Federals Try Again at Fort Pemberton

March 13, 1863 (Friday)

USS Baron de Kalb

The whole of the previous day was filled by Federals and Rebels alike fixing and securing their positions. Confederate Fort Pemberton, commanded by William Loring, near Greenwood, Mississippi, had been attacked by the Yankee flotilla under Leonard Ross, that had broken through Yazoo Pass in an attempt to steam into Vicksburg’s back door.

Specifically, the ironclad USS Chillicothe had lobbed a few shots and the Rebels returned in kind, blackening the gunboat’s eye by exploding a shell through one of the ports. After the fighting, the Union troops placed a battery on nearby land hoping to dislodge the Rebel gunners. Part of the fixing and securing involved the Union troops bringing the battery up to three guns and the Confederates refortifying their embrasures to counter the Federal firepower.

Much of the morning had been quiet. General Loring called in his pickets as General Ross established a beachhead and improved the battery. It was quiet and still, but for the preparations.

Then at 11am, two 30-pound Parrot rifles and a 12-pound howitzer opened a terrific fire upon the Confederate position. Only 700 yards away, the Federal gunners could easily find their mark.

Twenty minutes later, the USS Chillicothe and De Kalb steamed towards the Fort. Positioned as it was at a narrow pass in the river, only two gunboats could attack it at once. Behind them, a mortar boat, which had been towed down from Yazoo Pass, was held at the ready

Seeing the Federal ships approaching, Loring ordered his batteries to fire. Less than five minutes later, the Chillicothe responded with her starboard gun and, soon after, her port. When she found mark, she dropped anchor and pounded the Rebel works with her starboard side. With the De Kalb beside her, together they rang in the noon hour with exploding shells and shrapnel.

The air inside the earthen Confederate fort was on fire, as the garrison troops hugged the ground and artillerymen gave what they got.

An 11-inch shell from the Chillicothe plunged through one of the fort’s parapets and ignited one of the Rebel gun’s magazines. Fortunately, the shell was faulty and didn’t explode, but the burning fuse caught the powder in the cartridges on fire. The flash wounded sixteen who were close enough to be burned – some badly.

The Confederate fire mostly ignored the land battery, the mortar boat and the De Kalb. Instead, the Rebels focused upon the Chillicothe, as she was doing most of the damage. Three times Southern shells had caught the timber-boned ship on fire.

She was hit thirty-eight times, ten shells landing within the span of ten feet. Seven burst through the wheel housing, which was poorly shielded with twelve-inch thick wood. But still, she stood, screaming shot after shot into the Rebel works, though to little effect. Only one shell burst over a Confederate gun, killing one and wounding two others.

With her cotton bails on fire and the wooden portions of the ship being torn away, it soon because obvious that the Chillicothe could not reduce Fort Pemberton. Her ammunition running low, the battered and stricken vessel was recalled, leaving the De Kalb to stand on her own.

General Loring, too, was running low on ammunition. When he saw that the Federal gunboat was pulling back, he slackened and finally stopped. Meanwhile, the De Kalb fired once every fifteen minutes, just to remind the Rebels that she was there.

“We have lost some valuable gunners and a few others,” reported Loring to his commander, General John Pemberton. “Thank God, our losses so small. Enemy’s loses must be great.”

William Wing Loring

But Federal losses were even less, with two killed and four wounded aboard the Chillicothe. General Ross marveled over the intense fighting. “We have no means of knowing the extent of the enemy’s damage,” reported Ross that evening. “If no greater than our own, I may truly say that nobody was hurt by today’s operations.”

Ross was more or less correct. He was beginning to realize that Fort Pemberton might be a fairly tough nut to crack. Likewise, though the Chillicothe had suffered some damage, he didn’t think it was so bad. The conclusion was simple – the contest would be a stalemate.

But those on board the Chillicothe, like her captain, Lt. Commander James Foster, held an understandably different opinion. This wouldn’t be a stalemate, but a Confederate victory.

“The Chillicothe is now in condition to engage the enemy,” wrote Foster the following day, “she is, however, badly battered and shattered, and does not withstand the enemy’s shot and shell near as well as expected.”

And though the Federals did not know it, after dark, General Loring and his Confederates received a much-needed resupply of ammunition for the big guns. As on the 12th, the next two days would allow both sides to refit and repair, with only brief explosions of fighting. A new attack was coming, they could all sense it. But it was not yet upon them.1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, Part 1, p395, 397, 403, 412-413, 416; Official Naval Records, Vol. 24, 274-275. []
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  1. Something else worth remembering on this date: the Confederate Ordinance Laboratory suffered a tragedy. At 18 years of age, a worker named Mary Ryan was actually older than the majority of her fellows. (It had been found that women, and especially girls, were especially useful because of their smaller hands.) On this a Friday the 13th, something went terribly wrong with a friction primer Ryan was working on, and the resulting chain-reaction explosion killed or mortally injured at least 41 and perhaps as many as 69 people, most of them female.

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