Tinclads

It soon became apparent that the Union needed more than a few powerful ironclads and rams on the Mississippi. While the principal units of the River Flotilla were occupied in the seizure or bombardment of Confederate shore positions or the destruction of enemy warships, other river gunboats were needed to patrol the hundreds of miles of rivers which led through occupied territory. Their roles were to escort supply boats and troop transports, to patrol for signs of enemy activity, or to act as dispatch boats, linking the Union armies in the Western Theater with their depots and recruiting bases further north. For this purpose dozens of flat-bottomed river steamers were purchased and converted into warships. Although many were propelled by sidewheel propulsion, the majority were sternwheelers, similar to or smaller than the craft made famous as Mississippi "gambling" boats (more accurately they were passenger ferries). To protect them from enemy small arms fire from the shore, these vessels were lightly armored with thin metal sheeting. This

Tyler Gunboat
The Union timberclad gunboats USS Lexington and USS Tyler engaging Confederate shore batteries at Columbus, Kentucky, in January 1862. These small but powerful vessels probably saw more service than any other gunboats in the Western Theater.

The USS Ouachita was the largest and best-armed tinclad gunboat on the Mississippi, carrying almost 40 guns, including five 30-pounder Parrott rifles. She participated in the capture of the Confederate ironclad CSS Missouri on the Red River in June 1865.

gave rise to the name "tinclad." From June 19, 1863 (jusl before the fall of Vicksburg), apart from the two largest vessels, these tinclads were allocated identification numbers, which were painted on the sides of the vessels' pilot houses.

The largest of these tinclads served as a Command Ship for ariing Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter, who had assumed command of Union river forces in September 18(52. The Black Hawk was built in New Albany, Indiana, in 1818, and began life as a luxury paddle steamer called (lie New Uncle Saw. She was purchased by the Navy Department for $36,000 in November 1862, and although she was theoretically converted into a gunboat, she retained many of her luxurious internal fittings. She joined the fleet on December 6, 1862, above Vicksburg, and served as the Union command vessel on both the Mississippi and Red Rivers until she was destroyed by an accidental fire off Cairo, Illinois, in April 1865. She carried two 32-pounder smoothbores, two 30-pounder Parrott rifles, and two 12-pounder pieces, but she only fired her guns in anger once, during an attack on Haynes' Bluff, Mississippi, in late April 1863. The large stalely flagship was too valuable a vessel to risk in action.

The second large un-numbered tinclad was the Ouachita, a former Confederate steamer called the Louisville, which was captured on a tributary of the Red River in July 1863. She was dulv converted into a gunboat, and entered service on January 18, 1864 in time to participate in the Red River Campaign. She carried five 30-pounder Parrott l ilies and eighteen 24-pounder and fifteen 12-pounder smoothbores, making her the most powerful gunboat in the Western Theater.

These two vessels were the exception. Most of the other 69 tinclads to enter service displaced less than 200 tons, and were armed with far less

Pounder SmoothboreTinclad River Gunboat Photo

The powerful tinclad USS Fort Hindman (No. 13) had her name changed several times, being commissioned as the USS James Thompson. Her name was altered to celebrate the capture of the Confederate fort guarding the Arkansas River. (US Navy)

impressive suites of ordnance. Almost all carried between four and eight guns, a mixture of whatever was available, although rifled guns were introduced as they were produced. In all but one case, the largest guns carried were 30-pouncler rifles or 32-pounder smoothbores, although 20-pounder rifles, 24-pounder smoothbores and 12-pounders of both types were far more common.

The exception was the USS James Thompson (renamed Manitou, then Fort Hindman in late 1863) which was 150 feet long and displaced 280 tons. She was purchased by the Navy Department at Jeffersonville, Indiana, in March 1863, and entered service just weeks later, after having strips of tin nailed around her superstructure and paddlewheel boxes. She carried an unusually heavy armament of two 8-inch smoothbores in her bow, with two more on each broadside.

The USS Marmora (No. 2) was a more typical tinclad. She was built in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, then sold to the Navy Department in September 1862. She was 155 feet long and displaced 207 tons. Her twin engines and boilers powered a sternwheel that was capable of propelling the ship at just under 7 knots. She was armed with two 24-pounder and two 12-pounder rifles arranged in broadsides in her unclad casemate, although four more 24-pounders were added in mid-1864. She entered service in October 1862. and participated in expeditions up the Yazoo and White Rivers during a distinguished wartime career, which also involved attacks on the defenses ofVicksburg and Fort Hindman.

All in all these tinclad river gunboats were ungainly, slow and unprepossessing, but without them the Union would never have managed to supply its field armies in the West, or keep them in communication with each other.

The powerful tinclad USS Fort Hindman (No. 13) had her name changed several times, being commissioned as the USS James Thompson. Her name was altered to celebrate the capture of the Confederate fort guarding the Arkansas River. (US Navy)

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