The Mississippi Squadron II

Bombardment and Capture of Island Number Ten on the Mississippi River, April 7, 1862

Colored lithograph published by Currier & Ives, New York, circa 1862.

It depicts the bombardment of the Confederate fortifications on Island Number Ten by Federal gunboats and mortar boats. Ships seen include (from left to right): Mound City, Louisville, USS Pittsburg, Carondelet, Flagship Benton, Cincinnati, Saint Louis and Conestoga (timberclad). Mortar boats are firing from along the river bank.

Captain A. M. Pennock, commandant of the naval station, and Walke of the Carondelet welcomed the new Mississippi Squadron commander. Although no records survive of their first meeting, Porter reportedly found Walke “an active, impatient man” with ideas similar to his own. The squadron needed attention. The army had signed up many recruits at ratings and pay levels higher than they deserved, causing old hands to grumble. Porter would have to ease some of those men out and discharge hundreds who had come down with river fevers. The squadron’s leaky, makeshift vessels were overdue for repairs, and poor conditions aboard had undoubtedly contributed to the number of ill sailors. Clearly, commanding the Mississippi Squadron would be no easy task.

In his cabin on the Benton, Porter assessed the squadron’s resources for fighting the war on western waters and found them wanting. He told the Navy Department he needed more of everything—gunboats, auxiliary craft, artillery, officers, crewmen, and, most of all, river craft suited for narrow, shallow rivers. Porter would retain the city-class ironclads, but to escort convoys and support the infantry, his squadron needed more versatile vessels. To meet Porter’s demands, the navy built dozens of what became known as tinclads, as well as two stern-wheeled monitors, the Neosho and Osage. The navy would also commission three ironclads, the Tuscumbia, Indianola, and Chillicothe, all launched in 1862, and convert the captured Eastport to carry 6.5-inch armor and eight guns. For his flagship, however, Porter chose the 260-foot tinclad Black Hawk, a former luxury cruise boat converted to carry thirteen guns. Never one to pass up an opportunity for amenities, Porter kept the rich wood paneling and chandeliers in the Black Hawk’s officers’ quarters and installed stalls for horses.

Just prior to the change of command, and for weeks afterward, Phelps carried on the squadron’s active operations at Helena. Without Kilty, Stembel, and Paulding, he had only Walke, Winslow, Dove, Bryant, and Thompson as captains. Phelps thought Winslow and Dove inefficient commanders but considered Walke a “fighting captain.” Fortuitously for Phelps, Winslow asked for a transfer, and Phelps managed to replace Dove with Richard W. Meade as captain of the Louisville. Bryant had fallen ill, so the Cairo also received a new captain, twenty-six-year-old Lieutenant Commander Thomas O. Selfridge Jr. “Received on board Commander Selfridge as our captain,” George Yost wrote on September 12, 1862. “Capt. Bryant being in ill health he was sent home.”

The state of the flotilla’s gunboats appalled Phelps. The Cincinnati had sprung countless leaks, and its engines needed repair. The Carondelet had gone to the yard in Cairo after the engagement with the Arkansas. A survey had found the Louisville in a “disgraceful and dirty condition” and its executive officer, two masters, and surgeons incompetent. The situation in Ellet’s ram fleet was even worse. Disputes were rife, and the rams’ men had taken to plundering, stealing, and luring blacks from plantations. Fortunately, Lincoln realized the ram fleet needed to be under the Navy Department’s command. Consequently, on November 8, 1862, Alfred Ellet was promoted to brigadier general, and his rams were renamed the Mississippi Marine Brigade.

On October 19, with its engines repaired, the Carondelet headed downriver to Helena. It passed Island No. 10 on October 21 and then took on coal at Memphis. Bright and early on October 23, the Carondelet took a pilot on board and, Morison noted, “dropped down amongst the fleet. Came to anchor abreast the city. Here we found Benton, Bragg, Mound City, Louisville, and Cairo.” All the gunboat captains, including Selfridge, the Cairo’s new commanding officer, came on board and visited with Walke. According to Yost, Selfridge had clearly set out to make the Cairo a proper man-of-war with a regular routine. “We drilled considerable to day and I think that our Captain intends to try to soon have the best drilled crew in the fleet,” he wrote in his diary on October 13. “The boat looks much cleaner and nicer now than it ever did before.”

Meanwhile, the Cincinnati had completed repairs at Cairo and had received some new recruits, among them Daniel F. Kemp. On September 16, 1862, Kemp had enlisted in the navy for one year. Rated a landsman, he went by rail to Cairo, Illinois, to the receiving ship Clara Dolsen. Most of the recruits, Kemp recalled, were made guards, as the ship had no marines “to keep the crew in order.” Then, he wrote, “a gunboat came up the river one day. . . . This was the gunboat Cincinnati. We were taken on board the Cincinnati on November 6, 1862.” The new recruits’ first assignment was to take on coal. Kemp observed, “This was a hard, unpleasant job as none of us boys had been used to hard work. However, we were in Uncle Sam’s Navy now, and had to do whatever we were told to do whether we liked it or not. We were getting ready to go down to Vicksburg, and the firemen had to have coal.” Kemp vividly recalled their trip downstream: “We left Cairo one Sunday and started down the Mississippi for our destination, but the river was very low and our progress was very slow, for we had to take soundings quite often so as not to run aground.” The gunboat anchored a short distance from Island No. 10 for several days, due to low water and heavy fog. Then, as the gunboat steamed down the Mississippi, Kemp explained that they “took on board a lot of contrabands, and they were a jolly lot of darkies right from the plantation. They would get together at night and give us a gay old time, a regular plantation jig. The names of their leaders were Alex, Charley, and Black Hawk. Alex would do the patting, and Charley and Black Hawk would do the dancing and the usual shouting and yah yahing.” The Cincinnati continued past Columbus, Hickman, Fort Pillow, Memphis, and Napoleon before arriving at Helena. “We finally reached the fleet, and found anchored there, the Signal, Marmora (Mosquito), Mound City, Carondelet, and Pittsburgh. Also a packet boat and the Lexington, a wooden gunboat.”

The Carondelet had spent the first part of November at Helena, tasked to convoy any vessels running between Memphis and Helena, provided there was sufficient depth of water. Navigating the Mississippi River still proved a challenge, for there was barely enough water for his ironclad boats to move up or down the river, Walke reported to Porter on November 8. He requested any light-draft, armed steamers that were available. He had sent a number of sick sailors to Cairo but cautioned the admiral, “There is still quite a number of officers and men who are very much debilitated by the fever and ague this fall, and I am afraid they will not be fit for duty this winter.”

By the fall of 1862, officials in Washington had grown weary with the lack of progress in the West. Generals Buell and McClellan had been pursuing a style of warfare that reflected their limited war aims. The halting Union advances had prolonged the fighting, and now the president resolved to prosecute the war more aggressively. “The army, like the nation, has become demoralized by the idea that the war is to be ended, the nation reunited, and peace restored by strategy, and not by hard, desperate fighting,” Lincoln said. In late October he replaced Buell with William S. Rosecrans as commander of the Army of the Cumberland, and on November 7 he informed McClellan that Ambrose Burnside would supersede him. Lincoln urged his generals to renew the attack on Vicksburg, which had been delayed by military crises in Kentucky and Maryland and by a Confederate attempt to lever Grant’s forces out of northern Mississippi. Grant had initially declined to renew operations against Vicksburg, citing the need to rebuild railroads in northern Mississippi and Tennessee. In November, however, Lincoln replaced Butler with Nathaniel P. Banks as commander of Union forces in southern Louisiana and gave him the mission of opening the Mississippi River by coordinating an attack on Vicksburg and Port Hudson. Finally, Grant proposed a move south to Grenada, Mississippi, which he expected would engage Confederate forces and enable Sherman to make an amphibious assault downstream from Memphis to Vicksburg.

Naturally, Porter knew the reputation of the man everyone now called U. S., or “Unconditional Surrender,” Grant, but he had never met the general and knew nothing of his plans. One evening, the admiral attended a dinner party on board an army quartermaster’s riverboat. When a man in a rumpled brown coat and gray trousers appeared, the host said, “Admiral Porter, meet General Grant.” The two found a table away from the party guests and sat down. Without fanfare, Grant explained his plan to take Vicksburg. “I need your assistance, Porter,” Grant said, “all you can provide.” Impressed with Grant’s calm demeanor and his determination, Porter pledged his full support for the coming campaign. Then, without taking a bite of supper, Grant rose, clamped down on the cigar in his mouth, and announced he was going to ride back the way he had come.

Back on board the Black Hawk, Porter finalized the squadron’s plans to support Sherman’s expedition up the Yazoo River. Walke, who was now in charge of the Mississippi Squadron’s vessels based at Helena, was given the mission of securing all the landings on the Yazoo where the Confederates could erect batteries, determining the water’s depth, and dragging the river for mines. Porter then sent orders to his commanders to proceed to Helena and report to Walke.

On November 21 Walke, who was still suffering from what he called “Yazoo fever,” received orders to leave for the Yazoo as soon as possible. He was supposed to prevent the erection of batteries at the mouth of the river, or as far as federal guns would reach. If there was insufficient water in the Yazoo for his large vessels, he was instructed to send the Signal and Marmora with some good marksmen to secure a landing for General McClernand’s troops. The admiral also ordered Walke to take all the ironclads at Helena, except for the Benton and the former Confederate Bragg, plus the Lexington and Tyler, and secure control of as much of the Yazoo as possible. “Pick up all the good contrabands you can get, and something may be learned from the most intelligent of them and dispatch it to me,” Porter instructed. He explained that in about ten days he would be pushing downriver with all the light-draft boats he could get finished. Selfridge in the Cairo would be joining Walke at Memphis. The Cincinnati, Pittsburg, and Baron de Kalb, Porter wrote, “will be off on Monday.” With the Carondelet short fifty men, Walke realized he would have to take men from the Mound City and the Benton to fill his complement.

On November 24 the gunboat Marmora arrived with mail, and Morison reported that “dispatches also came in for our captain and immediately all hands were in motion, getting ready for a start down river to Vicksburg.” The next day Walke left Helena in the Carondelet with the Mound City, Signal, and Marmora. The Lexington, led by Lieutenant Commander James W. Shirk, was on its way to Helena with some refugee families. After dropping them off, the Lexington went down to Ashton, Louisiana, destroying every ferryboat it came across. Shirk brought back twenty-four contrabands, all of whom told him “that they are to be free on the 1st of January, but that their owners are getting ready to move them back from the river as soon as possible.” Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would go into effect on New Year’s Day 1863.

The Carondelet headed downstream accompanied by the Marmora and Signal, each towing a coal barge. On Wednesday, November 26, they met the Lexington, which followed them. The next day Morison wrote, “Picked [up] some more ‘contrabands,’ one of them having lived in the woods for over five months. Passed one plantation where all the slaves on it apparently wanted to come off, but being rather short of provisions, had to decline the honor.” The contrabands claimed that rebel troops had gone to Holly Springs and that all the blacks employed there had been sent to work on the forts at Vicksburg, as well as at another fort about forty miles below it.

The federal gunboats came to anchor off Milliken’s Bend at 4:00 p.m. on November 28, and Walke sent an armed boat crew from the Marmora on a tug. “As they landed, some guerillas in the woods fired on them and wounded one of ‘Marmora’s’ officers in the right side.” After this, they kept a lookout for enemy batteries along the shore. When the little flotilla reached the mouth of the Yazoo the next day, Walke sent the Marmora and Signal up to reconnoiter, accompanied by twenty men and the gunner from the Carondelet. The expedition ascended the Yazoo about forty miles but returned after encountering a masked battery. Although they did not engage the enemy battery, “they shelled the woods, thereby driving in the pickets from the river banks and killing a few of them,” Morison explained. They took two prisoners and a contraband on board and “found that the rebs were busy erecting some more batteries down towards the mouth of the river.”

Observing the water level, Walke decided not to take his ironclads up the river; instead, he sent the tinclads Marmora and Signal to sound the river and look for rebel activity. Suspecting rebel guerrillas in the area, Walke then sent a detachment of twenty armed men, under the command of gunner William Beaufort, to the Marmora to protect the crew while they sounded the river. At 2:15 p.m. his suspicions were confirmed when a party of men fired a volley of musketry at the Carondelet from shore. The gunboat immediately replied with four solid shots and two five-second shells.

Lieutenant Robert Getty took the Marmora and Signal up the Yazoo, and at Twelve Mile Bayou guerrillas fired down on the federal gunboats from the high banks. Getty shelled them, and they disappeared. Upon reaching Anthony’s Ferry, some twenty-one miles up the Yazoo, Getty reported, “I was again subjected to a severe and rapid guerilla fire, which was promptly returned with howitzers and rifles, silencing the enemy.” Finally, at Drumgould’s Bluff, Getty found the enemy’s fortifications. He studied them through his spyglass, determined they were indeed formidable, and then steamed back down to the mouth of the Yazoo. In his report to Walke, Getty claimed that his reconnaissance had confirmed the presence of rebel pickets and some cavalry. The guerrillas were active, he told Walke, but the Confederates had no batteries for twenty-three miles up the Yazoo from its mouth.

On December 1 Walke issued special orders to his commanders. He told them to keep a quarter watch during the night and to maintain sufficient steam to work their engines. Should the enemy fire on any of the vessels, the nearest one would fire immediately. If fired upon by a battery or field battery, then all vessels should go to quarters and place themselves in a position to engage the enemy to the best advantage. Recalling the friendly fire taken by the Carondelet after running past Island No. 10, Walke instructed his commanders to engage any enemy gunboat approaching the squadron with their bow guns in the first order of sailing, “being careful not to fire into each other.”

Walke also sat down to write a report to Porter. He informed Porter that the Confederate fort on the Yazoo “was said to be on a very high bluff concealed from view by another high point.” The passage up the Yazoo was clear to the fort, but he noted that “a land force would be needed to capture it.” He told Porter that he really needed more rams and noted, “The rebels have some good, large steamers at Vicksburg, and I suppose they will come out and surprise us, if they can, but I will keep a bright lookout for that. They can not attack us except with rams, or by boarding in the fog with large steamers.” Walke commented that the weather was “quite pleasant” but added that, having been on blockade duty on the Mississippi since September 1861, he would be happy to see the river open again, “as the ague and fever of this country is, like the rebels themselves, obstinate and treacherous.”

 

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