Tuesday, July 19, 2011

"Drive On": The Genius of James Buchanan Eads

Building a naval fleet is not the work of a military organization alone. In the Civil War as now, the Navy depended upon businesses and individuals of action to help conceive and produce the nation's ships of war. John Ericsson traditionally receives effusive praise and a surfeit of attention for his role in designing the Monitor and a host of other ingenious creations. But Ericsson has a forgotten counterpart in the American west: James B. Eads. Without Eads's shipbuilding and design collaboration, the western ironclad flotilla may never have come into being, or its birth might have been a great deal more painful.
James Eads started, as many great figures of American history, under inauspicious circumstances. Raised in relative poverty, as a boy, Eads supported himself by working in a variety of menial capacities on commercial riverboats. His job selling apples to hungry passengers took him to the west's great ports and waterways and gave him an expert knowledge of western rivers and their unique navigational challenges.
Eads applied his experiences while still a young man, designing a primitive diving bell that allowed him to descend upon submerged wrecks and salvage their valuable cargoes. Eads achieved such great success that he went on to design and construct several purpose-built boats, which he called submarines. These unique river craft were capable of raising entire wrecks, and Eads's salvage operations had little competition. By the 1850's, Eads had earned a fortune, and he entered retirement at the age of 37.
The arrival of the Civil War brought the prominent St. Louisan out of his permanent retreat. Working with U.S. Attorney General (and Missourian) Edward Bates, Eads secured an audience with cabinet leaders in Washington. Nothing definitive resulted from this tentative spring meeting, but policy makers heard his proposals for the fortification of the upper Mississippi. Naval Constructor Pook also had the opportunity to evaluate Eads's design of an armed and front-armored riverboat. Pook saw promise in the energetic riverman's ideas. Secretary of War Simon Cameron thought the notion of a Mississippi ironclad absurd, and he axed any early construction efforts.
Undeterred, Eads followed his own motto of "Drive On" and presented new proposals to the government. Eads believed his Submarine no. 7 could be refitted and converted into a formidable warship. The Army's Navy advisors needed only approve the proposal, and the improved shallow-draft ship could be delivered within months. But Commander Rodgers saw no merit in converting no. 7. Military authorities would later reconsider the offer.
In August 1861, the Army and Navy finally came to their senses. A few timberclads and a swarm of lightly-armed riverboats would be insufficient force to pacify the Mississippi. The war in the west demanded an ironclad gunboat fleet. In early August Eads won the bid to construct seven ironclads, all to be delivered within three months. The contract secured, and his expertise finally acknowledged, Eads rapidly plunged into work and set his shipyards to the task. The ironclads would be built in Mound City, Illinois, on the Ohio River, and at the burgeoning Mississippi river port at Carondelet, Missouri, south of St. Louis. Once completed these "Pook Turtles" or "City Class" ironclads would form the core of the Union's western naval might. Eads would continue to design and build ironclads in the west, launching the Osage and Neosho in 1862, and several more vessels later in the conflict. Eads's shipbuilding centers became some of the chief hubs of naval activity in the west, and would remain commercial centers long after the war concluded.
Eads may have been the only man capable of properly undertaking such a huge building project in far-flung territory the Union military often regarded as a side show to the big show. Certainly, the Union benefited greatly from his unceasing energy and forward-thinking action. Had the South had its own James Eads, the war for the west might have gone a great deal differently.

In upcoming posts, we'll explore the west's naval bases, including Carondelet and Mound City, where thousands of laborers built the City Class ironclads that helped win the war.

1 comment:

  1. Cool post. Eads was truly one of the "unsung" heroes of the war in terms of his contribution to ship design and construction. Now, I would like to see a follow-up post giving an overview of the configuration and armament of the "City-Class" ironclad river gunboats, and the role of Samuel Pook in helping make them a reality