The American Civil War At Sea Wiki

The River Defense Fleet (1861-1865)[]

The Confederate River Defense Fleet was formed in late 1861 for the purposes of defending the Mississippi River from Federal attack; conceptually, the fleet was intended to operate independently of the Army or Navy, and was to be managed by the Confederate War Department. In practice, the fleet was administered by the War Department, but was treated as a part of the Army.

There were sixteen vessels acquired for the fleet between 1861 and 1862. All of the first sixteen ships were civilian vessels taken up into service, with predominantly civilian crews and officers. A handful of Naval advisors were attached, and at least initially, many of the gunners assigned to the fleet were artillerists from the Confederate Army. The gunners may have been entirely civilian at the time of the Battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip; the assignment of CS Army gunners may have taken place only after the fall of New Orleans.

The River Defense Fleet was divided informally into two Divisions, the "Southern Division" was responsible for patrol and defense of the Southern Mississippi, to include New Orleans. The "Northern Division" was responsible for the defense of the Northern Mississippi, and was principally concentrated in Tennesee and Arkansas. Initially, these two Divisions operated together, but after the Battle of Island No. 10, the Southern Division was ordered south to bolster the defenses of New Orleans.

At the Battle of Forts Jackson and Saint Philip, the majority of vessels attached to the Southern Division of the River Defense Fleet were destroyed by USN vessels, abandoned by their crews, or destroyed shortly thereafter to prevent capture by the end of April, 1862. A single vessel, the CSS Ponchartrain, escaped this destruction, and continued to fight in support of the Confederate Army until it was destroyed to prevent capture after losing a battle with USS General Price (formerly the CSS General Sterling Price, also part of the River Defense Fleet.) It was reported that the Southern Division proved completely obstinate and unwilling to accept orders from either the Army or the Navy. This directly contributed to the poor coordination of the defense of New Orleans, and was a factor in the fall of that important city.

The Northern Division was slightly more fortunate, and scored a notable tactical victory at the Battle of Plum Point against the Union's Western Gunboat Flotilla in May, 1862. However, the Northern Division was almost completely destroyed at the Battle of Memphis, with most ships being sunk or captured by the Western Gunboat Flotilla. One vessel, CSS General Earl Van Dorn, escaped Memphis and continued to operate in the vicinity of Yazoo City, Mississippi until her (perhaps premature) scuttling on June 26th, 1862. There is some indication that there had been a falling out between the "privateer" crews of the River Defense Fleet and the CS Army gunners assigned to their vessels. The crisis reached a head when General M. Jeff Thompson withdrew his entire CS Army Artillery command from the River Defense Fleet on the eve of the Battle of Memphis. This may have played a factor in the defeat of the River Defense Fleet at the aforementioned engagement.

A few additional ships were mustered in and nominally assigned to the River Defense fleet after the Battle of Memphis. The most notable and successful of these was CSS Webb, a sidewheel cottonclad ram, which continued to serve until very close to the end of the war. Two ironclad vessels to operate on the Mississippi and its tributaries, CSS Arkansas and CSS Missouri, were actually Confederate Navy vessels, rather than War Department Vessels, and had no formal association (other than co-belligerency) with the River Defense Fleet.

A Note on Armament[]

Records for the riverine war are not particularly precise with regards to armament of the Confederate fleet. Most armament proposed in various secondary sources is based upon anecdotes, allusions, photographs, and period engravings, along with a handful of personal letters (which often conflict with each other!) Unfortunately, we don't really have a primary source from the era that confirms emphatically which weapons were "officially" carried by the River Defense Fleet at any particular time. This is partly due to the strange organization of the River Defense Fleet and its "privateer" status, and partly because of the same practice present on both sides of the river war: weapons were frequently exchanged, swapped out, or replaced with better weaponry or simply what was in best supply at the time. Complicating matters further is the practice of adding far more gunports and "pseudo gunports" to riverine warships than were actually used at any particular time.

As such, the reader is strongly encouraged to take the armament given in the entries for each of these ships with a very healthy grain of salt.

All items (9)