The Forgotten Triumph Of The Paw Paw
Unloved and unlovely, the fragile boats of the “Tinclad Navy” ventured, Lincoln said, “wherever the ground was a little damp,” and made a contribution to the Western war that has never been sufficiently appreciated
October 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 6
These conditions had produced the characteristic Western American steamboat in the decades before the war. Shipbuilders gradually modified the deep-hulled designs appropriate to oceangoing vessels into something one observer described as “an engine on a raft with $11,000 worth of jigsaw work.” Because space for engines, cargo, and passengers had to be found above the waterline, Western steamboats gradually took on their tiered wedding-cake appearance. With draft of the utmost concern—on the smaller streams it was measured in inches rather than in feet—shipwrights utilized the lightest materials. The results could be astounding. In 1859 one small boat carried ten tons of cargo while drawing only eight inches. Her proud owners mounted a large sprinkling can on the jackstaff at her bow, to suggest she could float on her own water supply. A good boat, one writer said, was built so that in a low river her first mate could tap a keg of beer and run his vessel four miles on the suds. Driven by high-pressure engines of increasing size and power, these frail, shallow shells quivered like living things at every piston stroke.
Marvel of specialization though it was, the Western steamboat could no more be considered a naval architect’s dream of a war vessel than its characteristic environment could appear a naval commander’s ideal field of action. A raft with paper-thin cabins housing a touchy engine and bulging boilers had trouble enough negotiating the tricky river channels without the added problems of enemy fire from hidden positions along the banks. To create and operate a fleet of patrol vessels modified from Western steamboats required not only inventiveness but courage all round.
The great need for shallow draft always prevented their armor from reaching any really effective thickness.
No single inventor stands as the father of the tinclad, just as no single grandfather sired the parent steamboat itself. Although not until after the fall of Vicksburg did the river war become essentially a tinclad affair, this new type of vessel had actually begun to emerge a year before, in the early summer of 1862, in the minds of four men: Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck (a theoretical man known to his contemporaries as “Old Brains” and a figure not much admired by historians); the Army quartermaster, George Wise; and two successive Mississippi Squadron commanders, Andrew Hull Foote and Charles Henry Davis. All these men saw the need for some specialized force of patrol vessels on the Mississippi and its tributaries, but in June an attempted Army/Navy expedition up the White River into Arkansas provided a specific stimulus. Commodore Davis, aware of the problems this expedition encountered with low water, guerrilla sniping, and troublesome, fast-moving field artillery, sent Secretary Welles his recommendation that “small steamers of light draft be armed with howitzers and field guns, and protected from rifle shot in their machinery and pilot houses.”
The captured steamer Alfred Robb , which had already been—on Halleek’s urging—converted according to these principles, could claim to be the first tinclad, though its combination of a relatively deep draft (four feet six inches) and a relatively light battery (four 12-pounder howitzers) would soon be reversed. The tinclad that Commodore Davis and especially his successor Admiral Porter began to produce in significant numbers combined light draft with a more substantial battery. As Porter later boasted (one of his favorite pastimes), “Our gunboats have steamed through where the keel of a canoe never passed, and have succeeded in reaching points in the enemy’s country where the imagination of man never dreamed that he could be molested by an enemy in such a shape.” The Brilliant and St. Clair drew two feet four inches; the Signal and Marmora drew only twenty-two inches; the romantic pair Romeo and Juliet floated in twenty-two and twenty-four inches of water respectively.
To operate on such shallow drafts, the naval constructors purchased steamers—there was no time to build them from scratch—removed all unnecessary superstructures, and built oaken casemates several inches thick, armored with three-quarters of an inch or one inch of sheet iron, fore and (in case of side-wheelers) aft, alongside the boilers and machinery, and around the pilothouse. In the later tinclads there were additional casemates enclosing the vulnerable boilers with further attempts at protection. However, the great need for shallow draft always prevented such armor from reaching any really effective thickness. On one of her trips to Mound City for repairs the Paw Paw even suffered the loss of her side armor, removed in an attempt to reduce her draft and, likely, a vain effort to increase her speed. To his father Norman Carr wrote, “We can fight bows on at a prety good advantage.” It sounds a bit like whistling past the graveyard.