History In The Headlines

Wreck of Civil War Gunboat Gets a New Home

By Jennie Cohen
Scuttled by its crew in March 1865, the Confederate ironclad CSS Neuse spent nearly a century crumbling in its namesake river, occasionally serving as a makeshift dock for swimmers. In 1963 local businessmen pulled the warship’s remains out of the water, and since then the Neuse has rested outdoors in Kinston, North Carolina, where workers fitted it out for battle at the height of the Civil War. On Saturday, after a turbulent 150 years spent waiting for either battle or salvage, the one-of-a-kind gunboat will be safely ensconced in a new facility.

CSS Neuse

Hull of the CSS Neuse. (Credit: North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources)

This Saturday, the once-mighty CSS Neuse will get a permanent home at last when it moves down the street and into a climate-controlled exhibition space in Kinston, North Carolina. Conservation experts hope the transfer of the gunboat’s three segments will help preserve the rare Civil War artifact, one of just 22 ironclads commissioned by the Confederate Navy and the only one that remains above water. The Neuse will go in display along with many of the 15,000 items recovered from its wreckage—including projectiles, cooking equipment and uniform buttons—during the 1960s.

The story of the Neuse began on October 17, 1862, when a contract for an ironclad gunboat was signed between the shipbuilding firm Howard & Ellis and the Confederate Navy. “Her construction was an effort by the Confederate government to keep eastern North Carolina open, so that supplies being brought in by blockade runners into Wilmington would continue to move from Wilmington to Richmond,” explained Keith Hardison, director of the North Carolina Division of State Historic Sites and Properties. “It was also hoped that it would help in an effort to recapture parts of the coast that had fallen to Union forces.”

CSS Neuse

Excavation of the CSS Neuse in the 1960s. (Credit: North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources)

Built on the Neuse River near the village of White Hall, the new ironclad arrived in Kinston for outfitting in March 1863. Meanwhile, Union commanders in nearby New Bern, captured a year earlier, relied on spies and deserters for updates on the warship’s progress, which iron shortages continued to delay. The reports led a Union officer to write in February 1864, “A vessel like the one described, could she get into the harbor, would do incalculable damage.”

Finally, on April 22, 1864, the Neuse, though not quite complete, steamed toward New Bern to take part in a Confederate assault. Barely half a mile into the journey, however, the ship ran aground. Soon the river rose and it returned to its moorings, where it still floated on March 10, 1865, when Union forces descended on Kinston. Two days later, the Neuse’s crew set the ironclad on fire and sank it to prevent its capture. The U.S. Department of the Treasury auctioned the wreck off for scrap that October, and the half-submerged ship was stripped of everything deemed usable.

Bad luck had kept the much-anticipated Neuse out of battle, and now the shallow, muddy waters of its resting place kept it in plain sight. “Most people in Kinston and Lenoir County knew of the Neuse and it location,” said Hardison. “They called the bend in the river ‘Gunboat Bend.’” While would-be conservationists clamored for the ship’s salvage by the Army Corps of Engineers as early as 1940, residents enjoyed swimming near the wreckage and fishermen used its hand-wrought spikes to weight their nets.

In the 1950s several high school boys excavated shells from the wreck site, inspiring three local businessmen to initiate a recovery project. In 1963, when the Neuse emerged from the river at last, “she was in fairly good condition,” Hardison said. “Most of her interior flooring and rooms were still intact.” A year later, workers moved the ship to the Governor Caswell Memorial in Kinston.

The plan to relocate the Neuse has been underway since the 1990s. “Over the years, and as new information about preservation has come to light, we now know that the best way to preserve the CSS Neuse is a climate-controlled building, which will help to preserve her for future generations,” Hardison explained. He and other officials hope that, when the Neuse makes its way up King Street in downtown Kinston this weekend, the wreck of Gunboat Bend will dock for the last time.

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Categories: American Civil War, Shipwrecks