Ordnance

There was no typical armament for a Mississippi River gunboat during the war. While many were armed with large smoothbore weapons such as 24-pounders and 32-pounders, rifled guns were also widely used, as were small howitzers. Occasionally, some gunboats carried larger pieces, such as the 130-pounder rifle.

In 1845 the US Navy had adopted the 32-pounder smoothbore as its standard gun type, designed to augment larger "shell" guns (64-pounder, 8-inch pieces, introduced in limited numbers in 1841) or regular "solid shot" guns (also 64-pounder pieces). Even as late as the Civil War, many naval officers considered the shell gun a poor substitute for the ship-smashing capabilities of a solid roundshot. Its range was approximately three-quarters of that of an equivalent solid shot, and although it was capable of causing more damage, and of causing fires, it was considered less accurate than a conventional solid projectile.

Perhaps the most common pieces of ordnance carried on river gunboats were bronze 24-pounder and 32-pounder smoothbores. Classified as Model 1841 pieces under the US Army's Mordecai system, the US Navy had a bewildering range of gun types, as 27, 33, 42, 51, 57 and 61-hundredweight versions of the 32-pounder were used by the US Navy. Of these, the last was the most widely used, as many of the earlier, smaller pieces were eventually converted into rifled weapons. Almost as common as (he 32-pounder smoothbore was the 24-pounder howitzer, another 1841 pattern piece, whose short length made ii an ideal close-range naval weapon.

Recruitment into the Union Navy took place at Naval Rendezvous offices, such as this one in New York City. Similar offices were established in the major river ports, such as Cincinnati, St Louis, and Pittsburgh. Illustration from Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 1861. (Author's Collection)

The smoothbore shell guns introduced into US Naval service by John A. Dahlgren from 1850 onward began to change this, as his pieces matched conventional guns in both range and accuracy. Although rarely seen on the Mississippi River unless carried on the ocean-going warships of the regular Navy, Dahlgren pieces exerted their own influence over other, earlier forms of ordnance. Standard long guns (conventional smoothbore pieces) were adapted to fire shell as well as solid shot, and a handful of his 8-inch and 32-pounder guns appeared on larger Union gunboats.

A second modification to earlier guns was the conversion of smoothbore guns into rifled pieces. General Charles T. James pioneered this conversion process, which involved the cutting of narrow, deep grooves into the bores of older bronze guns. As the new rifled projectiles weighed approximately twice that of the original solid shot used by the cannon, gun designations were doubled. Consequently, a 6-pounder became a 12-pounder and so on. The largest James rifle found 011 Mississippi gunboats was the 130-pounder, converted from a 64-pounder smoothbore, and carried on the wooden ram CSS Webb. In general, most Confederate rifled pieces were James l ilies, while the Union had a plentiful supply of the more efficient Parrott pieces, and these were widely used in the river fleet.

Robert P. Parrott had introduced his own design of iron rifled ordnance for naval service in 1861. The 20-pounder and 30-pounder rifled pieces were commonly found on Union gunboats from 1862 onwards. Compared to smoothbore guns, rifled pieces had a longer range and greater accuracy, but lacked the destructive power of the smoothbore shot or shell, at least against unarmored targets. By contrast, rifled guns mounted in fortifications could hit and penetrate the ironclad fleet used by the Union on the Mississippi, and could disable a wooden gunboat at long range with a single shot.

The following list contains some of the more common guns mounted on wooden gunboats of both sides which operated on the Mississippi River and its tributaries. In fact, such a wide range of pieces was employed that a full listing is beyond the scope of "this book. The ranges given are those for the effective range of the pieces, firing solid shot, at an elevation of 5 degrees. Extreme range was often double this, and the maximum effective range for guns firing shell was usually 75—85 percent of the range for solid shot projectiles.

Smoothbore Gun

Bore

Gun Weight

Gun length

Construction

Effective Range

12-pounder (1841 pattern)

4% in

1,757 pounds

7ft 6in

Bronze

1,663 yards

24-pounder (1841 pattern)

5*A in

6,240 pounds

10ft 4in

Bronze

1,901 yards

32-pounder (1841 pattern)

6K in

6,832 pounds

10ft 5in

Bronze

1,922 yards

8-inch (Columbiacl)

Sin

9,210 pounds

10ft 4in

Iron

1,814 yards

9-inch (Dahlgren)

9 in

9,000 pounds

9ft

Iron

2,100 yards

Inch Naval Guns 1900
The crew of a 9-inch Dahigren smoothbore gun operating their piece during a gunnery drill on a gunboat. Although only a few Mississippi river gunboats had guns of this size, the firing drill remained the same. (US Navy)

Rifled Guns

Bore

Gun Weight

Gun length

Construction

Effective Range

9-pounder (Rodman)

3in

820 pounds

5ft 9in

Bronze

1,830 yards

10-pounder (Parrott)

Sin

890 pounds

6ft 2in

Iron

1,850 yards

12-pounder (James)

3%in

875 pounds

5ft

Bronze

1,700 yards

20-pounder (Parrott)

3z/in

1,750 pounds

7ft

Iron

1,900 yards

30-pounder (Parrott)

4'/An

4,200 pounds

1 lit 4in

Iron

2,200 yards

130-pounder (James)

8/ain

14,896 pounds

10ft lOin

Bronze

2,430 yards

Howitzers

Bore

Gun Weight

Gun Length

Construction

Effective Range

12-pounder (1841 pattern)

4Kin

788 pounds

4ft 5in

Bronze

1,072 yards

24-pounder (1841 pattern)

5 Kin

1,318 pounds

5ft 5in

Bronze

1,322 yards

Life on Board

Life on Board

In both the Union and Confederate fleets, conditions on board the wooden gunboats that operated on the Mississippi River were better than those found on the cramped river ironclads, or even the crowded decks of the Union ocean-going steam fleet. Even when the first timberclads of the Union fleet or the independent ram flotillas of the Confederates were brought into service, despite their ownership, the crews were organized along naval lines. A smattering of experienced naval officers and petty officers provided enough influence for these vessels to be run the Navy way, although the levels of discipline and "spit-and-polish" would rarely have impressed senior naval officers. Later, as Admiral Foote brought the Union river fleet under his control, a more exacting level of naval authority and discipline was introduced into the river

Sailors caulking the hull of a wooden gunboat. This involved the wedging of tarred hemp into the cracks between the vessel's outer planking. As most river ports lacked the facilities to raise gunboat hulls out of the water, repairs were usually confined to what could be done above the waterline. (Author's collection)

fleets. By the end of the war, these vessels were operated in virtually the same way as all other elements of the US Navy.

Both sides based their daily routines and fighting practices upon those of the prewar US Navy, and therefore there was little or no difference between the running of vessels of the two sides. The one exception was that the Confederates operated a number of semi-independent stale squadrons or River Defense Fleets, and although regular naval practices were adopted, the commanders of these vessels operated outside the authority of the regular Confederate Navy. In effect, these units owed their allegiance to their own flotilla commander, not to any naval officer appointed by the Confederate Navy Department. Consequently, while regular warships were supplied and paid by the Navy Department, these units organized their own provisions.

A slighdy less divisive situation existed in the Union fleet, where the War Department ran river operations until August 1862, but the vessels themselves were usually crewed by regular naval officers, and their multifarious crews of sailors, soldiers, and rivermen operated under the constraints of naval discipline. Following the take-over of the river fleets by the US Navy, these divisions were overcome, and the fleet developed into a unified naval force.

Most gunboats operated from established bases: New Orleans, Memphis, or Shreveport for the Confederates; Cairo, Mound City, or St Louis for the Union. Due to the possibilities of snagging underwater obstructions such as sunken logs or debris, or of running aground on one of the countless frequently moving mud banks on the rivers, niglu operations were rare. When darkness fell, gunboats operating independently of major garrisons or bases would choose the safer bank, then moor alongside for the night. Armed sentries would be posted on deck and 011 shore and, if the area was considered dangerous, steam pressure would be maintained to permit a rapid response to any threat should it occur.

Each crew was divided into watches, usually divided into port and starboard, then first and last. This meant that, at any time, a quarter of the crew would be available to operate the ship, day or night, in port, at anchor, or moored alongside a hostile shore. II the commanding officer deemed it appropriate, the routine would be changed, so that the crew operated in two watches. Reveille (all hands) was piped at 5 a.m., followed by cleaning of the ship, then breakfast, which was served at 8 a.m. The vessel would then be ready to start her operations.

A rare photograph of an unidentified Confederate seaman. When uniforms were issued to Confederate sailors on the western rivers, they were usually modelled on prewar US Navy uniforms. This sailor was less fortunate, and wears a thick homespun shirt.

Noon marked ihe official start of ilie ship's day, and was the hour when the main meal of the day was served (usually meat, vegetables and coffee). Afternoons were usually spent at drill. Around 4 p.m., the vessel was moored for the night, and the crew were given a few hours to themselves before lights out.

When the vessel was not on active duty, the daylight hours would be spent painting the ship, maintaining the engines or guns, or cleaning. Unless the vessel was in its home port, where it could be rolled out of the water, maintenance work was limited to the hull and superstructure above the waterline. Sundays were deemed "make and mend" day, when the crew could wash or repair clothing, or engage in socialising. Shore leave was granted in friendly ports, many of which contained the traditional sources of amusement for sailors ashore found the world over. When the crew were unable to enjoy their leisure hours ashore, they spent their time fishing, playing cards, writing (for the few crewmen who were literate), or playing music. Almost every ship 011 either side had a pet, and these mascots were fed and tended in these leisure hours.

For the Confederates, supply of food, pay, and clothing was a constant struggle, while for their Union counterparts, supply problems were for the most part overcome by the summer of 1862. By 1863 bases such as Cairo or Mound City maintained floating warehouses, receiving ships, maintenance workshops, and administrative offices. While naval uniforms were hard to come by at first, both sides introduced regular navy blues (whites in summer) during the first year of the war, giving the vessels the appearance of regular warships. Although cramped, humid and uncomfortable, life on board these wooden gunboats was reasonably bearable, at least when the vessels were not engaged in action. Conditions in action were a different story.

A rare photograph of an unidentified Confederate seaman. When uniforms were issued to Confederate sailors on the western rivers, they were usually modelled on prewar US Navy uniforms. This sailor was less fortunate, and wears a thick homespun shirt.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment