Civil War Ironclads: Union River Ironclads Part One

This entry is part 9 of 10 in the series The Civil War at Sea

Civil War Ironclads:

Union River Ironclads Part One

Once the Union Navy began its assault up the Mississippi River and its tributaries, there was a need for river ironclads to duel with the fortifications along the rivers. Without these squat, ugly ships the Union forces would have been hard pressed to split the Confederacy up the Mississippi.

USS Cairo 1862Starting with the attacks on Fort Donelson and Fort Henry in February 1862, the Western Gunboat Flotilla helped to win the campaign in the West. The Union ironclads reduced Confederate forts on the Mississippi, Yazoo, Cumberland, Tennessee and Red Rivers. They assisted in the advance of the Union army into the Confederate Heartland and ultimately destroyed it from the inside out.

The initial designer and builder for the new Union “brownwater” navy was James Eads of St. Louis. Eads owned a shipyard just outside of the city where he built commercial vessels. He sent a letter to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles that detailed a plan for several types of ships plus a base.

Unfortunately, the Navy didn’t have funding for an inland naval force due to the expense of rapidly building a blockading force. Welles passed the plans on tho Secretary of War Simon Cameron who discussed them with Maj. Gen. George McClellan who was in command of the Western Theater from his headquarters in St. Louis.

Welles and Cameron agreed that the Army would be responsible for the inland navy with assistance from the Navy on technical matters. Welles sent Comdr. John Rodgers to St. Louis to join McClellan in discussing the plans with James Eads. The Union Army moved rapidly, setting up a base at Cairo, Illinois as Eads had suggested. They then began to build ships for the new flotilla. The first vessels were three conversions of commercial river ships into warships.

The Naval Department had sent a Naval Constructor named Samuel M. Pook to oversee the conversions and work with Eads and Rodgers on a new design. They determined that it had to mimic the river boats with a flat bottom and a shallow draft. The paddle wheel would be centrally located for protection. The vessels would have armored casemates for the guns.

The first seven vessels were to be 175 feet long, a 51 foot beam and a draft of no more than 6 feet. They would carry at least 13 guns: 3 in the bow, 4USS Carondelet on each broadside and 2 in the stern. “Pook’s Turtles”, as they were called, had5-24 foot long multi-flued boilers that were 3 feet in diameter, two Merrit engines with shafts leading to the 20 foot diameter paddle wheel. The casemate was covered with 2″ thick iron plate. They weighed 512 tons. Eads quoted a price of $89,000 per ironclad ($191,000 including the guns) and promised to deliver them on October 10th.

All seven ironclads were ready starting on October 12th, despite production delays caused in some part by the government. They were all taken to the base at Cairo, Illinois where they fitted out with a motley collection of guns. None of the ironclads carried a standard complement of guns. The City class of ironclads included the St. Louis, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Carondolet, Cairo, Mound City and Cincinnati. With the addition of two of the converted river boats the Union Western Gunboat Flotilla totaled 9 ironclads.

The Union Army followed up the first 9 ironclads with a total of 4 more built by Eads and 5 by other shipyards. All of the new vessels incorporated improvements suggested by the men who served on the ironclads. Several of the vessels were “rams” with paddle wheels in the stern. Several of them had casemates that were too heavy for the hulls which caused serious crushing issues.

James Buchanan EadsThe river ironclads were called upon to assault major fortifications, duel shore batteries, fight wooden gunboats and, quite possibly, other river ironclad gunboats. The last only occurred once, between the USS Carondolet and the ironclad CSS Arkansas, with the near-loss of  the Union ironclad.

Almost all of the river ironclads lacked protection from plunging fire, so their commanders limited their exposure to that type of fire. Generally, they were bettered armored in the bow area, so tactics were planned with this in mind.Most of the routine patrolling was done by wooden or tinclad gunboats. The ironclads were used as a battering ram in major actions against either fortifications or enemy flotillas.

The first major actions that the ironclads participated in were the assaults of Forts Donelson and Henry in February 1862. These two key fortifications guarded the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was in command of the overall operation.

Grant’s first target was Fort Henry on the Tennessee River. On February 6th he began the attack with a bombardment from 4 of the ironclads under the overall command of Flag Officer Andrew Foote. Steaming up and down the river, the ironclads bombarded the fort into surrender before the Army troops could advance.

On the 13th and the 14th the same four ironclads bombarded Fort Donelson. However, the naval action at Fort Donelson due to the plunging fire. All of the vessels were hit and suffered considerable damage. Two days later the fort surrendered to Grant. In the future the ironclad commanders would stack extra timber or iron on the top deck for protection.

Island No. 10 was a fortified sandbar, one mile long, 450 yards wide. Starting in early March 1862 Flag Officer Foote had his 7 ironclads plus mortar boats bombard the island for about three weeks. He had his flotilla stand off and fire at long range to eliminate the problem with plunging fire. On April 6th he sent the USS Carondolet past the island in the dark, followed by the USS Pittsburgh two nights later. This maneuver effectively isolated the 7,000 man Confederate garrison from any reinforcements. When Brig. Gen. John Pope’s Union troops crossed the river the Confederate commander surrendered his entire force.

At Fort Pillow (also known as Plum Point Bend) on May 10, 1862 8 Ironclad under the overall command of Flag Officer Charles H. Davis were initially surprised by a Confederate River Defense Fleet under the command of Captain James Montgomery. Two of the Union ironclads were rammed and sank in shallow water. The Union force sank two Confederate ships. The firepower of the Union gunboats caused serious casualties Battle of Memphis, June 6, 1862among the Confederate crews. The two Union ironclads were later raised and returned to service.

The two forces met again at the Battle of Memphis in June 1862. Davis had a force of 5 ironclads and 2 rams which met the 8 cottonclad rams of the Confederate River Defense Force. On June 6th the two forces clashed on the Mississippi River north of the city of Memphis. The Confederate command structure was non-existent with every ship’s captain deciding on his own tactics. After a melee fight, all but one Confederate ram was either sunk or captured. The Union side had one disabled ram, The Queen of the West.

During the White River Expedition the USS Mound City suffered serious damage when she got too close to a Confederate fort and was hit by solid shot from a 64-pounder. The shot penetrated the casemate and exploded a boiler. The explosion killed 125 crew member and  wounded another 25. It proved that the City class ironclads was vulnerable to close-range fire.

Part Two will appear tomorrow.







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