February 13, 1863 (Friday the 13th)
First Master James Thompson of the USS Queen of the West had been shot while standing on the upper deck. The shot rang out from a band of hidden locals the previous evening from the banks of the Atchafalaya River, a distributary of the Mississippi. Not wishing to allow this to stand, Col. Charles Ellet, in command of the Queen, returned on the morning of this date to enact his revenge.
From the town of Simmesport to the mouth of the river, a distance of a several miles, every house, building, factory, landing, mill, barn, and anything even remotely resembling a structure was burned to the ground.
At Simmesport, he raided the mail and discovered that a few of Union Admiral David Farragut’s ships had entered the Atchafalaya from the south, coming up from New Orleans. An interesting tidbit, to say the least.
Leaving three plantations in smoldering ruins behind him, Ellet and the Queen ran north to the Red River, where she was joined by the ferry-turned-expendable vessel De Soto, which had been waiting at the confluence of the Red and Mississippi Rivers.
Together, they steamed up the Red River until reaching the mouth of the Black River, where they settled down for the night.
Just before the Queen and her lesser consort, the De Soto arrived at the mouth of the Black, a Confederate transport steamer made her way up the Red. Her cargo was a large, 32-lbs piece of artillery for the CSS Webb, the very ship that Admiral Porter had warned Col. Ellet about.
The Rebel transport was bound for Alexandria, fifty miles farther up the Red, where the Webb and another ram, the Grand Duke were being fitted out. By this date, not much had been accomplished, apart from a bit of caulking here and there. The Webb‘s new commander, Lt. Col. William S. Lovell, did his best with what little resources were at his hands.
“I had the greatest difficulty in getting carpenters to work on the vessels, although I offered them every inducement,” wrote Lovell in his report. “I had the same difficulty with negroes. The committee who were building a raft in Red River furnished me with thirty; they lent twenty more, but would not allow them to go on board the Grand Duke, the other vessel being fitted out, she having had a case of smallpox on board some days previous.”
Even with fifty slaves at his beckon call, Lovell could only get a modicum of work done on the two ships. It wouldn’t be until the following day that he could get the help he needed. By then, if rumors were true, it might be too late.
Meanwhile, in Vicksburg, north by about 125 river miles, the USS Indianola, commanded by George Brown, was nearly ready to run the gauntlet. Late in the night, Brown and the Indianola left their anchorage near the mouth of the Yazoo River. Very slowly they crept down the Mississippi, slipping past the Rebel guns unseen. The weather was kind enough to hide the moon and blacken the night.
It wasn’t until a narrow point opposite Vicksburg that the Confederates noticed the Federal ship. After sending up several rockets, the entire line of Rebel guns opened upon the Indianola. But without light to see, they were blindly firing at shadows. Eighteen enemy guns were fired in nineteen minutes. Not a single shot hit the vessel.
When they passed Warrenton, not far south of Vicksburg, two Rebel pickets took hazy aim and fired. Like their comrades, they missed as well. The Indianola traveled another four miles before landing for the night. The next morning, they would continue their river odyssey.1
- Sources: Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, p385, 398; History of the Ram Fleet and the Mississippi Marine Brigade by Warren Daniel Crandall; Ellet’s Brigade: The Strangest Outfit of All by Chester G. Hearn. [↩]