April 16, 1863 (Thursday)
The Mississippi corridor between Vicksburg and Port Hudson wasn’t exactly a no-man’s land, but every Federal ship that had ever ventured into its waters had failed to return. Both the Queen of the West and the Indianola, sent to cut off enemy supplies coming in from the Red River, had been attacked captured. More recently, Admiral David Farragut, commanding the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, had steamed north past Port Hudson and made it to Grant’s troops opposite Vicksburg. He returned to the Red River, taking one of Admiral David Dixon Porter’s ships with him for support.
So it was true that, so far, if a ship went south of Vicksburg, it would not (for whatever reason) return. In light of this, Porter was a little uneasy about Grant’s proposed plan to move three transport vessels loaded with provisions past the Vicksburg batteries to John McClernand’s troops, below at New Carthage.
Grant had requested to have two ironclad gunboats act as escort. Porter, on the other hand, thought it would take more, and attached eight, including his own flagship Benton. Helping him to make the decision was a message from Naval Secretary Gideon Welles, who wanted Porter south of Vicksburg so that Admiral Farragut could return to New Orleans and the rest of his squadron.
Porter had wanted to make the run on the 14th or 15th, but bad weather postponed it until this date. He desperately wanted to slip past the batteries without being noticed, but that was probably asking too much. The Confederates, however, unknowingly helped in this. The 16th was the date of a grand ball and, as darkness fell, many of the artillery officers left their commands for a night of beautiful women and dancing.
As the afternoon churned into evening, Admiral Porter ordered the boilers in his ships to get up steam. To the captains and pilots of the eight vessels, he instructed that they stick to the western, Louisiana bank so that the moon shadows of their ships would be camouflaged by the trees. But, if they were spotted by the Rebels, the entire fleet was to steer across the river and keep close to the Vicksburg side. This seemed almost counter-intuitive, but he believed that the Rebel guns atop the bluffs could not be depressed enough to hit them if they were directly below them.
The Confederate guns numbered thirty-seven, but, because of the ball, many were not commanded. Porter brought with him seventy-nine guns, all manned and ready to defend the fleet and the three supply transports. At 9:15pm, they began their descent from the mouth of the Yazoo.
As Porter rounded De Soto Point, they were spotted, but not by the Rebel artillery. A small detachment of Louisiana troops had rowed across the river and saw the parade of ships. While some made for the Vicksburg shore to sound the alarm, others lit the railroad depot and nearby buildings on fire. This illuminated the western bank, and, they hoped, would alert the gunners on the other side.
It may have worked as a signal rocket went up and a single battery opened upon them. But it was only a single battery. Porter was expecting all or nothing, and having no idea about the ball being held in Vicksburg, was a little perplexed at first.
As the alarm spread on the Confederate side, barrels of tar were lit to brighten the dark night. But the sounds of battle did not overcome the sounds of music and merriment inside the ball. Some civilians heard it, but figured it was nothing – just a single battery. But as Porter’s ships responded, the sounds grew louder until the ball was emptied and the artillery officers raced back to their commands.
Very soon, every Rebel gun was firing, and Porter moved his fleet to the Vicksburg shore. It was in the crossing that everything went out of control. The smoke and fires made it almost impossible to see. The varying currents and eddies of the Mississippi threw some ships off course and spun others completely around. A couple of the coal barges being towed along had to be cut loose, either hit by enemy fire or veering too wildly to be controlled.
In the confusion, the Lafayette ran aground right in front of a Confederate battery. She took nine hits at close range before freeing herself and miraculously continuing on.
And through this maddening chaos, Porter could see that his plan was working. The Rebel gunners were overshooting his ships. When one would take a hit, it would be well above the waterline. This was enlivening and Porter urged his ships forward. But one of his vessels, the Henry Clay, had decided to turn back and head upstream once things got hot. She was hit by a shell and caught fire. The crew abandoned ship before many of the Rebel guns concentrated upon her in an attempt to get a kill. This distraction probably allowed several of Porter’s other boats to make the run.
In a final go past the batteries at Warrenton, the Tuscumbia ran aground, attracting Rebel fire. While she was trying to back out of the mud, she hit the Forrest Queen, a supply transport, slowing her enough that she too became a target. Somehow, both managed to survive, drifting downstream and out range.
It was now all but over. The run past Warrenton proved simple, the river wide enough that neither side could do the other much damage. Finally, Porter’s fleet, minus the Henry Clay, a coal barge, and one of the supply transports, arrived.
All of the ships that had made it were still very operational. Porter’s losses were surprisingly light – only twelve wounded. The next morning, they tied up at New Carthage. Grant was greatly impressed by the show and wished for Porter to do it again. His reasoning was that the more transport ships that were south of Vicksburg, the quicker he could run John McClernand’s Corps from New Carthage to attack Grand Gulf and help Nathaniel Banks take Port Hudson.
- Sources: Vicksburg by Michael B. Ballard; Vicksburg is the Key by William L. Shea. [↩]