The Ladies Gunboat Associations
The epic naval battle at Hampton Roads, VA, in March 9th, 1862 had far reaching consequences. The first and most obvious consequence was that on that day, while dueling all morning to a tactical draw, the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia did settle one thing; all wooden navies were now obsolete.
These two ironclads were neither the first commissioned, the first in battle, nor the most advanced. The concept of iron-armored ships was well known by naval officials. The French ironclad floating batteries had engaged Russian shore batteries during the Crimean War. Both Great Britain and France had commissioned armored warships by the time the American Civil War broke out. What was unique about the battle at Hampton Roads that day was that for the first time in naval history two ironclads engaged one another.
Confederate Secretary of the Navy, Stephen Russell Mallory faced a daunting task when he was appointed to President Jefferson Daviss cabinet on February 7th, 1861. The Confederate Navy existed in name only, the only ships it had were a handful of revenue cutters that were seized from Federal authorities when the states seceded. The only thing it had in abundance was officers, the 237 that resigned from the US Navy and went south when the war started. But the 49 year old former two term senator from Florida had a few things in his favor: he was a veteran of the Seminole War and he had been the Chairman of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee and probably knew more about nautical matters than any other Southern politician. He was also very progressive in matters of naval design and had expressed interest in the future of ironclads. One thing was patently obvious; the Confederacy could not match the US Navy ship for ship so they had to make do with fewer but more specialized ships. On May 8, 1861 he wrote: I regard the possession of an iron-armored ship as a matter of the first necessity. Such a vessel at this time could traverse the entire coast of the United States; prevent all blockades, and encounter, with a fair prospect of success, their entire Navy.
While the Confederacy was at a distinct disadvantage when it came to producing all things military, one thing it had in abundance was enthusiasm for this new type of ship. Among the most zealous disciples of this mania for ironclads were the women. All across the Confederacy patriotic ladies formed associations with names like Ladies Gunboat Funds Ladies Gunboat Associations and Ladies Defense Associations.
The first of these appeared in New Orleans in late 1861 then spread to Mobile, Charleston and elsewhere. By the summer of 1862, they were scattered all across the south. On March 1st, 1862, the Charleston Daily Courier printed a letter from a woman in Summerville, SC, suggesting that the paper open a list of contributions and enclosed a dollar. The paper endorsed the proposal and within a week more than a thousand dollars was donated. On March 14th, the Columbus Enquirer reported, we see in the Charleston papers a young lady has started a subscription to build a gunboat at Charleston. We propose that her example should be followed in Georgia. On March 17, the Richmond Dispatch appealed for funds to build a gunboat in Virginia and mentioned the ladies in South Carolina and Georgia who were already raising funds. Newspapers throughout the south began printing lists of contributors and the amounts various organizations had collected. Soon rivalries developed among the
communities. The Sandersville Central Georgian declared in an article The ladies of Savannah have collected $3,600.00, what will the ladies of Washington County do?
The ladies engaged in a variety of activities to raise money. They would solicit jewelry, china sets, silverware, watches, vases, musical boxes and books to be raffled off. They had Gunboat Fairs to raise funds. Mrs. Mary Chestnut of Charleston wrote in her famous diary that she gave the girls a string of pearls to be raffled off at the Gunboat Fair. On April 14th 1862 she wrote, Our Fair is in full blast. We keep a restaurant. On the 15th she wrote Two thousand dollars were made at the Fair.
The total amount raised may never be known but it had to be a considerable sum. The Charleston gunboat fund raised $30,000. The Ladies Defense Association in Richmond raised nearly that amount. Three ironclads, the Charleston, the Fredericksburg and Georgia were called Ladies Gunboats or as one critic derisively called them petticoat gunboats.
The CSS Georgia was unique in that it was built entirely from funds collected in the state of Georgia. It was very much a co-operative effort; the womens organizations, businessmen, the state and city of Savannah governments raising the funds and a board of advisors from both the army and navy.
Although the womens gunboat associations would linger into late 1863, their popularity peaked in the spring of 1862. There are several reasons for this; Norfolk, New Orleans, and Memphis were lost that year along with all but 5 of the ironclads then under construction or in service. The loss of these shipyards was disastrous and forced Mallory to make the decision to place naval facilities in the Confederacys interior. While this made them safe from attack, the decentralization that came with it made the logistics a nightmare. The blockade was starting to take affect and the Confederate Navy was unable to counter it. Secretary Mallory was being castigated daily in the press and by the Congress for that failure. Thomas C. DeLeon, veteran and postwar editor of the Mobile Register tells the story of a group of ladies touring an ironclad with the Secretary, an act he frequently performed. At the end of the tour he commented that they had seen everything worth seeing. One lady is supposed to have replied sarcastically, Everything but one, the place where you blow them up.
Confederate ironclads, perhaps with the exception of the European built Stonewall, were not things of beauty. They were rather primitive vessels with serious defects in both design and construction. Most however were serviceable and contributed significantly to the Confederate war effort. There were notable successes, the CSS Arkansas at Vicksburg and the CSS Tennessee at Mobile Bay.
Of the five Confederate seaports captured during the last six months of the war, Savannah, Charleston, Wilmington, Mobile and Galveston, two were taken by Union land forces from the rear and two others indirectly as a result of pressure from the rear. Ironclads figured prominently in the defense of all the ports but one, Galveston.
Starting from scratch and against enormous odds, the Confederacy was able to put into action more than 20 armored warships. In the end, innovation, ingenuity and hard work enabled the Confederacy to put into service the strongest ironclad navy possible given the Souths limitations.