Failed Ironclads: CSS Mississippi and CSS Louisiana at New Orleans
In October 1861, the skeletons of two strange iron monsters began to emerge from the Mississippi bank at Jefferson City, just north of New Orleans. They would become the CSS Mississippi and CSS Louisiana. Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen Mallory had ordered five ironclads built in the interior; others were Eastport on the Tennessee River, and Tennessee and Arkansas at Memphis. He counted on these innovative warships as ultimate weapons against opposition superiority in ships and manpower.
Eastport was captured before completion and converted to enemy use. Tennessee was burned on the stocks when Memphis fell to the Union navy. Only Arkansas engaged a Yankee fleet as intended and did so dramatically near Vicksburg, July 1862, but was later disabled and blown up to prevent capture. Mississippi and Louisiana were present for one of the war’s greatest naval campaigns. They failed utterly. Why?
Both were potentially powerful but deeply flawed and incomplete vessels that were by early 1862 undergoing furious final construction in the face of Flag Officer David G. Farragut’s warships threatening the city. Lack of materials, particularly iron and light oak from Florida, delayed the construction, exacerbated by overstrained railroads. Labor shortages, strikes, and militia drills cost time. Crews were incomplete, inadequately trained at the guns, and had to be supplemented with soldiers from the forts.
Nevertheless, Confederate naval officers considered Mississippi, “the strongest…most formidable war vessel that had ever been built.” The 250-foot, 1400-ton behemoth was unorthodox even for an ironclad. Brothers Nelson and Asa Tift persuaded Mallory that they could compensate for the lack of shipwrights capable of bending and shaping frames and planks of a ship’s hull. They would have regular carpenters build the vessel like a house—flat sides and square corners except where pointed ends joined the hull, just a big floating box with guns.
Mississippi carried four and a half feet of iron and wood armor on the casemate with twenty guns, and would be powered by eight huge boilers, three engines, and three propellers. She was hurriedly launched on April 19, the day after Farragut began mortar bombardment of forts Jackson and St. Philip at the Mississippi mouth. But the Tredegar Iron Works had not delivered the main propeller shafts and her guns were not mounted. Five days later, with the Yankee fleet advancing on the city, the crew fled upriver to Vicksburg. The executive officer, Lieutenant James Waddell, volunteered to return to the helpless ship and set her afire, a sad fate shared by many of the South’s iron monsters.
Louisiana had been launched previously on February 6. She was 264 feet long and 1400 tons, with dual engines appropriated from another steamer. One engine drove two huge paddle wheels in a center well to propel the ship, but the wash from the forward wheel rendered the one behind ineffective. The other engine rotated two propellers pushing on two rudders to assist steering in the confined waters and unpredictable currents of the Mississippi—or presumably would have if the engine had been completely installed.
The casemate extended for her full length less 25 feet at each end, to be covered by T-rail iron in two courses, but not all the armor was in place. She was designed for two 7-inch Brook rifles, four 8-inch Dahlgren smoothbores, three 9-inch smoothbores, and seven 32-pounders, if all had been mounted. Green wood of the hull leaked badly, pouring water through crevices in the bulkheads frequently inundating the gun deck knee deep. The paddle wheels worked, but even under dangerously high boiler pressure, could barely make headway against the current. She could go down river, but hardly could return up, and she was essentially uncontrollable.
Brigadier General Johnson K. Duncan, commanding the forts, and his superior, Major General Mansfield Lovell, begged the officer in charge of local naval forces, Commander William C. Whittle, to bring Louisiana down to the forts as a floating battery. Against his better judgment and only after direct orders from Richmond, Whittle yielded; on April 20, he commissioned the vessel in the CS Navy with Commander Charles F. McIntosh commanding.
Workers still scrambled over her as Louisiana was towed down river and secured to the left bank just above Fort St. Philip. General Duncan had asked that the ship be positioned below the forts, but Commander Whittle would not risk his vessel, with unarmored deck, against the plunging fire of Union mortars.
Farragut’s fleet began its thunderous run past the forts, April 24, and upriver to New Orleans destroying Confederate river defense forces on the way. Louisiana was lightly damaged in the furious bombardment—although construction workers on accompanying tenders were killed or wounded—but the ironclad could bring only bow and starboard guns to bear and got off few rounds. Three of those apparently pierced right through the USS Brooklyn, while her return broadsides bounced off harmlessly. Three Louisiana men were killed, all in exposed positions, one of them Captain McIntosh.
Lieutenant William Whittle (Commander Whittle’s son) was third lieutenant in charge of the bow guns. He noted that poorly made port covers did not permit his crew to train the guns laterally or elevate or depress them. Louisiana, “used her guns against all of the Federal fleet as they passed, and every man fought bravely and well.” But bravery did not compensate for defective gun ports. The immobile ironclad sank no Yankee ships.
Soon after the battle, commanders of the Rebel garrison at Fort St. Philip and a few Confederate naval officers sat in Commander David D. Porter’s cabin aboard the USS Harriet Lane signing surrender and parole papers when a violent explosion heeled the ship hard over to port tumbling them from their chairs.
Commander Whittle and Louisiana’s executive officer (now commanding) John K. Mitchell had not been consulted about surrendering the forts; they did not feel bound by it, and had no intention of seeing the ironclad in Union hands. Mitchell abandoned Louisiana and set her ablaze while the crew fled ashore. But there had been no time to draw charges from the guns or to flood ten thousand pounds of powder in the magazine. The mooring lines burned through. She began floating toward the middle of the river where the Union fleet lay at anchor.
Seeing the danger, Mitchell dispatched Lieutenant Whittle to warn Union captains of a possible explosion in their midst. Whittle commandeered a boat, was rowed passed the loaded guns of the flaming ship, and had almost reached Harriet Lane when fire touched Louisiana’s magazine and she went up spectacularly, big chunks of railroad iron flying in all directions. The blast killed a soldier at the fort. Whittle boarded Harriet Lane anyway and delivered the message to Porter, who replied dryly, “Say to Captain Mitchell I am much obliged.”
Porter paroled and set free most Confederates prisoners, but enraged by an apparent attempt to destroy his ships after surrender, he packed Commander Mitchell and Lieutenant Whittle off to Fort Warren in Boston harbor, periodic home to some of the South’s best naval officers and blockade runners. There they received the harsh treatment of common criminals until Mitchell protested in a letter to Porter: burning the Louisiana had not been an intentionally hostile act under a flag of truce, but the legitimate destruction of his command in the face of capture. Full prisoner-of-war privileges were restored. The two officers were included in a large prisoner exchange, August 5, at Aiken’s Landing on the James River.
Fighting alongside Lieutenant Whittle aboard Louisiana were Acting Master Sidney Smith Lee, Jr. and Midshipman Francis Chew. “Smith Lee” was the nephew of Robert E. Lee, and the brother of General and future Virginia Governor Fitzhugh Lee. His father, Sydney Smith Lee Sr., had a distinguished career in the U.S. Navy and became one of the few ranked captains in the Confederate navy. Francis Thornton Chew was an anomaly in the navy, neither the son of the plantation aristocracy nor of a naval family, but a middle-class Missourian.
Lee and Chew were with a group of officers and crewmen captured running through the swamps after Louisiana blew up. They were imprisoned briefly, then paroled and freed by a West Point classmate of Fitzhugh Lee.
Whittle, Lee, and Chew, along with James Waddell of Mississippi, would serve together again. Waddell captained the last Confederate commerce raider, the CSS Shenandoah; William Whittle was his first lieutenant and executive officer, while Smith Lee and Francis Chew served as lieutenants. In another turn of fate, the captain of the doomed Mississippi had been Arthur Sinclair, William Whittle’s uncle.
Mississippi and Louisiana were paradigms of Confederate naval strategy and execution—products of innovative, dedicated, and professional men, but victims of hurried and inadequate design, untested technology, poor planning and coordination, and a dearth of critical resources.
Had the two ironclads been fully ready for battle, Farragut would have had more difficulty taking New Orleans, but it is doubtful they could have stopped him. Although the huge, heavy vessels were almost impregnable and armed with powerful batteries, they were grossly underpowered and hardly maneuverable in the swiftly flowing river. Farragut could have bypassed them or surrounded and battered them into submission as he did the formidable CSS Tennessee in Mobile Bay in August 1864.
 Civil War Naval Chronology, 1861-1865 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1971), 2:56.
 William C. Whittle, Jr., The Voyage of the CSS Shenandoah: A Memorable Cruise (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005), 7.
 Angus Curry, The Officers of the CSS Shenandoah (Gainsville: University Press of Florida, 2006), 40-41.
2 Responses to Failed Ironclads: CSS Mississippi and CSS Louisiana at New Orleans
Enjoyable read; amazing what a small cast of characters repeated their roles.