Acting Rear-Admiral David D. Porter directed Federal naval forces to stop the flow of supplies on the Red River in the continuing Federal effort to capture both Vicksburg and Port Hudson. Porter, commanding the Mississippi River Squadron, selected Colonel Charles R. Ellet to head this mission. Ellet was the 19-year-old son of Charles Ellet, who had created the fleet of Federal rams on the Mississippi. Porter explained to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles why he chose the young Ellet to lead:
“I can not speak too highly of this gallant and daring officer. The only trouble I have is to hold him in and keep him out of danger. He will undertake anything I wish him to without asking questions, and these are the kind of men I like to command.”
Ellet was to command the U.S.S. Queen of the West, a sidewheel ram once commanded by his father, who died following the attack on Memphis last June. The vessel had undergone extensive repairs after sustaining heavy damage from the Confederate ironclad C.S.S. Arkansas. A correspondent for the New York Tribune reported that the Queen had a “most dismantled and forlorn appearance.”
Porter directed Ellet to take the Queen downriver and attack the C.S.S. City of Vicksburg. Hoping to avenge the Federal naval defeat at Galveston last month, Porter instructed:
“It will not be part of your duty to save the lives of those on board; they must look out for themselves, and may think themselves lucky if they do not meet the same fate meted out to the Harriet Lane (at Galveston). Then think of the fate of that vessel while performing your duty, and shout ‘Harriet Lane’ into the ears of the rebels. If you can fire turpentine balls from your bow field pieces into the light upper works, it will make a fine finish to the sinking part.”
Ellet was then to “proceed down as low as Red River to capture and destroy all the rebel property she may meet with.” Porter would reinforce Ellet in forcing the enemy “to evacuate its other points on the river for want of supplies and transportation.” The Queen was to serve as a sort of blockading vessel, disrupting the flow of supplies from the Red River between Vicksburg and Port Hudson.
Early on February 2, Ellet loaded the Queen’s decks with cotton to absorb enemy fire and covered the paddle wheels with protective planks. Although the work took longer than expected and the Queen would be visible in the daylight, Ellet proceeded anyway. The vessel steamed into Confederate gun range and sustained three hits before reaching the City of Vicksburg. Ellet reported:
“Her position was such that if we had run obliquely into her as we came down, the bow of the Queen would inevitably have glanced. We were compelled to partially round to in order to strike. The consequence was that at the very moment of collision the current, very strong and rapid at this point, caught the stern of my boat, and, acting on her bow as a pivot, swung her around so rapidly that nearly all momentum was lost.”
The Federals set the City of Vicksburg on fire with the turpentine balls, but the Confederates quickly put out the flames. They responded by firing into the Queen and setting her cotton bales on fire, which forced Ellet to stop his ramming efforts and move downriver, out of enemy gun range, to push the bales overboard. The Queen took 12 hits but did not sustain any substantial damage before continuing to the Red River. The City of Vicksburg suffered too much damage to be salvaged, and Confederates later sunk her.
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- Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat) (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- 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.