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Friday, March 16, 2012

Civil War Photo Friday: The USS Essex

This is a photo of the USS Essex, a steam-powered Union gunboat that saw service on several Western rivers. She was built in 1856 as a ferry and was originally called New Era. The U.S. government bought it in September of 1861 and armored it with timber. As a timberclad she dueled Confederate gunboats and bombarded Fort Henry in Tennessee.

Later that year she was outfitted with iron plating and became an ironclad. This improvement served her well when she started pummeling the Confederate timberclads, prompting the Confederacy to make more ironclads for themselves. The Essex also took part in the bombardment of Vicksburg and the ill-fated Red River Campaign in Louisiana.

A few stats for you naval buffs: The Essex was 250 ft. long, 60 ft. wide, yet had a displacement of only 6 ft. This was the big advantage of these river gunboats--they could go into shallow tributaries and bombard enemy positions on the land. Her maximum speed was 5.5 knots and she had a displacement of 640 tons. Her armor was responsible for a lot of that weight, yet was only ¾ of an inch on the sides and 1 ¾ inches on the forward casemate. She had a crew of 124 and six cannons.

I’ve tinkered with the history of this vessel in the next novel of my House Divided Series. Instead of its real commander, Commander Andrew Bryson, in late 1864 it is commanded by Allen Addison, the son of Richard Addison, one of the protagonists in A Fine Likeness. Allen is Richard’s only surviving son, and is generally ignored by his father. He appears in some letters in A Fine Likeness, but never has a scene. In the as-yet-unnamed second book in the series, he becomes one of the main protagonists.

Being an historian, I’m not entirely comfortable changing history. In A Fine Likeness I was able to worm the plot through the cracks in history, filling in the gaps, as it were. Through the letters in A Fine Likeness it’s already established that Allen was serving aboard the Essex, so I wrote myself in a corner in that one. Since putting Addison in charge of the Essex would change history, I might have him get a promotion and get his own (fictional) gunboat by the time the second book starts. That way I can do whatever I want!

I do like the Essex, though, because for the purposes of the plot I need a powerful gunboat that has spare room to take a bunch of passengers. Besides, she’s a beauty!


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