CHAPTER XI. JAMES B. EADS.
JAMES B. EADS was born in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, in the year 1820. His father was a man of moderate means, and was able to give him a fair English education. From his earliest childhood he evinced a remarkable fondness for all sorts of machinery and mechanical arrangements. This fondness became at length a passion, and excited the surprise of his friends, who could not imagine why a mere child should be so much interested in such things. His greatest delight was to go to the machine shops in his neighborhood, in which he had many friends, and watch the workings of the various inventions employed therein.
When he was nine years old his father removed to Louisville, Kentucky. During the voyage down the Ohio, young Eads passed the most of his time in watching the engines of the steamer. The engineer was so much pleased to see his interest in the machinery that he explained the whole system of the steam-engine to him. The boy listened eagerly, and every word remained fixed in his mind. Two years later, with no further instruction on the subject, he constructed a miniature engine, which was worked by steam. This, for a boy of eleven years, was no insignificant triumph of genius. His father, anxious to encourage such unmistakable talent, now fitted up a small workshop for him, in which he constructed models of saw mills, fire engines, steamboats, and electrotyping machines. When he was only twelve years old he was able to take to pieces and reset the family clock and a patent lever watch, using no tool for this purpose but his pocket-knife.
At the age of thirteen his pleasant employment was brought to a sudden end. His father lost all his property by the failure of some commercial transactions, and the family was brought to the verge of ruin. It now became necessary for young Eads to labor for his own support, and for that of his mother and sisters. Boy as he was, he faced the crisis bravely. Having in vain sought employment in Louisville, he resolved to go to St. Louis. He worked his passage there on a river steamer, and landed in that city so poor that he had neither shoes to his feet nor a coat to his back. He found it as difficult to procure work here as it had been in Louisville, and was at length compelled to resort to peddling apples on the street in order to secure a living. He did this for some time, never relaxing his efforts to obtain more desirable employment.
After many attempts he succeeded in getting a situation in a mercantile house, at a fair salary. One of his employers was a man of wealth and culture, and was possessed of one of the finest private libraries in the West. Learning the extraordinary mechanical talent possessed by his young clerk, this gentleman placed his library at his disposal. The offer was promptly and gratefully accepted, and young Eads devoted almost all his leisure time to the study of mechanics, machinery, and civil engineering. He remained with this house for several years, and then obtained a clerkship on one of the Mississippi River steamers, where he passed several years more. During this time he became intimately acquainted with the great river and its tributaries, and acquired an extensive knowledge of all subjects appertaining to western navigation, which proved of great service to him in his after life.
In 1842, being then twenty-two years old, and having saved a moderate sum of money, he formed a copartnership with Messrs. Case & Nelson, boat builders, of St. Louis, for the purpose of recovering steamboats and their cargoes which had been sunk or wrecked in the Mississippi. Accidents of this kind were then very common in those waters, and the business bade fair to be very profitable. The enterprise succeeded better than had been expected, and the operations of the wrecking company extended from Galena, Illinois, to the Balize, and into many of the tributaries of the great river. The parties interested in the scheme realized a handsome profit on their investments. Mr. Eads was the practical man of the concern, and worked hard to establish it upon a successful footing. In 1845 he sold out his interest in the company, and established a glass manufactory in St. Louis. This was the first enterprise of the kind ever attempted west of the Mississippi. Two years later, in 1847, he organized a new company for the purpose of recovering boats and cargoes lost in the Mississippi and its tributaries. This company started with a capital of fifteen hundred dollars. It was slow work at first, but a steady improvement was made every year, and in 1857, just ten years from the date of their organization, the property of the firm was valued at more than half a million of dollars. During the winter of 1856-'57, Mr. Eads laid before Congress a formal proposition to remove the obstructions from the western rivers and keep them open for a term of years, upon payment of a reasonable sum by the General Government. Had this proposition been accepted, the benefits thereby secured to all who were engaged in the navigation of those rivers would have been very great. A bill was reported in Congress authorizing the acceptance of Mr. Eads' offer, but was defeated through the influence of the Senators from Mississippi (Jefferson Davis) and Louisiana (J.P. Benjamin).
In 1857, Mr. Eads was compelled, on account of ill-health, to retire from business. He had earned a handsome fortune by his industry and enterprise, and could well afford to rest for a short time, preparatory, as it afterward proved, to the most important part of his whole career.
When the secession troubles began to agitate the country, toward the close of the year 1860, Mr. Eads cast the weight of his private and public influence on the side of the Union. He felt that the war, if it should come, would be a very serious affair for the West, as the prosperity of that section depends largely upon the absolute freedom of the navigation of the Mississippi. The Confederates well understood this, and prepared from the first to close the great river until their independence should be acknowledged by the General Government. Dr. Boynton, in his "History of the United States Navy During the Rebellion," thus describes the condition of affairs in the West, a proper understanding of which will show the reader the importance of the services subsequently rendered by Mr. Eads:
The main features of the rebel plan of war in the West were to seize and hold Missouri, and, as a consequence, Kansas and Nebraska, and thus threaten or invade the free States of the North-west from that point; to hold Kentucky and Tennessee, and, if possible, to cross the Ohio, and make the Northern States the theater of the war; or, in case they should be unable to invade the North, to maintain their battle line unbroken along the Ohio and through Missouri; to keep the great rivers closed, and thus holding back the North, and being secure within their own territory, at length compel the recognition of their independence. They certainly presented to the North a most formidable front, a line of defenses which was indeed impregnable to any means of assault which the Government at first possessed. No army could be moved into Tennessee by land alone, because the line of communication with a Northern base could not be held secure, and a defeat far from the Ohio would be the destruction of an army, and open the road for an invasion of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, and the destruction of their cities.
It was quite evident that no impression could be made upon the power of the rebellion in the West, until a firm foothold could be gained in Kentucky and Tennessee, and until the Mississippi could be wrested from the conspirators' control. It was clear that the whole seaboard might be regained, even to Florida, and yet the rebellion remain as dangerous as ever, if the rebels could hold the Mississippi River and the valley up to or near the Ohio.
France was looking with eager eyes toward Texas, in the hope of securing and extending her Mexican usurpation. England was ready to give all the assistance in her power to any step which would weaken the North; and had the rebels been pressed back from the seaports and the Northern Atlantic slope, they would have had it in their power, if still holding the Mississippi, the South-west, including Tennessee, and the great natural fortresses of the mountains, to have so connected themselves with Mexico and France as to have caused the most serious embarrassment. It became absolutely necessary to the success of the Government that the rebels' northern line of defenses should be broken through, and that the Mississippi should be opened to its mouth.
At first, and before the nature of the work was fully understood, the whole was placed under the direction of the War Department, as it was thought the few armed transports which would be needed would be a mere appendage of the army. The idea of a formidable river navy of a hundred powerful steamers did not in the beginning enter into the minds of any.
It was soon seen, however, that an entirely new description of craft was needed for this work. It was clear that the river boats, which had been built for the common purposes of freight and passage, were not capable of resisting the fire of heavy artillery, and that the batteries of the rebels could not be captured nor even passed by them. They could not even be safely employed alone in the transportation of troops, for they could be sunk or crippled by the field batteries that could be moved from point to point. The question of iron-clads was proposed, but with only the ocean iron-clads as a guide, who should conceive the proper form of an armored boat which could navigate our rivers and compete successfully with the heavy guns, rifled as well as smooth-bore, of the fortifications. It was by no means easy to solve this problem, but it was absolutely necessary that the attempt should be made.... These forts could only be reduced by the aid of gunboats, and these were almost literally to be created.
There was in the Cabinet of President Lincoln at this time a western man, intimately acquainted with the steamboat interest of the Mississippi. This was Edward Bates, the Attorney-General of the United States. He was an old friend of Mr. Eads, and felt assured that in case of war the services of that gentleman would be of the greatest value to the country. When it was found that hostilities could not be avoided, he mentioned the name of Mr. Eads to the Cabinet, and strongly urged that his services should be secured at the earliest possible moment. On the 17th of April, 1861, three days after Fort Sumter had fallen, he wrote to Mr. Eads, who was living in comfortable retirement, at St. Louis: "Be not surprised if you are called here suddenly by telegram. If called, come instantly. In a certain contingency it will be necessary to have the aid of the most thorough knowledge of our western rivers, and the use of steam on them, and in that event I have advised that you should be consulted."
A few days later Mr. Eads was summoned to Washington. Mr. Bates there explained to him in full a plan he had conceived for occupying Cairo, and endeavoring to hold the Mississippi by means of gunboats. Mr. Eads warmly indorsed the plan, and was introduced by Mr. Bates to the President and members of the Cabinet. When the plan was proposed to the Cabinet, the Secretary of War pronounced it unnecessary and impracticable, but the Secretary of the Navy was much impressed with it, and requested Mr. Eads to submit his views in writing, which was done. The paper embodied Judge Bates's general plan in addition to Mr. Eads's own views, and contained suggestions as to the kind of boats best fitted for service on the western rivers, and also in regard to the best points on those streams for the erection of land batteries. This paper was submitted to the Navy Department on the 29th of April, 1861, and was referred by the Secretary to Commodore Paulding, who reported in favor of its adoption.
The Secretary of the Navy now detailed Captain John Rodgers to accompany Mr. Eads to the West, and purchase and fit out such steamers as should be found necessary for the service. Up to this time the Secretary of War had manifested the most supreme indifference in regard to the whole subject, but he now claimed entire jurisdiction in the matter, and this interference caused considerable vexation and delay. At length he issued an order to Mr. Eads and Captain Rodgers to proceed with their purchases. These gentlemen obtained the approval of General McClellan, in whose department the purchases were to be made, and began their operations.
Upon arriving at Cairo, they found one of the old snag-boat fleet, called the "Benton." Mr. Eads knew the boat well, as he had formerly owned her, and proposed to purchase and arm her, but Captain Rodgers did not approve the plan for converting her into a gunboat. Mr. Eads then proposed to purchase and arm several of the strong, swift boats used for the navigation of the Missouri River, and equip them at St. Louis, from which point there would always be water enough to get them below Cairo. Captain Rodgers disapproved this plan also, and went to Cincinnati, where he purchased and equipped the "Conestoga," "Tyler," and "Lexington," and started them down the river. They were not iron-clad, but were merely protected around the boilers with coal bunkers, and provided with bullet-proof oaken bulwarks. Mr. Eads had warned Captain Rodgers that he could not depend upon the Ohio to get his boats down to Cairo, and his predictions were realized. The boats were started from Cincinnati some time in July; they were detained on the bars of the Ohio for six or seven weeks, and did not reach Cairo until about the first of September; then the bottom of the "Tyler" was found to be so badly damaged by sand-bars that she had to be put on the marine railway for repairs.
In July, 1861, the War Department advertised for proposals to construct a number of iron-clad gunboats for service on the Mississippi River. On the 5th of August, when the bids were opened, it was found that Mr. Eads proposed to build these boats in a shorter time and upon more favorable terms than any one else. His offer was accepted, and on the 7th of August he signed a contract with Quartermaster-General Meigs to have ready for their crews and armaments, in sixty-five days, seven vessels, of about six hundred tons each, each to draw six feet of water, to carry thirteen heavy guns, to be plated with iron two and a half inches thick, and to steam nine miles per hour. "They were one hundred and seventy-five feet long, and fifty-one and a half feet wide; the hulls of wood; their sides placed out from the bottom of the boat to the water line at an angle of about thirty-five degrees, and from the water line the sides fell back at about the same angle, to form a slanting casemate, the gun-deck being but a foot above water. This slanting casemate extended across the hull, near the bow and stern, forming a quadrilateral gun-deck. Three nine or ten-inch guns were placed in the bow, four similar ones on each side, and two smaller ones astern. The casemate inclosed the wheel, which was placed in a recess at the stern of the vessel. The plating was two and a half inches thick, thirteen inches wide, and was rabbeted on the edges to make a more perfect joint."
In undertaking to complete these vessels in sixty-five days, Mr. Eads had assumed a heavy responsibility. The manufacturing interests of the West were sadly crippled by the sudden commencement of hostilities, and doubt and distrust prevailed every-where. The worst feature of all was, that skilled workmen were either enlisting in the army or seeking employment in States more remote from the scene of war. Every thing needed for the gunboats was to be made. Even the timber for their hulls was still standing in the forest, and the huge machinery which was to roll out and harden their iron plates had yet to be constructed. No single city, no two cities, however great in resources, could possibly supply every thing needed within the stipulated time, and it was necessary to employ help wherever it could be obtained.
The very day the contract was signed, the telegraph was kept busy sending instructions all over the West for the commencement of the various parts of the work. The saw-mills in Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Minnesota, and Missouri were set to getting out the timber, which was hurried to St. Louis by railroad and steamboat as fast as it was ready. There were twenty-one steam engines and thirty-five boilers to be made, and the machine-shops in St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh were put to work upon them. The huge rolling-mills of Cincinnati and Portsmouth, Ohio, Newport, Kentucky, and St. Louis were engaged in making the iron plates, and employed for this purpose no less than four thousand men. Night and day, Sundays included, the work went on with an almost superhuman swiftness. Mr. Eads paid the workmen on the hulls large sums from his own pocket, in addition to their wages, to induce them to continue steadily at their work.
On the 12th of October, 1861, just forty-five days from the time of laying her keel, the first iron-clad, belonging to the United States, was launched, with her engines and boilers on board. Rear Admiral Foote (then a flag officer), appointed to command the Mississippi squadron, named her the "St. Louis," but upon being transferred to the Navy Department her name was changed to the "Baron de Kalb." She was followed by the other vessels in rapid succession, all being completed within the stipulated time.
In September, 1861, General Fremont ordered the purchase of the snag boat "Benton," which had been proposed by Mr. Eads and rejected by Captain Rodgers, and sent her to Mr. Eads to be armored and equipped as a gunboat. Work was at once begun on her, and pushed forward with the same energy that had been displayed in the construction of the other iron-clads. Her performances during the war fully sustained the high esteem in which she was held by the officers of the navy. Admirals Foote and Davis pronounced her the "best iron-clad in the world."
By dint of such skill and energy as we have described, Mr. Eads, in the brief period of one hundred days, built and had ready for service a powerful iron-clad fleet of eight steamers, carrying one hundred and seven heavy guns, and having an aggregate capacity of five thousand tons. Such a work was one of the greatest in magnitude ever performed, and, as may be supposed, required a heavy capital to carry it to perfection. Mr. Eads soon exhausted his own means, and but for the assistance of friends, whose confidence in his integrity and capacity induced them to advance him large sums, would have been compelled to abandon the undertaking; for the Government, upon various pretexts, delayed for months the stipulated payments, and by its criminal negligence came near bringing the iron-clad fleet, so necessary to its success, to an untimely end. It was prompt enough, however, to commission the vessels as soon as they were ready. At the time they rendered such good service in the conquest of Forts Henry and Donelson, and compelled the fall of Island No. 10, they were still unpaid for, and the private property of Mr. Eads.
In the spring of 1862, Mr. Eads, in accordance with the desire of the Navy Department, submitted plans for light-draught armored vessels for service on the western rivers. He proposed an ingenious revolving turret to be used on these vessels, the performance of which he agreed to guarantee to the satisfaction of the Department; but the Government decided to use the Ericsson turret, which the recent encounter between the Monitor and Merrimac had proved to be a success. Mr. Eads was allowed, however, to modify the Ericsson turret considerably, in order to avoid making the draft of his steamers greater than was desired. He built the "Osage" and "Neosho," and when these vessels were launched, with all their weight on board, it was found that they were really lighter than the contract called for, a circumstance which permitted the thickness of their armor to be afterward increased half an inch without injuring their draught or speed.
In May, 1862, at the request of the Navy Department, Mr. Eads submitted plans for four iron-clads, iron hull propellers, to carry two turrets each of eight inches thickness, four eleven inch guns, and three-quarters inch deck armor, to steam nine nautical miles per hour, to carry three days' coal, and not to exceed a draught of six feet of water. His plans were accepted, and he constructed the "Winnebago," "Kickapoo," "Milwaukee," and "Chickasaw." Like the "Osage" and "Neosho," these vessels were found to be of lighter draught than had been agreed upon, and the Department ordered all four to have an extra plating of three-quarters inch armor, which was done. Three of the vessels were also reported, by the officers of the navy sent to examine them, to exceed the speed required by the contract, while the fourth was fully up to the standard.
Of how many "Government Contractors" during the war can it be said that their work was much better than they had agreed to furnish? Verily, we think Mr. Eads stands almost alone in this respect, his proud position made still more honorable by its comparative isolation.
Mr. Eads built, during the war, fourteen heavily armored gunboats, four heavy mortar boats, and converted seven transports into musket-proof gunboats, or "tin-clads," as they were called on the river. He had a share in other enterprises of a similar nature during the war, and besides rendering good service to the Union, was enabled to retire at the close of the struggle with a handsome fortune, won by his own patriotic skill and energy.
Whatever may be the distinction awarded to others, to him belongs the credit of having been the first to provide the Government with the means of securing that firm hold upon the great river of the West which, once gained, was never relaxed.
Mr. Eads resides in St. Louis. He is still in the prime of life, is admired and honored by his fellow-citizens, and affords a splendid example of what genius and industry can do for a poor, friendless boy in that glorious western country which is one day to be the seat of empire in the New World.