The CSS Louisiana was constructed by the Confederate States of America as a deterrent to Union naval forces attempting to control the lower Mississippi River during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Control of the waters in and around America was understood by both sides as a key element of victory, particularly in sustaining the fighting on land. As the Mississippi proved of vital strategic importance to both sides, various attempts at controlling its many waterway routes were made though victory ultimately fell to Union forces with the capture of New Orleans from the Confederacy.
E.C. Murray headed construction of the new vessel which saw her keel laid down in October of 1861 at a shipyard located just north of New Orleans proper. However, the South lacked much of the industrial infrastructure enjoyed by the North and, furthermore, natural resources were themselves lacking which forced builders to use unseasoned timber in the construction of the Louisiana (ultimately leading to consistent flooding problems during her short tenure). All this was worsened by the Union naval blockade which made obtaining many war-making materials near-impossible for Confederate forces. Adding insult to injury, construction of the CSS Louisiana was delayed in additional ways including labor strike and a general lack of skilled workers (workers already being committed to the nearby CSS Mississippi). The Louisiana was finally completed in early 1862 and launched into water on February 6th. She was formally - though hastily - commissioned on April 20th, 1862.
As completed, the CSS Louisiana was of a typical armored ironclad design with a unique angled superstructure profile housing a pair of steam engines driving two screw paddlewheels. The paddlewheels were fitted as an inline arrangement at the center of the design intended to help control steering through the twin rudders at the stern. A casemate superstructure, with angled sides and a flat roof, was set at the center of the design and primary armament included 2 x 7-inch (178mm) Brooke rifled cannons. This was complemented by 4 x 8-inch (203mm) Dahlgren smoothbore cannons, 3 x 9-inch (228mm) and 7 x 32-pdr cannons - all told, a very well-armed vessel capable of delivering severe damage to the wooden tall ships of the Union Navy. The guns were spread about the design, facing out of portholes at port, starboard, bow and stern through hatches. The smoke stack utilized to exhaust the engines was ahead of the front-most paddlewheel with an access hatch added just ahead of the smoke stack. The bow was of a traditional pointed design which could be used to ram unsuspecting enemy vessels or break through water-born obstacles as needed.
Despite its imposing power, there proved key limitations in the design of the Louisiana. As an ironclad vessel, she was inherently very heavy and her engines were underpowered from the start. Vision out of the gunnery portholes was extremely limited (as was traverse and elevation) and firing from a moving vessel presented all sorts of natural challenges - particularly with an untrained crew. The arrangement of the paddlewheels was also rather poor, the second set in the wash of the first and thusly retarding its overall potential in terms of output. Additionally, this configuration made steering exceptionally difficult. Working conditions - particularly in the heat of the south - were simply abysmal, the crew exposed to fumes and stale, humid air. The use of unseasoned timber meant that the gun deck was always knee-deep in water as leaking became an apparent and consistent issue.
The CSS Louisiana was pressed into action - though largely incomplete, lacking full armor, a full crew complement and engine propellers - during April 1862 to assist allied defenders stationed at Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip (Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana). The forts stood as vitally important to the rebel cause for they protected the reaches leading up to New Orleans proper and provided a much needed strategic buffer in the area. With her construction still ongoing, Louisiana proceeded without power under the help of tow lines and accompanying boats. Rather than risk her in an open position against Union artillery, Confederate authorities docked her along the north side of the Mississippi away from the forts much to the dismay of the defender commanders. The personnel aboard the CSS Louisiana were expected to fight under the stresses of war amongst the equipment and shipyard workers still aboard their vessel all the while lacking proper training. As such, gunners from the nearby forts were substituted prior to the action. The Louisiana would be utilized as a fixed floating artillery battery.
The Union bombardment by mortar fire was intense though unresolved, prompting Union forces to simply bypass the forts altogether. The CSS Louisiana kept up a steady bombardment of Union ships that approached, damaging the USS Brooklyn (then thought to be the USS Hatford). Return fire by Union Navy vessels simply ricocheted off of the heavy armor of the Louisiana though the vessel did lose her captain and two crew in the fighting (victims of exposed positions during the attack). The Louisiana continued to fire her starboard and bow guns as often as possible as the Union forces made their way past the forts and ultimately out of range. New Orleans was now officially under direct threat.
Unable to move effectively under her own power against the currents of the Mississippi, the Louisiana held little value now other than in direct defense of the forts. Under a mutiny originating within Fort Jackson, both forts were eventually handed over to Union authorities without the input nor approval of the commanding officer of the CSS Louisiana. Destined to not let the vessel fall into enemy hands, the crew of the commander ordered the CSS Louisiana set ablaze and made their escape on shore. The fire cut through the lines holding her to the river banks and the vessel drifted downriver, still ablaze and heading for Fort St. Philip. It was at this moment that the fire lit her magazine stores which delivered a powerful explosion, sending casemate armor all about. One occupant of Fort St. Philip was reportedly killed in the blast. The Battles of Forts Jackson and St. Philip, spanning April 18th to the 28th, went down as a Union Victory. Key to the victory was the simple bypassing of the Confederate fortifications to which the forts - and the CSS Louisiana - were marginalized in any future fighting. New Orleans eventually fell to Union forces which was both a strategic and psychological blow to the Confederacy, prompting the aforementioned mutiny at Fort Jackson and ultimate surrender.
Thus ended the operational tenure of the CSS Louisiana.
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