February 12, 1863 – The U.S.S. Queen of the West continued raiding Confederate shipping on the Red River before encountering a Confederate naval squadron.
The Queen, Colonel Charles R. Ellet’s steam ram, moved up to the Atchafalaya River, a tributary of the Red, accompanied by the U.S.S. De Soto. Ellet spotted a 12-wagon supply train moving along a riverside road and forced it to surrender. The wagons held large quantities of grain and salt pork on their way to collection depots. The Federals burned the wagons, which they learned had come from Simmesport, Louisiana.
Ellet led the Queen and the De Soto to Simmesport, where the Federals found and destroyed 70 barrels of beef. They then pursued another supply train but captured just one of the wagons, filled with ammunition. They burned this wagon as well. The Federals also burned at least three plantations as Confederates fired at them from the riverbanks.
Acting Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the Mississippi River Squadron, dispatched the ironclad U.S.S. Indianola under Lieutenant Commander George Brown to join the Queen on her raid between Vicksburg and Port Hudson. Porter wanted the Indianola to “make matters doubly sure” that the Confederate steam ram C.S.S. William H. Webb would not attack. Porter also ordered Brown to “go to Jeff Davis’s plantation (about 20 miles south of Vicksburg) and his brother Joe’s and load up said steamer with all the cotton you can find and the best single male negroes.”
On the 13th, Ellet took revenge on the Confederate riverbank snipers by burning three more plantation houses and their outbuildings. His Federals also destroyed all public and private property from Simmesport to the mouth of the Atchafalaya River.
Meanwhile, Confederates worked to prepare the C.S.S. William H. Webb and Grand Duke to take on the Queen and De Soto. However, the task proved hard, as Lieutenant Colonel William S. Lovell, commanding the Webb, reported:
“I had the greatest difficulty in getting carpenters to work on the vessels, although I offered them every inducement. I had the same difficulty with negroes. The committee who were building a raft in Red River furnished me with thirty; they lent twenty more, but would not allow them to go on board the Grand Duke, the other vessel being fitted out, she having had a case of smallpox on board some days previous.”
That night, the Indianola headed out with two coal barges to refuel the Federal vessels. The night was dark, and she passed the Vicksburg batteries without the Confederates scoring any hits. The Indianola and the barges anchored about four miles downriver until next morning.
Ellet exceeded orders on the 14th by passing Natchez and heading up the Red River; Porter had directed Ellet to only go to the Red’s mouth. Ellet planned to attack Fort Taylor, a small work about 40 miles upriver. En route, the Federals forced the Confederate ship New Era No. 5 to surrender. This was Ellet’s greatest prize to date, as the ship carried several soldiers and civilians, about 4,500 bushels of corn, and $35,000 in Confederate money.
Ellet sent the prisoners ashore and left the captured ship behind as he forced the Confederate pilot to take the Queen’s helm and navigate farther upriver. The Federals soon approached Fort Taylor’s shore batteries. Ellet ordered the pilot to back out of range, but he instead grounded the Queen on a sandbar near Gordon’s Landing, under direct enemy fire.
A correspondent aboard the Queen reported, “The pilots tried in vain to back her off, but she would not budge an inch. Shot were flying, shells were bursting, and, worse than all, we could not reply. The enemy had our exact range, and every explosion told worth fearful effect.” He continued:
“The air was filled with fragments and exploding shells, which flew before, behind, and all about us. Soon we heard a crash among the machinery below. Word was passed up that the lever which regulates the engines was shot away. Another crash, and we learned the escape-pipe was gone. Still another, and the steam-chest was fractured. The whole boat shook with the rush of the escaping steam which penetrated every nook and cranny. The engine-room was crowded with engineers, firemen, negroes, and prisoners, who had sought that place under the impression that it was the safest. All this time, while we supposed we were blown up, and looked every moment to be launched into eternity, the batteries played upon the unfortunate vessel, and pierced her through and through. Men crowded to the after-part of the vessel.”
The guns rendered the Queen inoperable. Ellet could not destroy the vessel because wounded men were aboard, so he abandoned her. The Federals pushed the cotton bales they had used for armor overboard and floated downriver on them to try getting to the De Soto, about a mile away. The Confederates seized the Queen.
The De Soto then ran aground and broke her rudder. She floated along the current up to the abandoned New Era No. 5, which the Federals ultimately used to escape. This ended Ellet’s 12-day raid on Confederate shipping between Vicksburg and Port Hudson. Ellet accused the captured Confederate pilot of deliberately sabotaging the Queen.
The Federals struggled to navigate back down the treacherous Red River on a stormy night. By next morning, they had reached the Mississippi, and the Confederates began converting the Queen of the West into a ram of their own.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 260-61; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 195-97; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 263-64; 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. 78; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 320; 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. 158-59; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 571-72