James Eads & the USS Cairo

Article excerpt

Semi-restored to her Civil War appearance y the gunboat Cairo was an innovative ironclad that helped change Naval history

It has often been stated that the American Civil War of 1861-1865 was the world's first modern war for it introduced remotely controlled mines, the machine gun, the rifled cannon, repeating rifles, and iron clad warships among a host of other deadly innovations. But the most profound changes occurred in Naval warfare where the ongoing development of steam propulsion mated with iron-armored hulls forever revolutionized war at sea.

The classic saga of the Monitor and the Merrimac is well known for the USS Monitor, the floating cheesebox with its single rotating turret forever altered the design of warships. And out of this new breed of thick-skinned fighting vessels appeared a whole new genre known as riverine warfare played out with dramatic effect on dozens of American rivers. The key to commerce in wartime, these rivers became vital conduits to America's factories, farms and cities. While rail was fast laying ribbons of track across the continents, it was still America's sprawling network of navigable rivers that governed who and how much went where and when.

So it was that in this time of great conflict an entire new concept in river gunboats emerged upon our rivers. And one of the best known of these were steam-powered paddlewheelers known as "Pook's Turtles," or Cityclass gunboats to use their semiofficial name. Strictly intended for service on the Mississippi River they were also sometimes referred to as "Jim Eads gunboats." These labels were applied to seven vessels of uniform design built from the keel up in Carondelet, Missouri, shipyards owned by James Buchanan Eads, a wealthy St. Louis industrialist who risked his considerable fortune in support of the Union. The City-class gunboats were the United States' first ironclad warships. Those produced by Eads formed the core of the US Army's Western Gunboat Flotilla, which later was transferred to the US Navy to become the Civil War's famed Mississippi River Squadron. Eads gunboats took part in almost every significant action on the upper Mississippi and its tributaries from their first offensive use at the Battle of Fort Henry until the end ofthat conflict.


Early in the Civil War, before it was certain that the secession movement had been thwarted in Missouri and before it was known that Kentucky would remain in the Union, James B. Eads offered one of his salvage vessels, Submarine No. 7, to the Federal government for conversion into a warship for service on the western rivers.

Vocal in his hatred of slavery, Eads knew that hostilities or outright war was inevitable. In a letter to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Eads pointed out that the catamaran-type hull of his boat was already divided into several watertight compartments, and therefore could sustain numerous hits by enemy artillery without danger of sinking.

As the interior of the country at that time was the responsibility of the Army, not the Navy, Welles passed the letter on to Secretary of War Simon Cameron, who in turn referred it to Maj. General of Volunteers George B. McClellan for consideration. McClellan was commander of the Department of the Ohio, with responsibilities that included defense of the Ohio River and all parts of the Mississippi not under Confederate control.

At about the same time that McClellan received the letter, he also had Naval officer, Commander John Rodgers, added to his staff. Rodgers came with orders to provide the department with gunboats, either by acquiring civilian craft and converting them, or by having them purpose built from the keel up. Since the Eads letter meshed with the orders carried by Rodgers, McClellan passed responsibility on to him, ordering Rodgers to St. Louis to consult with Eads to determine if his ideas were feasible. Rodgers rejected Submarine No. …