Book Review: The Timberclads in the Civil War: The Lexington, Conestoga and Tyler on the Western Waters


by Myron J. Smith, Jr

Jefferson N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2013. Pp. viii, 552. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $39.95 paper. ISBN: 0786477210

Improvised Fleets on the Western Rivers

Although The Timberlclads in the Civil War is written around the life and adventures of the three heavy steam paddle wheel gunboats of the sub-title, Prof. Smith (Tusculum College), who has written extensively on the river war, and a number of other subjects, cleverly uses their story to give the reader an excellent account of the Civil War on the Mississippi and the other great western rivers. 

Smith opens the book with a rather extensive description of the critically important western river system, which played a vital role in the region’s life, culture, politics, commerce, and logistics, a matter often take for granted in accounts of the Civil War in the West.   He then plunges into an account of how both sides sought to secure control of the rivers by the improvisation or construction of gunboats, in a region largely devoid of proper shipbuilding facilities.  This resulted in considerable, and often quite clever improvisation, notably in the and rapid conversion and commissioning of the three “timberclads” Lexington, Conestoga, and Tyler from commercial riverboats to gunboats over a few weeks in mid-1861. 

Smith follows with a discussion of the war on the rivers, with a focus on the missions in which the three gunboats took part, most famously the clearing of the Tennessee River of confederate defenses at Forts Henry and Donelson, the Battle of Shiloh, Island No. 10, various river fights, and the Vicksburg Campaign.  As he follows the adventures of these vessels, Smith introduces us to many interesting people, such as John Rodgers, James Eads, U.S. Grant, Braxton Bragg, Andrew Foote, Leonidas Polk, Gideon Pillow, and more.

Smith seasons his treatment of operations and engagements by drawing upon first hand accounts, which can be gripping, informative, amusing, or even all three, making the narrative much more vivid, and helping to give us an excellent look at the river war.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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