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A History of Civil War Gunboats

Updated on March 22, 2018
ziyena profile image

Indie author of historical romance and paranormal novellas and a history buff.

USS Cairo (1861) at Vicksburg, Mississippi.
USS Cairo (1861) at Vicksburg, Mississippi. | Source

The Design Team

At the onset of the Civil War, James Buchanon Eads, a civil engineer, ship builder, and sunken vessel salvager, offered the Union Army a salvageable submarine for restructure into a serviceable warship.

Eads made mention of one important fact - due to a multiple water-tight division within the hull of his ship the vessel could sustain major damage without sinking.

Little did he know at the time, this crucial piece of information destined he and warship designer Samuel Pook to a fulfilling contract, supplying the Union Army with a fleet of ironclad ships, which would eventually play an important role in the eventual defeat of the Confederate Army.

Eads Gunboats

At the beginning of the Civil War, a fleet of ironclad ships were put into service along the Mississippi River. These city-class gunboats known as "Eads gunboats" or better yet, "Pook Turtles" were placed at main Southern ports and used by the federal war department in their attempt to remove any source of income or supplies from enemy territory.

James Eads

"Eads, Hon. James B. of MO. (Built the St.Louis Bridge)"  between 1865 and 1880 Library of Congress
"Eads, Hon. James B. of MO. (Built the St.Louis Bridge)" between 1865 and 1880 Library of Congress | Source

The Union Agenda

By confiscating income and supplies, and blockading entry points, the Lincoln Administration could starve the enemy, isolate the western sympathizing states, and slowly cinch its grasp on all Confederate fortifications.

Hailed as a brilliant strategy, the Anaconda Plan, met its first challenge with the recruitment of civil engineer and salvager, James Buchanon Eads and warship designer, James Pook who already worked for the war department.

With five sawmills, iron rolling mills and foundries, the designing pair were able to build a city-class fleet of warships. Named after major cities along western rivers, and costing over $100,000 each, the fleet was tactically sound and later recognized as top-notch maritime feats.

USS Carondelet

Union ironclad USS Carondelet (1861).
Union ironclad USS Carondelet (1861). | Source

"The United States has never been afraid of a challenge. In times of crisis, it is American innovation and ingenuity that has forged the path to progress and prosperity." ~ Diana Degette

Operation Pook Turtle

Early during the war, the ironclad gunboats were used by the Federal government in capturing Fort Henry, Fort Donaldson, and Fort Pillow, Memphis and Vicksburg.

The very first ironclad warship witnessed in battle was on October 12, 1861. During the Battle of the Head Passes, the Confederate gunboat, the Manassas operated off the shore of the Mississippi River was part of a small river defense fleet, which launched a surprise attack on the New Orleans blockade defenses.

In the years to come, the Union followed suit in their own similar operations. For the most part, the use of the Pook Turtle was successful. However, there were a few backlashes. On December 11th, 1862, during the blockade of Vicksburg, the Cairo met its end when it was sunk by enemy mines, and a year later, the St. Louis went down due to a torpedo attack.

Superior Ingenuity

The ironclad warship of the Mississippi River was equipped with superior armament. Every vessel had its own identity; however, because of uniformity, the vessels were recognized by individual color bands on the smokestacks.

Each gunboat weighed 512 tons and mantled with 2.5-inch-thick plated iron armor walls. At 175 feet long and 51.5 feet wide, these massive round-nosed, flat-bottomed vessels were maneuvered by a stern paddle wheel, and powered by coal.

Mississippi Ironclads

The War's Long-Term Contribution

Both the Union and Confederate Navies were instrumental in changing the course of naval warfare. Gone were the days of wooden ship yore, and thus, the iron-plated behemoths took over, and set the standard for future design. By as late as 1864, the last of the wooden-ship designs became obsolete, and soon around the world.

What was the Most Important Ingenuity During the Civil War?

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Submit a Comment

  • markdarmafall profile image


    4 years ago from Moundsville,WV

    Very informative hub. I love to learn new things and this history was a real treat thanks


  • ziyena profile imageAUTHOR


    4 years ago from LOST IN TIME

    Brave & Bob ... glad to hear my article wasn't written in vain :)

    Thanks guys

  • diogenes profile image


    4 years ago from UK and Mexico

    I learned something from your article. I'm ex navy: we used to employ small, ironclad vessels like this with one huge gun on them - called Monitors. (About 100 years ago). They were useful for anywhere ships of the line could not go. Interesting


  • bravewarrior profile image

    Shauna L Bowling 

    4 years ago from Central Florida

    I've learned something I didn't know, Ziyena. Very interesting hub.

  • ziyena profile imageAUTHOR


    4 years ago from LOST IN TIME

    Hey Randy

    Certainly sounds like an odd nickname when first heard, but makes sense once you find out what the heck it is ... Thanks for stopping by


  • Randy Godwin profile image

    Randy Godwin 

    4 years ago from Southern Georgia

    Had to see what a 'Pook turtle' was, ziyena. Ah, I thought the term rang a bell! Well written and fact filled hub. Up she goes!

  • ziyena profile imageAUTHOR


    4 years ago from LOST IN TIME


    Glad you found it interesting. Still some room for improvement ... most likely gonna go back to edit this one, which, by the way, I've been very busy of late! I'll be stopping by soon ...


  • ziyena profile imageAUTHOR


    4 years ago from LOST IN TIME

    Thanks RNMSN! My gratitude to your son, and all others who have served :)

  • RNMSN profile image

    Barbara Bethard 

    4 years ago from Tucson, Az

    excellent hub! my son is in the Navy and I found this very interesting! Had to send it along to my FB page!

  • billybuc profile image

    Bill Holland 

    4 years ago from Olympia, WA

    I'm kind of a Civil War fanatic, so I knew quite a bit of this...and taught it in high school. Having said that, you have written a very good article. It's hard to write a historical article and make it interesting but you managed to do that quite well.

  • ziyena profile imageAUTHOR


    4 years ago from LOST IN TIME

    Harald ... nice to meet you. Yes, an homage to the USS Cairo :) Neither did I until further research. I love writing hubs in which I have the opportunity to learn more. I had a chance to glance at your profile and hub, and your site looks like an excellent wealth of knowledge! I will definitely be stopping by for a longer visit in the near future. Thanks for your input! Z

  • UnnamedHarald profile image

    David Hunt 

    4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

    Very interesting, ziyena. I must say, too, that your choice of the USS Cairo with its three facing cannons was the attention-grabber for me-- I had to read more. I did not know there were so many of these ironclads so early in the war. Voted up and interesting and shared.


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