During the Civil War, the Confederate States of America needed warships. Since the South didn’t have the shipyards capable of producing modern warships in great numbers, Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory sent James Bulloch to England as a “naval agent,” with the mission of purchasing warships for the Confederacy. Bulloch had already successfully negotiated contracts for the construction of two of the most famous Confederate merchant raiders, the CSS Alabama and the CSS Florida, but was now interested in more powerful warships.
In 1862 Bulloch contracted John Laird and Sons to build two ironclad ram warships. The ships were to be built at Laird’s Birkenhead shipyard in Liverpool, England, and each ironclad was to have two revolving turrets, with each turret mounting two 9-inch muzzle loading cannons. The ships were to be named the CSS Mississippi and the CSS North Carolina, but since Great Britain was technically neutral during the Civil War, cover stories had to be created for the ships so that Britain’s neutrality could not be compromised. If it became known that Britain was openly helping the Confederate States, then the North would have a pretext to attack British interests in North America, most notably Canada. Therefore, Laird and Sons stated that the ships were being built for the Egyptian Navy and that the CSS Mississippi and the CSS North Carolina were going to be named the El Monassir and the El Tousson, respectively.
While the two ships were being built, the US Government’s Minister to Great Britain, Charles Francis Adams (the son of President John Quincy Adams), discovered this plot through information he received from Federal agents in England. Adams was alarmed because these were two of the most modern ironclads afloat and if the Confederates obtained them it could change the entire naval war off the coast of the United States. The Union navy had only one modern warship that could take on these ironclads (the USS New Ironsides) and these ships could easily defeat any of the conventional Union warships that were blockading the South, most of which were made of wood. Adams quickly lodged a major protest with the British government demanding that they seize the two ships.
Bulloch was able to fool the British with the Alabama and the Florida because they were designed in England as unarmed merchant ships, which did not compromise British neutrality. But after the two ships sailed away from Great Britain, they were refitted as merchant raiders (with cannons and other provisions) in a different country. But with two revolving turrets fitted for four cannons, there was no way to hide the fact that the North Carolina and the Mississippi were warships. As a result of the US Federal Government’s formal protest, the British government seized the two ironclads in October 1863, just a few months after they were launched and just before they were completed. In 1864 the two ships were bought by the Royal Navy and were renamed the HMS Scorpion (ex-North Carolina) and the HMS Wivern (ex-Mississippi).
The Wivern had the longest career of the two ships. Her turrets were mounted in front of and behind the ship’s mainmast and funnel. The ship had a large iron spur ram in its bow, although it does not seem likely that a ship like this would actually need to ram another ship, given its heavy armament. The ship also had hinged bulwarks that could be folded down to permit the cannons in her revolving turrets to have a clear field of fire and, when the turrets were not in use, the bulwarks were folded back up to protect the ship from rough seas. The ship displaced 2,750 tons, was almost 225 feet long and had a beam of slightly over 42 feet. She had one 1,450 horsepower steam engine and an armor belt around most of her hull that was 4.5 inches thick. Her turrets had 10 inches of armor on their faces and 5 inches of armor on their sides. The Wivern had a complement of 153 and a top speed of 10.5 knots under steam power, although this could be increased a bit by the barque-rigged sails she carried.
The Wivern was completed in October 1865 and was assigned to the Channel Fleet until 1868. The ship was then refitted with a fore and aft sail rig, thereby eliminating her original square sails. The Wivern spent several months as a coast guard ship based at Hull, England, and then spent almost 10 years in reserve. She returned to service in 1880 and was sent to defend the British Colony of Hong Kong. The Wivern spent the rest of her career there, being reduced to a harbor support service vessel in 1904. But she continued in this role until she was finally sold for scrap in 1922.
If the CSS Mississippi and the CSS North Carolina actually made it to the United States, they would have had a dramatic affect on the war at sea during the Civil War. Certainly none of the Union’s wooden warships would have been able to defeat them and all of the monitors the Union Navy had were designed for coastal or river warfare. These ocean-going British ironclads could have wreaked havoc on the Union’s blockade of the South and throughout the Northern seaboard. Their loss was an enormous blow to the small Confederate Navy.
Figure 1 (Top): HMS Wivern at anchor off Plymouth, England, in 1865. Note the lowered bulwarks abreast her two turrets, with hammocks stowed around the turret tops to form rifle pits, and her tripod fore and main masts. She was reportedly the first ship fitted with tripod masts, which eliminated standing rigging, thus increasing the arc of her turrets' gunfire. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 2 (Middle): HMS Wivern moored off Plymouth, England, during the late 1860s, with another ironclad in the left distance. Wivern's bulwarks and smokestack are in the "up" position. Copied from the photographic album "Types of Ships in the British Navy", printed in 1877. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 3 (Bottom): HMS Wivern in the 1870s or 1880s. Her rig was reduced in 1868 and she was sent to Hong Kong in 1880 as a harbor defense ship. Note the ship-of-the-line being repainted in the left background. Collection of Rear Admiral Ammen C. Farenholt, USN(MC). U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.