When Robert Fulton designed the first working steamboat in 1807, he probably didn't realize that his invention would lead to one of the most interesting innovations of the Civil War. Steamboats revolutionized river travel during the 1800s: for the first time, people were able to travel up and down America's mighty waterways under motorized power, rather than relying on muscle or the wind. Steamboats became the fastest and most efficient way to transport people and goods up and down the United States rivers. St. Louis, Missouri, a major port on the Mississippi River, had more than 3,000 steamboat arrivals in 1850 alone.
When the Civil War erupted, control of the country's rivers became more important than ever. Both the Confederate and Union armies had flotillas of boats they used as floating barracks, supply ships, and gunboats for fighting against artillery units.
Contrabands to Freedom
For many runaway slaves in the South, the best chance for freedom was to get on board a Union boat like Red Rover as it steamed up or down the Mississippi River. These slaves were called "contraband," and many ships hired them to serve as cabin boys, carpenters, laborers, cooks, stewards, crewman, and nurses. Working on board Red Rover had many advantages, one being the pay: the ship's records show that several chambermaids were paid$20 a month for their work. In comparison, the base pay for infantrymen in the Union army was only $13 a month.
The Confederate paddlewheeler Red Rover was on the Mississippi River near St. Louis when it was captured by a Union gunboat. The Confederates tried to sink Red Rover to put it out of use, but the Union was able to dredge it and repair it for service. And although the Union was desperate for more gunboats to patrol the Mississippi and its tributaries, it decided to try something new with the Red Rover, the army refitted Red Rover as a floating hospital.
Transporting wounded soldiers by boat was nothing new for either army, but it was usually a pretty terrible experience for soldiers who were already paddlewheelers—pros and cons:
One reason paddlewheelers became so prevalent during the 1800s was that they were ideally suited to river travel: most paddleboats had a draft of no more than 6 or 7 feet, and some had as few as 4 feet, which meant they were able to steam up and down the wide, shallow rivers of the American West much better than any deep-hulled boats. The problem with them, however, was that their flat hulls were very difficult to maneuver if the weather or water got rough, since steering a paddlewheeler was very much like steering a giant box.
In bad shape: the boats were loud, dirty, and rarely had the supplies or personnel necessary to treat illness or injury. Transport ships usually picked up wounded soldiers at the port closest to the battle, brought them to the nearest friendly hospital, and dropped them off. Not a lot of medicine was being practiced on these ships, and the conditions were difficult.
Neither the Union nor Confederacy had ever created a complete hospital aboard a steamship before, and Red Rover was refitted with innovations never before found on a ship, all designed to help the sick and wounded. It had separate operating and amputation rooms, and the windows were covered with gauze to keep cinders and smoke from the smokestacks away from the know your slang patients. Rooms at the back of the ship had open walls to allow for better air circulation, and patients who had contagious diseases were put in these, as well as on several separate floating barges attached to the back of the ship. This helped keep the spread of very contagious diseases, such as measles and typhus, from infecting everyone on board. Red Rover also carried enough medical and food supplies for two hundred patients and the entire crew for up to three months—everything the hospital staff needed was on board, making the ship completely self-sufficient if it needed to be.
And while Red Rover was remarkable as the first complete floating hospital, what was more amazing was her crew: it consisted not only of the first women serving in the U.S. armed forces, but also the first African-American women hired by either side.
Red Rover's reputation as a hospital with conveniences, comfortable accommodations, and very caring medical staff grew quickly; so quickly, in fact, that fleet commander Charles Henry Davis had to issue an order to limit the number of patients being sent to the ship—it seemed like every sick or injured soldier wanted to be cared for on Red Rover. The order apparently didn't work all the time, since the ship's log shows that many patients came on without papers, or simply under the verbal approval of particular doctors or high-ranking officials.
Red Rover transported and cared for soldiers throughout the war, shuttling from port to port on the Mississippi River. Most of its hospital duties came to an end after the Battle of Vicksburg in 1863, which gave the Union control over most of the waterways and marked the end of most of the river action on the western front. For the rest of the war, Red Rover was primarily used to transport supplies.
Civil War Facts & Trivia
*The women who served as nurses on Red Rover are credited with officially being the first women to serve on board a naval vessel. In most accounts, the nuns who served on Red Rover are given the credit for being the first U.S. naval nurses, even though the ship's records show that the contraband women were hired outright after being welcomed on board, making them the first paid women naval employees.
*From the end of the Civil War to 1908, women were not allowed to serve in the navy.
*The majority of Red Rovers crew was African-American: at one point, black sailors and crew outnumbered white crew by two to one. It wasn't until 1865 that white crewmen outnumbered black crewmen.