Spies & Scouts
After a botched Union naval effort on the Mississippi River, Rear Admiral David D. Porter resorted to trickery to prevent one of his captured ironclads from being used by the Confederates.
Signal rockets pierced the darkness over Vicksburg, Mississippi, on February 25, 1863. Dozing Southern artillery crews sprang to life, yelling, "Ironclad approaching!" Supporting a skull-and-crossbones flag at her bow, the iron hulk protruded guns from all sides. Both paddle-wheel housings bore the taunting legend "Deluded People Cave In." Angered by the vessel's audacity, the Confederate batteries opened a blistering fire. "Never did the batteries of Vicksburg open with such a din," recalled Union Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter. "The earth fairly trembled, and shot flew thick and fast around the devoted monitor." Incredibly, the vessel simply cruised past at her leisure with no alteration in speed, nor did she bother to return fire.
On course to Vicksburg, the Confederate ram Queen of the West spotted the behemoth and swung quickly around. Her captain, James McCloskey, recalled, "Her guns were run out and her deck was cleared for action." With her steam up, Queenretreated downriver with the ironclad seemingly in pursuit. What the panic-stricken McCloskey failed to realize was that the giant Union ironclad was a giant hoax sent to prevent the salvage of a real Union ironclad, USS Indianola.
Indianola was part of a new, supposedly faster class of river ironclads constructed to bolster the sluggish river "tinclads" currently in use. Named for the city in Iowa, she possessed the shallow draft of a conventional riverboat, but with casemates of 3-inch armor plating in the bow and stern. For wide-angle firing, two powerful 11-inch Dahlgren cannons were placed on pivots in the front casemate. Two 9-inch guns were mounted in the rear. Two side paddle wheels, enclosed in iron housings, and two screw propellers beneath the stern propelled Indianola. Each paddle wheel had its own engine, enabling the vessel to turn sharply in narrow channels. The crew's quarters were virtually nonexistent, since the engines took up most of the interior space. Despite that, she could only manage a paltry 6 knots, or slower if going against the current. Anticipation, however, was great for Indianola -- so great that no journalists were allowed on board to reveal her secrets.
Lieutenant Commander George Brown was tabbed as Indianola's skipper. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Brown had seen action with the blockading fleets off Mobile and New Orleans.
On January 23, 1863, Indianola joined the Mississippi Squadron under Admiral Porter, son of the controversial Commodore David Porter of War of 1812 fame. Commodore Porter was a hot-tempered, impulsive man who once led an unauthorized attack on the Puerto Rican city of Fajardo to force an apology from Spanish authorities for arresting one of his officers. He was subsequently court-martialed and resigned his commission. He then served in the Mexican navy, taking his son along with him. Young David served as a midshipman on the Mexican vessel Guerrero off the coast of Cuba. After an encounter with a Spanish frigate, he was captured and spent several months in a Havana prison. Eventually he returned to the United States, and in 1847 he served with distinction against the country he previously fought for as a U.S. Navy captain aboard the steamer Spitfire.
During the early days of the Civil War, Porter commanded a flotilla of mortar schooners that were used with telling effect against Confederate forts guarding the passage to New Orleans. Impressed with his vigor, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles tapped Porter for command of the Mississippi Squadron, even though 80 naval officers preceded him in rank. Consumed with ambition, Porter would not hesitate to trample on a fellow officer if he could benefit from doing so. One newspaper correspondent wrote that he was "vain, arrogant and egotistical to an extent that can neither be described nor exaggerated." For all his vanity, Porter possessed extraordinary resourcefulness, a tremendous asset in river warfare.
Porter's vessels operated above Vicksburg, held at bay by the city's formidable batteries. The Mississippi Squadron consisted of "City Class" ironclads financed by wealthy steamboat salvager James Eads, mortar schooners, transports and the steamboat rams commanded by Colonel Alfred Ellet. More than 50 vessels would eventually join Porter's command, including his sumptuous flagship, Black Hawk. Porter's flagship included such amenities as a gourmet kitchen and a cow for fresh milk. Impressed with Black Hawk's bill of fare, Union Maj. Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman would often leave their billets to dine with the admiral.
The Confederacy still held a 240-mile-long portion of the Mississippi between Vicksburg and Port Hudson, La. Some 45 miles upriver from Port Hudson, the Red River flowed into the Mississippi from the Confederacy's western states -- a vital source of food and manpower. Admiral David Farragut had conquered that portion of the river the previous summer, but was forced to return to New Orleans after the river level dropped. An attempt to circumvent Vicksburg by digging a canal ended in failure.
That the Rebels were still able to supply Vicksburg was particularly vexing for Porter and gave newspapers fodder to launch barbs at the admiral. The Chicago Tribune labeled him "The greatest humbug of the war. He absolutely never accomplished anything unaided. He bombarded Vicksburg for months; threw hundreds of tons of metal into the city; never hit but one house and never killed a man. The Confederates laughed at him." As a further inducement to act, Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus Fox telegraphed Porter that he would be made a full admiral if he could reconquer the lower Mississippi.
Porter decided instead to send a ram, one of the lightweight maneuverable vessels designed by Charles Ellet Jr., downriver to disrupt Confederate supply shipments. Colonel Charles Rivers Ellet, the 19-year-old son of Charles Ellet Jr., was given the assignment. Porter thought highly of young Ellet and considered him a "gallant young fellow, full of dash and enterprise." A former medical student, Ellet had no formal naval training, but made up for it with a relentless courage in battle. No fort or vessel was too tough for his ram. At the Battle of Memphis on June 6, 1862, he personally accepted the surrender of that city after the fleet commanded by his father annihilated the Confederate River Defense Fleet. Ironically, Charles Ellet Jr. was the only Federal casualty of that battle, dying of his wounds later in the month.
Colonel Ellet took command of Queen of the West and was ordered to ram the steamboat City of Vicksburg, moored at the Vicksburg docks, then proceed downriver, destroying any Confederate vessels along the way. The attack was to be at night to conceal Queen from the city's batteries. Porter warned Queen's crew: "Look out for [yourselves] and press with full speed downriver. If you get disabled, drift down until abreast of our batteries and a small army steamer will go to your assistance. The great object is to destroy all you can of the enemy's stores and provisions and get your vessel back safe." Ellet reinforced the ram with two layers of cotton bales around the decks and bulwarks. To protect the helmsman, the wheel was moved below the pilothouse to the lower deck. Unfortunately, the pilot's view was significantly reduced, forcing Ellet to move the wheel back to the pilothouse. Precious time was lost during the experimentation, and Queen would have to attack in daylight.
Hugging the Mississippi's west bank, Queen rounded De Soto Peninsula on February 2. Ellet made a hard left turn and headed directly for City of Vicksburg. The Mississippi was at flood stage, causing the current to flow more rapidly. Queen became caught in a powerful eddy and was forced to veer off course. Still, the ram was able to strike a glancing blow, taking out a portion of Vicksburg's cabin. While the two vessels were interlocked, Ellet managed to start a blaze on Vicksburg, but the Southern crewmen doused the fire before it caused much damage.
The vessels then moved apart, providing Vicksburg's river batteries with the opportunity to shell Queen. The Rebel shellbursts soon ignited some of Queen's cotton-bale armor, forcing Ellet to concentrate on saving his ship rather than destroying his enemy. The Yankees went to work beating out the flames and headed downriver through a storm of shot and shell. A group of Rebel infantrymen added to Queen's misery by popping off at the burning ship as she floated by.
Crewmen on Queen pushed burning cotton bales overboard. Ellet reported: "After much exertion, we finally put out the fire by cutting the bales loose....We were struck twelve times, but though the cabin was knocked to pieces, no material injury to the boat or any of those on her was inflicted." City of Vicksburg was not sunk, but a hole was punched in the ship below the waterline. She was later propped up on two coal barges, and her machinery and cargo were salvaged.
Queen next rendezvoused with the termite-ridden steamer De Soto, stationed downriver to offer assistance to Queen if needed. Ellet and De Soto proceeded downriver. For the next two weeks, Ellet operated below Vicksburg with the two ships. He had the vessels steaming up the Big Black and Red rivers capturing ships and making a general nuisance of himself. Ellet also outfitted Queen with two Parrott cannons, a 30 pounder and a 20 pounder, armament he obtained from the Union infantry that was in control of Young's Point.
On February 12, hearing of possible targets on the Atchafalaya River, Ellet cruised down to the Louisiana town of Simmesport. Queen's crew went ashore, destroying all supplies on the wharves and looting the residential area. That evening, Queen went back upriver toward the Mississippi. Local civilians fired their rifles at her along the way, shattering the knee of 1st Mate James Thompson. Angered by the attack, Ellet burned three plantations believed to have been the homes of those who wounded Thompson. As her manor house burned, a planter's daughter defiantly sang "The Bonny Blue Flag" into the face of a startled Ellet.
On February 14, 1863, Queen and De Soto set course up the Red River, overtaking and capturing the steamboat Era No.5 carrying 4,500 bushels of corn to Little Rock. After paroling the ship's crew and passengers, a small crew from Queen transferred to Era to sail the vessel. The wounded Thompson was not among those transferred, a mistake that would come back to haunt Ellet. Era was left behind while Queen and De Soto proceeded toward the earthen Confederate battery at Fort Taylor (later renamed Fort DeRussey), built to defend the upper passages of the Red River.
Warned of Queen's approach, Fort Taylor's commander, Captain John Kelso, carefully targeted his guns at the site where the ram would come into view. De Soto laid anchor behind a bend while Ellet reconnoitered Fort Taylor that evening. The stronghold opened fire, and Ellet ordered Queen about to avoid the shells. Not one of Ellet's men had any knowledge of the Red River, thereby increasing the risk of running aground, especially in darkness. True to the risk, pilot Thomas Garvey ran Queen into a mudbank. Captain Kelso set fire to a nearby warehouse to light up the area where Queen was grounded, which was well within range of Fort Taylor's guns.
Four 32-pounder cannons poured shells into the hapless ram, fracturing her steam chest. Scalding steam drove the crew out on the decks and over the sides. To prevent steam from entering their lungs, they stuffed shredded pieces of uniform into their mouths. The cotton bale armor was pitched overboard, and men clung to the bulky but buoyant bales as life preservers. Too wounded to move, 1st Mate Thompson had to be left on board. As a result, Queen could not be scuttled, but had to be abandoned to the Fort Taylor garrison. Thompson died in captivity several days later.
The survivors floated down to De Soto and clambered aboard. Departing in a thick fog, De Soto also ran aground, shearing off her rudder in the process. Ellet blamed pilot Garvey, whom he clapped in irons for treasonous behavior. Era No. 5 came to the rescue and took Ellet and his men aboard. No longer able to steer, De Soto was set on fire by spreading hot coals across her decks.
Two days prior to Queen's capture, Admiral Porter had sent Indianola downriver with a load of coal for Queen and De Soto. Lieutenant Commander George Brown lashed two coal barges to either side of Indianola and headed out. He caught the Vicksburg batteries napping around midnight on February 13 and slipped past without any appreciable damage. According to newspaper reporter W.S. Ward, "The fun had actually begun -- shot and shell screamed and burst above and beyond us, and the pilot's orders, now changed from whispered signs to vigorous commands, were heard and answered with no need of intervening messengers."
Eventually, Era No. 5, battered by driftwood floating in the Red River that had snapped off portions of her starboard paddle wheel, limped into the Mississippi River. Ellet had exhausted his supply of coal, and had also burned his coal barge to prevent its capture. The harried officer was burning the cargo of captured corn as fuel. On February 16, Era made contact with Indianola. "You may be sure that no men ever witnessed a more welcome sight than this same good steamer Indianola," a reporter on Era stated. "It was a miraculous escape; from the depths of despair we were raised to the heights of exaltation."
Ellet explained his fiasco to Brown over coffee. He warned him that Queen had been captured and would certainly be redeployed as a Confederate ram. After loading up on coal, Era set off upriver. Cotton bales, confiscated from plantations along the way, were used to protect her from gunfire. Indianola remained behind to block the mouth of the Red River. The Confederate ram William H. Webb tried to pursue Era No. 5, but after Indianola fired a few shots in her direction, Webb quickly turned upriver to warn Fort Taylor and any vessels she encountered.
The Confederate commander of Louisiana, Maj. Gen. Richard Taylor, was soon aware of Indianola's presence. "We barely had time to congratulate ourselves on the capture of the Queen," he wrote, "before the appearance of the Indianola deprived us again of the navigation of the great river, so vital to our cause." Taylor, a prominent local planter and son of President Zachary Taylor, ordered the captured Queen towed to Alexandria, La., for repairs. "She was an ordinary river steamer, with her bow strengthened for ramming," he observed. "A heavy bulwark for protection against sharp-shooters, and with embrasures for field guns, surrounded her upper deck."
Later Queen of the West, William H. Webb and the steamer Grand Era were assembled to drive off Indianola. At 14 knots against the current, Webb was one of the fastest vessels on the Mississippi. Both rams were loaded with sharpshooters and field artillery. Eager volunteers from the garrison at Fort Taylor served as crew members. Slaves to be used as stokers for the engine boilers were forcibly obtained from nearby plantations. "It was a curious feature," noted Taylor, "that Southern people would cheerfully send their sons to battle, but kept their slaves out of danger." Major Joseph Brent was given command of the expedition. A lawyer before the war, Brent was a master improviser in a theater where supply lines were at a trickle. Short of paper, he once used wallpaper for wrapping rifle cartridges. Brent later recalled, "I doubt whether any commander ever had an expedition of poorer promise against as formidable and well equipped an enemy."
The garrison at Port Hudson got involved in the fray by sending a steamer of its own. The commandeered vessel Dr. Beatty was equipped with a 24-pounder Parrott gun, two fieldpieces and an enthusiastic crew of 250. "A warm send off was given by the fort's garrison," a private recalled, "the deafening acclamations of these and those on board marked this as one of the most memorable incidents of Port Hudson."
After four days, Commander Brown decided to head Indianola back upriver. "My purpose was to communicate with the squadron as soon as possible," Brown later wrote, "thinking that Colonel Ellet had not reached the squadron, or that Admiral Porter would expect me to return when I found that no other boat was sent below." To hasten his return, Brown could have left the coal barges behind. But he felt the coal would be needed if Porter sent another vessel down. Besides, he had a 90-mile lead on any potential pursuers. The loaded-down ship, however, could do only about 2 1/2 knots against the current, and the speedier Confederate rams would soon catch up.
On the evening of February 24, 1863, on the east bank of the Mississippi, just above Palmyra Island, Brown spied the shadowy outlines of four vessels heading straight toward him. He cleverly brought Indianola about to interpose one of the barges between his ship and the Confederate warships.
Major Brent reported: "We first discovered the Indianola about 1,000 yards distant, hugging the eastern bank of the Mississippi, with his head quartering across and down the river. Not an indication of life was given as we dashed on toward him -- no light, no perceptible motion of his machinery was discernible."
Queen of the West served her new Confederate cause well. She struck first, slicing through the coal barge on Indianola's port side, but doing little damage. Next came Webb. "I stood for her at full speed," recalled Brown. "Both vessels came together bows on, with a tremendous crash, which knocked nearly everyone down aboard both vessels." As the rams plowed into Indianola, the transports poured rifle fire into portholes. Webb rammed the starboard side next, splitting that coal barge in two. Queen followed, shearing off the starboard rudder and caving in the wheel housing. Water began to pour into Indianola's hull, causing her to list dangerously to one side. The 9-inch Dahlgrens fired wildly into the dark, not scoring a single hit. Major Brent recalled, "The moon was partially obscured by a veil of white clouds and permitted just sufficient obscurity to render uncertain the aim of the formidable artillery of the enemy." To make matters worse, cotton bales piled around the pilothouse for added protection significantly reduced pilot visibility.
Brown recklessly ran about while trying to coordinate the defense of his ship. "Brown exposed himself everywhere," recalled assistant surgeon H.M. Mixer. "He stood upon the hurricane deck, swept by volleys of musketry, grape and canister shot, looking out for the rams, giving orders to his pilots, and with his revolver firing upon the pilots of the enemy. He stood on his knees on the grating on the main deck to see to it that the engineer correctly understood the orders from the pilots." Realizing his command was sinking fast into the Mississippi, Brown decided to keep Indianola in deep water, hoping she could not be salvaged by the Confederates.
The signal books were tossed overboard to keep them from falling into enemy hands. Aboard Dr. Beatty, Colonel Frederick Brand called out to his men, "Prepare to board!" Brown heard the command and called out that he was sinking. "For God's sake don't shoot anymore, I've surrendered!" he cried. Brown offered his sword to Colonel Brand, who eagerly accepted it. The victorious Confederates took Brown and his men to a Vicksburg jail, and they were later sent to a prison camp in east Texas.
Webb and Dr. Beatty took their prize in tow, only to have her sink over a sandbar off Palmyra Island. Salvage parties worked furiously to patch the hull and raise Indianola. Slaves from Brierfield, the nearby plantation of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, were sent over to assist.
Once again, a significant portion of the Mississippi was still in Confederate hands. Two of Porter's finest vessels, Queen of the West and Indianola, were gone. Along with the December 1862 repulse of Union forces at Chickasaw Bluffs, Vicksburg had reason to rejoice. "Piping and dancing have been the order of the night for every night this week," reported Vicksburg Daily Whig publisher Marmaduke Shannon. "Victory celebrations and relief from tension could be carried too far, by both citizens and soldiers," the newsman warned.
Before Indianola's crew was jailed, the finger pointing began. Still unable to pass Port Hudson, Admiral Farragut blamed his own adoptive brother, Admiral Porter. "Porter has allowed his boats to come down one at a time and they have been captured by the enemy, which compels me to go up and recapture the whole or be sunk in the attempt." Porter blamed Ellet for grounding Queen "under the guns of a battery which she had foolishly engaged. Had Ellet waited patiently he would have been joined in less than 24 hours by Indianola. I can give good orders, but I cannot give officers good judgement." As for Indianola, Porter declared, "she had been indifferently fought. She gave up too soon. She would have gained victory if properly managed!"
Unconcerned with who was to blame, Gideon Welles thundered, "The Indianola is too formidable to be left at large." He demanded that a sufficient squadron be gathered to recapture the ironclad before she was salvaged. Porter, on the other hand, thought that he had too few vessels for a sufficient squadron. Two more Ellet rams, Lancaster and Switzerland, had been sunk or severely damaged by battery fire. None of his remaining vessels could match the speed and maneuverability of Queen or Webb. Not wanting further embarrassment, Porter came up with the idea of using a mock ironclad to frighten away Rebel salvagers.
Starting with an abandoned flatboat, Porter put his command to work constructing his ruse. Tapered logs were added to the sides of the flatboat to give it a hull-like appearance. Canvas and wooden planks were used in the center to form a casemate, pilothouse and paddle-wheel housings. Two unusable lifeboats were bolted to fake davits for further realism. Blackened logs served as the vessel's weaponry. Pork barrel smokestacks were added to either side of the pilothouse. For a dark, sinister appearance, the exterior was blackened with tar. As a final touch, two iron pots filled with tar and oakum were placed at the base of the smokestacks and ignited. Clouds of black smoke curled upward as the ersatz ironclad was set adrift in the Mississippi current. Dubbed Black Terror, she was built in 12 hours for a mere $8.63.
At 11 p.m., on February 25, Black Terror was towed into the Mississippi, cut loose and sent on her journey. After cruising past Vicksburg, the vessel struck the west bank of the Mississippi near Warrenton, but Union soldiers pushed her back into the current, and soon Black Terror was drifting at 5 knots. Confederate crewmen on Queen of the West saw Black Terror approaching and turned about and headed downriver to warn any vessels of the Union's latest threat. Coming upon the wrecked Indianola, Captain McCloskey of Queen warned the salvage party of the ironclad's approach. The frightened salvagers decided to scuttle Indianola to prevent her recapture. The guns were spiked or thrown overboard. What was left was set on fire, burning her down to the waterline. Colonel Wirt Adams, commander of a nearby cavalry regiment, remarked, "With the exception of the wine and liquor stores of the Indianola, nothing was saved. The valuable armament, the large supplies of powder, shot and shell are all lost." Black Terror, her mission completed, drifted on for two more miles, then struck a mudbank. She fired no shots and no crew members appeared on the deck. Curious about the lack of any crew activity, a Confederate party from ashore rowed toward the silent vessel. Upon closer inspection, they realized too late the duplicity.
The Southern press wasted no time in running down the botched Indianola salvage effort. "Laugh and hold your sides lest you die of a surfeit of derision," stated the Richmond Examiner, "blown up because, forsooth, a flat boat or mud scow, with a small house taken from a back garden of a plantation put on top of it, is floated down the river, before the frightened eyes of the Partisan Rangers."
Not only had Indianola been denied to the Confederate Navy, but Webb and Queen skeedaddled up the Red River, never again to emerge on the Mississippi as a threat. "Gunboat panic seized the whole country," reported the Examiner, "and it became a serious question at the Navy Department whether liberty and the Southern Confederacy could exist in the presence of a cannon floating on a piece of wood in the water." The Confederacy would have to rely on the garrisons of Vicksburg and Port Hudson to hold its shrinking portion of the Mississippi. Both key cities would fall the following summer to Union land troops supported by gunboats. Black Terror, however, had also played a small role in clearing the Mississippi of Rebel ships. Porter modestly summed up his piece of naval trickery as "a cheap expedient which worked very well." It was likely the most effective $8.63 spent by the Union's military forces during the entire war.
Donald L. Barnhart Jr. writes from The Colony, Texas. This is his first contribution to ACW. For further reading, see Ellet's Brigade: The Strangest Outfit Of All, by Chester G. Hearn.