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NavSource Online: Service Ship Photo Archive

Pook's Turtles

Draft of an Article by Aryeh Wetherhorn that appeared in the Polish Magazine "Okrety Wojenne" in February 2003


Everyone knows that the first battle between ironclad warships was the famous fight between the MONITOR and the MERRIMAC (VIRGINIA) in 1862. What is less well known is the story of the construction of the first ironclads for the United States Government. No, I am not referring to the MONITOR. The MONITOR was the result of contracts signed in October 1861. But President Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, had sent Commander John Rodgers to Cairo, Illinois, back in May to handle naval support for the army along the Mississippi River. Naval Constructor Samuel M Pook was sent along soon after that to help Rodgers. Rodgers arranged to purchase a few river steamers and have them fitted for service in support of Federal forces on the river. Pook examined the vessels and made some very important recommendations. The three sidewheel steamers, LEXINGTON, TYLER, and CONESTOGA, that Rodgers bought for a mere $62,000 were to be severely modified. Pook felt their engines were too exposed, and wanted the engines and boilers lowered from the main deck into the shallow holds. The steamers had their sides cut down to the main deck and the decks strengthened to support the big naval guns they were to carry. Then strong oak bulwarks were built to protect guns, engines, and crew. While this was going on, Pook set about studying the design of river craft in order to draft plans for a real river warship, not just a converted commercial vessel.

Rodgers had been sent to serve on the staff of the Commanding General of the Department of the Ohio, Major General George McClellan. The appointment came because of political pressures initiated by a St. Louis businessman named James Eads.

Eads was a strong Union supporter. He was also an engineer, and president of the Missouri Wrecking Company. Eads had spoken to a meeting of Lincoln's cabinet in Washington on April 29,1861. At that time he raised the idea of isolating the seceding states by control of the Mississippi waterway. The result was a typical struggle for jurisdiction between the Army and Navy. The compromise solution placed the Army in charge. After all, the area under discussion was nowhere near the ocean. But, recognizing the necessity for some expertise in shipping, the Navy was asked to provide commanders for what was expected to be an Army inland fleet. Rodgers went right to work. He bought the vessels mentioned above, and forwarded the information about his action to Washington. Secretary Welles refused to honor the bills for purchase. In his eyes this was not a Navy matter. General McClellan, however, was anxious to have support afloat on the river. He approved the purchase for the War Department. Thus was born the Western Gunboat Flotilla, a part of the Army, but run by officers of the Navy.

Samuel Pook, meanwhile, had come up with the design for major warship to support the drive down the Mississippi. Pook had been designing warships since the days of sail. He had been appointed a Naval Constructor in 1841. Those were the days when Samuel Humphreys, son of the legendary Joshua Humphreys, was Chief Naval Constructor. Pook also worked under Francis Grice. Grice apparently was not too interested in steam power as Chief Naval Constructor, even though he did design the fine sidewheel steam frigate POWHATAN. John Lenthall succeeded Grice as Chief Naval Constructor around 1859. These men were the designers of America's ocean going fleet. River boats were another matter, altogether. Samuel Pook's designs combined the best of current naval technology within the constraints of operations on confined inland rivers. Here are a few of the major considerations:

  1. Operations on a river means limited draft. The waters are shallow, a deep draft ship will run aground.
  2. The vessels are intended for combat. They will carry artillery that will be heavier than most army field guns. The gunners must be protected from enemy musket fire, because soldiers can easily get within musket range along the river bank.
  3. Maneuvering in a river, because of the depth, means paddle wheel propulsion. Screw propellers will be too deep. But paddle wheels are usually vulnerable to enemy gunfire. They must be protected. The steam engines must also be protected. Otherwise a damaged ship will drift downstream with the current and possibly be captured.

This is how Pook dealt with the problems. He designed the gunboats with a flat bottom, because of the necessity to keep a shallow draft. They would be powered by a paddle wheel, and Pook located it as close as possible to the center of the ship. The steam engines, and the twin smokestacks, were placed just ahead of the paddle wheel. The entire propulsion system was protected by a casement of 24 inch thick layers of oak, a particularly hard wood, covered with a 2 ½ inch layer of iron armor. The vessels were designed with a displacement of 512 tons and a broad beam, not only to protect the paddle wheel, but also to allow mounting three guns in ports facing directly forward. There were 4 gun positions on each side, and 2 more facing aft. This meant that a good part of the armament could be used in any direction, especially if an enemy were encountered head on. The forward gun positions, including those firing abeam, were also given iron armor protection. The plates were placed at an angle to help deflect enemy fire. The pilothouse, from which the captain would control his ship, was placed just behind the forward guns, and a deck higher. It was also armored, and built of angled plates. In addition, a thick bulwark was added to the uppermost deck to provide shelter for the crew or embarked soldiers, when engaging enemy troops at close range with muskets. The combination of slanted armor plate on a ship 51 feet wide and only 175 feet long made the gunboats look like giant turtle shells. That was how they got the nickname.

Pook's designs were ready by August. This was an Army flotilla, so the contracts were arranged by the War Department Quartermaster General, Montgomery Meigs. The builder selected was, surprise of surprises, none other than James Eads of St Louis. Eads promised to deliver 7 armored gunboats by October 10,1861, for the price of $89,000 each. In a short time he was employing nearly 4000 workers on the project. Timber, iron, and other fabricated parts flowed to the construction site at Carondelet, near St. Louis. The workmen began connecting the wooden planks for the first vessel on September 27. The first gunboat was delivered / launched 45 days later, on Saturday, 12 Oct. That was 2 days after all were supposed to be completed! And there was still a problem getting armament and crews for the ships. Just for the record, the contract for the MONITOR was only signed on 4 Oct. MONITOR was launched on 30 Jan. 1863 and commissioned on 25 Feb. By then the 'turtles' were already in action against Confederate forces at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson

Mr. Eads was under great pressure to finish construction. It was clear that he would not be able to build all 7 in the time allotted at Carondelet. He therefore hired the services of the Mound City Marine Railway and Shipyard for assembling three of the gunboats. Eads paid his workers $2.00 for 10 hour day. When he saw that delays were seriously affecting completion time he added a bonus of $0.25 for each hour of work over the 10 hour daily standard. By October the first hull was launched. Completing the gunboats took a while longer. Crews were not readily available,. The Navy sent a draft of 500 men from Washington. General McClellan transferred over 1000 from his army. Each turtle needed from 200 to 250 men. General Grant was willing to transfer a few of his disciplinary problems to the Gunboat Flotilla. That helped solve the personnel problem.

It had also been difficult to get guns for the 'turtles'. An assortment of large guns was assembled from whatever sources were available. Each ship received 13 guns, but not always the same kind. Most were standard naval 32 pounder smoothbore cannons. A large number of former army 42 pounders that had been rebored as 7" rifles were also included. The guns were usually mounted on standard American Navy gun carriages. There were four wheels on the gun carriage to help run it out the port. The sides of the carriage supported the weight of the gun through the trunnions that projected out of the side of the gun. At the back of the carriage there was a screw mechanism that moved a wedge under the breech for controlling elevation. The gunner primed the gun with a percussion cap and powder train that was inserted in the firing vent at the breech. The priming powder came wrapped in paper, like a long thin cigarette. Pulling the firing lanyard caused the hammer, fitted above the vent, to rotate around a bolt and strike the cap. There was no spring on the hammer. Only the gunner's arm provided the energy to ignite the cap. A typical large naval gun of the era, the 32 pounder, weighed over 3 tons (6,400 pounds) without the carriage.  Each solid shot projectile weighed 32 pounds.Explosive shells weighed 26 pounds, and contained a bursting charge of just under 1 pound of powder. A propellant powder charge weighing 9 pounds could send the shot to a distance of about 1900 yards. It took only 6 ½ seconds for the shot to travel that far. A trained crew could fire at a rate of 1 round per minute or even slightly faster. The shells used a propulsion charge of only 6 pounds, and achieved almost the same range. The largest part of the armament of the 'turtles' was made up of weapons.

By January everything began to come together. The seven gunboats were complete. They were named after large cities on the inland rivers, (CINCINNATI, PITTSBURG, LOUISVILLE, ST LOUIS and CAIRO) except for the two that carried the names of the smaller towns where they were built, CARONDELET and MOUND CITY. The only difference between them, apart from armament, was that they sometimes carried a painted colored band to indicate who was who. The band was about 2 ½ feet wide and was located about 4 feet below the top of the funnels. The entire flotilla was under the command of Flag Officer (Rear Admiral) Andrew Foote.

The following table shows the armament, distinguishing color and first commanding officer of each ship.

If you know much about American Naval history you will notice that almost every one of the captains was later honored by having a United States Navy destroyer named for him.

CAIROGrey6-32pdr, 3-64pdr SB, 3-42pdr R, 1-30pdr Parrot RLT James M Pritchett
CARONDELETRed6-32pdr, 3-8" SB, 4-42pdr R CDR Henry A Walke
CINCINNATIBlue6-32pdr, 3-8" SB, 4-42pdr R LT George Mifflin Bache
MOUND CITYOrange2-80pdr, 5-32pdr, 3-9", 1-30pdr CDR Augustus H Kilty
PITTSBURGLight Brown6-32pdr, 3-8" SB, 4-42pdrLT Egbert Thompson
ST LOUISYellow7-32pdr, 2-8" SB, 4-42pdr RLT L Paulding
LOUISVILLEGreen6-32pdr, 3-8" SB, 4-42pdr R CDR Benjamin H Dove

James Eads also converted two double hulled snag boats to much the same pattern as the 'turtles'.

BENTON1033t,202 x 72 x 9 2-9" 7-32pdr 7-42pdr riflesComm 24 Feb 1862LT J Bishop, (LCDR William Gwin (b 1832) took over before Dec 1863)
ESSEX614t,159 x 47'6" x 6, 124 crew1-32pdr, 3-9",1-10"Purchased 20 Sep 186 CDR William D Porter

The battle honors these boats earned reads like a list of every major engagement in the closing of the Mississippi to Confederate commerce. The 'turtles' went into action for the first time bombarding Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in Feb 1862. The surrender of these two forts guaranteed federal control of all territory north of Nashville and opened the way for the next step. Memphis was screened by fortifications centered upon an island called Island Number 10. When the 'turtles' found they could nott just blast this fortified island to bits, CARONDELET was sailed past the island at night in order to cut off the garrison from further supplies. The Confederate commander found he was now surrounded and he surrendered. The Federal boats moved down river and soon reached Plum Point Bend. From there, in May, boats carrying mortars began bombarding Fort Pillow, the last obstacle before Memphis. One of the 'turtles' was always on hand to protect the mortar boats. The Confederates formed their own force of river boats and audaciously attacked the CINCINNATI, The Rebel ships were not armored. They attempted to ram the Federal ironclad. They succeeded. By the time help arrived CINCINNATI was sinking. The melee that followed resulted in serious damage to the bow of MOUND CITY as well, and she had to be beached to keep her from going under. The casualties in men were another matter. Only 5 Union sailors were killed, against well over 100 on the Confederate side. Armor had proved effective. But the Battle of Plum Point Bend was a temporary strategic victory for the Confederacy. The Union advance down the river was stopped, briefly, while the damaged 'turtles' were raised and repaired.

In June the advance resumed. Fort Pillow was outflanked and blown up by her defenders. The Turtles then faced off against the Confederate River Defense Force again. This time, near Memphis. The outcome was certain. The unarmored Rebel vessels could not stand up to the iron plated 'turtles'. The Confederate force was beaten soundly and Memphis was captured.

Recognizing the futility of sending "cotton clad" ships against the Union ironclads, the Rebels built their own armored ship, the ARKANSAS, on the Yazoo River. The ARKANSAS took on CARONDELET and two unarmored Federal ships near the junction of the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers and defeated them on 15 July 1862. CARONDELET was sent limping into shallow water to escape destruction. The ARKANSAS headed into the Mississippi in an attempt to engage the main body of the Federal Navy. But her engines were not up to the task. She was ultimately destroyed by her own crew when the engines failed and they found they could no longer maneuver against the Federal warships.

The entire Western Gunboat Flotilla had been subordinate to the Army. In October 1862, the Army returned them to the control of the Navy Department. It was an administrative gesture. In fact, the gunboats continued to support the army, just as they always had done. The ST LOUIS had to be re-named BARON DE KALB because the Navy already had a ship named ST LOUIS. (when the gunboats belonged to the army this didn't matter). The 'turtles' helped in the long drawn out siege of Vicksburg. Their guns blasted the defenders regularly until the Rebels surrendered to General Grant. CAIRO was lost during that period when she struck two Rebel mines on 12 Dec. 1863.  The wreck remained under water for nearly a century before what was left of it was identified, and raised in 1956. She is now a major museum exhibit at Vicksburg.  CINCINNATI was also sunk again at Vicksburg. But, once again, she was soon raised and returned to service. With the fall of Vicksburg the Confederate states were split and their ability to transfer supplies or move commercial cargo along the river, or across it, was lost. The gunboats patrolled the river, even where there was no federal garrison. Confederate forces on the ground could not effectively fight the floating armored forts that Pook had designed.

Most of the water on the river was too shallow for a vessel to be a total loss Throughout the war the floating artillery of the gunboats frequently rained death and destruction on Confederate army units.  One or two shells per gun could usually break up an infantry attack. Even one exploding naval shell might put an end to a cavalry charge. This happened more than once. Of course, there was nothing like an armored gunboat for bombarding a fort.  The gunfire from the fort usually bounced off the armor but the shells from the big guns on the 'turtles' eventually would drive the less well protected fortress garrison from their open positions.

The shallow waters of the rivers were helpful in salvage work, but almost resulted in the loss of some other 'turtles'. The army mounted an expedition from the Mississippi up the Red River into Texas in 1864. They succeeded in capturing some Confederate supplies, but none of the items would have ever reached the heart of the Confederacy anyway, because the Western Gunboat Flotilla controlled the main waterway. The Red River expedition nearly became a disaster. The water level in the river began to drop through the early month of April. The Army withdrew too slowly. The big gunboats, especially the 'turtles', soon found there was barely enough water to stay afloat. By May at one critical location the depth was measured at less than 4 feet. The 'turtles' needed almost seven to pass safely. Fortunately, one of the Army officers was an engineer, and one of the army regiments from Maine had a number of experienced lumberjacks in its ranks. The soldiers built a dam, trapped the water, and then released it when the water was deep enough to float the ironclads through. It was another outstanding example of cooperation between the two services.

When the war ended, the navy had no further use for Mr. Pook's Turtles and all of the remaining vessels were eventually sold. Guns and armor were removed before sale and they disappeared from the historical record. The only one that remains today is the econstructed wreck of the CAIRO. She is a monument to the ingenuity and ability of Mr. Samuel Pook. His ironclad gunboats played a major role in closing the Mississippi River and dividing the Confederacy, a step that led, inevitably, to the ultimate Union victory.


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