Steamboats (Civil War)

Steamboats during the Civil War won little glamour but played a critical role. With rivers serving as the lifeblood of the Confederacy, steamboats permitted the rapid movement of heavy cargo up and down the waterways. Both Union and Confederate forces in Arkansas relied on steamboats to move troops and supplies, with Little Rock (Pulaski County), Helena (Phillips County), Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), and DeValls Bluff (Prairie County) serving as supply centers and shipping hubs. Essentially, steamboats made the war effort possible.

By the start of the Civil War, the great majority of Arkansas’s commerce traveled by steamboat. Flatboats and keelboats had once moved agricultural products downriver to New Orleans, Louisiana, but neither type of boat could easily make the return journey upstream. Flatboats were typically broken up for lumber in New Orleans, while diminutive keelboats brought only a few goods back to Arkansas at a very slow pace. For a large, sparsely settled area, the steamboat proved an ideal technology. It was less expensive to operate than a railroad or canal system and worked on an existing pathway: the navigable river system. Fuel for the ships could be easily found in Arkansas’s abundant forests.

Steamboats were critical to Arkansas’s antebellum prosperity and continued to ply the Mississippi River in the early years of the war. Many civilian ships were confiscated for military use, while both sides also built new ships. Union steam-operated vessels were often tinclads—highly mobile, small ships that actually contained no tin. These ships were former merchant ships, generally about 150 feet in length, with about two to six feet of draft, and about 200 tons. Shipbuilders would remove the “texas” deck and add an armored pilothouse as well as sheets of iron around the forward part of the casemate and the engines. Most of the tinclads had six guns: two or three twelve-pounder or twenty-four-pounder howitzers on each broadside, with two heavier guns, often thirty-two-pounder smoothbores or thirty-pounder rifles, in the bow. These ships proved faster than ironclads and, with such a shallow draft, worked well on the tributaries of the Mississippi. The Union built these ships after taking control of the Upper Mississippi River.

The Confederate defeats at the Battles of Fort Donelson and Pea Ridge in early 1862 gave control of the Upper Mississippi to the Union. When Major General Earl Van Dorn moved his forces across the Mississippi in the aftermath of Pea Ridge, he did so with the aid of steamboats. A few months later, in June 1862, Union steamboats brought troops and other supplies up the White River to aid Major General Samuel Curtis’s forces near Jacksonport (Jackson County). While en route, Union gunboats clashed with Confederate batteries at the bluffs of St. Charles (Arkansas County). When a Rebel shell hit the USS Mound City, the ship’s steam drum exploded, scalding many of the 175-man crew to death. The Union ships then withdrew from battle, and infantry successfully took the position. In August of that same year, Union forces under General Samuel Curtis traveled down the Mississippi in the steamers White Cloud and Iatan to Eunice to annoy the Confederates and capture a wharf-boat.

By January 1863, Confederate forces at Fort Hindman (Arkansas Post) were effectively slowing Union shipping on the Mississippi River. Major General John McClernand attacked the Confederates by land and by river. Union steamboats landed troops near Arkansas Post on January 9, while Rear Admiral David Porter moved his fleet close enough to the fort to use ironclads to bombard it. Confederate forces then surrendered. Although this victory did not contribute to Union success at Vicksburg, Mississippi, victory at Arkansas Post did eliminate one more impediment to Union control of the Mississippi.

The siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1863 threatened to give control of the rest of the Mississippi River to the Union. When General Ulysses S. Grant called for all available men to help with the siege, Curtis insisted on maintaining garrison forces at Helena and a few other outposts along the Mississippi. The river had to be protected because of the materials and men that could be carried on it by steamboats. President Abraham Lincoln relieved Curtis of duty a few months later, but his replacement, John M. Schofield, kept troops at Helena. To pull Federal pressure off of Vicksburg, Confederate general Theophilus Holmes attacked the Union supply depot at Helena. Holmes failed to capture Helena, and Vicksburg then fell. The full length of the Mississippi lay under Union control by early July 1863. Confederate sympathizers would continue to harass Union steamboats with occasional shots from shore for the remainder of the war.

Steamboats more often played a role in smaller expeditions in wartime Arkansas. In the summer of 1862, the steamboat Pike traveled down the Mississippi to recruit troops and to raid settlements in the Napoleon Expedition. The Union used tinclads on the White River to guard barges and to attack Confederate troops. In June 1864, Confederate general Joseph Shelby’s forces captured the USS Queen City near Clarendon. As the Confederacy took its last breaths, Arkansas became the site of the worst maritime disaster in American history when the steamboat Sultana exploded on April 27, 1865. The boilers on the severely overloaded ship exploded in the night, and men who were not initially scalded to death drowned in the Mississippi or succumbed to fire as the ship burned. The disaster killed more than 1,200 Union men, many of whom had just been released from Andersonville Prison in Georgia. The half of the shattered ship that remained afloat sank at dawn near Mound City (Crittenden County). The war ended a few weeks later.

For additional information:
Christ, Mark K. Civil War Arkansas, 1863: The Battle for a State. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010.

Huffman, Alan. Sultana: Surviving Civil War, Prison, and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History. New York: Collins, 2009.

Hunter, Louis C. Steamboats on the Western Rivers: An Economic and Technological History. New York: Dover, 1993.

Kane, Adam I. The Western River Steamboat. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2004.

Tomblin, Barbara Brooks. The Civil War on the Mississippi: Union Sailors, Gunboat Captains, and the Campaign to Control the River. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2016.

Caryn E. Neumann
Miami University


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