Military
4:29 pm
Mon March 10, 2014

How A Confederate Ironclad Warship Landed On The Bottom Of The Neuse River

The Neuse is sunk by her own crew - March 1865
Credit Stephen McCall / CSS Neuse State Historic Site

This week, an archaeological team is expected to set out to see if they can find remains of the CSS Neuse, a battleship that met a watery grave near Kinston, NC, during the Civil War. Now, many of you history buffs might know why parts of an ironclad ship is lying inland, at the bottom of the Neuse River, but we did not. The story is at times dramatic, frustrating and incredibly sad.

It starts with Stephen Mallory. He was appointed head of the Confederate Navy in 1861.  Mallory was convinced that the way to win the war was ironclad warships. Problem was, he didn't have any warships and there wasn't much iron to be had. Even so, he set about getting them built.  

The first problem was where to get the iron. The iron ore fields in  Tennessee and Kentucky had fallen under Union control. The railroads were tied up ferrying troops. Secretary Mallory had to appeal directly to the governor of North Carolina to try and get the iron he needed.

He wrote: "Commander Cooke, sent by me to North Carolina to obtain iron for plating the gun boats being built for the defense of the State, has returned without having accomplished this object . . . If you will let the Department have the rails and facilitate its transportation to Richmond they will be immediately rolled into plates." Slowly Malloy began to get enough iron.

Construction

The wooden hull was put in at the town now known as Seven Springs NC, and floated down the Neuse toward Kinston. There she would be outfitted with iron, guns and machinery.

At one point in the construction, the Union army came close to destroying the ship altogether. The Confederates blew up a bridge to keep the boat hidden, but the Union forces did see the boat and determined to destroy it. The Union idea was a daring one - a Union soldier would swim across the river (in December) board the boat and set it on fire.

A Harper's reporter documented what happened next:

"Henry Butler, of Company C, Third New York Cavalry, volunteered." After undressing, the adventurous Butler "plunged into the wintry wave," reported Harper's, "and pushed boldly for the opposite shore. Every [Federal] gun was brought into action throwing grape and canister to distract the foe." Having reached the enemy's side of the river, Private Butler "... ran up the bank to the flaming bridge, seized a [fire]brand and was making for the [gunboat], when several rebels rushed from their sheltered hiding-places and endeavored to seize him. Quick as thought he turned, plunged again into the river, and through a shower of bullets returned safely to his comrades."

The daring Butler was complimented for his actions, and in exchange for the failed attempt to burn the ship, the Federals trained their artillery pieces upon the vulnerable gunboat and opened fire. "We then gave the enemy a severe dose of canister," continued the correspondent, "and, finding we could not well get over to the gunboat, we battered it to pieces with shot and shell. The vessel was a small one, flat bottomed, intended for fast river navigation [and] designed for one or two guns." On the morning of December 16, the fight continued at White Hall and the Neuse was struck many times by the exchange of shot and shell.

The Union forces left, thinking that they had disabled the ship. But, the Neuse survived.

Ship Ahoy

The Neuse was commissioned in April of 1864. She took off on an expedition to re-take New Bern. Unfortunately, the Neuse hit a sandbar and was unable to get to the action.

A soldier of the 3rd North Carolina Cavalry, noted that the Neuse might have changed everything: "It is a great misfortune that we have managed so badly without the boat at Kinston. Could it have been completed a month ago and carried down the river . . . and the Albemarle come up the river we would have had easy work taking New Bern and very probably saved hundreds perhaps thousands of valuable lives."

The ship's end is a sad one.

Matthew Young is the site manager of the CSS Neuse Interpretive Center. He tells what happened next. It was the final Federal push. The Neuse was still docked in Kinston in March of 1865. Kinston was on the verge of falling to Federal troops. There were several thousand Union troops descending against about 3,500 Confederates.

The crew of the Neuse was ordered to destroy the ship, rather than have it go into the hands of the Union forces.

'After shelling the Yankee Cavalry for a little while, we removed our powder & stores & burnt the vessel.' - Second Lieutenant Richard Bacot

Second Lieutenant Richard Bacot wrote: "All the troops had withdrawn from Kinston & the Yankees 18,000 strong came upon us & not having any prospect of being relieved before our provisions gave out & being in a narrow river where we could not work the ship under fire, after shelling the Yankee Cavalry for a little while, we removed our powder & stores & burnt the vessel."

Matthew Young says that the crew set a gunpowder charge in the Neuse's bow, and abandoned ship. The explosion blew a hole in the side of the Neuse and she sank.

A report from the New York Herald reads: "The ram Neuse was destroyed by fire and sunk. Her smokestack can be seen now still standing. She must have been a formidable craft."

The frame of the ship was recovered in 1963 and placed at the Richard Caswell Memorial State Historic Site. She was there till 2012 when she was moved to the new CSS Neuse Civil War Interpretive Center in downtown Kinston where she is on display now.

Archaeologists and historians have a new effort underway to use high resolution technology and GPS to see what else is at the bottom of the river. "We know there are still sections of the ship in the river," says Young. "What we don't know is how significant they are to our understanding of how she was built and operated. There may be pieces of iron armored plate, a propeller, or even one of the ship's anchors still in the river."

The frame of the Neuse
Credit CSS Neuse Interpretive Center

This article is based on the CSS Neuse history compiled by the state of North Carolina.