During the Civil War, both the Union and Confederate Navies have been better known in history for their technological advances in ship building rather than their military strategy.
For its time, the USS Monitor represented cutting edge technology and was the mother of the monitor, a shallow draft ship that rides low in the water making a difficult target for enemy guns. Monitors are employed for bombardment of coastal targets.The original USS Monitor was the brainchild of a Swedish engineer, John Ericsson. It contained more than forty innovations that could be patented. The USS Monitor was intended for use in the Union blockade of the Confederate coast. Her hull was covered with five inch thick armored plate and the underneath was plated with a one inch thickness of iron. Her most noteworthy feature was the iron clad revolving turret, a first in US Naval history.
Unfortunately the USS Monitor was not a seaworthy vessel. She did engage the USS Virginia in the famous Civil War Battle of Hampton Roads. Although no definite winner emerged from the engagement, it was still notable in marine history as the first battle between ironclad vessels and marked the demise of the wooden fighting vessel. Due to her lack of seaworthiness, the USS Monitor was lost in a storm off of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.
The South was at a disadvantage throughout the Civil War as it was primarily an agricultural area with very little industry and the Union took advantage of this by setting up a coastal blockade which made it difficult to import needed war materials. The Confederacy then hoped to create a Navy capable of encountering the Union forces through use of iron clad ships, most of which were salvaged from formerly damaged or captured vessels. One of these was the CSS Virginia. The CSS Virginia was constructed from the captured Union ship, the USS Merrimack. The Merrimack was first repaired, then covered with iron plating and equipped with a ram.
On March 8, 1862 the CSS Virginia began its maiden voyage into battle, sinking the USS Cumberland and destroying the USS Congress after the ship was forced to surrender and give up its crew. The CSS Virginia then turned toward the USS Minnesota however night was approaching so the Virginia was forced to wait until morning. For a very short time the USS Virginia struck terror in the hearts of the Union leaders. However, the next day when she started toward the Minnesota, she found the Union’s iron clad vessel, the USS Monitor awaiting her. This battle ended in a draw and two months later the Virginia’s crew was forced to scuttle her.
The building of the CSS Alabama was actually a spy operation. The British government had formally declared neutrality during the Civil War. However, Confederate Navy Commander John Bulloch traveled to England and secretly contracted with the Laird Company of Birkenhead to build the Alabama. Upon completion she set sail for the island of Terceira in the Azores, located in international waters. She sailed as the Enrica with a civilian captain and crew. Upon arrival in the Azores, she was outfitted as a warship and placed under the command of Captain Raphael Semmes.
The CSS Alabama was unique in that she never anchored in a Confederate port. A schooner equipped with three masts and auxiliary steam engines, she sailed all over the world raiding Union merchant ships. In June of 1864, she finally docked at Cherbourg, France for needed repairs. She had been sighted by the USS Kearsage and was challenged to battle. Captain Semmes decided to fight however his gun power was ineffective against the ironclad Kearsage and the Kearsage’s superior gunnery quickly overcame and sank the Alabama.