The New Ironsides, seen here in her initial incarnation with a full square rig, was the third of the three ironclads ordered by Navy Secretary Gideon Welles at the outset of the Civil War. Loosely based on the French ironclad La Gloire of 1858, but with much shallower draft, New Ironsides was a 4,100-ton armored frigate. On a stoutly-built white oak hull -- albeit one built from green wood -- the Ironsides carried 4" to 5" forged armor plates in a broadside and battery disposition 170 feet long and 18 feet tall. Her battery sides were designed with significant tumble-home (see section drawing below), presenting an oblique angle to shot and shell, as in the many casement ironclads of the day. At the waterline, she had a bow-to-stern 4.5"/3" belt extending 4 feet below the waterline and 3 above. Since there was no rolling capability for 4" plate in U.S. mills, 2" plates were laminated by drop-hammer forging at the ironworks. Although this method was later proven to make plate only half as effective as one-piece plate rolled in a 4" thickness, this was overlooked in the rush of wartime orders. On installation, the armored strakes were fitted together using a tongue-and-groove joint between the plates. This later was found to create a weakness in the armor belt. Plates were bolted to the wooden hull with recessed-headed bolts that did not go all the way through the 21" thick wooden backing. This method differed from British practice at the time, which used bolts that protruded all the way through the teak backing used in Royal Navy ironclads. There is no evidence that the performance of New Ironsides' armor suffered significantly from the mode of attachment, however.
Taking her monniker from the affectionate nickname for USS Constitution of 1797 ("Old Ironsides"), New Ironsides was built for the navy by Merrick & Sons at Philadelphia. She was part of the U.S. Navy's original trio of ironclads, including also the Monitor and the Galena; the contract with Merrick was inked less than a month after the Ironclad Board delivered its report. Constructed under relentless pressure from the War Dept., the ship was produced in jig time, though with a number of unsolved issues at time of delivery. Merrick had engined a number of U.S. Navy ships from the 1830s onward; in fact New Ironsides' engines were a straight copy of those installed in the steam sloop Wyoming of 1858: Two-cylindered direct-acting engines coupled to a single shaft. The ship never approached her contract speed of 9.5 kts. However, despite a great deal of last-minute shimming and adjusting, she met or exceeded her specs in all other regards. Not having the necessary slipway space, Merricks leased a building slip from W.H Cramp & Sons' yard at Philadelphia and subcontracted the hull fabrication to Cramps -- already on their way to being one of the country's foremost warship builders.
Launched in May 1862 and commissioned the following August, the new "armoured Frigate" carried two 150-pounder Parrott rifles, fourteen 11" Dahlgrens, and two 50-pounders, all mounted in a conventional broadside battery. Patented armored shutters which closed with a scissors-like action protected the gun crews during reloading; these are clearly seen in the picture at top. Originally barque rigged, she presented the appearance of a seaworthy, oceangoing fighting ship in the European manner, as seen in this 1862 lithograph by W.H. Rease of Philadelphia, from the Franklin D. Roosevelt collection. The ship was outfitted with an armored conning tower between the main and mizzen; as designed it provided such limited visibility as to constitute conning the ship blind. After starchy complaints from the ship's commander it was replaced with the sort of cylindrical pillbox used in the double-ender gunboats, which was deemed a significant improvement.
Plans and Specifications
Specifications for the New Ironsides:
Dimensions: 230' (OA) x 57'6" x 15'8" Displacement: 4,100 tons. Armament: (14) 11" Dahlgren smoothbores; (2) 150-pdr Parrott MLR; (2) 50-pdr smoothbores. Armor: Forged wrought-iron type. 4½"/3" waterline belt over entire length; 4½"/4" x 170' x 18' battery protection amidships; 1" deck. Propulsion: 4 coal-fired Martin boilers (+1 auxiliary boiler); 2-cyl. horizontal direct-acting engine developing 700 ihp; single screw. Sail rig: 3-mast barque. Maximum speed: 8 kts. Crew: 449.
Dimensions: 70.1m (OA) x 17.5m x 4.8m Displacement: 4,100 tons. Armament: (14) 280-mm Dahlgren smoothbores; (2) 150-pdr Parrott MLR; (2) 50-pdr smoothbores. Armor: Forged wrought-iron type. 114/76 mm waterline belt over entire length; 114/102 mm x 52m x 5.5m battery protection amidships; 25mm deck. Propulsion: 4 coal-fired Martin boilers (+1 auxiliary boiler); 2-cyl. horizontal direct-acting engine developing 522 kW; single screw. Sail rig: 3-mast barque. Maximum speed: 14.8 km/hr. Crew: 449.
At left, section of the hull amidships shows pronounced tumble-home of sides at the gun deck. At right, diagram shows method of attaching armor plates to the wooden hull. Plates were 15 ft long x 28 inches high (4.57m x 71.1 cm), and 4½" thick, bolted to a wooden frame 20½" - 21" thick.
After she arrived on station and began bombarding the forts of Charleston Harbor and elsewhere on the coast of the Confederacy, New Ironsides was stripped of her vulnerable sail rig and appeared as shown in a modern resin model. It was a tribute to the great logistics available to the Union that she was able to abandon sail -- only ready supply could have ensured a steady stream of coal for the ravenous bunkers of the blockading fleet. With the tall masts removed, the ship's appearance radically altered to become a sort of high-freeboard, seagoing version of the Virginia and other casemate ironclads of the period, with three stump masts rigged with booms to hoist in ammo and suplies. Her engines could propel her reliably at 7 to 8 kts, making her too slow for the offshore blockading fleet, but nevertheless one of the Union's most formidable coastal warships. The New Ironsides proved well able to withstand the rain of shot and shell leveled at her by Confederate gunners, unlike her lighter-built sisters Keokuk and Galena -- unlike even the heavily armored monitors on station. Though she had been far more costly to build, New Ironsides survived all her battles to fight again. This was particularly seen after she was attacked by Confederate torpedo craft in August 1863 and was torpedoed by CSS David at Charleston on the night of October 5, 1863. Though damaged, New Ironsides was patched up in a few days and remained on station for more than 6 months after the incident, ready for action. During this time she participated in further bombardments against Ft. Wagner, on Morris Island south of the Charleston harbor mouth. In May 1864, she retired to Philadelphia for repairs and refit.
Following her overhaul, the New Ironsides came back to bombard Fort Fisher during the campaign to capture Wilmington, N.C., and crush its still-flourishing blockade runner operations. Naval bombardment supported the Union's land campaign which carried the fort on January 15, 1865. Subsequently the ship played defense at Hampton Roads through war's end. Then New Ironsides was decommissioned and laid up at League Island Navy Yard at Philadelphia.
On the night of December 16, 1866 the night watchman at League Island fed an improvised woodstove in the storage hold abaft the New Ironsides' engine room and continued on his routine rounds. Less than an hour later, the yard was alerted by sparks and flames blowing out of the aft end of the ship. A frantic bucket brigade was unequal to the blaze; the wooden ship was crackling and the flames blowing high on the wind by the time a horse-drawn fire engine arrived more than an hour later. To avoid a general conflagration, the great ironclad was towed into the harbor. There she burned down to the waterline, a total loss.
New Ironsides had been a ground-breaking ship for the U.S. Navy in every way, proving that armor plating could be combined with good seakeeping qualities, formidable armament, and powerful engines to create a highly survivable unit. There was to be no attempt to create such a seagoing ironclad again in the U.S. for nearly 30 years.
Wartime Journal of the New Ironsides
One of the tableaux of wonder weapons that were so popular during the Civil War: New Ironsides under full sail and with all gunports open, yet on an even keel, together with the two-turret monitor Monadnock. Enlarge
The New Ironsides at Philadelphia after her refit, 1864.
The New Ironsides and two monitors ("Ericsson Batteries") bombarding the forts at Charleston, S.C., as they did three times in 1863-1864. Enlarge
The torpedo boat CSS David rides stealthily in to attack the blockader New Ironsides. The exploit took place off Charleston on the night of October 5, 1863. David was commanded by Lt. William T. Glassell, CSN.
"The torpedo boat approached undetected. Her spar torpedo detonated under the starboard quarter of the ironclad, throwing a high column of water which rained back upon the Confederate vessel and put out her boiler fires. With her engine dead, David hung under the starboard quarter of the New Ironsides while small arms fire from the Federal ship spattered the water around the torpedo boat. Believing that their vessel was sinking, Glassell and two others abandoned her; the pilot, Walker Cannon, who could not swim, remained on board. A short time later, Assistant Engineer J. H. Tomb swam back to the craft and climbed on board. Reigniting the fires, Tomb succeeded in getting Davidís engine working again, and the torpedo boat steamed up the channel to safety. New Ironsides, though not sunk, was seriously damaged by the explosion."
These two charming illustrations and the account quoted were made for Harper's Weekly, A Journal of Civilization.
Following a withering naval bombardment, the infantry goes in, scaling the parapets of Fort Fisher, which protected the blockade-runner port of Wilmington, N.C. on the Cape Fear River. The assault picured carried the fort on Jan. 15, 1865. In this eyewitness watercolor by Lt. John W. Grattan, the New Ironsides is positioned at lower right, directly above the artist's signature.
An interesting juxtaposition of the types of ships that won the Civil War for the North is seen in this oil painting by Xanthus Smith, possibly inspired by the photo of the Fort Fisher expedition weighing anchor from Hampton Roads in Dec. 1864. At right, a wooden prewar steam frigate, the USS Wabash of 3,500 tons, armed with 32-pdr smoothbores on broadside and two pivot-mounted Parrott rifles on the spar deck; at center, the monitor Patapsco, one of the first built in the "monitor fever" after the Hampton Roads engagement; and at left, the New Ironsides, evidently just arrived on the blockade with her sail rig intact. It was the combination of the New Ironsides' seaworthiness and robust protection, with the mechanically aimed heavy guns and broad arcs of the monitor, which would render the wooden sailing frigate obsolete once and for all. This did not prevent the U.S. Navy from building little-modified evolutions of the Wabash for 20 years after the Civil War ended, meanwhile selling off or scrapping most of its advanced armored ships.