When war between the states broke out on April 12, 1861, many understood the value that a strong navy would play in the years-long conflict to come. For the North, blockading the critical waterways and vital ports of the enemy was key to a complete victory. For the South, freedom to use these very waterways spelled the difference between victory and defeat - regardless of the progress being met on land. As such, both sides hurriedly pressed various programs and projects with the intent of bringing their respective naval forces up to speed. This often times meant reconstituting existing vessels for military service or paying foreign European parties to construct all new hulls (and this usually in secret to retain "neutrality").
USS Lafayette of the United States Navy (USN) was an ironclad of the North, originally built in 1848 as the side-wheel steamer "Aleck Scott". Lafayette formed a collection of vessels purchased by the U.S. government for military service, being bought on May 18th, 1862 and originally named USS Fort Henry. Upon her conversion to an ironclad ram (this work taking place in St. Louis), she took on the name of USS Lafayette on September 8th, 1862. Initially, Lafayette was crewed by Navy men though served under the banner of the United States Army. She was officially transferred to USN service on October 1st, 1862. Her formal commissioning occurred on February 27th, 1863 at Cairo, Illinois
As completed, Lafayette displaced 1, 212 tons (short) and held a length of 280 feet, a beam of 45 feet, and a draught of 8 feet. Like other ironclads of the war, she was outfitted with steam-driven machinery which did not limit the vessel to wind or water currents - though it did place a reliance on coal. As her original form was taken from a side-wheel steamer, Lafayette was propelled through this same twin wheel arrangement, the paddlewheels being set to eight side of the aft hull section. Maximum speed in ideal conditions was just 4 knots. Two smoke funnels were set just ahead of midships with the wheelhouse just aft of midships. Lafayette was also given a wholly armored casemate which extended from her bow to over the paddlewheels at rear. Her superstructure featured the angled iron faces consistent with ironclads of the period. Service boats were held along the sides and at the rear of the craft.
On the whole, the design profile of Lafayette utilized many traditional ironclad features. Since their primary battlefield would be American rivers, a shallow draught was a requirement lest the vessel run aground on soft river mud. Angled facings provided an inherent ballistics protection to the crew and ship. However, speed were slow and turning radius a hindrance for such vessels in the war.
Armament-wise, the ironclad was outfitted with 2 x 11" (280mm) Dahlgren smoothbore cannons backed by 4 x 9" (230mm) Dahlgren smoothbore cannons. An additional 2 x 100-pounder Parrott rifled guns were also carried. The twin 11" guns were arranged to fire from the front panel of the superstructure through vertical ports. The 9" guns were set along the sides of the vessel and used in broadside attacks. Well-armed and armored, Lafayette was an important warship to USN operations going forward.
One key design element in the Lafayette worth noting was her use of "India rubber" - protection also encountered on USS Choctaw. The rubber would be fitted with the iron to promote greater strength than basic iron could provide. It was estimated that 2.5 inches of iron with this rubber support could give the same level of protection as 5" of basic iron. Detractors insisted that the combination would do little in the way of protection and further promote rot and rusting. Only battlefield exposure would prove either side right or wrong.
Lafayette joined the Mississippi River Squadron assigned to control the western waterways. Lafayette paired with USS Benton in running the gauntlet at Vicksburg on the Mississippi on April 16th, 1863 and took CSS General Sterling Price, having rammed the Lafayette in her side, along with her. Towing a coal barge behind her, Lafayette took direct damage from nine cannon shots but survived - though her coal barge was sunk in the action. The Sterling Price eventually came loose from her starboard and lived to fight another day while Lafayette herself had to be assisted through the final leg of the run by USS Tuscumbia taking her in tow.
Along the Mississippi River lay the Confederate stronghold of Grand Gulf (south on the river from Vicksburg). The Federals, hoping to pound the stronghold into defeat, used Lafayette to scout the area's defenses. During the bombardment of enemy positions that followed, Lafayette took seventeen direct hits to her structure with five penetrating her armor and showcasing the rubber/iron combination as weaker than suspected by its supporters. Despite the damage, Lafayette was not knocked out of the fighting and continued on in her career.
Continuing her service on the Mississippi during 1863, Lafayette was used to reconnoiter and engage enemy defenses. She joined USS Pittsburgh to shell Simmesport, Louisiana on June 4th, 1863 - another strategic position at the junction of the Red River and the Atchafalaya River providing access to the Mississippi and the Gulf beyond it. From March to May of 1864, Lafayette joined in the Red River operation intended to surround key Confederate forces. The operation lasted from March 10 to May 22 and proved a total failure as none of the intended objectives were met. 5,500 Union losses were recorded to the Confederate's 4,300.
To round out her wartime tenure, Lafayette was used in patrolling stretches of the lower Mississippi. The war between the North and South ended on May 9th, 1865 in a Union victory. USS Lafayette was decommissioned on July 23rd, 1865 as part of the massive post-war drawdown. She lay in New Orleans until sold for scrapping on March 28th, 1866.
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