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Gunboats on the Mississippi
By Adm. David Dixon Porter

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.

The Petrel 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.

The Exchange 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 clearly exhibited.

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 foes alike.

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,[1] 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 enemy.

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 gunboats.

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.)

[1] This is the Tyler of Shiloh fame. It was variably recorded as Taylor and Tyler throughout the war.

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