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Throughout the Civil War many steamers that were built, repaired, or upgraded at Madison served in the War Between the States. Like its contribution of soldiers, Madison served her country well in its maritime fight to preserve the Union.
During the Civil War, the shipyards of Madison were well-known as quick and efficient repair stations and upgrade facilities for the vessels serving in the Union navy. Today, however, very little documentation from that era survives and it is difficult to comment with any certainty on the ships built and serviced here, much less the day-to-day operation of the yards. Prior to the war, the United States Navy possessed only a small fleet of warships. With the outbreak of the Civil War, both the Union and Confederate governments were forced to lease or even seize many commercial steamers, impressing them into service as transport ships and gunboats. This stopgap measure helped both sides of the conflict to form makeshift fleets, adequate at least for river operations, however, the open waters off the Atlantic coast were a different story altogether. There the pre-war Union fleet of ocean-going vessels reigned supreme, blockading the Confederacy for almost the duration of the war.
In Madison, as well as many other ports along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, the Union government purchased or seized vessels on the docks to bolster the existing brownwater fleet. These steamers were then refurbished and sent out to carry supplies to the soldiers at the front or armored and armed with cannon and assigned a naval detachment to serve as floating artillery platforms for the many siege operations that took place on many southern rivers. Unfortunately, a list of the boats armored and upgraded at Madison yards does not exist, so at least for the time being we must rely on Way’s guide for Civil War information on ships actually built in Madison.
Of the steamboats built in Madison, over a dozen saw action in the Civil War, some as transport vessels, some as hospital ships, and some as gunboats. A number of the hulls built in Madison even went south, becoming Confederate naval vessels. Unfortunately, information on these few ships is difficult to come by.
While most of Madison’s Civil War steamers served in non-combatant roles, several were indeed armed and armored and saw action in many of the fiercest naval battles. The hull of the steamer De Soto was built at Madison and completed at New Albany. It seems this vessel had quite an interesting lifespan, operating first in the New Orleans trade until the outbreak of the war, when it was acquired by the United States Quartermasters Department. Sometime after 1861 it made its way south where it was captured as a Confederate gunboat in April of 1862 at Island 10. After its capture the De Soto had the distinction of conveying the wounded Commodore Andrew Foote to Cleveland, Ohio. Union forces renamed the vessel the General Lyon and upgraded its armor to that of a tinclad. It served as an armored gunboat until the war’s close.
Another boat acquired by the Union Navy was the steamer Emma Brown which United States forces seized immediately upon its completion. It was subsequently refitted as a tinclad and renamed the Gazelle. Like the General Lyon it also survived the war despite seeing substantial action. Perhaps the Madison vessel that witnessed some of the heaviest fighting was the somewhat deceivingly named Forest Queen. She served the Union throughout the war with her own crew and received a letter of commendation from General Sheridan after running the notoriously deadly Vicksburg batteries on April 17, 1865.
One Madison vessel that played a key role in the war effort was the City of Alton. This steamer was used to remove 10,000 muskets from the St. Louis Arsenal before a Confederate plot to seize them could be put into effect. The confiscation of these arms, carried out by city militia under cover of darkness, likely prevented the state of Missouri from joining the Confederacy.
Another boat whose hull was built in Madison was the steamer, City of Louisiana. In 1862 this vessel was chartered by the Union to serve as a hospital ship. She was refitted to accommodate the wounded and helped to remove over 3,000 injured soldiers after the battle of Shiloh. In 1863 the Union bought the vessel and renamed it the R.C. Wood, under which name it continued to serve the Sanitary Commission.