Monday, February 10, 2014

Cheese Blocks on a Slab- New York City's Ferry System at War

USS Commodore Morris on the James River.  Notice the addition of boiler plate iron along the side of the vessel.
New York ferryboats working in
the East River before the war
New York City ferryboats were among the many civilian ships purchased by the U.S. Navy at the beginning of the Civil War. With their wide beam, sheltered decks with windows, and two wheel houses, they looked more like houseboats than warships. No one could have expected that when these ships began transporting people across the New York Harbor and the East River, they would actually become incredibly important to local Naval commanders during the Civil War. At least one vessel that used to be a New York ferryboat could be found in almost every campaign in and around Hampton Roads and the tributaries of North Carolina.

The company of the former Staten Island ferryboat
Hunchback poses for one of the best Civil War images
taken of the U.S. Navy during the war.
It is not exactly clear what the Navy’s purchasing agents were thinking when they scoured the docks in New York. But someone had the foresight to see that the Navy was going to need shallow draft vessels capable of negotiating rivers and coastal waterways. The ferryboats’ ability to go backwards as easily they went forward--without having to turn--greatly assisted them in doing just that. The Navy purchased and converted nineteen ferryboats, most of which served in Hampton Roads. They were (and New York ferryboats continue to be), very rectangular in shape. If USS Monitor was the “cheese box on a shingle,” then the ferryboats could easily be labeled “cheese blocks on a granite slab.”

Most of the ferryboats displaced 600 to 750 tons; were about 175 to 180 feet in length and about 29 feet wide; and only drew ten feet of water when fully loaded. The vessel’s armament varied, but generally they were equipped with 100-pounder Parrot Rifles, IX-inch Dahlgren smoothbores, and assorted smaller guns, such as 32- and 12-pounders.

In addition to being gunboats, they also excelled as amphibious assault ships. Since the ship’s primary function before the war was to carry people, U.S. Army commanders frequently requested use of the vessels for raids. The ship could carry several hundred soldiers on board along with heavy guns and ammunition.

USS Commodore Barney (ex-ferryboat Ethan Allen)
These ships did not have any added protection, as they were they made out of thin wood. Enterprising naval officers often used boiler plate iron to reinforce critical areas of the ships, such as the wheel house, before taking them into battle. As a result, the ships took a beating during battles. However, in this area, none of them were ever sunk by gunfire. CSS Albemarle rammed USS Southfield on the Neuse River and a torpedo exploded underneath USS Commodore Jones on the James River.
CSS Albemarle rammed and sank the Staten
Island ferry USS Southfield in 1864.

Once commissioned as warships, the Navy kept the original names for most of the vessels. When a name change was deemed necessary, the ferryboat Commodore Perry seems to have inspired the Navy to introduce the “commodore” series of ship names after Age of Sail flag officers. Names included USS Commodore Jones, McDonough, Morris, Barney, and Hull.

After the war, the Navy sold the ferryboats either back to their original owners or to local merchants. Commodore Perry continued to serve as a New York City ferryboat until 1931. Today, the Staten Island ferry system has not forgotten the contribution of their boxy-looking craft to the war. A list of the vessels that served in the war can be found on their web site,

USS Commodore Perry trails the monitor USS Onondaga on the James River, 1864

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