Them Big Navy Guns

on February 18, 2014 in American Civil War, General History

I’m a big Age of Sail fan, and watching the first episode of Black Sails prompted me to blog a bit about Civil War naval power. The revolution going on — in armor, in artillery, in propulsion — at sea during the period is something that is only half-observed in my mind. The exploits of the Alabama and Hunley are the subject of a plethora of books, and the Monitor vs. Virginia commented upon even in schoolbooks.

Yet I think that because the war produced no clash of battleships, naval matters as a whole don’t get nearly as much attention as they should. One of the key features, and the one spoken of the least, is the amazing increase in firepower for Civil War naval vessels.

Of course, fleets always had a vast edge in firepower over armies. In the Age of Sail, the typical ship of the line had a crew of 700 or 800 men, about the same as a small infantry brigade. Yet it was armed with at least 74 heavy guns — 24 and 32 pounders. Even with improved gun-making techniques, the heaviest field artillery in common use during the Civil War was the 20-lb Parrott rifle, and those same techniques made naval artillery truly gargantuan.

The 150th anniversary of the Hunley sinking the Housatonic was just a few days ago, and the USS Housatonic puts the massive increase in naval artillery power into perspective. She was a steam-powered screw sloop, a warship more akin to an Age of Sail frigate than anything else. In the old days, such a ship might mount 32 or more guns, usually 12-pounders, but sometimes 18-pounders.

The Housatonic mounted only 11 guns, but some of those were monsters. The smallest were 12-pounders, but the biggest was a giant 100-lb Parrott rifle. In between were a mixed bag of 30-, 32- and 24-pounder rifles and smoothbores, once the province of ships of the line, plus an 11-inch Dahlgren. Add on top of that the fact that these cannons fired reliable exploding shells that would smash a wooden ship to matchwood, and the difference between the War of 1812 and the Civil War navies becomes very clear.

One Response to “Them Big Navy Guns”

  1. Ira says:

    I сouldn’t residt commentіng. Well written!

Leave a Reply