By Matthew Young
In October 1862 Thomas Howard and Elijah Ellis began construction of a new ironclad
gunboat at Whitehall (present-day Seven Springs) North Carolina. This new vessel, to be named Neuse, for the river on which it was to be built was one of a class designed for used in North Carolina’s coastal waters. These ships were not intended to be ocean-going or to raise the blockade, rather they were intended to defend coastal towns and wrest control of the sounds from the Union navy. The Neuse was a smaller “ironclad” type of vessel, measuring only 158 ft. long, and drawing eight feet of water.
Work on her construction at Whitehall was delayed by damage suffered in a Union raid
in December of 1862, but some ten months after the work had begun, the hull of the vessel was completed.
Following completion of her hull, the Neuse was launched and floated to Kinston in
August 1863. Work to complete her was very slow, with only a handful of workers employed in Kinston where she was being outfitted. The men assigned to her were mainly employed setting up workshops and drilling iron plating for the new ship.
By early 1864 Confederate authorities in Richmond were anxious to see the ironclads
under construction in North Carolina hurried to completion. At the beginning of February, little of the ship’s armor was on, the engines were in place, but the boiler was not in (in fact the boiler had not even arrived in Kinston at that point). Until the boiler had been laid in, the main deck could not be completed, and obviously, until the deck was in place the guns could not be mounted. Responsibility for completing the ship fell to her first commander, Lieutenant William Sharp. Also instrumental in the effort to see the ship finished was Brigadier General Robert Hoke, whose brigade was stationed in the area for defense.
Lt. William Sharp
On February 1st and 2nd , 1864, Major General George Pickett attacked in the direction of New Bern, but the assault failed to penetrate the Union defenses. Pickett concluded that New Bern probably could not be recaptured without naval support. Major William J. Pfohl of the 6th North Carolina, stated as much in a letter he wrote on February 9,
“If we had had the boat along with us before I have not doubt but that we would have
The failure of the attack emphasized the importance of completing the vessel as rapidly as possible. In the same letter Pfohl said that: “The work on the gunboat building at this place had been redoubled.”
Though he could not have known it, Pfohl’s brigade commander, Robert Hoke, wrote to
John Whitford, President of the Atlantic & North Carolina Railroad on the same day to expedite work on the ship.
“H. Justis goes to see you about having the boiler brought forward. All the iron here will
be prepared for the boat tomorrow & we are putting it on as fast as the holes are
drilled…The engines are in the boat and we are now awaiting the boiler which please
have brought forward at once. After it is gotten in the work will go on night and day.”
Whitford also received a letter from Stephen Mallory, Confederate Secretary of the Navy seeking his assistance in getting the iron armor plating shipped.
“Sir, the construction of the naval vessels in North Carolina and particularly on the Neuse and Roanoke Rivers has been greatly retarded by the difficulty of getting iron armor for them over the railroads…I take liberty therefore of requesting whatever assistance you may be able to afford in the transportation of iron from the rolling mill in Atlanta to Kinston and Halifax.”
Anxiety over the tardiness of completing the ship was great enough in Richmond that
Mallory ordered Lt. Robert Minor from the navy’s ordnance bureau on February 10,
“proceed without delay to Kinston, NC and endeavor by any means in your power to
hasten the completion of the gunboat now under construction at that point…You will
explain to the officer in charge of the vessel the views of the department and…impress
upon him the necessity of employing as many mechanics as can work on the vessel day
and night, and you are authorized to send agents elsewhere to collect them. You will
keep the department advised of your movements and report upon the condition of the
gunboats at Kinston and Halifax and the progress made toward fitting them for
The next day Minor related the details of his orders in a letter to his wife.
“…The ground attack on New Bern having failed in its object is the basis of my orders I
believe- and hence the clues I have to the whole matter…” (Mallory told Minor) “You
can have carte blanche to employ as many men on her as you like, to send agents out to
collect mechanics, to hurry forward the iron plates, and to do just as you like, only push
her forward, and tho’ she is not under Lynch’s command I will place her independently
under your orders- For I want her completed as soon as possible.”
Within a few days of receiving his orders Minor told his wife in a February 14, letter the
situation he found in Kinston:
“My own darling, I have just arrived here…and though it is Sunday I have taken hold of
the work already, and hope before many days to be able to report very favorably on the
progress she has made, though the prospect is rather bleak, the steamer being hard
aground, and no prospect of having her afloat before the freshet comes down…”
Compliant with his orders, Minor submitted a report to Secretary Mallory on February 16, that read in part:
“As you are aware the steamer has two layers of iron on the forward end of her shield,
but none on either broadside, or on the after part. The carpenters are now bolting the
longitudinal pieces on the hull and if the iron could be delivered more rapidly or in small
quantities with more degree of regularity the work would progress in a much more
satisfactory manner. The boiler was today lowered into the vessel and when in place, the
main deck will be laid, in readiness for her armament of two 6.4” double-banded rifles.
The river I am told is unprecedentedly low for the season of the year, and the steamer is
now aground, with no prospect of being well afloat before a freshet…It is very apparent
that to be useful she must be equipped in time to take advantage of the first river rise, and in the event of there being none or even a slight one I have advised and since directed the construction of four camels to be used in or on the ship on her way down the river…I have advised and since directed the construction of a covered lighter of sufficient capacity to carry ten days coal and twenty days provisions for the steamer…If the material is delivered here as I hope it will be from the arrangements just completed to expedite it, I believe the steamer will be ready for service by the 18th of next month.”
Several changes occurred in mid-February. The number of men employed in completing
the ship increased from fifteen in mid-January, to over 230 in mid-March. 116 men from Hoke’s brigade were employed on February 26 to augment the labor force. A change of command occurred as well. Lieutenant Benjamin Loyall, a close friend of Minor, assumed command of the Neuse on February 17. His predecessor, Lt. Sharp was assigned to become the ordnance officer at the Charleston, South Carolina Naval Station. The period between mid-February and early March of 1864 was one of considerable activity in Kinston. On February 16, the boiler was lowered into place, and on March 7, the guns were put aboard. In the intervening three weeks the deck was completed and engineering work would have been going on to complete setting up the machinery. Amid such rapid work, Minor took time to write his wife.
“If I was to tell you (he wrote) all I have done, how agents have been sent out, money
spent, and work pushed, as it should be when people are in a hurry, you would open your eyes wide with astonishment…”
Any administrative abilities that Lt. Loyall may have had were certainly tested during
early 1864. He was responsible for completing the ship, which meant coordinating with the civilian workforce and their superintendents. He had a good working relationship with General Hoke whose brigade supplied much-needed manpower for the project (including men from the 21st Georgia Infantry Regiment). At the same time, Loyall had to organize a crew. The crew began joining the ship in January and continued up through early April. Many of these men were inexperienced, and the ship’s first payroll, covering the first half of 1864 reflects this, as it shows numerous promotions, demotions, and changes in duties among crew members.
Beginning in March 1864 letters written by Lt. Loyall and Master Richard Bacot, a South
Carolinian who joined the crew on March 1, 1864, tell the story very well. Pessimism dominates the early letters but by mid-April one can sense a growing eagerness to take the new ship into combat.
On March 9, 1864, Loyall wrote;
“My dear Minor, your kind note with enclosures reached me yesterday. Tift has been
very energetic in the discharge of his duties, and I believe that all has been done with
dispatch for these days as far as he is concerned. The stop is at Wilmington, where there
are several car loads of iron awaiting transportation. We have been working slowly for
the past few days for want of iron, and I don’t know if it can be helped…The enemy have
been undisturbed in their work, and I fear, have done it well. Cuthbert was near as half-
mile to the enemy’s boats. About four miles above the town (New Bern) there are two
channels down the river- the “Neuse Channel” and the “Linkfield Channel.” In the
former they have sunk five vessels loaded with stone in line ahead, which prevents their
being washed out by the current. The other channel is very crooked and stumpy- here
they have sunk vessels loaded with stone across the channel, where it is very torturous.
Besides this they are at work with pile drivers. You know that freshets do not raise the
water below Swift Creek- this I am told by all who pretend to know anything of the river.
Altogether I am in pickle. Perhaps there may be a way to surmount these obstacles yet.
The Neuse floats not- the first course of iron is complete- the second is fairly begun- the
guns are in and mounted and I think will work well. But the ignorance and greenness of
my conscripts would make an old tar swear his head off. Now and then a stray shad
comes into our hands but black-hearted biscuit and fat bacon still form the basis of our
daily bounties. Dispeptic symptoms are beginning to appear.”
On March 19 th , 1864, Richard Bacot wrote;
“Dear sis, I find it exceedingly dull here as the town is completely deserted by all its living inhabitants & I know now of those living in the country round about. We (the officers of the Neuse…) live in a small house on the street, which is the terminus of Col.
Washington’s Avenue, about a quarter mile from our future home the “Neus’ance.” I am
afraid that name will prove but too appropriate. Her “iron fixin’s” are not done, her
engines are not ready, her quarters and storerooms are not rear ready, & “last but not least” the river is falling about 12” a day we will have to trust Providence for another rise when the vessel is finished; finally to make matters worse we have a crew of long,
lank “Tar Heels” (N.C.’s from the piney woods). Our two guns are mounted and we drill
the crew every morning at 9:00 & every evening at 5:30 o’clock. We have one or two
good men for a “Neucleus” but I’m afraid the rest will never learn anything about a
gunboat. You ought to see them in the boats! It is too ridiculous. They are all legs &
arms & while working the guns their legs get tangled in the tackles, they are always in the wrong place & in each other’s way. We are having “camels” built too, with which to lighten the vessel over the shoals etc. in the river. Also two large covered lighters for
carrying coal etc. I suppose we will be ready by the first of May, I hope so at least, for
the Yankees obstructed the river once & the freshet washed them away & of course if
they have time will do it in a more effectual manner…The vessel herself will be very
close and warm this summer, but we will be richly repaid for all inconveniences if we are permitted to succeed in capturing New Bern & Roanoke Island. Our paymaster has just arrived & will leave again tomorrow, he has no money & will not pay off. Wouldn’t spend it if he did (as there’s nothing to buy) so will wait.
Loyall wrote back on April 7;
“My dear Minor, There has been a flare up with the mechanics employed here & you may be able to throw some light on the disputed point…a few of them refused to work last night saying it was not fair play etc…I wish you would send a few of the things required by the gunner- especially the fuze wrenches…The Yankees have never stopped working on the obstructions. You have no idea of the delay in forwarding iron to this place. It may be unavoidable, but I don’t allow it. At one time twenty-one days passed without my receiving a piece. The fault was on the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad. Every time I telegraph to Lynch he replies “Army monopolizing cars.” It is all exceedingly mystifying to me.”
Loyall wrote again on April 16;
“Your statements about the wages of the mechanics has caused messrs. Fleming and
Howard to appeal to me to support them in their obligation to the men under their
charge…the energy of these men (the workers) has visibly slackened. Confound them
they should all be enrolled and made to work Gov’t. price with rations, or go in the army.
I think well of your improvement on Port Shutters, which I hope will be adopted, for a
more primitive contrivance than the present cannot be gotten up. I think a shutter can be made to close with more ease & more quickly than these. So far everything works well aboard the little Neuse. She will be the most crowed cramped affair you ever saw. There has been too much room taken up for coal, which will only bring her down in the water. The vessel will draw nearly 8 ft. of water when complete. Mark what I say- when a boat, built of green pine & covered with four inches of iron, get under the fire of heavy ordnance she will prove to be anything but bomb proof. The upper deck is 2 in. pine with light beams & is expected to hold a pilot house. I should not be surprised it said pilot house was knocked off. There is very little to hold it on. The movement going on in this dep’t. has nearly broken my up in work. My portion of the men transferred from the army was thirty. I got some very good men- only a few sailors, but soldiers inured to hard service…It has taken nine days to cut the iron for the pilot house for the ship. We have to cover the three after faces of the shield- very little iron on the flat of the decks. I can’t tell when she will be ready but she can be used in a week. You have no idea of the delay in getting articles to this place.”
In his April 16 letter Loyall stated, very accurately, that the ship could be used in a week.
On April 22, it would be called upon. Days earlier the Neuse’s sister ship the CSS Albemarle had been instrumental in the recapture of Plymouth by Gen. Hoke. Following his success at Plymouth, Hoke hoped to take New Bern using the Neuse, and accordingly the ship was ordered downriver on the 22nd to take part in the operation. Her armor was still not quite complete, the crew was still not well organized, and it is unknown whether she could have gotten over the Federal obstructions in the river above New Bern. Moreover, the river was falling rapidly. In an ideal situation, the attack would have been pushed back a few weeks to allow for better preparation of both ship and crew and, hopefully, for the river to rise. But, in times of war, such an ideal situation rarely presents itself. Hoke’s brigade did not have time to wait; they were already under orders to travel to Virginia to meet expected Union offensives. The attack had to be pressed. On April 28th, Bacot wrote his sister to explain what happened.
“Dear Sis, I have bad news to tell you this time. Even worse than I anticipated when I
wrote last. The C.S. Neuse is nearly “high and dry” on a sandbar just below Kinston.
The river had fallen about six feet when we got our orders to go down, and there was
scarcely enough water for us to cross the obstruction (placed by the Confederates); we
nevertheless started down last Friday and had proceeded about half mile when we
grounded on a sand-bar. We tried to get her off but her great weight and the strength of
the current were too much for us, besides, the river is falling at the rate of ¾ in’s per
hour. The stern of the vessel is afloat, but the bow is four feet out of the water. We will
have to wait for a freshet again and that will probably take place in July or August. I
assure you our disappointment was great when we found we could not get off; the troops
were here ready to join us in the attack on New Bern and we were all expecting to take
the city and sink the gunboats and have a fine time afterwards; we were destined to be
disappointed however and I suppose as “everything happens for the best,” we ought to
grumble too much, but it does seem hard to be so sorely disappointed after expecting so
Apparently, the camels that had been ordered weren’t successful in getting the vessel
over the sandbar. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard telegraphed Gen. Braxton Bragg on 24 April
requesting that an engineer be sent from Richmond to “Contrive some plan to get the gunboat afloat. I fear she will be materially injured if not floated soon. The water has fallen seven feet in the last four days, and is still falling.” One novel means of refloating the ship was tried also a man named Blanton wrote on May 15, 1864.
“He was ‘staying in Kinston a working on a Dam across the nuse river to pond the water
to moove a gunboat that has run aground and I suppose that it will take some month or
two to get it Done and Donte care how long it takes to get it Done for i ruther Bee work
then not and I get $2.50 a day and will work all the time at that until the work stops if I
could get to Do So.’”
Confederate authorities reluctantly resigned themselves to the fact that the Neuse was
hopelessly aground until the river rose. Consequently, the Albemarle was ordered to make the long trip to New Bern to replace her stranded sister. The intended replacement met determined resistance form seven Union gunboats upon entering Albemarle Sound, and was forced back to Plymouth. Without naval support this third and final Confederate attempt on New Bern failed as the earlier ones had.
Fortunately for the crew and officers of the Neuse and for Confederate Naval authorities
the worst fears about the ship’s fate would not be realized. The new ship was not destroyed by grounding as two other Confederate ironclads would be. The best efforts to refloat the ship failed, but nearly a month after grounding the long hoped for river rise occurred.
“Dear Sis,” Bacot wrote “when I wrote to Pa, about a week ago, we were still “in status
quo” on the sand bank, but we are now afloat again and in our old “Cat Hole” again. The
day after I wrote Pa, the river rose and we got off, and just in time too as the water fell
that evening. The workmen are again on board making music with their sledgehammers driving bolts in the iron overhead. All the troops have left here for Virginia and the place
is exceedingly dull.”
The Neuse was returned to her mooring at the “Cat Hole,” the site of the modern day
King Street Bridge. Workers returned to put some finishing touches to the vessel and the ship’s crew would settle into a dull routine that would last until near the end of the war.
Thereafter, even at the times the river was high, there was never an opportunity to attack New Bern. Near the end of August 1864 Commander Joseph Price replaced Lieutenant Loyall as commanding officer of the Neuse. It would be Price’s unfortunate duty to order the destruction of his own ship. On March 12, 1865, after an intense fight with Union cavalry at the Battle of Wyse’s Fork, Price ordered the Neuse to be scuttled to prevent the vessel from falling into enemy hands. Neuse Gunner Eugene Williams wrote of the incident,
“For forty minutes prior to abandoning her, we shelled the enemy on the opposite side of
the river vigorously. That booming was her funeral knell.” The crew of the ship, some of whom had been on board for over a year, now had to destroy her. Williams continued, “An instant after and dense columns of smoke were rolling from the ports of the ‘Neuse’. How greedily the red flames of fire licked her noble sides! How splendidly was she devoured!”
Salvage work would occur on her in late 1865, recovering the guns, engines, boilers,
armor plating, and anything else of value that could be sold. Her hull remained on the bottom of the river until the 1960’s when Neuse was raised and recovered. The State of North Carolina assumed control of her and her remains have since been moved to the CSS Neuse Civil War Interpretive Center in downtown Kinston, which opened officially on March 7, 2015.
Matthew Young is a historian, reenactor, and Director of the CSS Neuse Civil War Interpretive Center in Downtown Kinston, NC.
If you are ever in Eastern NC, please be sure to visit the Interpretive Center located at 100 N. Queen Street, Kinston, NC 28501. Contact the center at (252) 522-2107 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Open Tuesday-Saturday 9am-5pm. Learn more at: http://www.nchistoricsites.org/neuse/neuse.htm?utm_source=www.visitnc.com&utm_medium=website&utm_campaign=downstream-referral