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Tinclads in the Civil War: Union Light-Draught Gunboat Operations on Western Waters, 1862-1865

by Myron J. Smith Jr., McFarland Publishers

There is a logical reason that the light-draft gunboats known as “tinclads” tend to be overlooked in accounts of the Civil War’s Western theater. For the most part, they literally operated in the wake of the heavier ironclad gunboats and even the wooden-armored “timberclads” that besieged and took one Confederate-held strongpoint after another. Nevertheless, as Myron J. Smith Jr. shows in Tinclads in the Civil War, these vessels performed a vital function in the backwaters of the Union advance.

As the Federals secured key ports and forts, they left behind hundreds of miles of riverbanks teeming with Confederate mounted raiders and guerrillas. Those mobile strike forces seized or destroyed Union steamboats at every opportunity, and the tinclads—themselves often vulnerable to enemy cannons and torpedoes—could sometimes operate where the full-fledged ironclads would run aground.

Smith’s book, which includes photographs and engravings of the tinclads in action, covers a great number of violent encounters that afflicted the Union’s riverine supply lines during the war. With some notable exceptions, the light-draft vessels acquitted themselves well, and supply vessels were far more likely to reach their frontline objectives intact when in convoy with a tinclad escort than they were traveling alone. For readers interested in the lesser-known welter of activity that raged behind the war’s major campaigns, Tinclads in the Civil War offers some fresh material.


Originally published in the April 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.