Here at LSOZI, we are going to take out every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week.
– Christopher Eger
Here we see the City-class ironclad gunboat USS Baron DeKalb as she plied her way down the interior rivers of North America. Born January 1862 she spent her entire life on the rivers, never seeing blue water. Laid down at the James B. Eads Yard, St. Louis, Missouri just months after the Civil War started at Fort Sumter, she was one of seven stern-wheel powered shallow draught casemate gunboats destined first for the Army and then for the Navy’s Western Gunboat Flotilla. This force was the US Navy’s muscle that would split the Confederacy in two.
The ships, called “Pooks Turtles” after their designer, were the United States’ first ironclad warship, pre-dating the USS Monitor by several months. Each cost $191,000 (about $5-million in today’s figures) which was a bargain.
The 175-foot long boat could float in just 6 feet of muddy water and motor upstream at over 8-knots, powered by her 2 horizontal steam engines and five oblong coal-fired boilers pushing a 22-foot wide paddle-wheel at her stern.
Her 250-man crew serviced a constantly shifting battery of up-to 18 cannon and naval rifles (although only built with 13 positions) protected by a sloping 2.5-inches of railroad armor plate. Characteristically she carried a yellow band on her twin stacks and a large Masonic compass and dividers stretched between the sister pipes as identification. This has led historians to call her the Masonic Ironclad
Commissioned in 1862 as the USS St Louis, she fought in no less than 18 engagements in 19 months, seeing heavy service. She attacked Fort Donelson (the Gibraltar of the Mississippi), Fort Pillow, captured several Confederate vessels, destroyed the Yazoo City Naval Yard, fought in the Battles of Memphis, Island No 10, Fort Hindman, Fort Pemberton, Haynes Bluff, and made sorties up the wild Yazoo and White River systems, both hotbeds of Confederate snipers and artillery batteries.
It was up the Yazoo that the St Louis, renamed the USS Baron DeKalb after a German-born Revolutionary War officer, found her end. On July 13, 1863 the lucky veteran was holed by an infernal torpedo (a naval mine) in shallow water. There she sank. The US military salvaged her guns, most of her munitions, and anything else they could carry before abandoning the ship to the river.
Today her current location is in a dead bend of the Yazoo River below Yazoo City very near the McGraw-Curran lumber yard. This hairpin bend was cut off from the main channel in the 1950s, creating Lake Yazoo. Prior to this cutoff and at low water the wreck could be seen and was photographed several times by a local resident. The tubular boilers are clearly visible in these photographs. Since that time, the site has completely silted over and even when the lake is dry, cannot be seen. During the 1930s an employee of the lumber mill used a mule team to recover what seemed to be pieces of armor plate to sell for scrap.
Although this wreck is just a few feet off the banks of this quiet and still lake now, it is off limits under penalty of law. Since its still officially US Navy property, you can rest assured the wrath of Washington will be felt by anyone who goes poking around with a magnetometer there. Any possible research or study of a historic wreck must have prior approval of the Naval Heritage and History Command Archaeology Department. The NHC will pursue prosecution of any individual that disturb any naval site.
You can see a wartime photo of Baron De Kalb for a split-second during the opening sequence and theme song of the television show “Big Bang Theory”
Displacement: 512 tons
Length: 175 ft (53 m)
Beam: 51 ft 2 in (15.60 m)
Draught: 6 ft (1.8 m)
Propulsion: steam engine – Center Wheel, 2 horizontal HP engines (22″ X 6″), 5 boilers
Speed: 9 mph (14 km/h)
Complement: 251 officers and enlisted
Armour: 2.5″ on the casemates,
1.25″ on the pilothouse
In 1862 as commissioned:
• 3 × 8-inch smoothbores
• 4 × 42-pounder rifles
• 6 × 32-pounder rifles
• 1 × 12-pounder rifle
• 1 × 10-inch smoothbore
• 2 × 9-inch smoothbores
• 2 × 8-inch smoothbores
• 6 × 32-pounder rifles
• 2 × 30-pounder rifles
• 1 × 12-pounder rifle
If you liked this column, please consider joining the International Naval Research Organization (INRO)
They are possibly one of the best sources of naval lore http://www.warship.org/naval.htm
The International Naval Research Organization is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the encouragement of the study of naval vessels and their histories, principally in the era of iron and steel warships (about 1860 to date). Its purpose is to provide information and a means of contact for those interested in warships.
Nearing their 50th Anniversary, Warship International, the written tome of the INRO has published hundreds of articles, most of which are unique in their sweep and subject.
I’m a member, so should you be!