The Mississippi River Squadron and the “Great Artery of America” (Part 1)

The USS Cairo, the Mississippi River Squadron’s most famous vessel, was destroyed by a Rebel mine during the Yazoo Pass Expedition in December 1862. It was later recovered and is on display at Vicksburg National Military Park. (Photo courtesy of the United States Navy)

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Kristen M. Pawlak

On June 10, 1862, mere months before the Army of the Tennessee launched its initial operations against the Confederate fortress at Vicksburg, Mississippi, newly-promoted Major General William T. Sherman penned a letter to his wife Ellen to describe the importance of the Mississippi River, writing, “I think the Mississippi the great artery of America, whatever power holds it, holds the continent.”[2] Not only was this vital body of water a physical barrier splitting the eastern and western United States, it was also an economic, mercantile, commercial, and transportation buffer. In addition, the Ohio, Cumberland, and Tennessee rivers were major tributaries of the Mississippi; to control the Mississippi meant controlling these arteries that penetrated the heart of the Confederacy. If the Union Army and Navy could control the Father of Waters, it would isolate the western Confederacy’s vast resources of manpower, supplies, materiel, and foodstuffs from the east.

The North was superior to the South in the size and strength of their militaries and supplies, and the Mississippi River could be penetrated with relative ease. However, the great task required a robust navy and army to conquer and defend the “mighty” Mississippi. Many historians, such as Michael B. Ballard, Jack D. Coombe, and Terrence Winschel, consider the surrender of Vicksburg—the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy”—and the full Federal occupation of the Mississippi River as the turning point of the Civil War. Though Vicksburg was one of the last and most important fortresses to fall along the Mississippi, it is necessary to examine the naval force that took down Fort Henry, Island No. 10, and Memphis, and made Union victory feasible. Without the dominance of the Mississippi River Squadron, the North’s efforts to control the “great artery of America” would have been futile.[3]

The strategic importance of the Mississippi River was understood early in the war, particularly through Commanding General of the United States Army Winfield Scott’s “Anaconda Plan.” This grand strategy to suppress the rebellion aimed to economically and physically strangle it by blockading Southern ports and occupying the Mississippi River. To accomplish the North’s goal to dominate the vital Mississippi, the United States Navy needed to build its fleet. The Navy was ill suited for war. Out of ninety wooden ships in the pre-war fleet, over half were out of commission. Additionally, only roughly half of the pre-war fleet was powered by steam and none of them were designed or intended as river craft.[4]

From May until August 1861, Commander John Rodgers, appointed by Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, worked to establish, “a naval armament on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers … with a view of blockading or interdicting communication and interchanges with the States that are in insurrection.”[5] Furthermore, this new riverine fleet was the brainchild of the Army, making Rodgers and his new fleet, “subordinate to the general in command [General George B. McClellan of the Department of the Ohio], to aid, advise, and cooperate with him in crossing or navigating the rivers or in arming and equipping the boats required for the Army.”[6] In the early summer months of 1861, Rodgers spearheaded the production of the first three gunboats for use in the “brown water navy.” The USS Tyler, USS Lexington, and USS Conestoga were side-wheel wooden steamboats previously used as merchant ships, but enhanced for military use at the outbreak of war. Known as the “timberclads,” these wooden ships were protected by thick oak armor and between six and seven smoothbore guns.

To build the Federal riverine navy, Attorney General Edward Bates of Missouri sent a telegram to his close friend and naval engineer James B. Eads of St. Louis. “In a certain contingency it will be necessary to have the aid of the most thorough knowledge of our Western rivers,” Bates wrote, “and the use of steam on them, and in that event I advised that you should be consulted.”[7] A self-taught engineer, Eads worked on the Mississippi River as a salvager and inventor of naval craft, utilizing his Union Marine Works shipyard at Carondelet, Missouri. He not only understood the machinery, but, most importantly, he understood the river. This was the first step in building the naval force that would play a significant role in freeing the American heartland from Confederacy.

The crew of the USS Carondelet, one of the first ironclads built for the Western Gunboat Flotilla — later named the Mississippi River Squadron. (Photo courtesy of Photographic History of the Civil War: The Navies)

The relationship between the Lincoln Administration and Eads grew significantly over the first few months of the war, as both Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Gideon Welles saw the brilliance in building a more robust riverine naval force. Naval architect Samuel Pook had created a design approved by both the army and navy for use in combined operations along the western rivers. Each gunboat was designed at 175 feet long with slanted sides to deflect shot, carried 13 smoothbore and rifled guns, and was protected by 2.5 inches of iron armor. In a bidding competition in August 1861, Eads’ bid to construct seven gunboats of Pook’s design for the United States Army for less than $90,000 by October 10, 1861, won. The first seven gunboats produced at Carondelet and at Mound City Marine Shipyard for this new riverine navy were the USS Cairo, USS Carondelet, USS Cincinnati, USS Louisville, USS Mound City, USS Pittsburg, and the USS St. Louis. Though Eads failed to meet the deadline for production, the construction of seven ironclads in a matter of one month was a remarkable feat. These gunboats, designated city-class ironclads, formed the backbone of the Army’s new Western Gunboat Flotilla.

By February 1862, Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote, a forty-year veteran of the Navy known for leading naval expeditions in the Far East and Africa, replaced Rodgers as commander of the Western Gunboat Flotilla. With Foote’s extensive experience and seniority, he was the ideal replacement for Rodgers. The first major campaign for the Western Gunboat Flotilla was to capture Forts Henry and Donelson, guarding the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, respectively. On January 30, Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck (out of Department of the Missouri Headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri) sent a telegram to Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in Cairo, Illinois: “You will immediately prepare to send forward to Fort Henry, on the Tennessee River, all your available forces … Fort Henry should be taken and held at all hazards.”[8] Halleck also ordered the Western Gunboat Flotilla to “protect the transports” while the rest of the gunboats “should be left for the defense of Cairo.”[9] In his Memoirs, Grant’s plan for the attack upon Fort Henry was, “for the troops and gunboats to start at the same moment. The troops were to invest the garrison and the gunboats to attack the fort at close quarters.”[10] This was the riverine navy’s first trial by fire.

Around noon on February 6, 1862, seven gunboats positioned themselves on the Tennessee River below Fort Henry. Four ironclads (USS St. Louis, USS Cincinnati, USS Carondelet, and the USS Essex) led the pack, while three timberclads (USS Tyler, USS Conestoga, and the USS Lexington) were positioned just behind. Two days before, Grant split his force into two divisions and ordered them to advance, but halt out of range from Fort Henry’s seventeen defensive guns. Before Grant’s divisions arrived at Fort Henry, the Western Gunboat Flotilla opened fire on the Confederates at roughly 600 yards. “The firing continued with unabated rapidity and effect upon the three gunboats as they continued still to approach the fort, with their destructive fire,” Foote recalled in his official after-action report.[11] Due to “the dense forest” and “the high water” in western Tennessee, Grant’s foot soldiers were significantly delayed in their arrival.[12] Fortunately for the Federals, it had no effect on the outcome of the battle. After one hour and fifteen minutes of intense fire from Foote’s gunboats, Fort Henry’s commander Brig. Gen. Lloyd Tighlman ordered the Confederate flag lowered and a white flag of surrender raised. The Battle of Fort Henry was over.

The significant triumph for the North was not without casualties, especially for the navy. During the bombardment, the USS Essex was severely damaged “twenty minutes before the rebel flag was struck,” when “a shell penetrated the boiler of that vessel and exploded it.”[13] Ultimately, the USS Essex lost one sailor killed and forty-seven wounded.[14] In addition to the Essex, each of the other ironclads and timberclads were each struck by shell or shot at least six times, and all but the Carondelet and St. Louis suffered casualties. Without the Western Gunboat Flotilla, Grant’s foot soldiers could have taken more casualties in an infantry assault against the fort.

Gunner Crew of the ironclad, USS Essex, which was severely damaged during the artillery duel at Fort Henry. (Photo courtesy of the Photographic History of the Civil War: The Navies)

The surrender of Fort Henry had widespread effects on the war effort in the west and nationally. Naval officer Roger N. Stembel, commander of the USS Lexington and the USS Cincinnati, wrote to James Eads about the significance of the victory at Fort Henry:

“This was the first time the glorious Stars and Stripes had been thrown to the breeze over Tennessee soil, since infamy and treason had polluted and banished it, the results of this victory are too well known and remembered, for me to revert to them here suffice it to say it was the entering wedge to all our subsequent successes in the South West; and the first step towards the opening of the “Mississippi” river.”[15]

In a sentimental, yet visionary, order to his fleet, Foote wrote: “I shall ever cherish, with the liveliest interest, all the officers and men who participated in the battle, and in the future, shall, with increased hope and the greatest confidence, depend on all officers and men attached to the flotilla in the performance of every duty, whether in the fight or the laborious work of its preparation.”[16] Two days after the fall of Fort Henry, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox wrote to Foote, stressing the importance of the Western Gunboat Flotilla’s role in Western operations, “You will also strengthen this branch of the service with the great West, where the empire soon will be … Believing that you will carry our arms to a success wherever your flag can penetrate.”[17]

To be continued…



[1] “Great Artery of America”[1] David D. Porter, Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1885), 197.

[2] Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman to Ellen Sherman, June 10, 1862, University of North Dakota, Sherman Family Papers.

[3] Michael Ballard, Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 430; Jack D. Coombe, Thunder Along the Mississippi: The River Battles That Split the Confederacy (New York: Sarpendon, 1996), 232; Terrence J. Winschel, Triumph and Defeat: The Vicksburg Campaign, Volume 2 (New York: Savas Beatie, LLC, 2006), 143.

[4] Nicholas F. Budd, LCDR, USN, The Adaptation of the Vessels of the Western Gunboat Flotilla to the Circumstances of Riverine Warfare During the American Civil War (Fort Leavenworth, KS: US Army General Staff College, 1997), 3.

[5] Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, vol. 22 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1894-1922), 280.

[6] Ibid., 284-285.

[7] Captain James B. Eads, “Recollections of Foote and the Gun-Boats,” Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume 1, ed. by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence C.Buel (New York: The Century Company, 1887), 338.

[8] H.W. Halleck to U.S. Grant, January 30, 1862, in Official Records, series 1, vol. 7 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1894-1922), 121.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: C.L. Webster, 1892), 291.

[11] A.H. Foote, “Report of Flag-Officer Foote, US Navy,” February 7, 1862, in Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, series 1, vol. 22 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1894-1922), 538.

[12] Grant, Personal Memoirs, 292.

[13] Ibid., 293; Foote, “Report,” in Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, 538.

[14] Grant, Personal Memoirs, 293.

[15] Naval Officer Roger N. Stembel to James B. Eads, November 19, 1863, James Buchanan Eads Papers, 1861-1865, Special Collections and Archives, Southeast Missouri State University.

[16] A.H. Foote, “General Order of Flag-Officer Foote,” in Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, series 1, vol. 22, 546.

[17] G.V. Fox to A.H. Foote, “Letter of Commendation,” February 8, 1862, in Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, series 1, vol. 22, 546.


2 Responses to The Mississippi River Squadron and the “Great Artery of America” (Part 1)

  1. This account account of the capture of Ft. Henry is largely correct. However readers might get the impression that the impetus for this campaign came from Maj, Gen. Henry W. Halleck. Nothing could be more wrong. President Lincoln finally learned that Henry Halleck was the best supply clerk in the Army, nothing more. Gen. Grant and Andrew Foote conceived of the details of this campaign. Halleck was timid, hidebound and hesitant to attack. He resisted the impetus to attack, as he always did. Halleck was outmaneuvered and compelled to cooperate. The effective use of a “combined arms” attack was developed by Grant and Foote together, by men who realized the only feasible way to neutralize the rebel interior. (Aside from Winfield Scott.)

  2. /Users/robertgroeling/Desktop/IMG_4852.jpg

    I enjoyed this article. The “so called” Brown Navy of the Union was very important. I flew into Mississippi in October and saw the Cairo. The volunteers and park rangers were “very” helpful.

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