CSS Huntsville

The CSS Huntsville was a Confederate ironclad named for the city of Huntsville, Madison County. It served as a floating battery in Mobile Bay beginning in August 1863 and defended Mobile, Mobile County, and provided gunnery support to Confederate forces during federal attacks on Fort Blakeley and Spanish Fort in March and April 1865. The ship was scuttled by Confederate forces, along with its sister ship the CSS Tuscaloosa, in the Spanish River near Fort Blakeley on April 12, 1865.

Selma Naval Foundry The Confederate Navy contracted with Selma-based shipbuilder Henry Basset to construct the Huntsville on May 1, 1862, for the purchase price of $100,000. Constructed at the Selma Ordnance and Naval Foundry, the CSS Huntsville was a steam-powered propeller-driven ironclad 150 feet long and 32 feet wide (beam) that sat seven feet (draft) in the water. It was launched at the Confederate Naval Works pier at Selma on February 7, 1863, the same day as the CSS Tuscaloosa. Because the Selma shipyard had not yet received the engine for the Huntsville, it had to be towed down the Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers to Mobile Bay, where it was fitted with an engine from an old riverboat.

On August 1, 1863, the ship was commissioned with Lt. Julian Myers in command of a crew of 40 men and was armed with four 32-pound smoothbore guns and one 6.4-inch rifled gun. A reflection of the inadequate state of the Confederacy’s industrial base, the CSS Huntsville was only partially fitted with armor plate (less than the four inches installed on the Tuscaloosa) from Alabama’s Shelby Iron Company and from the Atlanta Rolling Mill of Georgia. The ship’s riverboat engine provided a speed of only two to three knots, and as a result, the Confederate Navy used the slow-moving CSS Huntsville, like the CSS Tuscaloosa, as a floating battery to guard the waters around Mobile.

CSS Nashville The CSS Huntsville took part in the Battle of Mobile Bay on August 5, 1864, and, following the battle, escaped along with the Tuscaloosa up the Spanish River. The city of Mobile and the upper portion of Mobile Bay remained in Confederate hands for another eight months until April 1865. Between March 27 and April 8, federal troops besieged Spanish Fort, across the upper bay from Mobile, and, after capturing Spanish Fort, proceeded to attack Fort Blakeley, about five miles directly north, on April 8-9 in two of the last major battles of the Civil War. The CSS Huntsville, the CSS Nashville, and CSS Morgan steamed up the Tensaw River to a point midway between the two Confederate forts and for several days during the sieges regularly shelled the federal troops on the left flank of Spanish Fort and on the right flank of Fort Blakeley until they ran out of ammunition. By dusk on April 9, both forts had fallen to the U.S. Army. (The Tuscaloosa is omitted from Confederate battle reports, which may indicate that it was not operational at the time.)

On April 12, 1865, three days after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, R. H. Slough, the mayor of Mobile, surrendered the city to the U.S. Army to prevent the city’s destruction. Comm. Ebenezer Farrand, commander of the Confederate naval squadron in Mobile Bay, could not find any boats to tow the Huntsville and Tuscaloosa further up the river, as they were too slow to steam against the river’s current. To prevent them from falling to the advancing federal forces, he had both ironclads scuttled about 12 miles north of Mobile. Farrand formally surrendered the Nashville and several other Confederate vessels to Union forces at Nanna Hubba Bluff near Calvert, about 35 miles up the Mobile River from Mobile, on May 10, 1865.

In December 1983, Sydney Schell, a retired Mobile maritime lawyer, discovered the scuttled wrecks of the Huntsville and Tuscaloosa within 200 feet of each other, covered in mud and silt in approximately 30 feet of water at the point where the Spanish River splits off from the Mobile River, a few miles north of the Cochrane-Africatown Bridge. He noted to the Mobile Press-Register in February 1989 that both ironclads were in excellent condition. He later estimated that it would cost $15 to $20 million to recover and preserve the two ironclads and to erect a building in which to display the ships. There are currently no plans to raise either ship.

Further Reading

  • Hearn, Chester G. Mobile Bay and the Mobile Campaign: The Last Great Battles of the Civil War. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1993.
  • Luraghi, Raimondo. A History of the Confederate Navy. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1996.
  • Still, William N., Jr., ed. The Confederate Navy. London: Conway Maritime Press, 1997.
  • ———. Iron Afloat: The Story of the Confederate Armorclads. Nashville, Tenn.; Vanderbilt University Press, 1971.

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