The Gunboats

The USS Baron De Kalb during the Civil War (Library of Congress)

For our pilot-project we selected a group of seven Union gunboats constructed by James Buchanan Eads. Variously known as the “Cairo-class”, “City-class” and “Pook’s Turtles” (after their designer Samuel Pook) they were created for the express purpose of navigating the shallow waters of the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Each was 175 feet in length with a draft of six-feet and facilities to carry up to thirteen guns (three forward, four each starboard and larboard, two aft). Built at Carondelet, Missouri and Mound City, Illinois, all seven were identical, being differentiated by a coloured-band on their chimney stack. They were all commissioned by January 1862, and were named after the towns involved in their construction, becoming the USS Cairo, USS Carondelet, USS Cincinnati, USS Louisville, USS Mound City, USS Pittsburg and USS St. Louis (the USS St. Louis was later renamed the USS Baron De Kalb).1 During the course of the conflict they operated as part of the Mississippi River Squadron. Initially placed under the command of the army, they passed into the control of the navy in October 1862 (none of the extant muster rolls predate this transfer). The gunboats were involved in numerous patrols, expeditions and engagements during the course of the war. Though a number were badly damaged, only two were permanently lost, the USS Cairo, which was sunk by torpedoes (mines) on the Yazoo River in December 1862, and the USS Baron De Kalb, which suffered the same fate on the same river in July 1863. The USS Cairo was raised in 1956 and is currently on display at Vicksburg National Military Park. The greatest loss of life was suffered aboard the USS Mound City at the Battle of Saint Charles, Arkansas in June 1862, when some 125 of her crew were killed or mortally wounded following the explosion of her steam drum. 

 1 Gary D. Joiner, Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), 25-29. 

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