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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
On all these missions the tinclads carried out operations typical of the Federal Navy in every theater of the war; the differences simply stemmed from the unusual conditions of the Western rivers. But the second category of their importance shows a unique and equally significant role, even though it was played out on a day-to-day basis, in actions that scarcely surfaced in official reports. The tinclads took the guerrilla as their special target. Norman Carr and John Swift (the British tinclad sailor whose letters have also survived) would have readily agreed. After Johnsonville Carr wrote: “An old guerilla shot at me several times while I was on the loock-out but he could not come it. You could see him in the woods through the spy glass.” Swift’s escape was narrower. “A guerilla tried a shot at me this morning,” he wrote to his mother, “and cut the leg of my never mind whats and spoiled their appearance considerable as well as taking a small nip out of my poor thigh.” Swift displayed British manners, however: “I made a bow and got out of sight quick, or in naval parlance I ‘laid low’…”
Though Carr and Swift made light of these encounters, the guerrilla was an enemy of no mean importance, for his action was a very significant, if relatively undirected, element in the Southern war effort. As the British military analyst J. F. C. Fuller observed, the Union soldier was semi-regular; the Confederate soldier was semiguerrilla. Federals might use the term guerrilla for a wide variety of enemies on a scale ranging from detached units of the regular Confederate army, through quasi-official home guards, to bands like the one Lieutenant Fitch characterized as “a set of miserable horse thieves and robbers.” Toward the latter end of the scale political allegiance paled before sheer plundering, often of both sides. And as the struggle ground on to its conclusion, the numbers of deserters and outright plunderers can only have increased. The great danger, especially in the Western theater, was that the war would become an increasingly savage guerrilla conflict. Many contemporaries expected this to happen and viewed the possibility with either grim satisfaction or alarm. When the news of the fall of Vicksburg reached him at his clerical desk in the War Office in Richmond, J. B. Jones confided his thoughts to his diary: “although the war will not and cannot terminate—it may degenerate into a guerrilla warfare, relentless and terrible!” Even earlier Porter had written to Welles that when he took command in the West, “the guerrillas were very troublesome and were firing on unarmed vessels from the river banks and at places not occupied by United States troops. … The war would never end in this way.”
That the conflict did not end in guerrilla war, with a cycle of continual sniping, plunder, murder, and harsh repression, owes much to the tinclad, that strange hybrid of American steamboat construction, ordnance inventiveness, and innovative tactical thought. In fact, the tinclads were born with guerrillas especially in mind. The men urging their creation argued they could “act as a river police and keep the river open” (George Wise), “protect the peaceful commerce of the rivers against a guerrilla warfare” (Foote), and “aid in the suppression of guerrilla warfare” (Davis).
Wherever the muddy water would float their boats, tinclad captains carried out these goals. Occasionally their “police work” meant efforts to prevent pillaging by Union troops along the banks. As is true of all police forces, sometimes they had to be watched themselves. More often they worked at keeping the guerrillas from closing the river system to military and civilian transport.
How to achieve this goal was less clear than its necessity. One of the means adopted, sadly for the local population, was reprisal. Time and again commanders of tinclads ordered the destruction of houses or even entire towns from which hostile fire had injured transports or their convoys. The same fate often fell on structures and communities that were known to shelter the guerrilla bands. Admiral Porter supported this tactic unflinchingly, declaring early on, “I am no advocate for the milk and water policy.” When he instructed his commanders to “hang to the nearest tree” any men caught firing on unarmed vessels, the controversy among Confederate officers as to the proper response reached Jefferson Davis himself. The Confederate president wrote a biting comment on Union pillaging and concluded that “to destroy their transportation and to capture their foraging parties is the fit service of partisan corps, and the enemy’s epithets can not deprive them of the rights of prisoners of war. …” The usual threats to hang equal numbers of Federal prisoners in Confederate hands apparently worked as well as presidential logic; Union reprisals continued to be directed mainly against property.