Sunday, August 18, 2013

August 18, 1863: The C.S.S. Albemarle is under construction

C.S.S Albemarle seen post-war, stripped of her armor prior to scrapping.

On this day 150 years ago, Union Acting Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee wrote to his Army counterpart to share some troubling news: the Confederates were constructing a shallow draft ironclad in a cornfield up the Roanoke River in North Carolina. The news had been brought to Lee by a North Carolina man who had come over to the Union side in order to avoid the Confederate draft--an increasingly common occurrence in North Carolina.
NEW BERNE, N.C., August 18, 1863.

I enclose a copy (1) of my letter to General Peck of the 14th instant, and (2) of a statement by Michael Cohen, respecting the ironclads on the Roanoke, near Halifax. If Cohen's statement is correct the destruction of these ironclads should not be delayed. I am sure you will do all that you can to effect so importanu an object. Our ironclads draw- ing over 12 feet can not reach or neutralize those of the rebels, owing to the shoal water on the bulkhead at Hatteras Inlet and Croatan Sound, etc.

I have the honor to be, general, very respectfully, yours,

Actg. Rear-Admiral, Comdg. North. Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

Major-General FOSTER.


NEW BERNE, August 14, 1863.

GENERAL: I hear that the ironclad on the Roanoke at Edwards Ferry, above Rainbow Bluff, is nearly completed.

If not destroyed she may attack your fortified town on the water side. We have only wooden vessels to oppose her. I respectfully suggest to you the propriety of an expedition to destroy it at once.

Owing to the fortifications at Rainbow Bluff and the low stage of water in the Roanoke, the expedition must be mainly military.

Lieutenant-Commander Flusser, at Plymouth, will give you all the aid in his power.

Respectfully, yours,


Major-General JOHN J. PECK.

[Enclosure 2.]

Statement of Michael Cohen, a plumber and gas fitter by trade.

NEW BERNE, N.C., August 18, 1863. I am a naturalized citizen, of Irish birth; have lived twenty-one years in the United States and six years in North Carolina.

When the war broke out I was carrying on a distillery at Tarboro. This business not being allowed, I turned my distillery into a gristmili. As a miller I was exempt from conscription. When, on July 20, 1863, General Potter destroyed the vessels at Tarboro, my mill and property, worth $l1,000, was burned by mistake by the United States troops. I now became liable to conscription, and followed the United States troops here, where I am now employed in the quartermaster's department, at the request of General Potter. The work on the gunboat at Tarboro was begun in September last, continued one month, then stopped (in order to work on the ironclads at Wilmington and afterwards on the Roanoke), and renewed only two weeks before General Potter destroyed it (July 20, 1863), at which time about 20 feet of its midship section had been put up in six parts of the frame (of bottom four parts, making sides and angle and top); more of the frame in sections was ready to put up. General Potter destroyed this and two unarmed river steamboats; one of iron, stern wheel, drawing 20 inches, fast, and in good order, called Governor Morehead, owned by Myers, who took the lights from the house at Hatteras Inlet when the war begun; the other, called the General Hill, old, slow, and stern wheel, drawing 6 feet, and owned by Willard. There was then a high flood in the river. There were then no troops guarding the ironclads building at Smith's, on the Roanoke, in Halifax County, 6 miles below Halifax town and 40 by land from Tarboro. The ironclads on the Roanoke are a ram gunboat like the Merrimack, and a floating battery, 40 feet square, with a Merrimack roof. This gunboat was launched about 1st of July, 1863. Putting on her plating was begun a day or two before General Potter destroyed the boats at Tarboro. The plating is 2 inches thick, and was brought from Wilmington. It is being put on in two layers, one horizontal, the other vertical. The holes are punched with a small engine brought from Richmond. When the ram is plated, the floating battery will be plated. No guns in either. The ram is to have the Brooke rifle. The boiler (he is not sure about the machinery) was in the ram. The floating battery is to be stationed at Rainbow Bluff (just below Hamilton), a fortified point. This information was got from men taken from my service to work on this gunboat, and is not later than July 20,1863. There were, before the war, and are now, three small steamers on the Roanoke, light draft, side wheel boats.

The engine of one of the ironclads at Wilmington was taken from a steamer; the other was built at Richmond, Va.

Statement made to me August 17, 18, 1863.

S.P. LEE, Acting Rear-Admiral.

The Confederate ironclad spotted by Cohen in Peter Smith's cornfield would become the C.S.S. Albemarle. The Union Army commanders in the area did not take the threat posed by the ironclad seriously. Albemarle would not be completed and read for action until April 1864--ample time to have organized an expedition to destroy her. Instead, the Confederates were allowed to complete her, and for a brief period she would be the scourge of Union forces along the Roanoke River.

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