The Forgotten Triumph Of The Paw Paw

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Constantly patrolling within their “beats,” the districts into which Porter divided the Mississippi and its tributaries, Union vessels confronted the guerrillas directly. Tinclads drove off guerrillas attacking civilian steamboats as well as military transports, as the Dick Fulton gratefully found when the Rattler ’s howitzers chased away the band that had put fifteen 12-pound shots through her near Island No. 78 in the Mississippi. In fact, guerrilla hunting often accompanied the convoy duty that occupied so many tinclads. J. S. Hurd on the Saint Clair reported that convoying a steamer from Evansville to Smithland on the Ohio River “affords a good opportunity to catch guerrillas along the shores.”

Abraham Lincoln wrote at war’s end praising the contribution of what he called “Uncle Sam’s Web-feet.”

Often the tinclads supported army movements against guerrillas and transported both the expeditionary force and the prisoners they took. But the tinclad captains also went hunting on their own. Lieutenant Fitch organized a landing party drawing 210 men and four howitzers from several tinclads under his command. Their targets were located by half a dozen scouts sent into the countryside. The decks of tinclads frequently became temporary prisons. After standing guard over “a pack of guerrillas” the Silver Cloud had captured up the Tennessee River, John Swift deliberately reported to his pro-Southern British relatives that the captives had “the most diabolical unshaven countenances you can imagine.” Three of the ten he was watching suddenly rushed him, but he shot one and bayoneted the second. Neither died, he was happy to report, “though the fellow I bayonetted was very near to going off. Don’t show this part to Mamma. …”

 

Norman Carr wrote home that the Peosta ’s captured guerrillas were “an owly loocking set of fellows as I ever saw.” He soon became an active hunter himself: “I have ben out bushwhacking after Gurrillas and have ben quite successful. We have captured about a dozen of the fellows and have got proof of their being murders and robbers. Consequently they will be hung. Our scouts bring them in every place we land.” One of these scouts, Carr wrote, followed the boat up and down the river and presented her with a prisoner at each landing. As thoroughly as any single document can, Carr’s letter conveys the chilling atmosphere of this kind of warfare. When Carr invited several scouts to look over the current guerrilla prisoners on board, one suddenly recognized a captive: “thare sits one that killed my Father [who was a scout for General Dodge] and turned my mother out of the house and then set fire to it.” He wanted to buy the man from Carr and “asked me what I would take for him.” Only the captain’s strict orders got Carr out of a difficult situation.

By the time Carr wrote this letter the war was nearly over. He knew Richmond had fallen and Lee had surrendered. “That is glorious.” But “soon after we got the news of Abe Lincolns and Sewards assassination. We were so mad that we could have killed every Reb on the ship.” One of the captured guerrillas asked Carr what was up, “and I told him some more Southron Schivalry. I came near raming my revolver down his worthless neck.” His letter ends on a defiant note, possibly directed to his father, who had been a McClellan Democrat: “Tell those that thought we never could whip the South out by fighting that they war mistaken slightualy.”

However, his final letters show how much peace had come to the Western rivers. In May he wrote home that he suspected the Paw Paw ’s trip down the Tennessee would likely be her last, for there was little trouble now: “A few Gureillas are sneaking around but they are giving themselves up very fast.” A month later he could report, “Transports are runing up and down the river without a convoy. Rebs are played out.”

The tinclads had done their work. As a Westerner who had grown up in the great Mississippi watershed, Abraham Lincoln knew the crucial importance of opening these rivers. In a letter to James C. Conkling of Illinois, the President reviewed those to whom thanks were due for securing this result and ended with these words: “Nor must Uncle Sam’s Web-feet be forgotten. At all the watery margins they have been present. Not only on the deep sea, the broad bay, and the rapid river, but also up the narrow muddy bayou, and wherever the ground was a little damp, they have been and made their tracks. Thanks to all.”