This issue features a trio of articles examining different aspects of riverine operations during the Civil War. Spencer Tucker gives an overview of the Union's campaign to seize the Confederacy's Western rivers . Chuck Veit, meanwhile, examines one of the most unusual Navy operations of the war, and Thomas Campbell contributes a gripping account of the CSS Albemarle at the Battle of Plymouth, North Carolina.
My fascination with Civil War riverine ships goes back 15 or so years to when I saw Edwin C. Bearss give a presentation to the Alexandria, Virginia, Civil War Round Table. A World War II Marine veteran, Bearss is the gregarious chief historian emeritus of the National Park Service. (Fred Schultz's interview with Bearss appeared in the June 2002 issue of Naval History .) The title of Bearss' book about the USS Cairo - Hardluck Ironclad -is apt. While she was the namesake of an important class of river warships, the gunboat's ignominious claim to fame is having been the first armored ship sunk by an electrically activated mine.
Anyone who has heard Ed Bearss will confirm that he can tell a terrific tale, and he did so that night in Alexandria. With his usual flair, he recounted the Cairo 's service on the Mississippi, her hectic last moments before sinking in the muddy Yazoo River on 12 December 1862, and the exciting discovery of the ironclad in 1956 by Bearss and two friends using a simple compass placed in the bottom of a small motorboat.
Five years ago, I had the chance to walk aboard the Cairo at the National Park Service's USS Cairo Gunboat and Museum in Vicksburg. Because significant portions of the ironclad were missing, her restorers used a technique called "ghosting," in which surviving parts are displayed on a re-created framework. The effect was as if I had X-ray vision and could see through the vessel's missing armor, bulkheads, and decks into previously enclosed compartments.
What I recall most vividly, however, is her rail armor. When built in 1861, the Cairo -class gunboats' only metal armor was plating on their pilothouses, the fronts of their casemates, and portions of their sides, protecting boilers and machinery. Additional armor-railroad iron-was later added to the Cairo's vulnerable forward casemate corners. And there, on the starboard corner, was the 3½-inch track, attached horizontally, bottom side facing out.
Late in the war, Union officers deemed much of the Cairo -class ironclads' armor unnecessary. Rear Admiral David D. Porter had the side plating removed from four of the gunboats so they could better negotiate the Red River's shallow water near Alexandria, Louisiana. (See " Conquering the Confederacy's Western Waters .") He claimed the gunboats ran 2 to 2½ knots faster without the iron and proposed leaving it off. And so, ironically, while the Cairo sank with her armor intact, some of her sister ironclads that survived the Civil War may have done so with relatively little of theirs.