Friday 24 February 2017

From Rebel to Samurai – the epic career of the Ironclad Stonewall/ Kōtetsu: Part 1

When thinking of the ocean-going navy of the Southern Confederacy in the American Civil War the image immediately comes to mind of fast, largely unarmoured vessels such as the Alabama and the Florida, general similar in construction terms to commercial vessels, albeit strengthened to carry heavy armament. The corresponding image of a Confederate ironclad is, by contrast, an armoured, improvised, steam-propelled raft intended for service in rivers and coastal waters. It is therefore somewhat of a surprise to learn that the Confederacy’s last “Blue-Water” naval vessel was a heavily-armed ironclad, well capable of sinking any major Union warship she encountered. Completed late in the Civil War, only the end of the conflict brought her potentially devastating career in Confederate service to an end only just as it was starting. This was however to be just the prelude to spectacular battle-service in a newly created navy on the other side of the world.

CSS Stonewall
The ship that was to become the CSS Stonewall was one of two ironclads constructed in France, personal approval for the project being given in 1863 by the Emperor Napoleon III, who was sympathetic to the Confederate cause. The objection that French neutrality would be compromised by delivery of warships to either the Union or to the Confederacy was neatly side-stepped by circulation of the rumour that they were intended for delivery to the Khedive of Egypt – the appropriate names of Sphynx and Cheops were allocated to them. A further element of confusion was added by ensuring that the armament would come from Britain. The seagoing ironclad concept was a new and revolutionary one at the time – France’s Gloire and Britain’s HMS Warrior, the first of the type, had been launched in 1859 and 1860 respectively – so the Confederacy was betting on acquiring cutting-edge naval technology.

Armouring of Cheops and Sphynx - note waterline belts and armoured redoubts for and aft
Sphynx and Cheops were of 1358 tons and some 190 feet long. Their 1200-hp steam engines, driving two screws, gave a top speed of over 10-knots. Twin rudders made for very tight turning circles – a decided advantage at a time when combat was likely to be at very close range. They also carried an auxiliary sail rig – especially valuable for conservation of coal when operating over long distances. The most notable feature was however the heavy armour protection – a waterline belt with thickness ranging from 3-5 to 5-inches or iron, as well as some 5-inches on the redoubts fore and aft in which the armament was housed. These latter structures were not rotating turrets, but rather protective casemates from which the guns fired through ports. As such they could be regarded as precursors of the later “central battery” type of ironclads, as compared with the traditional broadside arrangement of the earlier Gloire and Warrior.  Sphynx and Cheops each carried a single 300-pounder muzzle-loading Armstrong forward, firing over the pronounced ram-bow, with two 68-pounder weapons in the after redoubt. As such they were built to absorb tremendous punishment as well as to deal it out.
Sail Plan of Cheops and Sphynx - note armouring above ram.
Note also how the weapons are carried high behind thick armour,
The vessels were constructed in Bordeaux, on France’s Atlantic coast, and were launched early in 1864. Human greed is however a major obstacle to keeping a project of this sort secret. In this case the subterfuge about purchase by Egypt was exposed by a clerk at the shipyard who supplied information on the deal – and hard evidence, in the form of documentation – to the United States ambassador in Paris.  With a diplomatic crisis about neutrality brewing, the French Government had no option but to block the sale. A new customer was immediately available however. Prussia’s “Iron Chancellor”, Otto von Bismarck, supported by the Austro-Hungarians, had precipitated war with Denmark. Heavily outnumbered, the Danish resistance was fierce, heroic and doomed. The bright spot for Denmark was the performance of its navy, both in support of land operations and on the open sea. (My blog of 8th January 2016 regarding the Battle of Heligoland refers. It can be found via the sidebar). It was accordingly inevitable that both the Danes and their enemies should be looking to purchase more warships. Sphynx and Cheops would fit the bill to perfection. In a cynical deal in which a sale to one side was balanced by a sale to the other, the Sphynx was sold to Denmark – and renamed Stærkodder – while the Cheops was purchased by Prussia and called Prinz Adalbert. Thus were neutrality concerns elegantly sidestepped!
Denmark's day of glory - the Nils Juel at Heligoland, 9th May 1864
A Danish crew arrived in Bordeaux in June 1864 to start acceptance trials and take her to Denmark thereafter. (One wonders if there were any embarrassing encounters with a Prussian crew arriving to take over Prinz Adalbert!). The war was however winding down – with Denmark comprehensively beaten – and by 1st August a preliminary peace treaty had been signed. By the time Stærkodder arrived in Copenhagen all was over and she was by now essentially surplus to the requirements of the vanquished nation.

Confederate agents had however followed the Sphynx/ Stærkodder affair with interest and were still determined to acquire her. Negotiations – which must have required a high degree of secrecy – resulted in a sale by Denmark and in early January 1865 a Confederate crew commanded by Captain Thomas Jefferson Page (1808 – 1899) took delivery. The ship was commissioned at sea as the CSS Stonewall.

These events had not gone unnoticed by Union agents and diplomats and once intelligence was obtained of the Stonewall’s “breakout” from the Baltic to the North Sea, and on to the Atlantic, powerful Union Navy units were despatched to find and sink her. There are strong parallels with the breakout of Germany’s battleship  Bismarck in 1941 and her hunting by Royal Navy forces. Among the Union ships deployed were the steam-sloop USS Kearsarge – recently the victor of her duel with the CSS Alabama off the French coast – and her sister USS Sacramento, supported later by the steam-frigate USS Niagara. Though Kearsarge had been partly protected by improvised chain-armour, all these ships would have been at a decided – and perhaps fatal – disadvantage in any duel with the heavily-armoured Stonewall.
Gun exposed on an open deck during the Kearsarge - Alabama duel
It is clear that such ships would be at a disadvantage when facing a heavily armoured
 vessel like the Stonewall with its weapons sheltered behind 5-inches of iron plate.
Once at sea the Stonewall developed a leak – it is notable that her now-Prussian sister Prinz Adalbert deteriorated so rapidly that she was taken from service in 1871 – and she put in at Quiberon, on France’s Brittany coast, where repair possibilities see to have been limited, and to take on supplies and further crew members. It is likely that many of these recruits were not American, as was the case also with other Confederate raiders, but men of other nationalities who were attracted by pay and by the opportunity for adventure. Stonewall now pressed on to Ferrol, in North-West Spain, where she could undertake repairs. She remained there for almost two months. Word of her presence spread and the USS Sacramento and USS Niagara took up station outside. (One is reminded of HMS Shannon lying off Boston in 1813, daring the USS Chesapeake to come out).

Portuguese battery at Belem fort firing warning shots
to restrain USS Niagara. Common sense prevailed a
and the situation was defused
When the Stonewall did finally emerge from Ferrol on 24th March, the Union warships waiting for him declined to engage – wisely, in view of the disparity in armament and armour.  Captain Page now headed for Lisbon, Portugal, to take on coal prior to a dash across the Atlantic to attack Port Royal in South Carolina, the supply base for the Union General Sherman's army. The Stonewall was followed into port by the Sacramento and Niagara – which under neutrality rules could only glower at each other in enmity. An attempt by the Niagara to shift her berth was interpreted by the Portuguese authorities as a potentially hostile move against the Confederate vessel and warning shots from cannon on the castle of Belem put an end to the manoeuvre. Formal neutrality rules – demanding that enemy ships could not leave harbour simultaneously – were strictly applied and the Stonewall slipped away unmolested.

Time was running out for the Confederacy however. On 9th April Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant and on 26th April the only other major Confederate force was surrendered by Johnson to Sherman. By the time that Page and the Stonewall put in at Nassau, in the British possession of the Bahamas, on 6th May the epic conflict was at an end. The ironclad and her crew were now orphans.

Page now decided to take his ship to Havana, in Cuba, then still a Spanish possession. He handed her over to the government authorities there against a payment of $16,000 and paid off her crew. The Spanish in turn handed the Stonewall to the United States in return for a similar payment.

The triumphant Union now possessed one of the most powerful warships afloat, but in the aftermath of the Civil War there was little appetite for retention of a large navy – the concern was indeed to run down one which had grown to gigantic levels during the conflict. The Stonewall lay decommissioned at the Washington Navy Yard for some two years until it was decided to sell her.

And the buyer?

Opened up to foreign contact only thirteen years before, the Empire of Japan was engaged on a furious, and historically-unprecedented, campaign of modernisation. Its ambitions were all but boundless and acquisition of an effective navy was of the highest priority. The ex-Confederate ironclad would be ideal for their purposes.

The Stonewall would be heading east, and under a new name -  Kōtetsu - would embark on the most active part of her career.

I’ll tell about that in the second part of this article, which will appear soon. Watch out for it! 

Japan’s rapid creation of a superbly efficient modern navy is one of the most remarkable stories in Maritime History. This achievement is a major theme in my Dawlish Chronicles novel Britannia’s Spartan. Click on the image below to learn more.

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  1. An interesting read! I wasn't expecting the Japanese twist at the end. I'll be sure to read the next post!

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