1862: Experimental Ironclad USS Keokuk


We all know that there were some pretty interesting ships participating in the US Civil War. The below panoramic view of the Charleston Harbor, published on 5/2/1863 can serve as a testament to that. First in line of the ironclads below is:

The image below is very similar, but there is one different word being used in the description. For some "Confederates" and "Rebels" could sound synonymous, given the circumstances. Personally, I think there is a deeper meaning to this.



1862 USS Keokuk
USS Keokuk was an experimental ironclad screw steamer of the United States Navy named for the city of Keokuk, Iowa. She was laid down in New York City by designer Charles W. Whitney at J.S. Underhill Shipbuilders, and launched in December 1862.
  • The launch was sponsored by Mrs. C. W. Whitney, wife of the builder.
  • USS Keokuk was commissioned in early March 1863 with Commander Alexander C. Rhind in command.
  • She was originally named Moodna (sometimes incorrectly spelled "Woodna"), but was renamed while under construction.
    • Could it be that "Woodna" was her original name?
    • Or, could it bee that Moodna or Woodna was a totally different ship?
  • USS Keokuk (1862)


USS Keokuk was one of the first warships to be of completely iron construction, with wood used only for deck planks and filler in the armor cladding. Her hull construction consisted of five iron box keelsons and one hundred 1-inch-thick by 4-inch-deep iron frames spaced 18 inches between centers. The frames included integral iron cross beams for the decks, with no transverse wood timbers as used on the Monitor. Her bow and stern sections were flooding spaces to allow raising and lowering her waterline.
  • Her two stationary, conical gun towers, each pierced with three gun ports, housed one 11-inch Dahlgren shell gun each on a shortened and rounded rotating wooden slide carriage.
  • Her tower and casemate armor was made up from 1-inch-thick by 4-inch-deep horizontal iron bars alternating with planks of yellow pine of the same dimensions, sheathed with layers of overlapping, flush-bolted 1⁄2-inch rolled iron plates.
  • A total thickness of this composite armor, including the hull skin proper, was 5.75 inches (146 mm).
  • The deck was made of 5-inch wood planks overlaid with 1⁄2-inch-thick iron plate.
  • She had two twin-cylinder main propulsion engines, each 250 hp. In total, Keokuk had nine steam engines providing power to various systems.






The new ironclad departed New York on March 11, 1863 and steamed south to join the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron for the attack on Charleston, SC.
  • The First Battle of Charleston Harbor began at noon on April 7, but difficulties in clearing torpedoes from the path of Du Pont's ironclads slowed their progress. Shortly after 3 p.m., they came within range of Fort Moultrie and Fort Sumter; and the battle began.
  • USS Keokuk was struck by about ninety projectiles, many of which hit at or below her waterline.
  • Commander Rhind reported his ship as being hit by a combination of solid shot, bolts, and possibly hot shot.
    • As predicted by her chief engineer, her thin composite armor was completely inadequate to protect her from this onslaught and she was "completely riddled" in the words of Commander Rhind.
    • However, she was able to withdraw under her own power and anchor out of range, thanks in part to the skills of her black pilot, Robert Smalls, a former slave and pilot of CSS Planter.
    • Her crew kept her afloat through the night, but when a breeze came up on the morning of April 8, 1863, Keokuk began taking on more water, filled rapidly, and sank off Morris Island.
  • She had given one month of commissioned service.

KD: Unfortunately, I was unable to find a single photograph of our USS Keokuk. Did they have any photography equipment to snap a photo or two, or fifty of this ship? I think they did. Yet, searching for photographs produced nothing. If you find anything, please share.
  • The most remarkable thing about this ship is obviously her design.
  • Where a design like this could come from in 1862?
Oh, and who was this designer Charles W. Whitney, whose wife had to sponsor the launch for the United States Navy? Does any of this make sense?
That is a pretty cool ship, or ships if there were two (Keokuk and Woodna) in terms of military innovation. During conflicts weapon systems and tactics tend to evolve very quickly, such as during WW1 where machine guns made infantry charges obsolete and then tanks did the same to machine guns.
Here we see not only the use of armor but the use of sloped armor as well as a reduction in size compared to the old conventional sailing ship. Sloped armor makes for a thicker cross section against a more-or-less horizontally flying projectile as well as a greater chance of deflecting it. The ship sitting low and being a smaller target had to help as well.
It looks like they used the same tactics with their ironclads as they did with the old wooden vessels which would have been firing broadsides and that may have been a mistake since the ironclads simply didn't have the firepower, as in the number of guns compared to a ship-of-the-line. Maybe they under estimated the sheer volume of return fire they would be facing. I wonder how the other ironclads fared.
The use of these vessels would then encourage guns to be developed that fired armor piercing projectiles and had greater accuracy.
Oh, well, back to the drawing board.
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