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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
But the vessels were planned to spit fire as well as receive it. As commanders such as LeRoy Fitch on the Tennessee discovered that “we have batteries to contend with along the river,” the sort of very light armament placed on the Robb —a few 12-pounders—quickly gave way to a standard complement of six 24-pounder smoothbore howitzers. This improved tinclad firepower came from an American ingenuity in ordnance that complemented the remarkable inventiveness of the Western steamboat builders. In the decades before the war, John Dahlgren had not only perfected the massive cast-iron “soda bottle” guns that became the mainstay of the U.S. Navy but also devised lightweight brass howitzers that could operate from shipboard mounts or on field carriages ashore. These howitzers had elicited naval admiration around the world; the Japanese, for example, were much taken by the samples that Commodore Perry brought with him in his famous expedition of 1853–54. Rows of heavy iron Dahlgren guns were, of course, out of the question on the frail tinclads, but the howitzers—especially those that threw 24-pound shells—were exactly what was needed. The standard armament soon became six 24-pounder Dahlgren howitzers. As Porter wrote to Foote in November of 1862, “I am now hard at work fitting out a light-draft semi-ironclad set of steamers, drawing not more than 30 inches when deep, and armed with six and eight 24-pounder Dahlgren howitzers. They are really formidable little craft. … Think how serviceable they would have been to you in the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers.”
But experience again taught that something more was needed, especially for dealing with those batteries that had troubled Fitch on the Tennessee and for discouraging bodies of riflemen from a comfortable distance. Both the Federal Army and Navy, seeking effective ordnance of longer range, were acquiring massive numbers of rifled cannon of the pattern invented by the Army captain Robert P. Parrott. Thus, by early 1863, the standard armament had again changed: now the tinclads usually carried a broadside battery of 24-pounder howitzers that had a relatively limited range but that, for that time, provided a rapid rate of fire, plus two iron rifled 30-pounder Parrott guns in the bow casemate. The Paw Paw , for example, carried two Parrott rifles forward that could pivot to ports in the angle of the casemates, plus six Dahlgren howitzers, four in broadside and two that pivoted to stern or angle ports aft.
Thus in their own way these tinclads may have merited Porter’s slightly inflated description of them as “really formidable little craft.” They certainly showed innovative adaptation of material at hand to the task at hand. But the river navy found that getting men was a more pressing problem than building boats. To man the growing number of tinclads in particular strained Federal resources; in December of 1862 six were operational, but another eight stood idle for want of crews. Even when a boat could be sent into action, it often went with the minimal number of hands. As a result so-called contrabands—former slaves considered forfeited Rebel property—increasingly filled out the vessel’s company.
By May of 1863 Capt. Kidder Randolph Breese estimated that the average white complement on the tinclads might be twenty men out of a crew that could be more than twice or three times that number. He welcomed contraband help on his boats (as all commanders welcomed the information regularly brought by blacks onshore), though he complained that black sailors often brought their women with them. By July of 1863 Admiral Porter had issued a general order urging commanders to sign on more contrabands, arguing that they could take the Southern river climate better than white sailors. All this evidence suggests that tinclads were among the earliest settings for some degree of integrated service involving sizable numbers of blacks and whites. The atmosphere was still troubled by prejudice, as racist remarks in the Carr and other letters demonstrate, but the fact of crews with so strong a black representation is noteworthy.
Of course this problem of manpower extended to the higher ranks as well. Experienced officers complained often about the untried men who took command of boats just off the ways, manned by green crews. But John Swift, a young Anglo-Irish sailor of the stern-wheel tinclad Silver Cloud —accustomed to nineteenth-century British class conventions—commented in some wonder: “In this Navy a man does not require to be either a gentleman or a scholar in order to obtain promotion. All the qualifications required are a good knowledge of gunnery and a fair amount of courage. If however a man can bring education along with these he will get on all the better. Of all the officers on board here there are only three besides myself who can write and spell correctly. The Mississippi Squadron was got up in a hurry and when it was being organized Gov’t looked more for fighting men than it looked for gentlemen.” Swift and Carr evidently had these qualities or their equivalents: Swift became a petty officer, and Carr became a quartermaster with responsibility “to see to the signalls and collers,” which meant knowing and handling about seventy-five different flags.