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Book Review, NRJ 64.1

February 15, 2019 12:00 PM | David Eddy (Administrator)

Joseph Brown and His Civil War Ironclads: The USS Chillicothe, Indianolaand Tuscumbia

Myron J. Smith, Jr.

In Joseph Brown and His Civil War Ironclads: the USS Chillicothe, Indianola and Tuscumbia, Myron J. Smith, Jr. provides a thorough analysis of one man’s contribution to the Civil War. The author gives the story of Joseph Brown’s life as one of the most successful but virtually unknown contractors of the war. He also describes the construction of each of the three ironclads built by Brown, telling of their strengths, weaknesses, and participation in various river actions. Finally, the author endeavors to clarify a part of the story of fighting on the Western rivers that was not addressed in some of his previous works.

Smith makes excellent use of primary sources throughout his work despite the fact that Brown himself did not leave any personal papers. Instead, Smith pieces together the details of Brown’s life using numerous newspaper articles and the writings of other prominent individuals. He begins the book with an account of Brown’s life before the war as a local politician, steamboat captain, and businessman, emphasizing the federal connections that would later help him land the contracts for his ironclads. Smith then delves into the intricate process by which each ship was built, mentioning the various subcontractors and naval personalities and listing the contributions of each person. Smith also foreshadows the problems that each ironclad would eventually encounter by describing the many design flaws and scheduling problems that occurred.

After dealing with Brown and his ironclads, Smith describes the service of each of the three ships during the war. In doing so, he provides an in-depth look at several battles that took place during the 1863 Vicksburg campaign. The Chillicothe, Indianola, and Tuscumbiawere all involved in this campaign to some extent. The organization of this section of the book is strictly chronological, helping to relieve the confusion caused by such a detailed analysis of the battles. The author does an excellent job of relating each little aspect of numerous small river actions to the overall context of both the fighting on the Western rivers and the Civil War as a whole. He does this, in part, by including the tactics that various commanders used to determine the ways in which ships would be utilized.

After telling the story of each ironclad and the people who manned them, Smith relates the story of Brown’s life after the war as an influential St. Louis politician and businessman. Smith delves into Brown’s personal life, business transactions, and political policies in exhaustive detail. He thus adds more dimension to the short biography given in the beginning of the book.

Overall, this book is extremely well-researched, with extensive use and quotation of primary sources. It is also logically organized into coherent sections, each containing a variety of maps and illustrations. Smith successfully creates a balanced and nuanced portrait of Joseph Brown, the ironclads that he built, and their contributions to the Western river fighting of the Civil War.

  •  Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2017
  • 7” x 10”, softcover, x + 384 pages
  • Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $49.95
  • ISBN: 9780786495764

Reviewed by Emily Dibiase, East Carolina University

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