February 21, 1863 (Saturday)
When last we left Col. Charles Ellet, the Era No. 5 and the ironclad USS Indianola, they had followed the CSS Webb down the Mississippi to the mouth of the Red River.
Meanwhile, the Webb, with a good head start, was able to make better time and slip away, up the Red to Fort Taylor and the Queen of the West, which had been captured on St. Valentine’s Day from Col. Ellet.
From the 17th to the 21st, Lt. Commander George Brown and his USS Indianola anchored at the mouth of the Red, blocking the river, and hoping to find a pilot that could take them to the Rebel fortress. Nothing could be procured but rumors – and these rumors spoke volumes.
Not only was the CSS Webb waiting at Fort Taylor, but so were two other cottonclad ships. To make matters even worse, the Queen of the West was reported to be operational. The Rebels must have dragged her from her grounding, and readied her for battle. Each of the four vessels were reportedly manned by full boarding parties, ready and willing to capture the Indianola.
On this date, when Lt. Commander Brown learned all of this, he immediately searched for more bails of cotton to fill up the open spaces between the wheelhouses and casemates to better fend off boarding parties. By the next day, he would be amply supplied.
In the meantime, Col. Ellet and the Era No. 5 (the captured Rebel transport that was now serving in the US Navy), left the Indianola at the Red River to return to Vicksburg. Ellet began the journey on the 18th. As much as he wanted to retake the Queen, the odds were now against him. Also, the Era was only a transport and could hardly defender herself, let alone attack.
Soon after starting, Ellet captured 170 bails of cotton and fortified the Era as best he could.
For nearly 100 miles of steaming against the current, there was nothing of interest to report. But when he landed the Era at St. Joseph, Louisiana on this date, he learned that Rebel cavalry commander, Wirt Adams, was waiting for him with two pieces of artillery at not ten miles upriver at Grand Gulf.
Figuring that he could make it without too much trouble, thanks to the cotton, Ellet and the Era steamed against the current towards Grand Gulf. As he reached it and Col. Adams saw the Federal vessel, and fired his two guns, throwing thirty-six rounds at the Era. The cotton, while a fine idea, was hardly needed. But one shot hit a cotton bale and bounced harmlessly into the water. All of the rest missed their mark.
A few miles farther, near Island No. 107, Adams’ cavalry opened upon the Union craft from the Mississippi side of shore. The fire was heavy, but Ellet thought it a ruse to get the Era to veer to the far bank. Avoiding what he believed was certain capture, the small transport braved the flying lead and pushed ever onward.
But just as she cleared the island, her furnaces became so clogged that Ellet was forced to stop and clean them out. Fortunately, this only delayed the Era for about twenty minutes as she drifted back downstream. But as soon as he pulled a bit farther, a three-gun Confederate battery from the Louisiana side opened upon him. He and his tiny ship struggled silently against the forty-six rounds fired at them. Again, none of the shots hit home.
Upon nearing Warrenton, Mississippi at dusk, yet another Rebel battery opened upon him. From two 20-pound rifles, the Confederates fired twenty-four shots, and as before, none were able to touch him.
Unharmed, Ellet pulled into Bigg’s Landing below Vicksburg. For the remainder of the night, he wrote his report about the loss of the Queen of the West, doing his best to explain his reckless actions to Admiral David Dixon Porter.
The following day, Porter would respond.1
- Sources: Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, p379-380, 386; Ellet’s Brigade by Chester G. Hearn; Guns on the Western Waters by H. Allen Gosnell. [↩]