Tag Archives: Civil War

Confederate Sea Denial and Tactics of Asymmetric Naval Warfare

By LCDR Jason Lancaster, USN


Today the U.S. faces renewed global competition, and conventional and asymmetric naval threats. The future U.S. way of war must innovate beyond the Second World War strategy of out-producing adversaries, since the U.S. has fewer shipyards and its rivals may have greater industrial capacity. Luckily, U.S. history offers examples of the U.S. as both a dominant power as well as an underdog. The Confederate States Navy provides an excellent example of an under-industrialized innovative underdog struggling to defend itself against an industrial juggernaut.

Naval Asymmetries in the U.S. Civil War

During the “War Between the States,” also known as the American Civil War, the Union Navy held as close to permanent general sea control for the duration; but the Confederate Navy waged an effective campaign to deny sea control in the littorals of key port cities. Maritime strategist and theorist Julian Corbett divided the concept of sea control between local or general, temporary or permanent. Sea control means controlling the sea lines of communications (SLOCs) one side needs to maintain while fighting to deny that control to the adversary. One does not need to control the sea to deny it to an adversary. Sea control does not mean that the enemy will not be able to raid SLOCs, but rather those raids will not have a decisive impact on the war.1  

The Confederate Navy is considered a failure by popular belief because the Southern fleet was unable to break the Union blockade. The navy designed by Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory was not built to break the blockade, but for “desperate and unequal battle to protect land against sea.”This battle began poorly. The Union Navy waltzed into Port Royal, South Carolina, steamed past the Confederate guns at Fort Hatteras, and took control of the North Carolina sounds. Both ports were defended by guns that were out-ranged by the Union Navy. 

The Confederate Navy needed a new plan, and with limited resources only a few places could be adequately defended. Secretary Mallory and General Robert E. Lee compiled a list of priority ports. Union leaders of the Blockade Board did the same. Interestingly, both concurred that the key Southern ports were Norfolk-Richmond, Wilmington, Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, New Orleans, and Galveston.

In order to defend these ports Secretary Mallory focused his limited resources on denying sea control by increasing the survivability of warships through iron armor and improved anti-access weapons such as accurate long-range artillery and mines. When established together, this Confederate three-pronged approach successfully defended key Confederate ports. The new Confederate Navy was built to deny sea control near key Confederate ports to enable blockade runners to continue to supply the South, so that the army could continue to resist ashore. Charleston, Wilmington, and Richmond were not conquered by naval invasion but rather fell to the Union army advancing from the rear or, like Mobile, required weakening the Union blockade of Charleston to mass the forces required to invade. This trident approach enabled the South to maintain local sea control in the vicinity of key ports to keep those ports open.

The theory was that mines and narrow channels limited the maneuverability and fighting effectiveness of ships operating in littoral waters. Well-placed minefields forced ships within range of coastal defense artillery which increased the accuracy and damage of the Confederate Brooke rifles.4 Damaged vessels that got past the mines and coastal defense artillery would have to face the ironclads. This system successfully defended Charleston, Wilmington, and Richmond.

A map of the American Civil War. (Wikimedia Commons, Click to Expand)

However, the Battle of Mobile Bay demonstrated the inherent weakness of the system. The bold and innovative Union commander Admiral Farragut was not deterred by the mines. He placed anchor chains along his ships’ sides as improvised armor and steamed past the forts with their heavy guns to swiftly attack the single heavily outnumbered ironclad. CSS Tennessee’s steering system was outside the protective armor. Once the steering chains had been shot away, Tennessee was unable to maneuver and was overwhelmed by superior numbers.5 


From the beginning, it was clear that the South was at a distinct disadvantage in terms of shipbuilding. With little maritime tradition, few shipyards, and a meager industrial base she could not out-build the Union. Secretary Mallory knew ironclads were the answer. Before the Confederate capital had even moved to Richmond, Secretary Mallory was planning an ironclad navy. On April 26, 1861, Secretary Mallory wrote to the chairman of the House Committee on Naval Affairs:

“I regard the possession of an iron-armored ship as a matter of the first necessity… Inequality of numbers may be compensated by invulnerability; and thus not only does economy but naval success dictate the wisdom and expediency of fighting with iron against wood, without regard to first cost.”6

In Norfolk, Lieutenant John M. Brooke and Chief Naval Constructor John Porter cooperated on a design for a casemate ironclad built on the hull of the frigate Merrimack. With modifications, the basic design became the standard for Confederate ironclads. Richmond and Charleston each completed three ironclads, along the rivers of North Carolina, four were completed, and Savannah and Mobile each completed one. More ironclads were under construction along the Mississippi and other cities. But construction was hampered by material shortages and transportation issues. Throughout the war, 50 ironclads were laid down and 22 of them were commissioned.

However, most Confederate ironclads had maneuverability issues resulting from under-powered engines and deep drafts. Engineering plants were under-powered because the South lacked the capability and expertise to build new plants and used whatever old systems could be salvaged.7

Congressional appropriations and civic societies, including women’s ironclad societies, raised money in major cities to support construction of ironclads like CSS Chicora and Palmetto State in Charleston. Both congress and the citizenry had an expectation that the ironclads would go to sea and break the blockade. Congressional pressure often forced untimely offensives that resulted in disaster. For example, CSS Atlanta was captured by Union forces after she sortied from Savannah in an ill-advised attempt to break the blockade of Savannah against the recommendation of her captain. She ran aground at low tide in the river and was forced to capitulate.   

The USS Cairo photographed in the Mississippi River area during 1862, with a boat alongside her port bow, crewmen on deck and other river steamers in the background. (Wikimedia Commons)

In Charleston, Chicora and Palmetto State conducted a sortie to attack the inshore blockading squadron. They damaged USS Mercidta and USS Keystone State. The Union blockading fleet abandoned the inshore blockade for several weeks until it became clear the two ironclads would not continue patrolling offshore.8

In North Carolina, the Albemarle sailed into the sound and sank the Miami and Southfield, and took part in the liberation of the cities of Plymouth and Washington. She was supposed to rendezvous with the Neuse to support the Confederate Army’s attack on New Bern, but was delayed. The Albemarle struck such fear into the Union fleet that they abandoned the North Carolina sounds. Albemarle was eventually sunk by Union Lieutenant William Cushing in a daring raid up the Roanoke River. Lieutenant Cushing used a steam launch equipped with a spar torpedo to destroy the ironclad.9

Richmond demonstrated the effectiveness of the fleet-in–being, behind obstructions, mines, and powerful artillery. The large Union fleet could not force the obstructions. In January 1865, Secretary Mallory wrote to Captain John Mitchell, commander of the James River Squadron, “If we can block the river at or below City Point, Grant might be compelled to evacuate his position.”10 On January 23-24, 1865, the Confederate fleet sortied, while Union ironclads of the James River Squadron were hundreds of miles away attacking Wilmington. This attack was defeated by the shallow depth of the James River and the Confederate commander’s caution. After a series of groundings, the Confederate fleet returned to its defenses. General Grant understood how close the Confederate Navy had come to raising the siege of Petersburg. If a Confederate ironclad got to City Point, it could destroy the Union supply ships that supported the Union Army besieging Petersburg. Despite frantic telegraphs, the Union James River Squadron did not steam to support the Union batteries. General Grant was lucky that Captain Mitchell had been spooked by the groundings and worried about the impacts of losing his fleet on the defense of Richmond.11 

Coastal Defense Artillery

The War Between the States is often used as a demonstration that the adage, “a ship’s a fool to fight a fort” was dead. It was assumed that advances in naval artillery meant that the ship would always win. If one examined the first few disasters of the war, this might be the case. Bold Union attacks in Hatteras, North Carolina, Port Royal, South Carolina, and Galveston, Texas showed the weakness of Confederate artillery early in the war. The Confederacy needed heavy guns. In addition to his work on the Virginia, Lieutenant John M. Brooke also developed a new artillery piece, the 6.4 inch Brooke Rifled Gun, which was outfitted on the Virginia for its contest with Monitor. The Union Parrot Rifled Gun had a single reinforcing iron band around the breech, but the Brooke Rifle had multiple reinforcing iron bands increasing the strength of the gun and enabling it to use more powder to give projectiles greater range.12 The 7 inch Brooke Rifle’s maximum-range of 7,900 yards easily out-sticked the range of Union Parrot Rifles and Dahlgren guns.13 In addition to developing this new gun, Lieutenant Brooke also developed new bolts to fire from the guns. On 26 October 1862, he wrote in his journal that one of these new bolts pierced three two-inch plates and cracked the wood backing.14 These new guns would play a decisive role in preventing the Union Navy from repeating the easy victories of 1862. 

While Lieutenant Brooke developed the Brooke Rifle, Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones was tasked with the manufacturing. In Selma, Alabama, the Confederate Navy created a foundry to turn out these guns. Through their resourcefulness, a successful, efficient foundry was created from nothing. Throughout the war, over 70 Brooke Rifles were cast in Selma and an almost equal number cast at Tredegar Ironworks in Richmond. These guns were vital to Secretary Mallory’s layered defense of Southern ports and armed both the forts and ironclads.

Norfolk was captured after Union troops landed near modern day Chix Beach far from Confederate defenses. Local Confederate leadership panicked as Union troops advanced on Norfolk. Unable to evacuate CSS Virginia, the Confederate Navy blew her up to prevent capture.

The road to Richmond seemed open. In May 1862, the Union Navy attempted to steam up the James River to capture the city. The Union force had two non-ironclad ships and three ironclads: USS Monitor, USS Naugatuck, and USS Galena. They were surprised by the Brooke Rifles at Drewry’s Bluff that caused massive damage to Galena and Monitor. Galena was hit over 45 times and was badly damaged, including suffering 25 casualties. The guns at Drewry’s Bluff bought time for the Confederate Navy to obstruct the river with mines and ironclads. The James River defenses would not be challenged again until 1865.15

In March 1863, Union Admiral Farragut attempted to run up river past the guns of Port Hudson on the Mississippi with his fleet of seven non-ironclad ships. Restricted room to maneuver, the strong current, and heavy Confederate shore-based gunfire caused havoc in the Union fleet. Only two of Admiral Farragut’s ships succeeded in passing the batteries. Every ship ran aground at some point in the engagement. Admiral Farragut’s ships were lashed together in pairs to minimize the risk of ships being disabled by gunfire and left to their own devices. USS Hartford and USS Albatross led the fleet upriver and were the only two ships to reach their objective. The second pair ran aground, and the shock of the grounding broke them loose of each other, damaging their engines and causing them to drift down river. Shot from the batteries damaged the boilers on USS Richmond, while her partner, USS Genesee, couldn’t make headway against the current and drifted down river. The lone ship in the rear, USS Mississippi caught fire after being hit with heated shot that exploded when the fire reached her magazines.16 In April 1863, Admiral DuPont attempted to force his way past the forts and batteries of Charleston with a fleet of ironclads. After several hours of bombardment, he failed. His force sustained massive damage. Three ironclads were put out of action for weeks, and one, USS Keokuk, sank from damage sustained during the fight.17

These guns not only heavily damaged ships that tried to force the passage, but their large range kept the blockading ships at bay, increasing the ability of blockade runners to enter the port. Wilmington’s geography provides an excellent example of the impact of heavy guns. Fort Fisher was constructed of sand at the tip of Cape Fear, protecting the two inlets into the Cape Fear River. Because of the distance between the two inlets, the Union Navy had to blockade both entrances which required more ships. The heavy guns of Fort Fisher included a 150 pound Armstrong gun, Blakely and Brooke rifles, eight and ten-inch Columbiads, and several 32 pounders. The 150 pound Armstrong gun and Brooke Rifles out-ranged the weapons of the blockading fleet by over a mile, forcing the ships farther offshore and increasing the number of successful blockade runners.18

Mine Warfare

Admiral Farragut’s famous quip to, “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” may be considered rash. He lost one of his ironclads, USS Tecumseh to Confederate mines (which were known as torpedoes at the time) at Mobile. If the mines had not become waterlogged, he might have lost more ships. Throughout the war, Confederate mines sank 29 Union ships and damaged 14 more.19

Mines struck fear into the hearts of Union sailors and impacted operations for commanders less daring than Admiral Farragut. Commander Matthew Fontaine Maury and Brigadier General Gabriel Rains led the Navy and Army torpedo research and production teams. Commander Maury’s experiences as a scientist and with electricity and transatlantic telegraph cable led to the development of the electrically detonated underwater mine. General Rains’ experience came from creating landmines and explosive booby traps during the Seminole Wars. While mines were a success, they were not perfect. Confederate manufacturing and new technology meant many became waterlogged duds and did not detonate, saving many more Union ships from a watery grave.

Mines were a controversial weapon in the 1860s; many thought mines lacked chivalry. Admiral Farragut said, “Torpedoes are not so agreeable when used by both sides; therefore, I have reluctantly brought myself to it. I have always deemed it unworthy of a chivalrous nation, but it does not do to give your enemy such a decided superiority over you.” Confederate Secretary of War George Randolph thought they should be used as a means to defend rivers and ports, but not just to kill the enemy. The Confederate Navy created offensive mines called the spar torpedo, a mine attached to a pole controlled from a ship.

The CSS Hunley, one of the world’s first submarines, and the first to sink an enemy vessel in combat, sank the USS Houstonatonic on blockade duty off Charleston in 1864. In addition to submarines, the Confederates developed the David-class torpedo launch. They were not true submarines, but their low profile made them challenging to spot at night. Throughout 1863, CSS David conducted attacks on USS New Ironsides, Wabash, and Memphis. The submarines and torpedo launches forced the Union blockade to remain farther offshore from Charleston to minimize the risk of submerged torpedo attack.

CSS Hunley (Conrad Wise Chapman via Wikimedia Commons)

Mines were effective by striking fear into the hearts of sailors and shaping the battlespace through deterrence. The presence of mines often persuaded Union admirals to not attack, earning effective sea denial for the Confederacy. Admiral Farragut’s famous line stands out because most admirals did not go full speed ahead – they stopped and sent boats to sweep for mines first or simply remained offshore.


Secretary Mallory’s Navy succeeded in its desperate struggle to defend land against sea. The Confederate trident approach succeeded at denying the Union Navy local sea control in the vicinity of key port cities and forced ships to often remain farther from the coast. The Confederate layered defenses enabled Confederate ports to remain open until the final collapse of the Confederacy. 

Despite an ever tightening blockade, the port of Wilmington blockade runners brought 3.5 million pounds of meat, 1.5 million pounds of lead, 2 million pounds of saltpeter, 500,000 pairs of shoes, 300,000 blankets, 50,000 rifles, and 43 cannon from Europe in the latter half of 1864. The Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of Tennessee received new uniforms and equipment that enabled them to continue the struggle. Fort Fisher, the gateway to Wilmington, was captured in January 1865 after two amphibious landings. The Army of Northern Virginia capitulated four months later.20

Today, the U.S. Navy is the largest in the world. However, it finds itself in another technological revolution similar to the rise of the ironclad. While it has the ships and assumes it has permanent sea control, rivals have heavily invested in the spiritual successor to the Brookes Rifle, the anti-ship cruise missile.

The U.S. Navy must learn from the Confederate example and create its own trident of technologies and tactics to out-compete rival advances. The U.S. Navy should rapidly construct new long range anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) that out-range opponents, improve and revive mine-warfare forces, and think hard about what evolution flows from the modern range and defense of the aircraft carrier. In addition, these advances should be shared with allies, such as Japan and the Philippines, who could utilize new American-developed sea mines and ASCMs to deny an adversary sea control near their littorals. Mobile long-range ASCM batteries on the islands of Luzon and Palawan could close the entire South China Sea to an adversary, much like Russian coastal defense cruise missile sites in Crimea can contest much of the Black Sea.

Great power rivals understand that a fleet-on-fleet engagement against the U.S. Navy is incredibly risky and have developed alternatives, just like the Confederate Navy developed alternatives to a fleet-on-fleet engagement with the Union. Now it is the U.S. Navy’s turn to learn from history, and develop its own counter-punch to ensure it maintains permanent sea control and open sea lines of communication.

LCDR Jason Lancaster is an alumnus of Mary Washington College and has an MA from the University of Tulsa. He is currently serving as the N8 Tactical Development Officer at Commander, Destroyer Squadron 26. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.


1. Corbett, Julian, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, pp 125-127.

2. Luraghi, Raimondo, A History of the Confederate Navy, pg 4.

3. Simson, Jay, Naval Strategies of the Civil War, pp 129-131.

4. Ibid. pg 131.

5. Still, William N. Jr, Iron Afloat: The Story of the Confederate Armorclads, pg 210.

6. Ibid, pg 10.

7. Sims, pp 227-228.

8. Browning, Robert M. Jr, Success is all that was expected: The South Atlantic Blockading Squadron during the Civil War, pp 137-140.

9. Still, pp 212-213.

10. Coski, John M., Capital Navy, The Men, Ships, and Operations of the James River Squadron, pg 196.

11.Ibid, pp 202-205.

12. Brooke, George, Ironclads and Big Guns of the Confederacy, pg 127.

13. Drury, Ian and Gibbons, Tony, The Civil War Military Machine, pp 77-80.

14. Brooke, pg 115.

15. Coski, pg 46.

16. Page, Dave, Ships Versus Shore: Civil War Engagements along Southern Shores and Rivers, pp 316-319.

17. Browning, pg 140.

18. Drury, pp 79-82.

19. http://www.navalunderseamuseum.org/civilwarmines/ accessed 15 April 2019.

20. Stephen R. Wise, Lifeline of the Confederacy (Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1988), pg 1.

Extended Bibliography

Coski, John M. Capital Navy: The Men, Ships, and Operations of the James River Squadron. New York: Savas Beatie, 2005.

Gibbons, Ian Drury & Tony. The Civil War Military Machine. New York: Smithmark, 1993.

Jr, George M. Brooke. Ironclads and Big Guns of the Confederacy: The Journal and Letters of John M. Brooke. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2002.

Jr, Robert M. Browning. From Cape Charles to Cape Fear: The North Atlantic Blockading Squadron During the Civil War. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1993.

—. Success is All That Was Expected: The South Atlantic Blockading Squadron during the Civil War. Washington DC: Potomac Books, inc, 2002.

Jr, William N. Still. Iron Afloat The Story of the Confederate Ironclads. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1985.

Luraghi, Raimondo. A History of the Confederate Navy. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1996.

Page, Dave. Ships versus Shore: Civil War Engagements Along Southern Shores and Rivers. Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 1994.

Simson, Jay W. Naval Strategies of the Civil War. Nashville: Cumberland House Publishing inc, 2001.

United States Naval Undersea Warfare Museum. http://www.navalunderseamuseum.org/civilwarmines/. 2019. http://www.navalunderseamuseum.org/civilwarmines/ (accessed April 15, 2019).

Waters, W. Davis. Gabriel Rains and the Confederate Torpedo Bureau. El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2014.

Wise, Stephen R. Lifeline of the Confederacy Blockade Running During the Civil War. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.

Featured Image: “The Giant of Mobile Bay, CSS Tennessee” by Tom Freeman

Pitfalls in New Capital Ship Creation

Future Capital Ship Topic Week

By Steve Wills

The creation of new capital ship concepts seems to historically stem from a combination of new technology, change in strategic situation, and changes in financial resources available for warship construction and maintenance over time. The best known such case is that of the development of the aircraft carrier from simple experiment in 1914 to master of Pacific theater warfare in 1941. The carrier’s evolution from experiment to capital is fairly well known, especially from books such as historians Allan Millet and Williamson Murray’s Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, Albert Nofi’s To Train the Fleet for War, and books on aircraft carrier development by the noted naval historians Norman Polmar and Norman Friedman.

The record of success in the process of creating a new capital ship is however mixed and forced attempts without the benefit of exercises and evaluation over time are not always successful. It is also useful to study less-than-successful capital ships. Consider the cases of the American Civil War ironclad monitor-type warship and the early twentieth century battlecruiser. Varying degrees of the three factors (technology, strategy, financial change) went into their concept development and active employment. These classes were overtaken by further perturbations in the same three categories that were responsible for their initial creation and their reign as “capital ships” was brief. A study of these less-than-successful capital ship entrants is useful in predicting the emergence of the “next” capital ship.

American Civil War Monitors

The American Civil War was the genesis of several ship types, including early versions of the submarine, and the torpedo/mine laying boat. Two potential capital ship entrants include the monitor-type turreted ship and the high-speed steam cruiser. Both later filled roles as capital ships in other navies. In the case of the turreted ship, a change in strategy as dictated by the need to batter through Confederate A2/AD defenses and advances in metallurgy needed for thick armor and rifled guns made possible a new class of capital ship superior to all previous U.S. capital ship types. The steam frigate; the early industrial age descendent of the sailing ship of the line, was no match for armored warships with large solid shot or shell gun weapons. The ineffectiveness of the USS Cumberland, USS Congress, and the new steam frigate USS Minnesota against the Confederate armored ship CSS Virginia attested to the superiority of the armored ship over previous “capital” ship classes. The addition of the revolving armored turret in the original USS Monitor only enhanced armored ship capabilities. In later battles with Confederate armored ships such as CSS Atlanta, and CSS Tennessee, the turret-mounted guns on U.S. Navy monitors made short work of Confederate warships that often could not bring their armament to bear on the more agile Federal warships or lacked the armor to withstand monitor weapons. By 1865 the monitor fleet included dozens of units, including the largest Dictator-class that approached 5000 tons displacement and 350 feet in length.

1862. On the James River in Virginia. “Effect of Confederate shot on Federal ironclad Galena.” Wet plate glass negative by James F. Gibson. (colorized)

A change in strategy and funding at the end of the war, however, and a failure for some aspects of armored ship technology to keep pace with political developments, ended the monitor’s brief reign as capital ship. The end of the rebel states’ coastal defenses and littoral armored ships left the monitors bereft of littoral missions. The U.S. returned to a strategy of forward-deployed squadrons on foreign stations for influence and limited combat missions. While two monitors made transoceanic voyages and were well-received by European audiences, their limited range, generally poor seakeeping and heavy coal consumption made them unfit for the new, financially austere strategic era in U.S. naval policy. On one such voyage it was discovered that while rated at 350 tons coal storage, the USS Miantonomoh actually carried only 264 tons and was towed by one of her escorts for a considerable part of her transoceanic voyage due to lack of coal.1 Nearly all were out of service by 1877. A few were briefly re-commissioned for the Spanish-American War against the threat of Spanish coastal attacks but were swiftly retired and scrapped soon after that conflict’s end. While initially successful in the limited terms of operational employment envisioned, the monitor was unable to become an enduring capital ship.

The High-Speed Steam Cruiser

The second Civil War contender for capital ship rank was the high-speed steam cruiser. While the monitor was one of the ancestors of the modern, dreadnought battleship of the early twentieth century, the Civil War steam cruiser was an early version of the armored cruiser that was also designed to prey on enemy trade in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The United States Navy was again a leader in the development of this type of ship based on its unsatisfactory experience with Confederate commerce raiders. These ships, while generally not the equivalent of Federal steam frigates, were fast on their coal burning engines and wide-ranging thanks to their sailing rigs. Over the course of the Civil War, Confederate commerce raiders, many constructed in British shipyards by Confederate-sympathizing Britons, in effect destroyed the American whaling industry at sea and inflicted severe damage on the U.S. merchant fleet as well. In the celebrated Alabama Claims arbitration case settled in 1872, the British government agreed to pay the U.S. $15.5 million dollars ($290m in 2017 dollars adjusted for inflation alone) in claims.2

This experience convinced some U.S. Navy engineers that a high-speed vessel capable of running down enemy cruisers or blockade runners would be a necessary component of the current and future U.S. Navy. To meet this mission need the navy undertook a plan to develop a steam warship fast enough to catch a blockade runner and well-armed enough to engage a Rebel cruiser. The product of this effort was the USS Wampanoag, a steam warship capable of the then- unheard of top speed of 17 knots as measured during her sea trials in 1868.3

The USS Florida, formerly the USS Wampanoag (Wikimedia Commons)

Unfortunately, the Wampanoag was completed too late for Civil War service and despite her advanced set of capabilities was quickly removed from active service. As with the monitors, the dawn of a new, post-Civil War strategic era made a high speed ship with large coal requirements. Wampanoag burned 136 tons of coal per day at high speed and 84 percent of her total weight was taken up by propulsion equipment.4 Navy leadership advised the Secretary of the Navy that, “The Navy no longer had a strategic or tactical requirement for a vessel with such high speed and long, (coal-fired) range.”5 Another group of Navy leaders believed that the eastern seaboard’s wood shipbuilding industry was threatened by iron, steam-powered ships and that the Navy should not damage an industry on which it so relied for the maintenance of such a large part of the existing, wooden fleet. Wampanoag’s speed and coal-fired endurance records were not equaled by any foreign vessel for nearly a decade and not superseded by any U.S. ship for almost 20 years.6

The Battlecruiser

Finally, there is the case of the battlecruiser which was British Admiral Sir John Fisher’s attempt to scientifically address advancing technology, high costs in warship construction, and meet the needs of a new strategic era in a purpose-designed capital ship. Early twentieth century British naval estimates had skyrocketed over the previous decade as Britain sough to maintain a “Two Power Standard” where the Royal Navy’s capital ship fleet was the equal of the next two largest naval powers. This effort, combined with the high costs of the recent Boer War and a desire on the part of many British lawmakers to increase the size and funding of the nascent British welfare state put great pressure on Britain’s naval leadership to cut costs whilst maintaining maritime superiority.

The capital ships charged with maintaining British maritime superiority were the standard battleship (later known as the predreadnought,) that was designed to combat similar vessels in pitched battle and the armored cruiser; a high-speed capital ship designed to protect British global commerce and to hunt down and sink enemy commerce raiding ships. Both ships were expensive, but both types were seen as essential to British maritime security. Fisher’s solution was to combine both of these classes into one new capital ship capable of meeting all of the previous requirements. Advanced fire control systems then under development that allowed all of the guns of a warship to be fired in concert against a single target were also incorporated into Fisher’s new capital ship concept, albeit with less attention to detail than that which went into the guns and speed of the ship.

This vessel was the battlecruiser, the first of which (HMS Invincible) was commissioned in 1908. The battlescruisers had the size and high speed of the armored cruiser, with the heavy guns of a battleship, at the expense of additional armor that Fisher thought superfluous if the battlecruisers big guns and superior fire control allowed it to hit enemy warships decisively before return fire could inflict damage. Fisher envisioned the battlecruisers as the Royal Navy’s deployable “911 force” capable of meeting both enemy battle fleets and commerce raiders on the high seas while torpedo-armed destroyers and submarines guarded British littoral waters against enemy warships and potential invasion of the British homeland.

Battlecruiser HMS Invincible exploding at the Battle of Jutland, 31 May 1916. (Wikimedia Commons)

The battlecruiser concept, as well as Fisher’s other capital ship concept the HMS Dreadnought-type, all big gun battleship, allowed him to reduce British naval costs from 1905 through 1910. Unfortunately, technology continued to advance and the strategic situation around which the battlecruisers were designed changed. Oil propulsion, bigger guns, and the ability to build larger vessels resulted in a further combination of the dreadnought battleship and the battlecruiser into the “fast battleship” concept; the first of which was the Queen Elizabeth class of 1913. This ship could travel nearly as fast as the battlecruiser, and possessed superior armament and armor to the existing battlecruiser fleet.

The strategic situation also changed. Fisher designed the battlecruiser against the known threat of French and Russian armored cruisers built to attack the British Empire’s global trade routes. The advent of the Triple Entente alliance and the emergence of the German Empire as the Royal Navy’s new, primary enemy resulted in a different employment for the battlecruisers. Germany had no fleet of commerce raiding cruisers, and built short-range battlecruisers of its own as scouting elements for its battle fleet. While some British battlecruisers remained stationed overseas in accordance with Fisher’s original concept, most were assembled in home waters as a heavy scouting arm of the battle fleet much as were their German counterparts.

The experience of war seemed to confirm the utility of the fast battleship over the battlecruiser. Although the first two battlecruisers (HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible) found early employment as Fisher intended; hunting down and sinking German Vice Admiral von Spee’s raiding cruiser squadron, most wartime battlecruiser operations were in support of battle fleet actions in the North Sea. German battlecruisers sacrificed gun size, operational range, and habitability for survivability and were likely more robust than most of their British counterparts. Heavy British battlecruiser losses at the Battle of Jutland were probably more to do with the failure of British gunnery officers to abide by their own standing and safety orders then any inherent vulnerability of the battlecruiser type. Nonetheless, the loss of three British battlecruisers and over 3000 men with them in spectacular magazine explosions, along with the scapegoating of the class by senior operational British commanders to cover failures in tactical doctrine did much to discourage further construction. The “last battlecruiser” HMS Hood was also sunk by a magazine explosion 20 years later by the German battleship Bismarck, an event that served only to further discredit the battlecruiser concept even though Hood was over two decades old and in need of refit and modernization.


What do these examples suggest about the changes in capital ship design over time? Changes in national strategy can quickly make today’s ideal warship an expensive anachronism from another era. The U.S. navy monitors, the high-speed Wampanoag, and the battlecruisers were all ideal warships as conceived in support of their respective national and naval strategies. The end of the Civil War and of the Franco-Russian surface raider threat to global British shipping made all three designs obsolete to a degree. Changes in financial support to a navy can also change capital ship definitions and bring about a search for alternatives. The post-Civil War U.S. Navy funding shortage limited the applicability of coal-hungry armored or high-speed ships, and brought a nearly two-decade return of ships with significant sail propulsion. The expensive British “Two Power Standard” building program helped to drive the search for an alternative major combatant in the form of first the Dreadnought battleship and then the battlecruiser. Post World War I financial and treaty limitations of battleships in turn helped to drive the development of the aircraft carrier. Finally, technology never stands still for long, and the monitors, the Wampanoag, and the battlecruisers were all overcome in short periods of time by ships with more advanced capabilities.

What do these changes in historical capital ships suggest about designs for the “next” primary naval platforms? The British naval architect and historian David K. Brown suggested that while the aircraft carrier was always more vulnerable to attack than was the armored battleship, the flattop was able to deliver a larger and more sustained load or ordnance on an opponent as compared to even a squadron of battleships. Anything that replaces the aircraft carrier or the nuclear submarine (both have proponents that suggest they are the current capital ship,) must at least deliver a heavier, sustained combat punch than these units. The monitors and the battlecruiser were both superseded by ships that met this criterion. The aircraft carrier, by contrast, has been upgradable over time with new aircraft making it sustainable for a long period. Continued technological advances demand that any new platform be upgradable over time. The Wampanoag’s machinery was advanced, but contained wooden gears that wore down and needed a replacement over the course of one voyage. Subsequent machinery plants and other systems were more robust. The electromagnetic rail gun may be the next weapon of the next capital ship, but its barrel life must improve beyond a few hundred shots in order to be operational and tactically viable.

There is a lively debate as to what the next capital ship or system will be, but it will still likely be affected by the same financial, technological, and strategic influences that drove past capital ship changes. Any new capital ship must be capable of greater sustained ordnance delivery over time than its predecessor. Given the changes of the last decade in terms of a new era of strategic, great power competition, the rapid advance of many technologies, and financial shortfalls for many nations in terms of naval spending, the question of the next capital ship remains a healthy one open to continued debate.

Steven Wills is a retired surface warfare officer with a PhD in Military History from Ohio University. 

These views are presented in a personal capacity


1. Howard J. Fuller, ““A portentous spectacle”: The Monitor U.S.S. Miantonomoh Visits England, “ The International Journal of Naval History, Volume 4, No 3, December 2005, p. 8.

2. http://legal.un.org/riaa/cases/vol_XXIX/125-134.pdf

3. http://usacac.army.mil/cac2/csi/docs/Gorman/06_Retired/03_Retired_2000_11/20_09_DisruptiveTechnology_2Mar.pdf

4. Wegner, D.M.; Ratliff, C.D. (September 1998). “USS Wampanoag, 1868: Isherwood, Taylor, and the Search for Speed”. Naval Engineers Journal, pp. 19–31.

5. http://usacac.army.mil/cac2/csi/docs/Gorman/06_Retired/03_Retired_2000_11/20_09_DisruptiveTechnology_2Mar.pdf

6. David K. Brown, From Warrior to Dreadnought, Warship Development from 1860 to 1905, Barnsley, UK, Seaforth Publishing, 1997, p. 19.

Featured Image: “Congress Burning” by Tom Freeman.

Ulysses S. Grant at Endor

Written by Matthew Merighi for Movie Re-Fights Week

The Battle of Endor was the ultimate confrontation in the original Star Wars trilogy. It was a two-pronged battle both in space and on the surface of Endor. Each was a desperate race against time; the Rebel Fleet desperate holding out against the Imperial Fleet backed by a fully armed and operational Death Star laser while a strike team battled a full Imperial Legion defending the Death Star shield generator. We all know how the story ends: the plucky Rebels manage to overcome the Legion through successful use of indigenous forces and coalition warfare, allowing the Rebel Fleet to destroy the Death Star from the inside. The Death Star explodes, the evil Emperor dies, and the galaxy is finally free of tyranny. The end.

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While this makes for good cinematography, it makes for poor understanding of military strategy. As the television show Robot Chicken points out, there is no reason why the Rebels should have won that battle even once the Death Star was destroyed. The Imperial Fleet was still very much intact, though down a Super Destroyer, and could have prevailed in a protracted conventional engagement. Moreover, the Emperor’s initial strategy to hold the Imperial Fleet in reserve in order to demonstrate the Death Star’s power and fuel Skywalker’s despair in his fall to the Dark Side was clumsy at best. Palpatine demonstrated what happens if you do not pay attention during strategy classes.

In crafting a better strategy at Endor, the Empire could have turned to a figure from American military history: Ulysses S. Grant. For our historically impaired audience, General Grant was the commander of Union forces during the American Civil War who distinguished himself through quasi-Soviet strategy of using superior manpower to slowly grind down the Confederacy until it surrendered. He is one of the best examples of a successful attrition-based approach to strategy and tactics. He followed the dictum that “quantity has a quality of its own.”

If Emperor Palpatine isn’t going to use his Fleet, I’d like to borrow it for a time. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)
If Emperor Palpatine isn’t going to use his Fleet, I’d like to borrow it for a time. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The Union’s Grand Army of the Republic (double entendre intended) exhibited the same characteristic as the Imperial Fleet: it was larger and better outfitted but less ably manned and led than its Rebel counterpart. This did the Union no favors in the early phase of the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln fired Grant’s predecessor, George McClellan, for failing to act aggressively with the Union’s numeric advantage. “If General McClellan isn’t going to use his army,” Lincoln fumed, “then I would like to borrow it for a time.”

If Grant was directing operations at Endor, he would immediately engage the Rebel Fleet. He had enough numbers to overwhelm the Rebel Fleet early while they were still processing the trap the Empire laid. He also had optimal field position. The Rebel Fleet was trapped on three sides by the Death Star, Endor, and the Imperial Fleet. The Rebels were also strung out in a long column while the Imperial Fleet was in a broad line. Imperial Star Destroyers, with their superior armaments and optimization for firing at targets to their front, “crossed the T” and pummeled the ships in the Rebel vanguard before the heavy cruisers in the rear could get into good firing range.

An example of “crossing the T.” (Image from Wikipedia)
An example of “crossing the T.” (Image from Wikipedia)

Grant’s approach does have a downside: the risk of a Pyrrhic victory. The Imperial Fleet is not just a warfighting tool; it is also a tool of domestic policing. The Empire is held together through fear of the Imperial Fleet, so conventional losses at Endor could have been a political disaster when coupled with Emperor Palpatine’s death. Grant would have accepted those risks and proceeded with his strategy. He would have reasoned that, despite the short-term challenges of replacing losses, the Rebels would have much more difficulty recovering from such a slugfest than the Empire would. Grant might also have reasoned that it would be much easier to bind together a government by NOT being a pro-human racist or building giant planet-killing superweapons that would ruin the galactic economy but that is neither here nor there.

Remember strategists: focus on your most important objectives, use your advantages wisely, and don’t be afraid to take risks. If you do, you too might defeat the Rebel Fleet one day.

Matthew Merighi is CIMSEC’s Director of Publications. He is a Masters of Arts candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also a proud Star Wars nerd.

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Book Review: “Saving South Sudan”


Disclosure: I have been following the evolution and progress of Robert Young Pelton‘s work on Sudan for several months. I am quite pleased with what came of this trip for Robert and his filmmaker / photographer cohort, Tim Freccia. Enjoy!

“Violence and bloodshed can never have morally good results” – The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare

Saving South Sudan is an ambitious, multimedia event from World’s Most Dangerous Places, author Robert Young Pelton and master photographer/filmmaker Tim Freccia. VICE went big on Pelton’s quixotic journey with Nuer Lost Boy Machot Lap Thiep to “fix” South Sudan. The three enter the world’s newest nation, at a time of extreme crisis and bloodshed, creating a grand yarn with bold characters and high adventure set against sweeping, brutal savagery.

The story of South Sudan as viewed through a Western lens is unbelievably complex, but Pelton gives us an African perspective where the current crisis is demystified by those closest to it. South Sudan has plunged into another round of playground rivalry where the contested sandbox is the world’s newest country and the opponent’s bloody noses, busted lips and black eyes are dwarfed by the physical and emotional damage inflicted on its spectators.

Saving South Sudan gives us an intelligent summary of the history, religion, cultural anthropological aspects, militarism, oil economy and “baksheesh-ocracy” that makes South Sudan tick. Serious students of the subject are encouraged to consider all of these facets while reading / viewing this oeuvre: No actions are promoted, no outcomes are predicted- and this is how it should be. This is Africa.

Pelton’s 130 page print piece and 40 min documentary grants the viewer unparalleled access into an Africa where there are no orange sunsets framed by acacia trees. A place where war is irregular, ferocious and unpredictable. In THIS Africa even the “rebel leader” bristles at being identified as such. In an earnest conversation, ousted Vice President Dr Riek Machar relays his desire isn’t to incite violence but to have a seat at the table in order to discuss options and opportunities to end the conflict. Pelton takes the filter off: behind the rhetoric, the violence continues in real time and we know that securing a seat at the table and successful negotiations (see recent media reports) bear little impact on the battle for oil on the ground. If fighting has indeed ceased, most roving bands have yet to receive the memo.

I can’t exit this review without mentioning the main reason to take the time to get briefed on the region through Pelton’s Saving South Sudan. The human touch interviews with the rulers, rebels and raconteurs would be reason enough. So would Freccia’s breathtaking portraits of the people, landscape and conflict. But taking you along this expedition is Machot- an affable, handsome (still) young man and former lost boy. His story is one of sorrow, success, and optimism. His is perhaps the best lens of them all.


Finding the print issue of the magazine can be a challenge but distribution sites are posted at the VICE website. The entire article can be found at: http://www.vice.com/read/theyre-all-coming-here-0000283-v21n4

The “Saving South Sudan” world premiere documentary can be found on-demand here: http://www.vice.com/en_us

Stephanie Chenault is the COO of Venio Inc, a service-disabled, veteran-owned small business which focus on plans, policy, architectures and problem-solving across the Department of Defense for multiple clients.