The Mississippi River Ironclads

The Monitor and its sisters belong to the main current of naval development. Even if they had never fired a shot in anger, they still would occupy a significant place in the history of ships.

This is not the case with the ironclad gunboats built for the Mississippi Flotilla. On the whole, these ships were rather badly designed —some were hardly designed at all. They came into being almost effortlessly, or so it seemed, and exactly when they were needed. With the war won, they were quickly disposed of, and before long almost forgotten. Nevertheless, they were successful in the best sense; they were produced quickly from available skills and materials and used with imagination to accomplish the task assigned them: that of dominating the Mississippi Basin.

The principal figure in the development of the ironclad river fleet was James B. Eads, of St. Louis. Eads was a self-

made businessman with a flair for engineering. His father died when he was thirteen, and Eads went from a small town in Indiana to St. Louis to seek his fortune, becoming successively a riverboat pilot, a partner in a steamboat salvage operation, and, in 1845, the proprietor of a highly successful glassware factory, the first in the Mississippi Valley. In 1855, poor health had forced him to retire from business.

Three days after the fall of Fort Sum ter, Eads received a letter from Edward Bates, a close friend, and Lincoln's Attorney General. Bates told him to be prepared to go to Washington. "In a certain contingency it will be necessary to have the aid of the most thorough knowledge of our Western rivers and the use of steam on them, and in that event I have advised that you should be consulted." A telegram followed shortly and Eads hurried to Washington, where Bates told him of plans for a gunboat fleet to be built for service in the Mississippi theater of operations. He was introduced to other members of the Cabinet, including the Secretary of War, the incompetent Simon Cameron, as well as Gideon Welles and Gustavus Fox. Cameron was not particularly interested in the idea of building gunboats until the Navy Department entered the picture, with the appointment of Captain John Rodgers to work with Eads in planning the fleet. Then Cameron insisted that it was an Army responsibility. A compromise was reached whereby Cameron requested the Navy to lend Captain Rodgers to the Army, and he was sent on his way.

The Cairo Class

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