Unvexed Waters: Mississippi River Squadron, Part 2

Island No. 10 and New Madrid, Missouri

Part I of this post introduced the unprecedented U.S. Army Western Gunboat Flotilla—soon to be reorganized as the U.S. Navy Mississippi River Squadron—and carried it through the victorious battles of Forts Henry and Donelson, Tennessee, in February 1862.

The next Union objective was the northern stopper in Rebel defenses of the mighty Mississippi: Island No. 10 near New Madrid, Missouri.

This enlarged sandbar at the bottom of a tight river U-turn mounted five batteries and 24 guns backed up with 7,000 Confederates. Navy Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote supported Major General John Pope against the obstacle in March and April.

Three weeks of furious bombardment by Foote’s gunboats along with rafts mounting 13-inch mortars achieved no results. Foote was hesitant to expose his ironclads to heavy shore guns again after suffering severe damage at Forts Henry and Donelson. Going downriver with the swift current was a whole lot easier than coming back up. The cumbersome vessels could be disabled and captured, and possibly turned against friendly river cities.

But Captain Henry Walke of the USS Carondelet insisted he could make it. The ironclad was covered with rope, chain, and whatever loose material lay at hand. A barge filled with coal and hay was lashed to her side. Her steam exhaust was diverted from the smokestacks out the side of the casemate to muffle sound.

USS Carondelet running the batteries at Island No. 10

On a moonless night under a thunderstorm, Carondelet slithered downstream unscathed and almost undetected. Another ironclad gunboat followed. The dramatic passage introduced a new, and previously unthinkable, naval tactic: driving vulnerable warships through narrow channels past heavily armed fixed emplacements.

Once past the batteries, the gunboats ferried Union forces across the river below the island, isolated and captured the outnumbered garrison from behind. This process would be repeated on a larger scale three weeks later at New Orleans, and subsequently at Vicksburg, Port Hudson, and Mobile.

Charles H. Davis

Flag Officer Charles H. Davis relieved Foote as flotilla commander in May 1862 and headed on downriver for Memphis with six ironclads, accompanied Colonel Charles Ellet and his nine unarmed wooden rams.

Confederates had seized a motley collection of passenger, cargo, and tow boats to defend the river, converting them to rams armed with one or two guns—the Confederate River Defense Fleet. Like the Ellet rams, these were captained and crewed by civilian rivermen, nominally under army command, but operating independently and with little coordination.

Five of the swift Rebel steamers surprised and rammed the lumbering Union ironclads Cincinnati and Mound City at Plum Point Bend above Memphis on May 10. Both vessels were grounded and sunk in shallow water but were soon raised and placed back in service.

On June 6, eight of the Confederate converted paddlewheelers steamed out to defend Memphis cheered on from the bluffs by hundreds of citizens. After an inconclusive, long-range gunnery duel, the impatient Colonel Ellet, on his own initiative, charged through the ironclad line in his Queen of the West and struck the first Rebel vessel encountered, sinking it immediately, only to be rammed himself by another. The ram Monarch followed, while the ironclads closed to deadly range.

Battle of Memphis. Note the city and its cheering inhabitants in background.

A raging melee erupted with no command coordination on either side. The Rebel squadron, unarmored and outgunned, was destroyed, marking the near eradication of Confederate naval presence on the river.

This was the only “fleet action” of the war, the last in which ramming was a primary tactic, and the last time civilians with no military experience such as Charles Ellet commanded ships in combat. Ellet’s ram fleet would become the Mississippi Marine Brigade under navy direction, employed primarily for amphibious raiding and support tasks.

The loss of Memphis, the Confederacy’s fifth-largest city and key industrial center, opened the Mississippi all the way to Vicksburg and opened West Tennessee to Union occupation.

But strategic opportunity was lost as attempts to reduce Vicksburg from the river that summer of 1862 failed for lack of army support when the indecisive Major General Henry W. Halleck became bogged down in the siege of Corinth, Mississippi.

Rear-Admiral David D. Porter

Then a major reorganization transferred the Western Gunboat Flotilla to command of the navy and re-designated it the Mississippi River Squadron with a new and aggressive rear admiral, David D. Porter, in command.

Halleck was called to Washington and Major General U. S. Grant took over the Army of Tennessee.

Porter and Grant made a winning ream, melding the strategic flexibility of maritime power—within its limitations—with hard and smart fighting on land. But it was a learning process. In late December, Grant sent W. T. Sherman downriver with a major amphibious force for a landing at Chickasaw Bayou northwest of Vicksburg, only to be repulsed with heavy casualties.

Grant’s Yazoo Pass Expedition

That winter and spring, Grant conducted a series of fruitless operations to outflank the city by cutting canals, blowing up levees, flooding the Mississippi Delta, and pushing ironclads, gunboats, and troop transports through tiny, choked channels that must have resembled the upper Mekong in “Apocalypse Now.”

The general wrote in his memoirs that these efforts were intended primarily to keep his troops busy during the flooded and disease-ridden winter and that he had no expectation of success. This claim appears to be contradicted by his contemporary correspondence.

Grant’s final option was to march the army through the swamps down the west bank of the Mississippi, cross south of and get behind Vicksburg. Porter would have to sneak his gunboats and transports downriver past powerful Rebel batteries on the bluffs to accomplish the army crossing. This would be a one-way run. If the squadron survived the transit, it would be suicidal to steam back up against the swift current.

Mississippi River Squadron running Vicksburg batteries (Currier and Ives)

On April 16, 1863, a clear night with no moon, seven gunboats and three empty troop transports loaded with stores ran the gauntlet. Despite efforts to minimize lights and noise, the bluffs exploded with massive artillery fire. Confederates set bonfires along the banks to illuminate the scene. Union gunboats fired back.

The Union column hugged the east bank–so close they could hear rebel gunners shouting orders–to get under the line of fire with shells zinging overhead. On April 22, six more boats loaded with supplies made the run. The squadron incurred little damage with two transports lost, thirteen men wounded, and none killed.

Grant ferried his army across, laid siege to and captured the “Gibraltar of the West.” It was arguably the most brilliant campaign of the war, at least as important as the simultaneous victory at Gettysburg. The Mississippi River Squadron backstopped the army, closed the river, and provided continuous heavy artillery support. The fall of Port Hudson, Louisiana, the last Confederate stronghold on the river, followed quickly.

“The father of waters again goes unvexed to the sea,” wrote Abraham Lincoln. Other than the abortive Red River campaign in spring 1864, there would be no more major river engagements. But the Mississippi River Squadron would be busy for two additional years fighting Rebel guerrillas, suppressing enemy trade, and protecting friendly commerce.

(Extracted from a paper presented at the North American Society for Oceanic History (NASOH) Annual Conference, St. Charles, Missouri, May 22, 2018. This presentation with PowerPoint is available for interested groups. See www.CivilWarNavyHistory.com.)

Civil War Echoes: The Greatest Raid of All

One hundred years ago today, construction began on USS Buchanan (DD-131), a destroyer named for Franklin Buchanan, the first superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy and later first admiral in the Confederate States Navy. She later played a role in one of the most famous raids of World War II.

Buchanan served a routine career in the U.S. Navy from her commissioning in 1919 until World War II’s outbreak in 1939. After a period on the Neutrality Patrol, on 9 September 1940 she was part of the 50 destroyers given to Britain in exchange for basing rights in the Western Hemisphere (also known as the Destroyers for Bases Agreement). The British renamed all 50 ships for towns both in the United Kingdom and the United States. Buchanan thus became HMS Campbeltown. In her new guise, and with British and Dutch crews, she fought German submarines in the Battle of the Atlantic until early 1942.

Meanwhile in London, British authorities were concerned about the threat of German surface ships operating in the Atlantic. Chief among these was the battleship Tirpitz, sister ship to the famous Bismarck sunk in 1941. Only one drydock in France could service her: the Normandie Dock at St. Nazaire. The British decided to destroy the drydock and thereby restrict Tirpitz to Norway. While a commando force went ashore to destroy machinery, an expendable destroyer would ram the dock gate. Explosives in her bow with a time fuse would then explode after the raid. The destroyer chosen for this mission was Campbeltown.

On the night of 27 March 1942, Campbeltown led 16 gunboats into the mouth of the Loire River. Aboard the group were 611 Royal Navy sailors and British Army Commandos. Campbeltown had been modified to resemble a German destroyer, and flew the German naval ensign. At 0122 on the 28th German shore batteries challenged her, and for six crucial minutes Campbeltown bluffed them into holding and ceasing fire. The Germans finally opened up, and Campbeltown’s commander, Lieutenant Commander Stephen Beattie, ordered the British ensign raised and increased her speed to maximum.

German fire ripped into the bridge, killing the helmsman and wounding others. Beattie took over, and personally directed her toward the dock gates. He signalled everyone to brace for impact as the ship surged toward her objective. At 0134 Campbeltown smashed into the dock, her momentum carrying her up and partially over the dock gate. Beattie looked at his watch and turned to a colleague. “Well, here we are,” he said. “Four minutes late.”

Over the next minutes commandos leapt out of the destroyer and demolished many of the working mechanisms of the dock and gates. Other commandos landed downriver at the Old Mole, but German fire drove off most boats. It soon became clear that no more could be done and that those ashore were marooned. The commando leader, Lieutenant Colonel A. Charles Newman, ordered a breakout; only 5 made it, the rest being captured. Of the 611 men in the raiding force, 169 were killed, 215 captured, and 228 returned home.

As dawn broke, Campbeltown became an object of interest for the Germans, who seemed to believe the British sought to destroy the dock gate by ramming alone. German soldiers and sailors, and a few French, started boarding the ship to gawk at it or hunt for souvenirs. An estimated 250 were aboard when Campbeltown’s time fuse ticked down  at noon on March 28. The explosion killed all aboard, destroyed the lock gate and the destroyer’s bow, hurtling water and the remains of the ship into the drydock.

The dock was not repaired until 1947, and the remains of Campbeltown were scrapped. The destroyer’s bell is in the city hall of Campbelltown, Pennsylvania, a gift from the Royal Navy and a nod to her American origins.

Despite British losses, the raid on St. Nazaire succeeded in its object. Five Victoria Crosses were awarded to members of the raiding force, including Beattie and Newman. Today, the operation lives in British military history as “The Greatest Raid of All.” Its success was due in no small measure to HMS Campbeltown, the former USS Buchanan.

Top: USS Buchanan (DD-131) and another destroyer just after transfer.

Center: Stephen “Sam” Beattie.

Bottom: Campbeltown on the dock gate before she blew up.

Below: An aerial view of the Normandie Dock after the raid. The remains of Buchanan/Campbeltown are visible in the center. 

 

Unvexed Waters: Mississippi River Squadron, Part I

Ironclads at Fort Henry

Ironclads Carondelet, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Essex bombard Fort Henry

History offers few examples other than the Civil War and Vietnam of extensive operations on inland shallow waters involving specialized classes of war vessels commanded and manned by naval personnel. The struggle for the Mississippi River, the spine of America, was one of the longest, most challenging and diverse campaign of the Civil War. The river extended 700 miles from Mound City, Illinois, to the Gulf of Mexico.

Strategically, the river war was an extension of blockade, an outgrowth of the Anaconda Plan. On June 10, 1862, Major General William T. Sherman wrote to his wife Ellen: “I think the Mississippi the great artery of America, whatever power holds it, holds the continent.”[1] But in technology and tactics, river warfare was an entirely new concept. Both navies started with nothing—no warships, no experience, no tactics, no command structure, no infrastructure.

Operations would involve: Joint and amphibious expeditions; reduction of powerful shore fortifications; interdiction of enemy trade, communications, and transportation; and river patrol and guerrilla suppression, all while sustaining and protecting friendly activities.

Technology would include ironclads, steam-powered gunboats, modern fortifications and artillery, and mines, all relatively untested instruments of war. The U.S. Navy, an exclusively deep-water force, had never thought very much about any of these challenges.

Under the watchful eyes of the commander in chief, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton developed a close partnership, built a robust riverine force from nothing, and coordinated on strategy.

There was no joint staff, and no protocols or mechanisms for directing joint operations. The officers of one service, however senior, could issue no orders to an officer of the other service, however junior. Coordination at the operational level depended entirely on the willingness and abilities of field commanders to plan and execute together.

A lack of joint perspective impeded many operations and negated strategic opportunities, but Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote, Flag Officer H. Charles Davis, Admiral David D. Porter, and General U. S. Grant put differences aside. From his first battle to his last, Grant incorporated the navy as an integral combat and logistical arm, and he credited navy compatriots as a major factor in victory.

captain-john-rodgers

John Rodgers

In May 1861, Secretary Welles appointed Commander John Rodgers to: Establish “a naval armament” on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, blockade or interdict Rebel communications, and “aid, advise, and cooperate” with army commanders “in crossing or navigating the rivers or in arming and equipping the boats required.”[2]

This ad hoc fleet would become the Western Gunboat Flotilla, a unique “joint service” organization. Gunboats were manned by navy personnel, but were converted or built using funds from the War Department, and were under the command of the army.

Working out of Cincinnati, Rodgers purchased three commercial steamers and contracted for their conversion. The USS Conestoga, USS Tyler, and USS Lexington were the first commissioned warships dedicated to river conflict.

Boilers and steam pipes were lowered into the hold; superstructures were removed and replaced with 5-inch thick oak bulwarks; sides were pierced and decks strengthened for six or eight guns.

USS Conestoga

Tinberclad USS Conestoga

Rogers acted entirely on his own initiative, without instructions, plans, authority, and initially without funding. He was rebuked by the Navy Department for so doing. These small but powerful vessels probably saw more service than any other gunboats in the Western Theater.

The next step was to design and build gunboats from the keel up, producing the first uniform river warship class and the first U.S. ironclads to enter combat.

Rogers partnered with James B. Eads, a wealthy St. Louis industrialist and self-taught naval engineer who risked his fortune to build the vessels. He was an exceptional river navigator and would become a world-renowned civil engineer and inventor.

Union river ironclad

“City Class” ironclad built by James Eads

Noted naval architect Samuel Pook designed the ironclads, which were thereby dubbed “Pook Turtles.” They combined firepower, protection, and mobility in a manner achieved by few contemporaries, but with defects.

The armor was inadequate. Maneuverability was restricted. They had no watertight compartments to isolate damage. They were vulnerable to mines, which sank the USS Cairo and USS Baron De Kalb, and to ramming, which sank (if only briefly) the USS Cincinnati and USS Mound City.

These ironclads were the backbone of the river flotilla taking part in almost every significant action on the upper Mississippi and its tributaries.

Other ironclads included the USS Benton, a converted center-wheel catamaran snag boat (the largest and best vessel of the Western flotilla), and USS Essex, along with a few smaller and partly armored gun-boats.

Dozens of other flat-bottomed river steamers were purchased and converted into armed and armored warships to patrol, escort, transport, and communicate over hundreds of miles of rivers through occupied territory. Thin metal sheeting, usually tin, provided small arms protection, hence “Tinclads.” The luxurious USS Black Hawk became Admiral Porter’s command ship.

The United States Ram Fleet—later the Mississippi Marine Brigade—was an odd duck, a small volunteer navy commanded by a family with no military experience. It was the brainchild of noted civil engineer Charles Ellet, Jr. who was convinced that, with steam power, ramming again was a viable naval tactic.

In March 1862, he persuaded Secretary of War Stanton to appoint him a colonel of engineers with authority to build his own flotilla. Ellet converted several powerful river towboats, heavily reinforcing their hulls for ramming. Boilers, engines and upper works were lightly protected with wood and cotton. Originally not armed, they later were fitted with several guns.

Ellet RamsColonel Ellet reported directly to the Secretary of War, operating independently of the squadron and theater commanders. When Ellet received a mortal wound at the Battle of Memphis in June 1862, command passed to his younger brother, Alfred, and to his son, Colonel Charles R. Ellet. The rams figured prominently in actions around and below Vicksburg into 1863 and performed supporting roles for the remainder of the war.

Andrew H. Foote

Andrew H. Foote

In February 1862, Flag Officer Andrew Foote succeeded Rodgers as flotilla commander. He and Grant formed a potent army-navy team against Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland, blowing open the Confederacy’s heartland, exposing Nashville, Shiloh, and eventually Chattanooga along a wet highway into northern Mississippi and Alabama.

The main Rebel defense line in the west collapsed, abandoning all of Kentucky and most of middle Tennessee along with crucial economic resources such as iron and pork. These were perhaps the deadliest strategic strokes of the war as well as the greatest single supply disaster for the Confederacy.

Foote’s gunboats pounded the poorly sited and constructed Fort Henry into submission before Union troops even arrived.

At Fort Donelson his ironclads took considerable damage until “Unconditional Surrender” Grant surrounded and battered the Rebels into capitulation, bagging an entire Confederate field army and beginning Grant’s rise to supreme command.

Together they achieved a strategic outcome George McClellan would fail to obtain during the Peninsula Campaign that spring.

Part 2 will complete the story.

(Extracted from a paper presented at the North American Society for Oceanic History (NASOH) Annual Conference, St. Charles, Missouri, May 22, 2018. This presentation with PowerPoint is available for interested groups. See www.CivilWarNavyHistory.com.)

[1] Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman to Ellen Sherman, June 10, 1862, University of North Dakota, Sherman Family Papers.

[2] Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, vol. 22 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1894-1922), 280, 284-285.

Scenes from Vicksburg (postscript)

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After my two and a half days in Vicksburg, I’m safely ensconced back home in the heart of the Eastern Theater of the Civil War. But wow, what a time I had. I had a few extra shots I wanted to share that didn’t necessarily fit in with the rest of the collection, so I thought I’d add a quick postscript.

I also wanted to offer a huge thank-you to the American Battlefield Trust for inviting Emerging Civil War to partner with them on this fantastic Facebook LIVE excursion—with a particular shout out to the Trust’s education manager, Kris White. The Trust has been a fantastic partner to work with, and we’re so glad we’re able to help support their important preservation work. (Thanks, too, to the Trust’s Connor Townsend for all her great camera work, directing, and social media management!)

I also want to offer a big thank-you to Vicksburg National Military Park. I was honestly stunned by how many people who followed along on the Facebook broadcasts said things like, “I didn’t know that much about Vicksburg.” It’s every bit as important as Gettysburg and worth just as much close study. I also saw a lot of people say, “I’ve never been there, but I want to go now that I’ve seen this.” I assure you, it’s an impressive park that will not disappoint. If you make the trip to Vicksburg, you will not be disappointed!

Vicksburg front sign

Vicksburg Superintendent

Historian extraordinaire Parker Hills, Vicksburg NMP Superintendent Bill Justice, Vicksburg NMP Superintendent Scott Babinowich, and the Trust’s Kris White plan out the action for our Thursday shoot. Scott spent all day with us, and he really impressed me with his enthusiasm, knowledge, and smooth, polished delivery.

Cairo Bell

The ship’s bell from the USS Cairo, recovered with the ship and cleaned up, now sits on display in the Cairo museum. The artifacts on display there tell a fascinating story about the ship’s life, loss, and recovery. Our thanks to NPS Historian Ray Hamel for sharing that story with us!

Vicksburg Illinois Monument

If there’s a temple anywhere on any battlefield, it’s the Illinois Memorial near the Shirley House. It’s a highly symbolic structure: the 47 steps to get inside, for instance, represent the number of days of the siege. Lincoln, Grant, McClernand, and Logan (whose division attacked along this avenue) all had Illinois connections, and the state had more men participate in the siege than any other state. The gold eagle is NOT “Old Abe” of the 8th Wisconsin, BTW–wrong state.

Breckinridge Bust

My wife is a collateral ancestor of Confederate general John Breckinridge, so I had to stop at his monument to pay my respects.

Kentucky Monument panorama

I really love the concept of the Kentucky monument, which has a plaza-like feel between the lines, where Kentuckians of both sides squared off against each other during the battle. However, the central figures–Lincoln and Davis, both Kentucky born–have freakish proportions and look especially awkward and un-life-like. The sculptor originally wanted them shaking hands to replicate the figures in the state seal who are shaking hands (and the seal is inscribed at their feet), but Lincoln and Davis never actually met, so a handshake, no matter how much artistic license one might excuse, would’ve been too historically inaccurate.

 

Scenes from Vicksburg, Day 3 (part three)

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After a wicked cool firing demonstration provided exclusively for us by Vicksburg National Military Park, we took a trip to the northern tip of the park to visit the USS Cairo. The Cairo was a city-class brownwater ironclad that has the distinction of being the first ship ever sunk by an electronic mine—or, as NPS historian Ray Hamel described it, what today we’d really describe as an IED. Ray gave us a great tour and then as a special bonus let us check out the museum’s collection of ordinance recovered from the Cairo.

Cairo hole

The hole created by the explosion can be seen here in the center of the photo, below the ship’s waterline. Amazingly, no one was killed in the explosion even though two gun crews were working in close proximity.

Cairo Ray

Ray Hamel explains the history of the Cairo, which spent 102 years underwater before being recovered in the 1960s.

Cairo guns

Tons of armor plating on the side of the ship provided protection.

Cairo armor

The bow of the ship had extra armor called “railroad armor” because it was literally made of railroad rails. The full ship couldn’t get the extra armor because it would’ve made it too heavy.

Cairo interior

A walk around the interior of the ship provides a look at the mechanics of how the vessel operated.

Cairo paddlewheel

Standing underneath the skeletonal frame of the Cairo’s paddlewheel.

Cairo catamarant

The Cairo is actually a catamaran: the decks of the ship sit across two main flotation “pontoons.” Each had a rudder, one of which can be seen here. Connor Townsend stands beneath the paddlewheel, which churned water out between the two rudders.

Here’s a look at some of the ordinance recovered from the Cairo:

Cairo artillery 01

Cairo artillery 03

Cairo artillery 02

Click here to learn more about the Cairo.

Scenes from Vicksburg, Day 3 (part one)

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I’ve been in Vicksburg for the American Battlefield Trust and Emerging Civil War to commemorate the 155th anniversary of the Vicksburg campaign. We actually started Thursday’s adventures with a holdover from Wednesday: a Facebook LIVE shoot from Grand Gulf. Water in the Mississippi was so high that it came up to the historic riverbank, so we got to stand along the water’s edge just where we would have in April of 1863. Parker Hills filled us in on the action.

Grand Gulf along the riverbandk

With the high water of the Mississippi just behind them, Kris White and Parker Hills explain to our Facebook audience just how point-blank Federal gunships came to the shoreline during the battle of Grand Gulf on April 29, 1863. Connor Townsend is behind the camera.

Grand Gulf Military Park

Grand Gulf Military Monument Park preserves the sites of the former Confederate Forts Cobun and Wade. The park also features a number of historic buildings.

Grand Gulf Museum

The museum at Grand Gulf Military Monument Park features a really cool and eclectic collection of stuff. (see the link below for more info)

Grand Gulf House on Stilts

You know you live right along the Mississippi River when….

Click here for more information about the Grand Gulf Military Monument Park, including a virtual tour.