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Four Torpedo Boats and a Ram
Modeling Lesser Known Confederate Navy Vessels
Jim Gordon

Photographed by Rob Mackie

I scratchbuilt these subjects in 1/600 scale because of the established scale standard set by Thoroughbred Models and their line of American Civil War (ACW) vessels.  Having built their CSS Alabama and CSS Tennessee, I yearned to model other unusual ACW subjects, of which there are many. The American Civil War was an period of intense experimentation and fascinating extemporized designs. My effort has turned into a small collection of primarily torpedo boats and one ironclad. These unique vessels share one feature. They were intended to stalk the enemy ship and destroy it either with an explosive "torpedo" (we would call them "mines" today) or by ramming.
The first scratch build was the Confederate ram Manassas.  Pleased with the results, I started on the torpedo boat David, using Tony Gibbon's excellent book, "Warships and Naval Battles of the Civil War" (Gallery Books, 1989) as reference. Next came the  submarine Pioneer, then the CSS Squib and finally the stealth rowboat.

The CSS ManassasManassas 09.jpg (12227 bytes)
The Manassas started its career as an icebreaker, but Southern entrepreneurs converted her to an ironclad ram. The intent was to earn prize money by ramming and sinking Union vessels. Seized by the Confederate States Navy, the "Pygmy Monster" struck fear into Federal sailors, though it did relatively little damage in its brief career. It was wrecked by Union cannon fire in defense of forts St.Philip and Jackson. The Manassas featured a single cannon in a bow trapdoor, as well as a mechanism for blasting borders topside with scalding boiler steam. This was one audacious warship.

Using color drawings and technical information from  Tony Gibbons' book, I made my scale calculations, reducing the stated dimensions by 600X.  I then drew the  plan outline using a French curve. The simple shape of this turtlebacked ram was achieved by gluing  3 pieces of 2mm  thick styrene sheet together, then shaping on a belt sander, followed by
considerable hand sanding.   The ventilator grill is 1/700  photoetch railing. The smokestack is styrene rod. Flagstaff is brass wire and sprue. The single gun is a bit of telephone wire insulation.  The flag is a representation made of hand painted tissue paper.  Paint is gunship grey on the vertical surfaces, and a much lightened version on the horizontal surfaces. I achieved the illusion of armor panels by drawing the panel lines freehand  with a dark grey pencil, then adding pastel chalk for emphasis. This was my favorite part of the project, a somewhat new technique that yielded very good results.  I also added rust and metal colors using colored pencils.

The Torpedo RowboatCSS Rowboat.jpg (12614 bytes)
This impudent vessel was the brainchild of Capt. Francis Lee. Impressed by the effectiveness of floating mines (called "torpedoes" during the ACW era), he improvised a method for delivering the explosive to the target. How the crew were to survive the mission is uncertain.  In March of 1863 Lee successfully attacked and sank a hulk in Charleston Harbor using a rowboat armed with a spar torpedo. This was simply a warhead mounted on the end of a wooden boom, detonated either by a contact device or by a rope "trigger".  The rowboat, or one like it, was then rearmed and attacked the USS Powhaton off Charleston, S.C.  The attack was aborted when a crewman panicked sending the vessel off coarse.  More than 12 rowboats were converted in this manner, but their shortcomings prevented them from further use in action.

This provisional model began as a ship's boat from the spares box.  I fashioned oars from short lengths of brass wire, flattened at one end.  The spar was added and torpedo mounted.  A very simple but highly interesting subject.

CSS DavidDavid.jpg (27063 bytes)
The torpedo boat David was a 54', 3-man, semi-submersible steam powered craft armed with a 174lb. spar torpedo.  In October 1863,  commanded by Lt. Glassell, (see the Rowboat description above) The David successfully attacked the Union warship USS New Ironsides, damaging but not sinking it, and returned to Charleston Harbor. Around 20 David type vessels were completed during the war.

The hull is a piece of styrene tubing, shaped in a drill with files and sandpaper.  I drilled out the center section aft of the stack and added a ships wheel- a bit of photoetched brass from the parts bin. The spar is a length of guitar wire, the torpedo a section of telephone wire insulation. The stack is styrene rod, the propeller a cut down 1/700 four bladed
photoetched part.  Small flat sections of styrene finish the weather deck.  It was brush painted with acrylics; ocean grey with white and silver added for effect.  The hull bottom is painted to simulate wood.

CSS Pioneer
Launched in February of 1862, the privateer submarine Pioneer was a human powered underwater craft which preceded the more famous CSS Hunley. The whale-like Pioneer underwent a series of tests, but was scuttled when New Orleans fell.  She would have carried a spar torpedo, and that is how I modeled her.

CSS Pioneer.jpg (18419 bytes)

The model sprung from a 1/4"square length of balsa wood,  carved with a knife, sanded to shape, then dipped a half dozen times in acrylic varathane. When dry, the acrylic surface is plasticized and can be worked like plastic. Again the spar is guitar wire, but the torpedo is a bit of copper wire, left in its natural color.  The prop is a bit of brass wire flattened with a hammer and twisted.  Dive planes are thin styrene.  Paints again are brushed acrylic.

CSS Squib
CSS Squib.jpg (14992 bytes)The Squib was a steam powered launch-type attack boat armed with a spar torpedo.  Its aft machinery and forward hatch were covered with boiler plate to repel small arms fire.  The Squib joined the James River Squadron in 1864, and on April 9th,  successfully attacked and damaged the USS Minnesota.

The model is a modified ship's launch from my spares box. I hollowed out the midsection with the Mototool. A wheel was added.  The boiler plate roof is supported by photoetched ladder stock.  The aft machinery area is bits
of sprue, as is the rudder and stack. The spar again is guitar wire.  This model is based upon one side/top view
line sketch, and is to be considered provisional.

I used oak strip for the display bases on which these models site and added a white paper background for improved background contrast and easier  viewing. These models  were created from scraps lying around my tabletop, using simple references. In a matter of only a few hours I was able to create in miniature some of the  most fascinating vessels of the  American Civil War.

Additional Reference:
The Confederate Navy, 1861-65
Editor: Dr. William N. Still, Jr.
Naval Institute Press, 1997

Also see Toby Barrett's bibliography of American Civil War naval books elsewhere on the Warship site

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