Design and Construction

CSS Neuse: Design and Construction

The conditions in which the Neuse was built dominated the design of the ship. It was built in Whitehall (present day Seven Springs), twenty miles up the river from Kinston. Being built for operation in coastal waters necessitated a shallow draft. The ship’s eight-foot draft is some four feet less than most other ironclads. Another prime consideration in the design of the ship was the lack of shipyards that far inland. Also, there was not a ready supply of skilled labor nearby. Therefore, the ship had to be designed so that it could be easily built.

Though the Neuse and Albemarle were built in separate locations by different contractors, both were conceived by the same designer—John L. Porter, the Confederacy's chief shipbuilding architect. The vessels were nearly identical. From the builder of the Albemarle, Gilbert Elliott, insight can be gained as to how the shallow-draft steamers were built.

The keel was laid and construction was commenced by bolting down, across the center, a piece of frame timber, which was of yellow pine, eight by ten inches. Another frame of the same size was then dovetailed into this, extending outwardly at an angle of 45 degrees, forming the side, and at the outer end of this frame for the shield was also dovetailed, the angle being about 35 degrees. And then the top deck was added, and so on around to the other end of the bottom beam. Other beams were then bolted down to the keel and to the first one fastened, and so on, working fore and aft, the main deck beams being interposed from stem to stern. The shield was 60 feet in length and octagonal in form. When this part of the work was completed she was a solid boat, built of pine frames and if calked would have floated in that condition, but she was afterwards covered with 4-inch planking, laid on longitudinally, as ships are usually planked, and this was properly calked and pitched, cotton being used instead of oakum, the latter being very scarce and the former the only article to be had in abundance.

The hull of the Neuse resembled a barge in some respects, with its flat bottom and straight sides. The flat bottom and straight side frames are easily noticed while standing deck display at the stern of the ship.

Also, visible from the deck display is the keelson running down the center of the hull. It is a series of 12” x 14” timbers laid end to end and joined by scarf joints. Extending down the edges of the bottom of the hull are three timbers called chine strakes. These strakes reinforced the joint between the bottom and the side frames. The strakes are also some of the few timbers in the ship which required bending.

From the ground beside the ship one notices the four-inch planking covering the outside of the hull. The planks were fastened onto the frames using iron spikes and wooden pegs known as trunnels. The seams between these planks were caulked with tarred cotton. This was only a slight variation from oakum (tarred hemp) which was the traditional caulking material for wooden boats and ships. The tarred cotton fiber had to be pounded into all the seams between the planks with a mallet and caulking iron (a large chisel) before the ship was launched. Seams on all the exposed deck surfaces had to be payed (covered with hot pitch) after being caulked. At the top of the surviving hull on the starboard side there is some remaining freeboard (the space between the waterline and main deck). The sharp 90-degree angle near the top of the hull is approximately where the waterline was. The freeboard left near the starboard bow measures thirty inches high and still has numerous large spikes that originally held on armor plates.

Near the bow of the ship one can see the remains of the bowstem and deadwood behind it. The stem is a naturally curved timber that may have been cut from a natural knee in a tree or from a tree stump. Behind the stem are three very large deadwood timbers that reinforce the bowstem. The top piece of deadwood shows evidence that there may originally have been another piece above it. The lower two pieces of deadwood are braced directly against the keelson and the frames on the bottom of the hull to provide great strength at the bow. About one foot behind the forward edge of the deadwood timbers is a notch called a rabbet where the sides of the hull joined into the deadwood at the bow.

As with most Confederate ironclads, the Neuse was built so it could be used as a ram. The ram on a vessel with the Neuse’s hull design was simply an armored extension of the bowstem. It was not a “beak” attached to the bow of the ship. Nothing remains of the actual ram at the bow of the ship.

The wood used in the ship was cut near the building site. Most of the timber is yellow pine. All the frames are pine, as are most of the planks. The bottom of the hull and the lower 67 inches on each side are covered with 4” x 15” pine planks. Above this point on each side 4-inch oak planks were used. The deadwood timbers at the bow are oak, as is the bowstem. The stem is probably either live oak or white oak. Interestingly, the keelson timbers are gum, a very strong wood, but not wood normally used in ship construction.

The surviving hull of the Neuse is 141’ long, so there is a little missing from each end of the ship. The hull is 20’ wide at the bottom and at the top is approximately 38’ wide. The two sides of the ship are lying flatter than they would have originally, resulting in the current width.


Plan your visit

Visit the CSS Neuse Interpretive Center to get up close and personal with the remains of the CSS Neuse and a number of recovered artifacts.

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