The Timberclads

When James B. Eads submitted a proposal to build a flotilla designed to wrest control of the Mississippi Rivet from ilie Confederates, lie was echoing the rail by General Winfield Scott to make the river a major focal point til Union strategy. Eads was a successful Si Louis businessman, and experienced in riverboat construction. The Navy was hard-pressed just 10 establish a blockade around the Confederate coastline, so the matter was passed to the War Department, which ran the US Army. What the Navy Department could do was to send an experienced naval officer to ¡Supervise operations. In May 1861, Commander John Rodgers, USN, and Naval Constructor Samuel Pook were sent westward, with orders to work with Eads and the theater commander, General McClellan. As the War Department put it:

"Ah: fames H. Ends, of St Louis, has proposed as a means of defense ... the employment of the boats owned by the wrecking company of which he is a member, and has advised that said boats be taken In the Government and properly armed and equipped for thai service ... ¡1 is ordered that the subject be referred to General McClellan, who wiU, consult with Mr. Eads and with such naval officer as the Navy Department may send out for that purpose, and then, as he shall fend best, take order for the proper preparation of the boats. "

Rodgers was allocated access to naval personnel, but everything else had to be arranged through the Army.

While Rodgers and Eads discussed plans for the creation of an ironclad flotilla, Pook inspected three sidewheel steamers on the Ohio River which Rodgers had selected as potential gunboats for "naval service in these waters." Pook agreed with Rodgers's selection, and on June 8 the LTS Government duly purchased the Lexington, Tyler, and Conestoga in Cincinnati for $62,000.

As warships, the trio were less than ideal. Observers dubbed them "bandboxes." Their engines were located above the waterline, and their high sides made them easy targets. Pook supervised their conversion, lowering their engines, reducing their superstructure, and reinforcing their hulls to allow the vessels ro carry heavy guns. Oak bulwarks five inches thick protected the gun crews from small arms fire. By the end of June 1861 this initial work had been completed, although Rodgers and Pook criticized the standard of workmanship of the Cincinnati yard which undertook the conversion. As the water level of the Ohio dropped due to seasonal factors, Rodgers ordered the gunboats to be brought down to Cairo, together with the shipyard workers, but they only got as far as Louisville, Kentucky, before they were trapped by the falling waters. Lieutenant Seth I.. Phelps arrived in Louisville to take charge of the stranded vessels. Two other officers (Lieutenant Roger Stembe and Master Joshua Bishop) tasked with command of the riverboats began to recruit naval volunteers in (Cincinnati. The Army did little to help.

The gunboat USS 7y/er was the most powerful of the three timberclad gunboats which saw service in the Union river fleet. She can be distinguished from the USS Lexinglon by the midships position of her smokestacks, and from the USS Conestoga by her shorter hull.
Union Gunboat Lexington

The timberclad gunboat USS Lexington usually operated in conjunction with the USS Ty/er, and setved with distinction throughout the war. She is probably best remembered for providing naval gunfire support to General Grant's Union Army at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1662.

The timberclad gunboat USS Lexington usually operated in conjunction with the USS Ty/er, and setved with distinction throughout the war. She is probably best remembered for providing naval gunfire support to General Grant's Union Army at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1662.

The timberclad gunboat USS Cones toga first saw service in September 1861, and subsequently took part in the attacks on Fort Henry and Fort Oonelson, She was sunk in a collision with the USS General Price in March 1864.

Meanwhile, McClellan had been replaced by General Fremont, and the new regional commander asked for Rodgers's removal, due to the complaints of local businessmen that he was not displaying enough largesse with naval contracts. The capable Rodgers was duly sent back east. At Louisville, Phelps struggled to complete the gunboats, Phelps complained "there is no paint For the hoats," and questioned the quality of the rivermen hired by his colleagues. Finally, the river rose enough for the three gunboats to continue on to Cairo, where their guns and stores waited for diem on the quayside. The trio constituted the only river defense available to the Union, and were duly put to work by die Army. While they were crewed by Navy personnel, they (and all other Union river gunboats) came under Army control. The river flotilla would only be transferred to the US Navy in August 1862. They were available for service by August 15, 1861, and six days later the 7)/«'fired the first naval "shot in anger" on the Mississippi, engaging Confederate patrols on the Missouri shore. The trio would operate in support of the Army until enough warships were gathered to permit independent naval operations.

These wooden gunboats were only protected by timber. With a touch of sarcasm, in comparison with the ironclads designed by Eads and Pook, they were duly dubbed "timberclads." Despite their fragile appearance, they were useful, well-armed warships. The Gomstoga only carried four

32-pounders, hut her consorts were stronger, allowing the emplacement of a heavier broadside armament. The Lexington carried two 32-po under, and four 8-inch smoothbores, while the 7vfer carried one 32-pounder and six 8-inch smoothbore pieces. Although all these weapons were smoothbores, changes were made to these ordnance suites during the war. The Lexington and Tyler were issued with 30-pounder rifles by late 1862 {two and three respectively) but the

Cone.tfoga was not similarly up-gunned. The effectiveness of rifled guns against shore positions had been demonstrated on both the Mississippi and the Eastern seaboard, so this re-equipping reflected a change in the perceived role of the gunboats, from vessels designed to fight other warships to ones capable of suppressing fire from Confederate shore positions.

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