Repurposing Captured Enemy Vessels Part 1: Confederate Ironclads Flying the US Flag

Just as wagons and railroad cars could be repurposed after being captured by the enemy, so too could warships. Here is ex-CSS Atlanta, repaired and manned as USS Atlanta, operating on the James River. (US National Archives)

Ever wonder why there was a US Navy warship during the Civil War named after Confederate General Braxton Bragg? Or why there is a Confederate warship named after US President James Buchannan’s niece and de facto first lady? These confusing ship names have a simple explanation that adds to the complexities of naval warfare. Simply put, they were captured ships repurposed by the opposing side.

Scavenging of arms and equipment happened quite frequently and sometimes could prove crucial to a Civil War battle or campaign. In the middle of a charge, capturing a piece of artillery and turning it on an opponent could make all the difference. Always short of weapons, Confederate forces scavenged battlefields for whatever they could find. Seizing an enemy wagon train or supply depot could halt an army in its tracks. One place where such an avenue of materiel acquisition is often overlooked is the naval elements of the conflict. Just like wagons, rifles, and cannon, even vessels, ranging from coastal craft to merchant steamers to ironclad warships ended up serving their opponents, perhaps more frequently than many realize.

The US Civil War had some iconic warships with notable achievements. USS Monitor’s rotating turret and iron plating helped defend Hampton Roads from CSS Virginia in 1862, the submarine H.L. Hunley famously sent USS Housatonic to the bottom in 1864, the Confederate commerce raider Alabama prowled the seas hunting enemy merchants for two years, and USS Cairo patrolled inland waterways until sunk by a torpedo in 1862. Interestingly, none of the ships just mentioned survived to the end of the war: Monitor foundered in a storm, Hunley was never heard from again after its sinking of Housatonic, Alabama was lost in battle against USS Kearsarge in 1864, Cairo rested at the bottom of the Yazoo River after its fateful torpedo incident until raised to join Vicksburg’s National battlefield Park, and Virginia was scuttled by its own crew to prevent its capture when Norfolk was evacuated.

Destroyed to prevent capture. It happened to CSS Virginia, the Confederacy’s most well-known warship. In fact, looking at both the historical and historiographical record, this phrase comes up a lot when examining Confederate ironclads. This fate befell CSS Virginia in 1862, all of the James River Squadron’s ironclads in 1865, the ironclads Louisiana and Mississippi being finished in New Orleans in 1862, the famed ironclad Arkansas later that year, and even Charleston’s and Savannah’s squadrons of ironclads. It was practically a maxim of the Confederate Navy. When cornered, do not let your ironclad warships fall into enemy hands. Only two Confederate ironclads surrendered at the war’s conclusion: CSS Stonewall did so in May 1865 in Havana to Spanish authorities (who quickly transferred the ship to US custody) and CSS Missouri surrendered in June 1865 on the Red River in Louisiana.

Looking at the war’s naval history though, not all Confederate ironclad commanders kept their ships out of enemy hands. Three Confederate ironclads were successfully captured by the United States, and all three ended up flying the US flag, joining the navy they were designed to combat.

USS Eastport was a Confederate naval project that US forces captured mid-conversion. (Library of Congress)

The first Confederate ironclad to be captured by the United States was Eastport. If the name does not ring a bell as a famed Confederate warship, that is because the Confederacy never finished it. Eastport was a river steamer that the Confederacy purchased in 1861. Work was still progressing on converting the steamer into an ironclad warship at Cerro Gordo on the Tennessee River when Ulysses Grant’s forces drove into Tennessee in the spring of 1862. Eastport was abandoned and fell into US hands on February 7, 1862. Taken to Cairo, Illinois, the conversion into an ironclad was completed and Eastport became part of the Western Gunboat Flotilla. When that force was transferred to Navy Department jurisdiction at the end of 1862, Eastport then joined the Navy’s Mississippi River Squadron. Confederate Navy historian Raimondo Luraghi noted in his history of that organization that Eastport’s capture was “a bitter lesson that Southern sailors would never forget.”[1]

Eastport helped convoy supplies and patrol the Mississippi River in 1863, indirectly supporting Ulysses Grant’s Vicksburg campaign. Eastport, which Admiral David D. Porter called a “long, heavy iron-clad” took part in the Red River Campaign of 1864, striking an underwater torpedo on April 15, 1864.[2] Eleven days later the ship was scuttled to ironically “prevent her falling into the hands of the enemy.”[3]

The second Confederate ironclad to fly the US flag was Atlanta. This ironclad was also a conversion, built on the hull of the blockade runner Fingal. The conversion was completed by the brothers Asa and Nelson Tift. The same two built CSS Mississippi, the ironclad still under construction and destroyed when New Orleans was captured by US forces in April 1862. The converted ironclad Atlanta completed her sea trials in July 1862 and thence guarded Savannah, Georgia. In June 1863, Atlanta ran aground while engaging the US monitors Weehawken and Nahant and was battered into submission. Commander William A. Webb struck his flag, with Atlanta becoming a prize. $350,000 in prize money was ultimately paid to the sailors of the two ironclads and one supporting wooden steamer for its capture.

Schematics of ironclad Atlanta made after its capture by US forces. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Under a prize crew, Atlanta was taken off the sand bar it was stuck in during the ironclad battle and steamed to Port Royal Sound for evaluation. Since the ship surrendered quickly, on account of being aground and unable to maneuver its guns against the approaching monitors, the hull was deemed in good shape. The ship was then overhauled, had its artillery replaced, and commissioned into the US Navy in February 1864. It predominantly served on the James River supporting operations against the Confederate capital in the latter part of the conflict.

The third Confederate ironclad put into US service was Tennessee. This flagship of the Confederacy’s Mobile Bay squadron was the principal vessel opposing Admiral David Farragut’s forces as they steamed into Mobile Bay in August 1864. After a severe fight lasting several hours, with Confederate Admiral Franklin Buchanan wounded, Tennessee was disabled and struck its colors.

After being captured at the battle of Mobile Bay, the ironclad Tennessee served the US Navy on the Mississippi River. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

A survey of Tennessee ordered by Farragut after its surrender found the ironclad’s hull “to be exceedingly strongly built in every part” with “excellent and exceedingly comfortable” quarters. The survey determined that with “small repairs and additions,” Tennessee would “be a most formidable vessel for harbor and river service.”[4] Taken to New Orleans, Tennessee received said repairs and overhaul before being sent to patrol the Red River in 1865.

There are a few takeaways here. It is true that none of these three ironclads rendered the most visible service once put under the US flag. However, they served in necessary positions as part of three different naval squadrons. The US war effort was bolstered, at least in a small part, by the employment of these captured Confederate ironclads, just as the Confederacy’s war efforts were weakened by their loss. US naval personnel were quite willing to use enemy vessels, recognizing that reinforcements were a good thing, even if the materiel was procured from the enemy. This also speaks to Confederate efforts to build ironclads, as projects begun under their banner were found sound enough, even after sustained combat operations, to still be useful to the United States.

These ironclads, though surrendered or captured, found new life in the naval service of their initial enemy. Many other ships from both sides had a similar fate. In Part 2, I will look at wooden vessels of the Confederacy that ended up serving the United States, in Part 3, I will examine US vessels that ended up flying the Confederate flag, and in Part 4 I will look at one captured vessel that is often forgotten about in a more detailed case study.



[1] Raimondo Luraghi, A History of the Confederate Navy, Translated by Paolo E. Coletta, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996), 125.

[2] David D. Porter, The Naval History of the Civil War, (New York: Sherman Publishing Company, 1886), 499.

[3] Ibid., 519.

[4] Thornton A. Jenkins to David Farragut, August 13, 1864, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, Volume 21, 547-548, 549-550.

9 Responses to Repurposing Captured Enemy Vessels Part 1: Confederate Ironclads Flying the US Flag

  1. Thanks to Neil Chatelain for providing this authoritative report on repurposed Civil War vessels, as it potentially acts as a pathway to further study of Naval involvement by both sides during the 1861-1865 Conflict. For too long, Civil War naval activities have been relegated to a backwater; only sensational actions gained widespread notice: Kearsarge versus Alabama; Farragut demanding, “Damn the torpedoes, Full Speed Ahead!”
    One of my personal favorite repurposed vessels: CSS Alfred Robb, which was captured by U.S. Gunboat Tyler on the Tennessee River on 21 April 1862. One of the tiniest steamers pressed into Federal service (at only 70-85 tons, unloaded) the potential of the Robb was recognized by Major General Henry Halleck, who had her towed to Cairo Illinois and outfitted as “a shallow-draft gunboat, lightly armored, capable of ascending minor streams.” USS Alfred Robb, although accorded Identification No.21 was actually the first Tinclad put to use on the Western Rivers.

    1. Thanks for the kind words Mike. Stay tuned later this week, for part 2 looks at Confederate wooden vessels like Alfred Robb captured and repurposed into US service.

  2. And there’s an example of repurposing that went the other way, by CSA General Bedford Forrest. As part of his November 1864 campaign against the US Johnsonville, TN, supply base, Forrest destroyed a flotilla of US ships, two of he repurposed, the steamer Venus and gunboat Undine. This is from memory, but I believe ECW has a previous post on it. It helps make the point in the above post: that naval ops like this could affect campaigns, in this case Sherman’s efforts to thwart Hood and get his March to the Sea going.

    1. Forrest’s capture of ships in 1864 that were later used to attack the Johnsonville supply depot is quite the interesting story. Stay tuned later this week, for part 3 will look at other examples where Confederates captured US ships and repurposed them for use.

  3. Excellent post, Neil. I’m in Maine: For which port named Eastport was the captured Confederate ironclad named?

    1. Hey Brian, the Navy’s records say Eastport was originally constructed in New Albany, Indiana, near Louisville, but they do not say which Eastport settlement (if they chose one specifically) that the ship honors or who the original builder was. Sorry, no clues there about whether it was originally named for Eastport, Maine. Something to do a deeper dive into at some point though.

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