The Mississippi Squadron I

Battle for Fort Hindman

The Carondelet had gone upriver to Memphis, and en route, Walke had picked up a man named Lucas. “About 7 P.M., a man in a skiff came alongside and hailed us,” Morison wrote. “Picked him up and found that he was the pilot of the transport Sallie Wood (which left Vicksburg on Sunday with our mail). She had been fired onto by rebels at Island 82 and sunk. She had some passengers on her, both men, women, and children.” When the steamer began to sink, “all managed to escape and took to the woods. He (the pilot) got a skiff and some of his luggage, jumped into skiff and started downstream for the fleet. He lay still daytimes and went on his way at night. He was first starting out when we ran across him.”

Determined to find those who had fired on the Sallie Wood, Walke took the Carondelet up the river, firing on several possible rebel locations. Abreast of Greenville he opened fire on the houses and woods but elicited no response. At 4:00 the gunboat arrived at the place where rebel guns had first shot at the Sallie Wood. The Carondelet “fired about fifteen shots and left, as there was nothing to be seen.” In a vain attempt to locate those taken prisoner from the Sallie Wood, Walke landed men at Island No. 82. “About 8 P.M.,” Morison wrote, they “came to off the island where the boat had been sunk. Blew our whistle but no one came. A boat’s crew, armed, were now sent ashore to a house on the island to look for traces of the lost ones.” Eventually, the whistle did elicit a response: a “Lieut. of the Wis. 4th and a darkie that were on the Sallie Wood.” The lieutenant, who said his name was Wing, told them his companions had been captured and he had been three days without food, hidden in driftwood.

That same day, July 25, 1862, the Carondelet took on board a man named Montague, a deserter from a guerrilla band. He informed Walke that the rebels had batteries composed of four guns. “Negroes,” the man said, “did not work the guns,” contrary to what the pilot had claimed; they drove the teams and dug the rifle pits and trenches.

On the trip up to Helena, Arkansas, the Carondelet also picked up one contraband and seven refugees. Four of the refugees “had fled from Miss. to avoid conscription,” Morison explained. The other three, picked up in a skiff, had “left Ark. to avoid conscription too. They had rowed 800 miles before reaching us.”

In the afternoon the Carondelet came across the ram Lioness and took on coal from a coal barge being towed by the transport Lady Pike. Both the transport and the ram had been targeted by the increasingly bold rebels lurking along the riverbanks. Just below Island No. 82, about fifteen miles above Greenville, the Lioness and the Lady Pike had been attacked by a rebel battery of flying artillery, and one man had been killed. When the Queen of the West met the two boats and discovered they had been attacked, the ram shelled the woods before continuing upstream. At Greenville, rebel sharpshooters and a rebel battery opened fire on them. “The [Queen’s] gunners were driven from the deck, and for nearly half an hour we were subjected to their annoying fire,” a correspondent reported. Some of the Queen’s crew remained on the boiler deck, “thinking that the musket-proof bulkheads for sharpshooters would protect them, but a shell passed through, and striking Thomas W. Spencer in the back, cut him almost in twain.” A severed steam pipe was repaired, and the ram went on to Napoleon without further incident. The growing number of rebel attacks on transports and other vessels on the river threatened communication and made armed escorts necessary. But finding crews to man his gunboats was a problem for Davis, who needed 500 sailors to fill existing vacancies.

At 6:00 on the morning of July 27, the Queen of the West overtook the Carondelet above Napoleon and took on board Lieutenant Wing of the 4th Wisconsin Regiment and the prisoner E. D. Montague. At Greenville, the Carondelet had shelled the woods, “but the skulking ruffians had laid low, reserving their attacks for unprotected vessels passing by.” The Carondelet had sent an armed party ashore, which returned with a rebel cavalryman who stated that the rebels had a battery of four fieldpieces and about 200 cavalry. They had chosen the position at Greenville, the man said, “because they can travel across the bends and attack boats from three points.”

On July 28 the Carondelet arrived at Helena, where General Curtis and his army were located. “Made Helena and Gen’l Curtis’ army,” Morison noted in his diary. “The captain went ashore and held a short confab with him. He (Curtis) is a short, slight man with a blonde goatee and moustache.” Curtis had been forced from the interior of Arkansas back to the Mississippi River at Helena. He reported to Walke that he had some 25,000 men at Helena but needed a fast gunboat or two to keep the river clear and prevent the rebels from crossing over to his rear.

The Carondelet’s officers and crew found Helena abuzz with news that Davis had been ordered to return to the Navy Department as chief of the Bureau of Navigation. On August 3 he departed for Cairo, leaving Phelps in command to prepare for an expedition down to the White River. In the meantime, Farragut had gone down the Mississippi as planned, dropping off Williams’s troops at Baton Rouge, along with the remaining mortar boats. Porter’s Essex and Sumter also came down to Baton Rouge from Grand Gulf to assist Davis’s gunboats Kineo, Cayuga, and Katahdin in supporting and defending the troops “and keep[ing] a careful watch over the rebel gunboat Arkansas.”

The Arkansas had, in fact, started downriver to support a Confederate attempt to recapture Baton Rouge. After months of efforts to prepare the Arkansas for combat and the ram’s engagements with the federals, an exhausted Isaac Brown had taken leave and fallen ill, leaving Lieutenant Henry Stevens in command. The chief engineer, George W. City, had also left, entirely broken down from his exertions to keep the ram’s engines running. “We soon began to feel his loss,” Lieutenant Gift recalled. “The engineer in charge, a volunteer from the army had recently joined us, and though a young man of pluck and gallantry, and possessed of great will and determination to make the engines work, yet was unequal to the task.”

The Arkansas churned down the river, but just short of Baton Rouge, Gift learned that the Union navy had the Essex and two wooden gunboats there, and the Confederate forces planned to commence their attack the next morning. At daylight, the Arkansas cast off and started down the river. Within sight of Baton Rouge, Stevens mustered his officers and crew, poised to attack the Essex. Then the rebel ram’s starboard engine suddenly quit, and it ran hard aground. Being unfamiliar with screw vessels or single-stroke engines, the new engineer had pushed the machinery too hard. Throwing railroad iron overboard to lighten the ram, they refloated Arkansas, and at dark the engineer reported to Stevens that the ram could move. After going less than 100 yards, however, the same engine broke again, forcing the crew to spend the night repairing it. “Meantime, the enemy became aware of our crippled condition, and at daylight moved up to the attack,” Gift recalled. The Arkansas’s misfortune had given Porter’s Essex a golden opportunity to go after the ram.

When Porter’s first officer fell ill, the Essex’s second master, David Porter Rosenmiller, a native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, assumed his duties. Rosenmiller gave readers of the Lancaster Daily Inquirer a detailed account of the gunboat’s engagement with the Arkansas. The Essex, he wrote, “was in sight of the Arkansas, which was now streaming down towards us. We kept up a continual firing at her, and forced her to retreat into a small bayou.” They continued the attack until an explosive shell entered one of the ram’s ports and ignited some cotton and wool, “and the glad news was announced, that the rebel vessel was on fire. In five minutes after we fired the shell, we saw the crew rushing on deck, and in ten minutes she was reported to be unmistakenly on fire.” Fearful of an explosion, Porter kept the Essex clear of the burning ram, which swung out into the current. “Onward she went, sending high in the air, huge volumes of smoke and flame,” Rosenmiller told readers, “whilst every second, shell after shell on board of her became ignited and exploded. All her guns, likewise, were loaded, and these discharged from the same cause.” The Essex followed the Arkansas until the fire reached the magazine, and it exploded. “And such a sight! It was the grandest ever beheld,” he wrote.

According to Gift, who was present, Charles Read “kept firing at the Essex until Stevens had set fire to the ward-room and cabin, then all jumped on shore, and in a few moments the flames burst up the hatches. Loaded shells had been placed at all the guns, which commenced exploding as soon as the fire reached the gun deck. This was the last of the Arkansas.”

With the rebel ram destroyed, the Union navy had a tenuous hold on the Mississippi River north from New Orleans to Port Hudson and from Cairo down to Helena. Confederate forces still controlled a 400-mile section of the river from Helena to their stronghold at Vicksburg and down to Port Hudson, where they had constructed strong defenses. Hoping to take Baton Rouge back from the Union, Van Dorn had ordered Confederate troops under Major General John C. Breckenridge to advance on the city, but on August 4 the alert Yankee sentries discovered the rebels and gave the alarm. The bluecoats retired to defensive works protected by Union gunboats. An assault by Confederate troops the following morning almost succeeded, but fire from federal gunboats forced them to withdraw. Had the ram Arkansas been able to support the Confederate attack, then Baton Rouge might have been retaken.

Farragut explained to Welles that he had taken his fleet to New Orleans and set his sights on attacking Mobile. Davis had sent much of his flotilla with Phelps to Helena, 160 miles north of Vicksburg, to close up his lines, which were now too extended to open the sources of communication and supply. Rebel guerrillas operating along the river, sometimes supported by mobile artillery, had threatened to cut Davis’s flotilla off from its supply of mail, coal, and provisions, forcing him to detail gunboats to convoy steamers up and down the Mississippi.

On August 5, not content to sit idle, the aggressive Phelps took the Benton, Louisville, Mound City, and Bragg, along with two of Ellet’s rams and three transports with army troops, on an expedition down to the mouth of the White River. Finding no sign of the enemy, and failing to locate and destroy a rebel battery, the expedition returned to Helena. Phelps enjoyed better success on his next movement, which netted him the Fair Play carrying a trove of Enfield rifles and muskets for the rebels.

The capture of the Fair Play and some $300,000 worth of weapons delighted Davis, who praised Phelps’s accomplishment. This also encouraged Phelps to continue his campaign to be named Davis’s successor in command of the flotilla. Change was in the wind that August, not only in terms of promotions but also in terms of the flotilla’s organization. Efforts to persuade Generals Halleck and Butler to support naval operations had failed, prompting Welles and Fox to press President Lincoln and Congress to transfer the Western Gunboat Flotilla to the navy. Congress agreed and passed legislation giving the navy control of the flotilla, to be renamed the Mississippi Squadron, effective on October 1, 1862.

The officers and men of the Union navy welcomed this transfer of the flotilla, but another announcement from the Navy Department caused howls of dismay. Congress had passed a reform act in July, amending navy regulations on a number of issues related to gambling, lying, cruelty, swearing, and drinking. Effective September 1, 1862, alcohol would be prohibited on all navy ships, thus banning spirits from the officers’ wardroom and ending the sailors’ beloved grog ration. “Curses not so loud, but deep, were indulged in by old tars, some of whom had seen years of service, and who, by custom, had become habituated to their allowance of grog, that the very expectation of it was accompanied by a feeling of pleasure,” one sailor recalled. Others exclaimed, “The country will go to dogs!”

After less than four months commanding the Western Gunboat Flotilla, Charles Davis departed for his new post at the Bureau of Navigation. Despite Phelps’s campaign to be named commander of the new squadron, on September 22, 1862, Welles informed David Dixon Porter that he would replace Davis as flag officer of the newly renamed Mississippi Squadron, with the temporary rank of acting rear admiral. Porter’s mission was to renew the campaign to capture Vicksburg. In his diary, Welles wrote, “Davis, whom he [Porter] succeeds, . . . is kind and affable, but has not the vim, dash—recklessness perhaps is the better word—of Porter.” The secretary knew Porter well and noted, “[He] is fertile in resources, has great energy, excessive and sometimes not over scrupulous ambition.” Welles believed the command needed a young, active officer like Porter, and since Phelps was only a lieutenant commander, he lacked the necessary rank.

Undoubtedly, Porter’s appointment took some officers by surprise, for he was a junior commander. He did, however, come from a notable naval family. The Porters had served the nation for five generations. David Porter the elder had fought during the war with Tripoli and in 1812, taking prizes and bringing glory to the navy. His son, David Dixon Porter, had joined the navy as an eleven-year-old and had made a name for himself in the Mexican War.

On October 1, 1862, the navy quietly took over the Mississippi Squadron, formerly the Western Gunboat Flotilla. Porter bade farewell to his wife Georgy and his young children and headed west to assume command of the squadron. He stopped in Cincinnati to inspect the Indianola, which was nearing completion at Brown’s yard, and then inspected the new vessels being built in St. Louis. From there, Porter hurried on to Cairo. On October 15 the Benton’s officers and crew mustered on the deck for the customary change-of-command ceremony. As Porter came up the gangway, sailors in crisp whites saluted, and Davis greeted Porter. Then, following the boom of a gun salute, a midshipman solemnly hauled down Davis’s pennant, snapped on Porter’s white-starred blue flag, and ran it up the masthead.

In his history of the war, Porter explained, “Up to this time the gunboats had strictly speaking, been under the control of the Army; but now all this was changed, and the Mississippi Squadron, like all the other naval forces, was brought directly under the supervision of the Secretary of the Navy. The Commander-in-Chief of the squadron had no longer to receive orders from General Halleck or Army headquarters, but was left to manage his command to the best of his ability, and to co-operate with the Army whenever he could do so.” This new arrangement allowed Porter “to exercise his judgment, instead of being handicapped as Foote and Davis were.”

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