The Civil War, Chapter 17, Verses 1-51

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2014-2015, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the October 2014 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

The Philistines gathered together their armies to battle, and Saul and the men of Israel were gathered together. A champion went out of the camp of the Philistines, named Goliath, whose height was six cubits and a span. He stood and cried unto the armies of Israel, “Choose you a man for you, and let him come down to me.” All the men of Israel, when they saw the man, fled from him and were afraid. David said to Saul, “Your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” David took his staff in his hand and chose five smooth stones out of the brook and put them in a shepherd’s bag which he had, and he drew near to the Philistine. David put his hand in his bag, took thence a stone, and slung it, and smote the Philistine in his forehead, and he fell upon his face to the earth. David ran and stood upon the Philistine, drew his sword out of the sheath, and slew Goliath.

This Biblical story is the prototype of a clash in which a smaller, apparently weaker combatant defeats a larger, stronger adversary. The Confederate Navy had its own David, both figuratively and literally. This was the small warship CSS David. The David was a cigar-shaped vessel about 50 feet long and with a diameter of about five and a half feet at her widest point. The boat was designed to sail very low in the water so that she operated as a semi-submersible with only her low conning tower and smokestack above water. Her only weapon was a 130-pound explosive charge, or torpedo, projecting from the bow on a 30-foot spar. Her intended plan of attack was to sail undetected at night close to enemy ships, plant her torpedo below water on the hull of her target, and then detonate the torpedo with a lanyard as she withdrew.

The development of the semi-submersible David and the more well-known Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley was the epitome of invention being born of necessity, because the Confederate Navy was far inferior to the Union Navy with regard to conventional resources. In the seceding states that became the Confederacy, one of the prevailing opinions about fighting men from the industrialized North was to berate the Northerners as “pasty-faced mechanics,” whose fighting capabilities were inferior to those of Southern men. This opinion held sway in the South, because it was felt that the agrarian lifestyle in the South made the men there more physically fit. In light of the “pasty-faced mechanics” insult, it is ironic that it was Southern mechanics, of unknown complexion, who developed some of the most intriguing naval innovations of the Civil War, such as the Hunley and the David.

Sketches of the David showing an exterior view (upper) and an interior view (lower)
David Ebaugh

The David was designed by Charleston physician St. Julien Ravenel, and the construction was privately funded by Theodore Stoney and supervised by David Ebaugh. The David’s wooden hull was encased with metal, and her small engine burned anthracite coal, which emits very little smoke when burned and made detection of the David more difficult. Some accounts claim that her partial submersion was effected with ballast tanks filled with water, but more accurate evidence indicates that this was done by loading pig iron into the bottom of the hull. When running on the water’s surface, the David could reach a speed of 10 knots; by comparison the Hunley, which was propelled with a hand-cranked mechanism that was powered by her crew, could do only 4 knots on the surface, the Monitor could reach 6 knots, and the Alabama 13 knots. According to some accounts, the David was christened with that name because of the Biblical story of David and Goliath due to the vessel’s intended use to attack the large Union ships that were blockading Charleston.

William Glassell

The David’s wartime career coincided with that of the Hunley, and their primary area of operation was the same, namely Charleston harbor. The David’s first and most well-known mission involved an attack on the USS New Ironsides, which was the most formidable of the Union warships that were blockading Charleston. The attack occurred on the moonless night of October 5, 1863. (For comparison, ten days later the Hunley underwent her second test voyage, which ended with the vessel sinking and all hands perishing including her inventor, Horace Lawson Hunley.) On the night of the attack on the New Ironsides, the David, under the command of William T. Glassell and with a crew of four, maneuvered undetected out of Charleston harbor to 50 yards from her target. Glassell and another crewman were situated above water in the vessel’s conning tower with Glassell, by design, steering the boat with his feet. A crewman on the New Ironsides saw the oncoming vessel and hailed her. Glassell responded with a blast from a shotgun, and the David closed quickly. The spar was rammed into the starboard side of the New Ironsides, and the torpedo was detonated.

A drawing from the October 31, 1863 Harper’s Weekly depicting the attack of the David on the New Ironsides

The explosion caused serious but not fatal damage to the New Ironsides, and the huge spray of water that was thrown upward by the blast inundated the David and put out the fire in her boiler. With the vessel unable to move and small arms fire raining down from the New Ironsides, Glassell ordered the David abandoned. Glassell and two other crewmen jumped overboard, but the last crewman did not, reputedly because he could not swim. One of the men who had abandoned ship returned to the David, and he and the other crewman were able to relight the fire and restart the engine. The David managed to escape and return to Charleston, but Glassell and the crewman who remained in the water with him were captured. After the attack it was discovered that a 40-foot stretch of the hull of the New Ironsides was pushed in six inches, and a major overhaul was required to repair this damage.

A David-class vessel, perhaps the David, herself

The total number of subsequent missions undertaken by the David is not known, but she made two more recorded attacks on Union warships, one on the USS Memphis on March 6, 1864 and the other on the USS Wabash on April 18, 1864, although both attacks were unsuccessful. An unknown number of David-class boats were constructed, with estimates of 20 or more. Mysteriously, the ultimate fate of the David is unknown. When Charleston was captured in February 1865, several David-class vessels fell into Union hands, and perhaps one of these was the David, herself. Whether or not these captured boats were destroyed is not known. If these boats were destroyed, then this would be an example of Goliath slaying David. But there is another possibility, and in keeping with the fact that the David received her name from a Biblical story, this possibility has a Biblical flavor. Perhaps, like the ending of a Steven Spielberg movie about the Biblical Ark of the Covenant, the CSS David now resides, securely and secretly, in a government warehouse neatly packaged inside a wooden crate, and maybe someday she will be recovered by some archaeologist who has the same first name as a midwestern state.

Related link:
David vs. Goliath at Hampton Roads: The CSS Squib vs. the USS Minnesota