March 16, 1863 (Monday)
Following a day of rest and refitting, Federals under General Leonard Ross once again prepared themselves to assault Fort Pemberton, Mississippi. Though the first two attacks had failed, he was determined to give it one more go.
The plan this time was more extensive. The Navy was to draw the two ironclads, Chillicothe and De Kalb, close to the fort, while three transports unloaded three infantry regiments near a land battery that had been recently reinforced. Once the combined power of the gunboats and the land battery knocked out the Rebel guns of Fort Pemberton, the infantry would storm the base and the day would be won. With the Rebel stronghold eliminated, Union forces under General Grant could descend upon Vicksburg from behind.
But first, Fort Pemberton had to fall. By late morning, the ironclads were ready, the battery was loaded, and the troops were waiting aboard the transports to disembark.
Inside the fort, Confederate General William Loring was growing more and more worried. While he figured that he could hold off the present number of Federals, he also figured that this was but a vanguard of a much larger force. “I think it will require the heaviest guns to resist them,” reported Loring to his commander, General John Pemberton. He had ordered three more regiments to come up from Yazoo City, but if the Yankee attack was successful, all bets were off.
It was at noon when the land battery opened, and was instantly answered by a newly-erected Confederate battery below the fort. Most of the Rebel guns were well protected by cotton bales, leaving only one muzzle in clear view of the Federals. Though the Union artillerymen handled their pieces well enough, they simply couldn’t hit it.
Soon after the batteries began to duel, the Chillicothe and De Kalb steamed towards the fort. Arriving near to where they had been in the previous fights, they opened upon the Rebels, who quickly returned the fire.
Since both the Chillicothe and the guns of Fort Pemberton had been in this exact situation before, both should have easily found the others range. For the Rebels, this was true. For the Chillicothe, however, it didn’t really matter – they had done hardly any damage at all in the previous engagements.
The Confederates, on the other hand, had, and went to it again. Within fifteen minutes, the Chillicothe fired seven times, not a single shell doing much, if any, damage. After the final shell, the gunports were closed and the Rebels found the range.
The Federal ship was hit four times in quick succession in several different ports, either smashing them in or actually bursting through. The force rendered them impossible to open and thus rendered the Chillicothe unable to reply.
So badly designed and damaged was the ship that even the ports that had not been struck were now refusing to open. And so, only fifteen minutes into the fight, the ironclad was rendered useless, with only her bow guns, which were pointed away from the enemy, able to fire.
Still under fire, and being hit four more times, both the Chillicothe and the De Kalb, which had not been a target, were ordered back out of the Confederate range.
The damage to the ship was considerable. “The backing to the turret is shattered all to pieces,” reported her Lt. Commander, James Foster, “and the iron plating on the turret is penetrated, knocked loose, stove in, and almost unfit for service.”
The expedition’s topographer, James H. Wilson, couldn’t have agreed more. “The Chillicothe has been under its [Fort Pemberton’s] fire five times,” wrote Wilson that evening, “varying from fifteen minutes to an hour and a quarter, during which she has been hit fifty-two times, and I don’t hesitate to say is now almost incapable of further active service.”
While Wilson ultimately blamed the Naval commander, Watson Smith, for the entire debacle, he believed the Chillicothe herself to be cursed from the start: “In the first place, she is a great cheat and swindle upon the Government. Her plating is laid against a backing of only 9 inches of pine wood, and fastened on by 6 inch spikes […] instead of bolts with taps and screws.”
The turret had been his multiple times. Any well-made ironclad could have easily withstood this, but, Wilson reasoned, “another 8 inch solid shot between the ports will bring the whole turret down.”
All was not completely lost, thought Wilson. He was “perfectly certain the place can be taken in time, by a proper and prompt array of strength, and all the necessary materials for such an operation.”
The “necessary materials” also meant that a new Naval commander was essential. “I have no confidence in the snap or activity of the present naval commander in this quarter,” wrote Wilson, echoing what he had said before, “and don’t hesitate to say I regard him entirely responsible for the failure to take this place without a fight.”
Inside Fort Pemberton, General Loring could breathe a huge sigh of relief. He had no idea if he was yet out of the woods, but he had held the river for another day. Though the Federal land battery continued firing throughout the rest of the day, he reported: “No loss on our side.”
If he could hold off the Yankees for another week, Fort Pemberton would be able to withstand almost anything the enemy brought against him.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, Part 1, p382-383, 397, 413; Official Naval Records, Vol. 24, p276-278. [↩]