October 17, 1862, a contract was signed between the Confederate Navy Department and the shipbuilding firm of Howard & Ellis to construct an ironclad gunboat. The vessel Neuse, as it would later be identified, was one of 26 ironclads constructed and commissioned by the Confederate Government. The hull of the ship was to be turned over to the Navy Department by March 1, 1863, "complete in all respects ready to receive the engine and machinery . . . and fasten iron plating on said vessel." Work on the Neuse was begun shortly after the contract was signed. The building of the ship commenced at White Hall, North Carolina (now Seven Springs), on the banks of the Neuse River. At the construction site workmen cut trees and sawed lumber to build the ship's keel. Col. Stephen D. Pool, of the 10th North Carolina Regiment (First Artillery), noted that the village of White Hall
was, at that time, a small hamlet on the Neuse River which was spanned by a substantial county bridge. The river, though much narrower at White Hall, is deep and navigable. On the northern side the river has a gentle slope to a stream, which, in 1862, was bordered by a swamp in which there was a somewhat dense growth of tall timber. A quantity of this timber had been felled and cut into logs, which lay around the bank of the river . . . A gunboat was in course of building, and stood, propped on rollers, in the upper end of the swamp, and near the river not far from the bridge . . . . The little hamlet of White Hall, built on the southern bank of the Neuse, consisted of two or three stores and warehouses, and a straggling street with some neat dwellings and enclosures. The warehouses were on the bluff which is lofty on the southern side; and some eminences further from the river, and commanding the much lower level of the northern shore, gave great advantage to the former as a military position.
A majority of available wood in the White Hall vicinity was pine, a variety commonly used in the South for the planking and decking of ships. The Neuse was built with the available timber resources of the immediate area, unlike its sister ship, the Albemarle, which had to have wood brought in to the construction site. The construction of the ironclad at White Hall was a relatively simple procedure. Though the Neuse and Albemarle were built in separate locations by different contractors, both were conceived by the same designerJohn L. Porter, the Confederacy's chief shipbuilding architect. The vessels were nearly identical. From the builder of the Albemarle, Gilbert Elliott, insight can be gained as to how the shallow-draft steamers were built:
The keel was laid and construction was commenced by bolting down, across the center, a piece of frame timber, which was of yellow pine, eight by ten inches. Another frame of the same size was then dovetailed into this, extending outwardly at an angle of 45 degrees, forming the side, and at the outer end of this frame for the shield was also dovetailed, the angle being about 35 degrees. And then the top deck was added, and so on around to the other end of the bottom beam. Other beams were then bolted down to the keel and to the first one fastened, and so on, working fore and aft, the main deck beams being interposed from stem to stern. The shield was 60 feet in length and octagonal in form. When this part of the work was completed she was a solid boat, built of pine frames and if calked would have floated in that condition, but she was afterwards covered with 4 inch planking, laid on longitudinally, as ships are usually planked, and this was properly calked and pitched, cotton being used instead of oakum, the latter being very scarce and the former the only article to be had in abundance.
The design of the Neuse, with its flat bottom, was similar to that of a barge. Consequently, carpenters working on the ironclad needed only to possess simple house-building skills. The Navy Department was aware that carpenters could be obtained in the White Hall area and did not bring these men in from out of state.
During construction of the ship, the most immediate challenge facing the Navy Department was an adequate defense of the construction site. Lieutenant Commander James Cooke, of the Confederate States Navy, was sent to North Carolina to assist in the construction of the Neuse and Albemarle and insure that these ships were placed into service with the least possible delay. Because Union troops had been making periodic raids into eastern North Carolina, Cooke became alarmed that the area around White Hall might be vulnerable to assault. He wrote the Engineer Bureau regarding his apprehensions of a possible attack while the Neuse was being built. The Bureau replied that
with a sufficient force the obstructions we are now placing in the Neuse River can be defended against any force the enemy is likely to send against it. They, as well as the land defenses, will be completed, I think, in six weeks; but unless the south side of the Neuse is occupied, if the enemy possesses any enterprise at all, they will most assuredly destroy the gunboat which Commander Cooke is building at White Hall.
Cooke's fear of enemy forces attacking the ironclad while it was under construction was well justified. Under the overall command of Gen. John G. Foster, Union troops departed New Bern on December 11, 1862, on an inland raid toward Goldsboro. Foster's expedition reached Kinston on the 14th, and after an engagement with Confederate forces under Gen. N. G. Evans, the Federals ransacked the town. Departing Kinston on December 15, Union troops moved up the south bank of the Neuse River, following the retreating rebels to White Hall. Confederate reinforcements arrived to help Evans's command further resist the Federal advance. The bluffs on the Neuse overlooking White Hall, remembered Colonel Pool, "were crowded with piles of crude rosin, and barrels of spirits of turpentine." To keep Foster's troops from crossing the river here, the Confederates gathered these combustibles onto the bridge and set them ablaze, just as the enemy was arriving on the opposite bank. Pieces of the bridge soon crashed into the river, "and floated down its waters a burning wreck."
The Federals caught sight of the fledgling gunboat on the riverbank. A New York news correspondent traveling with Foster's command wrote that
We found previous reports confirmed, in that we discovered a rebel gunboat on the other side of the river . . . To destroy the gunboat which was not fully completed, was one of our principle [sic] objects; but to do it in the face of the enemy, concealed in the woods on the opposite bank, was a different matter.
Foster's forces, "in order to cast a heavy reflection of light on the enemy," seized materials on the south side of the river intended for use in construction of the vessel and put them to the torch. Harper's Weekly reported later that month that
two thousand barrels of turpentine were seized, piled in an immense heap on the river's bank, and set on fire. Such a bonfire mortal eyes have seldom seen. Vast sheets of billowy flame flashed their forked tongue to the clouds. The whole region for miles around was lighted up. Every movement of the enemy was revealed, and their positions were mercilessly shelled.
The New York correspondent with Foster noted that the conflagration "rendered the scene one of peculiar and lively interest. The flames ascended in all forms and to various heights, communicating to and firing many of the adjacent trees. During all this time the enemy lay low in the woods."
Major Jeptha Garrard soon called for volunteers to swim across the river, board the gunboat, and set it on fire. "To this daring deed, Henry Butler, of Company C, Third New York Cavalry, volunteered." After undressing, the adventurous Butler "plunged into the wintry wave," reported Harper's, "and pushed boldly for the opposite shore. Every [Federal] gun was brought into action throwing grape and canister to distract the foe." Having reached the enemy's side of the river, Private Butler
ran up the bank to the flaming bridge, seized a [fire]brand and was making for the [gunboat], when several rebels rushed from their sheltered hiding-places and endeavored to seize him. Quick as thought he turned, plunged again into the river, and through a shower of bullets returned safely to his comrades.
The daring Butler was complimented for his actions, and in exchange for the failed attempt to burn the ship, the Federals trained their artillery pieces upon the vulnerable gunboat and opened fire. "We then gave the enemy a severe dose of canister," continued the correspondent, "and, finding we could not well get over to the gunboat, we battered it to pieces with shot and shell. The vessel was a small one, flat bottomed, intended for fast river navigation [and] designed for one or two guns." On the morning of December 16, the fight continued at White Hall and the Neuse was struck many times by the exchange of shot and shell. The battle at the village was brief but furious. On the 17th, Union troops departed White Hall and continued toward Goldsboro.
Contrary to Federal opinions, the gunboat was not severely damaged during the battle. While construction was not aborted, its completion was undoubtedly delayed. After Foster's troops left the White Hall vicinity, workmen were back on the job, preparing the ship for its initial voyage to Kinstonwhere it would receive its fittings, machinery, and iron plating. Finally, in late summer of 1863, the Neuse slipped from its ways into the river where it was guided down river to Kinston. A skeptical Confederate engineer named Henry T. Guion, mindful of the many delays thus far in construction, noted that "Howard & Ellis [shipbuilders] are apparently driving hard upon the gunboat and . . . will finish here (Kinston) in ninety days . . . I give them til Christmaswe shall see which is right."
When the Neuse arrived in Kinston, it was moored near the foot of Caswell Street. Later the ship was moved down river about 100 yards to deeper water. This mooring site was referred to as the "cat hole." The riverbank adjacent to the "cat hole" was steep, allowing the ship's machinery to be lowered easily into the hull from the riverbank.
During the time of the ironclad's early outfitting, Lt. William Sharp was in command of the ship and responsible for its completion. Sharp's primary duty was to obtain the crucial iron plating necessary to bring the vessel to combat readiness.
Work on the Neuse progressed steadily during the fall and winter of 1863, although there were the usual problems in getting enough iron to meet the schedule. During this period, workers installed available iron plating and did interior carpentry work.
Administrative problems also caused delays during this period. The abilities of Flag Officer William Lynch, who was given authority by the Navy Department to oversee the completion of all ironclads under construction in North Carolina, often came under fire. As the year drew to a close, it was obvious that the Neuse was behind in its completion schedule. The first few months of 1864 would prove crucial to the Navy Department for getting the ship into service.
During the month of January, machinery from Richmond, Virginia, began to arrive for the ironclad. On January 2, Gen. Robert E. Lee directed an important message to Confederate president Jefferson Davis:
The time is at hand when an attempt can be made to capture the enemy's forces at New Bern [N.C.] . . . I can spare troops for the purpose, which will not be the case as spring approaches . . . A bold party could descend the Neuse at night, capture the [Federal] gunboats and drive the enemy from their works . . . the gunboats, aided by the iron clads building on the Neuse [River], would clear the waters of the enemy.
The ironclads Lee mentioned were the Neuse and Albemarle. Davis approved of Lee's plan, although he told the commander that the ships would probably not be completed in time for the assault on New Bern. Lee responded:
I regret very much that the boats on the Neuse and Roanoke [rivers] are not completed. With their aid I think success would be certain. Without them, though the place may be captured, the fruits of the expedition will be lessened and our maintenance of the waters of N.C. uncertain. I think every effort ought to be made now to get them in service as soon as possible.
Both Davis and Lee were correct in their assumptions regarding the two warships: neither was completed in time for the assault on New Bern, and when the expedition was carried out at the beginning of February, it failed.
After the unsuccessful attempt to recapture New Bern, work on the Neuse was stepped up. In February Gen. Robert F. Hoke detailed "95 carpenters and mechanics and 50 laborers from my command to work on the gun boat, and they will soon have it completed." Hoke had supervisory capacity over the Neuse and Albemarle, and kept his men in the Kinston vicinity to provide protection for the Neuse while it was being completed. Unlike most field commanders, Hoke was not reticent in detailing his men to work for the "sister service."
While the ironclad received its fittings and machinery in Kinston, Union commanders in New Bern monitored the enemy's construction of the Neuse, and received information on the vessel's progress almost daily. Much of their information came from spies and deserters. Most Union commanders from the port town viewed the Neuse as a threat. General I. N. Palmer reported that the ironclad "is a matter for serious consideration. A vessel like the one described, could she get into the harbor, would do incalculable damage." Another Union army officer, Gen. John Peck, dismissed the Confederates' efforts to bring the Neuse into combat. "I don't believe in the iron clad," he scoffed. "Hitherto it has been a question of iron and time."
In February 1864, Lt. Robert Minor was sent to Kinston by Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory "to hasten the completion of the gunboat." The secretary stated in his orders to the young lieutenant that the Neuse "is delayed for want of iron and to this point your special attention is called." Mallory also gave Minor the authority to employ as many mechanics as he deemed necessary to work "night and day" on the ironclad.
Departing from the James River Squadron in Virginia, Minor arrived in Kinston on February 14. After inspecting the Neuse for two days, he reported to Mallory:
Lieutenant Commander Sharp has a force of one hundred and seventy men employed upon her, including . . . nineteen men from the Naval Station on the Peedee [River], four from Wilmington and 105 detailed temporary [sic] by Brigadier General Hoke from his Brigade now in camp in this vicinity . . . As you are aware the Steamer has two layers of iron on the forward end of her shield, but none on either broadside, or on the after part. The carpenters are now bolting the longitudinal pieces on the hull, and if the iron can be delivered more rapidly . . . with some degree of regularity, the work would progress in much more satisfactory manner. The boiler was today lowered into the vessel and when in place, the main deck will be laid in . . . The river I am told is unprecedently [sic] low for the season of the year . . . I am satisfied that not more than five feet can now be carried down the channel . . . and as the Steamer when ready for service, will draw between six or seven feet, it is very apparent that to be useful, she must be equipped in time to take advantage of the first rise . . . I have advised and directed the immediate construction of four camels [buoying devices], to be used to move the ship on her way down the river. Mr. A. E. Tift left here for Augusta, Georgia on Monday to hurry forward the remainder of the iron platestwo car loads of which arrived prior to his departure. Agents have been sent to various points to collect material . . . At my suggestion Lieutenant Sharp has adopted the plan of working his men from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. with an intermission of one hour for dinner, and with relief parties who will work from 7 p.m. until 3 a.m. . . . Lieutenant Sharp informs me that General Hoke has already commenced the removal of the obstructions in the river, but from my inspection of them today I am [sure that it will take two or three weeks] to open the channel . . . Lieutenant Sharp also informs me that he is organizing his crewtwenty-eight are now on board, and he will make up the whole number of men allowed the vessel from those in the army who are accustomed to a seafaring life and have volunteered . . . I have advised and since directed the immediate construction of a covered lighter of sufficient capacity to carry two days' [worth of] coal and twenty days' provision for the steamer . . . If the material is delivered here as rapidly as I hope . . . I believe the steamer will be ready for service by the 18th of next month.
It was clear from Minor's report that the Neuse had to overcome some basic difficulties before it could be ready for service. One of these problems was the initial lack of crew members for the ironclad. Commander Sharp's crew of "twenty-eight" men were mostly sailorscommissioned and noncommissioned officers. When war broke out, the Confederacy was literally deluged with highly respected naval officers who chose the southern cause. This was not the case with enlisted men. It was not unusual for a commander of a vessel in the Confederacy to borrow men from the ranks of the army to compensate for a lack of seamen.
Although Minor said that the Neuse was "not ready for service," he did note, in the same report, a number of favorable improvements that the ironclad had undergone by mid-February 1864. The lieutenant stated that the boiler was "today [the 16th] lowered into the vessel." The engine or propulsion system that went inside the Neuse, according to the Official Records, was "taken from Pugh's Mill, and was once in a factory in this city [New Bern]."
Since Minor was concerned about how much water the ironclad would "draw," he had camels, or wooden caissons, built "to be used to move the ship on her way down the river." These camels were designed to aid in shallow-draft navigation by displacing water and enabling a vessel to lift itself higher out of the water. The camels were filled with water, lashed to the ironclad's hull, and pumped out to raise the ship.
Minor stayed in Kinston only a few days before his departure to Halifax to inspect the Albemarle. He left the naval station at Kinston on February 27, stating that "the work is progressing rapidly and I am quite well satisfied with it." At Halifax, Minor noted that the Albemarle was also behind schedule, although somewhat ahead of the Neuse. At approximately the same time Minor left Kinston, the Neuse received its second commander, Lt. Benjamin Loyall, who replaced Sharp.
The next two months found Commander Loyall trying to get the Neuse ready for another planned offensive against New Bern. Without the Neuse, an attack on New Bern would be fruitless, and Loyall was aware that his first priority as commander was to get his "Steamer" into service. Union commanders worried that the ironclad would be completed in time to attack New Bern on the second anniversary of its fallMarch 14, 1862.
Commander Loyall leaned heavily on the advice of Minor concerning the construction of the Neuse. Writing to Minor on March 6, 1864, Loyall reported that
I don't think the parade of this little vessel is of any consequence . . . The first course of iron is on and we will put on the remainder as fast as they will give it to us. The guns will be mounted tomorrow night. I hope the ammunition is all here.
On the night of March 7, two massive Brooke rifles were lowered into the ironclad's casemate. Ammunition, which had been arriving since the vessel had been in Kinston, was stored in the ship's magazine compartments. Workmen, aware that the ship was behind schedule, continued to labor night and day to complete construction.
In March, Secretary Mallory forwarded to Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon a letter written by Flag Officer Lynch. The subject of the letter concerned the state of readiness of the Neuse and Albemarle. Lynch expressed his distress at the delays the two ironclads were undergoing:
The gunboats are completed with exception of the iron plating, and the mechanics are delayed in their work waiting for it. The work upon these vessels has been delayed for months by the want of transportation, and now that they are very near completion I respectfully urge that no further delay on this account may be had, for unless completed at an early day the detention of the boat at Kinston by the fall of the Neuse River will be disastrous and may cause her destruction.
On March 8 and 9, Loyall again wrote Minor about the progress of the ironclad at Kinston. He stated that her guns were installed and "will work well." The frustrated commander, however, lamented that work on the ironclad was slowing down because iron was not arriving fast enough for the builders. The dejected Loyall concluded by saying, "Altogether I am in a pickle."
In mid-March, an observant officer from South Carolina assigned to the Neuse, Second Lieutenant Richard Bacot, complained to his sister back home about his crewmates and the slow progress on the ironclad:
Her iron fixin's are not done, her engines are not ready, her quarters and storerooms are not ready, and "Last but not least" the river is falling about 12 inches a day & we will have to trust to Providence for another rise when the vessel is finished; finally to complete our misery we have a crew of long, lank, "Tar Heels" (N.C.'s from the "Piney woods") Our guns are mounted and we drill the crew every morning at 5:30 o'clock. We have one or two good men . . . but I am afraid the others can never learn anything about a gunboat. You ought to see them in the boats! It is too ridiculous. They are all legs & arms & while working at the guns their legs get "Tangled" in the tackles . . . They are always in the wrong place & in each other's way.
When Minor had predicted that the Neuse would be completed during the month of March, he had no idea that the delays in getting iron to Kinston would prove quite so severe. Engineer Guion, sent by General Hoke, complained during March:
Driving everything to complete the boat . . . the Gen. furnishes large detail from his brigade for common labor. I furnish good carpentersthe Navy dept. keeps the workmen waiting for materials.
By the end of the month the ironclad was, understandably, still not completed. Guion could only "Despair of getting the Boat in time; Sec. Mallory and whole Navy dept. slow coach!"
If the unavailability of iron wasn't enough to dampen the spirits of the crew and builders, another problem arose in April when the ironclad was on the brink of completion. A dispute erupted over pay for the ship's carpenters, and Benjamin Loyall sought to settle the matter:
My dear Minor. There has been a flare up with the mechanics employed here. . . Mr. Howard . . . declares that they understood you to authorize a man employed four hours at night should receive a day's wages for the work . . . a new paymaster was ordered here, and, when the mechanic's rolls were being made up, he called upon me for authority to pay double for Sunday, and double for four hours of night work.
Commander Loyall told the new paymaster that "arrangements" had been made with Lieutenant Sharp concerning the mechanics' pay before the former assumed his duties on the Neuse. The paymaster then wrote to John Porter (the Neuse's designer), at Loyall's suggestion, to clarify the matter. Porter replied that if a mechanic worked on a Sunday, it would count as two days' work, and one hour of night work would amount to one and one-half hours of regular pay. Loyall wanted the dispute resolved quickly so construction would not be held up any longer than was necessary. Four of his mechanics had already walked off the job.
Loyall promptly received a reply from Minor about the pay dispute, but contractor Howard stepped into the argument and appealed to Loyall on behalf of the mechanics. The conservative Loyall gave in to the mechanics' request but wasn't pleased with their grumblings: "confound them they should all be enrolled and made to work at Govt. price with rations or go into the Army."
In his letter to Minor, Loyall complained further:
You have no idea of the delay in forwarding iron to this placeit may be unavoidable but I don't believe itAt one time twenty-one days passed without my receiving a piece . . . Everytime [sic] I telegraph to Lynch he replies, "Army monopolizing cars"It is all exceedingly mortifying to me.
Not only were Loyall and his men restless and eager to get their ironclad completed, Robert E. Lee was also impatient. In a letter to Gen. Braxton Bragg, Lee said:
From the letters of Gen'ls Pickett and Hoke the completion of the gunboats seemed so distant and even indefinite that I could see no advantage in retaining the latter longer in North Carolina . . . . I have not yet ordered Hoke to join me [in Virginia]. If anything is to be done in North Carolina it should be done quickly.
In mid-April, Loyall stated that the Neuse "can be used in a week," although the ironclad was not completed because the second course of iron was yet to be installed on the ship. In a letter to Minor on April 16, 1864, the commander presented a negative but accurate assessment of the ironclad in its present state of construction:
The vessel will draw nearly 8 feet of water when complete. Mark what I saywhen a boat, built of green pine & covered with four inches of iron, gets under fire of heavy ordnance, she will prove anything but bomb proofThis vessel is not fastened & strengthened more than a 200 ton schoonerHer upper deck is 2 in. pine, with light beams, & is expected to hold a pilot houseI should not be surprised if said pilot house was knocked offThere is very little to hold it on.
These were not the best of times for Benjamin Loyall and his vessel. By mid-April, the commander was utterly disheartened by the problems the Neuse had undergone: the delayed shipments of iron, the mechanics' squabble, and the seeming inability of the Navy Department to complete a warship in time for the spring offensive against New Bern. In addition, General Hoke had withdrawn his men, who had been working on the boat, to prepare for an assault on Plymouth. Besides this, Loyall had to contend with bureaucratic changes in the Navy Department. The latter predicament, Loyall stated, "has nearly broken me up in work."
On April 22, 1864, the new warship at last seemed destined for action. The Neuse, under orders from the Navy Department, steamed out of its "cat hole" toward New Bern. It was planned that the Neuse and Albemarle would meet at New Bern in an attempt to recapture the port town. True to its luck, however, the Neuse had barely moved one-half mile down river when it grounded hard upon a sand bar. Lieutenant Bacot shared the troubling experience in a letter to his sister:
I have bad news to tell you this time. Even worse than I anticipated when I wrote last week . . . there was scarcely enough [water] for us to cross the obstructions; we nevertheless started down last Friday and had proceeded about a half mile when we grounded on a sandbar . . . The stern of the vessel is afloat, but the bow is 4 feet out of the water. We will have to wait for a freshet again . . . I assure you our disappointment was great when we found we could not get off; the troops were here and ready to join us in an attack on Newbern [sic] and we were all expecting to take the city and sink the gunboats without much trouble and to have a fine time afterwards . . . it does seem hard to be so sorely disappointed after expecting so much.
General P. G. T. Beauregard, who was in command of the newly created Department of North Carolina, was informed of the Neuse's fate. He did not feel, however, that calling off the attack on New Bern was justified. Beauregard had no confidence in the new iron plated warships, especially after the troubled and costly experience with the Confederate submarine Hunley in 1862. The department commander deemed the ironclads slow, bulky, and generally unliveable. Nevertheless, on April 24 he telegraphed General Bragg: "Can you send me an engineer officer who can contrive some plan to get the gunboat afloat? I feel she will be materially injured if not floated soon. The water has fallen 7 feet in the last four days, and is still falling."
Lieutenant Bacot feared it would be summer before the river would rise enough to free the stranded vessel. "It has rained too much already this spring for us to expect enough to raise the water again, before the middle of summer," wrote the discouraged officer. General W. H. C. Whiting, an engineer responsible for the river defenses around Wilmington, could only report that "Gun boat on Neuse [River] hopelessly fixed."
Union commanders were also informed of the ironclad's failed attempt to steam down river to New Bern. They were convinced, however, that when the ship was free, it would again try to descend the river. The Neuse, though presently grounded on a sand bar, presented a possible future threat to Union forces in eastern North Carolina. "The ram is no myth," warned the Union's Gen. I. N. Palmer from his headquarters in New Bern. "Rest assured of that."
The river rose again in mid-May and the Neuse was freed at last. Instead of attacking New Bern, however, the gunboat returned to its moorings in Kinston. During the period the ironclad had been grounded, Hoke's men were recalled to Virginia by General Lee to counter the massive buildup of troops posed by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Consequently, the Neuse remained idle at Kinston, unable to venture down river without ground support.
The possibility of the ironclad seeing action after this period became increasing remote. A soldier in the Kinston vicinity, Henry M. Patrick of the 3rd North Carolina Cavalry, reflected on what might have happened if the Neuse had been completed on schedule:
It is a great misfortune that we have managed so badly without the boat at Kinston. Could it have been completed a month ago and carried down the river . . . and the Albemarle come up the river we would have had easy work taking New Bern and very probably saved hundreds perhaps thousands of valuable lives.
Without troop support, offensive operations were impractical, and the Neuse and its crew remained inactive. The time for effective employment of the gunboat had passed. The men on board made the most of their leisure time, enjoying the simple amusements in Kinston, but Benjamin Loyall grew increasingly restless. From Loyall's letters, Minor could sense the frustration of the ship's commander and asked him if he would like a duty reassignment. Though fed up with all the recent problems, Loyall stopped short of asking for a new post:
You ask me if I desire to exchange the dullness and inactivity of this station with the stirring scenes of the James River Squadron. I will not say emphatically yes . . . I would not seek the exchange between the command of a vessel of this kind and of one of the old gunboats on James River . . . however it is my desire to serve with all my ability, in any station it may please the Government to place me . . . My opinion is that the prospect of this vessel's being brought in conflict with the Enemy is remote . . . And all things considered the ship is not a discredit to the Navy, but would be no mean adversary to our friends in the Sound.
Whether or not Loyall wanted to remain as skipper of the Neuse, August would mark the last month of his assignment to the ship. On August 24, Loyall received orders to report for duty on the Patrick Henry at Richmond. That same day, Capt. Joseph H. Price was ordered to command the Neuse. Price, a native of Wilmington, would be the ironclad's final commander.
The arrival of the new commander did nothing to substantially alter the conditions of boredom and inactivity aboard the Neuse. During the fall of 1864 the ironclad remained in Kinstonoperational but confined to its moorings. Ground support troops were not to be had, and obstructions near the mouth of the river prevented the ship from any movement.
By late November, the river had risen sufficiently to allow the Neuse to descend, but troop support was still lacking and the crew could only wait out the mild rains of late fall. Union forces were massed in New Bern, making periodic raids into neighboring towns.
Union commanders were pleased with intelligence reports that the Neuse was without troop support, aware that without it, a Confederate attack on the port town would prove impractical.
In December 1864, the ironclad's situation remained unchanged. Like the rest of his crewmates, Jerome Riggins longed for action:
I learned this morning that the Yankees taken [sicl Tarbor about two days ago. I want to fight the Yankees with our gun boat but they is afeared [sic] to come in shooting distance . . . I expect the Yankees will undertake Kinston. If they do they will take it I think, but I don't think they can take our boat easy. We would die for it rather than give it up. We would blow it up rather than they should have it.
With the new year came the toppling of the last major strongholds of the Confederacy. By mid-January 1865, Fort Fisher on North Carolina's southeastern coast had fallen after a massive amphibious attack, and Union forces were preparing to march on the crucial port town of Wilmington. Consequently, as Confederate troops were rushed to the Cape Fear region to help defend Wilmington, any hope of ground support for a New Bern expedition by the Neuse was extinguished for good. Three days after the fall of Fort Fisher, the defiant Lieutenant Bacot was still eager to fight the enemy:
The urgent necessity for troops at Wilmington prevents our having a land force to cooperate in an attack on Newbern. It would do my heart good to help take that place . . . I say fight Yankeedom forever if we have to bushwhack & live in the swamps. We've gone too far to back down & I glory in our cause . . . We are not yet whipped & our people are not discouraged.
Though Robert F. Hoke's division had been sent by General Lee to help safeguard Fort Fisher and Wilmington, the Confederacy was forced to surrender the port on February 22, after a rapid Federal campaign up the Cape Fear River. Two weeks after Wilmington fell, Union forces stood ready to move on the important rail junction of Goldsboro. The objective of the expedition was to link up with Gen. William T. Sherman's enormous "army group" in the vicinity of Goldsboro. Sherman, whose 60,000 Federals were blazing a trail northward through the Carolinas, was set to rendezvous with the commands of Alfred H. Terry and Jacob. D. Cox (the captors of Fort Fisher and Wilmington). Under command of Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield, Cox and Terry were soon en route for Goldsboro. Terry was marching north from Wilmington, while Cox's command, having traveled up the coast, was heading inland from New Bern. Cox set out from New Bern on March 6 with two divisions numbering more than 13,000 men.
Hoke's Division, which had retreated from Wilmington after its fall, gathered in the vicinity of Kinston and attempted to repulse Cox's invading Federals. At Wyse Fork (Southwest Creek) on March 8-10, three miles east of Kinston, Hoke and elements of the Confederate Army of Tennessee were defeated by Cox and forced back toward Goldsboro. Department of North Carolina commander Braxton Bragg, in charge of Confederate operations in the area, promptly ordered the evacuation of Kinston:
Captain [Joseph] Price, C. S. Navy, commanding the C.S.S. Neuse, is desired to cover Major General Hoke's movement, and if practical, before sacrificing his vessel, to move down the river by diversion, and make the loss of his vessel as costly to the enemy as possible.
Bragg had ordered the destruction of the Neuse. For more than two years, the Navy Department had struggled greatly to build and equip the new vessel for Confederate service. But Federal raiding parties, a scarcity of materials, and lack of ground support had all conspired to keep the luckless ironcladwhich Lieutenant Bacot had dubbed the "Neuse'ance"bottled up at Kinston. After all the delays, the ship's construction was finally complete and its crew was eager for action. But it was not to be.
By the night of March 10, 1865, the retreating Confederates had crossed the Neuse River and were heading toward Goldsboro to escape the advancing Union forces. The Federals did not pursue the Confederates vigorously. During the two days immediately following the evacuation of Kinston, Union commanders were busily engaged in sending telegrams to New Bern requesting the preparation of a steamer, equipped with a torpedo, to ascend the river and blow up the enemy ironclad moored at Kinston.
Union forces began moving into the town on the morning of March 12. Following the orders of General Bragg, Capt. Joseph Price ordered his crew to shell the advancing enemy cavalry units, and then scuttle the doomed gunboat. These were the only shots the Neuse ever fired in hostility. Lieutenant Bacot described the last moments of the ironclad:
All the troops had withdrawn from Kinston & the Yankees 18,000 strong came upon us & not having any prospect of being relieved before our provisions gave out & being in a narrow river where we could not work the ship under fire, after shelling the Yankee Cavalry for a little while, we removed our powder & stores & burnt the vessel.
The Neuse was soon engulfed with flames, and a massive explosion on her port bow sent the vessel to the bottom of the shallow river.
A few days after the Federals took control of Kinston, a Connecticut private named Henry Thompson walked down to the riverbank to visit the watery grave of the sunken ironclad. "Weather very windy, sand flying," he scrawled in his diary. "Visited the rebel Ram which was in the bend of the river in the woods and sunk with two large Guns on board." Thompson thought she was "a savoy [sic] looking craft."
CSS Neuse: A Question of Iron and Time, by Leslie S. Bright, William H. Rowland, and James C. Bardon (North Carolina Office of Archives and History, 1981).
Kinston, Whitehall, and Goldsboro Expedition: December 1862. Printed by W. W. Howe, New York, 1890. 104 pp.