Admiral David Porter’s Gunboats Supported the May 22nd, 1863 Union Army Assault At Vicksburg

Admiral David D. Porter USN

From the beginning of the Civil War, the Navy played a vital role in the campaigns in the Western Theatre of operations. The large rivers in the region, such as the Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland, Red, and Mississippi were important transportation routes, and the Brown Water Navy of river gunboats and transports moved troops and supplies and provided significant firepower to the Union arsenal. In the 1862-63 Vicksburg Campaign, the Navy under Admiral David Porter conducted operations on the Mississippi and it’s tributaries in cooperation with the Union Army. Beginning in late April 1863, the Navy ferried Army units from Louisiana across the Mississippi River to the state of Mississippi near Port Gibson, and Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s land campaign against the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg was underway.

Grant’s army marched northeast to Jackson, Mississippi, before turning west and heading for Vicksburg. The two sides fought several significant battles along the way, but the Confederate defenders could not stop the Federals, who arrived outside Vicksburg on May 18th. Striking quickly in the hope that the Rebels had not fully established defensive positions, Grant attempted to take the city by storm on May 19th, but was repulsed.

As more of his army arrived, Grant decided to make another, larger assault with three corps against the Confederate works on May 22nd. Grant asked Porter for help from the Navy.

NEAR VICKSBURG, MISS., May 21, 1863.

I expect to assault the city at 10 a.m. to-morrow. I would request, and earnestly request it, that you send up the gunboats below the city and shell the rebel intrenchments until that hour and for thirty minutes after. If the mortars could all be sent down to near the point on the Louisiana shore, and throw in shells during the night, it would materially aid me. I would like at least to have the enemy kept annoyed during the night.

U. S. GRANT.

Rear-Admiral DAVID D. PORTER,
Commanding Mississippi Squadron.

Porter had six 13 inch mortars as well as the Ironclads USS Benton, Carondelet, Mound City, and Tuscumbia of his Mississippi Squadron available. The admiral readily agreed with Grant’s request, and had the mortars lob shells into the Vicksburg defenses near the river. The gunboats steamed into position and engaged the Confederate water batteries along the river, which included both smoothbore and rifled guns in large calibers.

Vicksburg Viewed from the Mississippi River

The Union assault of May 22nd failed to capture the Rebel works. Porter sent this after action report to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, describing the Navy’s participation in then fight:

MISSISSIPPI SQUADRON, FLAGSHIP BLACK HAWK,
May 23, 1863.

SIR: On the evening of the 21st I received a communication from General Grant, informing me that he intended to attack the whole of the rebel works at 10 a.m. the next day, and asking me to shell the batteries from 9:30 until 10:30 a.m., to annoy the garrison. I kept six mortars playing rapidly on the works and town all night; sent the Benton, Mound City, and Carondelet up to shell the water batteries, and other places where troops might be resting during the night.

At 7 o’clock in the morning the Mound City proceeded across the river and made an attack on the hill batteries opposite the canal. At 8 o’clock I joined her with the Benton, Tuscumbia, and Carondelet. All these vessels opened on the hill batteries, and finally silenced them, though the main work (on the battery containing the heavy rifled gun) was done by the Mound City, Lieutenant Commanding Byron Wilson. I then pushed the Benton, Mound City, and Carondelet up to the water batteries, leaving the Tuscumbia (which vessel is still out of repair) to keep the hill batteries from firing on our vessels after they had passed by.

USS Benton

The three gunboats passed up slowly, owing to the strong current, the Mound City leading, Benton following, and Carondelet astern.

The water batteries opened furiously, supported by a hill battery on the starboard beam of the vessels. The vessels advanced to within 440 yards (by our marks) and returned the fire for two hours without cessation, the enemy’s fire being very accurate and incessant.

Finding that the hill batteries behind us were silenced, I ordered up the Tuscumbia to within 800 yards of the batteries, but her turret was soon made untenable, not standing the enemy’s shot, and I made her drop down.

I had been engaged with the forts an hour longer than General Grant asked; the vessels had all received severe shots under water which we could not stop up while in motion, and not knowing what might have delayed the movement of the army, I ordered the vessels to drop out of fire, which they did in a cool, handsome, manner.

This was the hottest fire the gunboats have ever been under, but owing to the water batteries being more on a level with them than usual, the gunboats, threw in their shell so fast that the aim of the enemy was not very good.

The enemy hit the vessels a number of times, but, fighting bow on, the shot did but little damage; not a man was killed, and only a few wounded. I had only ammunition enough for a few moments longer, and set all hands to work to fill up from our depot below. After dropping back, I found that the enemy had taken possession again of one of the lower hill batteries, and was endeavoring to remount his guns, and had mounted a 12-pounder fieldpiece to fire at General McArthur’s troops; which had landed a short time before, at Warrenton. I sent the Mound City and Carondelet to drive him off, which they did in a few moments.

The officers and men of all the vessels behaved with their usual gallantry. They had none of them been to rest for three days and nights, most of them having been engaged in firing on the batteries and town, and I allowed them to devote the afternoon to the necessary repose.

USS Carondelet

I beg leave to enclose a letter from General McArthur, explaining why he did not (to use his own expression) “take advantage of the results gained by the gunboats.” I have since learned through General Grant that the army did assault at the right time vigorously–in the noise and smoke we could not see or hear it. The gunboats therefore were still fighting when the assault had proved unsuccessful.

The army had terrible work before them, and are fighting as well as soldiers ever fought before, but the works are stronger than any of us dreamed of.

General Grant and his soldiers are confident, and I am confident, that the brave and energetic generals in this army will soon overcome all obstacles and carry the works.

I might give the army more assistance if I had some more ironclads above the town, and by sacrificing one or two of them; but the calls on me from Red River up to this place enable me to do less than I wish to, with nine ironclads in all.

I am, sir, your obedient servant,

DAVID D. PORTER,
Acting Rear-Admiral, Commanding Mississippi Squadron.

Hon. GIDEON WELLES,
Secretary of Navy, Washington.

The letter Porter referred to was from General John McArthur, a division commander in the 17th Corps, who had been ordered by Major General John McClernand to move to another position in support of other troops. The “heavy rifled gun” that Porter said was silenced was called the Widow Blakely gun, so named because it was the only Blakely gunĀ  present. It was silenced due to a shell exploding in the barrel rather than Union cannon fire. The Widow Blakely would later return to action with a sawed off barrel, and can be seen at Vicksburg National Military Park today.

Though some of Porters gunboats were damaged, casualties were limited to just five men wounded. The army suffered approximately 3200 total casualties including about 500 killed. Following the failure of the May 22nd assault, Grant decided to go into siege operations. This tactic proved successful and the Confederates surrendered Vicksburg on July 4th, 1863.

Sources:

Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron by Gary D. Joiner

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 25

The Vicksburg Campaign, Volume III by Edwin Cole Bearrs

The Vicksburg Campaign: April 1862-July 1863 by David Martin

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