Major General John Pope prepared his Federal Army of the Mississippi to capture strategic Island Number 10 on the Mississippi River. Capturing the island had been Pope’s prime objective when he formed his army, as Confederates there blocked Federal river shipping. Pope had seized nearby New Madrid, Missouri, which put his Federals within striking distance of the island. He then surrounded the stronghold on three sides and opened an artillery bombardment.
Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard reported to the War Department that the Federals had fired 3,000 rounds over the past two weeks in the largest cannonade of the war thus far. Beauregard also noted that the Confederate batteries remained relatively undamaged. To capture the island, Pope needed naval support.
Pope wanted Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote’s gunboat fleet to run past the Confederates and close the fourth side, which the Confederates used to get supplies from Tennessee. Federal troops and contrabands had struggled to dig a 12-mile canal for the fleet to use to bypass the island. However, Foote resisted using the canal because he feared that the Confederate batteries would destroy his vessels.
To soften the batteries, Colonel George W. Roberts of the 42nd Indiana led a 50-man raiding party to neutralize as many guns as possible. The men used muffled oars to row barges to Battery Number 1, one of five Confederate outposts guarding Island Number 10 on the Tennessee shore. Battery Number 1 consisted of six cannon about two miles upriver from the island.
It was a stormy night, and lightning revealed the Federals’ presence. The Confederate pickets fired at them and then ran back into their fortifications. Before the rest of the Confederates could mobilize, the Federals landed, spiked the guns, and escaped without loss. The operation took less than 30 minutes. The storm later produced a tornado that swept through New Madrid and killed soldiers on both sides.
Over the next few days, Federals prepared Commander Henry Walke’s ironclad U.S.S. Carondelet to run the remaining batteries. Foote was skeptical that the Carondelet could get by unscathed, but Walke insisted that it could be done. They fitted the ship with cordwood around the boilers, a large stack of hay to block gunfire on the portside, and an anchor chain for armor. The Carondelet entered the canal at full steam around 10 p.m. on April 4, covered by darkness and a heavy thunderstorm.
The Confederates saw flames shooting from the Carondelet’s smokestacks, and lightning revealed her exact location. They opened fire and hit the ship once in the coal barge and once in the hay bale. Most other shots missed because the guns could not be depressed low enough to fire down the steep banks. The Carondelet successfully passed both Island Number 10 and a floating Confederate battery, arriving at New Madrid amid the cheers of Federal troops awaiting her arrival. The ship’s passage posed an immediate threat to the island’s defenders because she could transport troops to the Tennessee side of the river below them and attack the island from the rear.
Two days later, the Carondelet began clearing the Tennessee shore of Confederate batteries by destroying two cannon opposite Point Pleasant. She then moved further downriver to Tiptonville, Tennessee, where Federal troops landed and spiked a battery. Brigadier General William W. Mackall, who had replaced Brigadier General John P. McCown as commander of Confederate forces in the area, transferred his infantry and one battery from Island Number 10 to the Tennessee shore to protect against a Federal landing.
Pope made plans to attack the Confederates at Tiptonville, but he needed more naval support. Foote initially refused Pope’s request to run another ironclad past Island Number 10. Foote wrote, “There is so much hazard in running the blockade, and the rebels being so much on the alert, I consider it injudicious to hazard another boat.” But Foote finally relented, and late on the 6th, during a heavy thunderstorm, the U.S.S. Pittsburgh successfully ran past the batteries without damage. Pope was now ready to carry out his grand strategy to capture Island Number 10 and its adjoining defenses.
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