For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863 ... and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin. ...
— William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust
Confederate Ships, Part One
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
My late father-in-law, a Southern newspaper legend, loved to quote those Faulkner lines as an insight, he said, into the Southern soul. Another Southern newspaper legend close to me died a while back, and I’ve been thinking about her a lot, and the different paths even individual lives can take based on very tiny turning points. That’s probably a universal feature of growing older; recalling dancing with Katie at The Nick to a band we liked, I typed the singer’s name into Google and found that he died.* Growing older really does suck.
Nothing defines the Southerner like his or her delusional romanticizing of the past. And just as we remember lost loves through a gentle mist that obscures the stuff we don’t really want to evoke, so it is with the American Civil War. Well, at least for some white Southerners; the thought of the Confederacy’s peculiar institution surviving one moment longer than it did in reality is nothing short of loathsome. Yet alternate histories of a Southern victory in the war and the years that followed are a minor sub-genre all their own, and their popularity spills over into wargames as well.
Most scholars (and there are a few who study this) trace the genre to Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee, published in 1952, but there have been dozens more including Newt Gingrich’s plodding novel, Gettysburg. I remember running across my mother’s copy of MacKinlay Kantor’s If the South Had Won the Civil War as a child and mistaking it for an actual history book.
In the wargame world, there have been at least a half-dozen board games featuring some version of a Confederacy fighting against the Union in the First or Second World Wars. Soon after we expanded the Great War at Sea series into its “war plan” volumes, fans began requesting true alternate history. And first among those requests, by far, was the Confederate States Navy.
Tom Chaffin, a guy I knew in grad school (though not well; at Emory as at most high-level programs there’s not a whole lot of contact between those working in different major fields of history) wrote a very fine dissertation on American filibustering efforts in Cuba before the Civil War; he defended it not long before I faced the committee so I read it pretty closely. And as Tom showed pretty clearly, the idea of extending American/Confederate rule — and therefore the institution of slavery — into the Caribbean basin was a very strong one.
The Confederacy had little chance to defeat the Union; as Grady McWhiney showed in his Attack and Die some years ago, even when they won battles, the Confederates lost far more soldiers than the Northerners and had far less ability to replace their losses. And if they had somehow pulled off an improbable victory, the economic, social and political cancer of slavery would have destroyed the new nation within a decade or two.
So positing a Confederate States Navy stretches the bounds of believability, but stranger things have happened in the real world. And had the Confederacy survived, expansion to the south would have been a very logical course for the new nation, following in the footsteps of William Walker and others. And that’s the basis for our Great War at Sea: Confederate States Navy.
It’s a book supplement with laser-cut, mounted pieces, with scenarios taking place on the map from U.S. Navy Plan Gold. They take place in 1917-18, with the Confederates (allied with Britain and France) trying to hold their Caribbean Barrier against invading Yankee fleets. The Confederacy uses a large number of aircraft and torpedo boats to screen the passages between the islands, as their battle fleet is badly outnumbered and outgunned by that of the North.
Here’s a look at the toys within:
In this warped alternate timeline, the Confederacy is very closely linked to the British Empire, supplying raw materials both from the states of the old Confederacy on the mainland and the new territories of the Caribbean. As a result, much like Brazil the Confederates have intimate relations with British arms manufacturers. Most of their warships are built in Southern shipyards in places like Mobile and Charleston, but British firms have significant ownership stakes. The designs are usually those drawn up in British offices.
The South Carolina class battleships represent an "export" version of the Orion class super-dreadnoughts. They the powerful 13.5-inch rifles of the Orions, but only eight of them in four turrets. These would have been the Confederacy’s first dreadnoughts, laid down shortly after Brazil ordered her first pair and benefitting from knowledge of previous designs.
For the next set of dreadnoughts, the Confederates went with a first-rate design for the three ships of the Tennessee class, license-built copies of Britain’s Iron Duke. As befits a close ally, these are full-sized versions rather than the somewhat truncated near-sisters sold to Chile and Turkey. With ten 13.5-inch guns and good protection, they are formidable opponents for the U.S. Navy’s battle line, which is made up of the same ships it operated in reality.
The Confederacy’s best fighting ships are the three powerful Kentucky-class dreadnoughts, built to an alternative design prepared as a slower but more heavily-armed version of the Queen Elizabeth class fast battleships. They boast ten 15-inch guns, but can't match the speed of their Royal Navy cousins.
Finally, there’s one odd number, the former Brazilian battleship Rio de Janeiro, which would eventually become the Turkish Sultan Osman V and then the British Agincourt. The collapse of commodity prices that forced Brazil to sell the ship likely would have crushed the Confederacy’s agricultural economy as well, but since we’re playing loose with the history here, the Southern fleet gets to add this powerful ship to its lineup.
The fast, heavily armed ship would have appealed to Confederate naval tradition, such as it was, and Southerners are nothing if not the upholders of class and tradition. The Confederacy has a pair of early battle cruisers based on the British Indomitable class, little more than fast and heavily armed armored cruisers. A decade behind the Union’s 1916-model battle cruisers, they are no match for these ships, but line up very well against the U.S. Navy’s big armored cruisers, even the fast versions.
The Confederate version is smaller than the British battle cruisers, with six rather than eight 12-inch guns. In place of the wing turrets of Indomitable, she has a single turret amidships on the centerline, giving her the same broadside firepower on a smaller (and therefore less expensive) hull.
A more fitting opponent for the Northern battle cruisers are the two Southern ships of the Shiloh class, very similar to the British Tiger and Japanese Kongo. They boast eight 13.5-inch guns, good protection and high speed. Though much less powerful than the Kentucky-class dreadnoughts, their greater speed makes them very valuable fighting ships.
The Confederacy’s navy also has a number of armored cruisers, seen as the most effective type for commerce raiding. The two ships of the Robert E. Lee class are improved models of the British Minotaur design. Their armor is about equivalent to the early battle cruisers, but they are slower and that makes them easy prey for enemy battle cruisers. They can overwhelm enemy light cruisers, should they manage to catch them.
The Semmes design, on the other hand, is a much improved ship based on the alternatives presented to the Royal Navy instead of the original battle cruisers. Semmes carries fourteen 9.2-inch guns arrayed in very similar fashion to the battleship Dreadnought, with no secondary battery other than some light guns for defense against torpedo boats. She's oil-fired and turbine-powered, giving her the speed necessary to elude Yankee convoy escorts and make her namesake proud.
Since these scenarios take place in the Caribbean, only the most modern Confederate warships are present. It’s presumed that some older pre-dreadnoughts are swinging at anchor in Hampton Roads or Charleston Harbor, along with armored and scout cruisers and maybe some modern ships as well.
The oldest battleships present in the Confederate order of battle are three examples of the Virginia class, very similar to the British King Edward VII. They British versions are not usually classed as semi-dreadnoughts, but they approach those standards with an intermediate battery of four 9.2-inch guns in addition to four 12-inch guns as their main battery and a dozen six-inch guns. The Confederate version trades some of the six-inch guns for more lighter weapons and greater range.
The other class are the three semi-dreadnoughts of the Alabama class, very similar to the British Lord Nelson. Like their British inspiration they mount ten 9.2-inch guns in addition to their four 12-inch main guns, but no six-inch guns and a large array of small weapons. They are well-protected, with better armor than some early dreadnoughts of other nations. But they are slower than the British original, trading speed for range and protection.
That’s all for now; in a later installment (probably after release) we’ll look at the light ships and aircraft of the Confederate Navy that never existed.
Click here to order Confederate States Navy!
Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.
*After the first version of this piece ran, I did come across some actual video, seen here. It's 1980's Southern bar band rock-n-roll: Matt Kimbrell, the guy I aluded to in the intro, is playing bass left center while his brother Mark sings lead. Matt would go on to play in the backing band for that gray-haired dude who won American Idol a couple of years back as would the green-haired drummer Leif Bondarenko (who now has no hair at all). We were there that night but I can't spot either of us. I miss those days.