Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Review of Smith - "JOSEPH BROWN AND HIS CIVIL WAR IRONCLADS: The USS Chillicothe, Indianola and Tuscumbia"

[Joseph Brown and His Civil War Ironclads: The USS Chillicothe, Indianola and Tuscumbia by Myron J. Smith, Jr. (McFarland 800-253-2187, 2017). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:338/394. ISBN:978-0-7864-9576-4. $39.95]

Myron Smith's prolific body of work represents a profound contribution to Civil War naval history. Already at eight large volumes published over the past decade (including this one) with another on the way, his work documents at unprecedented depth the men and machines involved in countless riverine operations conducted throughout the inland west. Along the way, he raises awareness of many significant yet largely forgotten historical figures. One of these little-remembered men is Joseph Brown, the Missourian responsible for the construction of three ironclads and the conversion of dozens of tinclads, his life and various careers the subject of Smith's latest book Joseph Brown and His Civil War Ironclads, a volume that also pulls double study as a detailed service history of the U.S.S. Chillicothe, Indianola, and Tuscumbia.

Brown was born in Scotland in 1823, and his family eventually left their home country for the United States, arriving at St. Louis by way of Canada in 1834. Joseph and his brother George eventually inherited the family business, but Joseph was drawn to the river, eventually becoming a steamboat captain and builder, and George to politics. Though a staunch Democrat, Brown supported the war effort from the start, and, when the War Department solicited designs for more ironclad vessels to supplement the famous yet flawed City-Class series, he jumped at the opportunity. Brown was not a formally trained naval architect, but he was a very experienced river expert and steamship builder. Perhaps of equal importance, he also possessed the political awareness and connections (partly through his politician brother, George, at the time the U.S. Senate's sergeant-at-arms) to effectively exploit his strengths for his own and the country's gain.

As stated above, the book is equal parts Brown biography and gunboat history. Ironclad construction is discussed at some length, with painstaking attention paid to the distinguishing features of each vessel. Brown's designs attempted to address the chief complaints regarding their City-Class predecessors, in particular their lack of speed and overall protection, the relatively middling size of their guns, and their poor maneuverability. Two of Brown's three ships would have a combination of twin rear paddlewheels and screws (while the third and smallest, the Chillicothe, would be paddle only), but each was faster and more maneuverable than the Pook Turtles. Improving on the City-Class's 8-inch variety, Brown added 9 and 11-inch Dalhgrens to his gunboats (a significant upgrade in weight of shot). Though much thinner than in the front, there was also aft iron plating. While the trio was similar in appearance, they were vastly different in size, with the massive "broad giant" Tuscumbia dwarfing both Chillicothe and Indianola.

In the narrative, events from the vessel service histories are reconstructed in minute detail and from a variety of perspectives. Lengthy chapters are devoted to each vessel in turn, placed in the book in order of commissioning (which, like the size range, also turned out be alphabetical in sequence). All three were completed in early 1863, just in time to make their marks in the Vicksburg Campaign. With the smallest vessel getting the thickest chapter, Smith meticulously recounts the Chillicothe's participation in the 1863 Yazoo Pass and 1864 Red River expeditions. The Indianola had the shortest career of the three by far, its promising blockade of the river south of Vicksburg cut short by its dramatic ramming and sinking after only a month with the Mississippi Squadron. Its salvaging is also examined at great length. Last to enter service, the Tuscumbia ran the Vicksburg batteries with the main fleet in April, but was badly battered at Grand Gulf and taken out of action. Quickly repaired, the behemoth bombarded the Vicksburg defenses in support of the land campaign, but, after being sent up river for more extensive repairs, did only limited duty for the rest of the conflict.

Like so many Civil War vessels, Brown's ironclads had both promoters and many detractors. As Smith so well demonstrates in the book, the three ironclads had obvious flaws and a mixed fighting record. While they did have the improved speed and maneuverability that they were designed for, protection from enemy shot proved disappointing. This was blamed on inadequate backing to the armor as well as shoddy construction (ex. wrong type of bolts holding the iron plates in place). The gunboats were also under-engineered when it came to structural support, though some of the blame can be placed on mid-construction design changes insisted upon by the navy. Problems were probably inevitable, as the vessels were quick-built and always regarding as little more than stop-gap measures. Of course, this was little consolation to the officers and men required to serve aboard them.

Unfortunately, Brown did not leave behind much in the way of personal papers (in addition to official documents, the bibliography lists only an autobiographical statement published in 1889), but through a rich array of other source materials (especially a huge number of newspapers), the author was able to piece together a remarkably thorough account of Brown's professional life, his interactions with others, and his accomplishments. When it comes to discussing controversies and conflicting interpretations in the text, Smith does engage the work of other authors, but is more content with identifying differences rather than adjudicating them.

Like all of Smith's books, this one is heavily laden with maps, photos, and drawings. The author did a fine job of trying to uncover all known photographs and period drawings of each vessel for inclusion in the volume. He also was able to reproduce modern expert David Meagher's exquisitely detailed plan drawings of the three ironclads, though one wishes each view could have been scaled up to full-page.

Building ironclads wasn't Brown's only direct contribution to the Union Navy's war effort on the western waterways. He was also responsible for the conversion processing of 55 of the 66 tinclads that eventually served, and at an economical cost to the government of only $8,500 per gunboat. Though the documentation of this achievement represents only a small part of the book, one might argue that the tinclad work was even more significant to the overall war effort than the ironclads. As with the ironclads, the quality of work came under criticism in some quarters, but perhaps that was inevitable given the scale and speed of construction required.

The book does devote a substantial amount of space to Brown's post-war life. He returned to the river as an officer in a ferry company, but he also saw the future of transportation and invested in railroads, even becoming a company president and industry promoter. He was elected to one term in the Missouri legislature, where he opposed Radical Republican initiatives limiting the citizenship rights of ex-Confederates, and also served as the mayor of St. Louis. Deeply affected by the early deaths of his brother, wife, and beloved adopted daughter, he became an open devotee of the Spiritualist movement that fairly exploded in popularity after the war, as well.

It might be argued with some conviction that Myron Smith's series of biographical and operational studies in conjunction with Robert Browning's blockading squadron trilogy represent the two most significant contributions to Civil War naval studies published over the past twenty-five years. Smith's latest book adds yet another layer to this already impressive achievement. In singular fashion, Joseph Brown and His Civil War Ironclads brings renewed attention to the life of an important figure in U.S. naval history, a person who was well known at the time but has since faded into undeserved obscurity.

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