A. Robert Holcombe, Jr.


(Under the direction of Professor William N. Still, Jr.) Department of History, April 1993.

This thesis is an attempt to understand the construction and design evolution of the Confederate warship. It is based principally on little known original builder's plans, specifications, and half-models, and to a lesser extent on scarce contemporary and near-contemporary manuscript sources. Discoveries made in the relatively new field of underwater archaeology have also contributed significantly to this study.

That the Confederate navy adopted the armor-plated warship in an innovative effort to counter the numerical advantage of its naval foe is a well-established fact. Despite considerable difficulties, over fifty such vessels were placed under construction; of these, approximately two dozen were completed and commissioned into service. Influenced by a poorly defined offensive mission, those ironclads commenced in 1861 lacked both standardization in design and suitability for operations in Southern waters. In 1862 a more realistic defensive strategy was adopted. This policy shift led to the development of two fundamental ironclad designs based on hull form, both of which were better suited to the navy's needs than the earlier models. As the war progressed these two standardized types went through an evolutionary process whereby improvements were made based on operational and combat usage, material shortages, and improved manufacturing facilities. As a result, those ironclads placed under construction in the latter part of the war were far better fighting machines than those built previously.

While several scholarly studies of the origins of the Confederacy's ironclad program and the operations and battles of the ships have been made, little has been written concerning their design and construction. This is not surprising, for with the exception of the several other of the better-known ironclads, very few technical accounts of the planning and building of these vessels were left by those involved. The difficulty in researching the subject is further compounded by the apparent destruction of the chief naval constructor's papers and models in the 1865 evacuation of Richmond and similar occurrences at building sites throughout the South at the end of the war. Those few modern studies that have attempted to deal with ironclad design have been based primarily on incomplete, secondary sources and thus cannot be considered definitive.

Fortunately, a considerable number of original builder's drafts and several original builder's models survive at institutions scattered around the country. Although virtually ignored by most naval historians, these plans and models, when combined with other information allow a far more thorough analysis of Confederate ironclad design than has ever before been possible. Moreover, this information permits the development of a more accurate classification system based on hull configuration and other criteria.