March 14, 1863 (Saturday)
Admiral David Farragut had spent the previous day inspecting his fleet anchored off Baton Rogue, Louisiana, finding it fit for the task of running the deadly gauntlet past the Confederate batteries at Port Hudson.
This was something he had wanted to do since January, but other matters pressed him and his flotilla here and there along the Gulf Coast. Following the capture of the Queen of the West and Indianola, however, he knew it was time to act. He knew that if he got a couple of vessels between Port Hudson and Vicksburg, it would effectively cut off Texas and the supplies running to each of the Rebel forts.
The plan was simple. General Nathaniel Banks and his infantry would approach Port Hudson from the south, diverting the Rebel guns in that direction. With the enemy distracted, Farragut would slip past the fort with, he hoped, minimal damage.
That was all well and good, but for the problem of impatience. Farragut had grown increasingly tired of the delays brought about by General Banks. Originally, he had wanted to attack, sans infantry support, at dawn of this date, but the fog was too thick. Farragut was ready, his fleet just out of the range of Rebel guns, but Banks was not. With the fog, that hardly mattered anyway.
And so the whole thing was rescheduled for the dawn of the 15th. This would give Banks time to get his troops in line and the original, joint plan could be worked.
Throughout the morning and afternoon, General Banks’ troops continued their march from Baton Rogue. By 2pm, they were in communication with Farragut. All was going very well. By dawn the next day, everything would be set.
The Federal flotilla was in plain view of the Rebel fort. Not only was it in view, but the seven Union vessels and several mortar boats commenced a bombardment, alerting the Confederates at Port Hudson that something was obviously in the works.
When Farragut received Banks’ message that he would soon be up, the Admiral got a bit jumpy. The day-long bombardment must have put him in the spirit of things, because he replied back to Banks that his flotilla would move out after dark.
Banks received the message around 5pm, near to, if not a little after, dark. In the past three hours, his men had not marched at all. The plan was to be in position just before dawn the following day. General Banks did not hurry into position as he, perhaps, should have done. Instead, he informed Farragut that the Navy would be on their own.
“He had well be in New Orleans or at Baton Rogue for the good he is doing us!” spat the bitter Farragut. With everything ready, the fleet moved out at 10pm with the three smaller gunboats lashed to the larger screw sloops. This would keep everything together.
Admiral Farragut’s flagship, Hartford towed the Albatross, while the Richmond carried the Genesee, and the Monongahela was linked to the smaller Kineo. The Mississippi brought up the rear without a consort.
It did not take long for the Confederates to figure out what was happening. A signal went up and, at first, there was nothing. Knowing that the assault had been uncovered, every Federal ship and the mortars fired upon Port Hudson. Then, as if waiting for the perfect moment, every Rebel gun exploded upon the Union fleet.
Visibility was nearly nonexistent for everyone. The smoke from the Federal ships, combined with smoke from the Rebel-set bonfires added to the smoke from black powder. It was only the lead ship, Farragut’s Hartford (and Albatross), that had a clear enough view to quickly make it past the batteries with only a little snag here and there.
The Richmond, the next ship in line, was not so fortunate. The gunners could only site their pieces based upon the muzzle blasts from the enemy. It wasn’t much to go on and thus they could do little damage. Several times, she had to stop firing altogether. Once, she nearly fired into the Hartford.
But the Richmond was almost through, drawing closer and closer to the bend in the river and salvation. It was then that a Rebel shell blew into the starboard gunport, killing one sailor. Soon after, another shell smashed through the decking and exploded, sending scalding steam everywhere as chaos broke out. Yet another shell tore off an officer’s leg, while still another exploded in the water immediately next to the ship.
The steam leak caused the pressure to drop and she began to slow and veer off course. But her tiny mate, Genesee, was powerful enough to keep her in check. She was not, however, powerful enough to tow her upriver, and so they both drifted with the current.
Neither did the luck of the Hartford stem to the Monongahela and her linked consort, Kineo. A well-placed Rebel shot took out the Kineo‘s steering early on. With the Monogahela driving, however, that mattered only a little. They made it past the Rebel batteries to the turn in the river, where the Monogahela ran hard aground, breaking the chains that bound the Kineo to her side. Without steering, the Kineo soon ran aground, too.
As the Kineo struggled to free herself, the Rebels took easy aim at the stuck Monogahela, filling her with holes and fire. Finally free, the Kineo was somehow able to back down and pull her mother ship off the bank before she could be blown to pieces by the enemy.
Without steering, the Kineo severed ties and drifted downstream. The Monogahela, however, continued the fight, though two of her heavy artillery pieces had been disabled by Rebel fire. She did her best, but soon her engines gave out and she too drifted with the current.
The last ship, the Mississippi, as big as her namesake, was making poor time against the current. Only able to see by the light of their own cannon flashes, a lookout spied a coming ship. Fearful that it was a Confederate vessel, he sounded the alarm and the gunner prepared to fire. But the captain knew better. The Rebels had no ships and so he did not give the order. It was somewhat fortunate, as the ship was the Richmond, drifting downstream with the Genesee.
It was, however, only somewhat fortunate, as the Richmond saw the Mississippi and took her for a Rebel ship. Her captain ordered a broadside as she floated by. Miraculously, every shot missed.
Seemingly out of any extra danger, the pilot ordered full speed ahead and quickly ran the boat aground. There was no consort to drag her out and nothing anyone could do. She was absolutely stuck.
As with the Richmond when she was grounded to the shore, the Rebel gunners had a field day. Using solid shot heated in furnaces, the Confederate rounds set fire to the ship – the flames licking close to the magazine. Her captain, knowing she could not be saved, ordered his crew to abandon ship.
Some took to the boats, while others jumped into the water or were burned alive. Rebel shells continued to pound the Mississippi, blowing guns off their mounts and eventually knocking the burning shell of the craft free from the shore. Hours and hours had passed as all this transpired. By the pre-dawn, the Mississippi drifted downstream before exploding.
Though the flagship Hartford and her consort Albatross had made it past Port Hudson, the five other ships did not. Both sides would naturally claim victory. Federals lost 78 killed and 35 wounded, while the Rebels suffered but 3 killed 22 wounded – only two were wounded seriously enough to be admitted to the hospital. While the Federals lost one ship, the other two screw sloops were heavily damaged. The smaller gunboats also sustained some. There was little to no damage inside the Confederate bastion.1
- Sources: Port Hudson, Confederate Bastion on the Mississippi by Lawrence Lee Hewitt; The Port Hudson Campaign: 1862-1863 by Edward Cunningham. [↩]