The Forgotten Triumph Of The Paw Paw


In the late summer and autumn of 1864 two brothers, Norman and George Carr, aged twenty-two and twenty-four respectively, left their upstate New York home of Union Springs to join the United States Navy. The motives that sent them may have been complex. Their father, who operated sail- and steamboats on Lake Cayuga, had previously kept them out of military service by paying for substitutes. But now George wanted, his mother reported in a letter to Norman, to make a man of himself, to repay his father for the substitute (by going himself as a substitute for another man), and to get away from “bad influences.” If the family accepted George’s decision based on these reasons, they were nonetheless troubled by Norman’s earlier and utterly unexpected departure. “It seems,” Mrs. Carr fretted in the timeless voice of parenthood, “that children ought to council parents about these things.” Even George later complained to Norman that they should have enlisted together.

In fact, the two brothers’ service followed significantly divergent paths. George went east to the Brooklyn Navy Yard and shipped aboard the magnificent steam frigate Lancaster (whose splendid eagle figurehead today greets visitors to the Mariners’ Museum, in Newport News, Virginia). He would serve in the traditional saltwater navy, a world of broad, open decks lined with massive Dahlgren guns, beneath a rigid geometry of masts, spars, and tackle. He found it an exacting, disciplined, and hierarchical world—“I hope to see the day when I can tell some of our officers to kiss my jolly American ass,” he wrote Norman—but his duty aboard the Lancaster , as she carried out a traditional naval role showing the flag and protecting commerce in South American waters, gave George a sense of importance and adventure. He visited exotic ports, rounded the Horn, played in the ship’s band (once for the president of Peru), and acquired both a ringtailed monkey and a parrot.

For many sailors, Norman Carr’s type of ship and its type of service scarcely seemed like Navy at all.

Norman, by contrast, worked his way west to Chicago on a canal-boat and there enlisted for one year on August 12, 1864. His service—vastly different from that of George in the blue-water navy—was on one of the little patrol vessels known as tinclads to distinguish them from the more substantial ironclads that had already put in so significant an appearance. Far from sailing the high seas beneath clouds of canvas, Norman would chug through serpentine twists of muddy water on the Mississippi and its tributaries aboard a ship called the Paw Paw , a very slight improvement over its previous civilian ferryboat name of Fanny .

To many sailors Norman Carr’s type of ship and its type of service scarcely seemed like Navy at all. In fact, Secretary Gideon Welles had at first tried to free the Federal Navy of all responsibility for fighting the war on these constricted Western rivers; only in October of 1862 did his Navy Department take over from the War Department full responsibility for the complex duties of the riverine fleet. Strange as they looked, a few Western craft such as the ironclad “Pook turtles” built by James B. Eads might have seemed almost men-of-war, but the tinclads were in every sense riverboats , not ships. Slow (the Paw Paw could manage just four miles per hour steaming upstream), far from magnificent, they were also vulnerable.