February 2, 1863 (Monday)
Since her run in with the CSS Arkansas in July, the USS Queen of the West had undergone serious repairs. The brawl up the Yazoo River from Vicksburg, Mississippi, left the Federal ram in a “most dismantled and forlorn appearance,” so described a New York Tribune reporter. Seven months later, she was laden with guns and back in the water and ready to do her duty.
For the most part, the Rebels had few ships with which to contest the naval might of the Union. However, the Union hadn’t enough of this naval might to stop the Rebels from constructing seemingly impossible fortifications at Vicksburg and Port Hudson, far to the south.
Federal Admiral David Dixon Porter wanted to test these defenses. If he got a ship past Vicksburg (from the north), he could disrupt the Confederate supply line. For this job, he selected the sidewheel steamer Queen of the West, commanded by Col. Charles R. Ellet, son of the man who had developed the Union ram fleet. His father, who also bore the name Charles, was mortally wounded aboard the Queen during the battle of Memphis, in June of 1862.
The day previous, Admiral Porter gave Col. Ellet orders to steam past the Vicksburg defenses and hit the CSS City of Vicksburg, a Rebel sidewheel steamer turned gunboat. After she was dealt with, Ellet was to steam down river to the southern terminus of (what the Federals hoped would be) the Youngs Point canal.
Porter was ghoulishly specific in his instructions on how to behave when sinking the City of Vicksburg: “It will not be part of your duty to save the lives of those on board; they must look out for themselves, and may think themselves lucky if they do not meet the same fate meted out to the Harriet Lane,” which met a similar end on the first of this year.
“Then think of the fate of that vessel while performing your duty,” he continued, “and shout ‘Harriet Lane’ into the ears of the rebels. If you can fire turpentine balls from your bow field pieces into the light upper works, it will make a fine finish to the sinking part.”
In preparation for the sortie, Col. Ellet packed the Queen with cotton bales. He was going to run the Vicksburg gauntlet in broad daylight and needed all the extra armor he could muster.
He had wanted to start earlier, and tried to leave at 4am, but found that the repairs had moved things around in such a way that it made the ship difficult to maneuver. By the time it was fixed, the sun was up.
As the Queen rounded the bend and Vicksburg came into view, the Rebel batteries opened upon her. Sitting right there, almost waiting to be attacked, was the CSS City of Vicksburg. But the Confederate ship was pointed with the current, which, at that point, was fairly swift.
Ellet turned the Queen obliquely in order to ram her, but the current slowed down the approach. Expecting this, Ellet had loaded his guns with the suggested balls of turpentine. When the Queen rammed the City of Vicksburg, the impact was hardly anything at all.
At just the right moment, however, the Queen‘s gunner fired into the Rebel ship, setting it on fire. But just as quickly as it caught, it was extinguished. The Rebels, not to be outdone, especially by a Yankee ship lined with their own cotton, fired into the Queen, setting the cotton near the starboard wheel on fire.
To make matters worse, something went wrong with the turpentine balls and Ellet’s crew accidentally ignited the cotton on the bow of the ship.
Seeing that his own ship was about to be burned to the waterline, Ellet called off the next ramming attempt and ordered his crew to cut the burning bails free, dropping them into the water with a smoky sizzle.
All the while, the Rebel artillery and sharpshooters were plying their trade to moderate effect. The Queen was struck twelve times and lost one gun, but was otherwise healthy. The City of Vicksburg had survived, but barely. She could only be kept afloat with the aid two coal barges tethered to her sides. Her wheel was smashed and the Rebels soon gutted her.
Leaving Vicksburg and her semi-floating namesake behind them, Col. Ellet and the Queen continued to the southern terminus of the future canal. There, Ellet received orders to “proceed down as low as Red River to capture and destroy all the rebel property she may meet with.” Porter promised to reinforce Ellet and force the Rebels “to evacuate its other points on the river for want of supplies and transportation.”
Now she was charged with stopping all river traffic between the two Rebel strongholds – a task Col. Ellet would take up the following day.1
- Sources: Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, p217-222; Guns on the Western Waters by H. Allen Gosnell. [↩]