Very Small, Tolerably Fast, and of Little Intrinsic Value

February 6, 1863 (Friday)

The Federal gunboat Queen of the West wasn’t exactly trapped, but she was in a precarious situation. After running the gauntlet of Confederate batteries around Vicksburg on the Mississippi River, she steamed downstream and captured three boats aiding the Rebel cause. Since that time, she controlled the river, but had run seriously low on coal.

David Dixon Porter thinks you will fail.

Coal could be had, but it meant that another ship would have to run the gauntlet. The Queen of the West set high the bar by running it in broad daylight. If attempted at night, it might prove to be much easier.

On the 4th, General William Tecumseh Sherman visited the Queen to congratulate her captain, Col. Charles Ellet. Sherman noted that Ellet was “full of energy and resources.” So full was Ellet that he had a plan on how to refuel the Queen. A filled barge could be carried under cover a darkness and allowed to float downstream with the current. Ellet and the Queen could then pick it up.

Ellet wished to use the small De Soto, which he described as being “very small, tolerably fast, and of little intrinsic value.” Clearly Ellet wasn’t fully convinced that it would work. “I will only take eight or nine men,” wrote Ellet to Sherman, “and if sunk, we can all escape in a boat.”

Sherman liked the plan and the next day, both he and Ellet passed it by Admiral David Porter, Ellet’s commander. Ellet was convinced that he could make it. Probably. If he packed the De Soto with cotton, it should be okay. The whole job, he figured, would take thirty or so minutes. “The De Soto is worth nothing anyhow, “wrote Ellet to Porter, reiterating what he said to Sherman, “and the importance of getting coal at once to the Queen justifies, I think, the risk.”

Porter wasn’t exactly sold on the idea, but gave Ellet his mixed blessing. “You can do as you like about the De Soto,” allowed Porter, “though I fear a failure.”

Everybody thinks the De Soto’s no good.

Porter reasoned that the De Soto was slow and would thus be under fire for up to an hour. If Ellet was still up to the task, Porter would gather the coal, put it on a barge and somehow get it to him.

But nothing could be done today. Porter needed time to gather the fuel and secure the barge. Time was growing more and more critical, though.

The USS De Soto was officially named the USS General Lyon, after Nathaniel Lyon, who was killed at the battle of Wilson’s Creek. At the start of the war, the De Soto was a Confederate sidewheel steamer. With the fall of Fort Pillow, she was surrendered along with the Rebel officers. Soon after, she was rechristened and was now serving as an apparently expendable transport.

Ellet had secured the Queen on the western shore of the river. On the eastern shore (the Vicksburg side), he noted that the Rebels were quickly establishing a battery. If allowed to be completed, it would force the Queen farther downstream.

Because of this, he also wanted two 30-lbs guns that were emplaced near the Federal canal to be fixed to his ship. Sherman had offered them to Ellet when he visited the Queen on the night of the 4th. With the proper pass from Sherman, the guns were as good as mounted.

He would now have to wait for Porter’s move.1



  1. Sources: Official Naval Records, Vol. 24, p371-375; Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships; Guns on Western Waters by H. Allen Gosnell. []
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Very Small, Tolerably Fast, and of Little Intrinsic Value by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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