CSS WILMINGTON (Incomplete)
Built: Wilmington, North Carolina
Commissioned: Never Completed
Service: Never Completed
Home Port: Wilmington, North Carolina
Dimensions: 224" Length, 42"6' Beam, 9'6" Draft
Armament: Unknown; was to have been mounted in two oval casemates. Possibly Brooke Rifles.
Fate: Destroyed on the stocks to prevent capture, 1865.
Confederate ironclad design evolved consistently over the course of the Civil War, and while there were a few developmental dead ends or unusual sidesteps, the overwhelming propensity was toward the construction of smaller, more heavily armored casemate designs, which would reduce the overall target area of a vessel and increase its armor protection at the cost of a reduction in firepower. This seems to have been influenced, in part, by the need to provide a reliable means of protection against the increasing firepower of naval ordnance over the course of the war, but also, to a large extent, by the success of the Union monitor type design, which had initially been criticized early in the war as lacking in adequate firepower.
Wilmington was, arguably, the ultimate expression of the "small casemate" philosophy espoused by the naval architects of the Confederate States Navy. Her design seems to have been influenced partly by the concept of USS Keokuk , which used a pair of revolving gun mounts placed within two non-rotating turrets. While Keokuk was an operational failure due to her inadequate armor protection, her armament design was considered a legitimate alternative to the expense of fully rotating turret, and the concept was explored by other fleets of the period.
We know very little about Wilmington, herself. She was clearly designed on a principal similar to that of the Keokuk, with a pair of oval shaped non-rotating gun houses enclosing two guns on rotating mounts. Designed with the intent of defending the North Carolina port for which she was named, her construction was hoped to provide a vessel which was largely immune to fire from broadside vessels and well protected from that of monitors. Her precise armament as intended is not known, but it has been theorized that the mounts would have utilized Brooke rifles, which would have had the range and penetration power necessary to compensate for her reduced firepower and, at any rate, were the preferred Confederate anti-armor weapon by the end of the war. Construction may have begun as early as 1863, but records are not clear on the matter of when, precisely, she was authorized; they are clear only that she was authorized.
With the capitulation of Fort Fisher in January, 1865, Confederate forces prepared to evacuate Wilmington. One of the casualties of this evacuation was CSS Wilmington herself, still on the stocks in the process of construction. Sources vary as to the extent to which her construction had proceeded - certainly her keel had been laid and some of her hull had been constructed - but the end result was the same, in that she was destroyed before having been completed for service. Her addition to the defenses of Wilmington, North Carolina, might well have proven useful in delaying the fall of the city for a few more months, but as the rest of the North Carolina ironclads had already been destroyed or wrecked, it seems that she would have faced overwhelming odds. An earlier completion, of course, might have altered these odds slightly.