General Hooker Reorganizes the Army of the Potomac; Gunboats in Action on the Mississippi: February 1863

150 Years Ago in the Civil War

After a very active December and January, the armies took time out in February 1863  to reorganize and rest before resuming active campaigning in the spring.  Land action was limited to relatively minor skirmishing and fighting between small units of soldiers and cavalry from Virginia to Indian Territory, while the larger armies remained in camps and winter quarters. 

In Virginia, Major General Joseph Hooker, the newly appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac, reorganized his army.  Hooker broke up the multi corps Grand Divisions that his predecessor, Major General Ambrose Burnside, had created and returned to organization by corps.  He also created a separate cavalry corps.  Previously, Union cavalry regiments had been part of each individual corps, but under Hooker’s reorganization, all but a very limited number of cavalrymen were assigned to this new, separate cavalry corps.  This arrangement of having a separate cavalry corps had been used with great success by the Confederates, and Hooker had been paying attention.

Hooker also set about the task of building the morale of the army, which had been dealt serious blows with the defeat at Fredericksburg in December and the Mud March fiasco in January.  One of the first things he did was improve the army’s food.  On February 7th, Hooker announced that soft bread, fresh potatoes, and onions would be issued multiple times each week.  New bakeries were soon churning out fresh bread.  Supplies of food and other necessities were plentiful in the Union army, but the distribution was poorly, or indifferently, carried out.  Hooker no longer tolerated the status quo, and quartermasters who were incompetent or corrupt were replaced.  The commanding general also ordered camps to be cleaned up; those that passed inspection qualified for a furlough program.  Hooker’s measures had the desired effect, and the army’s morale improved.

While the armies rested and refitted, most of the action in February involved gunboats on the western rivers as part of Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign.  On February 2nd, Admiral David Porter sent the ram Queen of the West south past the Vicksburg, Mississippi batteries.  It’s mission was to capture or sink Confederate shipping operating on the Mississippi between Vicksburg and Port Hudson, Louisiana, as well as the Red River.   Over the next several days, Queen captured or destroyed several Confederate vessels on these rivers.  Porter sent unmanned coal barges past Vicksburg to refuel the Queen of the West.  On the 13th, the  ironclad USS Indianola ran past the batteries to join the Queen.

The next day, things began to come apart.  Queen of the West ran aground on the Red River, and was captured by the Confederates.  They quickly repaired it and returned it to action, steaming into the Mississippi on February 24th, accompanied by three other vessels.  The flotilla attacked the Indianola about 30 miles south of Vicksburg, damaging the Union vessel and capturing it after running it aground.  If it could be repaired, the Confederates would have a formidable fleet on the river.

 Porter had a creative way of dealing with his threat.  He built a very convincing fake ironclad and sent it past Vicksburg.  With this “ironclad” approaching and the Indianola still under repairs and unable to move, the vessel was blown up on the 26th to prevent it from being retaken by the Federals.

The month  ended with one other Naval action, this one on the east coast.  On February 28th, the monitor USS Montauk steamed up the Ogeechee River near Savannah, Georgia and destroyed the former CSS Nashville, which had been renamed the Rattlesnake after it was sold and turned into a privateer.  This was one more incident in the ever present Union blockade of southern ports.

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