|By the beginning of 1863, not a rowboat could move on the Mississippi River without the permission of the United States Navy—except along the two hundred and fifty twisting, turning, convoluted miles from Vicksburg, Mississippi, south to Port Hudson, Louisiana. Between those two Confederate strongholds, the rebels made free use of the great water highway to transport troops, supplies, and merchandise.
Above Vicksburg, the river was held in an iron grip by Acting Rear Admiral David D. Porter and his powerful Mississippi Squadron, exercising joint responsibility with the U. S. Army as represented by the Mississippi Marine Brigade (part of the army, not the United States Marines.)
From its mouth to the vicinity of Port Hudson, forces under the over-all command of Rear Admiral David G. Farragut retained control of the Mississippi River and its tributaries.
The fifty-year old Admiral Porter exercised commands from headquarters aboard his flagship, the Black Hawk, which lay about ten miles upstream from Vicksburg, but because of a large horseshoe bend in the river enclosing Young's Point, was only about four miles due west of the city.
On February 2, 1863, Admiral Porter dispatched the gunboat Queen of the West commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Rivers Ellet, age 19, to harass the Confederates on their stretch of the river. The steamer, protected by thickly packed bales of cotton in lieu of armor plating, eased past the formidable Vicksburg batteries, suffering only minor damage, then rambled on downriver, raiding plantations and capturing three rebel steamboats before running short of fuel. After destroying the captured vessels, Ellet returned to the vicinity of Vicksburg and sent a message overland across Young's Point to Porter, whereupon the admiral ordered an unmanned barge to be filled with coal and pushed out into the Mississippi, hoping that the current would carry it north to the end of Young's Point, around the bend, and south past Vicksburg to Ellet. The river did its job for Porter, and Ellet in the Queen of the West, now accompanied by a captured tug boat, the De Soto, steamed off down the Mississippi. Ellet took his boats up the Red River as far as the mouth of the Atchafalaya, destroying enemy property on the shore and on February 14, captured the rebel boat Era No. 5 and its valuable cargo of corn. He then steamed further up the Red River until he reached the vicinity of Fort DeRussy, where he encountered enemy steamers who at once opened fire. Attempting to turn in the channel, the Queen of the West ran aground—because of the pilot's treachery, Ellet was convinced. When the Queen's main steam pipe was severed by an enemy shot, Ellet had no choice but to evacuate the vessel and get the crew to safety. He wanted to burn the boat so as to deprive the enemy of her usefulness, but there was a wounded man aboard, First Master James D. Thompson, and moving him to the De Soto proved impossible. "The interior of the boat was intensely dark, full of steam, and strewn with shattered furniture," Ellet reported. In order to spare Thompson any danger of burning to death, Ellet chose to abandon the vessel intact and retreated to the De Soto then to the Era No. 5 and the comparative safety of the Mississippi.
The Queen of the West was only slightly damaged in the fight, and the rebels soon returned her to service as a Confederate gunboat.
Meanwhile, on the night of February 13, Admiral Porter dispatched Lieutenant Commander George Brown, USN, in the ironclad Indianola, heavily armed with two eleven-inch Dahlgren guns forward and a pair of nine-inchers aft, down the river. Again, a Yankee ship ran past the Vicksburg batteries without being damaged, and the morning after the capture of the Queen of the West, the Indianola rendezvoused with Colonel Ellet in the Era No. 5 a little way below Natchez, and the two gunboats approached the mouth of the Red River; however, the rebels soon spotted them, making further offensive operations impractical, at which point the two Yankee boats parted company.
In addition to the newly-acquired Queen of the West, the Confederates operated several gunboats on their stretch of the river. Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick B. Brand commanded the Dr. Beaty with the Grand Era as tender, while Major J. L. Brent directed operation of the Webb and Queen of the West from aboard the latter vessel.
On the morning of February 21, 1863, Colonel Brand received information that the Indianola had left the mouth of the Red River. He steamed toward that point and contacted a picket on the shore with whom he set up a system of signals aimed at keeping him informed of any boat movements on the river. He then proceeded up-river to the mouth of the Black River, where he fell in with Major Brent with the Queen of the West and the Webb. They combined forces and returned to the Mississippi, waiting for dark before launching their attack on the Indianola in view of the fact that the Federal boat carried an "immense superiority of metal and power."
It was ten o'clock on the night of February 24, 1863, when the rebel gunboats reached a point about thirty miles south of Vicksburg, by Palmyra Island near the hamlet of Carthage, and discovered the Indianola, lying close to the eastern shore. The atmospheric conditions, in Major Brent's opinion, were ideal. "The moon was partially obscured by a veil of white clouds," he noted, "and gave and permitted just sufficient light for us to see where to strike with our rams, and just sufficient obscurity to render uncertain the aim of the formidable artillery of the enemy." Brent immediately ordered the Queen of the West and the Webb to attack. Amid a heated exchange of artillery, the two Confederate rams charged the Indianola but caused little damage to their adversary, save for breaking away two coal barges that the Yankees had lashed to the forward hull for added protection. The rebels charged again with no better results, but the third time, charging from up-river with the force of the current added to its engines' power, the Webb succeeded in striking the Indianola at the after part of her starboard wheel house, opening the hull below the water line. Despite continued damaging fire from the Indianola's big guns, the Queen of the West smashed into the Yankee gunboat's stern, crushing her propellers and rudder.
With his vessel fatally damaged, Lieutenant-Commander Brown then had little recourse but to make for the shore in the hope of abandoning ship and giving the crew a chance at escaping through the countryside. He conned the Indianola close to the Louisiana shore, but found that there was not enough time to evacuate the crew because by this time Brent had signaled to Brand that the enemy was disabled and Brand pulled alongside in the Dr. Beaty, prepared to board. Before he could do so, Lieutenant-Commander Brown called out that he was "in a sinking condition," and acquiesced to Brand's request for his surrender.
Casualties in the action amounted to two Southern men killed and three wounded by one of the Indianola's eleven-inch guns, and one Federal killed and one wounded aboard the Indianola by sharpshooters. The capture of the Yankee boat netted the Confederates ninety prisoners.
The victorious rebels pushed their disabled prize to shore, and then made ready to move her up the Red River for repairs. Lieutenant T. H. Handy, troop commander on the Webb, was appointed prize master. The rebels were able to tow the badly damaged vessel only a short distance down the Mississippi before she became so near to sinking—due to sea cocks opened by the Union crew as well as by battle damage—that they beached her on the eastern shore near the Jefferson Davis plantation. The wreck sank up to her gun deck, thus depriving the captors of the valuable cargo stowed below. One eleven-inch gun had burst, but the others remained intact.
The loss of the Indianola was a serious matter—repaired and in the hands of the enemy, she would pose a formidable threat to Federal operations along the river. Admiral Porter, given to the dramatic phrase, described the incident as "the most humiliating affair that has occurred during the rebellion."
However, the rebels had a long way to go before they would be able to gain any advantage from possession of the badly mauled Indianola, and their efforts to do so began inauspiciously
"From the moment the Federal flag was struck and our forces took possession of the vessel, there appears to have been an utter want of authority, system, or plan," commented Confederate Colonel Wirt Adams, commanding land forces in the vicinity. On Wednesday morning Adams sent a lieutenant and a hundred men aboard the wreck of the Indianola with orders to try to save her. For their protection, they had two six-pounder cannons and about fifteen muskets.
. . .
Several days earlier, aboard the Black Hawk, reports had reached Admiral Porter that when the Queen of the West and the Indianola ran the Vicksburg batteries, some of the Confederate guns had burst during the prolonged firing. It occurred to Porter that inducing the rebels to fire this artillery again might result in more damage to the guns, and if they fired at something of no value to the Federals, so much the better. Remembering how the current had carried that unmanned barge past Vicksburg to Colonel Ellet, he set his men to constructing a dummy vessel that could be set adrift to float past Vicksburg and draw enemy fire.
Porter's men, delighted with having something out of the routine to do, set to with a will on February 25, 1863. They found an abandoned, broken-down coal barge on the banks of the Mississippi. With scrap lumber they patched up and enlarged the barge until they had a hull some three hundred feet long, more than twice the size of the largest real gunboat on the river. More scrap lumber, along with some canvas, went to fashion a false superstructure on the hull, and logs disguised as cannons were stuck into the side of it. Then the amateur shipbuilders erected a high semi-circular paddle box on either side of their creation. "Two old boats hung from davits were fitted to the 'ironclad,'" the admiral later recounted, "and two smokestacks made of hogsheads completed the illusion." The result somewhat resembled—at a distance in the dark—a river ironclad, not unlike the Indianola, but much larger. One ebullient worker expressed his defiant attitude by decorating the side of a paddle box with huge letters reading, "DELUDED PEOPLE CAVE IN." Finally, the stars and stripes were affixed to the vessel's stern, and the Jolly Roger was run up the jack staff at her bow. For a tongue-in-cheek crowning touch, the dummy boat was solemnly christened "The Black Terror."
The counterfeit man-of-war was finished by nightfall. Porter's men set fire to pots of tar and oakum (loose hemp or jute fiber impregnated with tar) to simulate smoke from her engines, then cast the Black Terror adrift at midnight and watched it float silently downstream northward towards the horseshoe bend at the end of Young's Point.
The Confederate gunners on the Vicksburg bluffs spotted the Black Terror as soon as it rounded the bend. They opened up with all they had at the approaching apparition, apparently a massive Yankee man-of-war bent on bombarding their positions.
If their target suffered any hits, the rebels saw, she wasn't slowed down by them. Officers on the bluffs scratched their heads when it dawned on them that the fearsome Yankee gunboat was not shooting back. It soon became obvious that the enemy was not about to be stopped, and frantic rebel authorities sent word downriver to where repairs were progressing on the captured Indianola. It must be, they reasoned, that the beached ironclad was the enemy boat's objective. Meanwhile the Black Terror cruised merrily downstream, ignoring the artillery fire (naturally, since there were no human eyes aboard to observe it).
After it passed the batteries, the Black Terror encountered the Queen of the West, chugging upstream to Vicksburg to get repair parts for the Indianola. Spying the approaching monster, the Queen of the West's captain, James McCloskey, quickly reversed his course and fled. He signaled the danger to three other rebel boats and all four raced downstream towards safety.
Shortly after Colonel Adams' men set to work salvaging the Indianola, the Queen of the West came hurrying down river to report that a Federal gunboat was approaching, and then quickly steamed downriver out of sight and, as it happened, out of the war.
The other Confederate boats, still in poor condition as a result of the battle with the Indianola, dispersed in a hurry, leaving the landing party to its own devices. The lieutenant charged with salvaging the Indianola had been trying to pump her out, but seeing himself abandoned by the river boats, he gave up the effort.
Had cooler heads prevailed, the rebels might still have saved the situation. Even without further work, the Indianola's three remaining guns were now in position to serve as a formidable shore battery, denying approach to the wreck by water. "With the assistance of our two vessels, the Queen of the West and Webb," Colonel Adams later remarked ruefully, "there is scarcely a doubt that we could have saved the Indianola, and possibly have captured the other gunboat of the enemy."
Adding to the confusion, excited authorities in Vicksburg telegraphed to the Indianola, reporting that TWO Federal ships were coming. Soon afterwards, the Black Terror hove in sight of the beached Indianola, and the rebels watched as she came to a stop, no doubt, it appeared, to provide herself with a steady platform to aim her (undoubtedly) huge and numerous guns at the hapless Confederate defenders.
In fact, the dummy ship had simply run aground on a sand bank near the Louisiana shore. It was remarkable that she made it that far with no one at the helm—with no helm, for that matter. As luck would have it—and there was plenty of luck with the Yankees that night—some Federal soldiers on the western bank saw what happened and pitched in to push the decoy back out into the current. Seeing the monster ironclad bearing down on them once again, the men working on the Indianola quickly spiked the boat's guns, threw their own artillery overboard, planted explosive charges to set her afire and fled into the countryside. Their haste was so great that they salvaged none of the captured ship's supplies—except for the wine and spirits.
Once the explosives detonated, the destruction of the Indianola was nearly complete. Nothing was left but a bare ruined hull, and it rested there in the mud for the rest of the war.
The Confederates in the end disposed of the threat that the Federal Indianola posed, but they failed to profit from the capture: they lost the boat, the guns, the powder and shot. All they managed to save from their capture was the Indianola's liquor supply,
Admiral Porter never found out if his original purpose, causing damage to the rebel artillery, worked, but the actual results of the Black Terror's voyage surpassed his highest expectations. He had denied the rebels the fruits of their capture of the Queen of the West and the powerful Indianola. To his report of the affair to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, he appended an article from the Vicksburg Whig of March 5, 1863, reporting the rebel view of the matter:
DESTRUCTION OF THE INDIANOLA.
We stated a day or two since that we would not then enlighten our readers in regard to a matter which was puzzling them very much. We allude to the loss of the Indianola, recently captured from the enemy. We were loth to acknowledge she had been blown up, but such is the case.
The Yankee barge sent down the river last week was reported to be an iron-clad gunboat. The authorities thinking that this monster would retake the Indianola, immediately issued an order to blow her up. The order was sent down by courier to the officer in charge of the boat.
A few hours afterward another order was sent down countermanding the first, it being ascertained that the monstrous craft was only a coal barge, but before it reached the Indianola she had been blown to atoms. Not even a gun was saved. Who is to blame for this piece of folly, this precipitancy? It would really seem we had no use for gunboats on the Mississippi, as a coal barge is magnified into a monster, and our authorities immediately order a boat that would have been worth a small army to be blown up.
The Civil War did not see many bloodless victories, but the exploit of the Black Terror counted as a splendid one—and at a cost to the taxpayers of exactly eight dollars and sixty-three cents.
Boatner III, Mark Mayo, The Civil War Dictionary, David McKay Co., 1988.
Johnson, Robert U. and Buel, C. C., eds. Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Century, 1887-8.
Musicant, Ivan. Divided Waters, Harper Collins, 1995.
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Washington, ED.C., 1894-1922.
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