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USS Roanoke (1857)

Steam-Powered Sailing Frigate / Converted Ironclad Warship

The USS Roanoke began life as a wood-hulled, Merrimack-class sailing frigate of 1857 before her 1863 conversion to an ironclad during the American Civil War.
Authored By: Staff Writer | Edited: 9/19/2018
National Flag Graphic


Year: 1857
Status: Decommissioned, Out-of-Service
Ships-in-Class: 1
Named Ships: USS Merrimack; USS Roanoke
Roles: Blue Water Operations; Fleet Support; Hunter; Direct-Attack;
Complement: 347
Length: 263.7 ft (80.38 m)
Width: 51 ft (15.54 m)
Height: 23.8 ft (7.25 m)
Displacement (Surface): 6,400 tons
Propulsion: 4 x Martin boilers with 1 x Trunk steam engine driving 1 x shaft at 996 horsepower; 1 x Auxiliary boiler for systems power.
Speed (Surface): 8.5 kts (10 mph)
Operators: United States
USS Roanoke began life as a steam-powered frigate with a three-masted profile and ended her days as a fighting ironclad, seeing action during the whole of the American Civil War (1861-1865). She was laid down in May of 1854 by the Norfolk Navy Yard and launched on December 13th, 1855 while formally commissioned on May 4th, 1857. She held a short service life prior to the war where her most notable action during the period was bringing the former President of Nicaragua William Walker and his entourage back stateside from his failed filibuster (an unauthorized military expedition).

As built, USS Roanoke displaced 4,545 tons and held a length of 263.7 feet with a beam measuring 51 feet and a draught down to 23.8 feet. Power included 4 x Martin boilers feeding 1 x Trunk steam engine developing 996 horsepower to 1 x shaft astern. She could make headway at 8.8 knots, held a crew of 674 personnel and was armed through 1 x 10" Dahlgren smoothbore main gun, 28 x 9" Dahlgren smoothbore secondary guns and 14 x 8" Dahlgren smoothbore tertiary guns.

In 1860, the vessel was in Hampton Roads and decommissioned from active service. With the onset of war following the following year, the frigate was brought back online on June 20th, 1861 and formed part of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron charged with denying ports to the Confederacy (and therefore limiting its trading opportunities with European allies). She set up station on July 12th and, on July 13th, 1861, she claimed the enemy schooner "Mary" at Lockwood Folly Inlet in North Carolina waters. In October, she participated in the capture of enemy ships "Albion", "Alert" and "Thomas" off the coast of South Carolina.

Her next actions were recorded at the Battle of Hampton Roads where the famous (and feared) CSS Virginia ironclad was operating (CSS Virginia was built atop the remains of Roanoke's sister ship, USS Merrimack). However, Roanoke's rather deep draught restricted her to the nearby open waters and her guns were outranged as a result. From there, she was relocated to New York where she saw decommissioning again and it was during this lull in her fighting career that the Union Navy modified the vessel into an ironclad. Her original upper structure was cut down to the gun deck and rebuilt during work spanning March of 1862 until June of 1863.

The resulting design did away with her three-masted sail approach and three large turrets (four were originally planned but weight limits restricted this) were fitted to her revised superstructure. Her hull lines remained largely intact. A single smoke funnel protruded from her deck near midships. Armor at her waterline was up to 4.5" thick and her decks were protected in 1.5" of armor plate. The turrets offered 11" of armor and the pilothouses had 9".

In her new body, Roanoke now displaced 6,400 tons and held a beam of 53.3 feet. She could make headway at 8.5 knots (under ideal conditions) but the added weight of her new armor, weapons and related components made for a heavy ship and, in turn, showcased poor sea keeping while drawing on too much water over her decks - deficiencies that would restrict her combat career going forward.

Armament was revised to include 2 x 15" Dahlgren smoothbore guns, 2 x 150-pounder Parrott rifled guns and 2 x 11" Dahlgren smoothbore guns.

Following this conversion work, USS Roanoke was recommissioned into service on June 29th, 1863 (now as a monitor) and placed back on station in the blockade role at Hampton Roads. It was about this time that the vessel was discovered to be unfit for deep water traveling, particularly in rough weather. Such a limitation restricted Roanoke's reach during the final years of the conflict but the Union Navy eventually made up for this shortfall through commissioning of other more capable shallow draught vessels. Nevertheless, Roanoke enjoyed a wartime career that spanned the whole of the conflict and her guns proved enough of a deterrent should any enemy elements break free of their river routes and attempt to head to open sea.

With the fighting drawing down in 1865, Roanoke was sent back to New York waters and arrived there on April 27th, 1865 where she was decommissioned in June and set in reserve status. She saw only light work during this time and was recommissioned (once more) on January 13th, 1874 before being placed in reserve on June 12th, 1875. On August 5th, 1882, she was officially struck from the Naval Register and her stripped hulk was sold for scrapping on September 27th, 1883 bringing about her official end.


As Built:
1 x 10" (254mm) Dahlgren smoothbore main gun.
28 x 9" (229mm) Dahlgren smoothbore secondary guns.
14 x 8" (203mm) Dahlgren smoothbore tertiary guns.

Post-Ironclad Converson (1863):
2 x 15" (381mm) Dahlgren guns
2 x 150-pounder Parrott rifled guns
2 x 11" (279mm) Dahlgren guns

Air Wing

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