Book Review: Engines of Rebellion: Confederate Ironclads and Steam Engineering in the American Civil War


by Saxon Bisbee

Tuscaloosa: University Alabama Press, 2018. Pp. xvi, 266. Illus., plans, gloss., append, notes, biblio., index. $59.95. ISBN: 0817319867

The Confederacy’s Improvised Ironclads

Marine archaeologist Bisbee takes a highly technical look at the Confederacy’s domestic ironclad program, which produced some two dozen out of a planned 50 or so vessels. This was a remarkable feat of improvisation, given the slender industrial resources in the South.

Bisbee’s introduction covers the origins of the Confederate ironclad program, largely inspired and developed under the aegis of Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory. He then delves deeply into the technical problems of converting wooden steamers, tugs, and the like into ironclads, the problems of engine and armor production and procurement, and the development of innovative design and construction techniques.

Of particular importance is Bisbee’s at the issue of procuring adequate steam engines, the most daunting problem confronting Confederate ship builders. A wide variety of existing engines were pressed into use, borrowed from railroads, factories, and ships, including, most famously, those of the old wooden steam frigate Merrimac, which became the casemate ironclad Virginia. Bisbee covers the early vessels that were more or less hastily converted, including the Manassas and the Virginia, then moves on to look several early improvised designs built from the keel up, notably the six-ship “Richmond” class, the Tennessee and her sister, and so forth, as the skill and experience of the naval architects and the improvised shipyards developed. While some of these vessels were quite sophisticated, Bisbee stresses than all were of limited speed and maneuverability due to inadequate engines and indeed most were essentially self-propelled ironclad batteries, barely able to maneuver.  Nevertheless, despite their limitations, they often played an important role in the war, if only by their mere existence.

Engines of Rebellion, a volume in the Alabama series “Maritime Currents: History and Archaeology”, is an immensely valuable book for the technical side of these vessels, and the Confederacy’s industrial mobilization, and also provides some coverage of their operational experience.


Note: Engines of Rebellion is also available in several e-editions


StrategyPage reviews are shared with The New York Military Affairs Symposium


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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