February 22, 1863 (Sunday)
David Dixon Porter was hardly a man with whom to trifle. He was a Navy man through and through. His father had fought on the seas in every war from the American Revolution through and after the War of 1812. By 1823, a year before his father resigned, the ten year old David Porter joined him on the water with his foster brother David Farragut. By sixteen, he was a midshipman, and from there until the present, he was in the Navy (aside from a few years here and there when he left to captain his own ship).
Now, in his fiftieth year – four decades of which were spent at sea – Porter, now a Rear Admiral, was in command of the Union’s Mississippi River Squadron operating near Vicksburg, Mississippi.
There was much on his plate, but the capture of the Rebel port was paramount. Apart from a canal or two, his main focus was upon opening Yazoo Pass to the north and cutting off supplies coming into Vicksburg from the south.
Yazoo Pass was slowly being cleared, but to the south, a debacle had unfolded concerning the loss of the Queen of the West to the Confederate Navy.
Col. Charles Rivers Ellet, who had commanded the Queen when she was taken, had yesterday returned to base on a small, captured transport. Before turning in for the night, Ellet wrote his official reports and submitted them to Rear Admiral Porter. On this day, Porter was in no mood for Ellet’s optimistic excuses.
Porter, after reading the reports, immediately shot off his own report to Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, in Washington. He explaining that his plans had been “disarranged by the capture of the Queen of the West,” and claimed that Ellet had “foolishly engaged” the batteries at Fort Taylor.
Ellet’s reports, according to Porter, were incomplete. They lacked detail and provided little to no explanations as to why he did what he did. Porter wished to have a face-to-face conversation with the reckless young officer, but the river was effectively blocked at Vicksburg by Confederate artillery and the road leading to the landing was in a pitiful condition.
Following a very brief and general outline of Ellet’s action, Porter resignedly wrote: “This is all I can learn of this affair.”
Unable to learn the full story, Porter had more than a few critiques for Ellet. “Had the commander of the Queen of the West waited patiently,” grumbled Porter, “he would, in less than twenty-four hours, have been joined by the Indianola, which he knew.”
Intrinsically, the Queen, said Porter, was worth nothing. She had more than paid for herself in goods captured. However, “it was a loss without any excuse,” he scolded, “and if not destroyed by the Indianola she will fall into rebel hands.”
And he was not yet finished. Hardly bemoaning the loss, Porter reasoned that if Ellet would have waited for the Indianola, together, they could have captured the same Confederate batteries that had bested the Queen. Now, the ship would most definitely fall in to Rebel hands.
“We are sadly in want of a good class of fast ironclad rams on this river,” Porter reported to Secretary Welles. The Confederates were making a number of them, but the only ones he had were “fit for nothing but tow boats.”
In fact, Porter felt that the only ship worth anything in his fleet was the Indianola, and he would have to “depend on that vessel alone for carrying out my cherished plan of cutting off supplies from Port Hudson and Vicksburg.”
“My plans were well laid, only badly executed,” Porter surmised. “I can give orders, but I can not give officers good judgment.” The Indianola was now at the mouth of the Red River and on her own, and this did nothing to quell Porter’s mood. “Whether the commander will have the good sense not to be surprised, remains to be seen. He should return for the present.”
That was exactly what the Lt. Commander of the Indianola was planning to do. He had wanted to steam up the Red River, but had heard that several Rebel ships, as well as the captured Queen of the West were lying in wait. He had gathered as many cotton bails as he could, padded out his ship and, on this date, began to steam up the Mississippi towards Vicksburg.
Brown was certain that he would see another ship, perhaps even Ellet or Admiral Porter, descending the river to come to his aide. By nightfall, no ships had come and he continued onward. Well after nightfall, the Indianola passed Natchez.
There were no ships coming to help from the north, but to the south, several were on their way – though helping was far from their minds. The previous day, when it was learned that the Indianola was leaving the mouth of the Red River, Confederate Major Joseph L. Brent was running three ships to catch up with the Yankee ironclad, which had a forty-eight hour head start.
The three ships under his commander were the CSS Webb, the Grand Era, and a refurbished Queen of the West, now flying the Rebel flag as Porter so feared. As they steamed down the Red River, they picked up another ship, the Dr. Beatty, and continued on. By nightfall, the fleet had probably reached the Mississippi and Brent was confident that he could intercept the Indianola, the only ship Admiral Porter could depend upon.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, p380, 382-383, 402, 408. [↩]