Timberclads: A Civil War Alternative to Ironclads

The following is a guest post by Gay Colyer, Digital Library Specialist, Prints & Photographs Division.

While reviewing Civil War photographs of the Union’s Mississippi River Fleet (LOT 4183), I came across a type of ship that I hadn’t seen before. I’ve long admired the efficient design of the single or double turreted ironclads. In striking contrast, this vessel looked like a clumsy barge—a wood crate, too heavy for river travel.

U.S. Gunboat Lexington [i.e. Tyler] - Mississippi River Fleet. Photographed between 1861 and 1865. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.34027

U.S. Gunboat Lexington [i.e. Tyler] – Mississippi River Fleet. Photographed between 1861 and 1865. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.34027

From the blog, “The Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial” (entry posted Sept. 22, 2010 by Craig Swain), I learned that early in the war riverboats transporting troops and supplies to the western front needed armed escorts as river travel and trade was becoming treacherous. With no gunboats available in the region, and very little time to construct something suitable, the Union Navy, under the direction of Commander John Rodgers II, decided to buy three side-wheel steamships and convert them into what became known informally as “timberclads.” Gone were the white paint, glass pilot-house, and decorative railing. Now, five-inch thick bulwarks provided protection against small arms fire, and oak planking covered the paddle wheel.

One of the three timberclads, the USS Tyler (1861-1865), measured 178 feet long with a 45 foot beam. Armament included six 8-inch guns and one 32 pounder. Along with the USS Lexington, the USS Tyler protected Grant’s river flank at Pittsburg Landing in the Battle of Shiloh in 1862, as depicted in an image from our Popular & Applied Graphic Arts collection:

Battle of Shiloh. The Gunboats Tyler and Lexington Supporting the National Troops. Lithograph by Middleton, 1862. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a09479

Battle of Shiloh. The Gunboats Tyler and Lexington Supporting the National Troops. Lithograph by Middleton, 1862. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a09479

 

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