Early in the Civil War, in order to defend its coastline and inland waters, the Confederacy began to build a navy. As with everything else, the Confederate government basically had to start from scratch. A few captured or seized vessels became the nucleus of the fledgling navy, but clearly a vigorous shipbuilding plan needed to be implemented. Impressed by two ironclad warships that the British and French navies introduced in the decade prior to the Civil War, Stephen Mallory, Secretary of the Confederate Navy, set about to construct twenty-six ironclad gunboats. One of these was the CSS Neuse.
Construction of the Neuse began in the fall of 1862 near the small village of Whitehall (now Seven Springs) on the banks of the Neuse River in eastern North Carolina. The ship was to be used for the recapture of New Bern from Union forces and to gain control of the lower Neuse River and Pamlico Sound. Built mainly of local pine, the Neuse was a flat bottomed, shallow-draft ship designed for use in rivers and sounds. Before the ship could be completed, it became the focus of a battle at Whitehall on December 16, 1862. Union forces under Gen. John G. Foster attempted to destroy the vessel under construction on the riverbank, and the ship sustained enough damage to delay its completion. In the late spring or early summer of 1863, workers completed the hull of the ship and floated it downstream about twenty miles to Kinston, where it was outfitted with engines, guns, and iron plating. Iron was in very short supply due to transportation issues caused by the army monopolizing the railroads, so progress was slow. By the spring of 1864, the Neuse was finally operational. Workers installed the boiler and the engines, which were acquired from Pugh's Mill east of Kinston, as well as her two 6.4-inch Brooke rifled cannons. The gunboat received four inches of iron platting above the waterline on the casemate. When completed, the Neuse was 158 feet long and 34 feet wide, with a draft of 8 feet.
On April 22, 1864, the Navy Department ordered the Neuse to assist in recapturing the town of New Bern. The Neuse began the trip down river, but grounded on a sandbar after floating only half a mile. The gunboat remained stuck for a month with her bow as much as four feet above the waterline at one point. Without naval support, the infantry attack on New Bern failed. Due to heavy rains in late April and early May, the river rose enough to free the ironclad from the sandbar, allowing the crew to move her back to Kinston. The Neuse remained idle at her moorings until March 1865. The crew, many of whom were transferred from the army into naval service, continued to work on the gunboat and practice the naval drills.
The gunboat finally saw action in March 1865 at the Second Battle of Kinston (also known as the Battle of Wyse Fork). Union troops marched from New Bern and moved westward to meet Gen. William T. Sherman's advancing Union army entering North Carolina from the south. Confederates led by Gen. Braxton Bragg fought for three days at Wyse Fork, about five miles east of town, in an effort to stop this movement until they were finally defeated on March 10. They retreated back across the Neuse River to Kinston, burning the bridge behind them. The gunboat helped cover the withdrawal by firing her two Brooke guns to hold off the advancing Union army on the opposite side of the river, while Confederate forces evacuated Kinston by train and headed west to join the larger Confederate force commanded by Gen. Joseph E. Johnston.
On March 11, the crew of the Neuse abandoned the gunboat and set her on fire. As she was burning, an explosion on the ship blew off eight feet of her ram and put a hole twenty feet wide in her side. As the CSS Neuse sank to the bottom of the river, the ship's crew retreated northward to Halifax.
The ship remained in the Neuse River until 1961, when three local men began trying to raise her. They planned to dig dirt and mud from around the old gunboat and pull her ashore, but the project was larger and more costly than they had anticipated. After money was donated by the Kinston and Lenoir County governments, as well as several private entities, the gunboat was finally pulled from the river in May 1963. The ship remained on the riverbank for a year until the State of North Carolina stepped in with funds to relocate and preserve her. In May 1964, the Neuse was moved to the site of the Governor Richard Caswell Memorial on West Vernon Avenue to become part of a state historic site. Almost half of the remains were destroyed in the many failed attempts at recovery and relocation.
Floodwaters from Hurricane Fran in 1996 forced the gunboat to be moved to higher ground on the site, which was accomplished in 1998. Then, in 1999, the floodwaters from Hurricane Floyd devastated Kinston and much of eastern North Carolina, including the CSS Neuse / Governor Richard Caswell Memorial State Historic Site. The building housing the museum and visitor center was destroyed but the gunboat remained dry under its protective shed on the higher ground. The CSS Neuse has been relocated to a fully enclosed and climate controlled building at 100 N. Queen Street in downtown Kinston. The CSS Neuse Civil War Interpretive Center held a soft opening in July 2013 and will be offering behind the scenes tours as the exhibits are completed. Visitors can view the remains of the gunboat and temporary exhibits while permanent exhibits are being constructed. The museum is a work in progress.