February 24, 1863 (Tuesday)
By morning Lt. Commander George Brown of the USS Indianola had made Grand Gulf. Steaming against the strong Mississippi current, towing two coal barges on either side, he wasn’t making the time he would have liked, but was hopeful and continued pushing north. He knew that there would be no way that he would make it to the Federal landings near Confederate-held Vicksburg before the next morning.
Throughout the day, the lookouts kept an eye forward, searching the horizon for other Union gunships that were expected to be sent by Admiral Porter. As the morning slipped to afternoon and then to evening, nothing was seen. They also kept a weary eye aft. And soon they saw four wisps of black smoke coming steadily closer. Brown knew what this meant.
He had heard rumors that the former USS Queen of the West, which was captured by the Rebels, had been repaired. She, along with the CSS Webb and apparently two other vessels were closing in fast.
As evening’s dim light faded, so did the telltale smoke signals. It wasn’t until 9:30pm that Brown knew for sure how close the Rebel ships had come. The Queen of the West took the lead, perhaps as a sort of insult. Near Palmyra Island, about twenty-five miles south of the Federal landings, Lt. Commander Brown turned the Indianola around and prepared for action. He knew there was no way to outrun them. The only option left was to go down with a fight.
The Queen came on in a fury to ram the Indianola. But Brown got in the first shots, firing his two 11-inch guns. He did not hit the Queen, and she could not be stopped. He turned his ship to avoid being hit broadside, and the unfaithful ram slid into the attached coal barge. The strike was great, but did no damage. Men were thrown to the decks and the Queen became ensnared.
Now on came the Webb, barreling straight for the Indianola‘s bow. Brown let loose two more shots, but they missed as well. With a deafening wrenching of twisting metal and breaking timber, the Webb smashed herself into the Indianola‘s strongest point.
This did more damage to the attackers than the attacked, crumbling eight feet of Webb‘s bow, while harming the Indianola not at all. The collision, however, managed to set the tangled Queen of the West free. With the momentum with her, the Webb sheered off the other coal barge. Not only did this sandwich the Indianola between two enemy crafts, it exposed her vulnerable starboard side to Rebel fire.
Both the Webb and the Queen backed off, while Confederate soldiers fired small arms and artillery from all four of their ships. During this rising tumult, the Queen moved upriver and turned about, flying towards the Indianola in another attempt to ram her.
Brown saw this and did everything he could to turn his ship about to meet the Queen head on. Perhaps he could damage her as he damaged the Webb. But she hit before the Indianola could be fully turned, slamming into the forward quarter as Brown exploded two shots into her at point blank range.
Next it was the Webb, having recovered from her previous try. Following the Queen‘s queue, she dashed at the Indianola, but missed, smashing one of the coal barges.
The blasts from Brown’s guns seemed to have no effect upon the Queen. She simply turned and came in for another try. So far, Brown and his Indianola had been lucky. All attempts the Rebels made to ram him were met with the protected front of the ship. But as the Queen came on this time, he could not turn his ship about.
And here she landed the crippling blow. The Queen rammed right behind the starboard wheel, smashing and tearing away the Indianola‘s iron skin. Fearing the worst, Brown made one last try to escape. The Webb, however, saw this and steamed full speed towards the Federal ship’s open stern.
It was useless, but Brown fired one last shot at the oncoming Webb. It missed entirely, and the Rebel ram crashed into her flank, crushing the starboard rudder and disabling the engine. Huge leaks began filling the Indianola. She was going down.
Fearing that the Rebels would be able to salvage his ship, Brown prepared to destroy her. But when he was surrounded by ships carrying boarding parties, he changed his mind. She was partially sunken, with two and a half feet of water over the floor. In this state, George Brown surrendered the USS Indianola to Major Joseph L. Brent, commanding the small Rebel flotilla.
By the time she was surrendered, her stern was completely submerged. The two Confederate rams sustained so much damage that it was unlikely they could have renewed the attack. The fight was over, yet in a way, as we shall see, it was not.1
- Sources: Official Naval Records, Series 1, vol. 24, p379-380, 388-390; Ellet’s Brigade by Chester G. Hearn. [↩]