February 12, 1863 (Thursday)
The morning rose bright upon the mouth of the Red River, bleeding slowly into the Mississippi. The Federal ram Queen of the West, under the command of Col. Charles Ellet, had managed to refuel and steam south from Vicksburg with hardly a notice by the Rebels. With the Queen, the USS De Soto also made the journey. Together, they had been ordered to disrupt and destroy Southern shipping between Vicksburg to the north and Port Hudson to the south.
As the sky lightened, Ellet left the De Soto at the confluence, and steamed the Queen up the Red River to the mouth of the Atchafalaya, a distributary of both the Mississippi and Red. Not long after setting out, Ellet spied on the shore a line of twelve Confederate supply wagons. Since they had to keep to the road and were more or less unarmed, all Ellet had to do was demand their surrender. Once the teamsters saw what they were up against, they capitulated and Ellet quickly burned the lot of them.
Following a short discussion, Ellet discovered that the wagon train had come from Simmesport, just a little way down the Atchafalaya River. And so he set his mark for Simmesport. But when he arrived in the little burg, he discovered that the Queen had just missed two Rebel river transports carting off the infantry and artillery that had been stationed there. In their haste, the fleeing Rebels left 70 barrels of beef, which Ellet ordered to be broken open and dumped into the river.
Still at Simmesport, he saw another supply train taking great pains to get out of their way. He gave chase, but this train was able to scatter into the thick jungle enclosing the rivers. He was, however, able to capture one of the supply wagons. This prize was loaded with ammunition, and was swiftly put to the torch.
All of this took most of the day. With the sun setting, Ellet started the Queen back towards the Red River. Near where the Atchafalaya meets the Red, several shots flashed from the banks. The Federals were fired upon by folks Ellet described as “overseers and other civilians.” First Master James Thompson, was shot through the knee while standing on the upper deck.
The hidden attackers fled into the swamps, never to be seen again. The Queen continued on, resting for the night a short distance away. With dreams of retaliation swimming in his head, Col. Ellet called it a day.
Meanwhile, up north towards Vicksburg, Rear-Admiral David Dixon Porter had issued orders to the USS Indianola to assist the Queen of the West. What Porter was most worried about was the CSS Webb, a “cottonclad” side-wheel steam ram patrolling the Mississippi.
The Indianola‘s captain, Lieutenant-Commander George Brown, was to take with him two coal barges to refuel and protect the Queen. Porter was convinced that if the Indianola was there, the Webb would not attack both Federal ships.
George Brown’s ship also had another task. He was to capture a steamer and “go to Jeff Davis’s plantation and his brother Joe’s and load up said steamer with all the cotton you can find and the best single male negroes.”
Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ Brierfield Plantation was about twenty miles south of Vicksburg, where he owned hundreds of slaves. According to the Confiscation Acts and the Emancipation Proclamation, once these slaves came into contact with Federal military forces, they were “henceforth and forever free.” Reading between the lines, however, it’s more likely that Porter was interested in cheap labor and blackening the eye of old Jeff Davis than emancipation.1
- Sources: Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, p383-384, 377-378; History of the Ram Fleet and the Mississippi Marine Brigade by Warren Daniel Crandall. [↩]