Perhaps the most unlikely candidates for the noble title of “US Gunboat” were the ferryboats. Many came from the New York City region, but others came from harbors on the eastern seaboard from Boston to Chesapeake Bay. While they lacked the imposing appearance of their purebred warship cousins, these tough little ships turned out to be ideally suited for the jobs they were given. They were not built for seaworthiness, but their shallow draft and double-ended design made them ideal for blockade work in the shallow inshore waters of the southeastern U.S. and Gulf of Mexico. Typical drafts ranged from 10 feet to as little as 6+ feet. Most were side-wheel steamers.
They were built to carry heavy loads, and so required little modification for mounting big guns. Their deck armament was variable, but the more common guns were VIII and IX inch Dahlgren smoothbores, 100 pdr Parrot rifles, 24 and 32 pdr smoothbores, and various calibers of rifled guns. These were mounted in the platform areas at each end of the ships (see photos), and were positioned to provide fire from forward, quarter, beam and aft positions. Iron plates, which could be raised or lowered, were sometimes mounted along the gunwhales to protect the gun crews from small arms fire. Ferryboats saw service in all four of the US Navy blockading squadrons:
North Atlantic squadron – the ferries Hunchback, Southfield, Commodore Hull, Commodore Perry and others served along the Virginia and North Carolina coasts. The Hull and Southfield were involved in the engagement with the rebel ironclad CSS Albemarle in April 1864. The Southfield sank after being rammed by the ironclad. In sinking, however, she temporarily disabled the ironclad and enabled the rest of the Union ships to escape, forcing the ironclad to withdraw from the engagement.
South Atlantic squadron – the ferry R. B. Forbes (a Boston twin screw steamer, rather than a New York sidewheeler) joined the South Atlantic squadron in October 1861 and was part of Flag Officer DuPont’s fleet which took Port Royal, South Carolina in November of that year. The Commodore McDonough participated in numerous expeditions in the rivers and sounds of South Carolina, where her shallow draft proved invaluable.
East Gulf squadron – the former New York ferry USS Fort Henry established a reputation as the “Terror of the Gulf.” Patrolling the sector of the Florida gulf coast from Tampa Bay north to the St. Marks River area, the ship and its crew, under the command of Acting Lt. Edward Y. McCauley, captured blockade runners, conducted shore raids to destroy salt works, and provided assistance and shelter to escaped slaves and Floridians who were sympathetic to the Union.
West Gulf squadron – the ferries Westfield, Jackson, and Clifton were part of Flag Officer Farragut’s West Gulf squadron. All three ships were participants in the conquest of the Mississippi River, and subsequently assisted with operations along the Texas coast. The Westfield was purposely destroyed by her crew, accompanied by the death of her captain William B. Renshaw, to avoid capture by the Confederates along the Texas coast on New Year’s Day 1863.