October 12, 1861 – The Confederacy unveiled a new metal-sheathed ram named the C.S.S. Manassas to try breaking the Federal blockade where the Mississippi River met the Gulf of Mexico.
The Manassas, along with the armed steamers Ivy and James L. Day, left New Orleans before dawn. They moved down the Mississippi and attacked the five Federal vessels (U.S.S. Nightingale, Preble, Richmond, Vincennes, and Water Witch) at the Head of Passes, where the river emptied into the Gulf. A sharp battle ensued in which the Manassas ran the Richmond and the Vincennes aground before withdrawing back upstream.
U.S.S. Vincennes Acting Master Edward F. Devens reported:
“From the appearance of the Richmond’s side in the vicinity of the hole, I should say that the ram (Manassas) had claws or hooks attached to her… for the purpose of tearing out the plank from the ship’s side. It (Manassas) is a most destructive invention… resembles in shape a cigar cut lengthwise, and (is) very low in the water. She must be covered with railroad iron as all the shells which struck her glanced off, some directly at right angles… They did not appear to trouble her much as she ran up the river at a very fast rate.”
The Confederate steamers sent three fire rafts toward the Federal fleet, sending it fleeing downriver. Vincennes Commander Robert Handy misinterpreted the Richmond’s signal to “cross the bar” as “abandon ship,” and did so. Captain John Pope (no relation to Army General John Pope) of the Richmond called Handy “a laughingstock of all and everyone… (he) is not fit to command a ship.” Squadron commander William McKean relieved Handy and granted Pope’s request for leave due to “reason of health.”
No casualties were sustained on either side, and the Richmond and Vincennes were eventually returned to duty. David D. Porter, blockading around the Southwest Pass, called this surprise assault “the most ridiculous affair that ever took place in the American Navy.” However, it demonstrated the strength of Confederate naval forces, particularly their new ironclad, in defending New Orleans.
Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 87; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 355-56; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 72; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 126; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 55; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 274