February 3, 1863 – The U.S.S. Queen of the West continued down the Mississippi River on her mission to stop the flow of Confederate supplies from the Red River between Vicksburg and Port Hudson.
The day after running the Vicksburg batteries and mortally damaging the C.S.S. City of Vicksburg, the U.S.S. Queen of the West, commanded by 19-year-old Colonel Charles R. Ellet, chugged down to below the mouth of the Red. There she seized the Confederate steamer A.W. Baker, which had just delivered supplies to the Port Hudson garrison about 30 miles south. The Federals captured several Confederate officers and their passengers, including the ladies.
The Queen next captured the steamer Moro, which carried over 100,000 pounds of pork, nearly 500 hogs, and a large quantity of salt. When the Queen turned away to get more coal, Ellet burned nearly 25,000 pounds of cornmeal at a nearby landing. He docked at a plantation and released the civilians from the A.W. Baker as another Confederate steamer approached.
The approaching steamer was the Berwick Bay, carrying about 30,000 pounds of flour, 40 bales of cotton, 10 hogsheads of sugar, and 200 barrels of molasses. After capturing this steamer, Ellet burned all the ships; the property destroyed had an estimated worth of $200,000. Ellet then ran out of coal and docked at Gordon’s Point, about 85 miles up the Red River.
During this time, Major General William T. Sherman visited Ellet and congratulated him on his successful mission. Ellet explained that he planned to have Acting Rear Admiral David D. Porter send a coal barge downstream, past the Vicksburg batteries at night, to refuel the Queen. Ellet claimed the De Soto, captured at Fort Pillow and renamed the General Lyon, could tow the barge, since the De Soto was “very small, tolerably fast, and of little intrinsic value.” Ellet would then send part of his crew to attach the barge to the Queen. Ellet said, “I will only take eight or nine men, and if sunk, we can all escape in a boat.”
Sherman encouraged Ellet to share the plan with Porter. Ellet told Porter, “The De Soto is worth nothing anyhow, and the importance of getting coal at once to the Queen justifies, I think, the risk.” Porter replied, “You can do as you like about the De Soto, though I fear a failure.”
On the night of the 6th, Porter sent the De Soto and a barge filled with 20,000 bushels of coal down the Mississippi undetected by the Confederates manning the Vicksburg batteries. Porter notified Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “This gives the ram (Queen of the West) nearly coal enough to last a month, in which time she can commit great havoc, if no accident happens to her.”
The De Soto and the coal barge made it past the Vicksburg batteries and reached Ellet on the 7th. Porter directed Ellet to take the Queen and the De Soto to a point just north of the Red River’s mouth to “destroy all small boats… met with on the river; also wharf boats and barges.”
Porter wrote, “When you capture them, do not burn them until you have broken all the machinery, then let go the anchors and let them burn, under your own eye, at their anchors. There will be no danger then of any part of them floating down to the enemy.”
Porter also warned Ellet that a formidable Confederate steam ram named the C.S.S. William H. Webb may be nearby: “If you get the first crack at her, you will sink her, and if she gets the first crack at you she will sink you.” If boarded by Confederates, “do not open any doors or ports to board in return, but act on the defensive, giving the enemy steam and shell. Do not forget to wet your cotton before going into action.”
The De Soto, which Porter and Ellet considered expendable, was not to fall into enemy hands. If it appeared that she might, Ellet was to “destroy her at once.” But since she was a “government vessel,” Porter stated that she “should be brought back if possible.” Porter also directed Ellet to observe Port Hudson from a safe distance.
On the night of the 10th, the Queen and the De Soto steamed past the batteries at Warrenton, Mississippi, undetected and destroyed Confederate skiffs and flatboats on the banks of both the Mississippi and the Red rivers. Meanwhile, Porter worked to alleviate his chronic coal shortage by writing the Federal commander at Cairo, Illinois:
“As circumstances occur I have to change the quantity of coal required here… I want a stock of 160,000 bushels sent to the Yazoo River, besides the monthly allowance already required, viz, 70,000 bushels here, 40,000 at White River, and 20,000 at Memphis… You will also have the Abraham filled up with three months’ provisions and stores for the squadron, or as much as she can carry, and keep her ready at all times… to move at a moment’s notice to such point as I may designate.”
Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Confederate Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, could not figure out the Queen’s intentions. He wrote, “Unless the enemy designs landing below Vicksburg and a protracted investment, I can see no purpose in his arrangements.”
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 259-60; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 195-96; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 263; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 607; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 77-78; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 318-19; 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. 158