Under Fire: First Ironclad Shots at the Head of Passes

In May 1861, New Orleans river captain John Stevenson travelled to Montgomery, Alabama, proposing to “adapt some of our heavy and powerful tow-boats on the Mississippi” by armoring them and “preparing their bow” with a ram “capable of sinking by collision” United States blockaders.[i] Confederate leaders dismissed the proposal, and Stevenson resolved to materialize his ideas independently. Known as Manassas, after the Confederate victory in July 1861, Stevenson’s prototype ironclad became the first in North American, pioneering Civil War naval tactics.

CSS Manassas, the first Civil War ironclad.
(Johnny Bartlett Letter, Oct. 12, 1861, U.S. National Archives)

Answering Jefferson Davis’ call for privateers, Stevenson raised $100,000 and purchased the tug Enoch Train. The tug underwent a great transformation at New Orleans, with its upper deck cut away so the hull “projected only 2½ feet above the water.”[ii] Restructured deck was convexly curved and layered with iron railroad ties dovetailed to improvise one-inch-thick plate. The unorthodox ship quickly developed numerous nicknames, including bug-bear, floating cigar, and “turtleback,” though U.S. sailors simply called it “the ram.”[iii]

The ship’s small frame supported a single 64-pounder cannon fixed in place, but Manassas’ chief weapon was its ram. “Made of the best cast iron” and “firmly secured by means of heavy wrought bolts” backed by twenty feet of wooden hull, this ram would flood enemy ships below the waterline.[iv]

With conversion efforts completed on September 9, 1861, Stevenson enlisted thirty-six “loud-mouthed set of toughs,” applied for a letter of marque and anchored at New Orleans, waiting for the chance to attack the ever-tightening U.S. blockade.[v] Four blockaders, USS Richmond, USS Vincennes, USS Water Witch, and USS Preble, collectively mounting fifty-five cannon, entered the Head of Passes, where numerous river passes converged into a single channel, facilitating an easier blockade.

By October, Captain George N. Hollins, commanding the Confederate Navy’s Mississippi River Squadron, amassed a flotilla of river steamers to oppose the blockade. Hollins possessed more ships, including the navy vessels McRae, Calhoun, Ivy, Tuscarora, and Jackson, the Confederate revenue cutter Pickens, and the steam tug Watson, but these only mounted half the U.S. squadron’s battery. Hollins asked for cooperation, but still smarting from earlier rejections of his proposal, Stevenson refused. When Hollins insisted, Stephenson boasted that Hollins “did not have men enough to take her.”[vi] Enraged, Hollins seized the ship.

First Lieutenant Alexander F. Warley, CSN, commanded CSS Manassas.
(B&L, Vol. 4, 641)

CSS McRae approached Manassas, and with its crew at quarters, a boat of armed sailors led by First Lieutenant Alexander F. Warley, McRae’s executive officer, approached. Warley found the privateer’s crew “lined up on the turtleback, swearing that they would kill the first man who attempted to board.” Brandishing weapons, Warley’s sailors boarded Manassas to the bewilderment of the crew, half rushing below deck. Warley followed, chased them to the main deck, with several “jumping overboard and swimming for it.”[vii] Lieutenant Warley was retained in command, with volunteers from the Confederate squadron filling the ironclad’s complement.

The Confederacy ingloriously acquired its first ironclad warship, and Hollins proceeded downriver to Forts Jackson and Saint Philip, guarding the Mississippi River approaches to New Orleans about 30 miles upriver from the Head of Passes. Anchoring there on October 11, 1861, plans for a night surprise attack developed.

U.S. occupation of the Head of Passes facilitated an easier blockade of the Mississippi River.
(Map by Edward Alexander)

At midnight, after the moon set and sky darkened, the Confederates proceeded on their “grand expedition.”[viii] Captain John Pope, commanding the blockaders, believed the Confederates unable to mount an attack and ordered his anchored ships to re-coal in the Head of Passes that night, with no scouts upriver. Manassas took the lead. Targeting USS Richmond, Warley ordered his ship to full speed while Chief Engineer William H. Hardy ensured “tar, tallow, and sulphur [sic] … were thrown into the furnace.”[ix]

USS Preble’s sailors saw a dark mass “not 20 yards distant … moving with great velocity toward the bow of the Richmond.” Preble hoisted a red light to warn Richmond, as “huge clouds of the densest, blackest smoke rolled up” from the iron turtle’s twin smokestacks.[x] Richmond opened fire, but Manassas was too close and at 3:40 am on October 12, 1861, CSS Manassas rammed USS Richmond, smashing “a hole five inches in diameter in her hull” below the waterline.[xi] Much of the blow’s force however, was deflected by the unarmed coaling schooner Joseph H. Toone, alongside Richmond that night.

Warley ordered a rocket fired to signal his success. Young Midshipman Sardine Stone went to the ironclad’s weather deck with a rocket, but in the chaos of battle, “he burned his hand, dropping the stick, and the rocket went sizzling down into the hold,” panicking the ironclad’s crew, who believed enemy fire pierced their armor.[xii] Stone quickly regained his composure, successfully lighting a second rocket.

CSS Manassas rams USS Richmond as fire rafts close the blockading squadron.
(NH 59012, Navy History and Heritage Command)

Seeing the rocket, Hollins released three fire rafts, which “went down the river all in a blaze, and made a most magnificent sight” as Confederate gunners opened fire.[xiii] The surprise ramming, the sudden onset of fire rafts, and Confederate cannon panicked U.S. sailors. The four blockaders slipped their anchors, abandoning them on the river bottom, and maneuvered for the Southwest Pass and the relative safety of the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, Manassas struggled with a fractured ram, a disabled engine knocked out in the collision, and a severed smokestack cut “even with the turtleback.”[xiv]

Richmond’s guns fired as it retreated. One shell dented the ironclad’s armor, a second snapped off the ship’s flagstaff, and a third slammed into the remaining smokestack, blocking the main deck’s exhaust vents. Manassas filled with smoke. Warley ordered his crew to the main deck to prevent suffocation while Chief Engineer Hardy cut away the wreckage blocking the vents. Warley then guided Manassas toward the riverbank.

Hollins’ plan produced mixed results. Manassas successfully rammed Richmond, but was now disabled, and the fire rafts sowed confusion amongst the U.S. sailors, before harmlessly drifting to the riverbank. Richmond, Vincennes, and Preble all ran aground in the Southwest Pass in their haste to escape. Unable to move, Vincennes hauled overboard its cannon and was temporarily abandoned. The Confederate squadron peppered them for several hours. Unwilling to close the grounded blockading squadron because their heavy guns were more numerous and effective, at 10 am, Hollins ordered his ships upriver, declaring victory.

New Orleans celebrated its success as Manassas was towed to the city and dry-docked for repairs. Henceforth the name of Hollins will be mentioned with pride,” proclaimed the New Orleans Daily Crescent while a teenage girl prematurely boasted to her diary that Hollins “has broken the blockade.”[xv]

Manassas was retrofitted with a newer 32-pounder cannon and refitted ram. It patrolled the Head of Passes into 1862, but was destroyed at the battle of Forts Jackson and Saint Philip on April 24, 1862, in the failed Confederate defense of New Orleans.

The Battle of the Head of Passes was the first use of an ironclad and ram attack in the war, propelling both the use of ironclad vessels and rams by both sides. It was a quick and bloodless Confederate victory, but failed to alter the strategic situation. The Head of Passes remained in Confederate control until Farragut proceeded upriver, but blockading ships simply stationed themselves at each river pass in the meantime, maintaining an effective, if less coordinated, blockade of the Mississippi River.


[i] Report of John Stevenson, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), Series 4, Volume 1, Part 1, 142.

[ii]Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, (Navy Department, 1959-1991), Vol. 2, 546.

[iii] James Morris Morgan, Recollections of a Rebel Reefer, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1917), 56; D.G. Farragut to D.D. Porter, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), Series 1, Volume 24, 142.

[iv] “The Wrought Iron Prow,” Charleston Mercury, April 9, 1862.

[v] James M. Morgan, “The Pioneer Ironclad,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 43, No. 10, 2277.

[vi] Morgan, Recollections of a Rebel Reefer, 55.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] John H. Dent, Jr. to John H. Dent, October 10, 1861, John Horry Dent, Jr., Letters, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL.

[ix] William M. Robinson, The Confederate Privateers, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1928), 158.

[x] Report of Commander French, ORN, Ser. 1, Vol 16, 712.

[xi] “Washington, Oct. 25,” Gallipolis Journal, October 31, 1861.

[xii] Robinson, The Confederate Privateers, 160.

[xiii] R. Thomas Campbell, ed. Engineer in Gray: Memoirs of Chief Engineer James H. Tomb, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2005), 24.

[xiv] Morgan, Recollections of a Rebel Reefer, 56.

[xv] “The Great Naval Victory,” New Orleans Daily Crescent, Oct 14, 1861; Judith W. McGuire Diary of a Southern Refugee, During the War (New York: E.G. Hale and Son, 1867), 68-69.

3 Responses to Under Fire: First Ironclad Shots at the Head of Passes

  1. To begin, this is a solid introduction to operations on the western rivers; and Neil Chatelain reveals the pre-Farragut story of the interface of blue water and brown water Navies. However, there is more to the story of why four United States vessels were sent to the Head of Passes (five, if coaling schooner Joseph H. Toone; and six, if the contract transport steamer General McClellan are included.) Flag-Officer William McKean had assumed command of the Gulf Blockading Squadron end of September, and one of his first desires was to establish an artillery battery near the Head of Passes in the Mississippi River. The site of the U.S. battery was to be in vicinity of Pilot Town, or just south. And it was believed that a properly sited heavy artillery battery, perhaps in conjunction with one U.S. Navy vessel, could effectively blockade the southern end of the Mississippi River. It was known that two, and perhaps three vessels were being outfitted at New Orleans as privateers or gunboats (CSS Sumter had departed the Mississippi River on her cruise of destruction in June.) And spies had not yet revealed the threat of the Manassas. The danger at the end of September 1861 presented as the single-gun CSS Ivy. For her single gun was an 8-inch rifle capable of throwing a 132-pound projectile four miles… allowing the Ivy to fire her ship-killing gun, while standing out of range of the smoothbore guns then aboard the task force under command of Captain Pope.
    Once it was realized that the Ivy possessed this deadly weapon, it was decided to equip Captain Pope’s force with rifled guns… so the General McClellan, recently arrived at Fort Pickens, was sent away west before unloading her cargo of rifled guns for the Army.
    Arriving at SW Pass just after the U.S. Navy’s disastrous encounter with CSS Manassas, it was the contract steamer General McClellan that pulled USS Richmond across the bar to safety in the Gulf of Mexico. (And the plan for establishing a Federal battery at the Head of Passes was abandoned.) [Main reference OR (Navy) Ser.1 v.16 pp.683 – 705.]

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