'In at the Deep End!'
From the outset, the Confederate Navy was considered by many as a coastal defence force, operating under the jurisdiction of the Confederate Army. During its early days however, senior politicians and naval officers pursued a more effective role; and secured the right to operate independently from the Army High Command. Despite this, throughout the period of conflict, this role of the Navy continued to be restricted to the defence and protection of southern ports, the destruction of Federal merchant shipping and the protection of those vessels intent on breaking the Union Blockade. Although many stated they foresaw a time when the CSN would become involved in operations of a much grander scale, that in fact never materialised.
The CSN was formed on February 21st 1861, although naval operations were being planned as early as January of that year. Due to the lack of resources and industry in the south, the Confederate Navy would never achieve parity with its northern counterpart. Nonetheless, through highly imaginative planning and technical innovation, the ships and men of the south soon drew grudging admiration at home and abroad.
One early gain was the abandonment of the Gosport Navy Yard on April 29th 1861 by retreating Union forces. Fortunately an attempt to destroy the yard by fire had failed, leaving the Confederacy much needed facilities, including two dry docks, ordinance and other materials useful for building and repairs. In effect, almost overnight the confederacy had doubled the number of its major ports and significantly enhanced its industrial base.
When Navy Secretary Mallory learned that one of the Union’s screw frigates, the USS Merrimack had also been fired and abandoned; but was in fact only partially destroyed, he ordered the ship raised, restored to seaworthy condition and rebuilt with a newly designed upper-structure of thick oak and iron plate. Thus the Confederacy gave birth to a new type of ship, the ironclad!
Stephen Mallory was appointed Secretary of the Department of the Navy shortly after the formation of the Navy in February 1861, Mallory was extremely well suited to the task, being an experienced admiralty lawyer but more importantly, he had served a term as Chairman of the Naval Affairs Committee during his tenure as a United States Senator. Mallory wasted no time in setting about building his new navy into something more than the hastily envisaged, coastal defence force. He saw the navy as a key component of the Confederate military and much needed, if the south was going to win the war! With more trained Captains than ships, his first task was to find ways to acquire suitable vessels which could be either built to order, or quickly converted into the armed fleet he and the South so desperately needed.