When the Union Ran Out of Ironclads, They Built Timberclads

A curious photograph caught one library specialist at the Library of Congress by surprise: a wooden ironclad


When you think of Civil War ships, you might think of the old, trusty Ironclad. Here’s what they looked like:

When the Union Ran Out of Ironclads, They Built Timberclads
When the Union Ran Out of Ironclads, They Built Timberclads

But there’s a curious picture in the Library of Congress that caught one librarian by surprise. It’s this one:

U.S. gunboat Lexington

It looks a lot like an ironclad, but its sides are made of wood. “I’ve long admired the efficient design of the single or double turreted ironclads,” Gay Colyer writes. “In striking contrast, this vessel looked like a clumsy barge—a wood crate, too heavy for river travel.”

It turns out that these wooden ships were known at the time informally as “timberclads.” They were used as escorts to transport troops and supplies up and down the Mississippi. Normally, the Union would have used ironclads to do the job, but there were a shortage of those around and so one enterprising general bought three steamships and converted them into these clunky timberclads. “Gone were the white paint, glass pilot-house, and decorative railing. Now, five-inch thick bulwarks provided protection against small arms fire, and oak planking covered the paddle wheel,” Coyler writes.

There were only three timberclads ever made. One of them is the USS Tyler, which was 178 feet long and had six 8-inch guns. And while it might have had humble steamship beginnings, the Tyler wasn’t just a lowly transport crate. It fought in the Battle of Shiloh in 1862, as seen in this image here:

The gunboats Tylor

So while the timberclads might look like weird, wooden boxes compared to their sleek ironclad cousins, they got the job done.