Engines of Rebellion Cover

Engines of Rebellion

Confederate Ironclads and Steam Engineering in the American Civil War

Saxon T. Bisbee

University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 2018, 280 pages

Book Review published on: September 14, 2018

A Confederate States ship, christened the CSS Virginia, steamed into Hampton Roads on 8 March 1862. Clad in iron plating, the vessel destroyed two U.S. Navy wooden ships and forced a third to run aground. Formerly a U.S. Navy frigate, the ship was captured by Confederate forces and rebuilt with an armored casemate. Impervious to the U.S. Navy ships’ cannons, the crew of the Confederate vessel pummeled them with theirs. Called an “ironclad,” the CSS Virginia confirmed naval service’s fears that unarmored wooden warships were at the end of their service in naval warfare. The ship’s first day of action was impressive; just as impressive was the Confederate States navy’s ability to field such a war machine. The Confederacy would go on to build approximately fifty ironclads, with half seeing combat. Saxon T. Bisbee, a vessel manager and nautical archaeologist at the Northwest Seaport Maritime Heritage Center in Seattle, presents a thorough study of the Confederate navy’s construction and operation of steam ironclads during the American Civil War in Engines of Rebellion.

Bisbee presents a thorough account of how the Confederate States managed to field steam-powered ironclad ships with an industrial base that paled in comparison to that of the northern states. The man behind this feat was Stephen Russell Mallory, a former Florida senator, was nominated by President Jefferson Davis to serve as the secretary of the Confederate navy. The author credits Mallory with having the foresight to recognize the potential of armored warships and including them as part of his strategy to build a Confederate fleet that would contend with the U.S. Navy. Boat builder E. C. Murray, ordinance expert Lt. John M. Brooke, and naval constructor John L. Porter were key players in carrying out Mallory’s plans for the ironclad program.

Initial efforts focused on converting existing maritime craft to field ironclads as soon possible. The CSS Virginia was based on Porter’s concept for an armored warship, built on the surviving hull of the USS Merrimack that was scuttled by Union forces withdrawing from the shipyards at Norfolk, Virginia. Constructed as rapidly as possible with limited resources, the CSS Virginia performed well on its first day of combat and held its own when it encountered the USS Monitor ironclad the following day, resulting in the famous Battle of Hampton Roads. While the USS Monitor received recognition for John Ericcson’s innovative engineering, the CSS Virginia validated Porter’s concept for a viable armored warship. During the course of the war, many of the Confederate navy’s ironclads constructed and operated were Porter’s designs.

People interested in maritime history and the American Civil War will find a wealth of information and analysis in Bisbee’s book. He describes steam engine technology during the period and addresses several boat hull designs used in the construction of the Confederate ironclads. Bisbee walks through the beginnings of the ironclad program with conversions of existing ships and initial “non-standard designs.” Afterward, he addresses the Richmond-class ships, which were the Confederacy’s first standardized platforms. Bisbee moves on to the Tennessee-class ships that incorporated improvements based on lessons learned from construction and operations of the previous class. The latter chapters are fascinating, focusing on the “diamond-hull” ironclads that operated along the shallow rivers and sounds of North Carolina and uncompleted ships such as the CSS Wilmington that appeared capable of breaking Union naval blockades.

The author also includes nice illustrations to help readers visualize steam engine and hull designs, and general configurations of the various ironclads addressed in the book. Somewhat disappointing is that Bisbee did not include his own excellent artwork of Confederate ironclads, which can be found at several online art stores.

Overall this is an excellent book about the Confederate navy’s ironclads. Bisbee provides a concise but thorough account of the engineers and constructionists who built these vessels, as well as the sailors who employed them in combat. Maritime and American Civil War history enthusiasts will find this book exceptionally interesting.

Book Review written by: Dirk C. Blackdeer, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas