The Most Humiliating Affair of the Rebellion

When Confederates learned of the Federal attack on Fort Taylor on the Red River, they hurried to get the steam ram C.S.S. William H. Webb into action to confront the U.S.S. Indianola. The Webb was not yet entirely ready for combat. Nevertheless, Lieutenant-Colonel William S. Lovell, commanding the Webb, received word that the Federals had retreated and took the vessel down the Red to the Mississippi River. Lovell stopped there on the night of February 15.

Colonel Charles R. Ellet, whose Federal steam ram U.S.S. Queen of the West had been captured by Confederates, struggled up the Mississippi aboard his damaged Confederate prize, the New Era No. 5. Meanwhile, the U.S.S. Indianola under Lieutenant-Commander George Brown moved downstream, and the two ships met near Natchez, Mississippi. As Ellet used the Indianola’s coal barges to refuel, the two commanders resolved to destroy the Webb and try to take Fort Taylor again.

Lovell learned from prisoners taken from the Queen of the West that another Federal warship was coming downriver to support Ellet. Lovell hoped to destroy the New Era before this new ship arrived. However, he soon found both the New Era and the Indianola coming toward him and pulled back. The Federals pursued the Confederates to the mouth of the Red River, where the Indianola took up blockading duty between Vicksburg and Port Hudson.

Brown kept the Indianola anchored at the mouth of the Red from the 17th to the 21st. During that time, Ellet and the New Era returned to Vicksburg, and Brown learned that the Webb was planning to return with support from the captured Queen of the West and two “cotton-clad” vessels.

On the morning of the 22nd, the Indianola continued up the Mississippi, slowed by two coal barges lashed to her sides. A Confederate flotilla led by Major Joseph L. Brent began its pursuit 90 miles from the plantation landing that the Indianola had left from. Brent’s fleet included the Webb, Grand Era, and newly repaired Queen. They picked up the Dr. Beatty on the way. The Grand Era and Beatty were loaded with Confederate infantry to board the enemy ships.

After receiving Ellet’s official report, Acting Rear-Admiral David D. Porter informed Navy Secretary Gideon Welles that his plans had been “disarranged by the capture of the Queen of the West.” Porter blamed Ellet, who “foolishly engaged” the batteries at Fort Taylor. Porter complained that Ellet offered no explanation as to why he went up the Red River against orders, and, “Had the commander of the Queen of the West waited patiently, he would, in less than 24 hours, have been joined by the Indianola, which he knew.”

Porter called the Queen’s capture “a loss without any excuse, and if not destroyed by the Indianola she will fall into rebel hands.” He told Welles, “We are sadly in want of a good class of fast ironclad rams on this river,” as the vessels currently operating were “fit for nothing but tow boats.” Until he could get better ships, he would have to depend on the Indianola “alone for carrying out my cherished plan of cutting off supplies from Port Hudson and Vicksburg.” Porter concluded, “My plans were well laid, only badly executed. I can give orders, but I can not give officers good judgment. Whether the commander (of the Indianola) will have the good sense not to be surprised, remains to be seen. He should return for the present.”

Brent’s Confederate fleet caught up to the Indianola just below Vicksburg on the 24th. Brent waited to attack at night to offset the Indianola’s superior firepower. The Queen tried ramming the Indianola but rammed one of her accompanying coal barges instead. The Queen and the Webb then rammed the Indianola, with the Queen flooding both the Indianola’s starboard engines and the Webb hitting the port wheelhouse. The Queen and the Webb sustained heavy damage, but the Indianola, encumbered by the coal barges, suffered worse.

As the other two Confederate ships neared, Brown ran the Indianola into the west bank and lowered his colors. The “partially sunken vessel” had sustained seven collisions. He allowed the ship to fill with water and directed his men to hurry ashore. Once there, Brown surrendered to Colonel Frederick B. Brand, commanding the Beatty. The Confederates eagerly prepared to raise the Indianola and attach her to their growing fleet.

With the loss of his most valuable ship, Porter wrote Welles, “There is no use to conceal the fact, but this has… been the most humiliating affair that has occurred during this rebellion.” Porter decided not to try sending individual vessels past Vicksburg to intercept supplies headed for Port Hudson. Soon the Port Hudson campaign became separate from that of Vicksburg, handled by Major-General Nathaniel P. Banks and Admiral David G. Farragut while Major-General Ulysses S. Grant and Porter focused solely on Vicksburg.


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