Gunboats on the Mississippi
The little tinclads of the
Mississippi squadron made a good deal of history for the Navy. They often
performed duties that ought to have been assigned to ironclads; but these latter
were few in number and too large to penetrate the small and narrow streams where
the Confederates had an idea they were secure, and from whence they would start
expeditions towards the great river to prey upon peaceful commerce. The Petrel more than once distinguished
herself in these river expeditions, and while in the Yazoo River performed
service that should be remembered.
Colonel Coates, who had
started out with Lieutenant-Commander Owen, as mentioned on a former occasion,
to keep the Confederates from following in Sherman’s rear, had with the
assistance of the Navy, occupied Yazoo City, which seemed to be an object of
attack from both parties. First one side and then the other had thrown up
earth-works until it had become a formidable place.
Colonel Coates was quietly
resting here, keeping a good look-out on the enemy, who were in force a few
miles back, when, on the 5th of March, the Confederates made a fierce
attack on the redoubts at a point occupied by the 11th Illinois
Volunteers, supported by a 12-pound howitzer belonging to the Exchange. Acting-Master Thomas McElroy,
of the Petrel, had been left in charge
of the naval force in the Yazoo River by Lieutenant-Commander Owen.
After firing the howitzer
several times, it had a shell jammed in the bore which could not be removed. Mr.
McElroy then ordered Acting-Master Gibson, of the Marmora, to dismount one of his rifled howitzers, mount it on the
field carriage, and send it on shore with a crew to work it; but before he could
get the gun to the redoubt the enemy had completely surrounded the hill.
At this time the
fighting in the city was hand to hand; the gun was placed in position and opened
fire rapidly on the enemy. At one time the crew was driven from their piece by
superior numbers; but the Union soldiers, seeing that the sailors needed
support, went to their rescue, charged the enemy, and retook the gun.
and Marmora kept up a rapid fire with
shrapnel, until the battle was over, and McElroy was requested by Colonel Coates
to cease firing, as the enemy was retreating. McElroy then went on shore, took
the howitzer, and pursued the retreating enemy, firing upon their rear until
they escaped to the hills.
Three sailors highly
distinguished themselves in this battle: Bartlett Laffey of the Petrel, and James Stoddard and William J.
Franks of the Marmora. These men,
though surrounded at the gun, fought hand to hand with their cutlasses to the
last, and when the enemy retreated, turned the gun upon them – this, too,
after their officer (an acting ensign) had retreated, and behaved so badly that
his resignation was afterwards demanded. Here was a great difference between the
men and their officers, and it is hoped that the former will live to see their
names mentioned while that of their leader is withheld as unworthy of mention.
On the 13th of
April, the Confederates, taking advantage of the absence of the gunboats,
marched on Columbus, Ky.; but when Colonel Lawrence, who commanded the post,
refused to listen to a demand for its surrender, they turned upon Fort Pillow,
and captured it after a desperate conflict.
Fort Pillow was retaken by
Lieutenant-Commander Fitch, but the enemy carried off with them everything it
had contained in the shape of guns and stores, and retreated to Ashport. [. . .
] All the successes gained by the Confederates were owing to the unfortunate Red
River expedition, which had withdrawn the gunboats from their posts.
In the meantime, the small
gunboats, which were acting on the Yazoo in connection with Colonel Coates, were
making themselves felt in that region. An expedition under Colonel Schofield was
about to start up the Yazoo River by order of General McArthur, when, by request
of the former, on April 21st, the gunboats Petrel and Prairie Bird preceded the Army transport up to Yazoo City. No enemy
being in sight, the Petrel went on up,
leaving the Prairie Bird and transport
Freestone at the Navy Yard. When
abreast of the city, the little gunboat opened fire on some Confederate troops
just then coming in sight on the hills, which was returned briskly by musketry
and cannon. The river being too narrow to turn in, Acting-Master McElroy
determined to run the batteries, go up the river where there was more room, turn
about, and then run down again. It was not found practicable to return
immediately, however, so the Petrel
remained where she was until the 22nd. On this day she hauled into
the bank and commenced wooding, when she was attacked by the enemy with a strong
force of infantry and several pieces of cannon, the shot from their guns passing
through the vessel. Not being able to bring his guns to bear, McElroy armed his
men as sharpshooters and returned the fire, at the same time getting underway.
While starting off, two shots entered the ship, one striking the cylinder, the
other cutting the steam-pipe and disabling the engines, when the Confederates
closed in on her. The crew went to
their quarters and commenced firing, but the sharpshooters picked them off
through the ports, and McElroy, finding it impossible to work his guns, gave the
order to set fire to the ship and abandon her. At this moment a shot went
through the boiler, enveloping the Petrel
in steam. This was unfortunate, for the steam extinguished the fire, and in
consequence the vessel fell into the hands of the enemy, with all her stores,
guns, and ammunition.
There were some unpleasant
features associated with this affair, but McElroy redeemed his own mistakes by
his gallantry after most of his officers and men had left the vessel. The pilot,
Kimble Ware, and a quartermaster, J. H. Nibbie, stood by their commander when
all the officers had deserted their flag.
As soon as the steam cleared
away, McElroy, with the assistance of Quartermaster Nibbie, got the wounded off
the guards onto the bank, and got ready to set fire to the vessel again (all
this time under an incessant fire). He obtained some live coals from the furnace
and spread them about the decks, but soon had to desist on account of the heat
below. At this time, the enemy seeing the officers and men escaping across the
fields, crossed the river above and below the Petrel, and, surrounding her on all sides, forced McElroy to
surrender. The fires on board the steamer were at once extinguished, and the
captain was taken away before he had time to find out how many of his men were
killed and wounded.
As an excuse for the conduct
of the crew, it must be remarked that there were only ten veteran men and boys
on board the vessel; the rest were all “contrabands,” and some of these were
sick. But it was one of the few cases where officers behaved badly on board a
vessel of the Mississippi squadron. If the Petrel
had been properly seconded by the troops, the disaster would not have occurred.
This affair threw quite a
gloom over the fleet, as the Petrel
had always been one of the favorite tinclads, and her name appears in many
expeditions and forays.
This disaster was redeemed a
short time afterwards by the gallant conduct and good management of
Acting-Master James C. Gipson, in the gunboat Exchange, who, while passing Columbia, Arkansas, was opened upon by
a masked battery, consisting of four 12-pound shell guns, two 12-pound rifles,
and one 10, one 18, and one 6-pounder rifle.
The battery was divided into two sections,
planted about 200 yards apart, behind the levee. The Confederates waited until
the Exchange had passed the lower
battery, and then opened upon her a destructive fire. Acting-Master Gipson could not back down on account of having
turned the point of a sand bar, and he at once saw that his only alternative was
to run the upper battery. This he attempted to do, opening fire at the same time
with all the guns he could bring to bear upon the enemy; but unfortunately, the
port engine was struck by a shot and disabled, reducing the speed of the vessel
and keeping her under fire for forty-five minutes.
The Exchange had hardly got out of range of the enemy’s guns when her
engine stopped entirely, and it was found necessary to anchor while the
engineers were making repairs. The work was quickly and energetically done, and
the little vessel was enabled to move slowly up the river with one engine. It
was expected that the Confederates would move the battery above the vessel while
she was disabled, and open fire upon her again; but this was not done, and she
finally escaped, though badly cut up.
was pierced thirty-five times with shot and shell, eight times near the
waterline and five times in the casemate. Several shells exploded in the coal
bunkers, near the boiler, and one entered the shell locker, overturning shell
boxes, but, fortunately, not reaching some percussion shell that were stored
there. One shot passed through the pilot house, wounding Acting-Master Gipson
and rendering him senseless for fifteen minutes; but the brave pilot steered his
course as coolly as if it was an everyday affair. The gallant commander was
wounded in three places, but in all this firing only one man was killed
outright. That, however, does not detract from the credit of this fight, and it
shows how a cool and determined commander can get out if a difficulty if he is
determined to do so.
Though the volunteer officers
in the Mississippi fleet almost always deported themselves with great gallantry,
few affairs were better managed than the one we have just described. We cannot
always give the names of all the officers engaged in these adventures, but they
will generally be found in the lists.
There were a number of such
affairs, and in many of them the brave character of the Western man men was
On the 8th of
June, 1864, Lieutenant-Commander F. M. Ramsey, while employed in the Atchafalaya
River, started down with the Chillicothe,
Neosho, and Fort Hindman. When about one and a half miles from Simmsport, they
were fired upon by a battery of two 30-pounder Parrotts. When the vessels opened
fire in return, the enemy did not wait to load, but scattered in all directions,
leaving their guns and muskets behind them. A deserter stated that these guns
had been taken from General Banks when he was on his Red River raid, and the
naval officers were thus sometimes reminded that banks had furnished the guns
which so often attacked them along the river. This affair was well managed and
with but little loss of life.
Five or six batteries, which
had been captured from the Federals, were now raiding upon different parts of
the river, and firing upon merchant steamers carrying passengers, frequently
women and children. We regret that we are obliged to mention these acts of
wanton vengeance on the part of the Confederates. It was not legitimate warfare,
and it detracted very much from the credit which they had fairly earned by their
undoubted bravery on other occasions.
It looked sometimes as if the
“chivalry” of the South was dying out. The gunboats, with as much propriety,
might have fired upon the defenseless house of people who were taking no part in
the war. It is true that the Union men did sometimes disgrace themselves by
burning houses, but it was always done in retaliation for some wanton act on the
part of the Confederates, and the women and children were always given time to
get out of the way. It was all wrong on either side, and shows how the most
humane people will become demoralized when engaged in a civil war. May God save
us from any such war in the future!
There was no doubt about the
energy, zeal, and bravery of these Louisiana and Texas troops; they never
relaxed for a moment, and were encountered when least expected. As they attacked
everything that came along, they would sometimes “catch a Tartar.”
On the 26th of June, while the
gunboat General Bragg was at anchor in
Tunica Bend, she was opened on by the enemy with four guns. Acting Volunteer
Lieutenant C. Dominey (commanding) slipped his cable and went to quarters,
replying rapidly to the enemy’s fire. After being engaged about five minutes,
a shot struck the working-beam of the steamer, and disabled her engines
completely. But Dominey did not mind that. He drifted along, silencing the
enemy’s guns, and they went away apparently satisfied with having put 22 shot
and shell into the General Bragg.
The little tinclad Naiad,
hearing the firing, ran to the assistance of the Bragg, and when within half a mile of the latter another battery
opened upon her, in a few moments completely disabling her steering gear and
severely wounding the pilot, James H. Herrington. The Naiad’s wheel being shot away, her commander, Acting-Master Henry
T. Keene, rigged relieving tackles, steered for the battery and continued a
close and brisk fire until it was completely silenced.
In this affair the little
vessel was struck nine times; and to show how these frail boats would hold on
amidst a pitiless storm of shot and shell, we shall enumerate the damages
inflicted on the Naiad:
The first shot passed through the smokestack, the second
and third shots passed through the pilot house, the third striking the barrel of
the wheel, cutting the tiller rope and literally tearing the wheel to pieces.
The fourth shot passed a few feet abaft the pilot house, shattering the steerage
and skylights, but doing no further damage. The fifth shot passed through the
cabin. We also received four shots through the starboard casemates, one striking
abreast of the boilers; one abaft of No. 2 gun, tearing up the decks and
exploding within a few feet of the shell room; one abaft of No. 3 gun, killing
John J. Crennell, ordinary seaman, and wounding 3 others; another passed through
the port of No. 4 gun, tearing away the shutter and exploding in the dispensary.
This was a gallant
combat on the part of these light-armed gunboats, and showed the persistency
with which the Confederates kept up the war.
Now that the great
strongholds of the enemy had all been abandoned, the guerilla warfare was
carried on along the Mississippi as it had been on the upper rivers. The
guerillas never accomplished anything of importance, and soon became a source of
great annoyance to the wretched inhabitants, who were obliged to feed and clothe
them in order to make it appear they were loyal to the Confederate cause. No
discipline existed among these wandering bands, and they preyed on friends and
On the 29th of
June, a fleet of nine transports, containing troops under the command of General
Steele, started on an expedition up the Arkansas River, for the purpose of
meeting a Confederate force under General Marmaduke, who had assembled quite an
army on both sides of the river and was obstructing navigation. The transports
were accompanied by the Taylor, Fawn, Naumkeag, and Queen City,
under command of Lieutenant George M. Bache.
The smaller vessels had gone on ahead, while the Taylor (Lieutenant Bache’s vessel) kept
with the convoy. When within ten miles of Clarendon, Lieutenant Bache picked up
some sailors on the left bank of the river belonging to the Queen City, who stated that that vessel had been captured by General
Shelby at 4 o’clock that morning. Information was also obtained that the enemy
were in much greater force than General Steele had anticipated, which caused a
change in the programme.
It appears that while the Queen City was lying at anchor off
Clarendon, she was suddenly attacked by General Shelby with two regiments of
cavalry (dismounted) and four pieces of artillery. The officers of the vessel
were taken by surprise, no intimation of the enemy’s approach having being
given until the attack was made. At the first or second round the starboard
engine was disabled by a shell, and the effectiveness of the port engine was
much injured by a piece of the same shell passing through the steam pipe. After
fighting twenty minutes, Acting-Master M. Hickey, who commanded the gunboat,
seeing that she was completely riddled with shot, shell, and rifle balls,
decided to surrender, not having the bravery to fight it out, as many of his
contemporaries would have done. He ordered his officers and men to abandon the
vessel, and most of them escaped to the opposite shore. One man was killed, nine
wounded, and 25 taken prisoners
Lieutenant Bache received
intelligence of the capture of the Queen
City about five hours after it occurred.
He at once started up the river to prevent the enemy from using her
against the Union forces or getting her stores. When within a few miles of
Clarendon, however, two successive reports were heard up the river, which proved
to be the explosion of the unfortunate gunboat’s magazine. General Shelby,
hearing of the approach of the other vessels, had destroyed her.
The gunboats approached the
point where the enemy was stationed in the following order: Taylor, Naumkeag, Fawn, and when they were abreast of Cache River the enemy opened
fire, putting one of his first shots through the pilot house of the Taylor. This vessel could only reply with
one gun until abreast of the enemy’s position, when she fired broadsides of
shrapnel and canister. Having passed the batteries, the gunboats rounded-to and
steamed up at them again (at this time the Fawn’s pilot had been mortally wounded and her signal bell
arrangements carried away, which prevented her from participating in the second
attack). The Confederates thought that Bache merely intended to run by their
batteries, and they gave three cheers when they saw him steaming away as they
supposed, but when he returned to the attack they exclaimed in despair: “Here
comes that black devil again!” After getting abreast of them again, the Taylor and Naumkeag kept up such a terrible fire that in five minutes the enemy
began escaping in all directions, throwing away everything they had captured.
The Confederates had six guns of their own, of different sizes, and a
12-pounder howitzer, which they had taken from the Queen City. These guns were placed in four different positions,
making four batteries; but the fire of the gunboats was so withering that the
artillerymen were driven off after an action of 45 minutes. The Confederates
must have been roughly handled, for they abandoned everything they had captured
from the Queen City, as well as some
of their wounded prisoners.
This was a gallant and
well-managed affair, and Lieutenant Bache gained great credit for the handsome
manner in which he had handled his vessels and defeated so large a force of the
Acting-Master John Rogers of
the Naumkeag was also mentioned
handsomely for the cool and efficient manner in which he had fought his vessel. In fact, all behaved well and reduced
the unfortunate loss of the Queen City,
which lay a shattered wreck at the bottom of the river. Her guns were finally
raised and everything of value recovered.
Lieutenant Bache was now
warned by the falling waters that it was time to go below, if he did not wish to
be caught in a trap. Having satisfied himself that he had driven Shelby and his
force away from the river, he left the Naumkeag
and Fawn at Clarendon to protect that
place, and started down the river in the Taylor
to communicate with General Steele.
A large force of troops was then sent up in a
transport, convoyed by the Taylor, and
landed at Clarendon without meeting any opposition. This force, under General
Carr, immediately gave chase to the enemy, who numbered 2,500 men, and
skirmished with them for twenty-five miles, capturing several pieces of
artillery and 60 wounded men. Most of the crew of the unfortunate Queen City were picked up along the river
and distributed among the other vessels. The enemy retired toward Little Rock
and did not trouble the gunboats for some time. The flotilla had sixteen men
wounded, two of whom died the next day.
We have nothing to say against this attack of the Confederates
– it was all legitimate enough, and, no doubt, they suffered severely for
their temerity. General Shelby showed no want of gallantry, his only fault being
that he had not fairly considered the enemy he was about to attack. He had so
easily overcome the Queen City that he
thought he could do the same with the rest.
The result of the fight was that general Steel followed the
enemy to Little Rock, Arkansas, on which place General Marmaduke had intended to
make a raid; and the Confederates, finding that they could not assemble on the
banks of the White River while the gunboats were so active, transferred their
operations to some other quarter.
With the exception of some
trouble up the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers, the operations for the year 1864
ended favorably for the Union cause, as far as the Navy was concerned. The
Confederates continued to show themselves in Kentucky and Tennessee, however,
and sometimes took advantage of transports that were not convoyed by gunboats.
Even as late as December, 1864, there was no diminution of zeal and energy on
the part of the enemy, though they must have seen by that time that the
Confederacy was doomed. An artillery company would sometimes travel for miles
just for the pleasure of firing a few rounds into a gunboat or transport.
There was not cavalry enough
on the Federal side to pursue these raiders; and, if an expedition was organized
for that purpose, it generally consisted of an army contingent convoyed by
Sometimes the naval commander
of a district, from a feeling of over-security, sent an insufficient force of
gunboats, when trouble would ensue and the undertaking be a failure. One of
these cases was an expedition from Clifton to Eastport under command of General
Hoge, consisting of the 113th and 120th Illinois infantry,
660 strong; 61st U.S. colored infantry, 600 strong, and Battery G, 2nd
Missouri light artillery (four rifled 12-pounders). These troops embarked on the
9th of October, at Clifton, on the transports City of Pekin, Aurora, and Kenton, and they set out for Eastport under convoy of the Key West, Acting-Volunteer Lieutenant E.
M. King, and the Undine, Acting-Master
John L. Bryant.
On the 10th the
vessels arrived off Eastport. After passing Line Island, ten miles below, signal
was made from the Key West to be
cautious and proceed in close order. On approaching Eastport, everything seemed
quiet; and as there were no signs of troops or batteries on the hill commanding
the landing, Lieutenant King signalled to the transports to land their troops,
and took a position with the gunboats in the middle of the river, so as to cover
the movement with their guns.
The troops commenced
disembarking immediately. Colonel Hoge then went on board the Key West and informed Lieutenant King
that he should move immediately for Iuka. As the colonel was returning to the City of Pekin, a masked battery of six
rifled guns from the hill at Eastport and three rifled guns from the Chickasaw opened on the boats. The
transports were struck several times, and a caisson exploded on board both the Aurora and the Kenton, setting them on fire. This caused great confusion among the
troops, many of them jumping overboard from the burning steamers. A company that
had been sent out as skirmishers immediately returned to the boats, while the
troops that were forming in line on the bank broke and fled down the river,
abandoning a battery of four guns. The transports cut their lines and drifted
downstream, the Kenton and Aurora disabled, and the City of Pekin with several shot through her – it seemed to be
“every man for himself.”
During this time the Key West and Undine were both hit twice with rifle projectiles. One shell passed
down through the boiler deck of the Key
West, and exploded in the bag rack, near the after part of the boilers –
another passed through the steerage and out on the port side. The Undine had her bell wires cut by a shell,
also her port wheel rope.
The gunboats for half an hour
returned the fire of the enemy, whose shot fell thick and fast around them, when
Lieutenant King, seeing that he could do nothing with his smoothbores against
the Confederate rifles, dropped down out of range to look after the convoy. The
troops had quenched the fires on the transports, but they were disabled; and
this was the end of an expedition that might have produced better results if the
troops had been landed out of sight of Eastport and marched up.
It seems reasonable to
suppose that 1,320 soldiers could have captured these batteries if proper means
had been taken to do so; but sometimes the soldiers seemed helpless, and
inclined for the Navy to capture a place before occupying it, forgetting, or not
knowing, that a “tinclad” was not an ironclad, and that the former were not
qualified to go under the fire of heavy batteries. But it was not often that
Army men behaved as they did on this occasion, and it can be partly accounted
for by the presence of raw and undisciplined troops. This expedition was
certainly a complete failure, much to be regretted by all concerned.
On the whole, however, the
Navy in the West had nothing to be ashamed of during the year 1864, and it will
be observed that throughout the campaign it had fighting enough to satisfy the
most ardent temperament.
This river fighting was a
link in the great chain that helped to bind the arms of the demon of rebellion.
The services of the Navy in the West had as much effect in reducing the South to
submission as the greater battles fought in the East; and the brave Westerners
who entered the Navy with no previous knowledge of the profession, having to
learn everything from a handspike to a ten-inch gun, may well feel proud at the
manner in which they conducted themselves, and glory in the results of their
labors, which cost the lives of many of their comrades, but which were generally
attended with success.
(Note: At the end of the war, most of the
tinclads were returned to the service from which they had come – that of
freight haulers on the inland rivers. Unfortunately, that once-thriving business
had by then been taken over by the railroads, and the ships were broken up for
scrap within a few years.)
 This is the Tyler of Shiloh fame. It was variably recorded as Taylor and Tyler throughout the war.
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