Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Engines of Rebellion

The Confederate Navy Department is frequently cited as a particularly good example of the use of technological innovation to help offset numerical inferiority and crushing disparities in industrial might, raw materials availability, financial strength, skilled labor, and manpower. While CSA ironclads often proved to be effective weapons, they also had serious drawbacks. Many vessels, perhaps most famously the CSS Arkansas, had faulty engines or were inadequately powered as designed. The combination of a general lack of spare parts and a large pool of skilled mechanics and carpenters also meant that simply keeping these modern ships operational was frequently beyond the capability of the Confederate Navy. Nevertheless, these major problems were managed well enough to build and wield a rather impressive fleet of ironclad warships.

According to Saxton Bisbee's Engines of Rebellion: Confederate Ironclads and Steam Engineering in the American Civil War, which is scheduled for a Summer 2018 release by University of Alabama Press, "(h)istorians have given little attention to the engineering of Confederate ironclads, although the Confederacy was often quite creative in building and obtaining marine power plants." The study "focuses exclusively on ships with American built machinery, offering a detailed look at marine steam-engineering practices in both northern and southern industry prior to and during the Civil War."

The book will demonstrate how Confederate naval builders were able to work around the inherent structural limitations of their country's comparatively primitive industrial base. "Beginning with a contextual naval history of the Civil War, the creation of the ironclad program, and the advent of various technologies, Saxon T. Bisbee analyzes the armored warships built by the Confederate States of America that represented a style adapted to scarce industrial resources and facilities. This unique historical and archaeological investigation consolidates and expands on the scattered existing information about Confederate ironclad steam engines, boilers, and propulsion systems."

From the description, it does sound like the volume very well might be the kind of history and data resource that serious students of the Civil War navies crave. "Through analysis of steam machinery development during the Civil War, Bisbee assesses steam plants of twenty-seven ironclads by source, type, and performance, among other factors. The wartime role of each vessel is discussed, as well as the stories of the people and establishments that contributed to its completion and operation. Rare engineering diagrams never before published or gathered in one place are included here as a complement to the text." Interesting.


  1. I am very excited about this book, which covers one of my favorite topics. I think Bill Still's various ironclad and Confederate shipbuilding studies are wonderful but now dated. --Ted Savas

    1. Same here. For my wishes and wants, these kinds of books are way too few and far between.


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