What Class is the Jackson?

One of the questions that we get from time to time is: “what class of ship is the CSS Jackson?” Classification is really the identification of similarities among vessels, especially those built for the Navy. These ships are built using the same plan but can have some differences. During the early part of American ship-building history, builders, and engineers at various shipyards around the country were given general directions but were given flexibility to adjust to various problems. This was extended to when a vessel was being equipped. Local blacksmiths, for instance, never made an item exactly alike with other artisans in other locales. Even with so many variables in play, two or more ships may be built on the same plans but could look somewhat different. We would put them in the same class.

CSS Jackson

The curious problem with the Jackson is that it is the most transformed ironclad of the Confederate Navy. When the ironclad built in Columbus was laid down, constructors and engineers in the Confederate Navy agreed that the vessel would be built using the same plans as the CSS Missouri, which was designed specifically for river use. The Chattahoochee River has many challenges including having the lower reaches of the river see very low water levels during the hot summer months. A large ironclad must be able to operate in these waters. The Missouri plan featured a shallow draft, a large protective casemate, and a center paddlewheel. James Warner, Augustus McLaughlin, and Charles Blain were given the assignment to build an ironclad at Columbus along the same plans.

Jackson hull

Sometime in late 1862, the strange vessel began to take shape at the shipyard on the banks of the Chattahoochee. In December 1863, Warner, McLaughlin, and Blain agreed to try to launch the vessel with the expected high water due in late December or early January. On January 1, the high water came and was more than expected. They were unable to get the ironclad loose and in the water. The ship just would not move.

 

After sending reports to the Navy Department, the decision to redesign the ironclad was made. The center paddlewheel was removed, and the hole was filled in. The whole vessel was lengthened to allow for two propellors. Finally, with the paddlewheel out of the way, the casemate was shortened to lighten the overall weight.

The story of the construction of the Jackson is a bit unusual, but it does reveal the way that different shipyards dealt with problems in different ways and thus, producing different looking vessels. In reality, any classification that we put on these ships in the modern era is more for us to understand and visualize these ships. It also reveals the nature of shipbuilding practices in the mid-nineteenth century (but that’s a story for another time.) General practice, though, is to name the class of ships from the first vessel produced along a single set of plans.

Naval historians have argued different ways to classify Civil War warships. In fact, our very own Bob Holcombe helped push the idea of Confederate ironclads built along the riverways of the South to be identified as “diamond-hulled.” If one were to slice the ironclad into two parts and look at the parts, they are hexagonal in shape, thus a diamond hull. These river ironclads are flat bottomed to be able to maneuver along the rivers. They are also “boxy” to allow for the use of carpenters not skilled in shipbuilding.

Jackson exhibit

So, what class is the Jackson? Well, it is “diamond-hulled.” Other than being diamond shaped, it’s in a class all its own. If you haven’t seen the Jackson in some time, come see it now. And, in case you haven’t heard, we’re working on a new exhibit to include the reconstructed fantail. We can’t wait to show it off.

Jeff Seymour

Director of History & Collections