The Long Blue Line: Gunboat Cutter E.A. Stevens—the Revenue Cutter Service’s experiment in modern naval technology (Part 1 of 2)

By William H. Thiesen, Ph.D. Atlantic Area Historian, United States Coast Guard


The U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, one of the Coast Guard’s predecessor services, played a unique role in the 19th century technological transition from wood and sail to iron and steam.

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries all forms of mechanized technology saw a change in motive power and construction materials. Medieval forms of maritime technology associated with wood and wind energy succumbed to iron and steam power.

In the mid 19th century, military technology witnessed rapid change with inventors focusing on naval technology in the years leading up to the American Civil War. These men applied steam and iron to machines of war, such as semi-submersibles, rams, heavy ordnance, mines, spar torpedoes and ironclads.

The Civil War-era gunboat E.A. Stevens served as an example of the Revenue Cutter Service’s support of new naval technology and became the most unique cutter in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.

In the late 1830s, inventor Edwin A. Stevens developed a gunboat to operate in shallow water. He incorporated ballast tanks located both fore and aft into the vessel’s iron hull. The tanks used a patented gum elastic liner to ensure a watertight seal. These ballast tanks made the E.A. Stevens a semi-submersible vessel, allowing it to submerge to an overall depth of nine feet. This lowered the gunboat’s profile, minimizing the vessel’s exposure to cannon fire and placed the vessel’s vulnerable steam machinery below the waterline.

Stevens equipped the tanks with heavy duty centrifugal pumps that could fill the tanks with water in just eight minutes. Conversely, if the gunboat ran aground while ballasted, pumping out the tanks could float the vessel in minutes. By pumping the ballast tanks dry, the gunboat doubled its speed from five knots to 10.

The E.A. Stevens also had deckhouses located amidships and on the aft deck. Positioned forward of the smoke stack, the pilothouse served as the captain’s station while underway. Before entering the war zone, the crew attached a boilerplate to the pilothouse as protection against musket fire. The aft deckhouse served as the galley and quarters for the three officers and received iron plating as well. The vessel’s enlisted crew of 20 men slept below decks in a compartment located between the engine room and the forward ballast tank. Their quarters also served as the loading room for the main gun during combat.

Profile view of the Civil War gunboat Cutter E.A. Stevens, showing her internal space arrangement. Image courtesy of the Naval History & Heritage Command.
Profile view of the Civil War gunboat Cutter E.A. Stevens, showing her internal space arrangement. Image courtesy of the Naval History & Heritage Command.

The E.A. Stevens came equipped with little armor and only a few guns. Besides its deckhouses, the gunship’s only armor consisted of a low-lying angled armor band or skirt surrounding the main deck. The band covered a wooden bulwark built of solid cedar. The bulwark surrounded the deck, keeping water off it and providing cover from enemy fire.

The gunboat carried three cannon, including two twelve-pound Dahlgren howitzers mounted on a pivot on each side of the gunboat. In addition, the Stevens received the first 100-pound rifled Parrott gun produced for Union military forces. The diminutive vessel sported a unique muzzle-loading system in which the rifle’s muzzle pivoted down to an opening in the vessel’s forward deck where the crew could load it below decks. An alternative to the new armored turret system, the gunboat’s cannon could be loaded under the deck in 25 seconds without exposing the crew to enemy fire. Additionally, Stevens’s patented India rubber gun suspension system absorbed over 14 inches of the main gun’s recoil.

The E.A. Stevens’s new technology also included an innovative propulsion system. The Stevens family had pioneered the development of the twin-screw system since the beginning of the 1800’s and it made sense to test that technology under combat conditions. With twin propellers, the Stevens gunboat could revolve full circle within its own length in only two minutes. The gun carriage was fixed laterally, so the twin-screw arrangement allowed the captain to train the gun using the gunboat’s helm and propellers. And, with its top speed of 10 knots, the E.A. Stevens could serve as a dispatch vessel for delivering wounded men and important messages.

Stevens offered the E.A. Stevens to the Union Navy free of charge, but the Navy declined his offer due to the vessel’s unconventional technology. Stevens turned to the Revenue Cutter Service, which welcomed the opportunity to operate its own steam-powered gunboat. In the middle of March 1861, the Treasury Department ordered the gunboat to head south from New York to Hampton Roads with a crew of over 20 enlisted men that included a boatswain, gunner, carpenter, steward, cook, two quartermasters, 14 seamen and a “servant.” On April 9, 1862, the E.A. Stevens steamed into Hampton Roads, the Union Navy’s base of operations, to join the James River Squadron.

Contemporary ship model of the E.A. Stevens showing the unique twin propeller arrangement. Image courtesy of the Naval History & Heritage Command.
Contemporary ship model of the E.A. Stevens showing the unique twin propeller arrangement. Image courtesy of the Naval History & Heritage Command.

On April 11, E.A. Stevens began combat operations, exchanging fire with CSS Virginia, when the Confederate ironclad emerged from her anchorage near Portsmouth, Virginia. Virginia’s primary target, the USS Monitor, declined action, so the hostilities proved inconclusive. On Aril 29, Revenue Cutter Service lieutenant David Constable took command of the gunboat and crew. By the time he assumed command of the Stevens, Constable had already developed into a veteran officer. He received his first commission as third lieutenant in 1852, made his way up the ranks and, by 1858, had become executive officer of the new cutter Harriet Lane. Constable had served as executive officer under distinguished cutter captain John Faunce on April 12, 1862, when Harriet Lane fired the first naval shot of the Civil War near Fort Sumter, South Carolina.

On May 8, Constable commanded the Stevens when she had another opportunity to engage CSS Virginia. The gunboat accompanied the Monitor and several Union warships in an effort to engage local Confederate batteries and draw Virginia out of her protected anchorage.

With President Abraham Lincoln observing from a steam tug, the Union vessels shelled Confederate positions near Norfolk. The Confederate ironclad emerged briefly to threaten Union naval forces, but eventually declined the uneven fight and returned to her anchorage.

By May 10, Confederate forces had evacuated Norfolk, leaving the deep-draught Virginia with no defensible homeport or feasible escape route. The Confederates stripped Virginia of her cannon and her commanding officer ordered the ironclad run aground and set her on fire. Early the next morning, flames reached the ironclad’s magazine and blew up what remained of the historic warship.

After the destruction of CSS Virginia, Union army general George McClellan requested that the Union Navy send warships up the James River to threaten Richmond from the water. To fulfill this request, the Navy assigned Commodore John Rodgers command of the James River Squadron, including wooden warships Aroostook and Port Royal, ironclads Monitor and Galena, and gunboat E.A. Stevens. It would prove the first true test of the Union Navy’s three new iron warships under battle conditions.

Check back next week to continue reading about the E.A. Stevens in the Civil War.

Image Gallery

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