The USS Choctaw was built at New Albany, Indiana in 1856, originally as a merchant steamer for trade along the Mississippi River. She was purchased by the U.S. Army in 1862 and converted into an ironclad ram. In 1863 she entered service with the U.S. Navy for action against the Confederacy along the Mississippi and its tributaries. A very fine photograph given the era, note the crew’s laundry drying on the lines forward.
The Choctaw was large for a river steamer, with a length of 260 feet (79 meters) and displacing 1,004 tons. Propulsion was via a steam engine which drove two side wheels. This gave her an unusual profile and a blistering maximum speed of two knots.
Choctaw was given iron armor and a ram on her bow. She carried six guns – one 100 pound rifle, two 30 pound rifles, and three nine inch cannon. Some depictions show an additional gun on her deck in a carriage mount.
At the end of April 1863 Choctaw saw her first combat, a diversionary attack on Confederate positions around Haynes’ Bluff, Mississippi. She was hit by Confederate artillery 53 times during this action, some of these hits penetrating her iron armor. Fortunately casualties among her crew were light. She continued to operate in the area, burning Confederate shipping and yard works there in May.
On 06-07 June she, along with the gunboat USS Lexington, supported Union troops during the battle of Milliken’s Bend. Confederate troops of Walker’s Texas Division (“Walker’s Greyhounds”) were attempting to relieve the siege of Vicksburg. Union forces of the USCT African Brigade and 23rd Iowa Infantry, supported by the gunboats, defeated the Confederates, the Choctaw rescuing many Confederate prisoners from the Mississippi. This was the first major engagement fought by a black brigade during the Civil War. Comparing this to photographs, this is a very detailed and accurate engraving.
In May of 1864 Choctaw participated in the capture of Fort DeRussy along the Red River in Louisiana. It was her last major action of the war. She was decommissioned at Algiers Louisiana on 20 July 1865 and sold to a civilian buyer. This engraving is not nearly as reliable as the previous example, the artist has omitted significant details and has combined features of the Choctaw and USS Lafayette, which had a similar general appearance.
Her profile was dominated by the armored housings for her twin side wheels and low freeboard. Photographs often show her being assisted by river tugs, her low speed and river currents undoubtedly made her difficult to maneuver.
An interesting Tom Freeman painting which shows the deck layout and details of the stays and rigging. The Choctaw’s color has been interpreted in various ways, while Freeman has chosen a dark blue overall here, others have opted for black or gray with wooden decks.
Here is a contemporary photograph, an atmospheric view with a small house on the riverbank in the foreground. Note again the tug assisting aft.
Two views of the crew. Compliment was 106 officers and men.