CSS Albemarle Ironclad Ram
The unsinkable CSS Albemarle was eventually done in on October 27th, 1864.
Authored By JR Potts, AUS 173d AB; Content ©www.MilitaryFactory.com
The Ironclad Ram CSS Albemarle was surely not the first nor the biggest ironclad of her time. Nor did she carry the most cannon in her class nor manned by the largest crew. However her wartime record places her in contention to be the most successful ironclad of the American Civil War. CSS Albemarle was commissioned on April 17th, 1864 and named after a town or sound in North Carolina or perhaps a county in Virginia. The Albemarle was built to be a ram, this being her foremost weapon. Her underlying structure consisted of oak timbers covered over in iron plates. The iron ram protruded from her bow and was shaped like the head of an ax. Simply put, she was designed to smash through the sides of wooden ships, the damage hopefully sinking the enemy vessel. The Confederacy was high on the previous successes of their CSS Virginia ironclad.
In 1863, with the war reducing available resources for the south, finding iron proved difficult. For the war effort, iron pots and farm tools were donated and collected from loyal southerners around the Elizabeth City, North Carolina area. Some locals were not inclined to donate so theft of iron was the work around and, at times, the iron was taken at gunpoint to support the war effort. The prime area for iron was railroad yards where iron rails were rolled into plates 2 inches thick and 7 inches wide. Peter Evans Smith owned the plantation where the ironclad craft was constructed in a small shipyard built in a cornfield up the Roanoke River near Edward's Ferry.
The contract to build the craft was given to 19-year old Gilbert Elliot of Elizabeth City, North Carolina, a Southern Lieutenant. Strategically, the water levels of the upper Roanoke River proved too shallow to permit the approach of Union gunboats that otherwise would have been sent to destroy the Albemarle while she still lay under construction. Elliot completed the necessary base drawings of the new warship and these were then sent to the Confederate Navy Chief, John Porter, who furthered the design with the addition of a battering ram and an armored, sloped casemate. The casemate was nothing more than an armored bunker for the crew and propulsion systems as well as armament. Porter elected for a pair of 6.4" (160mm) Brooke rifled cannons to be the secondary armament following the ram. As such, these systems were delivered to Elliot, along with an engineer, to properly install the weapons within the casement - one to be fitted forward and the other aft. There would be three fixed gun ports and both cannons would be protected from all sides by movable shutters. Propulsion was accomplished by way of 2 x three-bladed screw propellers, each powered by two steam engines, rated at 200 horsepower (150 kW). These engines were built by Elliot himself and managed a top speed of 5 knots in ideal conditions. The new vessel was also completed with a kitchen, mess hall and crew quarters while officers were even given small rooms. Total crew complement was 150 personnel. A "battle bridge" was set near one of the cannons and the all-important boiler room was located in the aft section along with the necessary coal bins.
The oak needed for the vessel's construction was taken from the local forests and work proved difficult when attaching the required iron plates to the oak frame. The plates needed to be drilled so iron bolts could attach the plates to the oak spars. This, of course, was a time consuming task using the bow drilling process of the day, taking about 20 minutes per plate. Peter E. Smith, also a blacksmith and observing the building process, saw the need for a more efficient drill and invented a "twist" drill bit system that resembled the modern bits and hand drill we use today. This new tool now allowed the drilling process to be reduced to 4 minutes per iron plate. The Albemarle was completed in approximately 12 months. Her length was 158 feet from bow to stern with a beam measuring 35 feet, 3 inches and a draught of 9 feet. The iron casemate was 60 feet long and was covered in two layers of 2-inch iron plating. The slope of the casemate was built on a 35 degree angle to deflect enemy rifle and cannon shot.
At this time during the war, the goal of the North was to strangle the South with a Federal naval blockade of Confederate ports thus denying the South any aid from her allies in Europe. Being a strategic port, Plymouth became a focal point for both the Union and the Confederacy. The port provided for relatively easy access to the vital Wilmington & Weldon Railroad, a rail link from Wilmington, North Carolina to Richmond, Virginia - a lifeline of sorts for the Confederacy. This rail system was required to keep supplies running to General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Except for Wilmington, the Union blockade of major Southern ports was successful. Fort Fischer, called the "Confederate Goliath", guarded access to the port of Wilmington.
A major problem lay in Plymouth which had been occupied by the Union Army and Navy since 1862. A number of failed operations to reach the railroad bridge at Weldon by Union forces were made. These attacks were ultimately repelled by the Confederates at Fort Branch located on the Rainbow Bluffs above Williamston on the Roanoke River. In 1864 General Robert E. Lee sent Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke to rid the coast of North Carolina from the Union occupation. Hoke had 13,000 troops under his command and would attack Plymouth on April 17th, 1864. Plymouth was defended by 3,000 Union troops under the command of Brigadier General Henry Wessells. The Union Army was supported by the Navy under the command of Captain Charles Flusser with a pair of gunboats - the USS Miami and the USS Southfield - as well as the USS Whitehead, the USS Massasoit and the USS Ceresa.
In mid April 1864 the now-commissioned CSS Albemarle steamed down the Roanoke River toward Plymouth, North Carolina with Captain James W. Cooke at the helm. Her mission was rather simple - to eliminate the Union presence from the river. Without naval support, General Robert F. Hoke's troops would be called upon to take the Union positions on land. Prior heavy rains ensuring a deep water depth and allowed the Albemarle to seamlessly pass over the installed Union obstacles.
Hearing the news of the Confederate ironclad coming downstream, the Union Navy joined the USS Miami and USS Southfield by chains and sent them upriver towards the Albemarle in an attempt to ensnare the vessel between them and open fire at point-blank range. However, Cooke saw the vessels steaming towards his position and deciphered the Union plan. In response, he ordered his vessel hard to starboard, positioning the Albemarle outside of the snare and alongside the passing USS Southfield.Cooke then ordered hard to port which forced the Albemarle to bank sharply, ramming the Union vessel in the process. The force of the blow sent the USS Southfield underwater, leaving the Albemarle's ram impaled in the Southfield's hull. This pulled the Albemarle bow under the river but it was the USS Southfield that sank. The movements of the Southfield eventually allowed release of the embedded Albermarle ram. The awaiting USS Miami countered by firing a volley against the Albemarle at short range but the Albemarle's armor and design held firm. In fact, the Miami shot ricocheted off of the Albermarle's structure and rebounded back into the Miami, causing considerable damage and killing her captain. Once command of the vessel was passed, USS Miami's first officer ordered a boarding which was dutifully repelled by Confederate muskets. Without much option, the USS Miami pulled from the battle and made steam towards safety at Albemarle Sound.