Book Review: Joseph Brown and His Civil War Ironclads: The USS Chillicothe, Indianola and Tuscumbia


by Myron J. Smith Jr.

Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2017. Pp. x, 386. Illus., maps, plans, table, notes, biblio., index. $39.95 paper. ISBN: 0786495766

Pride of the River Fleet

Smith, author of Civil War Biographies from the Western Waters, The Timberclads in the Civil War, and a number of other works, gives the first biography of Joseph Brown (1823-1899) and his role in creating the Union’s riverine fleet. This is an impressive effort. Smith not only recounts the man’s life, but also takes a look at the war on the western waters.

Brown was a Scottish immigrant who became a steamboat captain, self-taught naval architect and engineer, abolitionist, entrepreneur, and politician, played a major role in the development of the Union’s western riverine fleet, and yet is today largely forgotten. Brown designed and built three ironclad river gunboats built for the Navy, Tuscumbia, Chillicothe, and Indianola, each of which has its own a chapter. In addition, Smith covers Brown’s conversion of 55 older vessels of all types into “tin-clads”, lightly protected gunboats, in what was a remarkable feat of improvisation. Smith gives us accounts of the gunboats in action, as places such as Fort Donelson, Island Number 10, Fort Pillow, and Grand Gulf.

While Brown’s role in the war is the centerpiece of the book, Smith also touches on the man’s work in business, politics, abolition, and more. He also offers us a number of profiles of some of the other notables of the day, such as Rear Adm. David Dixon Porter, naval architect James Eads, U.S. Grant, and others, including many of the officers who commanded the gunboats and are now largely forgotten.

Some repetitiveness and poor edition aside, Joseph Brown and his Civil War Ironclads is a useful work for anyone with an interest in the war in the west or in “brown water” naval operations.


Note: Joseph Brown and his Civil War Ironclads is also available as an e-pub, ISBN 978-1-4766-2680-2, and in several other e-editions.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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