Two Narrow Escapes on the Mississippi

February 16, 1863 (Monday)

The Confederate ram CSS Webb wasn’t exactly ready, but there wasn’t exactly time. Her commander, Lt. Col. William S. Lovell, had received word of the Federal attack upon Fort Taylor on the Red River when the Webb had been forty or so miles upstream at Alexandria going through the tedious process of readying herself for a fight.

Ellis Cliffs on the Mississippi

The call came in at 1am on the 15th and by 7am the same morning, Lovell had deemed the Webb passable. It wasn’t really. For instance, the boilers were not protected by anything apart from the natural sides of the vessel, which could, in Lovell’s estimation, “be penetrated by a Minie ball.” Two hours later, however, he received his crew of 100 and left Alexandria.

Lovell heard only that Fort Taylor had been attacked. When he arrived there, he discovered that the Federal ram USS Queen of the West had been taken. Her commander, Col. Charles Ellet, had escaped in a captured transport Era No. 5.

With that news, Lovell and the Webb made quick haste down the Red for the Mississippi River, reaching it well after dark, with thick fog covering even the night. So poor was the visibility that the Webb had to tie up and wait until the morning of this date.

Though it was fairly unrealistic for Union Col. Ellet to believe that the Webb was hot on his tail, he had no way of knowing it.

Since we cover two days here, this is the map for the 15th.

When Ellet and most of his men escaped in the captured Era No. 5, they made their way down the Red River and began to steam up the Mississippi. All day on the 15th, as Lovell steamed down the Red, Ellet had problem after problem. To lighten the load, his crew had dumped thousands of pounds of corn overboard. But when the Era‘s coal ran out and Ellet decided to burn the corn, there was so little remaining that it too quickly ran out.

At Union Point, the Era tied up while a crew cut down trees for fuel. With the heavy rains, however, the wood was so soaked that it would hardly burn. The ship could only make two miles an hour against the Mississippi’s strong current. The Webb, incidentally, could make about fourteen.

But Ellet’s problems had only begun. Three miles later, the Era‘s pilot, Garvey, ran into shallow water and grounded the vessel. For Ellet, this was the last straw. He had suspected Garvey of Southern sympathies even before he grounded the Queen of the West in the direct line of fire of Fort Taylor. Through the night, Garvey apparently made some less-than-patriotic statements. And now, this. Why Ellet had allowed Garvey to remain in such an important post was never revealed, but finally he placed the shoddy pilot under arrest.

It took four hours to free the Era, and this was done all within sight of the Confederate batteries atop Ellis Cliffs. Thankfully for Ellet, the fog was so thick that the Rebels never even knew they were there.

USS Indianola

Once again under way, the ship’s starboard wheel began to crumble. When Garvey ran her aground, the wheel was heavily damaged. Now, with the chopping water and the debris from upriver, the wheel stood not a chance. Though Ellet wanted to abandon the ship and use captured skiffs and rafts to float down the Mississippi past Port Hudson into friendly, Union hands, the rest of the officers voted to keep limping forward. Either way, they suspected that the Webb would capture them.

At dawn on this date, they continued upriver. A few miles below Natchez, through the fog, Ellet spied the outline of a gunboat. This, he suspected, was not good. He knew the Webb could make quick time, and it was very possible that she had slipped by the Era sometime during the foggy night. As the outline drew closer, Ellet could see that she wasn’t the Webb, but couldn’t make out anything more.

Three days prior, the USS Indianola, headed by Lt. Commander George Brown, slipped past the Rebel batteries at Vicksburg. Since then, Brown and his ship had been steaming downriver towards Ellet and the Queen of the West. Word had not yet reached them that she had been lost.

The storms and thick fog had made the going slow, but on the morning of this date, the Indianola had reached Natchez. Ten miles below the town, through the fog, a lookout spotted a ship. Warned to be on the lookout for the CSS Webb, George Brown ordered his crew to prepare for battle.

Map for Feb 16.

Ellet, aboard the Era, gave a familiar signal and pulled alongside the Indianola. It was only then that he was close enough to see just who she was. A great and lasting sigh of relief came from both boats through the thick haze of morning.

As Ellet’s crew fed themselves and the Era refueled from the Indianola‘s supply, Ellet and Brown discussed what to do next. Together, they decided to chase down the Webb and then take Fort Taylor.

In the meantime, Lovell and the CSS Webb were making great time up the Mississippi. From captured Union soldiers off the Queen of the West, Lovell learned that a Federal gunboat was on its way from Vicksburg to assist Col. Ellet. Even so, he proceeded forward, hoping to catch the Era No. 5 before the new gunboat could arrive.

Around 5pm, just after Ellet and Brown had decided to go back down the Mississippi to vanquish the Webb and Fort Taylor, Lt. Col. Lovell spotted a set of smokestacks near Ellis Cliffs. He determined that this must be the Era and went in for the kill.

But before he could get too close, he spotted another set. Figuring correctly that this was the new gunboat, and possibly even an ironclad, he reconsidered. The Webb really wasn’t battle ready and certainly couldn’t go up against something like that.

The Indianola took two or three shots at the Webb before the Rebel vessel slipped away into the dark and fog.

Both the Indianola and the Era No. 5 gave chase, but quickly called it off. The Rebel ship was faster and determined to get away. The two Federal vessels tied up for the night and would start the hunt the next morning.1

  1. Sources: Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, p378-379, 385-386, 398-399; Ellet’s Brigade: The Strangest Outfit of All by Chester G. Hearn. []
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Two Narrow Escapes on the Mississippi by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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