The Fleet to Fleet Battle of Plum Run Bend; Norfolk Captured

May 10, 1862 (Saturday)

Union Flotilla reconnaissance towards Fort Pillow.

The Union campaigns in the Spring of 1862 had bogged down. Both Generals Henry Halleck and George McClellan’s offensives had the crawling feel of being stuck in large pits of tar. In the west, the Army of the Tennessee, Halleck commanding, was inching and creeping closer and closer to the Rebels hunkered down at Corinth, Mississippi. Three Federal armies had been combined for the offensive, funneling in troops from what had been three different theaters to the Tennessee River.

One of the armies pulled from their previous field was General John Pope’s Army of the Mississippi, operating along its namesake river. This left the Union flotilla of seven gunboats under Flag Officer Andrew Foote without infantry support. Before Pope had been called away, the fleet, plus the infantry had anchored above Fort Pillow, Tennessee, just out of the range of the Rebel guns.

Union Flotilla at Plum Run Bend.

Foote and Pope had constructed a plan to land the infantry above the fort, while the sixteen mortar boats and seven gunboats pounded away with their artillery. With Pope and his men gone, Foote could only put the fort under siege and hope for the best. He could not attack it, and, if it fell, he could not occupy it.

Fort Pillow was actually a five mile stretch of Confederate fortifications fifty miles south of the recently-taken Island No. 10. Containing over forty pieces of heavy artillery, this was the last formidable Mississippi River defense above Memphis. Amongst its weaponry, Fort Pillow was also protected by eight Confederate “cottonclads,” wooden ships, protected by compressed cotton, commanded by a former riverboat captain, James Edward Montgomery.

CSS General Bragg

During the early part of the siege, Foote’s health began to deteriorate and he was placed on a leave of absence. To take his place, the Navy sent Captain Charles Davis, who arrived on May 9. At first, things seemed to normal. In the morning of this date, a mortar boat, protected by the ironclad USS Cincinnati, were lazily lobbing shells towards the fort when an officer spotted a plume of black smoke coming up the river.

From around a bend came the Confederate River Defense Fleet, led by the CSS General Bragg. Captain Montgomery had his eyes on sinking the Cincinnati and taking the mortar boat for himself. While the Rebel ships were merely converted riverboats, outfitted with some artillery, they were also forged into rams. Being smaller, they were faster, and if they caught an enemy ship unawares, they had a decided advantage.

Battle at Plum Run Bend

The Cincinnati reacted slowly, trying to build up enough steam to move. She had made it to the middle of the river before the General Bragg smashed into her side. The Cincinnati replied with a broadside, but was soon hit again by the CSS General Sterling Price. She was now without a rudder.

To her rescue steamed the remaining six boats of the Union flotilla. As they arrived, they swarmed the Bragg, knocking her out of the action as another Rebel ship rammed the Cincinnati. The mortar boat managed to lightly toss up a shell or two above the Confederate fleet, exploding shreds of iron over the ships. The CSS General Van Dorn answered with her close-range artillery before ramming the USS Mound City, which had just been hit by the General Sumter, which had, itself, just rammed the Cincinnati, which was now sinking. The Mound City, also sinking, steamed towards the shore, but sank before reaching it.

Battle at Plum Run Bend from a 1862 Currier & Ives Lithograph.

The entire Union fleet had arrived and was ready to swat away the Rebel ships, when Captain Montgomery ordered his Confederate fleet to back off and return to the other side of Fort Pillow. The Confederate attack was fairly successful, sinking two ironclads and losing only one ship, but they didn’t get the mortar boat and the much stronger Federal fleet was still hovering above them. The dual loss of the Mound City and Cincinnati was only temporary, with the former being raised the next day and the latter two months later.

For a time, however, Fort Pillow, and thus Memphis, was still secure.1


Norfolk Abandoned by Rebs, Seized by Federals

Norfolk Navy Yard in flames.

Though General McClellan’s move up the Virginia Peninsula was sluggish, it was still opportune enough to cause the Confederates to abandon their Navy Yard at Norfolk. The previous week, General Benjamin Huger, commanding several thousand troops around the city, began evacuating them on any ships that he could find. As their protection, the CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack) covered the escape with the Federals being none-the-wiser until the 8th.

Also that week, President Lincoln decided to drop in on the Peninsula to see how his investments were being handled by McClellan. Lincoln toured the area on the 7th, and determined that Norfolk was quite cut off from everything and could be taken without much loss. The next day, a few ships, including the new ironclad, Galena, attacked several points in the bay and on the James River. When the Rebels put up a stiff resistance, and when the CSS Virginia showed up, they backed down.2

Union troops entering Norfolk.

After learning of the Confederate withdraw from Norfolk from a tugboat captain who had deserted his cause, Lincoln went ashore to see for himself where the Union troops were to be landed. After they were disembarked, the Secretary of the Treasure, Salmon P. Chase, who had accompanied the President, took joint command of the six thousand troops with General John Wool from Fortress Monroe.

All the while, Lincoln was rushing around on the boat, hurrying along the reinforcements. But there was little need. The Federal troops found only empty entrenchments and an empty city. Norfolk’s mayor, unlike the Mayor of New Orleans, formally surrendered his town to the invaders.

As happened elsewhere on the Peninsula, the Rebels had gotten away. But the loss of the Navy Yard, which had been put to the torch, meant that the CSS Virginia was homeless. That night, Flag Officer Josiah Tattnall, commander of the Confederate fleet, but mostly concerned with the Virginia, labored tirelessly with his crew to lighten her draft enough to make it over the shallows on the James River. Her new home was to be at Harrison’s Landing, thirty-five miles away. After just five hours, they had raised her three feet. This, hoped Tattnall, might be enough.

Mayor surrenders Norfolk to the Union.

Meanwhile, Union Flag Officer Louis Goldsborough caught not a wink of sleep as he tossed in his bed, worrying about the battle that he was sure would happen at dawn – the second meeting of the Monitor and Merrimack.3

  1. Thunder Along the Mississippi by Jack D. Coombe, Castle Books, 1996. []
  2. Abraham Lincoln: A History, Vol. 5 by John Nicolay and John Hay, 1914. []
  3. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
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