The Ironclads: Gunboats Deliver the Mississippi and the Civil War

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The Mississippi River system was the highway of the western part of the Confederate and United States. At the beginning of the war, the South controlled the Mississippi from the meeting of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers at Cairo, Illinois to New Orleans, Louisiana. There were several important rebel strongholds along the Mississippi, including Memphis, Island Number Ten, on the Tennessee-Kentucky border, and Vicksburg, Mississippi. The Union realized that controlling the Mississippi River was essential to their strategy because doing so would divide the South and constrain the movement of troops and supplies from western states. Having realized the importance of controlling the western rivers, the Union then realized that it needed an inland navy to do this successfully. Samuel M. Pook designed the original river-based ironclads for the Department of War, which intended for construction in Cincinnati. These ships were paddle boats with most of their armor and heavy guns in the front, and thinner iron plating and smaller guns on the sides. After much convincing, the construction site was moved further south to avoid the shallows of the Ohio River. The Department of War commissioned James B. Eads, who had made a fortune before the war raising sunken ships from the Mississippi, to build ironclads specially designed for rivers. Eads built the first seven such ironclads for the Union on the St Louis banks of the Mississippi River in just over 100 days. Although it was not the first launched, St. Louis was the first of the gunboats to be outfitted and commissioned. Therefore, to the St. Louis goes the honor of being the first gunboat in the service of the United States. The first task of this fleet of ironclads was to take Forts Henry and Donelson on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers respectively. General Ulysses S. Grant, and Commodore Andrew H. Foote, where in command of the western front of the war at the time and planned for the group of river-based ironclads to shell the forts and for the ground forces to move in. The river-based ironclads became known as "Foote's Flotilla," Fort Henry was taken with ease before the ground forces had even arrived by four river-based ironclads, the USS Essex, USS Cincinnati, USS Carondelet, and USS St. Louis. The ground force that Grant had landed with the intent of attacking the fort had been unable to advance due to the heavily wooded terrain and high water that flooded the shoreline. The bombardment by the gunboats disabled the Fort's big guns and convinced General Lloyd Tilghman, the Fort's Commander, that he could not continue to hold his position. One of the Confederate officers reported that the attack of the gunboats "exceeded in terror anything that the imagination had pictured of shot and shell." However, since Fort Donelson was perched on a high cliff, the ironclads sustain too much damage to be of any use in taking it in their attack. The protective armor of these ships was designed to deflect shots fired at the same level, the Fort's artillery firing from above, exposed a weakness of these ships. Instead the capture of Fort Donelson was accomplished by Grant's ground forces. The method used by the ironclads in shelling the southern forces in most of the battles was simple. The ironclads would line up side by side with their heavily armored ends facing the object of their fire. They would fire in succession, with the one on the left firing, then the one next to it, and on down the line, until the end was reached, and the process started over. The advantage to this was that it enabled continuous fire, with one gun firing while the others reloaded. The next rebel stronghold heading south on the Mississippi was Island Number Ten on the Tennessee-Kentucky border. Island Number Ten was located at a double bend in the Mississippi River. Shaped like the capital letter "N", Island No. 10 at the southeast corner of the bend and the town of New Madrid, Missouri at the...
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