Query: Did the Confederates waste money on ironclads?

Jonathan Beard's picture

A review of Civil War Logistics: A Study of Military Transportation, By Earl J. Hess


Ran this past week on H-War. It included this interesting sentence:  “Things might have been different, had the Confederates put more funding into the national rail system instead of the hugely expensive ironclads that contributed so little to their cause.”

Is this a widely shared opinion?  I have read many books and articles about the use of ironclads by both the Union and Confederacy, and I was aware that few of the Confederate rams accomplished much, though the CSS Virginia and CSS Albemarle both sank ships and tied up considerable Union resources. But was the decision to build these ships controversial in the Confederate government? Was the decision to build the CSS Chicora, for example, made by South Carolina, or the government in Richmond? Have either naval or economic historians of the Civil War argued that the Confederacy would have been better off not investing in ironclads at all?


Given that so few of the Confederate ironclads accomplished anything of value (see the CSS Arkansas on the Mississippi and the CSS Tennessee, especially, which did nothing to prevent Farragut's victory in the Battle of Mobile Bay) and that much of the armor came from railroad iron, it seems logical that this scarce material could have been put to better use maintaining or building rails rather than uselessly submerging it.
For clarity, the assertion is my own--Hess only points out the dearth of rail in the south (p. 100, "Wadley also estimated the companies needed more than 49,000 tons of rails every year but that the Confederacy could produce no more than 20,000 tons combined at the two major plants capable of making them") and that this contributed to the Confederacy's inability to ship otherwise adequate subsistence to the armies in the field (pp. 105-106) but does not tie the shortage specifically to ironclad construction. Given the tremendous disparity, it's likely that even perfect allocation would have had little effect. But Hess' main point is that Richmond seldom, if ever, made the best use of available resources.

The issue also entails what type of ironclad. On the western rivers, at least, the CSS Arkansas and CSS Tennessee were too large and too poorly designed to be competitive with the Union vessels. A number of smaller boats that had reasonable amounts of armor plating would have been a better strategy. Having said that, there is no way the Confederacy could have kept up with Union production. The Union built nine city-class ironclads in a few months, something the Confederacy could not accomplish in four years, and the Mississippi Squadron had over 100 boats in it by the end of the war, a prodigious accomplishment that the Confederacy could never hope to match.