Tag Archives: Charles H. Davis

The C.S.S. Arkansas on the Mississippi

July 15, 1862 – A new Confederate ironclad blasted through Federal ships and threatened to turn the tide of the war on the Mississippi River.

During the first half of July, the freshwater Federal Western Flotilla under Commodore Charles H. Davis joined forces with Admiral David G. Farragut’s saltwater Federal squadron on the Mississippi River above Vicksburg, Mississippi. The combined fleet now totaled 37 ships. Reuniting with Davis, Farragut wrote:

“The iron-clads are curious looking things to us salt-water gentlemen; but no doubt they are better calculated for this river than our ships… They look like great turtles. Davis came on board… We have made the circuit (since we met at Port Royal) around half the United States and met on the Mississippi.”

Farragut contacted Major General Henry W. Halleck, stationed at the time at Corinth, Mississippi, and requested army troops to launch a joint land-water attack on Vicksburg. But Halleck refused: “The scattered and weakened condition of my forces renders it impossible for me to detach any troops to cooperate with you at Vicksburg.” For the next week, the Federals pondered their next move while sporadically bombarding Vicksburg. Diseases such as typhoid, dysentery, and malaria continued afflicting the men.

Meanwhile, Confederates launched a makeshift ironclad ram called the C.S.S. Arkansas to wreak havoc on enemy ships. The Arkansas was commanded by Lieutenant Isaac N. Brown, who had overseen the ship’s construction. Workers had rescued the partially built vessel before the fall of Memphis and completed her at Yazoo City, on the Yazoo River north of Vicksburg.

The C.S.S. Arkansas | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

This “hermaphrodite ironclad” was 165 feet long and armed with 10 guns. The crew consisted of artillerists and Missouri infantry. The Arkansas was not quite ready for combat, but the water levels on the Yazoo were falling so she had to be launched or destroyed. The ram started down the river on the 12th.

Farragut learned that the Arkansas was being built on the Yazoo and dispatched the timber-clad U.S.S. Tyler, the ironclad U.S.S. Carondelet, and the ram U.S.S. Queen of the West to move up that river and confirm the rumor. Expecting to find a half-built ship in dry dock, the Federal commanders were surprised to see the ram approaching them on the 15th.

The Federal ships quickly turned and fled with the Arkansas in pursuit. The Carondelet, the slowest of the three Federal vessels, was forced aground. Brown reported:

“The Benton, or whatever ironclad we disabled, was left with colors down, evidently aground to prevent sinking, about one mile and a half above the mouth of the Yazoo, on the right-hand bank, or bank across from Vicksburg. I wish it to be remembered that we whipped this vessel, made it run out of the fight and haul down colors, with two less guns than they had; and at the same time fought two rams, which were firing at us with great guns and small-arms; this, too, with our miscellaneous crew, who had never, for the most part, been on board a ship, or at big guns.”

The Arkansas then fired into the wooden hulls of the Tyler and Queen. The Tyler turned back and returned fire, knocking off the Arkansas’s smokestack, which reduced her speed. The Queen escaped into the Mississippi, with the Tyler hurrying behind. The Federals of the Tyler and Carondelet sustained 60 casualties (16 killed, 36 wounded, and eight missing and presumed drowned).

As the ships entered the Mississippi, the Arkansas found her way to Vicksburg blocked by both Farragut’s and Davis’s squadrons. Fortunately for the Arkansas, the Federals were conserving coal and did not have their steam up to give chase. The Arkansas steamed past them, taking broadsides from each ship that cracked her armor in some places but did no substantial damage.

Despite enduring temperatures exceeding 120 degrees inside the ironclad, Brown reported that his crew returned fire “to every point of the circumference, without the fear of hitting a friend or missing an enemy.” The ship ultimately made it to the bluffs below Vicksburg, under the cover of the city’s batteries.

The Confederates lost 53 men (25 killed and 28 wounded). A master’s mate wrote, “The scene around the gun deck upon our arrival was ghastly in the extreme. Blood and brains bespattered everything, whilst arms, legs, and several headless trunks were strewn about.” Nevertheless, Major General Earl Van Dorn, commanding Confederates at Vicksburg, boasted that the Arkansas’s achievement was “the most brilliant ever recorded in naval annals.” Brown later received the thanks of both President Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Congress, along with a promotion to naval commander.

The Arkansas’s escape embarrassed the Federals and left them, as the fleet surgeon aboard the U.S.S. Hartford wrote, “Caught with our breeches down!” Farragut delivered the bad news to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles with “deep mortification,” adding, “I shall leave no stone unturned to destroy her.” Welles responded, “It is an absolute necessity that the neglect or apparent neglect of the squadron should be wiped out by the destruction of the Arkansas.” Farragut called the Arkansas’s run past 37 Federal ships “Damnable neglect, or worse!”

One Federal ship had been disabled, and every wooden ship in the Federal fleet sustained at least one hit. The presence of an enemy ironclad on the Mississippi threatened to allow Confederates to regain momentum after a long string of defeats on the river.

At dusk, Farragut prepared his squadron for a night attack on the Arkansas below the Vicksburg bluffs. Charles Davis refused to commit his vessels, fearing the operation was too dangerous. Farragut’s ships advanced and managed to hit the Arkansas a few times before the Confederate batteries drove them off; the Arkansas was not destroyed as Farragut hoped.

Farragut vowed to “try to destroy her until my squadron is destroyed or she is… There is no rest for the wicked until she is destroyed.” Charles Davis was later replaced by Admiral David D. Porter due to his role in this incident.

A week later, the U.S.S. Essex and the Queen of the West again tried attacking the Arkansas, hitting the ship with glancing blows and one broadside while taking heavy punishment from the Vicksburg batteries. Most of the Arkansas’s crew was on shore, but the remaining Confederates fought back as best they could. Dabney M. Scales, a crewman aboard the Arkansas, wrote his father:

“At 4 o’clock on the morning of the 22nd, I was awakened by the call to quarters. Hurrying to our stations, with not even a full complement of men for 3 guns, our soldiers having left just the night before, we discovered the enemy coming right down on us… We did not have men enough to heave the anchor up and get underway, before the enemy got to us, even if we had steam ready…”

The Essex eventually disengaged and moved downriver to join Farragut’s fleet. The Queen returned upriver in desperate need of repairs. Brown steamed the Arkansas back and forth in front of the bluffs, defying the Federals to attack again while the Vicksburg batteries covered him.

The attack seemed to cause minimal damage to the Arkansas at first, but it was later discovered that a shot had cracked the connecting rods, making the ship’s already deficient engines potentially even more so. Meanwhile, President Davis called on Mississippi Governor John J. Pettus for help in getting more crewmen for the ironclad:

“Captain Brown of the Arkansas requires boatmen, and reports himself doomed to inactivity by the inability to get them. We have a large class of river boatmen and some ordinary seamen on our Gulf Coast who must now be unemployed. Can you help Captain Brown to get an adequate crew?”

Two days later, Farragut led his Federal naval squadron back down the Mississippi River to New Orleans due to falling waters and rampant illness among his men. The remaining gunboats patrolled the area between Vicksburg and Helena, Arkansas. This gave the Confederates control of the Mississippi from Vicksburg 200 river miles down to Port Hudson, Louisiana. Farragut firmly believed that naval forces alone could not capture the mighty stronghold of Vicksburg. Welles later wrote:

“The most disreputable naval affair of the war was the descent of the steam ram Arkansas through both squadrons, until she hauled into the batteries of Vicksburg, and there the two Flag Officers abandoned the place and the ironclad ram, Farragut and his force going down to New Orleans, and Davis proceeding with his flotilla up the river.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 15899-907; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 635; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 188, 193-94, 196-98; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 556; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 178, 182, 184-85; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 607, 784; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 26-32; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 240; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 421; 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. 89, 92-94; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 22; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q362

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The Fall of Memphis

June 6, 1862 – After capturing Fort Pillow, the Federal Western Flotilla immediately targeted Memphis, the Confederacy’s fifth largest city, further down the Mississippi River.

The flotilla consisted of five ironclad gunboats led by Flag Officer Charles H. Davis (the U.S.S. Cairo, Carondelet, Louisville, St. Louis, and Davis’s flagship the U.S.S. Benton), and four rams led by Colonel Charles Ellet (featuring the U.S.S. Queen of the West and Monarch). Bearing 68 total guns, the fleet pulled out of Island No. 45, two miles north of Memphis, at 4:20 a.m. to take the city.

At Memphis, residents held a mass meeting to gather support for the city’s defenses, which were very weak. Most Confederate troops had already abandoned the city, but the eight “cotton-clad” steamers of the Confederate River Defense Fleet remained. Bearing 28 guns, they were jointly commanded by Commodore James E. Montgomery and Brigadier General M. Jeff Thompson.

When a picket boat notified Montgomery of the Federal advance, he opted to move his fleet up the Mississippi to preemptively attack the enemy vessels before they could approach Memphis. Thompson’s army troops boarded the steamers to man the guns and lend small arms support.

Montgomery invited Memphis residents to “come down at sunrise” to watch him “sink the Yankee fleet.” He proclaimed, “I have come here that you may see Lincoln’s gunboats sent to the bottom by the fleet which you have built and manned.” Thousands of people answered his call, gathering on the bluffs overlooking the river to watch the action. They hoped to see a repeat of the Battle of Plum Run Bend last month, but an important change since then was that the Federals now had rams.

As a precaution, the Confederates sent one of their ironclads under construction at Memphis, the C.S.S. Arkansas, down the Mississippi to the Yazoo River. Another ironclad, the C.S.S. Tennessee, was destroyed to avoid capture.

Davis spotted the Confederate steamers approaching and ordered his flotilla to advance and meet them. Separated by two miles, the fleets formed battle lines on the water and began firing at each other in front of Memphis at around 5:40 a.m. The exchange lasted about 15 minutes until Ellet, heading the Queen of the West, shouted to his brother Alfred, commanding the Monarch, “Round out and follow me! Now is our chance!” The two rams steamed through the line of five ironclads at 13 knots to engage the Confederates.

The Battle of Memphis | Image Credit: Flickr.com

The Battle of Memphis | Image Credit: Flickr.com

A wild fight ensued in which ships fired and rammed from all directions. The Queen slammed into the C.S.S. Colonel Lovell and nearly cut her in two; the collision’s vibration could be felt by the spectators on the bluffs overlooking the fight. The Lovell quickly sank, killing 68 of the 86 men on board.

The Queen was then disabled by the C.S.S. General Beauregard. The Beauregard and the C.S.S. General Price then tried ramming the Monarch, but the faster Federal ram slipped between them and they collided with each other, knocking off the Price’s wheel. The Monarch then rammed the Beauregard and sent her limping to the Arkansas shore.

The Federal gunboats then joined the fray, exploding the Beauregard’s boilers with a shot. The Monarch grounded Montgomery’s flagship, the C.S.S. Little Rebel, and the gunboats fired on her until Montgomery and his crew abandoned ship on the Arkansas shore. They fled into the woods.

The five remaining Confederate vessels then turned and tried to escape in what became a running, 10-mile fight. As the ships drew closer to each other, the troops on board exchanged small arms fire. Nobody was hit except for Ellet aboard the Queen; he was shot through the kneecap.

The gunboats bombarded the C.S.S. Sumter and General Bragg until they both ran aground. The Benton pounded the C.S.S. General Thompson with artillery fire until she exploded. The Beauregard, disabled from earlier fighting, drifted downriver and sank. Only the C.S.S. General Van Dorn was fast enough to get away, making it to the Yazoo River ahead of her pursuers. But the Van Dorn’s damage was so extensive that Confederates later scuttled her.

By 7:30 a.m., the entire Confederate Defense Fleet had been destroyed, as the converted steamboats proved no match for the powerful Federal ironclads and rams. The Federals took over 70 prisoners, as well as several transports and other vessels under construction on the Memphis docks. Four of the eight Confederate ships were later repaired and added to the Federal fleet.

Although Davis had a tense rivalry with Ellet and his rams, he credited the victory to Ellet’s “bold and successful attack on the enemy rams” and called him “conspicuous for his gallantry.” In what became the war’s last “fleet action” on the rivers, Ellet was the only Federal casualty. His leg wound was considered superficial, but he died of blood poisoning 12 days later. His brother Alfred replaced him as commander of the Ellet-class ram fleet.

Spectators on the bluffs returned to their homes in tears after seeing their River Defense Fleet annihilated. Thompson, watching the action from the shore, called it “one of the grandest, yet saddest scenes of my life.” He reported that “the enemy’s rams did most of the execution and were handled more adroitly than ours.” Thompson rode off with his remaining army troops to avoid capture. He later disbanded the fleet and reassigned the survivors to other posts.

The mayor of Memphis, who had also watched the destruction, raised a white flag. Charles Ellet’s son, Lieutenant Charles R. Ellet, and two others went ashore, walked through the incensed crowd, and accepted the surrender of Memphis at 11 a.m. An angry mob surrounded them as they hauled down the Confederate flag from City Hall and raised the U.S. flag over the post office, but they came away unharmed.

Two infantry regiments arrived later on the 6th to formally occupy the city. The next day, Federal forces toured Memphis, particularly the saloons and brothels below the bluffs along the river. Residents deeply resented the new military occupation.

The owner and staff of the Memphis Appeal, one of Tennessee’s most influential papers, refused to surrender. They escaped the city with their printing press and resumed publication from Grenada, Mississippi. One of its editorials declared that the owner would rather dump the equipment into the Mississippi “than continue publication under Union occupation.”

The loss of Memphis was a devastating blow to the Confederacy. The city became a supply base for the Federal armies moving into the Deep South. It not only had facilities to receive supplies from the river, but it had a railhead on the important Memphis & Charleston Railroad as well. The Federals now controlled the Mobile & Ohio Railroad from Columbus, Kentucky, to Corinth, Mississippi; Forts Henry and Donelson, Nashville, Clarksville, and all points on the Tennessee River up to Eastport, Mississippi.

Federals also controlled the entire Mississippi River except for the powerful Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, Mississippi. This would be the next target, as Davis began planning to move his fleet downriver and Flag Officer David G. Farragut’s fleet tried coming upriver from New Orleans.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (6 Jun 1862); Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 612, 635; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 180-81; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 388; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 163-64; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 198-99; 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. 20; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 221-23; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 417-18; 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. 88-89; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 428-29; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 156-57, 486-87

The Fall of Fort Pillow

June 5, 1862 – Confederates abandoned an important garrison on the Mississippi River, opening a path for Federal naval forces to move downstream and threaten Memphis, Tennessee.

General P.G.T. Beauregard’s withdrawal from Corinth, Mississippi, doomed many Confederates stationed on the Mississippi west of that town. First in line from north to south were the 3,600 men at Fort Pillow, Tennessee. These troops had been under bombardment from the Federal Western Flotilla since April 13. But with Corinth abandoned, their supply line on the Memphis & Charleston Railroad was lost, leaving them isolated and vulnerable.

Fort Pillow | Image Credit: FortWiki.com

Fort Pillow | Image Credit: FortWiki.com

General John B. Villepigue, commanding at Fort Pillow, received orders from Beauregard to “immediately evacuate Fort Pillow for Grenada (150 miles south in Mississippi) by the best and shortest route. Whenever you shall be about to abandon the fort you will telegraph the commanding officer at Memphis to burn all the cotton, sugar, &c, in the vicinity of that city.” The troops were to leave behind anything they could not carry; “arms will be furnished you from the depot at Columbus, Miss., should there be any there.”

Despite protests from Memphis residents and Brigadier General M. Jeff Thompson, Villepigue’s Confederates began withdrawing from Fort Pillow and arriving at Memphis on June 3. It was a foregone conclusion among many that without the fort’s protection, Memphis would soon fall. The last of the troops and ammunition were taken by steamer to Vicksburg; the ship fired off one last shot at the Federal vessels before abandoning Fort Pillow. Villepigue reported:

“First we set fire to the quartermaster’s stores; next, the commissary, and then every ‘shanty’ on the ‘hill.’ We blew up all the guns, except two which would not burst. It was a terrific sight–the rain pouring down, the thunder rolling midst the lightning flashes, while the Yankees were pouring a stream of fire, making the sight sublime, though terrible.”

The Federal commanders, Commodore Charles H. Davis leading the gunboats and Colonel Charles R. Ellet leading the rams, had planned to attack Fort Pillow on the 4th, unaware it had been abandoned earlier that morning. Colonel Graham Fitch, commanding 1,000 Federal infantry slated to land and attack, wanted to launch his assault on this day, “but a foolish movement of Colonel Ellet prevented it in a way that could not be foreseen.” So it was scheduled to take place tomorrow.

That afternoon, massive explosions could be heard from the fort, and that night the Federals could see intense fires burning. The fires revealed that the Confederates were gone. Fort Randolph, about 12 miles below Fort Pillow, was abandoned by that evening. Confederates had held firm against Federal bombardment for nearly two months before withdrawing.

Fitch called off his assault and prepared to land and take the works the next day. Federal troops went ashore on the 5th and confirmed Fort Pillow was empty. Ellet came ashore and raised the U.S. flag over the fort. Davis did not acknowledge this in his report due to the heated rivalry between his gunboats and Ellet’s rams within the fleet.

The explosions from yesterday had been casemates and magazines “blown to atoms.” Fitch reported that the Confederates “had destroyed or carried away nearly all the property of the fort; the gun-carriages were burned and burning, and many of the guns that could not be removed were burst.” He did not consider the works valuable enough to occupy, so he left a company behind while Davis left a gunboat, and both men began planning to take Memphis.

The fall of Fort Pillow exposed Memphis as a virtually defenseless city, ripe for Federal conquest. The inadequate Confederate River Defense Fleet on the Mississippi under Captain James E. Montgomery and Thompson’s small force at Memphis were now all that stood between the powerful Federal Western Flotilla and the vital river city. News of the Confederate withdrawal panicked cotton planters along the Mississippi, and they began burning their crops to prevent them from falling into Federal hands.

Davis pledged to advance on the city “with the least possible delay.” The two Federal naval commands began moving down the Mississippi toward Memphis, 40 miles away. Davis commanded the ironclads and mortar boats, and even though they were manned by naval personnel, Davis reported to Major General Henry W. Halleck. Colonel Ellet commanded the rams and reported to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, with army soldiers comprising his crews. The fleet also escorted transports for Fitch’s troops.

The Federals chased down a Confederate transport steamer, capturing her before the crew could burn her. The ships spent the night assembling north of Memphis, preparing to attack the next day.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13298; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 180; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 162; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 221-22; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 417; 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. 87; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 486

The Battle of Plum Run Bend

May 10, 1862 – Confederates launched a surprise attack on the Mississippi River to keep the Federals from continuing downstream and capturing Fort Pillow and Memphis.

As Flag Officer David G. Farragut’s Federal naval squadron moved up the Mississippi from New Orleans, Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote’s Federal Western Flotilla moved downriver from Island No. 10 toward Fort Pillow, Tennessee. The ultimate destination for both Farragut and Foote was the vital river and railroad city of Memphis.

After the fall of Island No. 10, Foote’s ships continued about 50 miles downriver and docked north of Fort Pillow. The fort stretched five miles and was defended by 40 heavy guns. Foote had been deprived of army support when Major General John Pope’s Army of the Mississippi was called to aid in the drive on Corinth, Mississippi. So all Foote could do was keep his ships out of the Confederates’ gun range and bombard them with siege artillery.

In addition to the Confederate garrison at Fort Pillow, opposing the Federal squadron was the Confederate River Defense Fleet, which consisted of eight vessels commanded by Captain James E. Montgomery and manned by army troops under Brigadier General M. Jeff Thompson of the Missouri militia. The ships were steamboats loaded with timber and cotton bales for protection. Known as “cotton-clads,” the ships had been brought up from New Orleans to contest the Federals’ southward drive. They only had one or two guns each, but they were fitted with iron prows to stab holes into enemy ships. And they were faster than the Federal ironclads.

On May 8, three Confederate rams from the fleet moved up the Mississippi from Fort Pillow to scout the Federal vessels. The larger Federal gunboats drove the Confederates off. The next day, Montgomery held a council of war at Memphis, where he and his officers agreed to move upriver that night and attack the Federal fleet the following day. The Confederates hoped that a surprise attack might destroy the Federals before they could join forces with Farragut.

While the Confederates planned their attack, Foote stepped down as commander of the Federal Western Flotilla. His health had deteriorated ever since being wounded at Fort Donelson in February. He selected Captain Charles H. Davis to replace him in command of the seven ironclads (the U.S.S. Mound City, Carondelet, Benton, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Cairo, and St. Louis), one timber-clad, 16 mortar boats, and two infantry regiments.

Montgomery steamed directly toward Davis’s fleet at Plum Point Bend, north of Fort Pillow, on May 10. The Federals sighted the black smoke from the lead vessel, the C.S.S. General Bragg, off Craigshead Point, two miles above Fort Pillow. Montgomery sought to destroy the Federal Mortar Boat No. 16 and her escort, the Cincinnati, as they shelled the fort unsupported. The Confederates’ speed advantage helped them in the tight bend in the river.

The Cincinnati got up steam and approached the middle of the river. The crewmen fired their three bow guns but were rammed by the General Bragg before they could reload. The impact opened a large hole in her starboard quarter. The C.S.S. General Price then rammed the Cincinnati’s port side, disabling her rudder.

The fight on the Mississippi | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The fight on the Mississippi | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The six remaining Federal ironclads came up to join the fight, knocking the General Bragg out of action as the C.S.S. General Sumter rammed the Cincinnati a third time. The Cincinnati managed to severely damage multiple Confederate ships with broadsides before finally sinking in 11 feet of water.

Meanwhile, the General Price sustained non-lethal damage as she disabled Federal Mortar Boat No. 16. The other Federal mortar boats fired exploding shells that rained iron down on the enemy ships. Montgomery’s fleet continued upriver to engage the remaining Federal ironclads coming down to meet them.

The General Sumter rammed the U.S.S. Mound City, which was then rammed a second time by the C.S.S. General Van Dorn. The Federals aboard the Mound City grounded her on a sandbar to avoid sinking. The ironclad U.S.S. Carondelet used rifled cannon fire to badly damage the General Sumter, General Lovell, and General Van Dorn.

The Confederates had inflicted severe damage on the enemy flotilla after 30 minutes of fighting. But when the Federal ships pulled back into shallower water, Montgomery’s deeper draft vessels could not pursue. He ordered a return to Memphis, with Confederate artillery and sharpshooters continuing to fire at the Federals from a distance.

Montgomery had been victorious, having sunk two Federal ironclads. But the rest of Davis’s fleet remained intact, while four of Montgomery’s eight ships had been disabled. This, combined with the Confederate withdrawal, enabled Davis to claim victory as well. Davis boasted that he had driven the Confederates off after inflicting heavy damage, but the Confederates did not sustain as much damage as Davis had hoped.

Federals raised the Mound City the next day, and the Cincinnati two months later. Both vessels returned to service. However, this engagement proved that the Confederate defenses at Fort Pillow as well as Montgomery’s fleet were too strong for Davis to attack with what he had.

This marked one of the few “fleet battles” of the war. It temporarily halted Federal plans to join the squadrons of Davis and Farragut at Memphis. Montgomery informed General P.G.T. Beauregard at Corinth, Mississippi, that Davis’s fleet “will never penetrate farther down the Mississippi” at their current strength. Davis, aware of this as well, called on the Federal Navy Department to reinforce his flotilla with the speedy Ellet-class rams.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (10 May 1862); Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 612; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 168; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 380-81; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 149-51; Jensen, Les D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 587-88; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 209-10; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 416-17; 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. 83-85; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 486; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 303

The Stone Fleet

December 20, 1861 – Federal Flag Officer Samuel H. Du Pont directed Captain Charles H. Davis to sink vessels filled with stones to obstruct Confederate blockade runners from entering Charleston Harbor’s main ship channel.

Capt S.F. Du Pont | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Capt S.F. Du Pont | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Du Pont, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, had initially resisted an idea from Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox to sink “stone fleets” in Confederate ports. Du Pont wrote that he had “a special disgust for this business… the maggot, however, had got into Fox’s brain.” Thus, Du Pont complied with orders, targeting Charleston and Savannah.

Federals sunk seven “stone fleet” vessels, consisting of old wooden sailing ships, at the entrance to Savannah Harbor on the 17th. Three days later, on the anniversary of South Carolina’s secession from the Union, Davis sunk 16 whaling vessels in Charleston Harbor.

The sinking of the “stone fleet” outraged Confederates because the vessels could have permanently halted shipping from those ports, thus severely crippling the southern economy even after the war. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate defenses along the coast, wrote to Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin, “This achievement, so unworthy of any nation, is the abortive expression of the malice & revenge of a people which they wish to perpetuate by rendering more memorable a day hateful in their calendar (the South Carolina secession).”

However, the Confederates had sunk hulks in their own harbors to obstruct them before the war. Du Pont noted this when he wrote:

“I should probably not have recommended such a measure had I been consulted, but that we had not the right is simply absurd. So it is all right for the rebels to obstruct, but it is dreadful for us. Then the idea of pretending to believe that these are permanent obstructions shows great ignorance of the nature of outside bars forced by the sea action.”

Du Pont wrote that if the obstructions remained effective until spring, “it will be worth all the trouble.”

Ultimately, the sea water eroded the vessels and reopened the ports for shipping much sooner than anticipated. Moreover, the “stone fleet” only closed one of Charleston’s three channels, and it revealed that the Federals had no plan to attack the city; they merely sought to close the city’s access to trade. Nevertheless, Lee continued building defenses just in case.

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 268; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 720; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 102-03; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 91-92; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3056; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 149-150; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition), p. 48

The Fall of Port Royal

November 7, 1861 – After struggling through a horrific storm on the Atlantic, the Federal naval squadron attacked and captured a vital Confederate port.

Capt S.F. Du Pont | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Capt S.F. Du Pont | Image Credit: Flickr.com

As November opened, Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont’s 77-ship Federal armada carrying 13,000 men continued its journey from Fort Monroe to Port Royal Sound. The weather suddenly turned ferocious as the fleet rounded Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, producing what an officer aboard the U.S.S. Wabash called “one of the severest gales I have ever experienced.”

The crew of the Isaac Smith had to dump their artillery to keep from sinking. The transport steamer Governor went under, with the Smith and the U.S.S. Sabine rescuing all but seven of the 300 Marines on board. The U.S.S. Mohican rescued all but 26 from the sinking transport Peerless. Several other vessels foundered, losing large amounts of munitions.

Small steamers to be used for landing troops had to turn back, thus canceling the original plan for army troops to land and seize the two forts protecting the entrance to Port Royal Sound. The navy would have to take Port Royal alone, just like at Hatteras Inlet and Ship Island. For now, Du Pont struggled to reassemble his scattered fleet.

Meanwhile, Confederates had discovered the Federals’ secret objective, with newspapers warning of a Federal invasion “somewhere” south of North Carolina. Learning more specifics, Confederate Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin telegraphed Confederate forces that “The enemy’s expedition is intended for Port Royal.”

Still unable to sight most of his ships, Du Pont proceeded southward anyway aboard his flagship, the U.S.S. Wabash, and arrived off the bar at Port Royal Sound on the 4th. He was joined by 25 ships of his fleet, with the rest of the surviving vessels on their way.

Port Royal Sound stood halfway between Charleston and Savannah, guarding a rich agricultural region known for producing long-staple cotton. Its defenses included the 600-man garrisons at Fort Beauregard at Bay Point to the north and Fort Walker on Hilton Head to the south; these forts mounted 43 total guns. In addition, a small naval squadron under Commodore Josiah Tatnall consisted of his flagship Savannah and three converted tugboats. Even with 1,000 reinforcements on their way, these defenders were hardly expected to withstand such oncoming Federal power, with or without bad weather.

The Federals surveyed the coast, taking depth readings and identifying the channels the warships could use to enter the sound. Tatnall fired on the U.S.S. Ottawa, Pembina, and Seneca, but superior Federal firepower drove Tatnall’s little fleet back into the harbor under the protection of Forts Beauregard and Walker. The Federal ships were undamaged. The next day, Federal ships continued assembling, with some crossing the bar to test the forts’ strength. Tatnall attacked again and was again forced to withdraw. The Federals then fired on Fort Beauregard, sparking a massive explosion by hitting an artillery caisson.

Du Pont held a council of war that afternoon, where he determined to attack the forts. Without landing craft, the army troops under Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman could not launch their planned attack and would instead serve to take the forts after the naval forces pounded them into submission. A navy lieutenant wrote, “General Sherman says in my hearing that: ‘These ships can’t take the forts without cooperation with the troops.’ I hope we will show him differently.”

The attack was postponed until the 6th when Du Pont’s flagship became grounded and needed help from the Susquehanna to be freed. The next morning, Du Pont postponed the attack another day because high winds made it “too fresh” to attack.

On the morning of November 7, the flagship Wabash led 14 Federal warships into Port Royal Sound and opened fire on Forts Beauregard and Walker. Du Pont employed a tactic suggested by Flag Captain Charles H. Davis by moving the ships in a large oval pattern while firing. This allowed each ship to bear all her guns on the forts and deprived Confederate artillerists of fixed targets. Most of the inferior Confederate artillery could not reach the attacking ships. Tatnall’s Confederate fleet, too small to intervene, dipped its pennants and fell back up the Beaufort River.

Federal Warships Attack | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Federal Warships Attack | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

A correspondent witnessing the bombardment reported that “the rising of the dust on shore in perpendicular columns looked as if we had suddenly raised… a grove of poplars.” General Thomas F. Drayton, commanding the Confederate defenses, watched this “magnificent armada… vomit forth its iron hail, with all the spiteful energy of long-suppressed rage and conscious strength.” Drayton’s brother, Percival, commanded the U.S.S. Pocahontas within the attack fleet.

Federal gunboats enfiladed Fort Walker, methodically disabling its guns and firing an average of 60 shells over the defenders per minute. The Confederates in the fort finally began evacuating around 2 p.m., aided by Tatnall’s ships. Fort Beauregard was abandoned 90 minutes later. The Confederates sustained 62 casualties (11 killed, 47 wounded, and four missing). White residents joined them in fleeing from the sea islands to the mainland, leaving behind some 10,000 slaves.

The Wabash landed Marines to take Fort Walker, and army forces took over Fort Beauregard. Commander John Rodgers, acting as Du Pont’s aide, obtained the formal surrender of both forts. At 2:20 p.m., he received the honor of raising the U.S. flag over Fort Walker, the first U.S. flag to be hoisted on South Carolina soil since the state seceded.

General Robert E. Lee arrived from Richmond that evening and conferred with General Roswell S. Ripley, commander of the former Department of South Carolina. The men could do nothing except move their forces farther inland and try strengthening the defenses of Charleston and Savannah. Lee sadly noted, “There are so many points to attack, and so little means to meet them on the water, that there is but little rest.”

The Federals sustained just 31 casualties (eight killed and 23 wounded) in securing the best natural harbor on the Confederate coast. This was the greatest Federal victory of the war to date, and it greatly boosted sagging northern morale.

Federal occupation forces at Port Royal and Hilton Head rounded up the abandoned slaves and put them to work as servants and laborers. They all worked to make the site a prime base for refueling, supplying, and servicing the blockading squadron. It also provided an excellent staging area for an attack on Charleston, one of the Lincoln administration’s prime targets. Du Pont wrote, “It is not my temper to rejoice over fallen foes, but this must be a gloomy night in Charleston.”

Sherman’s troops advanced from Hilton Head toward Beaufort the next morning, as residents of Charleston and Savannah received the tragic news that Port Royal had fallen. Many people packed their belongings and fled inland. Percival Drayton, a former resident of the area, wrote, “Such a panic as seems to have existed through the low country can scarcely be described.”

An editorial in the Charleston Mercury defiantly exclaimed, “Let the invaders come, ‘tis the unanimous feeling of our people. Our Yankee enemies will, sooner or later, learn to their cost the difference between invaders for spoils and power, and defenders of their liberties, their native land.”

On November 9, Sherman’s Federals and gunboats captured Beaufort on the Broad River, effectively cutting off the flow of communications and supplies via water between Charleston and Savannah. Lee wrote to Secretary of War Benjamin from his new headquarters at Coosawhatchie, South Carolina:

“The enemy having complete possession of the water and inland navigation, commands all the islands on the coast and threatens both Savannah and Charleston, and can come in his boats, within 4 miles of this place… We have no guns that can resist their batteries, and have no resources to meet them in the field.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 50-51; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 189; Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20, 110; Channing, Steven A., Confederate Ordeal: The Southern Home Front (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 133; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13314, 13339; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 91-94; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 116-17; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 77-81; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 2986; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 133-38; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 370-71; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 38-42; Melton, Maurice, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 597; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 217-18; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 640-41; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 703; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 31-32, 34

The Port Royal Campaign

October 29, 1861 – A massive Federal army-navy expedition left Hampton Roads to capture Port Royal, South Carolina, located between Charleston and Savannah.

Capt S.F. Du Pont | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Capt S.F. Du Pont | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Captain Samuel F. Du Pont, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, considered various locales to establish a refueling and servicing port for his Federal naval fleet. After weighing the options, Du Pont informed Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles that Port Royal would be the most useful site for that purpose. Port Royal was the best natural harbor on the Confederate coast, guarding the important harbor of Beaufort, South Carolina, and possessing formidable defenses.

After months of planning, the Federals organized a joint expedition. Du Pont assembled an attack fleet in New York, while Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman gathered 13,000 troops in three brigades at Annapolis. These combined army-navy forces arrived at Hampton Roads on October 21. Storms delayed the launch, which actually helped the commanders by giving them more time to plan and prepare.

The armada consisted of 19 warships with 157 guns, 25 supply vessels, and 33 transports. It was the largest joint operation ever attempted up to that time, even though several ships were not suited for oceanic navigation. President Lincoln had promoted Du Pont to flag officer, which equaled a major general in the army, so he would outrank Sherman. However, neither commander could “assume any direct command, independent of consent, over an officer of the other service.”

No one but Du Pont and Sherman knew that Port Royal was the ultimate destination. As the fleet left Hampton Roads on the 29th, the captain of each ship held sealed orders from Du Pont revealing the objective, to be opened only if the fleet became separated at sea.

Captain Charles H. Davis, secretary of the Blockade Board and Du Pont’s fleet captain and chief of staff, wrote that “the sea is covered with lights at every point of the horizon… I think of similar expeditions that have figured in history… and as I looked abroad on the ocean covered with our ships and transports… I participated in the glow and ardor and elation of heart inspired, no doubt, by the armada of Spain.”

A lieutenant aboard the U.S.S. Wabash noted, “Never did such a heterogeneous squadron venture upon the waters, nondescripts ad infinitum; vessels without shape before known to the maritime world… Had some homeward bound vessel haplessly got within our lines, surely would the bewildered skipper have imagined that ‘Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane’ had come against him.” Although the Confederates were not yet aware where the fleet was headed, they alerted all coastal defenders that the ships had departed.

By early morning on the 31st, Du Pont’s fleet began rounding Cape Hatteras in warm waters. When a troop transport ran aground on the shoals, the rest of the fleet adjusted their course by moving further out to sea. This dissatisfied Flag Officer Du Pont, who felt that the Cape could be rounded closer if navigated properly. He later wrote that the land was “too close for careless, stupid skippers or second-and-third class merchantmen.”

Heavy gales would soon turn the sea violent as the armada progressed down the coast.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 50-51; Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20, 110; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 90; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 116; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 77; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 127, 132; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 37-38; Melton, Maurice, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 597