Japanese ironclad Kōtetsu
Kōtetsu, Japan's first ironclad warship, as CSS Stonewall c. 1865.
|Career|| Danish Ensign Confederate Ensign |
Spanish Ensign United States Ensign Japanese Ensign
|Builder:||L'Arman, Bordeaux, France|
|Launched:||21 June 1864|
|Acquired:||3 February 1869 by Japan|
|Commissioned:||25 October 1864|
|Decommissioned:||28 January 1888|
|Notes:||Fuel: Coal, 95 tons|
|Class and type:||Ironclad Ram Warship|
|Length:||193.5 ft oa|
|Draught:||14 ft 3 in (4.3 m)|
|Propulsion:||1,200 hp (895 kW) double reciprocating engine|
|Speed:||10.5 knots (15 km/h)|
1 × 300 pdr (136 kg) Armstrong |
2 × 70 pdr (32 kg) Armstrong
124 to 89 mm (waterline) |
turrets 124 mm
Kōtetsu (甲鉄, literally "Ironclad"), later renamed Azuma (東, "East") was the first ironclad warship of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Built in France in 1864, and acquired from the United States in February 1869, she was an ironclad ram warship. She had a decisive role in the Naval Battle of Hakodate Bay in May 1869, which marked the end of the Boshin War, and the complete establishment of the Meiji Restoration.
The Kōtetsu was built by shipbuilder L'Arman in Bordeaux, France. Originally named the Sphynx, this ship was initially built for the Confederate Navy during the American Civil War. Prior to delivery, however, the French government blocked the sale, and an arrangement was made for the ship to be sold to Denmark under the name Stærkodder instead.
Manned by a Danish crew, the ship left Bordeaux for its shakedown cruise on 21 June 1864. The crew tested the vessel while final negotiations were conducted between the Danish Naval Ministry and L'Arman. Intense haggling over the final price and a disagreement over compensation from L'Arman for late delivery led to his calling off the deal on 30 October. The Danish government refused to relinquish the vessel, claiming confusion in regards to the negotiations.
American career as CSS Stonewall
The arrival of the "formidable" Stonewall in America was dreaded by the Union, and several ships tried to intercept her, among them the USS Kearsarge and the USS Sacramento. The Stonewall sprung a leak, however, after leaving Quiberon, Brittany and Captain Page steamed her in to Spain for repairs. In February and March, the USS Niagara and the Sacramento kept watch from a distance as the Sumter lay anchored off Corunna during February 1865. On March 24, the Stonewall steamed out to sea, while Captain Page challenged the U.S. Navy vessels, which turned and fled, fearful to engage in the attack. Finding that the enemy had run, Captain Page steamed for Lisbon, with the intent to cross the Atlantic Ocean from there and attack at Port Royal, the base of Major General Sherman's attack on South Carolina.
The Stonewall reached Nassau on May 6, and then sailed on to Havana, Cuba, where Captain Page learned of the war's end. There he decided to turn her over to the Spanish Captain General of Cuba for the sum of $16,000. The vessel was then turned over to United States authorities in return for reimbursement of the same amount. She was temporarily de-commissioned, stationed at a U.S. Navy dock, until she was offered for sale to the Japanese government of the Tokugawa shogunate.
Kōtetsu was supposed to be delivered to the Tokugawa shogunate in 1868, in order to reinforce the ongoing modernization of its army and navy. US$30,000 had already been paid, and the remaining US$10,000 were to be paid on delivery. When the Boshin War between the shogunate and pro-Imperial forces broke out however, Western powers took a neutral stance, retrieved any military advisors they had in Japan, and stopped the delivery of military material, including the delivery of Kōtetsu to the shogunate. The ship actually arrived under Japanese flag, but US Resident-Minister Van Valkenburgh ordered her put back under American flag on arrival in Japan under a caretaker crew of the US naval squadron then stationed there.
Kōtetsu was finally delivered to the new Meiji government in February 1869. She was immediately put to use and dispatched with seven other steam warships to the northern island of Hokkaidō, to fight the remnant of the Shogun's forces, who were trying to form an independent Ezo Republic there, with the help of French ex-military advisors.
On March 25, 1869, in the Naval Battle of Miyako Bay, Kōtetsu successfully repulsed a surprise night attempt at boarding by the rebel Kaiten (spearheaded by survivors from the Shinsengumi), essentially thanks to the presence of a Gatling gun onboard.
She then participated in the invasion of Hokkaidō and various naval engagements in the Naval Battle of Hakodate Bay.
Kōtetsu was renamed Azuma in 1871 and remained in military service until 1888, when she was turned to non-combat harbor service.
Kōtetsu was well-armed with casemated rotating turret guns, and considered a "formidable" and "unsinkable" ship in her time. She could sustain direct hits without her armour being pierced, and prevail against any wooden warship.
In effect, Japan was thus equipped with advanced ironclad warships only ten years after the launch of the first ocean-going ironclad warship in history, the French Navy's La Gloire ("Glory", launched in 1859).
In Popular Culture
In the animated series Rurouni Kenshin (known as Samurai X) Shishio Makoto and his companions sail aboard a civilian steam ship named the Kōtetsu that was similar in appearance to the actual Kōtetsu, but had 2 funnels and a forward gun deck.
- Schafer, p. 805.
- Register of ships of the U.S. Navy, 1775-1990: major combatants Karl Jack Bauer, Stephen S. Roberts p.47 
- Both the Stærkodder and CSS Stonewall commissionings can be considered valid through international maritime law as illustrated by Captain Thomas J. Page; "customarily, a ship is held to be commissioned when a commissioned officer appointed to her has gone on board of her and hoisted the colors appropriated to the military marines." Page, Thomas J. "The Career of the Confederate Cruiser Stonewall". Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume VII, Number 6. Richmond, Virginia: 1879. Pages 263–280.
- Schafer, p.805.
- Steensen, Robert Steen. Vore Panserskibe [Our Armoured Vessels]. Marinehistorisk Selskab, Copenhagen, Denmark: 1968. Pages 178–195. Steensen was a former Commander in the Royal Danish Navy. An English translation by Søren Nørby may be found at http://www.milhist.dk/vaaben/vands/starkodder/starkodder.htm
- Schafer, p.806.
- Letter from William H. Seward to Gideon Wells, 18 July 1865. A copy may be found in the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies. Volume 3, page 566.
- Free, Early Japanese Railways 1853–1914: Engineering Triumphs That Transformed Meiji-era Japan, Tuttle Publishing, 2008 (ISBN 4805310065) at p35
- End of the Bakufu and restoration in Hakodate 函館の幕末・維新 (Japanese). ISBN 4-12-001699-4.
- Scharf, J. Thomas. History of the Confederate States Navy from its organization to the surrender of its last vessel. New York: Rogers and Sherwood, 1887; repr. The Fairfax Press, 1977.