Admiral David Porter’s Reports on the Mississippi River Squadron Passing the Vicksburg Defenses April 1863

Admiral David Porter USN

By the spring of 1863, Major General Ulysses S. Grant had made numerous attempts to position his army for an advance on Vicksburg, Mississippi. All had been failures. At the end of March, Grant and Admiral David Porter, commanding the Mississippi Squadron of river gunboats and various other vessels, decided on a new course of action. The plan was for Grant to march his army south along the Louisiana side of the river while Porter ran his gunboats and transports downriver past the Vicksburg batteries. Once both troops and ships were south of Vicksburg, transport vessels would ferry the troops across the river to the Mississippi side, and from there Grant would begin a land campaign against Vicksburg.

While the Vicksburg batteries were formidable, a pair of Union gunboats, the Star of the West and Indianola, had successfully run past them separately earlier in the year. (Both would be lost in later actions of the campaign). There was another reason for getting some of the Mississippi squadron below Vicksburg besides providing transportation across the river for Grant’s army. The Navy Department wanted Porter to occupy the river south of Vicksburg so Admiral David Farragut and his blue water ships currently there could return to the Gulf of Mexico.

Porter’s fleet would also transport food, equipment, forage, and ammunition for the land campaign. The fleet would not be returning upstream; the strong river current would slow the vessels down so much that they would be at a greater risk of being damaged or sunk by Confederate fire, so several barges filled with coal accompanied the fleet to supply it downriver. The gunboats and transports were fitted with chains, logs, and cotton bales in vulnerable areas to protect against enemy shells. Porter issued this set of orders to is ship commanders in preparation for the run:

U. S. Mississippi Squadron,
Flagship Black Hawk, April 10, 1863.

Sir: You will prepare your vessel for passing the batteries at Vicksburg, taking every precaution possible to protect the hull and machinery against any accidental shot.

When the vessels do move, it will be at night and in the following order: Benton, Lafayette, Price, Louisville, Mound City, Pittsburg, Carondelet; other vessels that may arrive hereafter, and army transports, passing as fast as they can. Every vessel will take in tow a coal barge, to be carried on the starboard side. No lights will be shown in any part of the ships. All ports will be covered up until such time as the vessels open fire, which they will do when their broadsides bear upon the town, or when it can be safely done without interfering with the pilot or endangering the other vessels. Before starting, the hour of departure will be given, and every vessel will have her fires well ignited, so that they will show as little smoke as possible.

USS Lafayette

On approaching the batteries, every vessel will exhaust in the wheel, so as to make but little noise.

If any vessel should receive such damage as to cause her to be in a sinking condition, the best plan will be to land her on the island below the canal. The vessels must not crowd each other, nor fire their bow guns when abreast of the town or batteries; 50 yards is the closest they should be to each other. After rounding the point below, and being clear of the shoal water, hug the shore enough (on the side opposite Vicksburg) to get into the shade of the trees and hide the hulls of the vessels. The crew must work the guns without light on the decks, and all the guns must be set for about 900 yards, which will reach light fieldpieces and infantry. Fire shell, and sometimes grape. Don’t fire after passing the town and main batteries; the lower batteries are not worth noticing. When arrived below Warrenton, the flagship Benton will burn a Coston signal, when each vessel will hoist a red light, that I may know who is missing.

The sterns of the vessels must be protected securely against raking shot.

The coal barges must be so arranged that they can be easily cut adrift.

No vessel must run directly astern of the other, so that in case of the headmost vessel stopping the sternmost one won’t run into her.

In case any vessel should ground under the enemy’s batteries at Vicksburg, with no prospect of getting off, she must be set fire to, thoroughly and completely destroyed.

Avoid running on the sunken levees opposite Vicksburg.

Very respectfully,

David D. Porter,
Acting Rear-Admiral, Commanding Mississippi Squadron.

Commanders of Benton, Lafayette, Price, Louisville, Mound City, Pittsburg, Carondelet, and Tuscumbia.

USS Carondelet

At 9;15 p.m. on the nearly moonless night of April 16th, the flotilla quietly headed downriver, with Porter himself leading the way aboard Benton. While Porter had hoped the darkness and noise suppression efforts (he had ordered the ships’ commanders to vent their vessels’ engine exhausts into their wheelhouses) would get them past the batteries, the Confederates discovered the fleet anyway, and started fires onshore to illuminate the scene. The Rebels had about 50 guns pointed at the river, including about 37 heavier guns of various calibers, plus 13 lighter field artillery pieces, and they opened fire. This was accompanied by small arms fire from infantrymen on shore. Porter had 72 guns to counter with, and his gunboats began to answer the Rebel shelling.

Admiral Porter’s Fleet Running the Rebel Blockade of the Mississippi River at Vicksburg April 16th 1863 by Currier & Ives

The fleet successfully ran the batteries, losing only one vessel, the army transport Henry Clay. Casualties in the entire fleet were none killed, 12 wounded. Porter sent a brief report to the Secretary of the Navy on April 17th, and followed that one up with a more detailed report on April 19th.

Mississippi Squadron,
New Carthage, Mississippi River, April 17, 1863.

Sir: I have the honor to inform you that I passed the batteries at Vicksburg on the night of the 16th of April, with a large force for operations below. Three army transports were prepared to resist shot and accompanied the squadron.

I led in the Benton, and having drifted down on the batteries, got up with the first one without being discovered.

USS Benton

At 11:16 p. m. the batteries opened on us, we immediately responded with a rapid fire; the vessels of the squadron all in line following our example.

The enemy lighted up the river on both sides, and we were fair targets for them, still we received but little damage.

The squadron was under fire for two hours and thirty minutes. No one was killed and only 8 wounded; the greatest number on board this ship, which, being ahead, received a concentrated fire.

An army transport, the Henry Clay, was sunk by a heavy shot. The Forest Queen (transport) became temporarily disabled and was turned into safe quarters by the Tuscumbia.

The fire from the forts was heavy and rapid, but was replied to with such spirit that the aim of the enemy was not so good as usual.

The conduct of all the commanders met my entire approbation.

All the vessels were ready for service half an hour after passing the batteries.

I had the Indianola examined to-day. She is much shattered. The rebels got her two 9-inch guns. One 11-inch gun was burst, and is lying on deck; the other fell overboard, and now lies alongside in 9 feet [of] water.

I remain, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

David D. Porter,
Acting Rear-Admiral, Commanding Mississippi Squadron.

Hon. Gideon Welles,
Secretary of the Navy, Washington, D. C

.

Porter’s second report:

Mississippi Squadron,
Flagship Benton, New Carthage, Miss., April 19, 1863.

Sir: Being anxious to send back dispatches by General Grant, I wrote you a short report. I omitted to state the number and names of the vessels composing this expedition as my letter would go through the Memphis post-office (and as I have no great confidence in that department), I omitted names and numbers from prudential motives.

The following is the order in which the vessels started, 50 yards apart:

Lieutenant Commander James Shirk in 1868

Benton, Lieutenant-Commander Greer; Lafayette, Captain Walke, with the General Price lashed on starboard side; Louisville, Lieutenant-Commander Owen; Mound City, Lieutenant Wilson; Pittsburg, Lieutenant Hoel; Carondelet, Lieutenant Murphy; and Tuscumbia, Lieutenant-Commander Shirk; also the tug Ivy, lashed to the Benton.

The three army transports were in the rear of the above-mentioned vessels, and the Tuscumbia was placed astern of all to see that the transports did not turn back. This duty Lieutenant-Commander Shirk performed handsomely.

Two of the transports, when the firing became heavy, attempted to run upstream, but Lieutenant-Commander Shirk drove them back and stayed behind them until the Forest Queen was disabled; he then took her in tow and placed her out of reach of the enemy’s shot. All the vessels, except the Benton, took in tow coal barges containing each 10,000 bushels of coal, and all except the Lafayette brought them safely past the batteries. Having the Price alongside, the Lafayette did not manage very well, and the coal barge got adrift, but was afterwards picked up at [New?] Carthage. The Louisville, Lieutenant-Commander Owen, lost hers in the melee, but picked it up again while under fire.

The Benton was beautifully handled by her pilot, Mr. Williams, who was also in the Essex when she ran the batteries. He kept the vessel’s guns bearing on the town and water batteries all the time while drifting down. The guns of the Benton fired over 80 shell, well directed, to the town and batteries.

The Pittsburg, Lieutenant Hoel; Tuscumbia, Lieutenant-Commander Shirk; and Mound City, Lieutenant Wilson, were more fortunate than the others in not turning around as they came by, although no ill results happened to those vessels that did turn.

USS Mound City

The pilots were deceived by a large fire started on the side opposite to Vicksburg by the rebels for the purpose of showing the vessels more plainly, fires being started on both sides of the river at once.

Altogether we were very fortunate; the vessels had some narrow escapes, but were saved in most instances by the precautions taken to protect them.

They were covered with heavy logs and bales of wet hay, which were found to be an excellent defense.

I can not speak in too high terms of the conduct of all the commanders. They carried out my orders to the best of their ability, having great difficulties to contend with—strong currents and dangerous eddies, glaring fires in every direction, that bothered the pilots, smoke almost enveloping the squadron, and a very heavy fire on vessels that were fair targets for the enemy.

I have no cause to be dissatisfied with the result; no one was killed, only one or two badly wounded, and only 12 casualties in all. Most of the wounded are walking about.

The shot the enemy fired was of the heaviest caliber, and some of excellent pattern; they came on board, but did no material damage beyond smashing the bulwarks. I am in hopes soon to have some of our monitors down here, and if they are properly built we can silence some of the batteries at Vicksburg.

I am happy to inform you that no lives were lost on the transport Henry Clay, which was burned and sunk passing the batteries. We picked most of the crew up and others got away in the yawl.

I enclose reports of the commanders of the different vessels, and also copy of general order issued in reference to the running of the batteries. I have the honor to remain.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

David) D. Porter,
Acting Rear-Admiral, Commanding Mississippi Squadron.

Hon. Gideon Welles,
Secretary of the Navy, Washington, D. C.

P. S.—As the number of the last dispatch from the Yazoo River
has been forgotten, I have commenced to number them anew.

Grant was pleased with the outcome, and requested that a second flotilla of transports be sent past the batteries. On April 22nd, six steamboats and 12 barges filled with 600,000 rations, but, without gunboat escorts, successfully completed another run past the Vicksburg batteries. One steamer was lost. On April 30th and May 1st, U.S. troops were ferried across the river and began the overland drive that led to the surrender of the Vicksburg garrison on July 4th.

Sources:

Lincoln and his Admirals by Craig L. Symonds

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

The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 24.

The Vicksburg Campaign: Volume II by Edwin Cole Bearss


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