February 14, 1863 (St. Valentine’s Day – Saturday)
The Queen of the West was far from where she was supposed to be. In Admiral David Dixon Porter’s orders to Col. Charles Ellet, the Queen‘s commander, he specifically instructed that she should stay near the mouth of the Red River, along the Mississippi. On the morning of this date, she was forty miles up the Red, anchored at the mouth of the Black.
Originally, his plans (which were also against orders) were to steam down the Mississippi, pass the Confederate Gibraltar of Port Hudson, and communicate with Admiral David Farragut, coming north from New Orleans. Over the night, however, Col. Ellet learned a few things from loose lipped citizens.
Another forty miles up river was a small earthen stronghold named Fort Taylor. There was also another fort at Harrisonburg, not much farther away. He couldn’t attack both, but decided upon the former when he learned that the CSS Louisville was about to deliver a 32-pound gun to the CSS Webb.
At first, the going was slow for both the Queen and her consort De Soto. The latter vessel was underpowered, especially going against the winding current as she was.
The action began around 10am when a look out aboard the Queen spotted smoke ahead. It was a steamer coming towards them. This was clearly not the Louisville, but still worth an intercept. The oncoming ship saw the two Federal vessels and made haste to turn around.
Ellet ordered a warning shot to be fired. Perhaps it was an over anxious gunner that made the decision to fire directly into the ship. The shot rang out and smashed through her stern, the cloakroom, and kitchen, wounding the cook in the process. With that, the ship immediately surrendered.
Col. Ellet had captured the Era No. 5. She was a 150 ton transport ship carrying supplies to Confederate troops in Little Rock, Arkansas. As the Queen pulled along side, the passengers could be seen waving white handkerchiefs, begging not to be killed. On board were 4,500 bushels of corn, nineteen soldiers, several citizens, and $35,000 worth of worthless Confederate money.
The corn was left on the Era, the soldiers were paroled, and the citizens (including a disguised Brigadier-General from the Army of the West) were set ashore. The large amount of Confederate money was under the care of a man named Elsasser and described only as “a German Jew.”
Being Jewish, he was already under suspicion. Throw in the bundle of cash and he was, thought Ellet, obviously a Rebel quartermaster. He was wrong, but Elassaser would be coming along for the ride.
Rather than scuttle the Era No. 5, Ellet decided to keep it. Now he had three ships in his growing flotilla. With Fort Taylor fifteen miles away by water, but only four miles away by land, Ellet had to be cautious, and left the Era near where she was captured, continuing on with the De Soto tagging behind.
After passing some slave quarters, the river straightened, pointing nearly due-south towards the fort, before bending back to the north. Across the land, they could see the thick black smoke of a transport chuffing with all her might to build up speed against the current. Something was trying to make an escape from Fort Taylor, believed Ellet.
That wasn’t quite the case. What Ellet saw was the Doubloon, a transport laden with corn, coming down the river. At any rate, he sent two shells towards her, causing her to turn around and head back to Alexandria.
All the while, the Queen was moving ever closer to the fort. A mere 400 yards away from the Rebel batteries, the land flattened and the riven widened. It also caused the river to become shallow. It was here, within good range of the Confederate guns, that the Queen of the West was run aground.
Apparently Col. Ellet had never trusted his pilot, Mr. Garvey, and believed that it was intensional. By design or otherwise, it hardly mattered now. Just as she stopped, the fort opened fire.
“The pilots tried in vain to back her off,” wrote a reporter aboard the Queen, “but she would not budge an inch. Shot were flying, shells were bursting, and, worse than all, we could not reply. The enemy had our exact range, and every explosion told worth fearful effect.”
“The air was filled with fragments and exploding shells, which flew before, behind, and all about us. Soon we heard a crash among the machinery below. Word was passed up that the lever which regulates the engines was shot away. Another crash, and we learned the escape-pipe was gone. Still another, and the steam-chest was fractured. The whole boat shook with the rush of the escaping steam which penetrated every nook and cranny. The engine-room was crowded with engineers, firemen, negroes, and prisoners, who had sought that place under the impression that it was the safest. All this time, while we supposed we were blown up, and looked every moment to be launched into eternity, the batteries played upon the unfortunate vessel, and pierced her through and through. Men crowded to the after-part of the vessel.”
As the four Rebel guns blasted away, the De Soto pulled closer. Col. Ellet knew that there was no way to save her and ordered the ship to be abandoned. He took a small boat to the De Soto and moved her closer to the dying Queen, rescuing men along the way.
The Queen should have been burned, and Ellet knew it. The problem was that there was no way to remove the wounded First Master James Thompson from the vessel. He certainly couldn’t torch the ship with him still in it. He, like the Queen, would have to be left in the care of the Rebels.
With everyone aboard the De Soto as could make it, Ellet allowed two men to go back to the Queen to see if they couldn’t rescue Thompson and burn the ship after all. When they arrived, they saw three boats of Confederate soldiers steadily moving towards her from Fort Taylor. The Queen was dark and filled with steam, and there was nothing they could do.
When they returned to the De Soto, Col. Ellet contemplated going back to the Queen himself and trying to unstick her. But when calls for surrender sounded from the shore, he thought better. Now or never, it was time to make his escape.
The hour had grown late and the dark and fog rolled in. To be as silent as possible, Ellet ordered the De Soto to float with the current away from Fort Taylor. But the soup was so thick that the pilots hit a shoal that ripped off the rudder, temporarily stranding the overladen vessel.
After a bit of labor, the ship was free, but her steering was gone. Thankfully, by 10pm, the De Soto pulled along side the Era No. 5, which they had spotted and captured twelve hours before.
It had been Ellet’s quick thinking and forethought that kept him from putting the Era No. 5 to the torch this morning. He transfered all his men from the smaller De Soto to the Era and decided to make his escape. After firing the De Soto, Ellet discovered that his coal barge had run aground. Rather than taking the time to refuel, transferring all the coal that his men could, he decided to burn it, tossing his forethought to the fog.
The night was hellish, with fog and thunder, rain and lightning terrorizing the crew. The winding Red River was difficult to navigate on any given day. At night, in an unfamiliar ship, with hardly any visibility, it was near madness. But to remain was to be captured. To lighten the load, some of Ellet’s men tossed the bounty of corn once intended for the Confederates at Little Rock.
The Era, now piloted by the same Mr. Garvey, whom Ellet later claimed to suspect of treason, made its way down the Red River to the Mississippi, where Ellet and the Queen should have been all along.
They were not, however, safe.1
- Sources: Chicago Tribune Account, written February 15, 1863, as appearing in Rebellion Record, Vol. 6; Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, p384-385 (Ellet’s account); History of the Ram Fleet and the Mississippi Marine Brigade by Warren Daniel Crandall; Ellet’s Brigade: The Strangest Outfit of All by Chester G. Hearn; Guns on the Western Waters by H. Allen Gosnell. [↩]