Tuesday, January 6, 2015

150 Years Ago: CSS Stonewall Rides the Waves

150 Years Ago: Monster Ironclad Ram CSS Stonewall Rides The Waves

On January 6, 1865 new life was breathed into the monster ocean-going ironclad ram CSS Stonewall, and the North trembled.  Better armored and more powerful than any Union warship afloat, the ironclad was dubbed by the press the "Yankee Nightmare."  That Washington had thought the nightmare put to rest a year earlier only made things worse - and more urgent - in January 1865.

The Confederacy's chief naval officer in Europe, James Bulloch, and Richmond's commissioner to France, John Slidell, had through middlemen arranged for the CSS Stonewall and her sister ship to be built in Bordeaux at the yards of Lucien Arman.  Union agents and diplomats were not fooled by Arman's claims that they were being built for the Khedive of Egypt.   In February 1864, bowing to diplomatic pressure from Washington, the Emperor Napoleon III intervened and forbid Arman to turn the ships over to the Confederacy.  Arman sold the CSS Stonewall, then being built under the cover name Sphynx, to Denmark, where she was armed and christened as Staerkodder.  

After their loss to Prussia in the brief Second Schleswig war the Danes decided they could not afford to keep the big expensive warship.(Ironically, the Sphynx's sister ship, Cheops, which was also being built for the Confederates in the same yards in France, had been sold to Berlin). Acting in secret on behalf of the Confederacy, Arman purchased the vessel, helped smuggle a group of Confederate naval officers on board and on January 6 the warship left Copenhagen for Quiberon, France. 

Confederate Captain T. J. Page commissioned her at sea as CSS Stonewall and and set out for the Azores to hunt Federal merchantmen.  The primary goal - or at least hope - was to cross the Atlantic to Havana, and from there steam west, attack the Union naval supply base at Port Royal and if possible then go on to break the  blockade at Wilmington.

Unfortunately for the Confederates, a storm and some serious leaks forced the CSS Stonewall back into port at Ferrol, Spain, where she was watched by two powerful - yet wooden - Union warships:  USS Niagara and USS Sacramento.  In late March the CSS Stonewall left port, daring the Union captains to try to stop her.  Their orders, however, were to merely shadow the monster ironclad - whose thick hull even their most powerful guns could not hope to penetrate.   They followed the ironclad to Lisbon and then across the seas to Cuba - which she reached in May without ever having fired a shot in anger.  Upon learning of the surrender of Confederate armies and the capture of Jefferson Davis, Page surrendered his vessel to Spanish authorities.

That, however, was not the end for the mighty ocean-going ironclad ram.   

The Spanish government turned the CSS Stonewall over to the U.S. Navy. She sat in the Washington Navy Yard for the next few years and was then sold to the Shogun in 1868.  Christened the Kotetsu, she set sail for Japan.   She arrived just as civil war broke out.  The United States minister in Japan ordered the U.S. Navy to intervene and seize the ship, which was then turned over to the emperor.  Kotetsu fought for the imperial forces at Hakidote.  After the war the ironclad was renamed Azuma, and remained in active service until 1888.

The powerful "Yankee Nightmare" appears in my strategic Civil War naval game, GMT's Rebel Raiders on the High Seas.  With the luck of the draw the mighty warship might serve as intended, giving hope to the Confederate player and putting further strain on the already overstretched naval forces of the North.

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