"About midday there was heard the sound of a gun, and immediately afterwards the Tennessee was shot into the swift current like an arrow, and the water had risen to such a height that she struck in her course the corner of a brick warehouse, situated on an adjoining bluff and demolished it. This was her first and only experience as a ram." Lieutenant James D. Johnston witness to the launch of CSS Tennessee.
The State of Alabama runs a little bit short of 400 miles north to south. The geography of northern Alabama is quite different than that of the southern half of the state. The tail end of the great eastern US mountain range of the Appalachians ends in north central Alabama, around present day Birmingham. The northern half of the state is hilly before the hills disappear and the land gently slopes downward towards the Gulf Coast. As the highlands give way to the flat plain of southern Alabama, the geography becomes amenable for large scale farming. It was here that the economic strength of Alabama and the Confederacy existed with the large cotton plantations. As the most lucrative export of the Confederacy, the Confederate government assumed that with a shortage of raw cotton for their mills, European nations would intercede on behalf of the Confederacy. However, the South was on an agrarian economy, rather than the predominantly industrial economy of the Union. This lack of heavy industry in the industrial revolution placed the Confederacy at a grave disadvantage in modern warfare and the American Civil War can be said to be the first modern war. This disadvantage was never more acute than in the field of naval warfare.
The South had seized Newport News and obtained naval ordnance from that source, as well as some warships such as the USS Merrimack, converted to the CSS Virginia. However, only the Tredegar works of Richmond, Virginia was remotely equal to the task of providing the guns and armor plate necessary for the ambitious naval construction plan of the Confederate Secretary of the Navy, Stephen Mallory. Almost from the outset of the war, Mallory saw that the hopes of the fledgling Confederate Navy should rest in ironclads. With no hope of outbuilding the Union in conventional wooden warships, the South could only overcome the vast northern advantage through new technology and that new technology would be the ironclad ram. The problem was not with the idea but with the facilities to realize the idea.
With a limited number of major ports and those under threat of Union naval and land action, from the start the South relied upon inland riverine facilities for ironclad construction. The CSS Arkansas was started in Memphis and moved up the Yazoo River before the fall of the city in 1862, while sistership CSS Tennessee was burned on the stocks. The largest city of the Confederacy had three ironclads under construction but only the diminutive CSS Manassas was completed before Admiral David Farragut steamed up the Mississippi to capture this glittering prize. The unfinished CSS Mississippi and CSS Louisiana became two more casualties of the lack of infrastructure and trained builders in the South. What was needed was a riverine facility far from the presence of northern land or sea forces. If the facility was sufficiently remote from the war area, perhaps ironclads could be finished for use. One other requirement was the river on which the facility was constructed would have to be sufficiently large to permit the ironclad to reach the sea.
One such facility was chosen for construction in south central Alabama. Located between the first capital of the Confederacy, Montgomery, and Demopolis, founded by veterans of Napoleonís Grand Army, is the town of Selma. Far better known in the 1960s for Martin Luther Kingís Civil Rights March, in the 1860s it was selected as a site of construction for a yard for the fledgling Confederate Navy. Selma is on the banks of the Alabama River, about 150 miles, as the river turns, from Mobile Bay. The Damn Yankees were far away. Although Huntsville, in the far northern part of the state, had fallen to the blue bellies in March 1862, the Yankees had remained in the far north of the state and Selma was considered safe. Of course Selma did have certain disadvantages. The site selected was little better than swamp and from spring through fall mosquitoes were more than happy to partake on the workers and spread various diseases such as malaria. Nonetheless, work started on the Selma Yard and a second Alabama construction site was selected on the Tombigbee River further to the west. Among various gunboats and smaller craft, the Selma Yard contracted for construction of four ironclads. Three were completed.
Of the three completed ironclads, there were two small and one large ironclads. The two small ironclads were named after two Alabama towns, Huntsville and Tuscaloosa. They were little more than floating batteries, as they suffered more than normal the endemic southern ironclad deficiency, an insufficient power plant. The large ironclad was the CSS Tennessee, arguably the best ironclad produced for the Confederate Navy. The machinery for the ram came from a Mississippi riverboat stranded up the Yazoo River.
At the end of February 1863 the Tennessee was launched into the rain swollen waters of the Alabama River and accidentally rammed and destroyed a brick warehouse. One hundred fifty miles to the south, the new naval commander of Mobile impatiently awaited the completion of his flagship. This was Admiral Buchanan who had commanded the CSS Virginia in her famous encounter with the USS Monitor in March 1862. He was still limping from the wounds that he sustained in that battle. Tennessee was launched before completion to take advantage of the high water and Buchanan ordered her taken to Mobile immediately. The ram could not steam under her own power yet so the riverboat Southern Republic towed both the Tennessee and Huntsville down the river to Mobile. The trip took one week, as the riverboat tied up to the shore every night. Every evening, as the Southern Republic tied up for the night, the calliope on the riverboat would play Dixie and eager crowds would turn out to cheer the newest warships of the Confederacy, home built in Alabama.
Buchanan was afraid that the Union navy would preemptively attack Mobile and his flotilla before they were ready for action. He tried to hurry completion but skilled laborers were rare, as in typical bureaucratic ineptitude, the Confederate War Department would not release skilled workers from the army without a replacement. Those workers would have made a far more valuable contribution to the Confederacy by using their skills on southern ironclads than serving as infantrymen in a regiment. However, this idiotic policy remained in force and materially damaged ironclad construction throughout the Confederacy. The completion of Tennessee was not helped by the fact that initially the wrong iron armor was mounted on the ship. Buchanan was not happy with the attitude of the civilian workers that he did have and in August 1863 had them all conscripted and detailed to work under his orders.
Rather than work on four ironclads at an equal pace, as the side-wheel 270-foot CSS Nashville had joined Tennessee, Huntsville and Tuscaloosa at Mobile, Buchanan concentrated on finishing one ironclad first. That way he would have some vessels operational to counter a descent by the Federal Navy. Both the Huntsville and Tuscaloosa were undergoing trials in April 1863 but both were pitifully slow. Buchanan needed the Tennessee to be completed but her completion drug on. This delay was the result of the lack of armor plate, as the southern foundries could not supply all that was required and the relatively underdeveloped southern railroad network always seemed to have higher priorities for rail car use than transportation of fittings for the navy. By December 1863 Tennessee had her armor in place but still lacked guns and a crew.
When the Confederacy decided to place a yard at Selma, one of the supposed advantages was that a gun foundry would also be located at that site. The contract called for the first cannon to be delivered by September 1, 1862. The contractors woefully short of meeting this goal. The navy took over the facility in June 1863 but still the first cannon was not sent down to Mobile until January 1864. Buchanan rapidly had the newly received ordnance mounted in Tennessee. Two 7-inch Brooke rifles came down the river from Selma but the four 6.4-inch Brooke rifles were probably stripped from floating batteries in the harbor. In any event Tennessee had her armament by January 26, 1864 but still needed a crew. Buchanan had the same problems of getting a crew from the army that contractors had in getting skilled workers. Buchanan made 650 applications for transfer of men to the navy from the army but the Confederate War Department only approved 20. Fortunately the Army commander at Mobile was eager to cooperate with Buchanan. General D.H. Maury originally agreed to detail artillerymen to the navy if there was a Federal attack. Eventually he agreed to transfer 150 men from a Tennessee regiment to man the CSS Tennessee. On February 16, 1864 CSS Tennessee was finally commissioned. Her armor was four-inches on side and rear casemate face and six-inches on the forward casemate face.
Tennessee did have numerous design faults. Most seriously, was the placement of the chains for turning the rudder on top of the quarterdeck, which mad them extraordinarily vulnerable to enemy fire. As with almost every Confederate ironclad, the engines were under-powered and balky. When loaded, the Tennessee was capable of six-knots speed. Another weakness were the armored gun port shields. They could easily be jammed shut, preventing the ordnance behind the shield from being fired. However, there was a more immediate problem for Tennessee. She was completed in the upper part of Mobile Bay and still had to cross the Dog River Bar. There was only nine feet of water over the bar at high tide and Tennessee drew thirteen feet in light condition. By attaching caissons to the hull and pumping out the water, it was hoped to raise the ironclad at least four feet to clear the bar. Unfortunately, Tennessee was only raised two feet. Six new caissons were prepared but were accidentally destroyed in a fire in March. Six more were prepared and finally on May 18, Tennessee, using her own power as well as under tow, barely cleared the bar. The next four days were spent dismantling the caissons and loading coal and provisions. On May 22, 1864 Admiral Buchanan hoisted his flag on CSS Tennessee.
Immediately, Buchanan planned on a surprise sortie against the blockading squadron but after it was discovered that Tennessee was aground the sortie was cancelled. From that time the Confederates went on passive defense and waited to counter and Union moves. Admiral Farragut had not been unmindful of Mobile. After New Orleans, the port was the second most important port on the Gulf of Mexico. After the fall of New Orleans in 1862, Farragut planned to move immediately upon Mobile but became involved in further operations up the Mississippi. By late 1863 and early 1864 he wanted to attack Mobile before the Tennessee was operational but was stymied by lack of army units for joint operations. Another impediment to an attack on Mobile was Farragutís lack of ironclads. If the Confederates had operational ironclads defending the port, he would need monitors to spearhead the attack. In January 1864 Gideon Welles promised Farragut monitors but the first did not arrive until June with the USS Manhattan. In June Farragut received word that the large USS Tecumseh and two river monitors, Winnebago and Chickasaw would shortly arrive.
Farragut had received information that the Confederates had a flotilla, which included four ironclads. This was correct if you counted Tennessee, Huntsville, Tuscaloosa and the Nashville but the extent of completion and capabilities of these vessels was wildly exaggerated and Farragut took in the information at face value. The Tennessee was accounted as the most powerful ironclad ever constructed by the South. Although, many will credit Tennessee as being one of the most powerful Confederate ironclads built, she was hardly the juggernaut that Farragut took her to be. Her six-inch armor plate did make her heavily armored but she only mounted six, rather ordinary guns. Farragut did not know that Huntsville and Tuscaloosa were more floating armored batteries, totally incapable of operating in the Gulf of Mexico. Indeed their power plants were so anemic that they could not make way against the tide. Buchanan chose to leave them at Mobile rather than move them 30 miles south to the entrance to Mobile Bay. He considered that they would be sitting ducks in a battle at the entrance to the bay because of their extreme slowness. The large Nashville side-wheeler was incomplete, without all of her armor or any armament. However, as far as Farragut knew, all four were complete and were waiting for his squadron. That is why he wanted his own ironclads for the assault.
As the summer of 1864 progressed, it was increasingly obvious that the Federal fleet would soon make an assault. More and more ships arrived and when the Union ironclads made their appearance, the southerners knew that the assault would not be long removed. On the evening of August 4, 1864 the three Union ironclads that were then part of Farragutís force were within range of Fort Morganís guns. Farragut had planned his assault for early in the morning of August 5. The last of his 18 ships to arrive was the monitor USS Tecumseh, which arrived the afternoon of August 4. Buchanan had his force of CSS Tennessee and three wooden gunboats anchored just north of Fort Morgan. The Union had 174 guns against 22 guns mounted on the Confederate ships.
The ship channel into Mobile Bay ran just to the west of Fort Morgan, which is situated on a long, thin peninsula running westward into the bay. Four miles to the west stands Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island, which marks the west entrance to the bay. The Confederates had constructed a line of sunken piles running from Ft. Gaines to the western end of the ship channel. Behind this line were two lines of torpedoes. These were the direct ancestor of the contact mine. The placement of the mines in the two lines was staggered to prevent any ship from slipping through. Another short line ran from the eastern side of the ship channel. The ends of the mine field were marked by red buoys. Farragut had observed the operations in which the mines were placed and had directed his ships to use the unmined ship channel and not steam into the minefields.
Farragutís plan had the four monitors operating as a separate column with Tecumseh in the lead. The wooden ships had Brooklyn in the lead, since she was equipped with mine fenders, followed by Hartford. Each large wooden Federal warship had a smaller wooden ship lashed to the sheltered port side of the large vessels. By 0600 on August 5, all Union vessels were underway. The Confederates at Ft Morgan saw their approach and alerted Admiral Buchanan, who made preparations to engage the Yankees once they moved past the fort. At 0647 USS Tecumseh was the first to open fire at the fort with an 11-inch smoothbore. At 0700 the guns of Fort Morgan opened fire but concentrated more on the Brooklyn and Hartford, rather than the Union ironclads.
As Buchanan moved his squadron forward, the Tennessee was spotted by Tecumseh and Commander Tunis Craven of Tecumseh decided to make straight for the Confederate ram. In doing so he crossed over the northwest corner of the eastern minefield. The Tecumseh hit a mine almost immediately. The monitor sank within a minute taking Craven and 93 crewmen with her 200 yards from Tennessee, although a few survivors managed to make it out of the doomed ship. Today a buoy stands of the northwest tip of Fort Morgan and still marks the grave of the monitor Tecumseh. It is clearly visible for anyone visiting the fort. When Tecumseh cut towards Tennessee, the Brooklyn had to stop engines to avoid a collision and the Union ships bunched underneath Fort Morganís guns. Hartford swung past the Brooklyn to take the lead and it was at this time that Farragut ordered, "Damn the torpedoes! Four bells, Captain Drayton. Go ahead!"
By 0800 the Hartford was past Fort Morgan and standing into the bay. Buchanan ordered his tiny flotilla to engage. The smaller Union gunboats were cast loose from the big Union steamers and went after the wooden Confederate gunboats but the Yankee ironclads and the big wooden steamers concentrated on Tennessee. Tennessee made for the Hartford in an effort to ram her but the Union vessels were much more maneuverable and easily avoided any attempts to ram. In the meantime Union shot bounced harmlessly off the front and sides of Tennesseeís casemate. After the Confederate gunboats were chased down and sunk, Tennessee broke off and anchored under Fort Morgan, while the Union fleet waited in the bay six miles north of the fort. Both sides now took a break for breakfast.
With only six hours of coal left, the Tennessee might have had enough coal go steam back north towards Mobile but what was the point? The Yankees were now within the bay and his supporting gunboats were destroyed. Dog Bar, five miles south of the city, would prevent the Tennessee from reaching the Alabama port. Rather than sitting meekly under the guns of Fort Morgan and wait for the eventual siege of the fort, Buchanan decided to go out gloriously. He decided that CSS Tennessee would attack the entire Yankee fleet. Buchanan ordered, "Follow them up, Johnston. We canít let them off that way." Farragut was amazed to see the Tennessee assaulting his entire fleet. "I did not think that old Buck was such a fool." Farragut ordered his ships to ram Tennessee.
The first one to do this was the USS Monongahela, which rammed the ironclad. Unfortunately for Monongahela, the armor of Tennessee easily withstood the ramming, while the wooden ship had her bowís crushed and shattered planking. Ossipee, Lackawanna and ironclad Chickasaw also rammed Tennessee but the Confederate ironclad easily shrugged off the Union vessels successful ramming attempts. Lackawanna also suffered a crushed bow from her ramming of Tennessee. As the vessels drew parallel, Confederate sailors shouted obscenities towards the Yankees and received a volley of pistol and rifle fire in return, as well as hurled spittoons. The Lackawanna did cause significant damage to Tennessee but not from ramming her. Cannon fire jammed one pivot gun shield on the port side casemate and hit the exposed rudder chains. Then Farragut had Hartford charge Tennessee. The ships approached each other in a civil war version of chicken and oddly enough it was the Tennessee that flinched and diverted her course. Buchanan reasoned that if he collided head on with Hartford, the Tennessee would be buried so deeply into the wooden ship that the Hartford would have dragged Tennessee to the bottom.
As the Tennessee scraped along the starboard side of Hartford, the full broadside of the Union flagship bounced harmlessly off the casemate of the ironclad. Union ironclads, Chickasaw and Winnebago took station on the stern of the Tennessee, where the armor was only four-inches thick and pounded her with 11-inch shot, loosening armor and jamming the aft pivot door shut. It was these two monitors with their 11-inch guns that knocked out the Tennessee. Their firing took away the exposed rudder chains rendering the Tennessee unmaneuverable. Only one shot during the battle penetrated the armor of Tennessee, one 15-inch shot from Manhattan. The gun port shutters became jammed, the smokestack was blown away and the ram filled with coal smoke. Buchanan had been hit in the leg by a splinter and Captain Johnston took over. Finally with the Tennessee hemmed in on all sides by opponents, unable to respond to the rear against her chief tormentors, Johnston raised a white flag on a boathook. Union losses for the battle were 150 killed, mostly from the loss of Tecumseh, and 170 wounded or missing. Confederate losses were 12 killed and 19 wounded. The wrecked CSS Tennessee was repaired and commissioned into the United States Navy as USS Tennessee. She was sold in 1867. (History from Gunfire Around the Gulf, 1999, by Jack D. Coombe; Iron Afloat, 1971, by William N. Still Jr.)
The Flagship CSS Tennessee displays a variation on the normal casting practice for the Confederate ironclad kits from the company. Normally there are separate upper and lower hull castings, separated at the waterline. The hull casting for CSS Tennessee does have separate upper and lower castings but it is not divided at the waterline. Rather the dividing point as at the bottom of the armor plate, which is below waterline. If you wish to build the kit full hull, there certainly is no problem. In fact, the Tennessee build may be cleaner to build full hull as cast. However, if you wish to build the model in waterline format, youíll have to sand off the bottom part of the upper hull casting. Waterline would be roughly along the side ridge of the hull armor, where the armor transitions from either sloping upward or downward. Of course, if you wished to build a diorama of the Tennessee with caissons going over Dog Bar, the waterline would have been approximately at the bottom of the upper hull casting.
Another very noticeable aspect of the Tennessee, is the size. The Tennessee is a much larger vessel than the standard pattern of the Richmond class ironclad. As you can see from the photographs comparing the Flagship Tennessee with the Flagship CSS Chicora, Admiral Buchananís flagship dwarfs the standard pattern, or as close to standard pattern as the Confederates came. The forecastle and quarterdeck are much longer and the casemate is slightly shorter but much wider. One common misconception is to look at a Confederate ironclad and assume that the armor is made from railroad rails. CSS Tennessee, as well as almost all Confederate casemate designs had armor plate. Because of lack of established infrastructure, the plates were forged as long, thin plates. This conspicuous design characteristic is obvious on the Tennessee casting. From the top of the casemate to the lower edge of the hull armor, the thin strakes of armor plating are clearly and cleanly delineated in the casting.
The pilothouse provides another contrast, as it is integral to the casemate armor. It was not an add-on on top of the casemate, as it was with other Confederate ironclads. Vision slits in the pilothouse are smaller and less susceptible to battle damage. The unique slides for the amidships guns are also distinctive features of Tennessee. The oval gun ports for the four amidships guns slid up and down within these slides, so the Flagship CSS Tennessee offers another unusual departure from the smaller Richmond class pattern. The stern shape is of an unusual duck-tail pattern and is raised from the rest of the quarterdeck. This was apparently needed because of the poor design of placing the steering cables in channels on top of the quarterdeck. Those covered channels are another distinction of the kit. It is easy to see how they presented a very vulnerable target for Union fire. Because of their high placement, the rudder post was higher, which required the deck above the rudder to be raised.
Deck detail includes four open chocks and a centerline set of bollards on the forecastle, with two of the chocks bolted to the hull armor. In addition to the unusual stern arrangement, the quarterdeck also has two open chocks and another centerline set of bollards. With the Tennessee the decks are armored as well as the hull and casemate. Another prominent feature is the casemate top grating. Both on the pilothouse top and casemate top are gratings that tried to allow ventilation to the pilothouse and gun deck. The contrast of the black painted openings to the gun deck with the rusty red of the gratings will further enhance interest in the finished model. As with the CSS Chicora, anchor chain runs from the lower front face of the casemate, to deck hawse, through the hull to anchor hawse to the anchors, which are catted home on the forecastle. There are occasional rough patches on the hull casting but these are few and far between and easily corrected. The lower hull casting has some relief detail to simulate the natural wood pattern and a prominent keel. Like the upper hull casting, the piece will take a moderate sanding on the top to mate smoothly with the upper hull casting.
There are four small resin parts provided with the Flagship Tennessee. The largest of the smaller parts is the stack. It is plastic tube, rather than resin. There are two identical shipís boats. These are one piece with solid rowing benches and thwarts, although separate oars are provided on the brass fret. At 1:192 scale, the boats could have used a little bit more detail but nonetheless are very serviceable. The boats are cast on easily removed casting blocks. The last of the smaller resin pieces is the rudder, which shows a plank design and mounting plates for the rudderpost. Flagship also supplies metal parts for the Tennessee. Six white metal ventilator cowls are provided with two on the forecastle and four on the quarterdeck. These cowlings do have a good level of hollowness at their openings. Four identical cannon muzzles are provided with slightly hollow muzzle ends. These need to be slightly smoothed to obtain true round as they appear ever so slightly elliptical. I would prefer for Flagship to provide barrels for all six cannons. However, the two broadside guns on the unengaged side would have been hidden behind the closed shutters. The problem is, On August 5, 1864, Tennessee had no unengaged side. The is a galley stove pipe with conical cap, two anchors and the propeller. All of the white metal parts require minor cleanup such as remove pour vents and smoothing seams. Also included is a metal chain for the anchor chain. This will need to be cut into four pieces. Two for the chains running from the casemate to the deck hawse and two running from the hull hawse to the anchors stored on the forecastle.
Brass Photo-Etch Fret
Flagship provides a large brass photo-etch fret in the CSS Tennessee kit 5 Ĺ-inches (138mm) by 3 5/8-inches (92mm). When produced by Lone Star these Civil War kits did not contain this fret. This Flagship fret provides a great deal of value added to this kit. The fret is generic in that it is designed for Confederate ironclads in general. However, optional parts are included for various fitting designs. The most noticeable of these options are for gun port doors. Three different gun port covers are provided of this fret. The types used on Tennessee are an oval pivoting cover for the end gun positions and sliding covers for the two amidships gun positions on each side. These sliding ports still use an oval design but the pivots need to be removed. The two other designs are rectangular pivoting covers and two-piece hinged doors. Both of the pivoting patterns have relief etching to reflect the same armor plate strips as found on the casemate. To open one of these pivoting covers a rope extended from a hole above the gun port. This rope was pulled inward to pivot the cover upward, exposing the cannon muzzle. Youíll have to drill out the rope scuttles and add the rope to include this detail. At least 40% of the fret is taken up with a large rectangle of open grid grating. This is for the various ventilation grates on top of the casemate. Each grate needs to be cut to shape from this one large piece.
Five long inclined ladders are included on the fret. These should be reduced in length to conform with the fore and aft casemate faces upon which they are affixed. The side rails are folded upward and individual treads folded parallel to the deck. Ten davits are provided. Eight of these are large boat davits and the other two are small davits for the anchors and torpedo spar. Flagship provides a great quantity of individual stanchions. Each of these has top and middle openings through which wire rails can be passed. These railings will provide greatly enhanced detail for the Tennessee. The attachment of these stanchions are well worth the time expended with a pin vice in drilling small locator holes for the pieces. Eight boatís oars are provided, which is not enough for the two shipís boats but it does add extra detail. There is a short mast and boom at the aft edge of the casemate deck, which needs to be fabricated from rod. The brass fret provides rigging and tackle for this mast. Also provided are stay wires for the stack.
Now you fly the flag of the Pride of the Confederacy, Selma's own CSS Tennessee. Thanks to Flagship Models, Admiral Buchanan's flagship can again charge Farragut's entire fleet. The model provides not only one of the most historically important Confederate ironclads but also does so in the large 1:192 scale in handsome style, with photo-etch and flags.