A Matter of the First Necessity

Confederate officials scrambled this month to prepare their new country for war with the United States. This included a proposal by Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory to construct a fleet of ironclad warships. Mallory, the former chairman of the U.S. Senate Naval Affairs Committee, knew that the Confederacy could not possibly build a wooden fleet to match U.S. naval strength. However, as he told the Confederate naval committee, an ironclad “at this time could traverse the entire coast of the United States, prevent all blockades, and encounter, with a fair prospect of success, their entire navy.”

Mallory continued: “If to cope with them upon the sea we follow their example and build wooden ships, (we can never match them,) but inequality of numbers may be compensated by invulnerability.” He knew that not only were ironclads the future of naval warfare, but the U.S. had not yet begun developing such technology. Therefore, Mallory told the committee, “I regard the possession of an iron-armored ship as a matter of the first necessity.” Committee members approved Mallory’s plan and recommended a $2 million appropriation to begin construction.

On the 10th, President Jefferson Davis signed a Secret Act of Congress authorizing “the Navy Department to send an agent abroad to purchase six steam propellers, in addition to those heretofore authorized, together with rifled cannon, small arms, and other ordnance stores and munitions of war.” Congress appropriated $1 million for the purchase or construction of these ships. Mallory dispatched James North to Europe to search for modern shipyards in Britain or France that could build the ironclads. James D. Bulloch was named agent to Great Britain to secretly negotiate the purchase of vessels, weapons, and munitions.

Near month’s end, Confederates raised the burned U.S.S. Merrimac from the Elizabeth River, which had been abandoned when the Federals abandoned the Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk. The original name had been “Merrimack,” but the “k” had been dropped from common usage. The Merrimac was a 40-gun frigate that would eventually become the world’s first ironclad warship.

As for the army, Confederates were on the move in the Southwest. Lieutenant Colonel John R. Baylor’s 1,000 men of the 2nd Texas Mounted Rifles left San Antonio on what was publicized as a “buffalo hunt” on the southwestern Plains. In reality, this was a 700-mile trek to Fort Bliss in El Paso. The fort would be a staging area for Baylor’s men to invade the New Mexico Territory and claim her for the Confederacy.

Also in Texas, Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Van Duzer Reeve and the last 347 Federal officers and men in the state abandoned their forts and headed for Indianola on the Gulf Coast. Reeve, acting in accordance with General David Twiggs’s surrender terms, expected to receive free passage to the North. But the Confederate commander in Texas, Colonel Earl Van Dorn, had rejected Twiggs’s agreement, and he gathered a force at San Antonio “to arrest and disarm them without bloodshed.”

Van Dorn’s vanguard confronted Reeve’s Federals about 15 miles west of San Antonio. Reeve took up defensive positions and refused to surrender. A Federal officer was invited to come into the Confederate lines to see the size of the army he was up against, and when he returned he told Reeve that the Federals could not match them. Reeve then agreed to surrender. With the last remnant of the Federal military removed from Texas, Van Dorn wrote his wife, “I have taken all the U.S. troops in Texas prisoner of war, and now lean back in my chair and smoke my pipe in peace.”

To the northeast, Major General Robert E. Lee received orders from the Confederate War Department to “assume control of the forces of the Confederate States in Virginia, and assign them to such duties as you may indicate, until further orders.” This settled disputes over who was the ranking commander in Virginia, as volunteers from other southern states were arriving to help Lee defend against a potential Federal invasion.

Lee received a brigadier general commission in the Confederate Regular Army, which was the Confederacy’s highest rank. In late May, Lee and his Virginia forces were absorbed into the Confederate Army. Joseph E. Johnston, formerly a major general of Virginia forces, also received a Confederate brigadier’s commission. Samuel Cooper was given the top rank in the army and ultimately became the adjutant general of the Confederate Army.

The Confederate Department of the Peninsula was created, to be led by Colonel John B. Magruder with headquarters at Yorktown, Virginia. His authority consisted of the Virginia peninsula between the York and James rivers, including the rivers themselves. Magruder set about building fortifications while organizing the massive number of volunteers arriving.

President Davis was authorized to raise volunteer military units, appoint their field officers, and form units of brigade level and higher. Southern governors had officially consented to their troops becoming part of the Provisional Army of the Confederate States. This included the power to raise, organize, and maintain units, as well as to appoint officers. But Davis could now bypass the governors’ consent.

The Provisional Confederate Congress authorized the enlistment of up to 400,000 volunteers for three years’ service. However, the Confederacy was unable to equip all the volunteers already in service, and the War Department conceded that it turned away some 200,000 men due to lack of arms and equipment.


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One comment

  1. Sondhaus, Lawrence. Naval Warfare 1815–1914 ISBN 0-415-21478-5, pp. 73–74 states the first ironclad warship was the French built Gloire, was launched by the French Navy in November 1859

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