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FEATURE STORY: The Coast Guard's Ironclad

April 4, 2015

May 15, 1862

 The roar of cannon fire fills the air as a pall of gun smoke drifts across the James River, eight miles south of Richmond, Virginia.  Three Union ironclads, including the Revenue Cutter Naugatuck, are fighting in a battle with Confederate-manned Fort Darling, perched atop Drewry Bluff.

 Musket fire rains down upon the Revenue Cutter’s armored pilothouse while Lt. David Constable, the Naugatuck’s commanding officer, issues commands to engage the elevated fort.  This is the Naugatuck’s first true battle, and the crew is anxious to prove their ship’s worth alongside the other ironclads – USS Galena and the battle-tested USS Monitor.

 “The Monitor is a custom built vessel from the ground up, incorporating very specific design principals,” said David Krop, curator at the Virginia Maritime Museum. “Naugatuck, on the other hand, was taking the principles of the Stevens Brothers and applying them to an already-existing vessel.”

The Stevens brothers were businessmen and inventors who hailed from northern New Jersey.  A host of new technologies were placed on the Naugatuck, including a ballast system that allowed the cutter to semi-submerge and alter its draft, twin propellers to improve handling, and the extensive use of an untested India rubber in gun mounts and as water-tight seals.  

“That was the first time rubber was used in that respect: it’s very similar to today’s watertight tanks,” said Dr. William Thiesen, Coast Guard historian.  “This was really the first application of that technology.”

Anxious to have the ship tested in wartime conditions, the Stevens family offered the Naugatuck to the Navy, who promptly rejected the strange ship with its startling new technology.

However, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, the predecessor to the modern U.S. Coast Guard, welcomed Naugatuck into their fleet with open arms, and by mid-March, the ironclad, with a mixed crew of Stevens family employees and cuttermen, were steaming from New York City to Hampton Roads, Virginia. 

On April 9, 1862, the Naugatuck and crew joined the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron on the James River.  During the Naugatuck’s time in Hampton Roads, the crew traded shots with the CSS Virginia, steamed alongside the Union’s most famous ironclad the Monitor in a joint attack on Confederate forces at Sewell’s Point and provided support in the capture of Norfolk. 

On May 10, with Confederate forces retreating toward Richmond, Commodore John Rodgers took command of the James River Squadron, comprised of the wooden warships

Aroostook and Port Royal and the ironclads Monitor, Galena and the smaller Naugatuck, and gave chase to the withdrawing rebels.

Naugatuck’s ballast system proved useful in the operation and allowed the ship’s commanding officer, Lt. David Constable to help guide the larger ships through the shallows and bends of the James River.  On May 15, at 7:45 a.m., the tiny river armada approached the elevated heights of Fort Darling.

The Galena, the largest and lightest armored of the three ironclads, initiated the battle and traded shots with the fort.  The light armor proved a problem as approximately one in three hits penetrated the ship’s armor.  The Monitor attacked next, but the Monitor’s crew could not elevate the guns high enough to do any damage to the fort, and the Monitor’s crew retired downstream, giving Constable and the smaller Naugatuck a chance at the battle.  The Naugatuck’s own armor and semi-submersible innovations worked effectively to protect the ship from the fort’s fire while the loading ability of the guns below deck protected the crew from sharpshooters and musket fire.  The cutter continued to fire at the fort; however, the same design flaw in the Monitor was also present with the Naugatuck.  Both ships were designed to fight ocean-going prey and could not properly engage the fort.  During the course of the battle, the Naugatuck’s main cannon exploded and damaged the pilothouse and ship’s deck.  Luckily, no one was seriously injured during the explosion.

With the Galena badly damaged and the main guns of the Monitor and Naugatuck either useless or destroyed, the James River Squadron retreated from the Battle of Drewry Bluff and headed back down to City Point.  Thirteen crewmen from the Galena lost their lives in the battle, while the Monitor and the Naugatuck escaped relatively unscathed. 

After the battle, the Naugatuck, with its maneuverability and ability to alter its draft, quickly ferried injured men of the battered fleet back down the James River.   Afterward, Constable and the crew were ordered to take the Naugatuck back to New York for repairs.

The Naugatuck would never see a major battle again but would continue to serve proudly for an additional 27 years in the Revenue Cutter Service, patrolling the shallow backwaters of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. 

“While Naugatuck may not have been as tough or armored and effective as some of the other vessels and ironclads that we are aware of, it, in its own right, it’s a unique part of the story of ironclads and the Coast Guard as well,” said David Krop.


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