- Historic Sites
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
In the late summer and autumn of 1864 two brothers, Norman and George Carr, aged twenty-two and twenty-four respectively, left their upstate New York home of Union Springs to join the United States Navy. The motives that sent them may have been complex. Their father, who operated sail- and steamboats on Lake Cayuga, had previously kept them out of military service by paying for substitutes. But now George wanted, his mother reported in a letter to Norman, to make a man of himself, to repay his father for the substitute (by going himself as a substitute for another man), and to get away from “bad influences.” If the family accepted George’s decision based on these reasons, they were nonetheless troubled by Norman’s earlier and utterly unexpected departure. “It seems,” Mrs. Carr fretted in the timeless voice of parenthood, “that children ought to council parents about these things.” Even George later complained to Norman that they should have enlisted together.
In fact, the two brothers’ service followed significantly divergent paths. George went east to the Brooklyn Navy Yard and shipped aboard the magnificent steam frigate Lancaster (whose splendid eagle figurehead today greets visitors to the Mariners’ Museum, in Newport News, Virginia). He would serve in the traditional saltwater navy, a world of broad, open decks lined with massive Dahlgren guns, beneath a rigid geometry of masts, spars, and tackle. He found it an exacting, disciplined, and hierarchical world—“I hope to see the day when I can tell some of our officers to kiss my jolly American ass,” he wrote Norman—but his duty aboard the Lancaster , as she carried out a traditional naval role showing the flag and protecting commerce in South American waters, gave George a sense of importance and adventure. He visited exotic ports, rounded the Horn, played in the ship’s band (once for the president of Peru), and acquired both a ringtailed monkey and a parrot.
For many sailors, Norman Carr’s type of ship and its type of service scarcely seemed like Navy at all.
Norman, by contrast, worked his way west to Chicago on a canal-boat and there enlisted for one year on August 12, 1864. His service—vastly different from that of George in the blue-water navy—was on one of the little patrol vessels known as tinclads to distinguish them from the more substantial ironclads that had already put in so significant an appearance. Far from sailing the high seas beneath clouds of canvas, Norman would chug through serpentine twists of muddy water on the Mississippi and its tributaries aboard a ship called the Paw Paw , a very slight improvement over its previous civilian ferryboat name of Fanny .
To many sailors Norman Carr’s type of ship and its type of service scarcely seemed like Navy at all. In fact, Secretary Gideon Welles had at first tried to free the Federal Navy of all responsibility for fighting the war on these constricted Western rivers; only in October of 1862 did his Navy Department take over from the War Department full responsibility for the complex duties of the riverine fleet. Strange as they looked, a few Western craft such as the ironclad “Pook turtles” built by James B. Eads might have seemed almost men-of-war, but the tinclads were in every sense riverboats , not ships. Slow (the Paw Paw could manage just four miles per hour steaming upstream), far from magnificent, they were also vulnerable.
On an early mission before Norman had joined her, the Paw Paw had struck one of the ubiquitous snags in the Mississippi River and promptly sunk. Pumped out and repaired (and with Norman on board), she ran into a transport that crossed her bow (her whistle rope broken, she could not give the customary signal) and nearly sank again. When Norman’s younger brother Fred learned of the collision, he wrote with pretended innocence: “I think that must be a bully gun boat if she could not stand that punch. What would she do if she got a hundred pound ball or so [’?]” Though he anticipated hair-raising stories when Norman returned (“I suppose you can tell about mowing down the rebs with your big gun”), Fred persisted in asking awkward questions: “Is the Paw Paw an iron clad or tin clad or what is she?” Others wondered along the same lines about tinclads. Adm. David Dixon Porter occasionally strayed from the traditional feminine denotation for ships, writing of one tinclad, “I have one little fellow up the Tennessee, and she had it all her own way.” Lt. Joseph Fyffe, one of Porter’s less repressible officers, was so outraged that his converted Western steamer, the Clara Dolson , should be considered a man-of-war that when Porter ordered all vessels to display their names prominently, Fyffe steamed back and forth past the flagship with the name PREPOSTEROUS painted in huge letters on the starboard side of his boat and OUTRAGEOUS on the port. Norman Carr himself confessed in one letter, as he prepared to send home a photograph of the Paw Paw , “I wish she were a Frigate instead of a gunboat. Think that I should like her better.” Debating about re-enlisting, Norman wrote that he was “thinking of going on the coast.” When he heard of brother George’s parrot and monkey, he suggested ruefully that he might bring home an old buzzard to show folks.
Moreover, Norman might well have felt that even in his more ordinary corner of the world the big show was over before he arrived. Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had shattered the first Confederate line of defense at Forts Henry and Donelson; Adm. Charles H. Davis and Col. Charles Ellet had sunk the Confederate river fleet off Memphis; Admiral Porter and Generals Grant and Sherman had taken Vicksburg; Adm. David Farragut and Gen. Nathaniel Banks had taken Port Hudson. After these victories the “Father of Waters,” in Lincoln’s lapidary phrase, again flowed “unvexed to the sea.” With all the high drama past, what was there to do on these rivers?
Plenty, as it turned out. However much their importance might be masked by the homey names and appearance of the vessels or by the humdrum tasks that they routinely undertook, men like Norman Carr, on boats like the Paw Paw , were crucial to the outcome of the Civil War. The role of naval power, so often overlooked or misunderstood in analyses of this conflict, is nowhere more easily missed than here, in the riverine war after the fall of Vicksburg. Indeed, the naval role may actually have been as crucial in this latter part of the war in the West as in the more dramatic earlier days.
To understand how such an assertion can be possible, we must first consider the fact of topography—the lay of the land and the network of its rivers. In the 1860s the railroads had begun to trace their iron paths across the part of the vast Mississippi Valley that lay within the Confederacy. The rivers, however, reached like a system of veins and capillaries into the very heartland of the South, and the most important cities, towns, villages, and plantations stood on their banks. Statistics on the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Ohio, and the tributaries can easily be misleading, but at least five thousand miles of these rivers were open to steamboats of two hundred tons’ burden for at least six months out of the year; for lighter boats and shorter periods of time the mileage would, of course, increase.
Such figures suggest not only the importance of the river system but also the challenges it posed to navigation. The tributaries, even the major rivers, were variable. Only the deeper channel of any river was navigable, and the location of that channel, the depth of water it carried, and the velocity at which it flowed shifted not only with the seasons but even within seasons. Moreover, high water caved in banks and floated down the trees that once lined them; waterlogged, these trees became the dread snags that dealt so many boats mortal wounds. To hit one, Mark Twain declared, would stun a boat “as if she had hit a continent.” Low water, as one observer commented, “brought the sandbars up for air” and offered vessels a different sort of hazard but one equally dreaded by pilots. The Federal naval commander on the Cumberland noted in the spring of 1863 that the river had only fifteen inches of water over Harpeth Shoals, that its average width was about sixty feet, that it was choked everywhere by narrow treelined turns, and that it could rise or fall by as much as twelve feet in a single day.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”