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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
Despite all difficulties, the number of light-draft vessels steadily increased, hurried on by Porter’s exhortations to the constructors to work night and day and by a loud and continual chorus of Army requests for their help. By war’s end the Western navy had acquired more than seventy of them. Their ceaseless activity would have kept men like Carr busy with a flurry of signal flags. It was often hot work. The Signal fought nineteen separate actions in her first six months.
To what end? We can see the significance of these little vessels clearly if we compress the innumerable tasks they carried into two categories.
The first is no less important for being obvious. The tinclads in particular among the vessels of the Mississippi Squadron opened the entire Western river network to Federal forces as conduits of supply and lines of patrol and reconnaissance while denying these advantages to Confederate forces throughout the vast regions drained by the Mississippi and its tributaries. So anxious was the Army for tinclad support on the upper Tennessee—above bars that prevented even the shallowest-draft vessels from coming higher—that they built and supplied four small tinclads that they then turned over to the Navy Department.
That the conflict did not end in guerrilla war with its savage cycle of raid and reprisal owes much to the tinclad.
The tinclads often functioned as a kind of riverine cavalry, collecting information, patrolling hundreds of miles through territory that could scarcely be considered safely in Union hands. When the Confederate general John Hunt Morgan proved with his famous raid in the summer of 1863 that not even Indiana and Ohio were safe, tinclads on the Ohio River doggedly pursued him upstream to prevent his crossing back into Kentucky. Lt. LeRoy Fitch “grasshoppered” his vessels over shallow spots with spars rigged to the bows and drove Morgan’s men back from making a crossing at one ford after another until pursuing Federals bagged nearly the whole lot.
As the tinclads emphatically demonstrated during Morgan’s raid, they differed from cavalry in their batteries, so remarkably sizable for the amount of water on which they floated. In Federal hands the Mississippi River itself became a sort of linear fortress, especially when heavier vessels were present. Even the tinclads might try to make the Cumberland or Tennessee this sort of barrier on a smaller scale. The result was not always a success, as Norman Carr saw from the deck of the Paw Paw near Johnsonville in November 1864. As Gen. John Bell Hood marched into Tennessee, trying to negate Sherman’s victory at Atlanta, the versatile general Nathan Bedford Forrest sought a safe crossing over the Tennessee. His field artillery caught three tinclads in a crossfire so severe the Union crews burned their boats and the transports they were guarding to keep them out of enemy hands. “It seemed hard,” Carr wrote from the relief fleet kept at bay, “to see the rebs shell our boats so and we could not get them.” M. V. B. Haines, commander of the Paw Paw , rightly saw that Confederate gunners were only waiting to get the relief ships between the batteries covering the narrow stream and add to the number of their victims.
But what Carr witnessed at Johnsonville was unusual. Time and again some Federal post threatened by a Confederate sweep was saved by the persuasive arguments of naval guns. In March of 1864, for example, shortly before Carr joined her crew, the Paw Paw joined the Peosta in a spirited and successful defense of Paducah, Kentucky, against a sizable force of General Forrest’s troops. “That the river line was kept open,” the Federal commander in Paducah reported, “… I regard as due in a great degree to the cooperation of the Navy.”
Scores of such cases appear in the records (often lacking such frank acknowledgments of assistance afloat), but the Federal Army owed a more general indebtedness to the Navy for keeping vital supply routes open. The great case in point here is the steady stream of supplies brought upriver to General Rosecrans’s army in Nashville. Between January and June of 1863 the tinclads commanded by the indefatigable Lieutenant Fitch took nearly 400 steamers and 150 barges loaded with men and supplies up the Cumberland without a loss. The convoy line sometimes coiled four or five miles along the river. By October of that year General Sherman wrote to Admiral Porter that he favored a river supply line over railroads, “for I am never easy with a railroad which takes a whole army to guard, each foot of rail being essential to the whole; whereas they can’t stop the Tennessee, and each boat can make its own game.” Porter’s response was characteristically unrestrained: “I intend to line the Tennessee with gunboats, and promise you that your communication shall never be interrupted if there is water in the river.” He later informed Secretary Welles that Fitch had kept his promise for him, though it had meant forcing boats drawing thirty inches over sandbars carrying only twenty-six inches of water. Perhaps Porter’s uncharacteristically laconic telegram to the Army chief quartermaster in St. Louis, in June of 1864, says it all: “No difficulty about convoy on the Cumberland River.”