The Confederacy’s Ferrous Stonewall in a Far East Civil War

By David A. Carrino
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2022, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in April 2022.

A common practice in sports is to compare the great players of the current generation to great players of the past. This happens for many players and in a number of different sports. For some players it happens even before those players have amassed a track record that allows such comparisons to be valid. LeBron James, even early in his career, was being compared to Michael Jordan. Patrick Mahomes, after just one Super Bowl victory, was being called the next Tom Brady. Shohei Otani, in only his fourth season, was being hailed as the new Babe Ruth. Although such comparisons quite often lead to vociferous disagreements among sports fans, these kinds of comparisons will continue to be made for as long as great players emerge in sports and for as long as sports fans have opinions. Perhaps the comparisons of past sports stars with subsequent ones come from a desire to affirm the perpetuation of sports excellence.

In the Civil War, if there was one person of military brilliance to whom his successors were compared it was Stonewall Jackson. When death forced Stonewall to depart the war, it required that his successors perform in a way that filled the vacuum created by his absence. Maybe this is why Robert E. Lee replaced Stonewall, a Virginian, with two Virginians who served under Stonewall earlier in the war: Richard S. Ewell and A.P. Hill. The performance of Ewell and Hill, especially at the Battle of Gettysburg, is often assessed in relation to how Stonewall would have done. As Civil War enthusiasts know, neither Ewell nor Hill came close to filling the capacious vacuum left by Stonewall’s death. In fact, no one in the Confederacy was ever capable of becoming a true replacement for Stonewall Jackson. However, late in the Civil War another Stonewall was about to come on the scene on behalf of the Confederacy, although this Stonewall was intended to serve in a different and maritime branch of the Confederate military.

Civil War enthusiasts know well that the Confederacy suffered its greatest individual loss on May 10, 1863 when Stonewall Jackson entered Valhalla due to complications from pneumonia after the amputation of his left arm, which was wounded during the Battle of Chancellorsville. When Stonewall was conveyed by Valkyries to his eternity of dwelling among the slain heroes of all history, Stonewall’s Confederate comrades were forced to carry on their war effort without his incomparable military prowess. As those comrades learned, in particular his former superior, Robert E. Lee, conducting a war without Stonewall was far more challenging. It can only be speculated how the Civil War would have progressed had Stonewall not died, but there is no doubt that his presence would have considerably helped the Confederacy’s war effort. Asking someone to be the next Stonewall was an impossible task, but two years after Stonewall’s death, another Stonewall was about to enter the war on the side of the Confederacy. This Stonewall was the ironclad warship CSS Stonewall, and her entry into the war was being closely watched and greatly feared by the enemy.

The Stonewall was the brainchild of James Dunwoody Bulloch. Bulloch was a member of the Confederate secret service and operated out of Liverpool in Great Britain. One of Bulloch’s major contributions to the Confederacy’s war effort was arranging the construction of ships for his breakaway nation. These included the commerce raiders CSS Alabama and CSS Florida. Bulloch also arranged the purchase of a ship named the Sea King, which was rechristened the CSS Shenandoah and which, like its forerunner the Alabama, preyed on Union shipping and eventually became the last element of the Confederacy to surrender. In addition, Bulloch arranged the acquisition of a number of blockade runners for the Confederacy and was the person who masterminded the smuggling of cotton from the South into England and the shipment of war materiel from England to the South. There is even some scant evidence, which is necessarily murky given Bulloch’s clandestine operations, that Bulloch was an important source of funds for John Wilkes Booth’s efforts. Bulloch was so effective in his role as a Confederate secret agent that Henry Sanford, the U.S. minister to Belgium, who was overseeing the Union’s surveillance in England, called Bulloch “the most dangerous man the South have here and fully up to his business.”

Interestingly, Bulloch’s younger half-brother, Irvine Bulloch, served on the Alabama as her youngest officer and reputedly fired the last shots from that vessel before her ultimate demise at the hands of the USS Kearsarge. Bulloch’s half-sister, whose maiden name was Martha Stewart Bulloch, was the mother of Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the 26th president of the United States, which made “the most dangerous” Confederate secret agent in Europe the uncle of a U.S. president. Not surprisingly, in light of Bulloch’s wartime activities, particularly his possible connection to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Bulloch lived out his postwar life in England, even becoming a British citizen. In fact, he was among the former Confederates who never was pardoned by the U.S. government. However, Bulloch did make a few secret postwar trips to the U.S. to visit his presidential nephew, and despite James Bulloch’s appalling efforts on behalf of the movement to tear apart the United States, that presidential nephew wrote in his autobiography that “Uncle Jimmy” was “as valiant and simple and upright a soul as ever lived.”

Prior to the Civil War, James Bulloch served for 15 years in the U.S. Navy. This experience prepared him well for his service with the Confederacy, in particular because he became well-versed in naval technology such as ship design and weaponry. Drawing on this knowledge and expertise, Bulloch designed a fearsome ironclad vessel in 1862. Perhaps because he suspected that his activities in England were being closely monitored, Bulloch contracted with the French shipbuilder Lucien Arman in Bordeaux for construction of two ironclads that were built according to Bulloch’s design. During their construction, the ships were given the names Sphinx and Cheops in order to give the impression that the ships were being built for Egypt. Eventually the French government saw through the subterfuge and in February 1864 blocked the sale of the ironclads to the Confederacy for fear of severely damaging relations with the U.S. This left Arman without a buyer for the nearly completed vessels.

Conveniently for the shipbuilder, a war was in progress between Denmark and Prussia because of a dispute over territory that both countries bordered. Arman negotiated the sale of the Sphinx to Denmark and the Cheops to Prussia, which meant that he was supplying comparable warships to each of the combatants. The Sphinx, which left Bordeaux on June 21, 1864, was rechristened by Denmark the Staerkodder (which translates as strong otter), while Prussia renamed the Cheops the Prinz Adalbert after the Prussian prince who played a leading role in the creation of the unified German fleet. It would have been interesting if the sister ships had faced each other in battle, but this intriguing clash never took place, because the war ended (in Prussia’s favor) before the ships joined the conflict. By that time, the Sphinx/Staerkodder had reached Copenhagen. Because the Danish government no longer needed the warship and refused delivery of the ironclad, Arman once more found himself without a buyer. Arman turned to his erstwhile customer, James Bulloch, whom Arman secretly contacted. After clandestine arrangements were made, the ship was purchased by the Confederate government in December 1864, and in early January 1865 a Confederate crew took possession of the Staerkodder in Copenhagen.

Thomas Jefferson Page

Named to command of the newest addition to the Confederate navy was Thomas Jefferson Page, a Confederate naval officer who had served in the U.S. Navy prior to the war. Page, whose grandfather was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was a Virginian who, like Robert E. Lee, gave his allegiance to the Confederacy after his native state seceded. There is conflicting evidence of whether the Staerkodder sailed from Copenhagen under a Confederate crew or under a Danish crew with Page and the Confederates as passengers. What is known is that, for purposes of deception, the Staerkodder was renamed the Olinde and departed Copenhagen under the Danish flag. Once out of Danish waters, Page rechristened the ironclad the CSS Stonewall in honor of the fallen Confederate icon.

CSS Stonewall

Because Page’s ship was an oceangoing vessel, she was fit to make the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to her intended operations against the Union navy, in particular against blockade ships. The Stonewall was 171 feet, 10 inches in length with a beam of 32 feet, 8 inches. For comparison, the USS Monitor was 173 feet in length and had a beam of 41 feet, 6 inches. The Stonewall’s displacement was approximately 1,400 tons with a draft of 14 feet, 4 inches compared to the Monitor’s approximately 1,000 tons and 10 feet, 6 inches, respectively. The Stonewall was propelled by two 1,200-horsepower engines and could reach a top speed of 10 knots compared to 6 knots for the Monitor. If necessary, sail propulsion was also an option for the Stonewall, which had twin masts. On her deck were two armored gun towers. These were not rotating turrets, as on the Monitor, but fixed towers with multiple ports that allowed the muzzle-loading pivot guns to be fired in several fixed directions. The forward tower, which was circular, mounted a single 10-inch 300 pounder, while the aft tower, which was oval, mounted two 6.4-inch 70 pounders. In addition, the Stonewall had a steel ram on its bow. James Bulloch considered the ram essential for combat against Union ironclads, whose armor made them impervious to enemy fire, but whose wooden hulls made them vulnerable to a ram. As if all of that were not enough, Bulloch also envisioned the placement of two Gatling guns on deck to defend against boarding parties. In all, the Stonewall was a very formidable warship that could prove to be a much more worthy challenger to Union warships than were her predecessors, such as the CSS Virginia and the CSS Arkansas. When Page rechristened his ship, he foresaw the ironclad Stonewall helping to turn the tide of the war back to the intrepid days of Confederate successes, when the original Stonewall was inspiring thoughts of ultimate triumph in the minds of his secessionist countrymen. But as events played out, this was not to be, and even joining the Civil War proved to be far from smooth sailing for the CSS Stonewall.

The bow of the CSS Stonewall

The Stonewall departed Copenhagen in early January 1865 and entered the North Sea, where the weather was, in Page’s words, “always boisterous in those latitudes in the winter season.” No sooner had the Stonewall left Copenhagen than, true to Page’s words, a gale engulfed the ironclad. During this storm Page learned, as he wrote afterward, that his vessel, rather than ride over the waves, “began to exhibit her powers of diving and coming up, in the fashion of the porpoise.” The Stonewall weathered the storm and then put in at Quiberon Bay on the southern coast of Brittany in France in order to resupply. On January 28, 1865, the Stonewall set sail for Madeira, an island approximately 600 miles southwest of Portugal, to procure coal and other supplies for her long voyage across the Atlantic. For the first leg of the journey to Madeira, the ship left France and entered the Bay of Biscay, which, as Page wrote after the war, “lay like a mirror, reflecting the bright rays of the sun; while balmy air, fanned into the gentlest of breezes by the ‘headway’ of the vessel, promised a happy entrance into the broad Atlantic.” But that “happy entrance into the broad Atlantic” soon became obstructed by another violent storm. The Stonewall was so badly battered by this gale that she sprang leaks in each of the caps over her two rudder heads. The leaks were temporarily fixed at sea, but the ship needed to return to port for repairs. Page sailed his damaged vessel to the port city of Ferrol in northwestern Spain, and there the ship remained for repairs until departing on March 24, 1865.

John Bigelow

Despite the attempts of Lucien Arman and James Bulloch to conceal the sale of the ironclad to the Confederacy, John Bigelow, the U.S. envoy to France, became aware that the ship had been purchased by the Union’s adversary. In response to this information, two Union warships, the USS Niagara and the USS Sacramento, were dispatched to at least shadow the Stonewall and, if possible, engage her. When the Stonewall left Ferrol on March 24, the Niagara and the Sacramento confronted her. Just like what happened over nine months earlier, when a crowd gathered near Cherbourg to witness the contest between the USS Kearsarge and the CSS Alabama (the latter vessel being another of James Bulloch’s purchases for the Confederacy), a crowd waited on the Spanish shore to observe a naval battle between the Stonewall and her Union opponents. But the people went home disappointed, because Thomas Craven, the captain of the Niagara, who was the overall Union commander on the scene and who had an unfortunate surname in light of his decision in this situation, declined to engage the ironclad, perhaps because his naval duo consisted of wooden warships and he was mindful of what had happened to the USS Cumberland and the USS Congress at Hampton Roads. In essence, this is what Craven indicated at his court-martial on November 7, 1865 after being charged with “Failing to do his utmost to overtake and capture or destroy a vessel which it was his duty to encounter.” Craven insisted, “With feelings that no one can appreciate, I was obliged to undergo the deep humiliation of knowing that she (the Stonewall) was there, steaming back and forth, flaunting her flags, and waiting for me to go out to the attack. I dared not do it!…We could not possibly have inflicted the slightest injury upon her, and should have exposed ourselves to almost instant destruction.”

After the fruitless confrontation off the coast of Spain (which cost Thomas Craven a two-year suspension from duty as sentenced in his court-martial), the Stonewall steamed to Lisbon, Portugal to take on more coal and additional supplies, and then, on March 28, 1865, she at last began her long voyage across the Atlantic. All during her trek to Lisbon, the Stonewall was shadowed at a safe distance by the Niagara and the Sacramento, but the Union warships did not follow the ironclad any further. The Stonewall’s next stop was in Nassau, Bahamas on May 6, 1865, after which the vessel went to Havana, Cuba. Thomas Page learned in Havana that the Civil War had essentially ended, which made him, like the captain of the Staerkodder before him, a warship commander with no war to fight in. Even worse, Page had no country to return to, since the Confederate States of America no longer existed. In need of fuel, supplies, and funds, Page turned over the Stonewall to the Spanish authorities in Havana for $16,000, which he used to pay his crew. The Spanish authorities then handed over the Stonewall to the U.S. in July 1865 for the exact same sum, and the warship, whose arrival in the Western Hemisphere was awaited with great anticipation by both belligerents in the Civil War, was sailed to the Washington Navy Yard without ever firing a shot in anger either in Europe, her original anticipated area of operations, or in America.

A drawing of the CSS Stonewall near Lisbon

This could have been the end of the strange and convoluted story of the CSS Stonewall, but another, and intriguing, chapter was yet to be added to her nautical biography, and this chapter would at last include the hostile activity for which she was intended. Moreover, this hostile activity was in the type of martial event like the one in which she had arrived too late to participate after her passage across the Atlantic. In addition, prior to her participation in that martial event, there was uncertainty regarding which side the ironclad would fight for. Interestingly, the Stonewall played an important role in the outcome of that martial event, and this led to a serious long-range consequence for the reunified country that the Stonewall was originally intended to help split permanently in two.

Matthew Perry

After remaining unused for over two years in the Washington Navy Yard, the Stonewall was tentatively sold to one of the opponents in an impending civil war in Japan. This war was in some ways a consequence of Matthew Perry’s expedition to Japan in 1853, during which Perry forced Japan to open itself to Western trade. The imminent conflict in Japan pitted the forces of the Tokugawa shogunate against the forces of the emperor (a shogunate being a dynastic military dictatorship headed by shoguns, which was the ruling government in Japan beginning in the late 12th century). In the year 1600 a shogunate under Tokugawa Ieyasu became the dominant ruling authority in Japan and imposed a strongly isolationist policy and feudal system in the country. When Matthew Perry arrived and forced Japan to open its borders to the West, those in Japan who opposed isolationism saw how the isolationist policy of the shogunate had severely retarded modernization in Japan, and they desired a change in this policy and a restoration of ruling power to the emperor. Hostilities broke out in January 1868 between forces of the shogunate and forces loyal to the emperor, and the war, which came to be known as the Boshin War, lasted for a year and a half.

In contradiction of its avowed policy of isolationism, the Tokugawa shogunate, in order to assimilate modern weapons into its arsenal in preparation for the impending civil war, entered into an agreement with the U.S. in 1867 to purchase the mothballed Stonewall. With this agreement, the U.S. government was doing what it had chastised European countries for doing during the American Civil War, that is, providing warships to one of the combatants in the forthcoming civil war in Japan. The Stonewall was renamed Kotetsu and was sailed to Japan by an American crew. By the time the vessel arrived in Japan in January 1868, war had begun, and the U.S., which maintained an official stance of neutrality, did not deliver the warship to her buyer. However, the Kotetsu was eventually turned over to imperial forces and then was put into service against the faction that had originally purchased her.

The CSS Stonewall in Washington
The dome of the U.S. Capitol is visible in the background.

In May 1869 the Kotetsu participated in an important battle known as the Battle of Miyako Bay. In this engagement, a shogunate warship named the Kaiten sailed toward the Kotetsu under an American flag in order to surprise the imperial ironclad. Once the Kaiten was near the Kotetsu, samurai jumped onto the Kotetsu from the deck of the Kaiten, which was higher than the deck of the enemy vessel. However, the Kotetsu was able to repel the boarders with a Gatling gun, just as envisioned by James Bulloch, the designer of the ship that had been built for a different civil war. The Battle of Miyako Bay was a victory for the imperial forces, which were subsequently able to attack one of the last strongholds of the shogunate on an island in northern Japan. In this attack, the imperial forces inflicted a decisive defeat on the shogunate in the Battle of Hakodate, a combined land-sea battle in which the forces of the shogunate were soundly defeated. In the naval portion of the battle, the Kotetsu was instrumental in the triumph by the imperial navy, and the ironclad also supported the landing of imperial forces for the land battle. The Battle of Hakodate, which was the Boshin War equivalent of the Battle of Appomattox Court House, essentially ended the war. The imperial forces were victorious in the war, and the emperor, Emperor Meiji, was restored to ruling power. After the war the Kotetsu was renamed Azuma in late 1871, which gave this ship another in the long list of her names since she began her existence as the Sphinx. After nearly two decades in service in the Japanese navy, the Azuma was decommissioned and eventually sold for scrap.

A drawing of the Battle of Hakodate
Emperor Meiji

The emperor whom the Kotetsu helped to restore to power outlived the ironclad by over twenty years. Under Emperor Meiji’s rule, Japan instituted a number of political and social reforms. Chief among these was an abandonment of the isolationist policy of the Tokugawa shogunate. Japan also initiated a major industrialization, and through this became a dominant power in the Pacific. Hence, the Boshin War resulted in Japan turning away from its period of isolationism, begat its ascension to dominance in the region, and eventually led to a period of aggressive expansion that ultimately resulted in world war. Because the Kotetsu was instrumental in the outcome of the Boshin War, it can be said that a former Confederate warship was an important component of the historical timeline that led to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

Emperor Hirohito in 1935

The lineage from Emperor Meiji to the Pearl Harbor attack included Meiji’s grandson, Emperor Hirohito, the Japanese emperor during World War II, who was born while his grandfather still ruled Japan. In September 1941, at a conference in Japan of that nation’s government and military leaders, including Hirohito, there was intense discussion about the advisability of waging war against the West. At one point Hirohito recited a poem that his grandfather, Meiji, composed. This poem translates into English as follows.

The seas of the four directions—
all are born of one womb:
why, then, do the wind and waves rise in discord?

Perhaps Hirohito recited this poem because of his misgivings at that time about going to war against the West.

The ultimate in reconciliation: President Gerald Ford and his wife, Betty, welcoming Emperor Hirohito and his wife, Nagako (Empress Kojun), to the White House in 1975

It is not known if Hirohito was aware that his grandfather came to power in part due to a warship that at one time bore the name of a Confederate general. That warship was originally not intended to help Hirohito’s grandfather, but to help the Confederacy, which, at the time that the ship was purchased, still had not filled the void left by the death of the Confederate general after whom that ship was named. From the time of Stonewall Jackson’s death, the Confederacy had failed to find the next Stonewall, and everyone who had tried to replace him fell far short of the Confederate icon. Having failed to find the next Stonewall in human form, the Confederacy turned to a mechanical apparatus as the next Stonewall, an ironclad successor to the redoubtable Stonewall Jackson. The Confederacy’s quest to find the next Stonewall was, in a way, like sports teams seeking to elevate their fortunes by finding athletes who, in the opinion of some, are sports successors of outstanding players of the past, such as LeBron James as the next Michael Jordan, Patrick Mahomes as the next Tom Brady, or Shohei Ohtani as the next Babe Ruth. Two of these sports successors, LeBron James and Patrick Mahomes, helped to deliver championships to their teams, and as fans of Major League Baseball know, Shohei Ohtani can be excused for not yet likewise accomplishing this, partly because of the short time that he has been in Major League Baseball, but also due to the repeated failures of his team’s upper management to provide adequate on-field resources to support both Ohtani and the other superb player on the team’s roster, Mike Trout. Similarly, the ironclad Stonewall was hoped by her ‘team’ to be the successor to the original Stonewall that would help to deliver ultimate victory. However, this was not to be, because the CSS Stonewall arrived too late to even join the contest. Instead, the Stonewall lost not just the opportunity to participate in the Civil War, but eventually also her identity.

The ironclad warship that came into existence in Bordeaux, France flew six flags above her during her lifetime (France, Denmark, the Confederate States of America, Spain, the United States of America, and Japan), and she bore the same number of names (Sphinx, Staerkodder, Olinde, Stonewall, Kotetsu, and Azuma). This appropriately reflects the highly varied career that this vessel experienced. Ironically (no pun intended), her sister ship, the Cheops, did not come close to enjoying the long life and military success of her sibling. The Cheops/Prinz Adalbert was taken out of service after only seven years due to defects in the armor plates, problems with the sailing rig, and serious leaking issues. Even after considerable refurbishing of the vessel, her hull rotted, and the ship was decommissioned, disarmed, and broken up. Perhaps the sister ship that began as the Sphinx was able to have a long and successful career because she, for part of her existence, bore the name of the indomitable Stonewall Jackson, and in recognition of this, his spirit gazed down from the halls of Valhalla on his namesake and bestowed his military prowess upon her.

The performance of the Kotetsu in the Boshin War is evidence that this ship was quite formidable. But while Stonewall Jackson’s onetime ironclad namesake played a substantial role in bringing Emperor Meiji to power, the original goal for the vessel was to help keep Jefferson Davis in power. When the vessel was built, her intended use was to participate not in Japan’s civil war, but in a different civil war. However, given the declining fortunes of the Confederacy, it is unlikely that the CSS Stonewall could have altered the outcome of that civil war, even if she had been able to join it sooner than when she actually arrived in the Western Hemisphere. This is almost certainly true even if the flesh-and-blood Stonewall had still been alive to employ his military skill on land while his namesake warship used her extensive maritime prowess against the Union navy. In the end, although Emperor Meiji benefited greatly from the ship that once bore Stonewall’s name, while Jefferson Davis, the intended beneficiary of the ironclad, did not, ultimately both countries benefited from these contrasting nautical scenarios for the Stonewall/Kotetsu. This is because Japan was able to put an end to its long, antiquated rule by shoguns, and the United States was able to end its Civil War without needing to deal with another Stonewall.

Author’s note: The CSS Stonewall was not the only vessel in the Confederate navy that was named after Stonewall Jackson. Two other warships in the Confederate navy that were named after Stonewall Jackson were the CSS Stonewall Jackson and the CSS Jackson. The CSS Stonewall Jackson was a cottonclad gunboat that operated in the early months of 1862 as part of the Confederacy’s River Defense Fleet in the lower Mississippi River. During the fighting on April 24, 1862 when David Farragut ran his Union fleet past Forts Jackson and St. Philip, the Stonewall Jackson rammed and seriously damaged a Union vessel. Subsequent to this, the Stonewall Jackson was hit multiple times by enemy shells and withdrew. Pursued by Union warships, the Stonewall Jackson ran ashore and was burned. The CSS Jackson was an ironclad that was built in the navy yard in Columbus, Georgia. Originally named the CSS Muscogee, she was renamed Jackson before her construction was complete. On April 16, 1865, when construction of the Jackson was nearing completion, the city of Columbus fell to the Union raid that was led by James Wilson, and the Jackson was burned by Union troops and set adrift in the Chattahoochee River where she sank. The Jackson was raised in 1961, and her remains are now on display in the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Georgia.