USS Lafayette and Choctaw, cargo ships converted to gunboats, ponderously patrolled the Mississippi River and its waterways.
Sure, USS Monitor and CSS Virginia revolutionized naval warfare and sounded the death knell of wooden-walled warships, but that didn’t mean every ship built with armor from then on was a success. Both sides experimented with cigar-shaped rams, sticking armor on conventional sailing vessels and building shallow-draft ironclad gunboats like those designed by Samuel Pook. And then there were the conversion side-wheel ironclads such as Choctaw and Lafayette.
Choctaw was built as a merchant steamer in 1856 in New Albany, Ind., and was purchased by the U.S. War Department on September 27, 1862. William D. Porter, captain of the ironclad gunboat Essex and brother of Flag Officer David Dixon Porter, oversaw the steamer’s conversion to an ironclad, intending it to be a ram. The gigantic vessel was 260 feet long, with a beam of 45 feet. Propulsion came from two steam engines and six boilers, each using a 23-inch-diameter cylinder with an 8-foot stroke, driving two paddle wheels aft protected by two mammoth boxes. The paddle wheels and their mountainous casings, towering over the rest of the craft, gave Choctaw its distinctive appearance.
In May 1863, Choctaw’s armament arrangement included one 100-pounder rifled cannon, a 9-inch smoothbore in the forward casemate and two 30- pounder Parrott rifles in another casemate aft of the wheels. Two 24-pounder smoothbores were later added, in a second casemate just forward of the wheels, but by September the secondary armament had been altered to three 9-inch smoothbores and two 12-pounder rifles. The 2-inch layer of rubber experimentally fitted to the gunboat’s forward casemate as an underlayment to its iron armor proved to be useless, since it quickly rotted.
Like most river vessels, Choctaw had a flat bottom; however, though most of Porter’s boats drew 5 to 7 feet of water, Choctaw had a 9-foot draft. Not unlike other ironclads,Choctaw’s armor and armament were too heavy for its hull, making the 1,004-ton craft as ungraceful as it looked. It was difficult to maneuver, and its engines could only propel the boat and its 106-man crew upstream at a glacial 2 knots.
Similar to Choctaw in appearance and size was USS Lafayette Louisville, Ky., the vessel was originally christened . Built in 1848 in Port Henry and later renamed Aleck Scott before the Union Army purchased it as a quartermaster boat in 1861. The Navy acquired the vessel on September 14, 1862—to be converted into a gunboat by engineer James B. Eads, who applied the same formula William Porter had used on Choctaw. Weighing in at 1,193 tons, the rechristened Lafayette was armed with two 11-inch smoothbores and two 100-pounder rifles. Four 24-pounder howitzers and two 12-pounder howitzers were added in May 1863.
Lafayette also had a casemate with the useless rubber layer and an added ram bow. With two steam engines and six boilers driving 26-inch-diameter cylinders with an 8-foot stroke to power its two side-wheels, Lafayette could do 4 knots upstream—double Choctaw’s speed but hardly enough to make it effective as a casemate ram.
Choctaw was commissioned on March 23, 1863. Commanded by Lt. Cmdr. F.M. Ramsay, the big boat first saw combat supporting Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee during the Union attacks on Haynes’ Bluff and Drumgold’s Bluff, Miss., between April 29 and May 2, 1863. The attacks were in fact feints, intended to divert Confederate attention as Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant moved the main body of his army south of Vicksburg. Choctaw sustained 53 hits during the two attacks, but remained in action.
The Yankees steamed up the Yazoo River again on May 18, this time to seize Haynes’ Bluff in earnest. Between May 20 and 23, Choctaw took part in the capture of Yazoo City, Miss., and the destruction of its navy yard, with $2 million worth of Confederate vessels, yard facilities and other property. On June 7 Choctaw and the small timberclad gunboat Lexington drove off a Confederate attack on Milliken’s Bend, La. Choctaw also took part in the Union’s Red River Expedition from March 12 to May 16, 1864.
Lafayette meanwhile took part in David Dixon Porter’s famous run past Vicksburg’s Confederate batteries on April 16, 1863, and joined in the bombardment of Grand Gulf, Miss., on April 21-29. It also sailed in a preliminary expedition up the Red River in May 1864, and the June 1865 Red River expedition that led to the capture of CSS Missouri.
Choctaw was decommissioned on July 22, 1865, as was Lafayette the next day. The end of the Civil War brought the demise of a number of warships that had been improvised during the nation’s four-year struggle, but for which a reduced U.S. military had no further use. Both boats were sold on March 28, 1866, and subsequently broken up.
Originally published in the September 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.