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The Story Of The C.S.S. Neuse

By Morris L. Bass 

          Early in the Civil War the Confederate government started from scratch to build a navy to defend the southern coast and its inland waters. The warships covered with iron, or ironclads, being introduced in European navies before the war’s outbreak, impressed Stephen Mallory, Secretary of the Confederate Navy. As a result of his interest, the Confederacy completed over twenty-six ironclad gunboats and had a navy of over two hundred ships before the war ended in 1865. One of these ships was the CSS Neuse.

            Construction of the Neuse began in October of 1862 near the small village of Whitehall (now Seven Springs) on the banks of the Neuse River in eastern North Carolina. Built mainly of local pinewood, the Neuse was a flat bottom, shallow draft ship, for use in rivers and sounds. The Neuse was 158 feet long and 34 feet wide. While in the first stages of construction, a Union expedition from New Bern happened upon the ship being constructed on December 15, 1862. The ship was on the opposite bank of the river from the town. Confederate troops arrived in time to stop the Union Army from advancing across the bridge. The next day December 16, 1862 the battle of Whitehall was fought and Union artillery damaged the ship. The Union Army found they could not cross the river at Whitehall and continued to Goldsboro, destroying the railroad bridge across the Neuse River before returning to New Bern. This delayed the completion of the hull. The damage was repaired and in late spring 1863, workers completed the hull and floated it downstream about twenty miles to Kinston. The reason for the move was that sitting at Kinston, the ship was closer to the railroad. The guns and iron plating to outfit the ship could be brought in by rail. John Brooke of the Confederate Navy designed the ship’s guns, which were 6.4 inch Brooke rifles. Each weighed 12,000 pounds. And this was just the barrel!  Progress on outfitting the ship was slow. Iron was in short supply, and at one point, twenty-one days went by without a shipment of iron. To make matters worse, the Confederate Army monopolized the rail system which delayed shipping the Confederate Navy supplies to the work site. Finally, in April 1864 the workers had installed the engines and boiler, which were acquired from a local mill, and the massive Brooke rifled cannons. She was now completed and ready for action.

            On April 22, 1864, the Navy Department ordered the Neuse to assist in General Robert F. Hoke’s attempt to recapture the town of New Bern from the Union Army. The Neuse began the trip but grounded on a sandbar, only one-half mile down river from Kinston. Even without the support from the Neuse’s guns, General Hoke attacked New Bern. General Hoke was having success until ordered by General P.G.T. Beauregard to stop the attack on New Bern, and come to Petersburg, Virginia, to stop a threat there. The Neuse remained grounded until the river raised enough to free her from the sandbar on May 19, 1864. Finally freed, the crew moved her back to her dock in Kinston. The Neuse remained at her dock, being a deterrent to any possible advance of the Union Navy and Army up the Neuse River. Not until close to the end of the war would she see action again.

            In March 1865, 14,000 Union troops marched from New Bern under the command of General Jacob D. Cox on their way to Goldsboro to meet General William T. Sherman’s advancing 60,000 man Union Army. Five miles outside of Kinston, the Confederate Army, 8,000 men under Generals Braxton Bragg and Robert F. Hoke, attempted to stop this junction. The result was the Battle of Wyse Fork, the second largest land battle in North Carolina during the war, which was fought March 8-10, 1865. The Confederates failed to drive the Union Army back to New Bern, and were forced to leave Kinston. On the morning of March 11, 1865, Captain Joseph Price, commander of the Neuse, took the ship down river to fire at the oncoming Union troops. The Neuse fought a delaying action so the bridge could be destroyed and the last of the trains could be loaded with Confederate troops and supplies.  Captain Price then ordered the Neuse to be destroyed to prevent her capture. The crew packed the front, or bow, of the ship with the powder from the ship’s magazine, set her on fire and abandoned her in the river. As she burned, the fire set the powder off and it created a twenty-foot wide hole in the port or left side of the bow. The Neuse then sunk in the river, bow first. Union forces entered Kinston the same day.

            The ship remained at the bottom of the Neuse River until 1961 when three local men began trying to raise her. They planned to dig the mud from around the old gunboat and pull it ashore, but the project was larger than they anticipated. Money from the city and county governments, as well as other fund-raising efforts, was needed to raise the ship. After several unsuccessful attempts, the gunboat was pulled out of the river in May 1963. The ship remained on the riverbank for a year until the state of North Carolina stepped in with the funds to relocate and preserve it. In May 1964 the CSS Neuse was moved to its current location to become a state historic site.


Launched: 1863
Commissioned: 1864
Decommissioned:  March 11 1865
Fate: Scuttled March 11 1865
General Characteristics
Displacement: 375 tons
Length: 158 ft
Beam: 34 ft
Draught: 8' ft
Propulsion: Steam engines 5 knots
Complement: 80 Officers and men
Armament: 2 6.4'' Brooke rifles

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