CSS Tennessee (USS Tennessee)
Ironclad Ram Warship
CSS Tennessee, commissioned during August of 1864, fell to the Union Navy during the Battle of Mobile Bay and was reborn as USS Tennessee to finish out the war.
Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited:
During the American Civil War (1861-1865), the Confederate ironclad CSS Tennessee became the most expensive warship to be completed by the South while also having the longest build period of any vessel in the arsenal. It served as an ironclad ram for the South but, like other ships fighting for the Confederate cause, fell to capture by the Union Navy and was reconstituted as USS Tennessee before the end of the war. She was not preserved and eventually sold for scrapping in the period immediately following the conflict.
CSS Tennessee was a purpose-built ironclad and not a modification of an existing ship. She was laid down in Selma, Alabama in October of 1862 by builder Henry D. Bassett and named after the state of Tennessee. The warship was launched in February of 1863 and formally commissioned for service into the Confederate Navy on February 16th, 1864 following her outfitting period. Her crew complement numbered 133 total crew made up of officers and enlisted personnel.
CSS Tennessee carried 2 x 7" Brooke rifled guns as well as 4 x 6.4" Brooke rifled guns. In addition to her conventional projectile weaponry, she was outfitted with a bow-mounted ram. Her armor constituted up to 6" of protection at the casemate and 2" at the deck. 5" of protection were had along the sides. Well-armed and armored, she presented a strong foe.
The vessel displaced 1,300 tons and held a length of 209 feet, a beam of 48 feet and a draught of 14 feet. Power was supplied from 4 x boiler units feeding 2 x steam engines driving 2 x shafts to speeds of 5 knots.
The power of CSS Tennessee was well-recognized by Union war planners and commanders to the point that the assault on Mobile was to have increased numbers of available monitors at-the-ready. Union Admiral David Farragut led the charge on Mobile Bay and ran past the Confederate-held forts Morgan and Gaines to reach the bay and the waiting CSS Tennessee. However, as powerful a ship as Tennessee was, she showcased some inherent deficiencies in her design - primarily her engine fit which was taken from a steam riverboat steamer. The drive power, coupled with the weight added through armor and armament, made the Tennessee slow and cumbersome to maneuver in the water.
Her guns did well against the approaching Federal warships but the vessel and her crew soon found itself surrounded. Her steering had been knocked out by Union guns and enemy warships were free to engage with projectiles or ram her into submission. Her captain now wounded (Admiral Buchanan), his replacement (Commander James Johnson) finally ordered the surrender before a death knell was delivered to the ship - certainly sparring the lives of the crew (two had already been killed and a further nine now lay wounded - including its captain).
The ironclad was captured by Union forces intact, repaired and placed back into service - retaining her name as USS Tennessee. Now in service to the North, USS Tennessee continued its fight and participated in the attack on Fort Morgan on August 23rd, 1864 which led to its capture soon after. She was, again, repaired, this time at New Orleans and joined up with the Mississippi Squadron operating up and down the Mississippi River. She held this station until the end of the war in April of 1865 before being laid up at New Orleans. From there she was sold on November 27th, 1867 to be scrapped - some of her guns saved and currently showcased at the Washington Navy Yard.