Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Unlikely Warships

At the beginning of the Civil War, the US Navy had to create a huge fleet to effectively implement the blockade of the Confederate States of America. They did this by a combination of an accelerated program of building new warships, putting captured blockade runners into service, and by acquiring existing merchant vessels and converting them into warships.

Perhaps the most unlikely candidates for the noble title of “US Gunboat” were the ferryboats. Many came from the New York City region, but others came from harbors on the eastern seaboard from Boston to Chesapeake Bay. While they lacked the imposing appearance of their purebred warship cousins, these tough little ships turned out to be ideally suited for the jobs they were given. They were not built for seaworthiness, but their shallow draft and double-ended design made them ideal for blockade work in the shallow inshore waters of the southeastern U.S. and Gulf of Mexico. Typical drafts ranged from 10 feet to as little as 6+ feet. Most were side-wheel steamers.

They were built to carry heavy loads, and so required little modification for mounting big guns. Their deck armament was variable, but the more common guns were VIII and IX inch Dahlgren smoothbores, 100 pdr Parrot rifles, 24 and 32 pdr smoothbores, and various calibers of rifled guns. These were mounted in the platform areas at each end of the ships (see photos), and were positioned to provide fire from forward, quarter, beam and aft positions. Iron plates, which could be raised or lowered, were sometimes mounted along the gunwhales to protect the gun crews from small arms fire. Ferryboats saw service in all four of the US Navy blockading squadrons:

North Atlantic squadron – the ferries Hunchback, Southfield, Commodore Hull, Commodore Perry and others served along the Virginia and North Carolina coasts. The Hull and Southfield were involved in the engagement with the rebel ironclad CSS Albemarle in April 1864. The Southfield sank after being rammed by the ironclad. In sinking, however, she temporarily disabled the ironclad and enabled the rest of the Union ships to escape, forcing the ironclad to withdraw from the engagement.

South Atlantic squadron – the ferry R. B. Forbes (a Boston twin screw steamer, rather than a New York sidewheeler) joined the South Atlantic squadron in October 1861 and was part of Flag Officer DuPont’s fleet which took Port Royal, South Carolina in November of that year. The Commodore McDonough participated in numerous expeditions in the rivers and sounds of South Carolina, where her shallow draft proved invaluable.

East Gulf squadron – the former New York ferry USS Fort Henry established a reputation as the “Terror of the Gulf.” Patrolling the sector of the Florida gulf coast from Tampa Bay north to the St. Marks River area, the ship and its crew, under the command of Acting Lt. Edward Y. McCauley, captured blockade runners, conducted shore raids to destroy salt works, and provided assistance and shelter to escaped slaves and Floridians who were sympathetic to the Union.

West Gulf squadron – the ferries Westfield, Jackson, and Clifton were part of Flag Officer Farragut’s West Gulf squadron. All three ships were participants in the conquest of the Mississippi River, and subsequently assisted with operations along the Texas coast. The Westfield was purposely destroyed by her crew, accompanied by the death of her captain William B. Renshaw, to avoid capture by the Confederates along the Texas coast on New Year’s Day 1863.


A. A. Hoehling. Damn the Torpedoes. Naval Incidents of the Civil War. (Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, Publisher). Chapter Two-The Fighting Ferryboats: pp. 27-35.

Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.

Robert M. Browning, Jr. Success Is All That Was Expected. The South Atlantic Blockading Squadron during the Civil War (Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, Inc., 2002), pp. 226, 308, 346.

USS Fort Henry Living History Association.


  1. Bill Gonyo ( 2, 2012 at 3:08 PM

    I believe the first photo posted is the U.S.S. Commodore Barney moored on the Pamunkey River, Virginia sometime in early 1864 after being repaired just prior to the James-Nansemond Rivers expedition, 13 to 14 April 1864. If you look at the sketch "The American ferryboat USS Commodore Barney, damaged by a "torpedo" (i.e. mine) on the James River in 1863" by F.C.H. Bonwill, for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, I think you will find a match. My best educated guess. I am the Associate Researcher" for NavuSource Naval History

    1. Bill:

      Thanks very much for this interesting information. I will check out the lead you provided and update this post. I thought I had seen references to this photo as the "Commodore Perry", but that could very well be an error. Hey, just to ask, do you know of any illustrations/photos of the USS Ft. Henry?? That's my unit and we would love to find something depicting her.

  2. Bruce Terrell ( 22, 2012 at 5:48 PM

    I've been studying these as well trying to figure which one this is on the Pamunkey as I have been working at White House Landing w/a volunteer group. First, I don't know how much stock I would put in Frank Leslie's illustrations. I have also worked on the steamer Planter in South Carolina and Leslie's illustration had a stack forward of the pilot house. Not likely and the only extant photographs do not support it. I have noticed that all, except one, of the Virginia-based NY ferries had square pilot houses. The first image is from a series at the York River RR bridge in 1864 during Grant's Overland Campaign (from NARA records). This one has a cylindrical house. Of the VA steamers, Barney was damaged on the James by a torpedo and is consistently recorded on the James. Jones, was sunk at Deep Bottom and has been documented by Gordon Watt's team. Perry was repaired at Baltimore and shows up at various places in VA, mostly James. Read, I can't find much about. My best guess is that this is the Commodore Perry. All of the ones photographed on the James have a square pilot house so this one is not photographed anywhere but the Pamunkey to my knowledge.
    Bruce Terrell
    NOAA, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, Maritime Heritage Program

  3. Looks like I owe you folks an apology. That's what I get for working without a net. After I posted this, I looked at the ORN and found an index for June 17 1864 showing the location of all of the river gunboats and see that Perry was on the Appomattox, Morse was at Turkey Bend on the James, and Commodore Morse was on the Pamunkey as a "guard ship." (;cc=moawar;q1=commodore%20perry;q2=Pamunkey;op2=and;op3=and;rgn=works;idno=ofre0010;didno=ofre0010;view=image;seq=0187).

    We know that Grant crossed the Pamunkey at Hanover in late May, fought Cold Harbor between May 31 and June 12 and chased Lee across the James June 12 - 18. Also, the National Portrait Gallery website notes Brady photographing Grant at City Point in June 1862 so its like Brady or one of his photographers took the series at the York River Bridge. Also, the NARA data for the series of three images of the Commodore is listed as 1864 - 1865. We also know that Grant used White House landing to supply his operations during Cold Harbor. So, its a very good bet that the gunboat in the image is the Commodore Morse, not the Perry (since it was on the Appomattox). Again, my apologies.

    1. Hey Bruce:

      Thanks for this scholarship; very, very interesting. I need to check this post more regularly, as it seems to be garnering some attention. A have to pose my question again; do you know of any photos of the USS Ft. Henry ??

  4. I have some pieces of boiler plate from the West Gulf Squadron's USS Clifton. She was captured at the Battle of Sabine Pass, Texas. Left aground after the war, it eventually silted over and rusted away. Her "walking beam" is on display at the Sabine Pass Battleground State Historic Site. Sept. 7 & 8, 2013 will be the 150th anniversary commemoration of that battle. For info contact