(Photo: US Navy)
It’s not unusual for warships to change hands. When belligerent powers lose wars, they sometimes forfeit warships as prizes. And victorious powers may sell off their ships when they are no longer needed.
What makes this ship remarkable is that during its 24-year career, it served 6 different nations: France, Denmark, the Confederate States of America, Spain, the United States of America and Japan.
The Confederacy commissioned the construction of warships abroad, such as British-built commerce raider CSS Shenandoah. The CSS Stonewall, named for the famed General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, was a similar ship.
Far more so than the British, the French Emperor Napoleon III desired a Confederate victory in the American Civil War. So in 1863, the Confederate government was able to commission the firm of Lucien Arman in Bordeaux to build the 1,390 ton ironclad ram ostensibly named the Sphinx. It was a well-built and truly modern warship that could have seriously threatened the commerce of the United States.
But in April of 1864, the French government determined that Confederate defeat was inevitable. Rather than needlessly exacerbate already strained relations with the United States, the French sold the ship to Denmark under the name Stærkodder.
Denmark was, at the time, fighting a war against Prussia and Austria over a border dispute in Schleswig. Denmark capitulated before receiving the ship in Copenhagen, so the builders sold it to the Confederacy. The ironclad, now known as the CSS Stonewall, launched in January of 1865.
(Photo: A Photographic History of the American Civil War, 1911)
The ship had a submerged ram bow, a rifled 300-pound cannon and two rifled 70-pound cannons. It was a formidable vessel. US Navy warships shadowed the Stonewall, but wisely avoided contact. Captain Thomas J. Page took the ship into Havana, where he learned that the war was over.
Now what? Captain Page needed to pay his crew, so he sold the ship to local Spanish authorities for $16,000 on May 19. The United States wanted that ship, so it then purchased the Stonewall from Spain for $16,000.
With the American Civil War over, the United States had little use for the Stonewall, and sold it to Japan in 1867. That nation was, at the time, rapidly modernizing. Among other activities, the Japanese were first buying and later building modern warships.
The Tokugawa Shogunate, which had ruled Japan for two centuries, fell during the Boshin War to Emperor Meiji and his allies. This was in part due to the Stonewall, now known as the Kōtetsu, which served as the flagship of the Japanese Imperial Navy. The Kōtetsu was instrumental in the destruction of the Shogunate forces at the Battle of Miyako Bay.
Japan decommissioned the ship in 1888, after 24 years of service for 6 different nations.