Rebel Shipbuilders: The Brothers Tift
The American war of 1861-1865 revealed the depth of the irreparable schism between the sections as well as the unusual sectional allegiances it produced. None was more unusual than Mystic, Connecticut born brothers Asa and Nelson Tift who arrived on the island of Key West with their parents and siblings in 1826. Asa remained on the island to run the family chandlery business while Nelson departed in 1830 to pursue his fortune in Georgia. They were both well-acquainted with Stephen Mallory who would become Confederate Secretary of the Navy, and with whom they helped develop the South’s ironclad navy.
Ironclad designer Nelson Tift became south Georgia’s antebellum economic prosperity machine – Tift County and the city of Tifton are namesakes. Asa returned to Key West postwar to rebuild his business and in 1876 constructed a “West Indian Creole” mansion at 907 Whitehead Street complete with an ironclad-shaped planter in the entrance walkway. The home was later purchased by Ernest Hemingway about 1931.
The following is excerpted from “Key West’s Civil War: Rather Unsafe for a Southern Man to Live Here.” The book is available from Shotwell Publishing, www.maryjanesclosetfloridakeys.com and www.amazon.com.
Rebel Shipbuilders: The Brothers Tift
How two Mystic, Connecticut natives came to put their lives and fortunes on the line for the American South can be explained only through the culture they adopted, families and many friendships made over time. Nelson, Asa and Charles all had profited greatly in business while absorbing and coming to understand the rich, patriarchal culture around them. With Southern wives and families, they all risked their lives and fortunes in defense of the South and were among the many who deeply believed that secession could be accomplished peacefully. After all, President James Buchanan opposed the withdrawal of States but was aware that his constitutional powers did not include waging war against any of “them,” as stated in Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution. Like their Southern neighbors who surrounded them, Asa, Nelson and Charles all understood that the citizens of a sovereign State, North or South, had every right to decide its own political future.
Nelson designed a simple green-pine vessel with triangular ends that could be cheaply built along the South’s coast, armed with 16-cannon, 8 per side, and one end reinforced for ramming. He and Asa travelled to Richmond in August 1861 to present a scale-model for review by Key West-friend and now Secretary of the Navy, Stephen Mallory, and the Confederate Navy’s Board of Naval Officers, which included chief naval constructor John L. Porter and his engineer. The brothers received resounding approval and support.
In a letter to Mallory in late August the brothers proposed to superintend construction of Nelson’s warship employing ordinary carpenters who could be easily found, pledging to cede their ironclad invention to the Confederacy without compensation or profit other than reimbursement for their material and labor expenses, and travel costs, which was approved.
Arriving at New Orleans in mid-September 1861 with brother Charles attending to Nelson’s business interests at Albany after late October, the Tift brothers went to work on their ship, the CSS Mississippi, locating their shipyard – which had to be created with a sawmill, blacksmith shop, hull berths, and sheds for workers – on the Mississippi’s left bank above New Orleans at Jefferson City. Likely through Mallory’s influence former-US Navy paymaster Felix Senac from Key West was assigned as paymaster for both ironclads.
Fully aware that the CSS Mississippi was nearly complete, Capt. David Porter of the US Navy thought her “strong enough to drive off the whole Union fleet,” as it was “the most splendid specimen . . . the world had ever seen (a sea-going affair), and had she been finished and succeeded in getting to sea, the whole American navy would have been destroyed.”
(Key West’s Civil War: Rather Unsafe for a Southern Man to Live Here.” John Bernhard Thuersam. Shotwell Publishing, 2022. Excerpts pp. 114-119)