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.
|| March 11 1865
||Scuttled March 11 1865
||Steam engines 5 knots
||80 Officers and men
||2 6.4'' Brooke rifles