"Tinclad" was a popular name for a member of a heterogenous group of seventy-six gunboats converted from small river steamers for use on the Mississippi and its smaller tributaries. They were often referred to in official Navy correspondence by the term "light-drafts." ("Tinclad" is a misnomer. They weren't clad with tin; in fact, several had no metal armor at all, relying on wooden bulwarks for protection.)
Once the initial river battles had been fought in the first half of 1862 that gained the Union the control of the Ohio, Tennesee, Cumberland, and upper Mississippi, it became apparent that the existing naval force of nine ironclads and three wooden gunboats was insufficient to patrol those rivers. The relatively heavy ironclads were very slow going upstream, and there was great need for their presence near Vicksburg, leaving the three "timberclads" Lexington, Tyler, and Conestoga stretched too thin to adequately cover the rivers.
On 28 June 62, Flag Officer Charles H. Davis wrote to Gideon Welles, recommending the purchase of a new kind of gunboat:
"...in order to acquire the control of the tributaries of the Mississippi, and to maintain that control during the dry season, it will be necessary to fit up immediately some boats of small draft for this special service. These boats will be sufficiently protected about the machinery and pilot houses against musketry. They will be selected for their light draft, their capacity to receive a suitable armament of howitzers, fieldpieces, or other light guns, and to accomodate the requisite number of men..." (ORN I:22, p. 245-6)
It appears that Davis had not waited for permission to begin, however, as a report of Fleet Captain Pennock on 3 June 62 seems to indicate:
"She [the Alfred Robb] will carry four howitzers and be well supplied with small arms, etc. I have built a bullet-proof bulkhead around her forecastle and also iron-plated the pilot house."
By August 1862, the first of these light-draft gunboats were in action on the Ohio and the Tennesee Rivers, guarding against guerrilla activity.
The boats themselves came from a variety of sources. Many were purchased outright for the use of the government; a number had been seized for illegal trafficking; and a few were former Confederate vessels captured along the river. All of them were taken to Cairo and Mound City for conversion. Though the boats themselves represented a variety of river craft, similar modifications were made to each.
The vessels selected for conversion were merchant steamers, generally about 150' in length, 2' to 6' of draft, and of about 200 tons. In general, it appears that the "texas" deck and pilothouse were removed and a new boxlike pilothouse, lightly armored for protection against musketry, built in its place. The upper deck of most of the tinclads appears to have been left intact and used for housing the crew. The lower deck, formerly used for cargo, was enclosed with a wooden casemate, vertical on the sides and usually sloping at the bow (and sometimes the stern). Sheets of boiler iron of ½"-1" or so thickness were placed on the forward part of the casemate and around the engines. The armament of the tinclads varied widely, but a large number of them were armed with two or three 12-pounder or 24-pounder howitzers on each broadside, with two heavier guns, often 32-pounder smoothbores or 30-pounder rifles, in the bow.
The resulting vessels could not stay in a protracted fight with other warships, shore batteries, or even field artillery, but they were reasonably well-protected against small arms fire. In a pinch, many could carry up to 200 soldiers for short periods. They were highly mobile and could go much further upstream than their ironclad cousins, and due to their size and weight used less fuel and could burn firewood if coal was not available.
A handful of somewhat larger vessels were converted in similar fashion for special purposes. The Black Hawk was equipped with powerful pumps for raising sunken vessels, and was also fitted out as a flagship. The Ouachita was heavily armed with over twenty light guns for situations when firepower was needed. The hospital ship Red Rover doesn't really belong in this category, but she was still fitted with protective measures and mounted a 32-pounder smoothbore on her bow, at the request of her chief surgeon.
When David D. Porter assumed command of the Mississippi Squadron in October 1862, he was delighted with the tinclads and ordered more of them, frequently not even bothering to ask the Navy Department for approval. A political cartoon of the time caricatured Porter sailing off with a box marked "Federal Treasury" under his boot. And yet, all things considered, the light-drafts were remarkably cheap; the cost of each vessel and its conversion was around $9,000. By contrast, the river ironclads generally cost around $200,000 each, and a coastal monitor ran about $400,000. (The cheapest river ironclad was the Chillicothe, at $92,960.) The tinclads had far more "bang for the buck" than any other warships of the time.
The "tinclads" were admirably suited to their purpose, all the more impressively when one considers how rapidly and inexpensively they were called into being. More astonishing still is how rapidly they were discarded; all but one were decommissioned and sold in late 1865, and all were engaged in commerce within weeks of their sale. The last, Kate, was finally decommissioned on 25 March 1866 and sold four days later, the last of the warships on the western rivers.
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