A Brother Made of Iron; The USS Carondelet

Brothers in war, the USS Carondelet and Bissell’s Missouri Engineers of the West worked together to bring about Union victories and free Union passage along the Mississippi River. It is important to note that the travel taken by the ship down the river was preceded by Bissell’s Engineers who cleared the timber and flooded the swamps, or built fortifications, that provided safe passage past, or into victorious battles with Confederate batteries and forts along the way. See my previous post “A History of Bissell’s Missouri Engineer Regiments.”

The story of this great ship starts with the end of her life. Even in the depths of a river or ocean a ship can find new life; such a story is that of the submarine H.L. Hunley. The Carondelet’s fate was not as heroric or historic.


After her service in the Civil War the Carondelet, a Union Army ironclad river gunboat, was decommissioned in June, 1865 and sold at auction in November. By 1870 she wound up as a wharf-boat on the Ohio River at Gallipolis, Ohio. Just before she was going to be demolished for the iron in her hull, the Carondelet was swept from her moorings by a flood in the spring of 1873. Her hulk was carried 130 miles down-river where she grounded at the head of Manchester Island, about 60 miles southeast of Cincinnati. That was the last record of the Carondelet.

In May 1982, Dr. Clive Cussler of the National Underwater and Marine Agency, went to Cincinnati to hunt for the famous ironclad ship. There is not a good ending to Clive’s trip and search. The following passage is from his account.

“As it turned out, we were right on the money. We were also two days too late. As our boat rounded the eastern tip of the island, there sat the biggest (deleted) dredge boat we’d ever seen in our lives. The thing was four stories high-and she had recently dredged her way directly over the grave of the Carondelet. We didn’t even bother dropping the gradiometer, but headed straight for the dredge where we tied up and talked to the superintendent. He showed us some old wood and rusty hardware his crew had retrieved out of the dredge buckets. They thought they had simply dug over an old barge. They were stunned when I told them they had demolished one of the most famous Civil War ships that ever sailed a river.”

What little remains of her lower hull lies about two hundred and fifty yards east and slightly north off the eastern tip of Manchester Island in the Ohio River. And a hundred and twenty yards off the Ohio shore.

The USS Carondelet was a 512-ton Cairo class boat built in Carondelet, Missouri (now incorporated into Saint Louis) for the U.S. Army’s Western Gunboat Flotilla. She was built by James B. Eads & Co. at Union Marine Works (AKA Union Iron Works or Marine Railway). The works was south of St. Louis near Jefferson Barracks (and the new Missouri Civil War Museum) at what is now the River City Casino.

Commissioned in January 1862, it wasn’t even a month before the ship, one of fourteen Eads’ ironclads he built, would prove its effectiveness, aiding General Grant in the taking of Confederate Fort Donelson and Fort Henry, and again in the taking of New Madrid and Island No. 10. This was followed by operations against Fort Pillow and Memphis, Tennessee. The Carondelet then spent much of the following year in the long campaign against Vicksburg, Mississippi. On 15 July 1862 she was badly damaged in an engagement with the Confederate ironclad Arkansas on the Yazoo River.

In April 1863, Carondelet was a member of the ironclad force that ran past Vicksburg and later bombarded Grand Gulf, Mississippi. In May she participated in the extensive bombardments of Vicksburg, part of the combined Army-Navy operations that led to that fortified city’s surrender on July 4, 1863.

In Conclusion, the greatest engineer in the world; James Buchanan Eads was born in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, on May 23, 1820. He came to St. Louis when he was 13 years old. In 1842, Eads developed a partnership with Case & Nelson boat builders. Their business involved rescuing wrecked boats and cargo from the Mississippi River. In 1857, he retired from the wreck recovery business because of his poor health.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Eads bought the Carondelet Marine Railway Company and used it to build seven gunboats and seven monitors for the U.S. Navy, as well as for conversion and repair work.  The yard was located at the foot of Davis Street in St. Louis, on the site later used by St. Louis Ship.

Mr. Eads died on March 8, 1887, and the headline in the Augusta Chronicle read “The Greatest Engineer in the World Is Dead.”

Sources for this story include: clivecusslershipwreaks.com and blogger Jennifer Koester at blueblazingohio.blogspot.com


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