daring midnight dashes past the island, first by Henry Walke's Carondelet and then the Pittsburg, cut the Confederate positions off from downstream and covered the crossing of General John Pope's Union troops, leading to one of the most thorough and most nearly bloodless victories of the war.
While most Confederate attention was riveted on the menacing Union advance from upriver, warships under Flag Officer David G. Farragut began to collect at the mouth of the Mississippi. After several days of inconclusive mortar bombardment, Farragut sent his fleet storming past the Confederate forts, engaging the little Manassas and the immobile Louisiana along the way. The Southern ironclads were ineffective, and the rest of the little Southern river fleet was helpless before the Federal warships. The forts soon surrendered, as did the vital city of New Orleans.
The Union advance downriver had stalled some miles north of Memphis when department commander General Halleck ordered Pope's army away from the river. Foote, ailing from a wound received at Fort Donelson, was replaced by Flag Officer Charles H. Davis. While idly shelling Fort Pillow, the Union flotilla, including the Benton, Carondelet, Cairo, Cincinnati, Mound City, Pittsburg, and St. Louis, was surprised by eight Southern rams. The Cincinnati and Mound City were sunk in the following melee, though both were raised within days and sent North for repairs. The Southern army abandoned Fort Pillow at the end of May, and the rams dropped down to Memphis, awaiting another chance to strike at the Northern flotilla. As the Union force, including the Benton, Carondelet, Cairo, Louisville, and St. Louis, approached the city on 6 June, the rams headed out to repeat their earlier performance, when they were themselves surprised by a force of Union rams. Only one Confederate ram escaped down the river.
The fleets of Davis and Farragut met above Vicksburg, the last remaining major obstacle to Union control of the river, but Vicksburg refused to surrender. As they pondered what to do next, rumors were heard of a Southern ironclad being built up the Yazoo River, and Davis sent the Carondelet, a gunboat, and a ram to investigate. They ran headlong into Lt. Isaac N. Brown's Arkansas coming downriver, which disabled the Carondelet in a running fight and chased the two wooden boats into the middle of the combined Federal fleets. The Arkansas continued on through, coming to rest at Vicksburg. She successfully resisted several Union attempts to destroy her. On her way to support a Southern effort against Baton Rouge, however, the Arkansas suffered a mechanical breakdown just as the Union ironclad Essex was seen approaching, and the Confederate ship was destroyed by her own crew. Despite this, the Vicksburg position was too strong for the Union Navy to take without significant Army support, and the city's fall was delayed by a year.
The Union high command was under pressure to accomplish something spectacular, and a massive ironclad attack on Charleston SC--the "cradle of the rebellion"--seemed just the thing. Watching the Union juggernaut gather strength, Southern naval officers gambled on an attempt to break the blockade off the city before Union ironclad strength grew too great. In the predawn darkness of 31 January, the Palmetto State and Chicora cast off to attack the Union fleet. The Palmetto State rammed the Mercedita, which surrendered and gave its parole, and the Chicora temporarily disabled the Keystone State, which also surrendered but then apparently changed its mind and escaped. Unable to bring any other Union blockaders to battle due to their slowness, the Southern rams returned to Charleston and declared victory, sparking a continuing argument over whether the blockade had been legally raised.
The vaunted Union attack came two months later, including the largest ironclad fleet yet assembled: the armored frigate New Ironsides, the experimental twin-casemate ironclad Keokuk, and the monitors Passaic, Patapsco, Nahant, Montauk, Weehawken, Nantucket, and Catskill, commanded by Rear Admiral Samuel F. Du Pont. The monitors quickly showed that, whatever their strengths against enemy warships, they were not very effective in bombarding fortifications. Several monitors were moderately damaged (although none were in imminent peril), the New Ironsides could not be controlled well enough to participate in the fight, the Keokuk was riddled and sank the next day, and the myth of ironclad invincibility was at least partly exploded. Several months later the ironclads returned with a new commander, Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren, and a new strategy, assisting the Union Army in taking Morris Island and Battery Wagner. The Lehigh replaced the lost Keokuk, and most of these vessels continued to operate around Charleston for most of the rest of the war.
After the Charleston repulse, Du Pont's monitors kept a close watch for Southern ironclads on the Georgia and Carolina coasts. Their vigilance was rewarded when the Atlanta appeared in Wassaw Sound near the Savannah River; there to meet her were Captain John Rodgers and the monitors Weehawken and Nahant. Unfortunately, the Confederate vessel ran hard aground in sight of the enemy. Whatever their weaknesses against forts, the monitors quickly showed their effectiveness against ships, as the Weehawken defeated the Atlanta with only five shots; the Nahant did not have time to get into action before the Southerner surrendered.
Now under Navy Department control and commanded by Rear Admiral David D. Porter, the Union inland fleet continued to maneuver around Vicksburg, trying a variety of methods to get at the stubborn defenders, including a failed attack at the Chickasaw Bluffs in late December, two attempts to cut through the bayous north of the town, and even a canal. Nothing worked until General Grant hit upon the idea of moving south of Vicksburg, cutting across country and boxing in the town's garrison from the rear. So, on the night of April 16, the Benton, Carondelet, Cincinnati, Louisville, Mound City, Pittsburg, Tuscumbia, and Lafayette ran past the town. Grant crossed the river and besieged Vicksburg, which finally succumbed on 4 July. Although the Cairo, Cincinnati, Indianola, and Baron De Kalb (ex-St. Louis) were lost during the campaign (the Cincinnati was once again raised and repaired), the massive central river system of North America was finally under United States control.
In Europe, Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck's schemes resulted in a war between Prussia and Austria against Denmark, over the control of the territories of Schleswig and Holstein, held by the Danes. The naval war was not extensive and was largely fought with unarmored ships, but the Danish turret ship Rolf Krake did shell Prussian shore positions on at least five occasions, though she was handled cautiously for fear of mines. Austrian ironclads brought to the area towards the end of the war never saw action.
After Vicksburg, the Mississippi Squadron was dispersed to patrol the length of the Mississippi and its tributaries; however, they were collected for one last major push up the Red River towards Shreveport in early 1864. The actual goals of the campaign remain murky; nevertheless, the Benton, Essex, Carondelet, Louisville, Mound City, Pittsburg, Eastport, Chillicothe, Lafayette, Choctaw, Neosho, Osage, and Ozark struck up the river, only to be caught upstream with rapidly falling water levels and a rapidly retreating Union army under General Banks. A pair of dams saved the day and the ironclads of the inland squadron retreated back to the broad, deep waters of the Mississippi River, though the Eastport had to be destroyed to prevent her capture after striking a mine and grounding several times on her way downriver.
In the one area where no Union ironclad could operate, the sounds of North Carolina, the doughty little Confederate ram Albemarle made a dramatic appearance, combining with forces under General Hoke to recapture the town of Plymouth on the Roanoke River. A similar effort against New Berne with her sister ship Neuse foundered, however, when the ironclad found water levels in the Neuse River too low to allow her to go into action. The Albemarle terrorized the sounds for some months until a daring night raid by Lt. William B. Cushing sank the ironclad with an explosive charge mounted on a spar in a small steam launch.
Rear Admiral David G. Farragut's fleet mounted their much-anticipated attack on the forts guarding the entrance to Mobile Bay, accompanied by four monitors, the Tecumseh, Manhattan, Chickasaw, and Winnebago. Although the Tecumseh quickly fell prey to a Confederate mine, the others soon hammered the Southern ironclad Tennessee into submission, followed rapidly by Fort Gaines and Fort Powell. Fort Morgan took longer, even causing the Union to put the captured Tennessee into service bombarding her former haven, which finally surrendered on 22 August. The Confederate ironclads Huntsville and Tuscaloosa exchanged shots briefly with a Union reconnaissance force, but mostly stayed out of the way.
As General Hood's army advanced on General Thomas's position at Nashville, the veteran river ironclad Carondelet and the monitor Neosho, along with several light gunboats, were ordered to the Cumberland River. On 3 December, the Carondelet shelled a battery at Clarksville, and the next day recaptured three transports that had been taken by the Confederates. On 6 December, the Carondelet and Neosho shelled the batteries at Bell's Mill, the Neosho sustaining over a hundred hits without serious damage. As Thomas turned Hood's flank on 15-16 December, the two ironclads provided heavy fire support on the flank.
Despite a bungled December attack, which included an attempt to level Fort Fisher with a ship packed with gunpowder, David D. Porter's Federal fleet, including the New Ironsides, Monadnock, Canonicus, Saugus, and Mahopac, succeeded in landing and supporting Federal troops and forcing the surrender of Fort Fisher, guardian of the vital port of Wilmington. In the ensuing weeks, an amphibious drive up the Cape Fear River featuring the Charleston veteran Montauk led to the Southern evacuation of the city, sealing off General Lee's army from outside aid.
As the Union armies applied a vicious chokehold on the Confederate capital of Richmond, the Confederate Navy made a few last desperate attempts to loosen the Northern grip. Under Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes of Alabama fame, the ironclads Virginia II, Richmond, and Fredericksburg guarded the James River approach to Richmond and tried to harass the Union army. At the end of January, the three ironclads made an apparent attempt to reach Grant's supply base at City Point, but the effort was quickly abandoned after a brief encounter with the Union monitor Onondaga.
As the war wound down, the final efforts around Mobile, Alabama featured some truly vicious fighting, with Mississippi Squadron veterans Cincinnati and Osage joining the Chickasaw, Winnebago, Kickapoo, and Milwaukee in supporting Army operations above Mobile Bay. Mines claimed the Osage and Milwaukee, and the Confederate ironclads Nashville, Huntsville, and Tuscaloosa made appearances, but it was too little too late for the Southern cause. The hapless Huntsville and Tuscaloosa were sunk in the Blakely River to block the Union advance, but it all came to an end with the surrender of the Nashville and other Southern ships to the veteran Cincinnati on 10 May.
The last Confederate ironclad, the French-built Stonewall brushed aside the wooden Union warships Niagara and Sacramento before crossing the Atlantic. However, she only made it as far as Havana, Cuba, where she learned of Lee's surrender in April and the imminent end of hostilities. Although a Union fleet was hurriedly put together to meet her, including the Monadnock, Canonicus, and Dictator, the matter was resolved peacefully when the Stonewall's commander sold her to the Spanish Captain-General of Cuba, who turned her over to US control.
Fought between Spain and the alliance of Peru, Chile, Ecuador, and Bolivia, this war featured the bombardment of Valparaiso on 31 March 1866 by a Spanish fleet including the ironclad Numancia, although she was the flagship and did not join in the bombardment. Also present was the American monitor Monadnock, as part of a squadron under US Commodore John Rodgers, who along with a British naval contingent watched over but did not interfere with the action. On 2 May 1866, the same Spanish fleet attacked the Peruvians at Callao; Peruvian ironclads were the Loa and Victoria. Fought at long range, the battle ended with the withdrawal of the Spanish, and the victory was celebrated in Peru as the holiday of "Dos de Mayo." An allied fleet including the Peruvian ironclad Independencia was collected at Valparaiso under Rear Admiral John Randolph Tucker, a former Confederate officer, for the purpose of attacking Spanish colonies in the Pacific, but the war ended before it was employed.
In early 1865, a major war broke out between the "triple alliance" of Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay and dictator Francisco Lopez's Paraguay. Paraguay had ordered a number of ironclads from foreign builders, but they were all eventually delivered to Brazil instead. Brazil sent a combined ironclad and wooden force up the Parana and Paraguay Rivers. On 27 March 1866, the Bahia, Tamandare, and Barroso bombarded the Paraguayan fortifications at "the Flat" (Passo de la Patria). On 2 September 1866, the Rio de Janeiro fell victim to Paraguayan gunfire and mines during the bombardment of Curuzu, but that did not keep the Brazilian Army from taking the fort the next day. The Lima Barros and Brasil bombarded the fort at Curupaiti on 4 September 1866, and periodic bombardments continued for eight months. On 15 August 1867, part of the Brazilian fleet ran past Curupaiti, followed by more on 9 September and 13 February 1868. On the night of 18 February 1868, the ironclads Barroso, Bahia, and Tamandare, accompanied by the small monitors Rio Grande, Alagoas, and Para, ran past the fortifications at Humaita. The Algoas was disabled and floated back downstream, but the others made it past, though the Tamandare alone sustained some 120 hits. The ironclads engaged various forts, culminating on 24 February 1868, when the Barroso, Bahia, and Rio Grande arrived off the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion and bombarded the naval arsenal and the Presidential Palace. On 2 March 1868 the Lima Barros and Cabral defeated an attempt to board them using canoes. Most of the remainder of the Paraguayan Navy was destroyed on 22 March 1868 by four Brazilian ironclads. On 9 July 1868, another canoe attack, this time on the Barroso and Rio Grande, was repulsed. The bypassed fortress of Humaita finally fell on 24 July 1868. On 4 December 1868, the navy ferried the Brazilian Army upriver to the rear of the Paraguayans, and the capital city fell on 1 January 1869. Lopez and his followers hung on for over a year of bloody wilderness fighting.
Further fallout from the German unification efforts of Prussia resulted in Prussia and Italy going to war with Austria. The only major battle of the war was the Battle of Lissa on 20 July, a short, vicious affair. The Austrian fleet under Wilhelm von Tegetthoff slammed into Carlo Pellion di Persano's Italians after the latter had bombarded the island of Lissa in the Adriatic. The Austrian fleet included the ironclads Ferdinand Max, Habsburg, Kaiser Max, Prinz Eugen, Don Juan de Austria, Drache, and Salamander; Italian ironclads were the Re d'Italia, Re di Portogallo, Ancona, Maria Pia, Castelfidardo, San Martino, Principe di Carignano, Affondatore, Terribile, Formidabile, Palestro, and Varese. Although technically slightly inferior to the Italian ships, Tegetthoff's force won the day thanks to superior handling and some fancy ramming, costing the Italians the Re d'Italia and the Palestro.
In what became known as the Meiji Restoration, the forces of the Japanese Emperor ousted the Shogun from power. A portion of the Shogun's forces and followers fled to the northern island of Hokkaido, where they set up the Republic of Yezo, with the capital at Hakodate. The Shogun's forces had a few warships, but they realized that they had to sink or capture the Kotetsu, formerly the Confederate ironclad Stonewall, which had been purchased by the Shogun in 1867 but taken over by Imperial forces upon her arrival in Japan. In the Battle of Miyakowan, a wooden ship attempted to ram and board the Kotetsu without success. On 11 May 1869, the Kotetsu led an attack on Hakodate that ended in the destruction of the Shogun's small naval force, and then bombarded the city, forcing its evacuation. The remnants of the Shogun's forces surrendered shortly thereafter.
When the "Cantonists" in eastern Spain revolted in 1873, the ironclads Vitoria, Numancia, Tetuan, and Mendez Nunez fell into their hands. Somewhat pressed (this being most of its ironclad force), Spain declared these ships to be pirates, hoping that foreign powers would do much of the work. The German ironclad Friedrich Karl and the British Swiftsure were on station, and between them they seized three Cantonist ships, including the Vitoria, and turned them over to the central government. On 11 October, a Spanish fleet including the Vitoria under Rear Admiral Miguel Lobo engaged the Cantonist Numancia, Tetuan, Mendez Nunez and a wooden ship, forcing them back to Cartagena. The Tetuan burned at the end of December, possibly through sabotage, and a fleet under Rear Admiral Nicolas Chicarro including the ironclads Vitoria and Zaragosa instituted a blockade and combined operations against the rebel city. On 11 January, a key fort guarding Cartagena fell to the government forces, and the city was occupied by 13 January. The Numancia escaped, carrying Cantonist refugees to Oran; Chicarro followed and took control of her on the 18th, ending the revolt.
On 6 May 1877, the Peruvian ironclad Huascar was taken over by supporters of Nicolas de Pierola in an ultimately failed coup attempt. The ironclad sailed south toward Chile to pick up the exiled Pierola, along the way interfering with several British merchant vessels, attempting to seize Peruvian government mail. This led the commander of the British Pacific Squadron to hunt down the Huascar with the unarmored frigate Shah and corvette Amethyst. At the same time, a Peruvian naval force including the Independencia and the monitor Atahualpa began to track down the Huascar. Pierola joined the renegade ironclad at Cobija on 22 May. The Peruvian squadron sighted her first on 27 May, but the resulting Battle of Punta Pichalo ended with the Huascar escaping in the gathering darkness. Two days later, the two British vessels caught up with her near Ilo and demanded a surrender for her interference with British vessels, which was refused and a battle began, mostly consisting of the Huascar trying to avoid the superior gunnery of the Shah. The Battle of Ilo is also notable as the first time a self-propelled torpedo was used in combat, although it missed the Huascar. Again, the renegade ironclad made her escape under cover of darkness. In a bizarre twist, she headed for a rendezvous with the Peruvian squadron and attempted to get them to help her fight the British, but the Peruvian commander would have none of it, instead demanding (and this time receiving) the ship's surrender.
Motivated by campaigns against Slavs in the Balkans and the ever-present desires to control the city of Constantinople and secure an exit to the Mediterranean, Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire in the spring of 1877. After the nadir of the Crimean War, Russia had thoroughly modernized her navy; by 1877, it contained some two dozen ironclads, including ten monitors and the state-of-the-art Petr Veliki. Unfortunately, most of these ships were concentrated in the Baltic or spread across the globe and the war against the Turks would rely heavily on torpedo boats and mines. For their part, the Turks operated about a dozen ironclads plus some small monitors and were well-placed to give the Russians fits in the Black Sea. The Turkish ironclads went right into action, suffering an initial loss when the Lufti Djelil blew up during an attack on Ismail on 10 May 1877. The Muin-i-Zaffer, Nijmi Shevket, Fethi Bulend, Mukaddami Khair, Avni Illah, and Idjalieh attacked Sochum 14 May. Russian torpedo boats sank the monitor Seyfi on 25 May, but the Idjalieh repulsed another torpedo attack on 10 June. Russian forces captured the monitors Iskodra and Podgorice at Nikopolis on 17 July. On 24 August, the Assari Tewfik repulsed yet another Russian torpedo attack. The Russians attacked the Muin-i-Zaffer, Assari Shevket, and Hifzi Rahman with a combination of gunboats and torpedo boats at Sulina 8-9 November, disabling the Hifzi Rahman. Russia and the Ottoman Empire signed an armistice on 31 January 1878.
In 1879, disagreements over nitrate-rich lands led Chile to go to war with Bolivia and Peru. The Chileans opened with a blockade of Iquique on 5 April by the ironclads Almirante Cochrane and Blanca Encalada along with unarmored warships. On 21 May, the Chileans prepared to attack the Peruvian fleet at Callao, but there they found only the monitors Atahualpa and Manco Capac; the seagoing ironclads were missing. They turned up at Iquique the same day, scattering the Chilean wooden vessels left on guard there despite some truly wretched Peruvian gunnery. The crew of the Chilean Esmeralda tried three times to board the Huascar but failed, and the Peruvian turret ship sank her adversary by ramming her three times. The Peruvian Independencia was less fortunate, running hard aground while chasing the Chilean Covadonga. The Huascar, under Don Miguel Grau, now began a series of brilliant raids. On the night of 9-10 July she fought a running fight with the Almirante Cochrane at Iquique, and captured three transports on 17 July loaded with coal, copper, and 300 Chilean soldiers. In the meantime, the Peruvian Manco Capac left Callao for Arica on 3 August, arriving four days later. Grau and the Huascar next attacked the Chilean warships at Antofagasta, making an unsuccessful torpedo attack on the night of 27 August and attacking with gunfire the next day. Grau then steamed south, harassing coastal traffic. The Chilean fleet attempted to corner him at Arica on 1 September, but the Huascar had already left. On 8 October 1879, the Chilean fleet caught up with Grau, and in the resulting Battle of Angamos Peninsula the Huascar finally surrendered after being riddled by superior Chilean gunnery and after Grau was killed when a shell struck the conning tower. Repaired and under Chilean command, on 27 February 1880 the Huascar attacked the Peruvians at Arica, fighting an inconclusive duel with the monitor Manco Capac. The Chilean fleet continued to bombard Arica until the army closed in on the city from the rear; the city fell in March and the Manco Capac was scuttled. In September, the Chileans began operations against the fortified port of Callao. On 11 December, the Atahualpa emerged for an inconclusive action with the Chilean fleet. The Chilean army was landed at Pisco south of Callao, and Lima and Callao fell in January 1881, the Atahualpa being scuttled at the fall of Callao. The war dragged on until 1883 but the Peruvian ability to resist had been shattered.
Chesneau, Roger and Eugene M. Kolesnik (eds.). Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships 1860-1905. London: Conway Maritime Press, 1979.
Greene, Jack and Alessandro Massignani. Ironclads at War: The Origin and Development of the Armored Warship, 1854-1891. Conshohocken PA: Combined Publishing, 1998.
Wilson, H.W. Ironclads in Action: A Sketch of Naval Warfare From 1855 to 1895 (2 vols). Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1896.