February 3, 1863 (Tuesday)
In the thin light before dawn, the Union ram Queen of the West steamed down the Mississippi River. Her captain, Col. Charles Ellet, had tried to make it up the Big Black River, but found it too narrow. Later, he stopped in Vidalia, Louisiana, across the river from Natchez, about seventy-five miles from Vicksburg, hoping to round up Rebel officers. He found one, a Colonel York, but the fellow took off running, making a much faster pace than Ellet or his men could keep. Their arrival surprised not only York, but the entire town, proving to Ellet that there had been no telegraph line running to and from Vicksburg.
About fifteen miles past the mouth of the Red River, Ellet spied a ship flying the Rebel flag coming towards him. The ship blew her whistle, mistaking the Queen for a Southern vessel. She signaled that the much larger Queen move along her starboard side. But as Ellet’s vessel approached the Rebel craft, the truth was discovered.
All of a sudden, Rebel officers were seen jumping pell mell into the water to escape capture. Figuring that the jig was up, the Confederate captain agreed to a surrender. Ellet discovered the ship, named A.W. Baker, had just come from the Confederate stronghold of Port Hudson, thirty miles south.
Since the Baker had just unloaded, there was no booty to speak of. There was, however, five Rebel captains, two lieutenants, a handful of civilians and seven or eight ladies. Just as Ellet was placing a guard on the Baker, he saw another ship steaming down the river.
If the Baker was empty while coming away from Port Hudson, he figured that this one had to be filled with supplies for the Confederate base. With a shot across the bow and a demand to surrender, he soon found out.
The Moro was loaded to the gills with 110,000lbs of pork, 500 pigs and enough salt for everybody. All were now in Federal hands, depriving of Rebel troops at Port Hudson of a supper or two.
The Queen‘s coal supply was running low and it was figured that now was as good a time as any to turnaround and head home. Before pushing off, Col. Ellet discovered 25,000lbs of meal at the nearby landing. He set it to the torch and began the journey back up river.
When they again reached the Red River, Ellet docked at a plantation and let the civilians and ladies go. Just as they were stepping off the Queen, yet another Rebel ship was spotted.
Coming out of the Red River, the Berwick Bay was immediately seized. She too was found to be carrying supplies for the Rebel troops at Port Hudson. The Federals captured 200 barrels of molasses, a mess of sugar, 30,000lbs of flour, and forty bales of cotton.
Though the coal was low, Col. Ellet thought that luck might be with him today. He ordered the Queen to steam up the Red River, hoping to capture another vessel or two. But it was not to be. After fifteen miles, they turned around and continued their voyage up the Mississippi.
By the time they reached the mouth of the Red, daylight was nearly gone. Seeing that the three captured prizes couldn’t keep up with the Queen, Ellet decided to have them set ablaze, cargo and all.
The capture of the three ships caused quite a stir within the Confederate ranks. General Henry Hopkins Shelby, among them.
Shelby might be best remembered as the commander of the Confederate Army of New Mexico. He had the bold plan to capture Arizona and New Mexico for the South and open a port on the Pacific Ocean in Mexico or maybe even Southern California. Following the battle of Glorieta Pass, New Mexico, and a long, deadly retreat back to Texas, Sibley was demoted to a desk job in a tiny department in Louisiana.
Hoping to save the three ships, which he heard were lightly guarded, Sibley ordered a company of cavalry and two pieces of artillery to the Red River. All river traffic on the Red and Mississippi between Vicksburg and Port Hudson was necessarily stopped once news of the Queen of the West made its quick way to the riverboat captains.