USS Baron De Kalb
aka: USS St. Louis
Named for Baron Johann De Kalb, a Bavarian nobleman who served as a major general in the Continental army during the American Revolution, the sternwheel casemate gunboat Baron De Kalb saw extensive service with the Union’s Western Gunboat Fleet during the Civil War, including operations on the White River during the ongoing battle for control of significant interior rivers in the Trans-Mississippi Department.
Built in 1861 in Carondelet, Missouri, by the innovative ship designer James B. Eads under orders from U.S. Army Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs and originally christened the St. Louis, the 175-foot Cairo-class vessel displaced 512 tons and drew six feet of water. Its armaments consisted of two eight-inch smoothbore cannon, four forty-two-pound rifled cannon, and seven thirty-two-pound smoothbore cannon. It joined the Western Gunboat Fleet in October 1861, under operational control of the army but commanded by naval Lieutenant Leonard Paulding. As part of Rear Admiral Andrew H. Foote’s squadron, it served in the capture of Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and as the squadron flagship during the capture of Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River.
Between January and October 1862, Lt. Paulding, Lt. Henry Erben, Lt. Wilson McGunnegle, and Captain John Ancrum Winslow commanded the vessel for brief periods. After service under Winslow against Fort Pillow in the summer of 1862, the vessel was transferred to the U.S. Navy in October and renamed the Baron De Kalb. After Winslow contracted malaria in October, Lieutenant Commander John Grimes Walker became the vessel’s fifth and final commander.
In January 1863, the Baron De Kalb served in operations that resulted in the capture of Arkansas Post and in other operations on the White River. Thereafter, it served in the Yazoo Pass Expedition, where it saw action against Fort Pemberton and Haines Bluff, as well as Yazoo City, Mississippi. Under Walker’s command, the Baron De Kalb served in support of Major General Francis J. Herron during the Yazoo River Expedition, during which it engaged with Confederate shore batteries. On July 13, 1863, while serving on the Yazoo River approximately one mile below Yazoo City, the Baron De Kalb struck a torpedo planted by the command of Confederate Lieutenant Isaac N. Brown. The crew successfully removed its guns and maneuvered it into a deeper section of the river so it would not impede other Union vessels, with the hope that it might be raised. The Baron De Kalb, however, sank within fifteen minutes. Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the Union’s Mississippi Squadron, reported only minor injuries among the crew, with no fatalities.
For additional information:
Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. http://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs.html (accessed April 20, 2017).
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1, Vol. 17, Part 2. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1886.
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1, Vol. 24, Part 1. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1889.
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1, Vol. 24, Part 2. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1889.
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1, Vol. 24, Part 3. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1889.
Robert Patrick Bender
Eastern New Mexico University–Roswell
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