Birth of the Iron Navy
James B. Eads/Admiral Andrew Foote and the First Ironclads

     In the late summer of 1861, the federal government realized that a different style Navy was needed to no less than match the capable gunfire of the forts and bastions along the river systems of the South as well as to meet it ship to ship in close quarters combat. On the 7th day of August, it entered into signed contract with Mr. James B. Eads, an engineer of fathomless talent having spent much of his life understanding the river boat system along the Mississippi. Brigadier General Montgomery Meigs, the Quartermaster General of the United States Army and the Navy Department immediately required a number of gunboats, iron plated, to support the army operations down the Mississippi, Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers.
     The telegraphic wires ran hot that day from Washington City, the saw mills, machine shops and foundries from Pittsburgh to St. Louis worked day and night on the design Mr. Eads had presented the Navy Department and on the 12th day of October 1861, less than one hundred days later the nation's first ironclad vessel was launched from the Carondelet Shipyard in Missouri.
Carondelet Shipyard
     Initially named the St. Louis by Flag Officer Andrew Foote in honor of that city, it was renamed the Baron de Kalb in that the Federal Navy already possessed a steamer christened St. Louis. Ten days later the Carondelet was launched with Cincinnati, Louisville, Mound City, Cairo, and Pittsburgh soon to follow.
     Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote, the second oldest of six boys and raised purely on puritan principals, deeply convicted by Christianity, had much faith in the birth of the new Naval age. In contemplating the early end of his career, his father approached, wishing to know if his son felt the necessity of even having a Navy. The young officer was convinced that the seas simply had to be enforced and when asked if that Navy ought to be uniformed with good or bad men, all doubt of walking from it was then removed from him. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he was resolved to do anything and everything to assist in putting down the rebellion.
     A particular favorite of Foote's ironclads joined the Navy in 1862, and commissioned the Benton. He personally asked Mr. Eads to escort the ship skippered by Captain John A. Winslow down the Mississippi knowing that the engineer understood how to pilot the boat through miles of navigational challenges. Ice was then forming upon the Mississippi River and roughly forty miles south of St. Louis, she ran aground. During the evolution to free the vessel an iron chain snapped cutting across the Captain's arm wounding him from any further service with the ship.
     These newer vessels performed good service to the Navy along the Mississippi River, however, in order to conduct similar operations along the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, the Navy Department demanded ironclads possessing the standard 2 inch iron plates to now draw less than the standard six foot draught. The answer to this was produced in the commissioning of the Osage and Neosho which drew only five feet of water and constructed with the Ericsson twin rotating turret. Along with these came the Chickasaw, Milwaukee, Winnebago and Kickapoo; built with a twin turret and steam driven guns.
     Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles insisted that Mr. Eads seek out Admiral Foote feeding off his experience in the past reduction of both Forts Henry and Donelson. Perhaps the two could work well together in the improvement of these new vessels.
     The journey again was made south where Mr. Eads had caught up with the admiral's fleet engaged in providing naval gunfire support against Island No. 10. Joining the naval officer aboard his flagship Benton, Eads presented him with the latest designs for his inspection. The partnership was established, perfected with the latest engineering technology combined with the finest combat experience upon the rivers.
     Admiral Andrew Hull Foote's faith in the iron gunboat and Mr. James B. Eads masterful engineering mind, transformed a Navy of the past into one of great strength for the country's future. Proven in combat along the river systems of the South, the news spread abroad, and caused every nation on earth to hold its breath in awe when the United States gave birth to the unbelievable spectacle of floating iron.

Dan (Aldie) Daniel Moran
© 2005

Editors Note: Mr.Moran is a feature writer on the writers staff. He may be contacted with your questions, ideas and requests at