confederate raiders

Stuart’s Raiders at the Swollen Ford
Jared French (American; 1905–1988)
Oil and tempera
Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Washington, D.C.

Mural executed under the auspices of the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture (later called the Section of Fine Arts) for the Richmond Parcel Post Building (subsequently transferred to the Lewis F. Powell, Jr. U.S. Courthouse Annex, Richmond, Virginia).

Crew of the Russian frigate Osliaba harbored in Alexandria, Virginia, 1863.

During the American Civil War, the Russian Empire was an open supporter of the Union. When Britain and France threatened to go to war with the United States in 1863, Czar Alexander II sent the entire Russian Baltic Fleet to New York City in support of the Union Navy. Britain was also threatening to intervene against Russia in the Polish Uprising of 1863, and thus it was decided the fleet would be safer in American, rather than the Baltic where it could be trapped by the Royal Navy. This act, along with Prussian threats to go to war with France in support of the Union, caused Britain and France to back off. 

For six months the Russian fleet harbored along the Atlantic Coast, helping to enforce the Union blockade on Southern ports. Russian ships of the Far East Fleet also harbored in San Francisco to protect the city against Confederate raiders.


The 15 and 20 Inch Rodman Columbiads,

During the Civil War columbiads were very large smoothbore guns that were popular for use in sieges and as coastal defense guns.  They were especially common among Union forces since the north had the industrial capacity and resources to produce these large guns.  In 1861 a Union artilleryman and ordnance engineer named Capt. Thomas Jackson Rodman developed a new way to cast iron cannon that was faster, more efficient, and produced guns that were stronger and safer to fire.  The new columbiad Rodman designed had a curving soda bottle shape which reinforced the chamber, the point where the most pressure would occur when firing.

As soon as the Union Army adopted the Rodman gun hundreds began to be produced in northern foundries.  Most were produced at Fort Pitt Foundry in Pittsburgh, although others were casted in foundries at New York and New England as well.  Calibers were 8 inch, 10 inch, and 15 inch.  While the 10 inch was the most common with over 1,000 made, it was the 15 inch that was the most prized, of which 323 were produced.  Manned by a crew of 12, the 15 inch Rodman gun could fire a 400 lb iron ball 5,000 yards (almost 3 miles) using a 40 lb charge of gunpowder. The massive gun itself weighed almost 50,000 lbs. Due to their long range most were used as coastal defense guns to protect ports against Confederate raiders. None of the 15 inch guns were ever fired in anger.  A number 10 inch Rodmans were used to bombard Confederate cities such as Vicksburg, Petersburg, and Richmond.

In 1864 the Fort Pitt Foundry pushed the envelope by producing three 20 inch Rodman guns. The gigantic guns weighed twice as much as the 15 inch, and could fire a 1,000 lb iron ball 8,000 yards (4.5 miles) using a 200 lb charge of gunpowder.  Two were stationed at Fort Hamilton, NY while a third was produced for the warship USS Puritan.

Altogether 1,840 Rodman guns casted during the American Civil War.  Today 140 survive and can be seen at various historic coastal fortifications across the Atlantic coast.


The Armored Train

Although the record attests to a few one of uses of improvised protection on trains going back at least to 1848, it was the American Civil War where armed and armored trains truly broke onto the scene, employed principally by the Union to protect their supply lines from Confederate raiders, an ideal method of protecting the fragile rail lines, allowing a small group of men to protect a much wider span of rail than could be done with traditional fortifications.

The European powers took notice, and experimented with the concept themselves, perhaps most notably with the British experience during the Second Boer War, but it was during the First World War where the weapon came into its own. The quick stagnation of the fighting on the Western Front limited the use to a few brief forays in the first months, but the vast Eastern Front saw extensive, and successful, use by the Russians, soon to be copied by their Austro-Hungarians and German opponents, with the biggest development being the self-powered moving fortresses known as ‘land-cruisers’. The reputation of armored trains was further bolstered during the Russian Civil War with all sides employing them in large numbers, most famously the Czech Legion as they made their trek down the Trans-Siberian Railroad.

Through the interwar period, the Soviets and the Poles principally drove the further development of armored trains, and the outbreak of the Second World War revealed just how vulnerable they could be to air attack, accounting for all the battlefield losses suffered by the Poles in 1939. Although ill-suited to the front lines perhaps, they still found a purpose in protecting supply lines, and not only by the Soviets, but the Germans as well who repurposed a number of captured examples, as well as building their own designs. The Western Allies put much less stock into these land battleships, but the British had limited use of them as part of their coastal defenses, even if they declined to deploy them to the continent.

Although armored trains fell out of favor with the end of World War II, it didn’t spell the end, with both purpose built and improvised examples being found in numerous hotspots where they still showed their worth against insurgents and guerrillas.

(Library of Congress I, IV, V; Imperial War Museum II, III, VII; Collection of Steven Zaloga VI; Magnum Photos VIII)


The American Civil War battle near France — The Battle of Cherbourg

The CSS Alabama was one of the most notorious and feared Confederate commerce raiders during the American Civil War.  Under the command of Captain Raphael Semmes (pictured above, right), she was active from 1862 until 1864, the Alabama sailed the high seas raiding Union merchant ships.  Much of her raids were conducted in the North Atlantic, however her two year voyage included raids as far away as the Indian Ocean and the Straits of Malacca near Indonesia.  Altogether, the CSS Alabama boarded 450 ships, sunk 65 Union merchant ships, and capture 2,000 prisoners without any losses to her 170 man crew.

The Alabama’s streak of luck was bound to end, as Union warships were dispatched world wide with orders to find and destroy her.  The Alabama’s luck would end when she docked in the port of Cherbourg in France on the 11th of June, 1864 to receive repairs and supplies.  However on June 14th the Union warship USS Kearsarge, commanded by Capt. John A. Winslow (pictured above, left), received word of the Alabama’s location and blockaded the port, sending a telegraph requesting assistance from the nearby USS St. Louis.  The blockade lasted 5 days, during which time Capt. Semmes drilled his men for battle.  On the 19th, the CSS Alabama left Cherbourg at full sail and prepared to do battle with the Kearsarge.

The Alabama came out swinging, firing her six 32 pound cannons, a 68 pound gun, and a 110 pound gun. The Kearsarge returned fire with four 32 pound guns, one 30 pound parrot rifle, and a massive 11 inch Dahlgren gun.  For an hour the two ships circled each other while trading shots.  On land the citizens of Cherbourg eagerly watched the battle, cheering on both sides and taking bets who would win.  The Alabama was able to lay down a heavier volume of fire, discharging 370 shots during that hour.  However, the gunners of the Kearsarge were more methodical and disciplined, firing more accurate shots and striking the Alabama at various vital points across the ship.  In addition, the Kearsarge was equipped with a special chain link armor which was woven over her hull. 

At the end of the hour of fighting, the Alabama had sustained six blows below her waterline, causing the ships to rapidly take on water.  It was then that Capt. Semmes ordered the Alabama’s colors struck, and replaced with the white flag of surrender.  40 Confederate sailors were killed, 70 were captured.  30 sailors were rescued by a British yacht, where they would be taken to England and granted asylum, among them Capt. Semmes.  Only one sailor on the Kearsarge was killed, with another two wounded.  As for the CSS Alabama, she quickly sank, taking up residence in Davy Jone’s Locker.