The so-called "City"-class gunboat was several ironclad warships constructed between August 1861 and January 1862 by private contractor James B. Eads for use on the Mississippi River and its tributaries. The first armored warships to see action during the American Civil War, they would play an integral role in the Western Theater of operations.
As the Civil War began it was realized early-on that control of the Mississippi was vital to winning the war. The chief vessel on the river was the paddle-wheel steamer, which was a large passenger-and freight carrying craft designed with a low-water displacement, ideal for the shallow depths of the river. Eads, a retired engineer who made his fortune salvaging sunken ships, took on the task of building a fleet of seven ships based on a design by Samuel M. Pook. The low, wide casemated design of the vessels led to the derisive name of "Pook's Turtles." All were completed within a span of six months at an average cost of $101,800 each.
Originally intended to be named for Union military leaders, Eads was overruled in that respect by the commander of the Western Flotilla, Rear Admiral Andrew H. Foote, who named them after cities and towns along the banks of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Thus, although each vessel was unique in its own regard, they became collectively known as the "City"-class.
All ships of the "City"-class were paddle-wheel steamers (the exception was Mound City, which had a screw propeller); their construction on the ways began as typical riverboats. From the waterline up they were covered with a box-shaped casemate enclosing up to twelve Dahlgren smoothbore guns arranged in broadside fashion, with three poking out of the bow. Above the casemate stood the conning tower in front, a smaller, rounded casemate at the rear to protect the paddle wheels, and in the center were twin stacks, which had painted bands near the top in a color particular to the vessel, so as to be readily identifiable in battle.
Carondelet, an ironclad river gunboat, was built in 1861 by James B. Eads and Company, St. Louis, Mo., under contract to the War Department; commissioned 15 January at Cairo, Illinois, naval Captain H. Walke in command, and reported to Western Gunboat Flotilla (Army), commanded by naval Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote.
Between January and October 1862 Carondelet operated almost constantly on river patrol and in the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson in February; the passing of Island No. 10 and the attack on and spiking of the shore batteries below New Madrid, Missouri in April; the lengthy series of operations against Plum Point Bend, Fort Pillow, and Memphis from April through June, and the engagement with CSS Arkansas on 15 July, during which Carondelet was heavily damaged and suffered 35 casualties.
Transferred to Navy Department control with the other ships of her flotilla on 1 October 1862, Carondelet continued the rapid pace of her operations, taking part in the unsuccessful Steele's Bayou Expedition in March 1863. One of those to pass the Vicksburg and Warrenton batteries in April 1863, Carondelet took part on 29 Aprilin the five and one-half hour engagement with the batteries at Grand Gulf. She remained on duty off Vicksburg, hurling fire at the city in its long siege from May to July. Without her and her sisters and other naval forces, the great operations on the rivers would not have been possible and northern victory might not have been won. From 7 March to 15 May 1864, she sailed with the Red River Expedition, and during operations in support of Army movements ashore, took part in the Bell's Mill engagement of December 1864. For the remainder of the war, Carondelet patrolled in the Cumberland River. She was decommissioned at Mound City, Illinois, 20 June 1865, and sold there 29 November 1865.
USS St. Louis / Baron De Kalb
St. Louis, a stern wheel casemate gunboat was built by Eads in Carondelet, Missouri for the War Department, and launched on 12 October 1861 and joined the Western Gunboat Fleet.
During 1862 St. Louis, under the command of Lieutenant L. Paulding, was attached to Rear Admiral Foote's squadron and participated in the capture of Fort Henry on the Tennessee River (6 February 1862). She served as flagship for the squadron when it assisted the Union Army at the capture of Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River (14-16 February 1862). Between April and June 1862, she operated against Fort Pillow, Tennessee. St. Louis was renamed Baron De Kalb 8 September 1862, and in October 1862 she was transferred to the Navy Department. During 21-28 December she took part in the Yazoo Expediton and participated in the action at Drumgould's Bluff (28 December).
During 1863 Baron De Kalb took part in the capture of Arkansas Post (10-11 January); expedition up the White River (12-14 January); Yazoo Pass Expedition (20 February-5 April); action at Fort Pemberton (11-13 March); action at Haines' Bluff (29 April-2 May, 18 May); action at Yazoo City, Mississippi. (20-23 May); and the Yazoo River Expedition (24-31 May). On 13 July 1963 Baron De Kalb was sunk by a torpedo in the Yazoo River, one mile below Yazoo City.
Cairo, an ironclad river gunboat, was built in 1861 by Eads and Company, Mound City, Illinois, under an Army contract; and commissioned as an Army ship 25 January 1862, naval Lieutenant James M. Prichett in command.
Cairo served with the Army's Western Gunboat Fleet, commanded by Flag Officer Foote on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers and their tributaries until transferred to the Navy 1 October 1862 with the other river gunboats. Active in the occupation of Clarksville, Tennessee, 17 February 1862, and of Nashville, 25 February, Cairo stood down the river 12 April escorting mortar boats to begin the lengthy operations against Fort Pillow. An engagement with Confederate gunboats at Plum Point Bend on 11 May marked a series of blockading and bombardment activities which culminated in the abandonment of the Fort by its defenders on 4 June.
Two days later, 6 June 1862, Cairo joined in the triumph of seven Union ships and a tug over eight Confederate gunboats off Memphis, an action in which five of the opposing gunboats were sunk or run ashore, two seriously damaged, and only one managed to escape. That night Union forces occupied the city. Cairo returned to patrol on the Mississippi until 21 November when she joined the Yazoo Expedition. On 12 December 1862, while clearing mines from the river preparatory to the attack on Haines Bluff, Mississippi, Cairo struck an electrically-operated torpedo and sank, the first vessel in history to be sunk by that method. Her wreck was recovered in 1965, but was badly damaged during the salvage efforts. It has subsequently been partially restored and is on exhibit at Vicksburg, Mississippi.
The first Pittsburgh (often spelled Pittsburg), a sidewheel, ironclad gunboat, was built under War Department contract by James B. Eads, St. Louis, Mo. in 1861; and commissioned in January 1862, Lt. Egbert Thompson in command.
Joining Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote’s Western Gunboat Flotilla in river patrol duty, Pittsburgh attacked Fort Donelson 14 February 1862, and was damaged by counter-fire. The support from the gunboats contributed greatly to the capture of the strategic fort two days later.
Repaired, she attacked Island No. 10 on 3 April, then ran its batteries by dark 7 April being lashed by a heavy thunderstorm as well as the island’s 73 guns. This daring feat made it possible for her and Carondelet to demolish batteries below New Madrid that same day, clearing the way for the Army to cross the Mississippi.
Pittsburgh gave continued service in the lengthy series of operations which wrested control of the lower Mississippi from the Confederacy. Her flotilla, previously under Army control, came under naval command 1 October 1862. Highlights of her service were the operations against Plum Point Bend, Fort Pillow and Memphis in April, May and June 1862; the Steele’s Bayou Expedition of March 1863; and the passing of the Vicksburg batteries 16 April 1863. She led the attack on the batteries at Grand Gulf 29 April, and was heavily damaged during the five-and-a-half hour engagement which secured Union control of an important stretch of the river, making it possible for Grant to cross the river and attack Vicksburg from the rear. The strong Confederate river fortress surrendered 4 July allowing President Abraham Lincoln at last to report, “The Father of Waters flows unvexed to the sea.”
Patrol and bombardment missions on the Mississippi were interrupted the following year when Pittsburgh joined in the Red River Expedition from March to May 1864. At the close of the war, she decommissioned at Mound City, and was sold there 29 November 1865.
USS Mound City
Ironclad screw steamer Mound City, built at St. Louis, Mo., 7 August 1861 by James B. Eads, joined the War Department’s flotilla on the western rivers in 1862, Commander A. H. Kilty in command.
Departing Cairo in March, Mound City operated off Island No. 10, the key to the Mississippi, and New Madrid. Pope’s army took New Madrid on the 13th, thus removing the strong Confederate network of communications and eliminating a major obstacle to Union control of the upper Mississippi. After the surrender of Island No. 10 on 7 April, Mound City seized Confederate ship Red Rover, damaged by mortar fire. Sent to Cairo, Red Rover was subsequently converted to the Navy’s first hospital ship.
Union capture of Fort Pillow 1 April did not entirely eliminate the Confederate resistance; eight Confederate gunboats made a spirited attack on Union gun‑boats and mortars at Plum Point Bend 10 May. Colonel Lovell rammed Mound City, forcing her ashore to avoid sinking. Meanwhile, Union ships bombarded Fort Pillow daily, reducing Confederate will to fight. Speeding to aid rammed and sinking Cincinnati off Ship Island, Mound City was rammed by General Van Dorn, completely wrenching off Mound City’s bow. Her bow replaced at Mound City, the steamer ran up White River in June, engaging Confederate batteries at St. Charles, Arkansas; the complete Union victory at St. Charles gave the Union control of White River, but was costly to Mound City as one shot completely disabled her. In danger of sinking, she was towed from beneath the batteries by Conestoga.
The Union forces met strong southern opposition throughout the summer and abandoned Vicksburg 6 August when Mound City formed part of the White River expedition, escorting transport White Cloud. Union forces regrouped at Helena, from which Mound City departed 16 August with 6 other Union ships and two regiments 2d Brigade, 3d Division, Army of the Southwest on the Yazoo River expedition. The Army‑Navy expedition captured steamer Fairplay 20 miles above Vicksburg, where the ships were unable to proceed due to shallow water.
Meanwhile, McClernand was formulating his plans for the assault on Vicksburg. From October 1862 through March 1863, Mound City was with Pittsburgh, Carondelet, and Louisville as part of the Grand Gulf venture. Passing the upper batteries of Grand Gulf 12 October, the ships completely silenced the lower fort. Mound City, Carondelet, Signal, and Marmora steamed to the mouth of Yazoo River 25 November to prevent southern blockade of it, remaining here on guard duty through March.
Mound City formed part of the Yazoo Pass Expedition via Steele’s Bayou 14 March as Union ships attempted to strike the rear defenses of Vicksburg. Returning to more direct action against Vicksburg, Mound City’s bold passage of the batteries 14 April dampened the enthusiasm of Confederate sympathizers along the shore, contributing to early Union seizure of Grand Gulf and the eventual fall of Vicksburg. On the 27th, Mound City joined 7 other Union gunboats in attacks on Grand Gulf.
After attacking Warrenton, Mississippi, 10 May and destroying a battery, she guarded the river from Grand Gulf depot to Hard Times. She returned to Vicksburg 18 June for a 3‑day expedition to Cole’s Creek, destroying six or seven small boats. After shelling the batteries at Vicksburg 3 July, she steamed to Lake Providence, Ga., 7 August when she fired on and dispersed Confederate cavalry, thereafter guarding this part of the river.
Off Davis plantation in January 1864, she endeavored to raise Indianola, sunk in Red River in 1862. Seizing tug Rawlins off Natchez 2 March, Mound City joined 17 other ships and Sherman’s troops in the Red River Expedition 16 March through 22 May in an effort to enter Texas via Alexandria, Louisiana, to counter the threat from Maximilian. Shallow water proved an obstacle as Mound City and Carondelet grounded near the wing dams across Red River 10 May. Hauled across the upper falls above the obstructions by throngs of straining soldiers, the ships were able to get free. Mound City spent the remainder of the year guarding Indianola.
She joined the expedition to Black River in May 1865, turning back from Baldwin’s Perry on learning of an imminent attack. After the end of the conflict, she returned to Mound City for dismantling but was sold there at public auction to Frank Bennet 9 November 1865.
The first Cincinnati, a stern-wheel casemate gunboat, was built in 1861 under a War Department contract by James Eads, St. Louis, Mo., and commissioned at Mound City, 16 January 1862, naval Lieutenant G. M. Bache in command.
Assigned to duty with the Army in the Western Gunboat Flotilla under naval Flag Officer Foote, Cincinnati participated in the attack and capture of Fort Henry (6 February 1862); the operations against Island No. 10 (12 March-7 April 1862); the engagement with the Confederate gunboat fleet at Plum Point Bend and the bombardment of Fort Pillow (10 May 1862). This important series of operations was aimed at splitting the Confederacy. During the last engagement Cincinnati, the lead vessel, was repeatedly struck by enemy rams and sunk.
Raised and returned to service, Cincinnati was transferred to the Navy Department 1 October 1862 with other vessels of the Western Gunboat Flotilla. She participated in the Army-Navy operation against Port of Arkansas and installations on the White River in January 1863, then was ordered to the Yazoo River where she took part in Steele's Bayou Expedition (14-27 March 1863). Joining the attack on the Vicksburg batteries (27 May 1863), Cincinnati came under heavy fire and was sunk for the second time, suffering 40 casualties.
Raised again in August 1863 Cincinnati returned to patrol duty on the Mississippi River and its tributaries until February 1865 when she was transferred to the West Gulf Blockading Squadron. She patrolled off Mobile Bay and in the Mississippi Sounds until placed out of commission 4 August 1865 at Algiers, La. She was sold at New Orleans 28 March 1866.
Louisville was built at St. Louis, Mo., by J. B. Eads in 1861, under contract with the War Department; was accepted 15 January 1862; and commissioned 16 January 1862, Comdr. Benjamin H. Dove in command.
Part of the War Department’s flotilla on the western rivers, Louisville assisted the Army in the capture of Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River 14 to 16 February 1862. From 1 to 5 March, she aided in the occupation of Columbus, Ky., the “Gibraltar of the West.” Departing Cairo, Ill., 14 March, she served in the capture of Island No. 10 and New Madrid, Mo., through 7 April, and helped to prevent southern ships from ascending the river.
In May, Louisville was ordered to Fort Pillow and participated in the Battle of Memphis on 6 June. Commanded by Rear Adm. Charles H. Davis, her squadron captured and sank the Confederate Mississippi flotilla. On 15 June, she attacked the upper batteries at Vicksburg, before shifting efforts to the White River, departing Helena, Ark., 5 August. Escorting Benton and Bragg to the mouth of the river, she met little resistance. On 1 October, she was transferred to the Navy.
After escorting transport Meteor, disembarking troops at Bledsoe’s and Hamblen’s landings 21 October, Louisville returned to Helena to join the gunboat fleet, Mississippi Squadron.
She joined Baron De Kalb, Cincinnati, Lexington, Signal, New Era, Romeo, Rattler, and Glide later in the month on an expedition up the White River in support of General Sherman’s army. Louisville captured the steamer Evansville near Island No. 36 on 1 November.
Louisville aided in the capture of Fort Hindman, Arkansas Post, 4 to 11 January 1863, and formed part of the expedition through Steele’s Bayou, 14 to 28 January. She was ordered to the Yazoo River the 31st and moved to stop Confederates felling trees across the bayou on 21 March. She then turned her attention to the batteries on the river, running past those at Vicksburg on 16 April, and engaging the lower ones on the 29th. She joined Pittsburgh, Mound City, and Carondolet on that date, silencing the guns of the fort on Grand Gulf and helping to establish the siege which forced Vicksburg’s surrender 4 July 1863.
From 12 March to 22 May 1864, Louisville joined in the expedition up the Red River, La. On 2 June she engaged Confederate batteries 7 miles below Columbia, Ark., silencing the guns. She landed Union troops at Sunnyside 6 June and anchored off Shipwith’s Landing the 20th, to learn that Confederates were traveling upriver with a heavy force, and had crossed Cypress Creek and Bartholomew’s Bayou 20 June with cavalry, infantry, and artillery. On learning that Parson’s brigade was 10 miles back of Gaines’ Landing, providing reinforcements, Louisville departed immediately for that point, and helped break up the Confederate attack.
Louisville continued service on the Mississippi until decommissioning 21 July 1865. She was sold at public auction at Mound City 29 November 1865.
This article incorporates text from the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, a work in the public domain