February 25, 1863 (Wednesday)
All things Federal along the lower Mississippi were not going well. The Queen of the West had been captured and turned into a Confederate ram, only to turn upon the USS Indianola a week and a half later, causing her surrender from a subdued and partially sunken state.
Though she was half filled with water, Confederate Major Joseph L. Brent, preferred to think of the USS Indianola as half empty. In the hours that followed her surrender, Brent had their prize towed from the Union-controlled western bank to the Confederate-controlled eastern. She was filling more and more with water, but it seemed as if she could be salvaged. If so, it was best to do it near friendly ground.
By the time he hauled her over, however, she was sunk up to her gun deck. Anything valuable within was destroyed. Still, she was a wonderful prize and he planned to pump her out and claim her for the Confederacy.
At dawn, the Queen of the West continued up to Warrenton, just south of Vicksburg. There, she landed and drew supplies. She also drew the attention of Union Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter, who was already enraged that the Queen had been lost. Finding her under Rebel colors did nothing to help his mood.
What this actually meant, he quickly deduced. If the Queen was directly across the river from the Federal landings, that could only mean that the Indianola had been destroyed or captured. The previous night, he had heard the pounding of artillery in the distance, and figured it must be so.
Hoping to buy time, salvage the vessel, and/or win some small victory, Porter devised a scheme to fashion a sort of naval Quaker gun. He and his crew found an empty scow and built up a top for it with barrels and mud. Employing logs, he lengthened it to 300 feet, while other workers built a “casemate,” complete with a huge, blackened log that would serve as false artillery. A wheelhouse was made, as were two chimneys. They even placed burning tar within them to simulate smoke.
When the hulk was complete, they coated it in black tar and christened it the Black Terror and inscribed it with the motto: “Deluded People, Cave In!” It was a horribly ugly and utterly beautiful piece of work.
They waited until nightfall, when her true nature could not be ascertained. Using a tugboat, she was hauled to a point just above Vicksburg and let loose.
Spying her almost immediately, the Rebel gunners opened a fury upon the Black Terror. Round after round did little but expose their true position to the watching Federals, meticulously noting each blast of the Confederate artillery. But the night was with darkness as well as shells, and all but one missed its mark.
The Vicksburg telegraphs lit up with chatter. There was a new Union gunboat and she was huge. The Queen of the West was only 180 feet long, so in the darkness of night, the Terror must have seemed twice that.
The Black Terror grounded herself just out of range of the Rebel guns. Luckily, she stopped on the western shore near a gathering of some of General Sherman’s infantry. They pushed her back into the water and on her way, reporting but one hole just above the waterline.
From there, the Terror floated with the current until she was spotted by the Queen of the West, engaged in a bit of scouting upriver from Warrenton. Both the Queen and her counterpart, the CSS Webb had been greatly damaged in the previous day’s fighting with the Indianola. There was no way that either or both together could take on such a massive foe.
The Queen turned at once, steaming downriver towards the Webb. As word filtered down to the rest of the fleet, still at the site of the half-sunken Indianola, confusion and panic held the night.
As the CSS Grand Era tried to escape, her port end was clipped by the racing Queen. With no time to lose, lest they all be sunk by this new Federal leviathan, the Grand Era dumped seventy bails of cotton overboard.
Orders from Vicksburg were clear. The new Federal monster was here to save the Indianola, and the captured ironclad must be destroyed lest she fall back into Federal hands! Her new crew wanted to, instead, make her a water battery and fight to the finish. They had lugged two pieces of field artillery upon her nearly-submerged decks and were awaiting orders to fire.
The Black Terror floated to within two and a half miles of this ruckus before becoming stuck again. To the Rebels, however, she was merely lurking and hovering – waiting for the right time to strike. This was all too much, even for the Indianola‘s new and daring crew.
But for them, it was too late. The Confederate fleet had gone, leaving them stranded upon an unmovable and partially sunken ironclad with that dark and terrible enemy gunboat ready to strike at any moment.
This was the situation all throughout the night of the 25th. Come the next day [150 years ago tomorrow], the Indianola‘s new commander decided to finally follow orders and blow up the ship. He burst three of her larger guns, spiked the fourth, and rolled the two pieces of field artillery into the Mississippi. Then, with the crew upon the eastern bank, he set fire to the magazine which, in short order, exploded the Indianola.
Everything on her was lost. The stores, the artillery, the ammunition and powder. Everything was left upon her to be destroyed in the blast. That is, all except her stash of wine and liquor, which the Rebels dutifully commandeered.
Later on, the Confederates would unsuccessfully try to raise her. After the fall of Vicksburg, the Federals would succeed, but she would never return to the water.1
- Sources: Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, p407, 409, 410-411; Guns on the Western Waters by H. Allen Gosnell; Ellet’s Brigade by Chester G. Hearn. [↩]