Today's Reading

With the saloons on the levee packed to the doors with river men, gamblers, and whores, Brigadier General Benjamin M. Prentiss, the post commander, forbade his troops from frequenting them, fearing a wholesale breakdown of discipline. Armed sentries were stationed at the door of every liquor dispensary, depressing soldier morale even more dangerously. The men were bored out of their minds, eager to take the fight to the enemy.

***

Morale shot up on August 12, 1861, when a flotilla of three gunboats—Tyler, Conestoga, and Lexington—tied up at Cairo. These "timberclads," as they were called, were wooden commercial steamboats—side-wheelers—that had been purchased in Cincinnati by naval commander John Rodgers, who had converted them into "bullet proof" warships by wrapping their decks with thick, eight-foot-high wooden bulwarks. These ungainly looking shields would provide protection from small arms fire from shore but not from the cannon fire of forts the Confederates had begun building along the river.

The Lincoln administration had decided to make Cairo its principal base for military operations on the Mississippi, and these were the first three ships of what would soon become the most formidable brown-water navy in the world. Their arrival at Cairo that August afternoon was a signal to the troops that offensive operations were imminent.

Rodgers, a deep-water sailor unacquainted with riverine warfare, had been sent west by Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles to create a freshwater gunboat fleet. The boats, however, were under army control in order to ensure that the resolutely independent navy cooperated closely with its military operations. Rodgers had recruited commanders and crews, secured armaments, and hired experienced civilian river pilots to navigate the tortuously difficult midcontinental waterways. But General George B. McClellan, commander of the army's Department of the Ohio, would decide when and how the gunboats were to be used. To the disappointment of the troops at Cairo, McClellan deployed the flotilla initially as a defensive force, protecting that strategic river junction.

Months before the timberclads arrived at Cairo, the War Department had begun planning operations to reopen the Mississippi River from Cairo to New Orleans, and to use ironclad gunboats, the first in the western hemisphere, to spearhead the reconquest. It was the beginning of a new era in naval warfare.

In May 1861, U.S. General-in-Chief Winfield Scott put forward a plan to win the war by blockading the Confederacy's seaports along the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico and sending a tremendous amphibious force down the Mississippi—an army of eighty thousand carried by river steamers and led by "shot-proof" gunboats—to capture and hold the Confederacy's principal river ports and suppress enemy steamboat commerce on the Mississippi. This coordinated economic blockade—the Anaconda Plan, the press called it—would close off the Confederacy to the rest of the world, slowly strangling it, like a giant snake suffocating its prey in its coils. The war would be won without a single major battle, Scott theorized.

Scott's plan was never formally adopted, but the Union would employ a strategy roughly similar to it: a blue-water blockade by the saltwater fleet and a brown-water blockade by ironclad gunboats.

***

From the first days of the war, building a gunboat fleet was an urgent priority for political leaders in the western states. The Mississippi was of "transcendent importance" to both the North and the South, wrote Adam Badeau, later in the war Grant's secretary and eventually his military biographer. "Its possession was by far the most magnificent prize for which the nation and the rebels were contending." Without it the Confederacy was "cut in twain"; without it "the North was crippled almost to its ruin." Along with a rapidly expanding railroad network connecting Chicago, Cincinnati, and St. Louis with New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, the river was an outlet for the crops and livestock of northwestern farmers. After Fort Sumter, this "great highway pass," through the port of New Orleans, to overseas markets was in the hands of a "foreign power." That had become alarmingly clear three months before Sumter, when Mississippi governor John J. Pettus ordered a battery at Vicksburg to fire a warning shot at the steamer A. O. Tyler as it approached the town. "The people of the valley of the Mississippi will [never] consent that the great river shall flow for hundreds of miles through a foreign jurisdiction," proclaimed Governor Yates. To Ohio-born William Tecumseh Sherman, the river was the "trunk of the American tree," the "spinal column of America." The side that commanded the Mississippi would win the war.

"That river," proclaimed Missourian Edward Bates, Lincoln's attorney general, "is one and indivisible and one power will control it." In the very first weeks of the war, Bates had brought his friend James Eads, a St. Louis boat builder and self-taught engineer, to Washington to convince the government to build a fleet of ironclad gunboats to shield Cairo and mount aggressive operations from it. Eads ran into entrenched opposition from army officials. Iron gunboats, they argued, would be "useless" in the west, where the rebels were constructing river forts capable of "knock[ing] the vessels to pieces." But with Bates's persistent support, Eads won over the president and his cabinet to the idea that the Union would need an entirely new kind of navy to reconquer the Lower Mississippi Valley.


This excerpt ends on page 8 of the hardcover edition.

Monday we begin the book Hill Women: Finding Family and a Way Forward in the Appalachian Mountains by Cassie Chambers.
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