People often measure a nation’s ship building capacity in terms of facilities and machinery. What is usually overlooked is the system for letting contracts, overseeing construction, managing labor, and making payments – in short, the bureaucracy of ship construction. At the start of the American Civil War in 1861, the U.S. Navy in the eastern theater began with an advantage over its Confederate counterpart in both ships and facilities. On the western rivers, however, neither side started the conflict with warships, and the south had a number of strong manufacturing facilities, especially at Nashville, Memphis, and New Orleans. The southern states, to be sure, suffered from inherent disadvantages such as shortages of skilled labor and an overloaded transportation system. Nevertheless the Confederacy’s biggest problem was the central government’s laissez-faire attitude toward industry that did nothing to prevent intense competition from developing among contractors for raw materials, labor, and railroads, causing fatal delays in completing the construction of ironclad warships on the western rivers. By contrast, the U.S. Navy’s bureaucracy in contracting for and overseeing the construction of warships in civilian yards led to the deployment of a powerful ironclad squadron that proved decisive in the first six months of campaigning in 1862.
Barely two weeks after the fall of Fort Sumter in April 1861 President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet summoned to Washington James Buchanan Eads, a wealthy St. Louis naval engineer who had made his reputation salvaging cargos and sunken steamers on the Mississippi River. The cabinet approved Eads plan to construct a fleet of shallow-draft armored gunboats to control passage of the western rivers, and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles assigned Naval Constructor Samuel Pook to study the details and draft plans for the gunboats. Army Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs was placed in control of the project, and Pook submitted his plans on 6 July. Bid openings were held on 5 August, and as the lowest responsible bidder, Eads signed the contract two days later to build for the government seven ironclad vessels, ready for their armament, by 10 October. Eads was liable for forfeitures for delays, and the Treasury withheld 25% to guarantee contract performance. There was also a supplemental agreement regarding deviations from specifications which might cause delays in completion.
Despite the ambitions of the U.S. Government and James Eads, delays crept into the process. Mistakes in the shipment of materials led to work stoppages, threats from Confederate forces in nearby regions played havoc with the demand for goods, and additional work ordered by the naval officer assigned to supervise the construction of the vessels all pushed back the completion date. Still, several key elements in this example of early war naval bureaucracy led to its remarkable success. In James Eads, the government selected a skilled contractor with the financial resources to keep the project going during times that government payments were delayed. Eads also had a strong network of regional subcontractors that permitted him to start the project quickly and keep it running with few disruptions. The contract provided strong incentives to complete the work rapidly. The man assigned to supervise construction, Andrew Hull Foote, was an exacting, experienced naval officer who quickly developed a close working relationship with Eads. Although the additional work he ordered led to delays, the ironclads were more capable fighting vessels as a result. On 16 January 1862 all seven gunboats were placed in commission at Cairo, Illinois.
Although the Union gunboats were ready several weeks after they were expected, they were still way ahead of the four Confederate ironclads under construction at Memphis and New Orleans. The Confederate government accepted offers from private contractors to build powerful armored warships at these cities during the summer of 1861, but provided little administrative assistance or oversight. Workers strikes, inefficient shipment of resources, poor design specifications, shortages of funds, and a host of other problems plagued the southern shipbuilders. Not one of the four Confederate ironclads was completed by the time New Orleans fell in April and Memphis in June 1862.
One Northern paper characterized the events between February and June 1862, as a “Deluge of Victories in the West.” Union forces won battles at Forts Henry and Donelson, Island Number 10, Shiloh, Memphis, and New Orleans. They captured 50,000 square miles of Confederate territory and gained control of 1000 miles of navigable rives. Federal troops took two state capitals and put 30,000 Confederate soldiers out of action. This success was made possible by an ironclad squadron created by a superior naval bureaucracy; one that the Confederates did not have. This gave the Union forces the opportunity to strike first in the west and with great force.