The CSS Mississippi led one of the shortest operational lives of any vessel during the American Civil War.
Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited:
The Confederate South had adopted a plan to destroy the numerically superior Federal Navy fleet (Union North) with a smaller, properly armed and armored, fleet of ironclad vessels. New Orleans was an important base of operations for the South and strategically positioned near the mouth of the Mississippi River, proving a natural target for the North. In September of 1861, Confederate Secretary of the Navy, Stephen Mallory, ordered the construction of two powerful ironclads to be built in the port of New Orleans - the CSS Louisiana and the CSS Mississippi. They were to be charged with the ultimate defense of New Orleans and ensure control of the Mississippi. Both would be built side-dy-side to ease construction with latter under the direction of the Tift Brothers - Nelson and Asa. The brothers lacked the shipbuilding experience required but had gained the proper political connections within government to ensure the contract nonetheless. Such was the importance of the CSS Louisiana and CSS Mississippi that the vessels were dubbed "monsters" by the North and considered the "Terror of the Seas" by the South.
The Tifts presented Mallory with their plan to construct a new ironclad of 1,400 ton displacement armed with 18 guns and powered by three engines through two boilers. Overall dimensions included a 260 foot length, 58 foot beam and 15 foot draught which was to help the vessel navigate the relative deep water along the American coast and the more shallow waterways of rivers. Her upper portions would be clad in armor plating with an angled superstructure fixed over amidships A shallow pilot house was fitted forward and two smoke stacks (required of the twin boiler arrangement) were held aft. Armor protection would include 2 feet of thickness at the sides of the hull and up to 3 feet of protection at the bow. Eighteen guns would be added and fired through covered hatches along the sides, at the bow and the stern. The twin-boiler configuration would drive a unique three-screw propeller arrangement held under the stern with the Tift Brothers proclaiming a maximum sea-faring speed of 14 knots in ideal conditions. As the South lacked the proper industrial base that the North enjoyed, the Tift Brothers sold their ironclad idea on the prospect of constructing it using basic home-building practices that would not require the use of expensive shipyards or specialist shipbuilders to complete. Interestingly, the project moved ahead with no contract limit and no true delivery date for Mallory and the Tifts enjoyed a certain relationship that began before the Civil War.
With the design approved, construction of the new vessel began on October 14th, 1861. The Tifts soon recognized that their craft would require a wider beam to seat both of the intended boiler systems and thusly the vessel was widened by some twenty feet in response. The added space also led to the adoption of two more guns for a total of twenty - four of these to become 7" (178mm) types with appropriate firing arcs at the bow and stern. Delays became commonplace, both in the changing design, the lack of proper shipbuilding facilities and access to the resources required. Additionally, local bureaucratic interference and labor issues added to the CSS Mississippi's slow building phase. The Tift brothers had originally convinced Mallory that they could deliver their three-screw ironclad as early as December 15th though the reality was that the vessel, in its unfinished form, was taken over by the Confederate navy personnel on April 20th, 1862. At this time, the vessel lacked the required engines, armor protection and armament essentially making her a rather useless "hulk".
The situation at New Orleans was growing perilous with the under-construction ship in peril from approaching Union naval forces. Union Admiral David Farragut has emerged from the Gulf of Mexico and began the journey up the Mississippi River with New Orleans as the intended target. The threat to Memphis upriver by the Union Western Gun Flotilla forced the CSS Louisiana to be committed to its defense, intending the CSS Mississippi to follow suit when ready. However, Confederate Captain William Whittle, assigned to New Orleans by Mallory and arriving in March, was given orders to relocate the CSS Mississippi upriver to complete her construction. He then passed the order to Commander Arthur Sinclair of the CSS Mississippi who attempted to have the vessel towed by two steamers. When this endeavor failed, Sinclair gave the order to set the vessel alight left she fall into enemy hands - the enemy now within sight of New Orleans proper. The CSS Mississippi was then passed by advancing Union naval forces, bringing about her rather short-lived naval career in the American Civil War. New Orleans fell to Admiral Farragut on April 25th, 1862.