Tag Archives: U.S.S. Chillicothe

Red River: Porter Struggles to Withdraw

April 11, 1864 – The lowering water level on the Red River became a serious concern for Rear Admiral David D. Porter because it threatened to trap his massive naval squadron in hostile territory.

Major General Nathaniel P. Banks had launched the Red River expedition in hopes of capturing the vital cotton-producing center of Shreveport, Louisiana, before driving into eastern Texas. He was accompanied by the largest naval fleet ever assembled west of the Mississippi River, headed by Porter. He was also supposed to have been joined by Major General Frederick Steele’s Army of Arkansas.

But things did not go as planned. Steele was being surrounded by Confederates in southern Arkansas, Porter’s vessels were in danger of being stuck on the rapidly falling Red River, and Banks had suffered an embarrassing defeat at Mansfield. Banks followed this up with an impressive victory at Pleasant Hill, but by then he had lost his nerve and ordered a withdrawal back down the Red.

Rear Adm D.D. Porter | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Meanwhile, Porter’s situation was becoming more critical each day. As his ships chugged through the shallow waters, Porter noticed that the road along the river was in excellent shape for a marching army. But Banks had taken an inland road instead, where he was driven back by the Confederates. Porter wrote to Major General William T. Sherman:

“It struck me very forcibly that this would have been the route for the army, where they could have traveled without all that immense train, the country supporting them as they proceeded along. The roads are good, wide fields on all sides, a river protecting the right flank of the army, and gun-boats in company. An army would have no difficulty in marching to Shreveport in this way.”

By the 10th, Porter’s fleet was stopped at Loggy Bayou and Springfield Landing, about 30 miles from Shreveport, due to falling water and the hulk of the Confederate steamer New Falls City, which had been sunk to block his advance. Porter notified Sherman:

“When I arrived at Springfield Landing I found a sight that made me laugh. It was the smartest thing I ever knew the rebels to do. They had gotten that huge steamer, New Falls City, across Red River, one mile above Loggy Bayou, 15 feet of her on shore on each side, the boat broken down in the middle, and a sand bar making below her. An invitation in large letters to attend a ball in Shreveport was kindly left stuck up by the rebels, which invitation we were never able to accept.”

Soon after, a messenger arrived informing Porter that Banks was retreating, and the naval fleet was “to return without delay” to Grand Ecore. Porter quickly “reversed the order of steaming, and with a heavy heart started downward, anticipating that the rebels, flushed with victory, with our army in full retreat before them, would come in on our flank and cut us to pieces.”

Porter wrote Sherman, “As I anticipated, the rebels were soon aware of our turning back, and were after us like a pack of wolves. They assailed us from every point, but the dispositions that were made always foiled them. We always drove them away with loss.”

According to officers of the U.S.S. Chillicothe, “at 4:30 p.m. the enemy opened fire on the transports Black Hawk and Benefit with musketry, which was immediately replied to by the Cricket, Osage, Gazelle, and the tug Dahlia.” Porter later recalled:

“Of course we fired back, but what harm could that do to people who were in deep rifle-pits, screened by trees or in a canebrake? The affair reminded me very much of the retreat of the French from Moscow, only this wasn’t retreating; we were getting out of the enemy’s country as fast as we could!”

By the night of the 11th, Banks’s entire army had reached Grand Ecore, and any faith the exhausted and demoralized troops may have had in Banks’s leadership was gone.

Porter’s flotilla reached Blair’s Landing on the 12th, but several ships were either stuck in the shallows or still struggling to get through. Confederate snipers on the bluffs overlooking the river fired down on them, while Brigadier General Thomas Green, perhaps drunk, led his dismounted cavalry in a reckless attack from the riverbank.

As the Federals aboard the gunboats trained their cannon to meet the attack, Chief Engineer Thomas Doughty of the U.S.S. Osage used an instrument he had developed, which Lieutenant Commander Thomas O. Selfridge, commanding the Osage, later called “a method of sighting the turret from the outside, by means of what would now be called a periscope…” This first known use of a periscope helped Selfridge direct his fire. Selfridge wrote:

“… On first sounding to general quarters… (I) went inside the turret to direct its fire, but the restricted vision from the peep holes rendered it impossible to see what was going on in the threatened quarter, whenever the turret was trained in the loading position. In this extremity I thought of the periscope, and hastily took up station there, well protected by the turret, yet able to survey the whole scene and to direct an accurate fire.”

The Federal guns, accompanied by soldiers and sailors hiding behind cotton bales and stacks of hay and oats fired into the Confederate attackers, mortally wounding Green. Another 309 Confederates were killed or wounded in the withering fire of muskets, grape, and canister, while the Federals lost 57.

The surviving Confederates fell back. Green, the hero of Valverde, died at Blair’s Plantation. Lieutenant General Richard Taylor, overall Confederate commander in Louisiana, lamented, “His death was a public calamity, and mourned as such by the people of Texas and Louisiana.” Even Banks commended Green, calling him “the ablest officer in their service.”

After repelling the Confederate charge, Porter managed to dislodge his vessels and continue downriver. But extracting his squadron from the Red River completely would prove a monumental challenge.

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 65-66; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 391-92; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 323; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 417, 419; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 63, 66-67; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 483-84; 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. 193-94

Advertisements

Vicksburg: Federals Abandon Yazoo Pass

March 20, 1863 – The Federal vessels comprising the Yazoo Pass expedition began steaming back down the Tallahatchie River after failing to neutralize Fort Pemberton near Greenwood, Mississippi.

Yazoo Pass Expedition Map | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Lieutenant Commander James P. Foster, commanding the U.S.S. Chillicothe, took charge of the Federal naval fleet in the Yazoo delta. He replaced Lieutenant Commander Watson Smith, who had suffered from health problems and finally requested to be removed after issuing incoherent orders that subordinates could not follow.

Lieutenant Colonel James H. Wilson, the lead Federal topographical engineer on the expedition (and no fan of Smith), reported, “His Excellency Acting Rear-Admiral Commodore Smith left to-day for a more salubrious climate, very sick, giving it as his opinion that the present force of iron-clads could not take the two (largest) rebel guns in our front.”

Foster consulted with Brigadier General Leonard F. Ross, heading the army portion of the expedition, and it was “deemed advisable to retreat to Helena, Ark., as the strength of Fort Greenwood (i.e., Fort Pemberton) is such that it is impossible, with the naval forces alone, to conquer it, and it being impossible for the army forces to combine in the attack in consequence of water, etc., and as we are in imminent danger of being outflanked and cut off by rebel forces coming down to the mouth of the Coldwater.”

Wilson protested the retreat, writing, “We have thrown away a magnificent chance to injure the enemy, and all because of the culpable and inexcusable slowness of the naval commander in the first place, and his timidity and cautiousness in the second.” He stated he knew from Confederate deserters that the fort was almost out of ammunition, and it could be taken if three more ironclads were sent to help. Wilson persuaded Ross to wait for reinforcements on their way under Brigadier General Isaac Quinby, Ross’s immediate superior, before withdrawing.

Ross waited three days; during that time, rumors circulated that the Confederates were about “to establish a blockade at the mouth of Coldwater by sending infantry and artillery by railroad to Panola, and thence down the Tallahatchee.” This would trap the Federal flotilla between the blockaders and Fort Pemberton. Hearing no news on when Quinby might arrive, Ross began withdrawing on the 20th.

Major General William W. Loring, commanding the Confederates at Fort Pemberton, had worried that the Federals might try besieging his garrison, which would starve the men into submission. But he was happy to report on the 20th, “Enemy in full run as fast as steam can carry him, and my men after him.” Loring dispatched a cotton-clad vessel to pursue the Federals, having repelled their “great plan for the attack of Vicksburg in rear.” Loring added:

“After many months of secret preparations, they were certain of success. With but little time to fortify, they were determinedly met and forced to an ignominious retreat, leaving behind them evidences that their loss was great in men and material–a check which will undoubtedly prevent a further invasion of the State of Mississippi by the way of Tallahatchee and Yazoo Rivers.”

The Federal flotilla returned to Moon Lake on the 21st, where they met Quinby and his reinforcements. Ross and Foster explained how the Confederate guns and natural obstructions in the waterways had forced them to retreat. Quinby said that retreating “would have a depressing effect upon our army and the country, and raise the hopes and the determination of the rebels.” Thus, he ordered Ross to go back down the Tallahatchie and renew the assault on Fort Pemberton. Since he had no authority over the navy, Quinby then persuaded Foster to join Ross.

The flotilla began its return voyage on the 22nd and arrived within range of the fort the next morning. The ironclads Chillicothe and Baron de Kalb fired some probing shots at the fort, but the Confederates did not respond. The Federals pulled back and prepared to launch the main assault the following day. But rain poured for the next five days, during which time Quinby began doubting that the fort could be taken.

Quinby proposed other ways to try getting to Fort Pemberton, but Foster finally announced that the navy was pulling out of the expedition. Quinby reported to his superior, Major General James B. McPherson, “Should he act on this determination, the land forces would be left here in a very precarious position, with nearly 200 miles of unguarded water communications between them and the Mississippi.”

When Foster led the gunboats out, Quinby followed with the transports, hoping to get reinforcements at Yazoo Pass for another attack. However, the troops did not arrive as expected, and Quinby told McPherson on the 28th:

“This delay is to be greatly regretted, for the rebels are constantly receiving re-enforcements, adding to and strengthening their works. It is evident that they intend to make a determined stand at this point. Every move that we make is answered by one from them.”

Quinby finally realized what Ross and Foster had known since the 16th: the expedition was futile. Confederates had planted a battery where Quinby wanted to bridge the Tallahatchie and cross troops for a ground attack. Moreover, heavy rains had made the rivers and tributaries too high to bridge. There were also delays in getting the men, artillery, and supplies needed for the operation.

Finally, Major General Ulysses S. Grant, the Federal army commander, ended the expedition: “The troops that have gone down Yazoo Pass are now ordered back” to Helena, Arkansas. He needed the troops for another plan he had in mind.

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 272-73; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 77; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 846

Vicksburg: Federals Clear Yazoo Pass

March 2, 1863 – After nearly a month, the last Federal transport finally cleared Yazoo Pass in the effort to approach Vicksburg from the north.

The transports entered the Coldwater River after struggling to clear obstructions and navigate the winding waterway. The Federal mission was to move down the Coldwater to the Tallahatchie, and then onto the Yazoo, which would bring the Federals within striking distance of Vicksburg to the south.

Brig Gen Leonard Ross | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Brigadier General Leonard F. Ross, commanding the army portion of the expedition, reported that two steamers did not make it through and two others, the Diana and the Emma, were badly damaged. Ross also stated:

“A large force of rebels is reported on the Tallahatchee awaiting our advance. I do not credit the report, but if they are there we shall probably find them in the course of a couple of days, when we shall do just the best we can.”

Confederates under Major General William W. Loring awaited the Federal flotilla at Fort Pemberton, where the Tallahatchie, Yalobusha, and Yazoo rivers met. They had been waiting so long that some began thinking the Federals had given up trying to get through Yazoo Pass. A scout reported, “Fleet returned up the Pass Tuesday, except one tug, Walch, two guns, which is anchored at junction. Rest of enemy’s forces gone back to (Moon) Lake; some think to Helena (Arkansas).”

Another report from a “reliable gentleman” stated that “the Federal officers proclaim that they will take Vicksburg by a dash of their gunboats, and transports will land their whole force in front, taking it by storm.” Meanwhile, the Federal expedition’s naval commander, Lieutenant Commander Watson Smith, reported that his vessels could not move any faster than a mile and a half per hour due to the countless obstructions in the waterway.

Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Confederate Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, began having grave concerns because in addition to the flotilla, Federals were digging a canal to bypass the Vicksburg batteries on the other side of the Mississippi, as well as other canals north of town. He received a message from his superiors asking about reports that Federals had reached Yazoo City: “What are the facts? And where are the boats?”

By the 10th, the Federal flotilla had entered the Tallahatchie River, continuing east to reach the Yazoo. As the ironclad gunboat U.S.S. Chillicothe destroyed a bridge spanning the Tallahatchie above Fort Pemberton, Ross received a message from his immediate superior, General Isaac Quinby:

“He (Major General Ulysses S. Grant, army commander) evidently attaches great importance to the movement down the Yazoo River, the failure of which would in all probability render it necessary to make a complete change in the present programme, and, to say the least, delay for a long time the accomplishment of our immediate object.”

Quinby directed Ross to “proceed with extreme caution, and under no circumstances bring on an engagement until re-enforced by at least my division, unless confident of victory.” Ross, Smith, and Lieutenant Colonel James H. Wilson (commanding the Federal engineers) decided to probe Fort Pemberton to determine its strength. But since the ground was too marshy for a major troop landing, just a small detachment went ashore. And due to the waterway’s narrowness, only two gunboats could advance at a time. The Chillicothe took the lead, followed by the U.S.S. Baron de Kalb.

After the initial probe, the gunboats returned to trade fire with the Confederates from about 800 yards. Lieutenant Commander James P. Foster of the Chillicothe reported that one of his gun crews was “rendered perfectly useless, 3 men being killed outright, 1 mortally wounded, and 10 others seriously wounded, while the other 5 of the gun’s crew had their eyes filled with powder.” The Confederates scored numerous hits on the Federal ironclad until she had to withdraw. The Baron de Kalb, farther out of range, sustained no damage but withdrew with the Chillicothe.

The Federals spent the next day repairing the Chillicothe and placing a battery on shore northeast of Fort Pemberton, protected by cotton bales. Pemberton wrote President Jefferson Davis, “I think General Loring will be able to repel them,” because “not more than two gunboats can operate at the same time against the fort.”

The gunboats resumed the fight at 11 a.m. on the 13th, with the Chillicothe again forced to withdraw after taking 38 hits. The Baron de Kalb continued the bombardment but had to withdraw when her ammunition ran low. The Confederates sustained some casualties when a Federal shell exploded some of their ammunition, but the fort was otherwise undamaged. Had the Federals known the Confederates were running out of ammunition, they might have pressed the attack harder.

Loring reported to Pemberton, “We have lost some valuable gunners and a few others. Thank God, our losses so small. Enemy’s losses must be great.” But the Federals lost just six men (two killed and four wounded) aboard the Chillicothe. Ross reported, “We have no means of knowing the extent of the enemy’s damage. If no greater than our own, I may truly say that nobody was hurt by today’s operations.”

Assessing the damage to his gunboat, Foster reported, “The Chillicothe is now in condition to engage the enemy, she is, however, badly battered and shattered, and does not withstand the enemy’s shot and shell near as well as expected.” Both sides spent the next two days strengthening their positions, with the Federals placing more shore guns and Loring receiving much-needed ammunition.

During that time, Colonel Wilson wrote a series of letters to Colonel John Rawlins, Grant’s chief of staff. In them, he expressed a low opinion of Lieutenant Commander Smith’s handling of affairs and stated that neither Smith nor “his commanders are very sanguine” about another attack. Wilson added a touch of sarcasm in one letter:

“I have no hope of anything great, considering the course followed by the naval forces under direction of their able and efficient Acting Rear-Admiral, Commodore, Captain, Lieutenant-Commander Smith… Ross has done all in his power to urge this thing forward. If what he suggested had been adopted, the iron clads would have been here fifteen days ago and found no battery of any importance. So much for speed.”

Wilson predicted that if the Federals failed to capture Fort Pemberton, “Vicksburg becomes subordinate, our department secondary, and (William) Rosecrans’ army (of the Cumberland) our hope in the West. Won’t we, in that event, be required to furnish 50,000 or 60,000 men?”

The Federal gunboats renewed their attack on Fort Pemberton on the 16th, with the Chillicothe and Baron de Kalb advancing again, supported by a mortar boat. The Confederates disabled the Chillicothe within 15 minutes by hitting her casemate and disabling her guns, forcing her to withdraw. Foster reported, “The backing to the turret is shattered all to pieces, and the iron plating on the turret is penetrated, knocked loose, stove in, and almost unfit for service.”

Smith ordered the Baron de Kalb to fall back as well, and Ross concluded that the fort could not be taken with the resources at hand. Wilson, however, remained “perfectly certain the place can be taken in time, by a proper and prompt array of strength, and all the necessary materials for such an operation.” But for now, the Yazoo Pass expedition appeared to be fizzling out for the Federals.

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 265-67; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 269-71; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 328; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 846

The Yazoo Pass Expedition

February 7, 1863 – A Federal army-navy expedition began in an effort to capture Vicksburg by entering Yazoo Pass and approaching the city by water from the north.

Acting Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the Federal Mississippi River Squadron, had lost all hope that Vicksburg could be taken by naval force alone. Confederates now had 50 guns overlooking the river, atop bluffs so steep that 10,000 troops could not climb up to them. Porter wrote, “We can, perhaps, destroy the city and public buildings, but that would bring us no nearer the desired point than we are now, and would likely put out the little spark of Union feeling still existing in Vicksburg.”

Yazoo Pass Expedition Map | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

He then came upon the idea of destroying a Mississippi River levee to flood Yazoo Pass. This would allow his gunboats to move to the Coldwater River, a tributary of the Tallahatchie, and then on to the Yazoo River in Vicksburg’s rear. Grant could then “follow with his army and Vicksburg attacked in the rear in a manner not likely dreamed of.”

Major General Ulysses S. Grant was not confident that such an operation would work. But he would not be ready to launch an all-out offensive against Vicksburg until spring, and he could not afford to appear idle until then. He therefore approved this and other minor operations, standing ready to exploit them in the slim chance that they succeeded.

The expedition would include elements of the army headed by Brigadier General Leonard F. Ross of XIII Corps, and the navy led by Lieutenant Commander Watson Smith. Seven gunboats, led by the ironclads U.S.S. Baron de Kalb and Chillicothe, would escort 5,000 troops aboard army transports.

Lieutenant Colonel James H. Wilson, chief Federal topographical engineer, devised the plan to open the levee sealing Yazoo Pass. Federal soldiers and engineers mined and detonated explosives that blew a 75-foot-wide hole in the levee and flooded the pass. The water swept away everything in its path, running too fast to guarantee safe navigation. This delayed the start of the expedition for several days.

The flotilla finally moved out on the 7th, riding the fast current onto Moon Lake. Obstructions such as underwater tree stumps and low hanging tree branches damaged the tinclad U.S.S. Forest Rose and generally hindered the Federal advance.

Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Confederate Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, knew that Yazoo Pass could be a weak point and directed his troops to obstruct the area with felled trees even before the Federal expedition began. The natural impediments combined with the Confederate obstructions to slow the Federal advance to about 10 miles per day.

As the flotilla struggled ahead, the Confederates quickly installed a garrison at Fort Pemberton, also known as Fort Greenwood, near Greenwood, Mississippi. The small work stood on the neck of land between the Tallahatchie to the north and the Yazoo to the south, about 50 miles north of Yazoo City. The troops, led by Major General William W. Loring, built defenses out of cotton bales but had just 10 guns to defend against a Federal naval approach. Loring also scuttled the former Star of the West to obstruct the waterway.

Meanwhile, the Federals continued pushing through the obstructions using “picks, spades, and wheelbarrows.” Smith insisted that the entire flotilla move together, rejecting Ross’s pleas to allow the ironclads to go ahead. This delayed the advance and gave the Confederates more time to build their defenses.

Two weeks after the Federals blew up the levee, Pemberton received a report from a Confederate naval lieutenant:

“The enemy have driven us off from the works on the Pass, and are coming through. Hasty obstructions with fortifications may save Yazoo City. I have done my best; worked under their noses, till their pickets came in 100 yards of me.”

Captain Isaac Brown, commanding Confederate naval forces at Yazoo City, also wrote Pemberton:

“I regret that we have so little time to make preparations, so little, in fact, that I cannot be answerable for what may happen, in other words, I can give no assurance that we shall be able to stop the enemy, as we cannot tell with what amount or description of force he is coming through. We will do all we can.”

Pemberton in turn wrote President Jefferson Davis:

“Many believe that the enemy will get through the Yazoo Pass, and I am informed that, by the use of steam saw-mills, three quarters of a mile of solid obstructions were removed in two days. I do not apprehend anything serious from this demonstration, still, if it be the enemy’s purpose to lay siege to Vicksburg, this is doubtless part of his plan to cut off our supplies, and would materially assist the investment of the place.”

Pemberton requested a “full supply of ammunition to be furnished for the defense of Vicksburg.” On the 23rd, Pemberton received word that the Federal flotilla had reached the Coldwater, en route to the Tallahatchie. He sent more troops to bolster Loring at Fort Pemberton. However, the Federals turned back when Colonel Wilson advised them to clear more obstructions before continuing forward. By the end of February, the Federals had finally cleared Yazoo Pass and entered the Coldwater River.

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 259, 264; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 202; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 260-62, 265-67; Grant, Ulysses S., Memoirs and Selected Letters: Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Selected Letters 1839–1865 (New York: Library of America, 1990), p. 267; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 75-76; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 321; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 846