Updated: Dec 1, 2022
The American Civil War produced some of the strangest ship designs I've ever seen. Among the most odd were the river gunboats known collectively as "Pook's Turtles". These vessels saw combat all up and down the Mississippi River and many of her tributaries and were a vital component to the Union victory in the west. Let's have a closer look at these turtles and their wartime careers.
Eads & Pook
When the war broke out and the Union unveiled its Anaconda plan to surround and strangle the Confederacy by cutting off its access to the sea and water ways, they was a distinct lack of vessels to carry out the plan. To make up the number, the Union navy turned to James Eads and Samuel Pook. Eads and Pook went to work making a new breed of gunboat in Cairo (pronounced "Kay-ro"), Illinois. Five sawmills, an iron rolling mill, and foundries were all set up specifically to mass produce these vital gunboats.
James Eads was an accomplished riverboat designer, and Pook had extensive experience designing warships for the navy. Together they produced a very successful design for the huge task of winning the Mississippi River. The designs resulted in the City-class gunboat, with seven vessels planned. They would be named after the local cities that contributed to their construction in some way or were connected to the region. However, they were more commonly referred to as "Pook's Turtles", eluding to the unusual shape of the vessels.
The City-class gunboat had a shallow draft and drew only 6ft (1.8m) of water. They had a 22ft (6.7m) center-wheel, located about three quarters back from the bow, powered by two reciprocating steam engines. Despite the moniker ironclad, it was really only the machinery that benefited from plate armor, with 2.5in (64mm) of iron on the outside of the vessel, and an equal layer on the front of the casemate. The pilot house was also armored, with 1.5in (38mm) all around the angled pyramid-like structure. Most were unarmored with an additional 47tons of iron following the Battle of Plum Point Bend to better protect the boats from ram attacks.
Each gunboat was pierced for 13 guns, three forward, two aft, and four on each broadside. The guns that were installed were a mix of what ever was available, but generally included three heavy guns in the fore positions, and a bank of 32pdr smoothbores in the broadsides. Rifles were installed at all arcs to provide long range capability. The exact layout and balance of smoothbores and rifles differed between boats and across time as they were gradually up armed as the war dragged on. The final weapon carried was a light 12pdr boat howitzer which was typically used to engage shore targets and ward off boarding parties.
Each carried a crew of about 250 sailors and officers. Protection on the top deck afforded cover for sharpshooters, should they be needed for additional protection. Life aboard the ironclads as hot and stifling, so the crews spent a lot of time above deck when not needed below, which is remarkable when you consider the heat and humidity of the terrain they typically operated in!
Only one of the City-class gunboats has survived to this day. USS Cairo hit a mine and sunk in the Yazoo River in 1862. The vessel was covered in mud and preserved for over 100 years when it was re-discovered, carefully excavated, and reconstructed near Vicksburg, Mississippi. The Cairo is on display and you can visit her open-air exhibit and see the original iron and timbers salvaged from the wreck.
As the war got started in the east, riverboat builders in the west, such as James Eads, quickly recognized the need for a strong Union gunboat fleet to control the western rivers. Eads was paired by the Department of the Navy with Samuel Pook, a riverboat designer, to build the United States’ first ironclads. Together they build seven “city-class” gunboats, launching USS Louisville (promounced “Loo-ey-ville”) in October 1861.
The Louisville joined the Mississippi River Squadron and participated in the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson in February 1862. The boat then traveled down the Mississippi and engaged Confederate gunboats at Island No. 10, Plum Point Bend, and Memphis before moving to Vicksburg.
Few vessels of the Union Navy had a more extensive battle record than the USS Carondelet (pronounced “Car-ron-deley”). Commissioned in January 1862, the Carondelet went into action under the skilled command of Captain Henry A. Walke in February at Forts Henry and Donelson. While the gunboats proved their value, the Cardondelet took 54 hits at Fort Donelson, the intense fire exposed some vulnerabilities in the designs.
After the battles, the gunboats were repaired and upgrades were made to the armor, chiefly around the pilot houses and boilers. The Carondelet went on to fight at every engagement along the Mississippi, including engaging the more heavily armored CSS Arkansas on 15 July 1862.
The USS Cairo (pronounced “Kay-ro”) was the first of the City-class gunboats to enter service in late 1861. Commissioned in January 1862, the Cairo served as the squadron’s flagship until the arrival of the Benton. The gunboat patrolled the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, fighting at Plum Point Bend and Memphis before steaming south to Vicksburg.
Towards the end of 1862, the Cairo led a patrol up the Yazoo River where, on 12 December, she stuck a mine, sank in 12 minutes, and was quickly covered in silt. The Cairo’s wreck was discovered in 1956 and then raised and restored to where she now sits near Vicksburg, the last and only Civil War-era gunboat of her class.
USS St. Louis/USS Baron DeKalb
The USS St. Louis went into action in early 1862 alongside the other city-class gunboats. She served as the squadron’s temporary flagship at Fort Donelson in February 1862. The St. Louis fought Confederate forces outside Fort Pillow and later at Memphis before moving south to Vicksburg.
Up to late 1862, all of the gunboats were owned by the US Army, but operated by US Navy personnel. However the boats were officially transferred to the Navy in October. As the Navy already had a USS St. Louis in service, the ironclad was renamed the USS Baron DeKalb in honor of the Bavarian general that assisted in the American War of Independence. The Baron DeKalb went on to patrol the Yazoo and was sunk there by a mine on 13 July 1863.
The USS Pittsburgh went into action in early 1862 alongside the other city-class gunboats. Her first major action was Fort Donelson in February 1862. She took 20 hits from rebel batteries and she began taking on water by the end of the battle. Pittsburgh required significant repairs after the battle and receiving upgraded armor around the pilot house.
The Pittsburgh went into action again at Island No.10, slipping by the Confederate batteries on the night of 7 April with the USS Carondelet and sealing the fate for the difficult garrison there.
The Pittsburgh was slow to get into action at Plum Point, but her timely arrival helped get the sinking Cincinnati safely to the Tennessee shore.
USS Mound City
The USS Mound City entered service in early 1862 and captained by Commander Augustus H Kilty. Her first action was at Island No.10 , after which she captured the rebel steamer CSS Red Rover and copy of the CSN signals book, which was then made available to the entire USN.
On 10 May 1862, the Mound City was the only gunboat that had steam enough to immediately get underway to the rescue of USS Cincinnati which was under attack from Confederate rams. When she arrived, the CSS General Van Dorn struck the Mound City in the bow. Though only lightly damaged the hull quickly flooded. The crew heroically turned the sinking vessel toward the Arkansas shore and managed to ground her on shallows, saving the vessel.
The USS Cincinnati joined the Western Gunboat Flotilla in early 1862 and served at Forts Henry and Donelson, helped reduce the rebel stongpoints around Island No.10 near New Madrid, and joined the siege of Fort Pillow.
On 10 May 1862, the Cincinnati was assigned to protect the mortar boats when a squadron of rebel ram ships steamed into view, aiming to destroy the mortar. Cincinnati sprang to meet them and was rammed three times by Confederate vessels. With the enemy boats pressed up against their hull, the crew waged a fierce battle with small-arms, shooting pistols and throwing grenades at close quarters. Though she ended up sinking on the Tennessee shore, the Cincinnati was raised and restored to active duty before the end of the year.
The Honorary Turtles
Two more 'honorary' turtles were built as well, the USS Benton and the USS Essex, both large, commanding vessels in their own right.
Following James Eads’ success with the City-class ironclads, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells authorized Eads to convert Submarine No. 7 into another gunboat. Submarine No. 7 was a snagboat, which are used to free boats that are stuck in the river. Its catamaran-style double hull was decked over to make an good and wide gundeck. The conversion was complete on 24 February 1862 and she was named USS Benton. The large boat became the flagship, her larger size ideal for accommodating the flag officer's staff.
The Benton took part in all of the major battles on the Mississippi in 1862, from Island No. 10 through to Vicksburg. She would receive a major boost in firepower with a new array of guns and rifles in August 1862.
The New Era was purchased by the Union navy in 1861, converted into a timberclad gunboat, and saw action on the Mississippi tributaries. She was then taken into drydock and converted into an ironclad. The newly renamed USS Essex was able to join the Western Gunboat Flotilla in February 1862 for the attacks on Forts Henry and Donelson, where she was badly damaged.
Essex’s skipper, Commander William “Dirty Bill” Porter personally oversaw her refit, which resulted in making her the largest ironclad on the western waters. She was also uniquely fully armored all around her casemate. The Essex was dispatched to face the Arkansas after the rebel ironclad had slipped through the Union fleet, but she failed to defeat the capable ram. However, Essex would finally force the scuttling of Arkansas on 6 August 1862.
Pook's Turtles in Dawn of Iron
You can find most of Pook's Turtles, including the City-class and the Benton, in the Battles of Plum Point Bend & Memphis Battle Pack. The Essex will be making its debut in the That Devil, the Arkansas! Battle Pack, due out in February.
Painting Pook's Turtles
The boats appear to have been painted dark brown all over with the iron sections likely painted grey. For my models, I went with overall grey as I couldn't wrap my head around which shade or type of brown we're talking.
Above: I've done three City-class gunboats so far, the St. Louis/DeKalb, the Cincinnati, and the Carondelet. I've got 4 more in the queue to round out the remaining four.
City-class Funnel Identification Colors
The city-class boats used a colored band just below the top of each funnel to identify them. They were as follows:
USS St Louis / USS Baron DeKalb
USS Mound City
The 3D model I used for my City-class vessels are designed by PC_Model_Yard and can be found for free on Thingiverse. I did need to modify the model slightly to bring the waterline up, but otherwise these are fantastic models.
Be sure to check out the East Coast Ironclads range. There, you'll find the City-class ironclads as well as a fantastic model of the Essex. I've been printing these and they come out looking great at both 1/600 and 1/1200.