Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.
– Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday July 30th, 150th Anniversary of the Great Tennessee
Battle of Mobile Bay by Louis Prang. CSS Tennessee at left
Here we see the great steam-powered casemate ironclad warship, CSS Tennessee, pride of the Confederate Navy sailing out to meet the Union fleet. Never fully operational, she met her fate and proved her metal 150 years ago this week at the Battle of Mobile Bay. Designed by John L. Dixon, she was the largest Confederate ironclad completed during the war.
Her 209-foot long hull constructed at the heart of the Confederate steel industry in Selma, Alabama, in 1862, she was shipped incomplete down the Mobile River system to Mobile herself for completion. One of the last southern ports, Mobile was vital to the South’s continued resistance in the last stages of the war. There, in the shallow mud flats, she was neared to completion under the direction of Joseph Pierce, Acting Naval Constructor in the area. She was fitted with some 5-6 inches of heavy steel armor plate, three sheets thick, made in Shelby, Alabama. She was equipped with a pair of hard-hitting 7-inch double banded Brooke guns and another four, slightly smaller, 6.4-inch guns, making her perhaps one of the most formidable vessels afloat in the hemisphere if not the world at the time.
The problem was she had a slow and inefficient steam plant salvaged from the old steamer Alonzo Child. With this plant operating at maximum capacity, it could push the 1200-ton battleship to just 5-knots if lucky. This made her ram bow almost a joke of a weapon as most ships could evade the slowly moving but heavily armored ironclad.
Watercolor by F. Muller, circa 1900. Courtesy of the U.S. Navy Art Collection, Washington, D.C.
Made the flagship of Confederate Admiral Buchanan, who had helmed the earlier CSS Manassass to her fitful clash with the USS Monitor just two years before, the nearly finished met the might of the Union Navy at the mouth of Mobile Bay on August 5, 1864. There, U.S. Rear Admiral David G. Farragut was leading an armada of eighteen ships, including four new monitors, past the two forts barring the entrance to the last sovereign Confederate watershed.
All Buchanan had at his disposal was the Tennessee and three sad little wooden gunboats armed with popguns. This placed the ironclad at the heart of the southern fleet’s answer to the invaders. Steaming into the fray, the ship closed with Farragut’s classic naval frigates Hartford and Brooklyn and exchanged cannon fire with these wooden ships at point-blank distance. This continued until the new USS Chickasaw, a Milwaukee-class river monitor, closed with the larger beast and raked her with fire, keeping her at bay. Over the course of the next several moments the fleet pounded Tennessee, taking away her steering chains and holing her in several places.
Tennessee broadside-to-broadside with the Oneida; monitor Chickasaw coming in on the Confederate from point-blank range at left, Winnebago in background; bowsprit-less gunboat USS Pequot at right rear. Painting by Tom Freeman
With no other alternative, and fighting a losing battle with a predetermined outcome, Tennessee surrendered.
Capture of Ram Tennessee Mobile Bay by Alfred R. Waud
Within days the Yankees had repaired the ship and placed it under the star-spangled banner as the USS Tennessee, using her, in the ultimate irony, against the Confederates at Fort Morgan. Following victory there she was sent to New Orleans for more extensive repairs and kept in service with the U.S. Navy’s Mississippi Squadron. In 1867 the ship was scrapped.
Port quarter view, probably taken off New Orleans, Louisiana, circa 1865. She was formerly CSS Tennessee (1864-1864).U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.
Her guns are on display around the country including several of her Brookes at the Washington Navy Yard, Washington, D.C, another at Norfolk, and one at Selma, where it was cast.
If you are free and around Mobile this weekend, there is the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Mobile Bay. Centered around Fort Morgan, they will have a mock-up of the Tennessee. You should check it out if in the area.
Displacement: 1,273 long tons (1,293 t)
Length: 209 ft (63.7 m)
Beam: 48 ft (14.6 m)
Draft: 14 ft (4.3 m)
Installed power: 4 boilers
Propulsion: 2 Shafts, 2 Steam engines
Speed: 5 knots (9.3 km/h; 5.8 mph)
Complement: 133 officers and enlisted men
Armament: 2 × 7 in (178 mm) Double-banded Brooke rifles
4 × 6.4 in (163 mm) Double-banded Brooke rifles
Casemate: 5–6 in (127–152 mm)
Deck: 2 in (51 mm)
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