By the winter of 1863, the Mississippi River was in Union hands except for the stretch between Vicksburg, Mississippi and Port Hudson, Louisiana. The Union Navy was busy trying to secure the Mississippi as the Union Army prepared for the upcoming spring campaigns against Vicksburg and Port Hudson. The Red River empties into the Mississippi between Vicksburg and Port Hudson, and was a vital waterway for providing supplies of all types to these Confederate garrisons. To disrupt this supply line from Texas and northwest Louisiana, Admiral David D. Porter decided to try running some of his river gunboats south past the formidable Vicksburg artillery batteries.
On February 2nd, the heavily armed ram Queen of the West successfully steamed past the Confederate artillery at Vicksburg. Queen carried out its mission, steaming up and down the Red and Mississippi Rivers and seizing several Confederate supply ships. When Queen ran low on fuel, Porter loaded a barge with 20,000 bushels of coal and floated it downriver past the Vicksburg batteries, where Queen was waiting. The mission was going well, and on February 13th, Porter sent the ironclad gunboat Indianola past Vicksburg to help out.
Before the two ships could link up, however, things started to go wrong. While patrolling on the Red River, Queen of the West was captured by the Confederates on February 14th. Though damaged, the vessel was repaired and turned into a Confederate gunboat.
The now Confederate Queen of the West steamed out of the Red River and into the Mississippi on February 24th, accompanied by three other ships, the ram Webb and the gunboats Dr. Beatty and Grand Era. Heading north, they encountered Indianola at 9:30 P.M. about 30 miles south of Vicksburg, and prepared for action. In the ensuing fight, Webb and Queen both rammed Indianola repeatedly causing serious damage. A final ramming by Webb punched a hole in Indianola’s stern. With the ship taking on water, Indianola’s commanding officer Lieutenant Commander George Brown surrendered his vessel. Indianola was pushed into the shoreline by Dr. Beatty, and the Confederates had captured another damaged, but repairable ship.
An alarmed Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles telegrammed Porter “The disastrous loss of the Indianola may, if she has not been disabled, involve the most serious results to the fleet below… She is too formidable to be left at large, and must be destroyed unless the attempt, in your judgment involves still greater risks.” If the Confederates were successful in repairing Indianola, it would join with Queen of the West and pose a serious threat to Union fleets above Vicksburg and below Port Hudson, and the Red River supply line would remain open.
Porter had a plan. He would send a special gunboat downriver to deal with Indianola. Or rather, his special gunboat would cause the Confederates to deal with the Indianola.
Porter had his carpenters build a 300 foot long wooden raft. Placed on top of the raft were a square casemate complete with a fake cannon, a pilot house, and two smokestacks made from barrels attached to each other end to end. Pots filled with burning tar and oakum were placed in the stacks. Canvas covered wheelhouses were on both sides of the “side wheeler”; Porter had the words “Deluded People Cave In!” painted on the sides of the wheelhouses. In addition to the U.S. flag, Porter installed a second flagstaff flying a skull and crossbones pirate flag. In appearance, this elaborate raft looked very much like an ironclad, and a powerful one at that.
The fake ironclad was released into the Mississippi current and drifted past Vicksburg. Cannon fire from the city’s batteries failed to stop her, and she “steamed” on down the river.
Meanwhile down river, word spread that another huge ironclad was heading south. Queen of the West was still being repaired for damage received in its fight with Indianola and was in no position to take on another war ship. Queen headed downriver taking Dr. Beatty and Webb with her. They warned the salvage crew working on Indianola that a Federal ironclad was on the way. Some of the workers were taken aboard the fleeing ships, but many were left behind. The Confederate fleet took off as fast as they could, and were in such a panic that Queen smashed into the Grand Era seriously damaging the latter ship. The Indianola work detail was left by itself.
With his crew abandoned by the fleet, and a Yankee gunboat approaching, the officer in charge of the work crew on Indianola felt he had no choice but to blow up the ship to prevent it from being recaptured. He destroyed the valuable cannon on board and blew up the vessel, also destroying much ammunition and gun powder in the process. Meanwhile, the feared Union ironclad had grounded itself a few miles above Indianola’s location.
The salvage crew gradually wandered into a Mississippi Cavalry camp. In his report on the incident, cavalry commander Colonel Wirt Adams noted “With the exception of the wine and liquor stores of the Indianola, nothing was saved.”
The Civil War in Louisiana by John D. Winters. La. State Univ. Press, 1963.
Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron by Gary D. Joiner. Rowman & Littlefield Pubs, Inc. 2007.
U.S. War Dept. Official Records of the U.S. and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. Washington, D.C., 1895-1929.
The Vicksburg Campaign: Vicksburg is the Key Vol. 1 by Edwin C. Bearrs. Morningside Bookshop, 1985.