February 8, 1863 (Sunday)
Col. Charles Rivers Ellet couldn’t be happier. Late the previous night, Admiral David Dixon Porter had been able to get a barge filled with coal to the Queen of the West. This was no simple task. Separating the Queen from her coal was the Confederate-held bastion of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Floating it down the river meant that it was necessarily exposed to Rebel artillery – upwards of fifty guns.
But at 11:30pm, it arrived. Now all Ellet had to do was find a place to stash it while he recoaled. Fortunately, there was a nearby slue that was far enough way to keep them out from under the Confederate guns.
Along with the barge, Admiral Porter sent along instructions for the next phase of Ellet’s service. He was to wait until nightfall and then slip down the Mississippi to the Red River, taking along the De Soto, a small former ferryboat that Porter had been able to slip by the Vicksburg defenses along with the coal, for support.
Ellet, with the Queen and her new consort De Soto, was to wait just north of the mouth until morning. From that vantage point, he would be able to see the smoke of a coming ship from any direction.
“When you capture them,” Porter instructed, “do not burn them until you have broken all the machinery, then let go the anchors and let them burn, under your own eye, at their anchors. There will be no danger then of any part of them floating down to the enemy.”
There was one particular ship that Porter felt could be an issue. This was the CSS Webb, a “cottonclad” side-wheel steam ram. Porter considered her the Queen‘s equal, warning: “If you get the first crack at her, you will sink her, and if she gets the first crack at you she will sink you.”
Porter suggested that he place bales of cotton around the bow of his ship, but Ellet was already on that. He also gave Ellet a bit of advice if boarded: “do not open any doors or ports to board in return, but act on the defensive, giving the enemy steam and shell. Do not forget to wet your cotton before going into action.” Porter also mentioned hand grenades – these might be found to be fairly useful should the enemy get themselves upon the upper decks.
As for the De Soto, both Porter and Ellet figured she was mostly expendable. If there was even the slightest chance of her falling into Rebel hands, he was to “destroy her at once.” Though, since she was technically a “government vessel,” Porter warned that she “should be brought back if possible.”
And so Ellet’s task was simple. He was to “destroy all small boats … met with on the river; also wharf boats and barges.” If he had the time and the coal, Porter also wanted him to take a gander at Port Hudson. He wasn’t to pass by it, but giving the Confederate stronghold “a few rifle shots,” wasn’t the worst idea in the world.
Ellet read the orders and almost everything checked out. The De Soto had a broken flange on her steam pipe that needed to be fixed before going into action. He asked Porter if he could send down a coppersmith to do the work. Also, those hand grenades did sound like a fine idea indeed. The only problem was that they had been left on two other boats. Maybe Porter could send them with the coppersmith.
Recoaling, fixing the flange and fetching the grenades would take a couple of days. That was fine. They were in no immediate danger. He had the coal and a plan, and soon, perhaps on the night of the 10th, he would start down the Mississippi.1
- Sources: Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, p373-375; History of the Ram Fleet and the Mississippi Marine Brigade by Warren Daniel Crandall. [↩]