Frigate Constitution, one of the first ships of the United States Navy, won the sobriquet “Old Ironsides” for her strength in withstanding enemy shot in her famous fight with HMS Guerriere 19 August 1812. To continue and enhance Constitution’s tradition of hardy service in behalf of freedom if the seas, the Navy bestowed the name, New Ironsides on a powerful ironclad built early in the Civil War.
(IrcStr: t. 3,486; l. 230’; b. 57’6”; dr. 15’8”; dph. 2310”; s. 8 k.; cpl. 449)
New Ironsides was launched 10 May 1862 by Merrick & Sons, Philadelphia, Pa.; and commissioned at Philadelphia Navy Yard 21 August 1862, Capt. Thomas Turner, in command.
After final fitting out at Norfolk in the fall, the large new ironclad steamer joined the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron off Charleston 17 January, to guard the wooden blockaders from attack of Confederate ironclads and to serve as Rear Admiral Du Pont’s flagship.
On 7 April Du Pont’s ironclads attacked the Confederate defensive works in Charleston Harbor. At noon the Union ships got under way and followed monitor Weehawken into battle. Soon the concentrated fire of the shore batteries began pounding Du Pont’s tough vessels; and during the next two hours, over 2000 Southern rounds challenged their progress. Some 50 times the Confederate cannoneers hit New Ironsides, fighting in the middle of the battleline, but did not severely damage her. The tricky currents in the narrow channel also proved formidable, twice forcing the ironclad to anchor to avoid running aground, and causing her to collide with two of the monitors. Moreover, the unpredictable current and the dense smoke in the Bay prevented her gunners from firing effectively. But all of her luck was not bad. For nearly an hour New Ironsides lay directly over a torpedo containing over a ton of powder, but a broken wire prevented the Confederates from exploding the “infernal machine.”
As darkness approached, Du Pont ordered the ironclads to retire, planning to renew the assault the following morning. However, that night he learned that the efficiency of his monitors had been greatly impaired and Keokuk had been severely damaged, so much so that she sank the following day. New Ironsides, on the other hand, had withstood her intensive pounding with less damage. Under the circumstances, the slim chance of success did not warrant the risk of renewing the attack.
During ensuing weeks, while most of the monitors were absent for repairs, New Ironsides remained off Charleston guarding the vulnerable Federal wooden hulled ships.
Early in July, Operations were resumed in Charleston Harbor concentrating against Fort Wagner on Morris Island. For about 2 months New Ironsides intermittently hammered Confederate positions supporting Army operations. On the night of 21 August the Southern Navy tried to destroy New Ironsides with a steam torpedo boat. Discovering the threat, the Union warship “beat to quarters, fired a rocket, slipped chain, and fired several guns at the stranger,” forcing her to withdraw.
Still the combined Union forces steadily increased their pressure on Fort Wagner. On 4 September, Col. Lawrence M. Keitt, who commanded the fort, reported, “rapid and fatal” effects of the Union guns. The next day the shelling killed 100 of the fort’s defenders and the bombardment grew in in tensity until the Confederacy secretly evacuated Morris Island on the night of the 6th.
On the 7th, when Weehawken ran aground during an attack on Fort Sumter, New Ironsides joined four monitors in shelling Confederate batteries to cover their helpless sister. The next morning, New Ironsides placed herself between Weehawken and the Southern batteries to draw fire while Union tugs labored to refloat the monitor. Although she was hit over 50 times, the powerful flagship emerged from the ordeal unscathed.
A few weeks later, on the night of 5 October, David, another Confederate torpedo boat, slipped into the harbor and exploded a spar torpedo against New Ironsides’ starboard quarter, somewhat damaging her. She nevertheless remained on blockade duty off Charleston until steaming to Philadelphia in May 1864 and decommissioning there for repairs 30 June.
Recommissioned 27 August 1864, Commodore William Radford in command, New Ironsides joined the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron at Norfolk. That autumn Admiral Porter was preparing to attack Fort Fisher which protected Wilmington. New Ironsides got underway 18 December to a rendezvous with the largest task force ever to sail under the Union flag. Six days later, on Christmas Eve, she led Porter’s ironclads into attack. The Admiral reported that New Ironsides “took her position in the most beautiful and seamanlike manner, got her spring out, and opened deliberate fire on the fort which was firing at her with all its guns...they were silenced almost as soon as the New Ironsides opened her terrific battery.”
However, the Army’s transports arrived too late for a landing that day and the joint assault was delayed until the following morning. Then, although the troops went ashore under cover of Porter’s guns, Maj. Gen. B. F. Butler, considering the Confederate works too strongly defended to be carried by the troops available, ordered them to reembark.
But Porter was not to be denied. He refilled the bunkers and magazines of his ships, and returned to New Inlet to await another fleet of Army transports. On 13 January 1864 the Union renewed the attack. New Ironsides led the monitors to within 1,000 yards of Fort Fisher and opened on the batteries.
Meanwhile, Gen. Terry landed 8,000 troops out of range of the Fort’s guns. A bitter struggle ensued. At mid afternoon on the third day of the fighting, the fleet ceased firing and the soldiers, aided greatly by a landing party of some 3,000 sailors and marines, charged the Confederate fortifications. Rarely has fighting been as intense. The issue hung in the balance until the guns of Porter’s ships-firing at right angles to the direction of the Union charge-opened with deadly precision and withered the Southern ranks. Col. Lamb, the Confederate commander, later wrote “as the tide of the battle seemed to have turned in our favor, the remorseless fleet came to the rescue of the faltering Federals.”
Porter commended Commodore Radford for the splendid support which New Ironsides had given the Union forces ashore: “...not withstanding their gallantry, they could not have passed from traverse to traverse without the aid of your guns, which swept the openings between the traverses while the Army advanced from point to point, and the highest compliment I can pay your gunners is to say that when I signaled to the general to know if he was not afraid of an accident from your guns ranging so close to his men, he replied, ‘No;...the accuracy of your fire is splendid.’ “
The fall of Fort Fisher 15 January and the closing of Wilmington cut off the South’s last source of supplies for its armies in the field and severed Confederate communications with the outside world.
New Ironsides got under way for Hampton Roads 17 January to join the James River division supporting Gen. Grant’s final operations against Richmond. As the Confederacy was collapsing, New Ironsides steamed to Philadelphia and decommissioned at League Island 6 April 1865. The veteran ironclad, probably the most powerful warship of her era, was destroyed by fire 16 December 1865.