Object of the Month

Under Seven Flags: A Drawing of the Confederate Ironclad Ram Stonewall

William Benjamin Gould diary, 1863-1864, page at end of volume with drawing of CSS Stonewall Pencil on paper

William Benjamin Gould diary, 1863-1864, page at end of volume with drawing of CSS Stonewall

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This drawing from the Civil War diary of sailor William B. Gould depicts the fearsome Confederate ram Stonewall. Built in France for the Confederacy, the Stonewall was retained by the French and sold by a Swedish firm to Denmark. It then reverted to the Confederate Navy. At the end of the American Civil War, the ship was sold to the Spanish colonial government of Cuba to pay off its crew. The Spanish then resold it to United States. The Japanese government purchased the ship from the United States and, halfway around the world, the Stonewall (renamed the Azuma) ended its days as one of the first major vessels of the Imperial Japanese Navy. The Stonewall did not sail under the naval ensigns of all of the countries that owned it, but it had a remarkable and colorful career.

William B. Gould

William B. Gould, a twenty-six-year-old former slave from Wilmington, North Carolina, inserted this drawing in the diary that he kept while he served aboard the Union frigate Niagara during the last years of the Civil War. Gould had escaped from slavery in 1862 by rowing out to the Cambridge, a federal gunboat on patrol off the Carolina coast. Gould immediately joined the Union navy, sailing first onboard the Cambridge before transferring to the Niagara. His service brought him to the Boston naval base and hospital, and, after the Civil War, he settled in Dedham, Massachusetts, where he died in 1923, "a faithful soldier [i.e. sailor] and loyal citizen." His extraordinary diary is described in more detail in a previous object of the month.

Early in 1865, the Niagara joined the hunt for the newly-commissioned Confederate ram Stonewall. While the drawing of the Stonewall appears on the blank last page of an earlier volume of the Gould diary facing his entry for 5 September 1864, Gould described the search for and anticipated battle with the dreaded Confederate ironclad in his entries for February-March 1865.

The Odyssey of the Sphinx

The Stonewall was one of a pair of vessels built in France in 1863-1864 for the Confederacy. The ships, each 171 feet in length, were designed to carry powerful, rifled cannon in casements within armored hulls but they also mounted enormous iron beaks—fortified rams with which to pierce the sides of Union vessels. The Sphinx and Cheops, as the vessels were named (to conceal their true ownership and to maintain the pretext of French neutrality), were a combination of ultra-modern and ancient technology. They were sail-assisted rather than true steamships and their fortified prows were modern versions of those of the oared galleys that fought at Lepanto or even Salamis. Theoretically, the ships had the potential to break the Union blockade that was strangling the Confederacy, either by crossing the Atlantic and directly attacking Union ships off the Southern coast or by raiding Northern ports.

The Sphinx becomes the Staerkodder

During the American Civil War, a "secret service" war was fought between Union and Confederate agents in Europe. Through a combination of espionage and diplomacy, the North was able to stymie Confederate efforts to purchase or build modern warships first in England (the so-called "Laird rams") and then in France, where they uncovered the plan of the Bordeaux shipbuilding firm of Louis Arman to build the Sphinx and Cheops and forced Arman to break his contract with the Confederacy. Through a straw purchase by a Swedish commercial firm, the Sphinx was sold to the Danish government, which renamed it the Staerkodder ("Strong Otter"—sometimes in contemporary documents the Stoerkodder). Denmark then was fighting against Prussia in the Second Schleswig War. Prussia purchased the Cheops and renamed it the Prinz Adalbert, but neither the Danes nor the Prussians were able to put their ships into service, so the sister ships never fought against each other.

The Staerkodder becomes the Stonewall

Late in 1864, the Confederacy reclaimed the Staerkodder from Denmark and commissioned it as the Stonewall (named for Confederate hero General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson). A maritime race and chase then ensued from Copenhagen to Lisbon. Confederate captain Thomas Jefferson Page had to fit out and equip the Stonewall for an Atlantic crossing even while preparing to fight his way free of his Union pursuers. CSS Stonewall was designed for service in calm coastal waters and in the winter waters of the North Sea and Atlantic she proved to have all the sailing characteristics of an actual stone wall. Nevertheless, Commodore Thomas T. Craven, who led the pursuit in the Niagara, approached an engagement with the Stonewall with trepidation. In theory the Stonewall would have been a formidable opponent—in William B. Gould's words, an "ugley customer."

By 1865, Gould was a veteran of more than two years of naval duty and his diary reflects his impatience with the delaying tactics adopted by Commodore Craven. The Niagara was much larger than the Stonewall—in battle it would have towered over the ram—and armed with a powerful battery of rifled cannon, but it was a less-maneuverable, wooden-hulled ship, vulnerable to the Stonewall's terrible armored beak. Even with the aid of a smaller consort, the Sacramento, it was not clear that the Niagara could handle the Stonewall, except under favorable conditions, although Craven's opponent, Thomas Page, had strong reservations about the seaworthiness of his own vessel. In the end, to Seaman Gould's intense regret, Craven allowed the Stonewall to sail for America without a fight. After the war Craven was court-martialed and reprimanded for failing to have done his utmost to overtake and engage the enemy.

A Second Life for the Stonewall

Thomas Page sailed the Stonewall to Nassau in the Bahamas and then on to Cuba where he learned that the Civil War had ended. He turned his ship over to the Spanish government in return for funds to pay off his crew. The following year, the United States reimbursed the Spanish and took possession of the ship that they, in turn, sold to the Japanese government in 1867. Under its new name, Kotetsu ("Steel"), the Stonewall was destined to fight in a Civil War—the Boshin War—but for rather than against the central government of Japan. After fending off a surprise attack by sword-wielding Samurai, the Kotetsu led the Imperial fleet into action at Hakodate Bay in May 1869. Renamed Azuma ("East"), the former Stonewall served on until 1888, a last relic of the Confederate navy.

Further Reading

Bigelow, John. France and the Confederate Navy, 1862-1868: An International Episode. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1888.

Fukuzawa, Yukichi. The Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960.

Fukuzawa, a major figure in the 19th–century Japanese movement to adopt Western science and technology, describes the casual manner in which, in the last days of the shogunate, a Japanese delegation to the United States selected the Stonewall and apparently paid an enormous price for it—twice.

Gould, William B. Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor. Edited by William B. Gould, IV. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.

A digital version of the Gould diary is available at the Stanford University Press website: http://www.law.stanford.edu/library/goulddiary/wbgdiary1.html.

Munson, Robert W. "Stonewall: The Confederate that Went to Japan." Sea Classics, Vol. 50, No. 2 (February 2017), 38-41, 52-53.

Munson illustrates his article with detailed photographs of the Stonewall at the end of the Civil War and in Japanese service.

"Stonewall." Entry under Confederate States Navy. Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships Text file available online: http://www.hazegray.org/danfs/csn/s.txt.

"The Stonewall." Harper's Weekly. Vol. 9, No. 437. May 13, 1865, p. 301.

The Gould sketch is similar in detail to the image of the Stonewall from the same time period reproduced in Harper's Weekly.

United States. Naval War Records Office. The Operations of the Cruisers (April 1, 1864-December 30, 1865). Vol. 3, 1896 of Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. Washington: Government Printing Office (1894-1922). 

The official correspondence and reports of Captain Thomas J. Page and Commodore Thomas T. Craven show how differently a situation could appear to opposing commanders during the course of a naval campaign.

Steensen, Robert Steen. "The Armoured Ram Staerkodder."

An English translation of the chapter from Commander Steensen's Vore Panserskibe on the Sphinx/Staerkodder's brief sojourn in Danish waters (it was never commissioned in the Danish navy) is available at the Dansk Militaerhistorie website.