The South has had its full share of illusions, fantasies, and pretensions, and it has continued to cling to some of them with an astonishing tenacity that defies explanation.
- C. Vann Woodward, The Burden of Southern History
Confederate Ships, Part Two
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
I never knew Woodward, the undisputed dean of Southern historians, very well. He picked up his Emory doctorate about six decades before I did, and from his perch at Vanderbilt his sharp insights into the Southern soul shaped multiple generations of Southern intellectuals. Woodward had it right: reality is fungible to the Southern mind, while fantasy can take on a very real character. And so our Great War at Sea: Confederate States Navy, though in no way a work of great philosophy, emerges from a very rich tradition of Southern historical whimsy.
In this warped world featuring a Southern nation, the Confederacy fields relatively powerful armed forces – compared to the nations of South and Central America, at least. Compared to the United States, Confederate might is sorely lacking. With British assistance the Confederate States Navy managed to build up a respectable battle fleet, but it’s the cruisers and light forces on which the South will depend in any confrontation with the North. The concepts of the French Jeune Ecole, calling for a naval mix of torpedo craft to attack enemy battleships and cruisers to strike enemy commerce, resonated with Southern naval thinkers. At the same time, the Confederate Navy found many of the same forces very useful for its evolving doctrine of Barrier Defense, making the islands of the Greater and Lesser Antilles a bulwark and the Caribbean a Confederate lake.
So we continue our look at the Confederate States Navy, concentrating on the forces that will carry out the South’s Young School strategy:
A number of older cruisers still serve the Confederacy, but only two of them appear in our set. The Houston class is based on the British Suffolk class, and as such would rate as an armored cruiser in some navies. Once a stalwart of the Confederate fleet, by 1917 these are no longer front-line units and are usually found patrolling the Caribbean safely behind the island barriers, mine fields, torpedo boats and of course the battle fleet. They still sport a formidable gun battery and can make a respectable speed, which should allow them to deal with any Yankee cruisers that slip past the Confederate defensive barrier. Unless it’s one of those foul new battle cruisers.
The rest of the Confederate cruiser force is very modern, though there are not nearly enough of them. The Montgomery class scout cruisers are based on the British scout cruiser types built during the first decade of the 20th Century. They’re fairly small and carry only four-inch guns. Faster than their British near-sisters, they can operate with the older Confederate destroyers but are not useful for long-range operations like commerce raiding. Also based on a British design, the Atlanta class cruisers sport a mixed main armament of 6-inch and 4-inch guns. They’re better-protected than the scout cruisers but not much larger.
With the Mobile class, the Confederacy fields a big, modern light cruiser with a uniform armament of 6-inch guns, a strong torpedo array and high speed. These ships can support the battle fleet’s destroyer screen or be detached as commerce raiders. The Caribbean fleet has three of them on hand, and could use a dozen more.
The Confederacy may be well behind the Union in terms of heavy ships, but the gap is far less when it comes to light ships. The image of dashing young officers commanding torpedo boats and destroyers in desperate attacks against the Yankees is a powerful one in the Southern imagination of 1917.
The backbone of the Southern torpedo force is a domestic design. The Confederacy adopted the “self-propelled torpedo” immediately after its invention in 1866 and started designing craft to deliver it. By 1917, the standard torpedo boat design is only slightly smaller than the destroyers of some navies, coming in at 400 tons. They are built for speed and stealth, with aggressive young commanders who dream of launching night attacks against the Northern battle line. They have no appreciable gun armament and enough range to allow them to easily cover the passages between Florida, Cuba and all the other islands of the Confederacy’s Caribbean Barrier.
Torpedo boats are intended to operate separately from the battle fleet; destroyers based on British designs fulfill its needs. The Maury class is outwardly similar to the British River class, but are powered by turbines rather than the older VTE machinery of their British cousins, giving them a better turn of speed. The follow-on Mallory class, based on the British Admiralty type, is a bigger boat with a stronger torpedo armament and better range. Finally, the Tensaw class followed the British W-class design with increased gunnery and better speed, giving Confederate destroyermen a better chance when faced with the Union’s powerful flush-decked boats.
Having invented modern mine warfare, the Confederate States Navy has continued as a leading innovator in “torpedo” technology. Thick minefields protect all Southern ports, and are constantly tended and renewed by small craft designed for that purpose. The passages between the Antilles islands and Florida are also heavily mined, with the big modern minelayers of the Tortuga class an example of the primacy of mine warfare in Confederate thinking.
Knowing the dangers of minefields, the Confederacy also fields a large force of minesweepers. These craft not only sweep enemy mines (and any of their own that come adrift), they also are capable of laying new fields when required. The slower McGlothlin class has been supplemented by the faster Rathbun type that can keep up with the battleships to help keep them safe in mine-infested waters.
And that wraps our look at the Confederate Navy that never was. The pieces are laser-cut and look quite fine in their butternut with dark blue while the scenarios are plentiful and fun. It’s a great addition to the Great War at Sea, even if it never really happened.
Bring the Jubilee! Order Confederate States Navy.