Wood-Choppers Along the Kennesaw Line

“The battles of the Kennesaw line were fought for weeks. Cannonading and musketry firing was one continual thing. It seemed that shooting was the order of the day, and pickets on both sides kept up a continual firing, that sounded like ten thousand wood-choppers. Sometimes the wood-choppers would get lazy or tired and there was a lull. But you could always tell when the old guard had been relieved, by the accelerated chops of the wood-shoppers.”

— Sam Watkins, “Kennesaw Line,” Chapter XII, Co. Aytch

The Sentra Has Landed: A Fresh Start in Vicksburg

ECW is pleased to welcome back Andrew Miller. A historian with the National Park Service, Andrew just accepted a new position at Vicksburg National Military Park. He formerly worked at Liberty Island in New York City.

We arrived in Vicksburg, Mississippi, like a cannon shot—a whirlwind three-day drive that took us from our former front porch in New Rochelle, New York, to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and then snaking southwest to the Hill City.

On the way, my wife and I had the pleasure of seeing several Civil War sites including meeting the magnanimous Park Ranger and ECW author Lee White of Chickamauga/Chattanooga. (We hope to be back, Lee). 

Our weeks of vacation before entering upon my duties at Vicksburg National Military Park have been a combination of stress and relief. Living out of a suitcase at both a hotel and temporary lodging, as well as eating out almost every night, takes a toll and gets old fast.

But walking the up and down Vicksburg’s streets, observing magnificent antebellum homes, structures, and vistas, immediately helps one understand where they are: the Delta. The Warren County Courthouse alone is worth a visit to Vicksburg. Close by, the Pemberton Headquarters and Balfour houses both transport you back into the campaign to capture the city.

Peering through the windows of the Balfour house (which is a private residence, so the peering was from the street and as nonchalant as a gawking history nerd can be) stirred the events of the Christmas Eve party held by Dr. William and Emma Balfour: Confederate officers resplendent in their finest dress uniforms, beautiful southern belles stunning in every way imaginable, all dancing the night away as Union transport boats descended the Mississippi river to capture the city. This was the beginning of William T. Sherman’s failed Chickasaw Bayou expedition.

Apart from all of the history spanning pre-Columbian to modern industrial, Vicksburg has a wonderfully developing downtown, sprawling from Washington Street. Cute restaurants, a new brewery, and welcoming voices greet you, asking where “y’all from” and also curious why we’d leave New York for Vicksburg.

For those who have never had the opportunity to see the military park here at Vicksburg, they will both impressed with its grandeur and in awe of its monuments, both within the park boundaries and around the city. The fifth national military park, created in 1899 through an Act of Congress, the park roads originally contoured to the siege lines. However, in the 1960s, the city petitioned the National Park Service to transfer some land back in order to allow for development.

Thus, as you drive around Vicksburg, the south side of the original park has considerable commercial and residential development. Yet, this alone cannot diminish the magnificence of this battlefield gem. Traveling the siege lines and walking the grounds allows one to find oneself, to quote the Civil War historian Steve Phan, “soulfully lost on the battlefield.”

ECW Welcomes Sean M. Chick

Sean Michael Chick graduated from University of New Orleans with a Bachelor of Arts in History and Communications and from Southeastern Louisiana University with a Master of Arts in History. He served as a teaching assistant in the history department at University of Kentucky and currently works in New Orleans, leading historic tours of his hometown and helping residents and visitors appreciate the city’s past. Chick has also been involved in historic board game development and design for many years.

Welcomed as a speaker at CWRTs and at the 20th Annual Bluegrass Symposium (2007), he has presented his research on secession and the life of General Beauregard. Chick has published a book about the Battle of Petersburg. He has written articles for nationally recognized history magazines, and is currently working on books for the Emerging Civil War Series.

Chick’s research interests include Beauregard, New Orleans during the Civil War, the Army of Tennessee, and Civil War tactics in relation to linear tactics from 1685-1866. His studies in historic tactics and generalship emphasizes new perspectives to Civil War studies. He is always looking for new topics of study in untapped resources and avenues of inquiry into the past.


The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864 (Potomac Books, 2015)


  • Country Roads
  • Paper Wars
  • NOLA Defender
  • Blue & Gray Magazine
  • Yaah!

Board Games

  • Across Four Oceans
  • Hold the Line: Frederick’s War
  • The Beast at the Gates: Drewry’s Bluff 1864
  • Hell in the Pacific: Plan Orange 1931 and 1935
  • Nine Years: The War of the Grand Alliance 1688-1697
  • Horse & Musket: Dawn of an Era
  • Cruel Morning: Shiloh 1862
  • Pemberton & Grant: Vicksburg Campaign of 1863

Unvexed Waters: Mississippi River Squadron, Part I

Ironclads at Fort Henry

Ironclads Carondelet, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Essex bombard Fort Henry

History offers few examples other than the Civil War and Vietnam of extensive operations on inland shallow waters involving specialized classes of war vessels commanded and manned by naval personnel. The struggle for the Mississippi River, the spine of America, was one of the longest, most challenging and diverse campaign of the Civil War. The river extended 700 miles from Mound City, Illinois, to the Gulf of Mexico.

Strategically, the river war was an extension of blockade, an outgrowth of the Anaconda Plan. On June 10, 1862, Major General William T. Sherman wrote to his wife Ellen: “I think the Mississippi the great artery of America, whatever power holds it, holds the continent.”[1] But in technology and tactics, river warfare was an entirely new concept. Both navies started with nothing—no warships, no experience, no tactics, no command structure, no infrastructure.

Operations would involve: Joint and amphibious expeditions; reduction of powerful shore fortifications; interdiction of enemy trade, communications, and transportation; and river patrol and guerrilla suppression, all while sustaining and protecting friendly activities.

Technology would include ironclads, steam-powered gunboats, modern fortifications and artillery, and mines, all relatively untested instruments of war. The U.S. Navy, an exclusively deep-water force, had never thought very much about any of these challenges.

Under the watchful eyes of the commander in chief, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton developed a close partnership, built a robust riverine force from nothing, and coordinated on strategy.

There was no joint staff, and no protocols or mechanisms for directing joint operations. The officers of one service, however senior, could issue no orders to an officer of the other service, however junior. Coordination at the operational level depended entirely on the willingness and abilities of field commanders to plan and execute together.

A lack of joint perspective impeded many operations and negated strategic opportunities, but Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote, Flag Officer H. Charles Davis, Admiral David D. Porter, and General U. S. Grant put differences aside. From his first battle to his last, Grant incorporated the navy as an integral combat and logistical arm, and he credited navy compatriots as a major factor in victory.


John Rodgers

In May 1861, Secretary Welles appointed Commander John Rodgers to: Establish “a naval armament” on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, blockade or interdict Rebel communications, and “aid, advise, and cooperate” with army commanders “in crossing or navigating the rivers or in arming and equipping the boats required.”[2]

This ad hoc fleet would become the Western Gunboat Flotilla, a unique “joint service” organization. Gunboats were manned by navy personnel, but were converted or built using funds from the War Department, and were under the command of the army.

Working out of Cincinnati, Rodgers purchased three commercial steamers and contracted for their conversion. The USS Conestoga, USS Tyler, and USS Lexington were the first commissioned warships dedicated to river conflict.

Boilers and steam pipes were lowered into the hold; superstructures were removed and replaced with 5-inch thick oak bulwarks; sides were pierced and decks strengthened for six or eight guns.

USS Conestoga

Tinberclad USS Conestoga

Rogers acted entirely on his own initiative, without instructions, plans, authority, and initially without funding. He was rebuked by the Navy Department for so doing. These small but powerful vessels probably saw more service than any other gunboats in the Western Theater.

The next step was to design and build gunboats from the keel up, producing the first uniform river warship class and the first U.S. ironclads to enter combat.

Rogers partnered with James B. Eads, a wealthy St. Louis industrialist and self-taught naval engineer who risked his fortune to build the vessels. He was an exceptional river navigator and would become a world-renowned civil engineer and inventor.

Union river ironclad

“City Class” ironclad built by James Eads

Noted naval architect Samuel Pook designed the ironclads, which were thereby dubbed “Pook Turtles.” They combined firepower, protection, and mobility in a manner achieved by few contemporaries, but with defects.

The armor was inadequate. Maneuverability was restricted. They had no watertight compartments to isolate damage. They were vulnerable to mines, which sank the USS Cairo and USS Baron De Kalb, and to ramming, which sank (if only briefly) the USS Cincinnati and USS Mound City.

These ironclads were the backbone of the river flotilla taking part in almost every significant action on the upper Mississippi and its tributaries.

Other ironclads included the USS Benton, a converted center-wheel catamaran snag boat (the largest and best vessel of the Western flotilla), and USS Essex, along with a few smaller and partly armored gun-boats.

Dozens of other flat-bottomed river steamers were purchased and converted into armed and armored warships to patrol, escort, transport, and communicate over hundreds of miles of rivers through occupied territory. Thin metal sheeting, usually tin, provided small arms protection, hence “Tinclads.” The luxurious USS Black Hawk became Admiral Porter’s command ship.

The United States Ram Fleet—later the Mississippi Marine Brigade—was an odd duck, a small volunteer navy commanded by a family with no military experience. It was the brainchild of noted civil engineer Charles Ellet, Jr. who was convinced that, with steam power, ramming again was a viable naval tactic.

In March 1862, he persuaded Secretary of War Stanton to appoint him a colonel of engineers with authority to build his own flotilla. Ellet converted several powerful river towboats, heavily reinforcing their hulls for ramming. Boilers, engines and upper works were lightly protected with wood and cotton. Originally not armed, they later were fitted with several guns.

Ellet RamsColonel Ellet reported directly to the Secretary of War, operating independently of the squadron and theater commanders. When Ellet received a mortal wound at the Battle of Memphis in June 1862, command passed to his younger brother, Alfred, and to his son, Colonel Charles R. Ellet. The rams figured prominently in actions around and below Vicksburg into 1863 and performed supporting roles for the remainder of the war.

Andrew H. Foote

Andrew H. Foote

In February 1862, Flag Officer Andrew Foote succeeded Rodgers as flotilla commander. He and Grant formed a potent army-navy team against Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland, blowing open the Confederacy’s heartland, exposing Nashville, Shiloh, and eventually Chattanooga along a wet highway into northern Mississippi and Alabama.

The main Rebel defense line in the west collapsed, abandoning all of Kentucky and most of middle Tennessee along with crucial economic resources such as iron and pork. These were perhaps the deadliest strategic strokes of the war as well as the greatest single supply disaster for the Confederacy.

Foote’s gunboats pounded the poorly sited and constructed Fort Henry into submission before Union troops even arrived.

At Fort Donelson his ironclads took considerable damage until “Unconditional Surrender” Grant surrounded and battered the Rebels into capitulation, bagging an entire Confederate field army and beginning Grant’s rise to supreme command.

Together they achieved a strategic outcome George McClellan would fail to obtain during the Peninsula Campaign that spring.

Part 2 will complete the story.

(Extracted from a paper presented at the North American Society for Oceanic History (NASOH) Annual Conference, St. Charles, Missouri, May 22, 2018. This presentation with PowerPoint is available for interested groups. See www.CivilWarNavyHistory.com.)

[1] Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman to Ellen Sherman, June 10, 1862, University of North Dakota, Sherman Family Papers.

[2] Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, vol. 22 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1894-1922), 280, 284-285.

ECW Week in Review May 28-June 2

Week in Review-header

We finished off one of our best months ever, readership-wise, this past week, and then finished off the week with some big news from the American Battlefield Trust. So, it would be fair to characterize this week as “BIG.”

Here’s a run-down of the past week at ECW: 

Monday, May 28:

For our Question of the Week, we asked people to talk about a favorite soldier or sailor who deserved special attention for Memorial Day.

We also posted a last call for the Southern California Civil War Conference sponsored by our friends at Gazaette 665 and run by our own Sarah Bierle. ECW’s Dan Davis was one of the speakers.

Tuesday, May 29:

Memorial Day in Rural Maine by Chris Mackowski

ECW released its May 2018 newsletter

Wednesday, May 30:

Our Symposium Spotlight for the week shone on Jim Morgan, who’ll be speaking about the fallout from the battle of Ball’s Bluff and the creation of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.

The First Decoration Day by Chris Kolakowski

Thursday, May 31:

We shared some info about a new research resource from our friends at Savas Beatie, a four-volume roster of Georgia Infantry Regiments 

The Wrongheaded Righteousness of Spray Paint by Chris Mackowski

Friday, June 1:

ECW Weekender: Cold Harbor Battlefield Park by Edward Alexander

Saturday, June 2:

Preservation News: American Battlefield Trust Reaches Major Milestone

ECW’s May 2018 Newsletter Now Available

CWN mastheadECW’s May 2018 newsletter is now available.

In this month’s issue:

  • Editor-in-Chief Chris Mackowski offers a summer challenge for students of the war
  • We announce a new collaboration with Civil War News
  • Eric Wittenberg answers our “10 Questions”
  • We share our biggest-ever selection of News & Notes (boy, do our folks have a lot going on!)

And, of course, there’s still a chance to order tickets to our Fifth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium at Stevenson Ridge, Aug. 3-5.

If you’re not on our mailing list but would like to be, you can subscribe by following this link to the newsletter and then, at the top of the page, hit the teal button that says “Join email list.” If you think you’re on our mailing list but aren’t getting a newsletter, please check your junk mail folder and your spam filter (we’re not spam–we promise!)