By Chuck Veit
The "Cricket" was built in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1860 as the "Cricket #2". She was a stern-wheeled freight hauler, 178' long and 28' wide. Purchased by the US Navy on 18 November 1862, the ship was renamed "Cricket" and commissioned on 19 January 1863. The name may not sound very warlike to our modern ears, but the Navy didn't seem to care at the time: other tinclads bore names such as "Nymph", "Gazelle", "Moose", "Kate", and "Juliet". The "tinclads" were armored with 1" of iron plate and armed with, in the case of the "Cricket", 6 24 pdr howitzers. Their armor could not stand up to much of anything except small arms fire and the attentions of small bore cannon. They looked for all the world like steamboats from a Mark Twain story. Their great advantage lay in their shallow draft of 3-4'. This -- and their flat bottoms -- allowed them to go far upriver where keeled vessels with their deeper drafts could not reach. Although slow (about 5 mph, top speed), the tinclads could pursue Rebel bushwhackers "where the ground was just a little bit damp" (to paraphrase Lincoln). They were critical to maintaining the river supply lines preferred by Union generals -- preferred because, unlike a railroad, a river could not be cut by enemy guerillas.
While on an expedition up the White River in Arkansas in mid-August of 1863, the "Cricket" single-handedly captured the Rebel steamers "Kaskaskia" and "Tom Sugg". On the Red River expedition in Louisiana from 12 March-16 May 1864 came the exploit for which she is best known. The Red River campaign was a political gambit instigated by President Lincoln to remind the expansionist French-backed Mexican government that Texas was still considered part of the Union by the government in Washington. Having met defeat at almost every other point in Texas, the Yankees determined to sail through Louisiana along the Red River into the northeastern part of the Lone Star State; it was hoped that their presence would be a warning to the French and an impetus to Texans to surrender their Confederate loyalties.
Initially, the expedition went well for the North. The US Navy supplied a very formidable flotilla of 13 ironclads, 4 tinclads, and 6 transports under the command of the able Rear Admiral David D. Porter to escort / transport the blue-clad troops. Despite the dubious leadership of General Nathaniel Banks, the Army scored some successes, driving the Rebels upriver. The Confederates rallied, however, and soundly defeated the invading army at the Battle of Pleasant Hill. This defeat, plus the increasing heat and falling water in the river, led the Northern generals to call off the campaign. Of special concern to the Navy was the falling level of the river. Although assured that the "river always rose this time of year", for the first time in memory it didn't. Retreating downriver the ironclads and tinclads were reduced to miles of alternate sounding, grounding, and laborious refloating -- a process hindered by the growing numbers of Confederates along the river banks.
The ships were under almost constant attack by Rebel infantry and artillery. Serving as Admiral Porter's flagship, the "Cricket" -- while tied up to a small wharf -- was rushed by a thousand Rebel infantrymen. A broadside of canister and grape saved the ship from capture as the crew desperately cast off. Later in the same day, she was riddled by the fire of 18 Rebel cannon hidden in the tall grass along the riverbank. In the space of five minutes, the little ship was struck 38 times; the crews of both the forward and aft guns were killed or wounded. Porter hurriedly assembled a gun crew from among the contraband slaves that the ship was transporting to the Union lines. Men on the "black gang" were wounded and the chief engineer was felled by the Rebel fire. Porter rushed to the engine room and ordered one of the surviving oilers to open the ship's throttles and get them underway again. Returning to the pilot house high atop the ship, the admiral found the pilot wounded and so took over the helm himself. Escaping the fire of the Confederate cannon, the ship ran aground! Luckily, Porter was able to back his vessel off the mudbank and assemble the battle-scarred little fleet as night fell.
The "Cricket" survived the war and reentered civilian life in the summer of 1865. Like so many others of her kind, she fell victim to the rapid expansion of the railroads, which could haul freight to places the steamboats could not go. She was broken up in 1867.
Return to table of contents