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Friday, April 12, 2013

The USS Keokuk: An Ill-Fated Civil War Ironclad

The Civil War saw the first use of ironclad ships. Since the technology was in its early days, engineers experimented with different designs. One failed design was the USS Keokuk.

Launched in December 1862 from New York City, this 677-ton ship was almost 160 ft. long. She had two stationary, cylindrical gun towers, each pierced with three gun ports. Each turret only had one gun, however, that rotated within the turret. Her armor was also unusual, being made up of horizontal iron bars alternating with planks of oak wood and sheathed with a boiler iron sheet. The total thickness of this composite armor was only 5.75 in.

The USS Keokuk saw her first and last battle 150 years ago this week, when on April 7 she was part of a fleet attacking Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. This was the famous fort that the rebels took at the start of the war. Recapturing it would be a major propaganda victory for the North as well as allowing them to dominate the harbor.

The Confederates weren't about to let that happen. They opened up a brutal fusillade against the ships. The Keokuk was struck by about ninety projectiles, many of which hit at or below her waterline. Her experimental armor proved completely inadequate. One observer said she was "completely riddled". Though the Keokuk was able to withdraw, she sank on the next morning.

You can read a more detailed account of the battle at the Civil War Daily Gazette.

Photos courtesy U.S. Naval Center. Click on the link for more!


  1. Well, at least the poor ship was able to withdraw before she sank, and I hope all the soldiers managed to get rescued. Very interesting post! :-)

    1. Those that didn't get killed in the battle managed to get to safety. Sadly they're long gone now. I'd love to interview one!


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