The Forgotten Triumph Of The Paw Paw

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On an early mission before Norman had joined her, the Paw Paw had struck one of the ubiquitous snags in the Mississippi River and promptly sunk. Pumped out and repaired (and with Norman on board), she ran into a transport that crossed her bow (her whistle rope broken, she could not give the customary signal) and nearly sank again. When Norman’s younger brother Fred learned of the collision, he wrote with pretended innocence: “I think that must be a bully gun boat if she could not stand that punch. What would she do if she got a hundred pound ball or so [’?]” Though he anticipated hair-raising stories when Norman returned (“I suppose you can tell about mowing down the rebs with your big gun”), Fred persisted in asking awkward questions: “Is the Paw Paw an iron clad or tin clad or what is she?” Others wondered along the same lines about tinclads. Adm. David Dixon Porter occasionally strayed from the traditional feminine denotation for ships, writing of one tinclad, “I have one little fellow up the Tennessee, and she had it all her own way.” Lt. Joseph Fyffe, one of Porter’s less repressible officers, was so outraged that his converted Western steamer, the Clara Dolson , should be considered a man-of-war that when Porter ordered all vessels to display their names prominently, Fyffe steamed back and forth past the flagship with the name PREPOSTEROUS painted in huge letters on the starboard side of his boat and OUTRAGEOUS on the port. Norman Carr himself confessed in one letter, as he prepared to send home a photograph of the Paw Paw , “I wish she were a Frigate instead of a gunboat. Think that I should like her better.” Debating about re-enlisting, Norman wrote that he was “thinking of going on the coast.” When he heard of brother George’s parrot and monkey, he suggested ruefully that he might bring home an old buzzard to show folks.

Moreover, Norman might well have felt that even in his more ordinary corner of the world the big show was over before he arrived. Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had shattered the first Confederate line of defense at Forts Henry and Donelson; Adm. Charles H. Davis and Col. Charles Ellet had sunk the Confederate river fleet off Memphis; Admiral Porter and Generals Grant and Sherman had taken Vicksburg; Adm. David Farragut and Gen. Nathaniel Banks had taken Port Hudson. After these victories the “Father of Waters,” in Lincoln’s lapidary phrase, again flowed “unvexed to the sea.” With all the high drama past, what was there to do on these rivers?

 

Plenty, as it turned out. However much their importance might be masked by the homey names and appearance of the vessels or by the humdrum tasks that they routinely undertook, men like Norman Carr, on boats like the Paw Paw , were crucial to the outcome of the Civil War. The role of naval power, so often overlooked or misunderstood in analyses of this conflict, is nowhere more easily missed than here, in the riverine war after the fall of Vicksburg. Indeed, the naval role may actually have been as crucial in this latter part of the war in the West as in the more dramatic earlier days.

To understand how such an assertion can be possible, we must first consider the fact of topography—the lay of the land and the network of its rivers. In the 1860s the railroads had begun to trace their iron paths across the part of the vast Mississippi Valley that lay within the Confederacy. The rivers, however, reached like a system of veins and capillaries into the very heartland of the South, and the most important cities, towns, villages, and plantations stood on their banks. Statistics on the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Ohio, and the tributaries can easily be misleading, but at least five thousand miles of these rivers were open to steamboats of two hundred tons’ burden for at least six months out of the year; for lighter boats and shorter periods of time the mileage would, of course, increase.

Such figures suggest not only the importance of the river system but also the challenges it posed to navigation. The tributaries, even the major rivers, were variable. Only the deeper channel of any river was navigable, and the location of that channel, the depth of water it carried, and the velocity at which it flowed shifted not only with the seasons but even within seasons. Moreover, high water caved in banks and floated down the trees that once lined them; waterlogged, these trees became the dread snags that dealt so many boats mortal wounds. To hit one, Mark Twain declared, would stun a boat “as if she had hit a continent.” Low water, as one observer commented, “brought the sandbars up for air” and offered vessels a different sort of hazard but one equally dreaded by pilots. The Federal naval commander on the Cumberland noted in the spring of 1863 that the river had only fifteen inches of water over Harpeth Shoals, that its average width was about sixty feet, that it was choked everywhere by narrow treelined turns, and that it could rise or fall by as much as twelve feet in a single day.