USS Winnebago was a double-turreted ironclad monitor notable for her part in the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864.
The contract for her construction was given on 27 May 1862 to James B. Eads of St. Louis, Missouri, a man who was also noted for the construction of several casemated ironclad gunboats then in service on the Mississippi River. The hull of the ship was built at nearby Carondelet by the Union Iron Works. Launched on 4 July 1863, Winnebago was commissioned on 27 April 1864, Acting Master A. S. Megathlin in command.
Winnebago, like the rest of her class, bore a "turtle-backed" curved deck, designed to shed water easily to the sides as well as cause enemy shells to strike at a glancing blow. Her aft turret was Ericsson-designed, while her forward turret was designed by Eads, with a gun deck that lowered to facilitate the cleaning and loading of the weapons while keeping the gun crew safe from enemy fire during the process.
Assigned to the Mississippi Squadron, Winnebago operated on the Mississippi and its tributaries protecting that vital waterway for Union forces during the last year of the Civil War. On 15 June 1864, she dueled Confederate artillery after Rebel guns had fired upon the wooden side-wheeler General Bragg off Como Landing, Louisiana. General Bragg's return fire caused the Confederates to move their guns to Ratliffs Landing, where they began shelling the paddle-wheel steamer Naiad. Alerted by the sound of the gunfire, Winnebago headed toward the action and soon joined the battle. Eventually, the combined fire from the three Union ships silenced the Confederate battery.
Meanwhile, to the south, Rear Admiral David Farragut was preparing to attack the Confederate forts at Mobile, Alabama. Accordingly, on 1 July, Rear Admiral David D. Porter reported to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles that Winnebago and Chickasaw had been sent to Farragut's West Gulf Blockading Squadron off Mobile.
In spite of rough weather en route, Winnebago made passage without incident, even proceeding on the final part of the voyage independently, without a tow. Her performance impressed Farragut, who was nearly finished with his preparations to attack the Confederate positions at Mobile Bay. Her arrival with Chickasaw and that of the monitor Tecumseh completed the Union squadron. All was now ready.
At 0530 on 5 August 1864, Winnebago got underway as Farragut's squadron moved out for battle. With Commander Thomas H. Stevens in command, the double-turreted monitor got underway from her anchorage near Sand Island and proceeded up the bay, "for the purpose of attacking the enemy."
Braving the heavily gunned defenses of Fort Morgan and known Confederate minefields - which were then called "torpedoes" - Farragut's squadron of four ironclad monitors and 14 wooden steamships boldly attacked. Winnebago steamed third in the column of ironclads, astern of Tecumseh and Manhattan, while Chickasaw brought up the rear. At 0700 that morning, Winnebago took station between Fort Morgan and the wooden vessels of the fleet, in line of battle. This formation enabled the armored monitors to draw the fire from the shore guns away from the wooden ships of Farragut's battle line.
The monitors' orders were clear: to neutralize the fire of the Confederate guns that raked the approach of the Union ships and to look out for the Rebel ironclads when Farragut's ships were abreast of the forts. At 0715, Winnebago commenced fire, her Dahlgren smoothbores hurling grape and canister against the Confederate emplacements of Fort Morgan. Suddenly, about three-quarters of an hour later, Tecumseh struck a torpedo and sank immediately, within a cable's length of Winnebago. Farragut, undaunted, ordered the squadron to proceed. The sinking of Tecumseh scarcely checked their passage.
As she steamed past Fort Morgan, engaging the Confederate guns on her starboard hand, Winnebago took on board 10 survivors from the ill-fated Tecumseh (who had been bravely plucked from the waters of Mobile Bay by a boat from Metacomet) and steamed slowly up the bay. That part of the passage had been made with comparatively little damage. The worst part of the battle for the Union squadron lay ahead, when the ships successfully completed passage and the Confederate ironclad ram Tennessee attacked.
However, before Winnebago could get into position to have a major role in the fighting — which caused more damage to the Union squadron than did the batteries at Fort Morgan — Tennessee was forced to surrender to the overwhelmingly more powerful Union squadron.
Winnebago anchored at 1045, her part in the Battle of Mobile Bay over. She had been hit 19 times, three shots penetrating the deck near her after turret, but fortunately had suffered no casualties.
Winnebago subsequently remained in the Mobile Bay area, supporting the ensuing siege of Fort Morgan. On the night of 8 August, the monitor sent a boat crew, 14 men under the command of Acting Ensign Michael Murphy, out on a special mission. Setting out from the ship after moonset, Murphy's men cut the telegraph cable between Fort Morgan and the city of Mobile. The expedition, as Commander Stevens later reported, was "one of danger and difficulty . . . neatly performed."
Winnebago periodically shelled Fort Morgan — then under siege from the shoreward side — as did the other warships of the squadron. Ultimately, the superior firepower and overwhelming numbers amassed against Fort Morgan resulted in its surrender on 24 August.
The twin-turreted monitor remained at Mobile Bay into 1865. On 5 January 1865, a boat crew — again under the command of Acting Ensign Murphy — set out from the ship on a foraging mission. They carried out their nocturnal prowl behind enemy lines, returning with copper kettles used for distilling turpentine, 1,300 pounds of copper pipes, and four sloop-rigged boats from Bon Secours Bay, Alabama.
On 27 March, joint Army-Navy operations aimed at capturing the city of Mobile commenced. The key objective of the initial thrust centered on Spanish Fort, located near the mouth of the Blakely River and the key to the city's defenses. Six tinclad gunboats and supporting heavier units moved up the Blakely River to cut the fort's communications with Mobile while the army began to move on the landward side.
The Confederates had attempted to stymie any water-borne advance on the fort by sowing mines thickly in the river waters. Sweeping operations by the Union forces netted 150 torpedoes but unfortunately did not completely clear the river, with disastrous effects.
While Winnebago managed to emerge from the campaign that followed unscathed, her sistership Milwaukee did not. On 28 March, that river monitor — while dropping downriver from a point within a mile and a half of Spanish Port — fouled a torpedo. She and Winnebago had gone upriver to shell a Confederate transport supposedly carrying supplies to the beleaguered Confederate garrison. After the enemy steamer had beat a hasty retreat, the ironclad gunboats headed downriver, where Milwaukee — in an area previously swept — struck a mine on her port side. She sank by the stern, fortunately remaining afloat forward, permitting the crew to escape without a loss. Over the ensuing days, two more Union ships fell victim to Confederate torpedoes in the Blakely River.
Nevertheless, undaunted, Union riverine forces subsequently cleared the Blakely, thus opening the way upstream. Winnebago participated in that operation, destroying Confederate obstructions through the channel.
Winnebago later served on convoy duty after the fall of Selma, Alabama in April of 1865. She protected a convoy carrying some 13,000 troops under Major General Steele, USA, to Selma and Montgomery. Later, the monitor's task, in company with Octorora, was to remain near the junction of the Tombigbee and Alabama Rivers. There, she covered a Union force erecting fortifications above that point to prevent local navigation by Confederate ships and craft.
Ultimately joined by the gunboat Sebago, Winnebago and Octorora blockaded the Rebel ironclad Nashville and the gunboat CSS Morgan up the Tombigbee River. Their presence kept the Confederate warships within their lair until the end of hostilities.
Winnebago returned to Mobile Bay at the end of the Civil War. Laid up across from New Orleans, on the Algiers side of the Mississippi, on 27 September 1865, Winnebago remained there into the early 1870's. She was renamed twice during that time: the first to Tornado on 15 June 1869; and then given back her original name on 10 August 1869. The old river monitor was then sold at auction to Nathaniel McKay, at New Orleans, on 12 September 1874.
Part of the text is incorporated from the United States Navy's Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, a work in the public domain.