Naval Warfare during the Civil War
Table of Contents
Museum Collections, Similar Items and other Materials Used
National Educational Standards
Student Learning Objectives
Background and Historical Context
Teacher Tips
Lesson Implementation Procedures
Evaluation/Assessment for Measurable Results
Extension and Enrichment Activities
Site Visit
Charts, Figures and other Teacher Material

A. Title: Naval Warfare during the Civil War
  • Developers:
    Patricia Powell, Teacher, Vicksburg Intermediate, Vicksburg, Mississippi
  • Deana Flanagan, Teacher, Vicksburg Intermediate, Vicksburg, Mississippi
  • Grade Level: 4-6
  • Number of Sessions in the Lesson Unit Plan: Five 45 minute lessons (can be adapted as needed)
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B. Overview of this Collection-Based Lesson Unit Plan
  • Park Name: Vicksburg National Military Park
  • Description:
    Students will explore the rapid growth and development of the naval industry and technology during mid 19th century America with an emphasis on the Civil War.
  • Essential Question:
    How did technological development in naval warfare influence ship design and operations during the Civil War?
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C. Museum Collections, Similar Items and other Materials Used in this Lesson Unit Plan
The museum objects featured here were recovered from the U.S.S. Cairo, a Civil War ironclad gunboat in the "Brown Water" navy. On December 12, 1862, in the Yazoo River north of Vicksburg, Cairo struck two underwater torpedoes and sank in 12 minutes, with no loss of life. Preserved by mud and silt, the Cairo sat on the bottom of the river for 102 years. She was raised in 1964 and was later restored along with many of the objects that were found aboard. The recovered objects give a unique window into daily life and leisure time of Union officers and sailors during the Civil War.
MUSEUM OBJECT [photos of objects in the Carl Sandburg Home NHS museum collections] SIMILAR OBJECTS [local items similar to museum objects] & OTHER MATERIALS Length of time
Compass Signal Board
Bullet Mold Grenade
Cannon Ammunition Box
Pilot House Flap Iron Siding

Similar items [similar to objects in the Park museum collection]

Replica of the U.S.S.Cairo
Replica of the C.S.S. Hunley
Replicas of other sailing vessels provided by the students

Forms and Charts:

Booklet on the U.S.S.Cairo

Art-making materials
Art-making materials including varieties of paper, paints, markers, pens, pencils,  crayons, modeling clay, plaster of Paris, newspapers, and some cardboard boxes

Five 45 minute sessions
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D. National Educational Standards
Era 5- Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)
NI-ENG.K-12.3:  Evaluation Strategies
NL-ENG, K-12.4:  Communication Skills
NL-ENG, K-12 .5:  Applying Knowledge
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E. Student Learning Objectives
    • Develop an understanding of naval terms used during the Civil War.
    • Understand the role played by newly developed ironclad naval vessels during the Civil War.
    • Compare and contrast the ironclad gunboat to previously used sailing vessels.
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F. Background and Historical Context

Ships have been used in warfare since Ramses III of Egypt created the first warship around 1200 B.C.  This vessel was an oar powered galley with two banks of oars called a bireme.  The galleys were used to ram other vessels.  The design of naval ships has changed over the course of many centuries. Vikings used larger ships with the new technology of reinforced hulls and keels which enabled them to use larger masts and sails. These ships continued to be powered by oars. Cannons were first carried aboard ships in the second half of the 14th century.  These cannon replaced catapults which had been used up until this time.  More than likely, these early cannon were short with bell-shaped mouths and probably did not have carriages to hold them.  The gun port was introduced in 1501.  This meant that heavier guns could be carried to sea.  The first time gunfire sank a ship was in 1513.  Improvements made to these vessels in later years included double tier gun ports and a three deck vessel that carried 102 guns.

New technology was used in 1592 when the Japanese launched an invasion of Korea. The Koreans had 80 ships compared to 800 in the Japanese fleet, but they were iron plated, which enabled the Koreans to score a victory over the Japanese.

Warships in Europe relied on sail power alone.  Before the preindustrial age, shipyards built specialized ships.  Improvements such as copper sheathing, were added to increase speed.  Ships of the line, frigates and sloops, were used by European navies for reconnaissance, convoys, and enforcing blockades.  During this time, various nations began to support professional navies since merchant ships could no longer be converted into warships when danger threatened.

With the European invention of the shell gun in 1822, wooden battleships could now be easily sunk due to the exploding shells fired from guns in a horizontal trajectory.

 A new style of naval warfare was introduced with the launching of the first ironclad built in the Western Hemisphere in 1861. A combination of old and new technologies was used to build and operate these vessels.  New developments included the steam driven turret, armor plating, internal combustion engines, and rifled guns (cannon). In artillery, rifling is the process of cutting grooves spirally into the bore of a cannon in order to put a spin on a projectile.  This increased accuracy over longer distances.  Cast iron or wrought iron was used to make some cannon because the softer bronze cannon lost their rifling from the friction of the ammunition used in the cannon.  Rifled ammunition was not a sphere, but a cylinder with a pointed nose.   The iron plating of the ironclad gunboat’s pilothouse, forward casemate, and the covering of the angled port and starboard sides over the engines and boilers was made up of 122 tons of 2 ½ -inch iron plating.  Some were armed with 14 guns. The ironclad, U.S.S. Cairo, was the first armed warship to be sunk by a mine. These ironclads became the most influential fighting machines during the Civil War and introduced modern warfare to the world.

During the Civil War, efforts on both sides to build a submersible warship began as early as 1861.  Efforts by the U.S. Navy were slow and less successful than those of their southern adversaries.  The Confederates designed a submersible torpedo boat in 1862. They used a long cylindrical steam boiler which was lengthened, deepened, and designed to accommodate a maximum crew of nine.  Accommodations were close because the propeller shaft took up most of the room. It was capable of a top speed of four knots.  This submarine was hand cranked by a crew of 8 and used hand pumped ballast tanks fore and aft, to submerge and surface.  The first successful attack using a submarine took place in 1864 when the H.L. Hunley rammed a torpedo into the side of the U.S.S. Housatonic.  The Hunley, along with her entire crew, sank while returning to base.
A new era in naval warfare had dawned.

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G. Vocabulary

Western Theater:  Civil War battles fought mostly along the Mississippi River in what was then western half of the United States
Flotilla: A smaller division of a naval fleet, consisting of two or more groups of boats
Siege: An attempt to capture a place by surrounding it and battering it until it surrenders
Artillery: Soldiers who specialize in the use of heavy weapons, such as a cannon
Mortar: Shells fired at short ranges that explode when they hit a target
Adversaries: Enemies or opponents
Maneuver: To carry out a military movement
Fleet: Warships operating together under one command
Armored: Having a defensive covering to protect against weapons
Turtlebacks: nickname for the ironclad gunboats

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H. Teacher Tips
  • Acquire the replica and booklet of the U.S.S. Cairo, The Story of a Civil War Gunboat before presenting lesson.
  • Download pictures of gunboats and other sailing vessels for comparison. (make multiple copies)
  • Provide drawing material for students.
  • Download images and information about Civil War ironclad vessels
  • Provide a Venn diagram for comparing ironclads and other sailing vessels.
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I. Lesson Implementation Procedures
Lesson One: Development of Navy Ships up to the Civil War period Introduction:  Discuss the development of navy ships up to the Civil War period. Familiarize students with the words on the vocabulary list.

Activity 1
Lesson Two
Review previous day’s lesson.

  • Provide handouts (including images) of ironclad gunboats.
  • Library of Image number LCB816-3134
  • Explain how to read a photograph.
  • Provide each student with a copy of How to Read a Photograph worksheet and have them class analyze an image of an ironclad gunboat.
  • Discuss ironclad gunboats and the engagements in which they played during the Civil War.

Lesson Three
Review previous day’s lesson.

  • Place students in groups and provide a copy of a Venn diagram to each group and have them compare an ironclad gunboat with other warships used prior to 1861.(Use images from Days 1 and 2)
  • Have students draw their own version of an ironclad gunboat. (They may display these drawings in the classroom exhibit area.)

Lesson Four

  • Divide students into groups.  Pass out materials used for papier-mache ammunition box and bullet making
  • Assist students with making ammunition boxes and bullets.

Lesson Five:

  • Provide each student with a copy of the Vocabulary Matching sheet and then discuss.
  • Distribute the written assessment.
  • Paint and decorate ammunition boxes and place bullets inside.
  • Set up classroom display.       

J. Evaluation/Assessment for Measurable Results
  • Written assessment (include vocabulary)
  • Class Participation
  • Write a paragraph on how the development of the ironclad gunboats influenced the Civil War
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K. Extension and Enrichment Activities
  • Have students write a report on how warships have changed since the Civil War.
  • Develop a class timeline plotting technological developments in naval warfare before, during, and after the Civil War.  Use timeline to calculate years, months, and days between developments of certain types of warships.
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L. Resources

Hardluck Ironclad – The Sinking and Salvage of the Cairo, Edwin C. Bearss, Louisiana State University Press, Copyright 1980
The History of Ironclads, John V. Quarstein, History Press, Copyright 2006
Mr.Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy-The Mississippi Squadron, Gary D. Joiner, Roman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.,  Copyright 2007
National Park Civil War Series- The Campaign for Vicksburg,  Michael B. Ballard, Eastern National, Copyright 2007
The U.S.S. Cairo-History and Artifacts of a Civil War Gunboat, Elizabeth Hoxie Joyner, McFarland and Company Inc., Copyright  2006
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M. Site Visit
Visit the Vicksburg National Military Park virtual exhibit at, and the park in Vicksburg, MS.
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N. Charts, Figures and other Teacher Materials

Vocabulary Test