WAR IN THE WEST
THE RIVER WAR
Central to General Winfield Scott’s plan to force the southern states back into the Union was to regain control of the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Toward that end, it was necessary to create, from scratch, a river navy. It would be known as Lincoln’s Brown Navy.
In July of 1861, US Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Megis advertised for proposals to construct ironclad gunboats for use on the Mississippi River. James Eads, a Civil Engineer from Missouri.won the contract with the help of his friend Attorney General Edwin Bates.
In August, the engineer convinced the War Department to give him a contract to build armed river craft. Known as POOK boats after their designer, Eads agreed to deliver seven of them for $89,000 each by October 5, 1861. For each day the delivery was delayed he would forfeit $200.
Back in St. Louis, Eads constructed the Carondelet Shipyards and trained a labor force of 500 men working in shifts 24 hours a day. Eventually he would have 4,000 men working there and at a second shipyard in Mound City, Illinois on the Ohio River. They would construct low profile armored and armed boats that would only draw six feet of water; ideal for the western rivers.
On October 12, 1861 the first iron clad, the Carondelet, was put in the water at Ead’s Missouri shipyard. It was followed by the St. Louis, the Louisville and the Pittsburg. These were followed by the Cincinnati, Mound City and the Cairo from the Mound city shipyard.
The first time the boats were used in a combat operation was in support of Grant’s attack at Belmont, Missouri on November 7, 1861. In their next engagement, February 2, 1862, this fleet of iron-clads made possible the successful attack on Fort Henry located on the Tennessee River. A few days later, under naval Captain Foote, the boats were moved to the Cumberland River in support of Grant’s attack and subsequent capture of Fort Donelson.
The POOK boats were next used in the attack on Island NO 10 at New Madrid, Missouri. That fortified island was bombarded by mortars mounted on barges on March 13 and was subsequently abandoned by the Confederates. On April 6 two of Eads boats assisted Grant hold off General Johnston’s Confederates at Shiloh at the Pittsburg Landing river site and guarded the river at that site for General Buell’s arriving troops.
Eads POOK boats swept the river of enemy craft whenever they met. One of them sunk by a Confederate torpedo has been raised and is on display at the Vicksburg battlefield’s Visitor Center.