Wednesday, May 3, 2023

City Class Ironclads in the Civil War

The Gunboat Cincinnati
General George McClellan set the machinery in motion that built the Western Navy during the Civil War. Without it, Ulysses S. Grant would have been grounded in Cairo, Illinois.

On May 16, 1861, McClellan ordered Commander John Rodgers to establish a navy on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Rodgers bought three wooden ships for $62,000 and had them converted into the first gunboats on the Mississippi. They were the Lexington, Conestoga, and Tyler. The boats were fast because they were wooden, but for the same reason, were had to keep their distance from the shore batteries at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson.

Within a few months, the government began building ironclads. They were constructed by James B. Eads, who later built the Mississippi River bridge at St. Louis. The new ironclads included the Cairo, Carondelet, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Louisville, Mound City, and Pittsburgh. They modernized the navy on the Mississippi and made it possible for Grant to move on Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. After that, the fleet assisted John Pope in taking Island No. 10 and, again, in the Vicksburg campaign.

The new boats were called city-class ironclads or “Pooks Turtles” after their designer Samuel M. Pook. They were shallow-draft vessels that drew only six feet and carried thirteen guns. Because of their immense size and weight, the city-class boats were slow and often required a tow to move them around faster. Each ship carried three front-facing guns, four on each side and two in the rear. The Ironclads joined the Western fleet in January 1862.

Because the boats belonged to the army, not the navy, their use required close cooperation between the army and the gunboats. Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote was the man the navy sent the army to captain the boats. Foote was a forty-year Navy veteran who had sailed all over the world. He spent several years blocking the slave trade on the African coast. In 1859, he published a book about his experiences called Africa and the American Flag. Before the war, he oversaw the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Foote was a character all his own. He didn’t drink and expected the same abstinence from his officers. But whatever his eccentricities, Foote meshed well with Grant, and they set a new standard for army-navy cooperation.


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