Fire Rafts and Circuses: A Strange Day on the Mississippi

April 20, 1862 (Easter Sunday)

It's Dan Rice of Dan Rice's Circus fame!

Along the darkened, muddy banks of the Mississippi River stood a dripping, filthy man hailing the mortar schooner Norfolk Packet, which had been lobbing shells at Confederate Forts Jackson and St. Philip for two days. It must have been a strange sight. The area had been swept by Federal pickets before the mortar boats were anchored along the bank and the appearance of any stranger, especially one dressed in what appeared to be the garb of a Confederate, was, no doubt, shocking.

Realizing this was bigger than himself, Lt. Smith, commander of the Norfolk, sent the man, named Amos Bonney, to Commodore David Porter’s flag ship, the Harriet Lane.1 Bonney seemed to be a very intelligent man. He claimed, in what was anything but a Louisiana drawl, that he was from Pennsylvania. He had been traveling with Dan Rice’s traveling circus, which was at that time every bit as popular as P.T. Barnum.2 Since Rice himself had been rumored to be a spy, and even rumored to have started his own pro-Confederate “Dan Rice’s Zouaves,” it wouldn’t have been surprising if Porter tossed this “Pennsylvanian” into the Mississippi for being one of Rice’s Rebel tentacles.3

Dan Rice Poster

Spy or not, Bonney, claimed to know the position of every gun in Fort Jackson. He told of the destruction in the fort, how the shells would bury themselves up to twenty feet into the ground before exploding, heaving up the earth, and greatly demoralizing the men. Fort Jackson itself was also greatly suffering. The deserter related that hundreds of such shells had fallen into the fort, buring the citadel, destroying the casemates and generally causing chaos. The catch was that the men, though demoralized, had provisions to last them two months, as well as a multitude of ammunition to go with their multitude of woes and discomfort.

Believing in (or at least enlivened by) Bonney’s tale, Porter renewed this day’s fire with vigor as he sent the man along to Admiral Farragut.4 To Farragut, he again related his tale, recalling that one of Fort Jackson’s Columbiad guns had been dismounted and that the furnace for making “hot shot” had been destroyed.5 But Bonney’s information wasn’t entirely accurate. While he could give first hand accounts of what was happening inside the fort, he also told what he had heard about the rest of the war. According to the deserter, Fort Pulaski had surrendered and Island No. 10 had been neutralized. While all of this was true, he also told of how the Union army was defeated at Corinth, Mississippi, a glaring untruth, probably originating from General Beauregard’s insistence that the Battle of Shiloh was a Confederate victory.6

Union fleet before Fort Jackson

Turning his eyes towards the matters at hand, Admiral Farragut could see that while the bombardment was doing a good bit of damage, the enemy was in no mind to surrender. The forts would probably fall, but only in the eventual. Something, thought Farragut, had to be done immediately.

Across the river, the Confederates had strung a boom consisting of two heavy chains fastened to six hulks of schooners moored in the river. Calling his officers together at 10am, he decided that while Porter continued the bombardment, he would not wait for the forts to surrender, but would take his fleet past the forts towards New Orleans.

The discussion was lively, with Commodore Porter, via a proxy, cautioning against cutting the boom. It was the mortar boats’ only protection against the Confederate Navy, as the boom not only kept the Union boats from steaming north, it stopped the Rebels boats from steaming south. By Porter, the Federal fleet must not move past the forts until they were surrendered.

Farragut, however, had already made up his mind. The fleet moving north would provide all the protection needed by the relatively defenseless and powerless mortar boats, which had to be towed in and out of position. Also in this plan were General Benjamin Butler’s infantry, which he wanted to land both below and above the forts, enveloping them.7

Admiral David Farragut

That night, in order to disassemble the boom, two gunboats, the Pinola and the Itasca, quietly steamed up the river under the cover of the mortar boats, still pounding away. To do the damage, a man named Julius Kroehl, an apparent expert in submarine explosions, was along for the ride with five 180-pound barrels of powder.

After thirty minutes, the Pinola arrived at the first hulk, but as they came under fire from both forts, they decided to try a hulk that was farther from the Rebel batteries. Kroehl and his crew placed the “torpedoes” at the fore and aft of the sunken ship, but the Pinola got its anchor entangled in the boom. During the struggle to free it, the wires running to the galvanic batteries that would ignite the charges came loose and the attempt was a pointless failure.8

Meanwhile, the Itasca had come upon a different hulk, finding the chains about it easy to slip off. During this operation, a small passage was made for the fleet, but the Itasca became grounded and the Pinola had to be sent to tow her out. After two failed attempts to free her, the Pinola had some unsuspected success. As she pulled the Itasca from the mire, one of the boom chains got caught up and tore the passage even wider open.9

Even with the passage open and the gunboats safely back with the fleet, the night was not yet at an end. Around 3am, a large fire raft, launched by the Rebels, was seen floating downriver towards the fleet. As it floated between the flagship Hartford and the Richmond, the flames reached as high as the masts. The men on deck, hoping and praying it would miss them, could not look directly at the inferno, it burned so bright. But all of the worry was for naught as smaller boats were able to steer it towards the bank where it burned itself out, giving a surreal end to an already strange day.10

Soon after the war, Dan Rice errected a monument to the Union troops in his town near Erie, Pennsylvania.

  1. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 18, p399; 405. Also, the book Mutiny at Fort Jackson: The Untold Story of the Fall of New Orleans by Michael D. Pierson, Univ of North Carolina Press, 2008, gives us his name, but claims that he was from upstate New York. []
  2. Testimony of Major-General Godfray Wietzel, February 7, 1865, before the Joint-Committee for the Conduct of the War. Taken from Reports of the Committees, Second Session of the Thirty-Eighth Congress, p76 of the Fort Fisher Expedition. []
  3. The Life of Dan Rice by Maria Ward Brown, 1901. The New York Tribune accused Dan Rice of such things, but there was no truth in the matter. By this time in 1862, most of those rumors had abated. []
  4. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 18, p358, 365, 367. []
  5. Official Naval Records Series 1, Vol. 18, p135. []
  6. The Life of David Glasgow Farragut by Loyall Farragut, D. Appleton and company, 1879. From a private letter written on April 21, 1862. Also, Corinth was the largest city near Shiloh (which was a relatively unknown place). So when Bonney spoke of Corinth, he undoubtedly meant Shiloh. Beauregard’s assertion that Shiloh was a Confederate victory was related in P.G.T. Beauregard; Napoleon in Gray by T. Harry Williams, LSU Press, 1955. []
  7. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 18, p694-695. []
  8. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 18, p429. []
  9. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 18, p813. []
  10. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 18, p738. Also, The Night the War Was Lost by Charles L. Dufour came in handy for clarification purposes. []
Creative Commons License
Fire Rafts and Circuses: A Strange Day on the Mississippi by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


View all posts by

3 thoughts on “Fire Rafts and Circuses: A Strange Day on the Mississippi

    1. Thanks! About the quibble, trying to figure out who had which rank and when is something I really wish I could master.

      In the OR, often ranks are given as they were at the time when the reports were made, which could have been weeks it months later. In memoirs, they’re often given as what they were at the end if the war.

      Even the officers themselves seemed confused about it, especially when flag officers became… What was it, admirals?

      CW navy is not my strong point. Prior to this project, I don’t think I had ever picked up a book about it other than one on the CSS Alabama.

      So I thank you very much for the correction.


      1. There were no Admirals in the U. S. Navy until July 16, 1862, when Congress created the rank to reward Farragut for his achievement at New Orleans. Until then, the commander of a fleet was referred to as “Flag Officer”. Joe Hammon is correct that Porter was a Commander, which was below Commodore and Captain, at the time of New Orleans. Curiously, he was also awarded the rank of Rear Admiral — so he was never a Commodore!

Comments are closed.