In March 1862 a memorable engagement occurred between the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia. The day before the Virginia had sunk the wooden steamships USS Cumberland and USS Congress and was coming back to finish the big steam frigate, USS Minnesota. However, Monitor had arrived the night before and was waiting next to the Minnesota. In the ensuing long engagement, neither side could best the other but one thing was clear, the day of the wooden warship was over. Many a casual reader has the wrong conclusion about the duel that day. They incorrectly believe that the two opponents were the first ironclads. They weren’t. The French had armored floating batteries during the Crimean War and in 1858 decided to add iron plates over the wooden hull of the Gloire. In 1859 the Royal Navy actually laid down the first modern iron steam battleship with the HMS Warrior, which had an iron hull. Nominally rated a frigate because of her gun count, Warrior was the most powerful warship in the world when she was launched. The true significance of the Monitor and Virginia was that it was the first engagement between two armored warships.
Monitor was not even the first ironclad ordered for the United States Navy. That honor goes to the riverine ironclads of the Mississippi. The main purpose of the USN during the Civil War was to blockade the Confederacy. The faster wooden warships of the USN were far more effective at overtaking and destroying blockade-runners than the lumbering coastal monitors. Quite often the monitor designs would come off second best in engagements with Confederate coastal fortresses, most notably an attack on Charleston, South Carolina in 1863. However, not only did the Union Anaconda Plan involve blockade of the coastal ports, but also it envisioned cutting the Confederacy in two by total control of the Mississippi River and tributaries. On April 29, 1861 the Secretary for the Navy received a letter from a St. Louis businessman, James B. Eads, which was the trigger event for the eventual Union victory in the west.
In the letter Eads suggested that the Union acquire Mississippi River Snag boats, which were shallow draft, heavily built boats designed to remove river snags and raise sunken boats. Eads suggested that they receive cotton bale armor and be pressed into taking the war south. The idea soon evolved to ironclad rather than cotton clad vessels. Since the Navy lacked funds, the operation was turned over to the Army, with a naval advisor. Eads was awarded contracts to convert existing shallow draft civilian boats into ironclads. Then Eads built his ideal ironclad from bottom up. It would be inaccurate to state from keel up because these vessels had no keels. They were flat bottomed, shallow draft with a very low freeboard. They were totally unsuitable for even coastal work but were ideal for the rivers of the west. On August 5, 1861 bids were invited for construction of seven river ironclads to the design of Samuel Pook. In reality it had already been decided to give Eads the contract, which resulted in the City Class of Carondolet, Cairo, Cincinnati, Louisville, Mound City, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. These plus almost all of the other polyglot ragbag assortment of odd riverine beasts were stern or centerline paddle wheelers because of the need for shallow draft and because side paddle wheels were more vulnerable.
The New Vanguard series published by Osprey has published a volume on these rare creatures of the Mississippi, which toiled in the shadows of the more famous monitors of the coast. Written by Angus Konstam and illustrated by Tony Bryan, Union River Ironclad 1861-65 is a textual and visual treat. There are seven full color plates in the center of the volume, which features a two-page color cutaway of USS Cairo. In addition to this beautiful original artwork, almost each page features period photographs, engravings and lithographs of these ironclads with 40 such items in the 48 pages of the volume.
As nice as the visual treats are, the text really proves the worth of the volume. Konstam covers the historical background that created the designs, design history and overall western riverine campaign with of course the emphasis on Vicksburg. The operational history of the flotilla has full coverage starting with the critical impact they had that allowed General Grant to take Forts Donaldson and Henry in February 1862, allowing Union advances down the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers. Then the scene shifts to the Mississippi with the capture of Island Number 10 and the attack on Memphis. The Vicksburg campaign then follows, including the humiliation that the Union ironclads suffered at the hands of CSS Arkansas, which roughly manhandled the USS Carondolet and forced her aground. All of the subsequent and minor campaigns are also touched upon such as the White River venture in Arkansas, the Red River Campaign in 1864 and operations up the Alabama rivers from Mobile in 1864 and 1865.
When you finish with the text on the overall history of the ironclads of the west, you then began a series of individual ship’s histories of each ironclad that played any role in the naval river combat. Each ship has a table devoted to it with full statistics, operational history and listing of that ship’s commanders. The ships covered are each of the seven City Class of 512 tons: Essex, heavier armored than the City Class of 355 tons: Benton former catamaran snag boat of 633 tons: Chillicothe a rare sidewheeler with also two screws of 395 tons: Eastport an incomplete Confederate ironclad captured at Cerro Gordo, Tennessee of 700 tons: Indianola another sidewheel and screw combination with four engines of 511 tons: Choctaw ironclad ram formerly the steamer Nebraska of 1,004 tons: Lafayette ironclad ram formerly steamer Aleck Scott: Tuscumbia improved Chillicothe sidewheel/screw equipped of 575 tons: Neosho stern paddlewheel river monitor of 523 tons: Osage stern paddlewheel river monitor of 523 tons: and Ozark twin screwed river monitor of 578 tons. Two other types of monitors are mentioned. The twin turret Milwaukee Class and the single turret Marietta Class but no operational histories are provided for them because they did not participate in and significant manner in the river operations.
This volume as well as the other naval volumes in the New Vanguard series is available from Bill Gruner of Pacific Front.