Riverboats Go to War

Riverboats at War

Those who have spent any time in an American History class is aware of the famous Battle of Hampton Roads. It’s the infamous naval conflict between the Merrimack (captured and renamed the CSS Virginia) and the USS Monitor, two of the world’s first ironclads gunboats, which duked it out to a draw in the waters of Chesapeake Bay.

"The Monitor and Merrimac: The First Fight Between Ironclads", a chromolithograph of the Battle of Hampton Roads, produced by Louis Prang & Co., Boston
“The Monitor and Merrimac: The First Fight Between Ironclads,” a chromolithograph of the Battle of Hampton Roads, produced by Louis Prang & Co., Boston

While these two vessels have become legendary, they weren’t alone; many more gunboats were fighting on the rivers during the American Civil War. Technology had begun to modernize, and the gunboats of the Union Navy and Confederate fleets were no different. The war revealed a point of transition in the evolution of sail to steam as watercraft shifted from the traditional frigate-style sailing vessel towards the warships we see today. Turrets were introduced, armor became commonplace, and propulsion was beginning to change from paddle-wheels to the screws. The era of wooden ships of the line died in 1862 as the ironclads rose to prominence.

Officers on board the USS Hunchback
Officers on board the USS Hunchback

My current project, Coal Belly, is a weird west fantasy set on a planet crisscrossed by interlocking rivers. It’s a rough-and-tumble world where riverboats are omnipresent and necessary for everyday life and used in war. In the book, the empires of Artada, Othwell, and Cyr patrol their territory with a variety of gunboats, and I wanted a spark of authenticity. With that in mind, I felt it necessary for to research the naval fleets of 19th Century, with the Mississippi and its tributaries playing such a vital part in the American Civil War, it was the perfect place to start.

The Union dominated naval warfare from the outset. Where the Confederate forces saw some early advances with the capture of the Merrimack and its retrofitting, it didn’t take long for the Union to catch up and overwhelm the Rebels. Gunboats came in many varieties and could be broken down into four main categories: Rams, Timberclads, Tinclads, and of course the emerging Ironclads. There was a fifth category as well, used primarily by the Confederates, which is commonly called the Cottonclads. Let’s look into each of them.


Rams

These were the creation of Colonel Charles Ellet Jr., a Navy man who was convinced that the ancient ram technology could be adapted to modern usage. Under his guidance, he built out the United States Ram Fleet. The rams tended to be sidewheelers and were usually faster than their civilian counterparts, and unlike other navy boats they carried few guns; instead, they used reinforced timber bows to smash into opposing boats.

Timberclads

Only four timberclads were used during the war, the USS Tyler, USS Conestoga, USS Lexington, and the USS Avenger. While these were modeled after standard sidewheel riverboats, these vessel’s crew were protected from small-arms fire by 5-inch thick oaken bulkheads. To me, they’ve always looked like a floating windowless factory.

Tinclads

The most common gunboat of the Union Navy’s river fleet were the tinclads. These were usually sternwheelers with metal sheeting tacked to the side to protect the crews. Keep in mind that this thin sheeting wasn’t useful while under fire by heavy artillery. It was chosen to protect against small arms. Where civilian packets tend to feature open decks and promenades, most tinclads have a boxed-in look. Each of these boats was assigned a number which was painted on their pilothouse.

Ironclads

The first iron vessels were designed to be ocean-going and operated mostly along the coast. The French Glorie was the first, but more followed her. On the rivers and during the American Civil War, Ironclads came in many varieties—two were most common. The first was the turreted Monitors named after the famous warship the USS Monitor designed by John Ericsson.


John Ericsson

“The sea shall ride over her and she shall live in it like a duck.”

John Ericsson, Inventor of the USS Monitor


The second type was the casemate-style gunboats with sloping sides, not unlike the USS Merrimack. These were more commonly found on the rivers. At the beginning of the war, the Union converted civilian packets, but later they developed the City-class ironclad; these 13-cannon gunboats ruled the river. After their introduction, they were present at every major conflict along the Mississippi. Interestingly, many of these City-class ironclads were centerwheelers with their paddle wheels located at the aft-end of the center keel and protected by bulkheads and armor plating.

Internal arrangement of the USS Cairo
Internal arrangement of the USS Cairo, a Union casemate-style ironclad

Cottonclads

A creation of the Confederate fleets, the cottonclads looked much like their counterpart riverboats. However, as an added form of protection, their hollow bulkheads were filled with packed cotton. Cotton bales were also set up around guns and pilothouses as additional forms of protection.


You could write entire books on gunboat strategy in the American Civil War which isn’t the goal of these posts. However, if you’re interested in learning more, I’d recommend starting with Sam Smith’s article, The River War. But for this post, let’s take a gander at some images I’ve gathered as a part of my research over the last few years. These will provide visual examples of the five categories of naval gunboats and give a glimpse of the life of a brown water riverman; check them out below.

Controlling the Mississippi River and its tributaries was a vital part of the war effort. I can see why so much innovation happened in such a short amount of time. Technology provided an advantage, and in the narrow confines of a river, that advantage is beneficial for a brown water navy. With the tale crossing empires, expect to read about plenty of gunboats within the pages of Coal Belly.

The pictures above have been collected over the last five years, so I am unsure from where they all come (usually the Library of Congress.) But, they’re all old enough to be in the public domain. As before, in some cases, I did some minor color correction and cropping. I’m happy to answer any questions folks have about any of these images or riverboats in general. (Sometimes it gives me a good excuse to research something.) You can send me an email or leave a comment below. I love comments.

This is the latest in my series of posts sharing my findings from my research for Coal Belly. You can check out the other riverboat-related posts in the links below.


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Last Day for the Horror Brew Giveaway

The Horror Brew Giveaway is Almost Over

The Horror Brew Giveaway ends in a little over 24 hours! Today is the last full day you can enter to win a signed copy of The Stars Were Right and a Bell Caravans patch. Entering is easy, and there are plenty of ways to increase your chances of winning. Click the link below, join in, and be sure to tell your friends.


Enter Today →


Listen to K. M. Alexander's InterviewIf you haven’t had a chance yet, be sure to check out to my interview with Matt and Cat from their Brews & Interviews series for Horror Brew. In it, we talk about The Bell Forging Cycle, discuss the weird-west, delve into the interconnectedness of Stephen King’s work, and a whole lot more. It was a lot of fun, check it out here. Be sure to subscribe, and leave a review!

Six Hundred

Six Hundred

This blog is a story in itself. It’s the documentation of a journey. Growing up, I remember my grandmother talking about becoming a novelist. She often spoke of the stories she wanted to share, the memoirs of her life, but she never finished her book. I believe the world is a little less without her words. From the beginning, the intent of I Make Stories was to chronicle my process of becoming a novelist—the good and the bad. As I have shared my experiences, I often wonder: what would have happened if my grandmother had read this blog as a fellow writer? Would she have been dissuaded or encouraged?

On that note, it’s time for a bit of reflection, and hopefully a bit of encouragement. It’s become a tradition around here that every two hundred posts I pause and take a moment and look back at what has happened in the time between. In 2014 I wrote my two-hundredth post, in 2015 I hit number four hundred, and here I am in 2017 looking at number six hundred. It’s been a long trail.

Things haven’t always been easy, but generally, nothing worth doing is easy. Days of discouragement are as common as the days of victory. Even as I write this post, I’ve been struggling through some serious self-doubt. I’ve come to expect it now, it’s a part of creation. Random events interrupt and derail process and progress. Writing takes time and effort, and it can often be a lonely endeavor. It requires a commitment to yourself and often that is more difficult than we realize.


“Milestones are meant to be passed.”


But even with the trials of creative work, things haven’t slowed during the last two hundred posts. Each obstacle has been surmounted and I’ve found successes along the way. I’ve sold a lot more books, many thousands now in total. I’ve hit the Amazon best-seller page multiple times. My presence at conventions has also expanded, and I’ve met some incredible people and new friends along the way.

On the story front, I launched Red Litten World which fans have enjoyed. I’ve finished the first draft of a standalone non-traditional fantasy (the title which I am keeping secret), and I’m nearly done with the first draft of Coal Belly my enormous steampunky riverboat adventure. Then it’s on to book four of the Bell Forging Cycle.

I’d like to think the content on this blog has gotten better as well. I’ve begun to share some of my discoveries in my research and delve into more details in the world of the Territories. There’s also this little thing which fans of the Bell Forging Cycle have yet to unravel. Plus, I have some other exciting plans for the future.

I couldn’t have done this alone. Although she never knew me as a writer, there is something of my grandmother in everything I write and for that I thank her. She might not have told her stories, but she empowered me to tell mine. And of course, there is you; my readers. I couldn’t be here, looking back from post six hundred, without you. Thanks for the passion. Thank you for buying my books. Thanks for reading them, and leaving reviews. Thank you for telling your friends and helping to spread the word. Thank you for the emails and the encouragement. There’s a lot of books out there to read, and I’m so grateful you picked mine.

As before, I won’t dwell here long. Stick with your work fellow creators. Milestones are meant to be passed. Number eight hundred lies somewhere in the distance and who knows what we’ll see in the spaces between.

I’m On Horror Brew

Last week I was lucky enough to join Matt and Cat from Horror Brew, one of my favorite horror-themed podcasts for Episode Thirteen! (Yeah, creepy thirteen! Kismet right?) I had a great time and was happy to be apart of the show. We talked about my books and the world of the Bell Forging Cycle. After that we delve into the weird west and then talked about horror in general; everything from Stephen King’s The Mist to Netflix’s Hemlock Grove. Give it a listen. I’ve embedded it below, so you can listen here or click one of the links and be sure to subscribe!


iTunes • Stitcher • PlayerFM • Libsyn


You can follow Matt and Cat on Facebook, Twitter, Letterboxd, and Instagram. Make sure you subscribe and leave them a review. They put out a great show and are a passionate voice for the horror community. If you’re in the Portland area, check out their weekly horror trivia night at Home, A Bar. It’s a good crowd, and there are usually great prizes. Speaking of…

Horror Brew + K.M. Alexander Giveaway

From now until July 17th you can enter to win a signed copy of my first Lovecraftian urban fantasy novel, The Stars Were Right and a Bell Caravans patch. (I’ll probably throw in some other swag as well.) Entering is super easy, and there are ways you can win bonus entries to better your chances for success. All it takes is a few clicks, enter today and tell your friends!

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Finding the Yellow Sign

Hunting The Yellow Sign

In 1895, Robert W. Chambers published The King in Yellow a collection of short stories. Over the years, it has become his seminal work, and due to Lovecraft’s interest in the book and his incorporations of Chamber’s ideas, The King in Yellow inevitably became connected to the mythos. Chamber’s eponymous King in Yellow, became Lovecraft’s Hastur, and the empty streets of dim Carcosa are now as familiar to cosmic horror fans as the sunken city of R’lyeh and the sagging gambrel roofs of Innsmouth.[1]


“Have you found the Yellow Sign?”

— Robert W. Chambers, The Yellow Sign, Chapter 14


For a long time, fans of Chambers’ work have hunted for The Yellow Sign. After all, it is important enough to justify a story within the book. But, unlike Lovecraft who was fond of random sketches, as far as we know Chambers never drew out the symbol. All we have are his descriptions. So what is the Yellow Sign? Did Chambers leave us any clues outside his story?

First, we need to address the Ross Sign. In 1989 Chaosium released The Call of Cthulhu 4th Edition, a role-playing game based on Lovecraft’s mythos. Within the supplemental book, The Great Old Ones, game designer Kevin A. Ross created a striking symbol of The Yellow Sign[2] for his adventure scenario entitled Tell Me, Have You Seen the Yellow Sign?

The Kevin A. Ross interpretation of The Yellow Sign
The Kevin A. Ross interpretation of The Yellow Sign

In the years since Ross’ symbol has become the go-to image whenever anyone evokes The Yellow Sign in popular media. A quick google image search will reveal a few variants, but most follow the same pattern. But, as engaging as it is, it’s important to note that the Ross Sign is not official. It’s not the mark described by Chambers, merely an interpretation by Ross adopted by the community at large. So what is The Yellow Sign? To find out, it’s best to return to the text where we find it described.


“…inside lay a clasp of black onyx, on which was inlaid a curious symbol or letter in gold. It was neither Arabic nor Chinese, nor, as I found afterwards, did it belong to any human script.”

— Robert W. Chambers, The Yellow Sign, Chapter 2


That quote taken from The Yellow Sign, (the fourth story in The King in Yellow), led me back to the original 1895 edition published by F. Tennyson Neely. They’re difficult to find physically, but most have been scanned are now available to read online. While the interiors were sparse, I found a few original covers of the first edition, which had a variety of printings featuring different covers.

The King in Yellow First Edition Covers
The King in Yellow First Edition Covers, starting left First Printing to Third

The books above are ordered by the print run. You’ll note, that each cover bears a similar symbol with strange angles and sweeping curls. At fist glance, it certainly fits the description. It’s script like, and could easily be reminiscent of non-English glyphs. I did some work to pull the icon from the old covers so we could see it without all the filigree.

The Neely The Yellow Sign.
The Neely Sign from the first editions

I’m dubbing this the Neely Sign, and I was ready to accept it as the official version. And I wasn’t alone, I’ve seen it used by others. It’s clear that it’s in the zeitgeist just not as popular as the Ross Sign. It is similar to the description, looking not unlike Arabic letterforms or Chinese hànzì, but it’s clearly not born of either. I can see the appeal. My own rendering of Aklo follows similar patterns, loops, dashes, and dots. (You can see the writing here, just scroll down to book IV, V, and VI.) However, after some digging, I came across another cover; a cover that ruined any assumption of the Neely Sign being our infamous Yellow Sign.

Father Stafford by Anthony Hope, published by F. Tennyson Neely
Father Stafford by Anthony Hope, published by F. Tennyson Neely

Anthony Hope’s Father Stafford features the same mark, and it’s important to note that this book isn’t connected to the mythos. It has been described as a “county-house comedy” which is far different from the grim nature of The King in Yellow. So if that is The Yellow Sign on the cover it would be wildly out of place. So what is it? The connection lies with the publisher. Both Father Stafford and The King in Yellow were published by F. Tennyson Neely under the Neely’s Prismatic Library imprint. You can easily see the letters F, T, and N in the symbol, and the periods clearly indicate initials. Further research found the symbol on other covers as well, including this copy of Master and Man by Tolstoy. So, it seems the Neely Sign was the publisher’s mark and not the official Yellow Sign as many have hoped. So I was back to square one… or was I?


“We talked on, unmindful of the gathering shadows, and she was begging me to throw away the clasp of black onyx quaintly inlaid with what we now knew to be the Yellow Sign.”

— Robert W. Chambers, The Yellow Sign, Chapter 18


I eventually found an old post from 2010 on of my favorite blogs, Propnomicon. It’s a fantastic site focused on documenting the creation of realistic props that evoke Lovecraftian mythos (and horror in general.) Within the post, they suggest that the image on the spine of third first-edition printing (and arguably the most memorable) might be The Yellow Sign. It begged a closer look.

The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers, published by F. Tennyson Neely
The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers, First Edition, Third Printing published by F. Tennyson Neely

It’s a remarkable symbol. You can see a similar object held by the figure. A torch consuming itself, or a burning scepter perhaps? When isolated it looks a bit like a caduceus turned upside down. Could this inverted caduceus, a symbol typically used to represent healing, be a representation of corruption? I think there is merit in that interpretation. After all, Hastur clads himself in yellow, which is opposite on the color wheel of purple, the standard color of royalty. Even Carcosa itself is often shown as a corrupted reflection of our world. Plus when stylized, the inverted torch looks like something you could see embroidered on the stoles and hoods of a Yellow King secret society. It has a symmetry, not unlike the Rebekah’s beehive or the Masonic square and compasses and that is advantageous in a symbol’s use. Effective symbols are easy to reproduce, and while the Ross and Neely signs are interesting, they’re overly complex.

Symbol on the spine of The King in Yellow
Symbol from the spine of Chambers’ The King in Yellow

By this point, I think it will be difficult to uncouple popular culture from the Ross Sign. But, personally, I’ve become a fan of the inverted torch and I will probably go forward using it to represent Hastur within my own work. I like that it has more connection with the original text than the Ross creation and it’s not a misinterpretation like the Neely Sign. Even if it doesn’t fully match the description it’s visually evocative.

While there have been other less grounded interpretations[3], there is no one definite answer. Chambers, for his part, was vague; I’d wager that was intentional. He left the titular Sign open to discussion and that is why it remains undiscovered. For me, that adds to the myth and it helps expand the world of cosmic horror. The mystery becomes a part of the draw and that is something I can appreciate.

Then again, there’s also this strange little mark…

A strange symbol on The King in Yellow's Dedication Page


1 It should be noted that Ambrose Bierce was the first to name both Hastur and Carcosa. They appeared in his short stories Haïta the Shepherd, and An Inhabitant of Carcosa found in his 1893 collection Can Such Things Be? Both stories were drawn upon by Chambers for The King in Yellow.

2 It’s important to note that the Ross Sign that we see today is actually a corruption of Ross’ initial design. Chaosium printed the image both upside-down and backward.

3 See True Detective’s use of the Archimedean spiral and deer antlers, objects more evocative of Ireland’s Newgrange than the standard “symbol from beyond” typically found in cosmic horror.


Dead Drop: Missives from the desk of K. M. AlexanderWant to stay in touch with me? Sign up for Dead Drop, my rare and elusive newsletter. Subscribers get news, previews, and notices on my books before anyone else delivered directly to their inbox. I work hard to make sure it’s not spammy and full of interesting and relevant information.  SIGN UP TODAY →