America’s First “Brown Water” Navy

This past weekend we offered a special Civil War-themed behind the scenes tour at CHS. I spent a day selecting a wide variety of objects, manuscripts and graphics items to include in the tour, including several that I had not used in the past. Among these was a pair of fine photographs of river gunboats being constructed in September 1861.

With the outbreak of war in April 1861 the Lincoln administration developed a naval strategy designed to cripple the South’s ability to sustain hostilities. A blockade of southern ports was established to prevent resupply from overseas, while a plan to wrest control of the Mississippi and other navigable rivers, effectively splitting the Confederacy, was developed.

Union vessels operating along interior waterways in “enemy” territory needed to be small enough to maneuver in shoal water, fast enough to overcome river currents and, in the case of armed vessels, large enough to support multiple large caliber guns; a tall order indeed for any naval architect. Add to that protective armor plating some 2.5 inches thick and you have a real challenge. But Samuel Pook, an experienced builder of river steamboats, teamed up with James B. Eads, a St. Louis industrialist and shipbuilder, to produce a group of seven innovative ironclad river gunboats. Known as the “City” class, they were named for river cities like St. Louis, Carondelet, Pittsburgh and Louisville. Suffice to say, with their sloping armored casemate superstructures and enclosed stern wheel, nothing like them had ever been seen on America’s rivers. The “Pook Turtles,” as they were sometimes called, were a force to be reckoned with.

Though the vessels were actually constructed for the army (apparently due to budgetary factors), they were crewed and commanded by naval personnel. Ultimately, they were transferred to navy control, but not before playing crucial roles in some of the first major battles in Tennessee. These early Federal victories at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in February 1862 established inroads in the heart of the Confederacy, while providing encouragement to Union supporters who had seen only southern military successes in the early going. In each of these engagements several of these river ironclads played a key role in supporting Union troops, led by a then unknown brigadier general by the name of Ulysses S. Grant. His waterborne colleague was Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote from New Haven. Foote’s efforts in supporting the land assaults helped establish tactics refined in subsequent riverine expeditions on the Mississippi and other western rivers.

The “City” class ironclads provided valuable service during the war. Two were lost to Confederate “torpedoes” (mines) and two were lost after being rammed. One, USS Cairo, has been recovered and is on display at Vicksburg National military Park.

With the end of the war the surviving “City” class vessels were decommissioned and sold, as was much of the wartime navy. But the concept established by this first American “brown water navy” (as distinct from the ocean-going or “blue water navy”) was resurrected in the 1960s during the Vietnam War when a variety of both new and modified shallow draft vessels were employed on the Mekong and other rivers to attack enemy forces. One type, converted from a Mechanized Landing Craft (LCM), was so heavily armed and armored that it was known as a river monitor, harkening back a full century when some of America’s inland waterways were true battlegrounds.

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