The Ladies' Gunboat
War creates strange situations. As the need to fight a war evolves, the society that engages in war has to adjust to the reality of conflict. One such situation is the American Civil War and the Confederacy’s ironclads. While the technological advancements and the stories of the men who fought them drive the ways that we tell the history of the ironclads, we tend to forget that women played a role in ironclad production. Yes, genteel Southern women engaged in efforts to build these big, bruising vessels of war.
By the spring of 1862, ironclads became a popular symbol of warfare after the Battle of Hampton Roads and the duel between the Monitor and the Virginia. With limited resources available, many women recognized that they also needed help to defend their homes. Ladies in New Orleans are credited with creating the first Ladies’ Gunboat Association. Soon, these associations sprang up from Louisiana to Virginia. In the March 14th, 1862 Columbus Enquirer, the editorial opined that “we see in the Charleston papers that a young lady has started a subscription to build a gunboat at Charleston. We believe that her example should be followed here in Georgia.”
Subscriptions soon turned into full-blown fundraisers. Barbecues were very popular, but bake sales, raffles, and concert benefits became the norm. These ladies would hound the local population to provide anything and everything to raffles and auctions. Charleston even hosted a fair. The famous diarist, Mary Chesnut, wrote that she donated a string of pearls and noted that the fair raised over $2,000. The Charleston ladies eventually raised $30,000 for the ironclad Charleston, and the ladies of Richmond brought in about $28,500 for the Fredericksburg.
But Georgia ladies would soon lead the way in fund-raising. This was spurred on by the newspapers, such as the one in Sandersville, which laid the challenge, by reporting “the ladies of Savannah have raised $3,600. What will the ladies of Washington County do?” The Ladies Gunboat Association of Georgia eventually raised in excess of $115,000 to fully fund the Georgia. This was the only one of the Confederate ironclads to be fully funded from within the state it was built.
Surviving records of the early stages of the construction of the Georgia are rare, but they indicate that the Ladies Gunboat Association was heavily involved in the planning stages. In fact, the Association had a final say in the approval of the plans. Those plans do not survive today.
As it turns out, the Georgia was not as well built as hoped. The vessel was woefully under powered by its weak engines and the hull leaked badly. With these problems, the Georgia was eventually anchored under the guns of Fort Jackson protecting Savannah and used as a floating battery. The ironclad was scuttled by the Confederates as General William T. Sherman’s army approached Savannah in December 1864.
By the way, the first artifacts from the Georgia have arrived at the museum Please come by and see what the ladies of Georgia raised the money to pay for in defense of their state. This is definitely…one of those stories you’ll hear nowhere else.