The Louisiana born Sargent, shivering in the stern, was startled when the black behemoth solidified out of the dark, less then 100 yards away. He fumbled in drawing a Colt revolver from beneath his blanket, and thumbed the hammer back to full cock. Seeing this, the corporal in the bow scrambled to pull in the sea anchor, and the burly private slipped the oars into their muffled horns. But the Sargent waited until the dull rhythmic thud of more engines could be heard approaching before he raised the weapon and fired. The crack of the first shot reverberated across the water. He fired again, and again - Crack. Crack. - and turned the rudder for the rebel shore. Just as the bow wave from the first ironclad struck their boat broadside, a rocket sputtered into the air. Their warning had been heard. It was just about ten on the near moonless night of Thursday, 16 April, 1863, and all hell was about to break loose.
The spark which set off this conflagration was, as usual, struck by Lieutenant General Ulysses Simpson Grant (above). The tinder was his growing concern for the men of General Peter Joseph Osterhouse's Ninth Division, south of New Carthage, Louisiana along Brushy Bayou and the northern shore of Lake St; Joseph.
They were at the end of a torturous 40 mile supply line, and were short of food and ammunition. As Hoosier surgeon, Captain John Alexander Ritter, had noted desperately, "We had no means of retreat." But Grant had a pathological life - long abhorrence of retracing his steps.
On Thursday, 9 April, 1863, he informed Admiral Porter that he had stacked ammunition and food in every available space aboard the steamboats The Henry Clay, The Forest Queen and The Silver Wave. At the next new moon - Tuesday 14 April, Wednesday, 15 April or Thursday 16 April - he intended on running those overloaded ships past the Vicksburg batteries to New Carthage. Could Porter please supply 2 ironclad gunboats as an escort? It turned out Porter could do much better than that.
Back on the night of Wednesday, 25 February, the Admiral had positioned himself on the Desoto Peninsula to launch an experiment. Porter had ordered an old abandoned flatboat be converted into a wood and canvas dreadnought. Pork barrels impersonated twin stacks, with iron pots of burning oakum providing their smoke. A pair of Quaker guns" - logs painted back - were the thespian armament. Rotting boats nailed to fake davits added authenticity. The "Black Terror" (above) was coated with black tar, and tongue - in - cheek flew an over sized skull and crossbones flag from her bow. The belabored joke she delivered was painted on her Starboard side wheel house - "Deluded People, Cave In". She had been assembled in 12 hours at a cost of $8.63.
Towed into the current above Vicksburg, the Black Terror was set adrift about 11:00pm that Wednesday. As she floated south, all 37 heavy and 12 field guns in the Vicksburg batteries blasted at her. But the vaudevillian warship stayed so close to the city, many of the guns could not depress enough to get a bead on her. Damaged but not bowed The Black Terror drifted to the Louisiana shore, across from Warrenton, where she ran aground. Helpful Yankee soldiers pushed her back into the river, and she drifted 2 more miles south before running aground again, this time for good.
There were 2 results of this commedia dell'arte. First, the rebel salvage crew aboard the captured Indianola heard of the new monster coming their way and panicked. They threw the wrecked ironclad's cannon into the river, and burned her hull to the water line. But secondly and more importantly, the rebel gunners' response to the Black Terror convinced Admiral Porter (above) that everybody had given far too much respect to the cannon of Vicksburg. The Yazoo Pass fiasco, and the Steele Bayou farce prevented Admiral Porter from exploiting his discovery until now. But when Grant made his request on 9 April for 2 ironclads, Porter was quick to suggest he send five more.
On Friday 10 April Porter (above) issued detailed orders to the commanders and river pilots of the 7 ironclads he had chosen and the 3 steamboats which Grant had assigned. "No lights will be shown in any part of the ships," read Porter's instruction. "All ports will be covered up until such time as the vessels open fire...show as little smoke as possible...50 yards is the closest they should be to each other...No vessel must run directly astern of the other..."
This would not be a desperate run past the 4 miles of artillery. It would be an expedition. Every ship but the first in line - Porter's flag ship, the USS Benton - dragged a barge of 10,000 bushels of coal lashed to their Starboard (right or Louisiana) hull, to be used as fuel once they were south of Vicksburg. Every boat was also reinforced with heavy timbers and bales of wet hay, with more packed around the ammunition magazines and boilers.
The USS Benton (above) was 200 feet long,weighing 630 tons and commanded by 30 year old Lieutenant Commander James Agustin Greer. She had originally been built as a "snag boat", used to catch and clear fallen trees jammed in the river bed, and was a center wheel twin hulled catarmaran. Her 176 officers and men were responsible for firing four 9 inch Dhalgreen cannon, two cannon firing 50 pound shells, four rifles firing 42 pound shells, six Dhalgreen rifle's firing 32 pound shells and a howitzer firing 12 pound shells. She also had the steam powered tug Ivy lashed to her starboard - Vicksburg - side, to absorb some of the hurricane of shells expected.
Sailing fifty yards behind the Benton was the 289 foot long, 1,200 ton ram, the USS Lafayette (above) , commanded by 63 year old acerbic Virginia born Captain Henry J. Walke. The Lafayette boasted two 11 inch and four 9 inch Dalgrens and 2 Parrott rifles firing shells weighing 100 pounds apiece. She also claimed a new experimental lighter armor, 2 1/2 inches of iron over 2 inches of rubber.
As added protection a coal barge and the steam powered ram USS General Price (above) were lashed to the Lafayette's starboard side.
Next in line came Walke's old ship, the 175 foot long 512 ton screw driven USS Carondelet (above). Her new captain was 33 year old New Yorker, Army Lieutenant John McLeod Murphy. The 215 man crew operated mostly obsolete gunnery - seven 8 inch cannons, and 5 rifled cannon throwing 50, 42, 32, 30 pound and 12 pound shells each.
Following The Carondelet was the USS Pittsburg (above), under 39 year old Buckeye Lieutenant Commander William Ryan Hoel, with two 9 inch and three 8 inch smooth bore cannon, and 4 rifled guns each firing 42, 32, 30 or 12 pound shells.
Almost identical in size, crew and armament to the USS Pittsburg was the USS Louisville (above), next in line and commanded by 29 year old Lieutenant Commander Elias Kane Owen. The only difference between the twins was that where the Pittsburg had twin screws the Louisville had a single propeller amidships.
The USS Mound City, which followed the Louisville in line, carried fewer guns because her builder, Samuel Moore Pook, chose defense over offense. She substituted thicker armor for more guns.
Then came the three transports, which Grant had chosen for the operation - the Henry Clay, The Forest Queen and The Silver Wave. The product of almost 50 years of development, the approximately 2000 riverboats on the Mississippi in 1860 - on average weighing 120 tons, and costing on average only 70 to $80 a ton to build - were expected to produce a profit within their first six months of service. Their flat bottoms made them unstable in any cross currents - such as tight bends in the river - but allowed them to float "in a heavy dew".
After they made their first voyage these ships were expendable, and were built accordingly. Even after the Steamboat Act of 1850, which finally required safety valves on their boilers, the average steamboat did not last five years before they sank after hitting sangs or shoals, their hulls rotted, they burned, or - 20% of the time, 500 times in the 1850's alone - their boilers exploded, killing dozens or even hundreds. So shoddy was their construction, most antebellum steamboats were not even insured.
Fifty yards behind the last transport - the Henry Clay - steamed the USS Tuscumbia, (above, left) a 575 ton , 915 foot long case mate twin stern paddle wheel ironclad, ram mounting three 11 inch and two 9 inch Dahlgren cannons. Shortly after 10:00pm that night, one after the other, the armada cast off from the mouth of the Yazoo River, and started their single file run south.
The fantasy of sneaking past Vicksburg exploded with the first shot from the Louisiana militia and the answering rocket. As the ships spun in the Desoto point whirlpool, floating barrels and rafts of burning turpentine were released from shore. And before the Benton was even parallel with the town, the rebel guns opened fire. The Federal ships immediately returned fire, and following Porter's plan, turned hard toward the Mississippi shore.
As hoped, this change startled the rebel gunners, throwing off their aim. But this was balanced by the disruption in the Federal line caused by the 4 knot current. As they closed to within 40 yards of the Vicksburg docks, a northern newspaperman saw, " a terrible concentrated fire...directed upon the channel..." So close did the Federal ships run to shore that rebel officers set fire to buildings in an attempt to better illuminate the scene for their gunners. Wrote another reporter, "The stars were veiled with crimson and the earth rocked with thunders.”
However the rebel gun fire was not bad enough to prevent General William Tecumseh Sherman (above and below) from having himself rowed out to The Benton, and spending the passage conversing with Admiral Porter.
As Porter had expected, his flagship passed the batteries with no significant damage, and only 5 crewmen injured. Behind him, The USS Lafayette misjudged their turn toward the Mississippi shore, and ran aground directly beneath a rebel battery. She took 9 direct hits at point blank range, but was able to back off by cutting The General Price" loose (above) . That unfortunate ship was "shredded" with fires burning on her upper deck. The now revealed coal barge was also sunk. But the Lafayette continued south with little damage.
The current overpowered The USS Louisville, and she made two complete circles while crossing the river before slamming into the starboard side of the damaged General Price. But The Louisville kept going as well. The USS Mound City had to turn out of line, to avoid the traffic jam under the Vicksburg guns. But, noted a crewman, "As soon as we were able to bring our port broadside guns to bear...(and) when nearest the city, gave them grape...I think with good effect; for we passed so slowly and leisurely that we could not help get good aim."
The USS Pittsburg was hit 7 times by the rebel guns but without a single serious injury to ship or crew. The Carondelet suffered under the bombardment for almost an hour, but like the others, was not seriously damaged. The steamboat transports did not fare as well. All 3 unarmored transports were damaged, but only the Henry Clay suffered a catastrophic injury. When a fire was started in some of her cotton bale shielding, the pilot chose to run for safety back upriver. Plowing against the current, she ran aground and was mercilessly pounded by the Vicksburg guns.
Admiral Porter had ordered the captain of The USS Tuscumbia, 30 year old Lieutenant Commander James W. Shirk, to be the "whipper" of the transports in front of him, to keep them and their supplies moving toward New Carthage.
When he saw the Forest Queen coming back up river, making barely 2 knots, Shirk slowed and turned to take the damaged boat under tow (above). As the Tuscumbia took the strain on the tow line, she also ran aground. By Shirk's estimate the two vessels were stopped together for five or six minutes while every gun in Vicksburg concentrated their fire on them. But the Tuscumbia suffered only minor damage and a leak below the water line. Shirk managed to back off the bank, but fouled his tow line to the burning transport, and had to cut it. A lucky rebel shot then severed a steam line on the Queen. Shirk resolutely turned around and steamed back up the river, took the Queen under tow again, and dragged her safely out of range where he ran her aground. For returning to save the Forest Queen's supplies, Shirk was awarded the Medal of Honor. And the next morning he was able to inform Admiral Porter that his ship had suffered no causalities.
In all, Porter's little fleet had been under fire for 2 hours and 30 minutes, had suffered 525 shells fired at them, and had lost only the Forest Queen - but not her cargo - and the General Price. Aboard the ships which ran the gauntlet successfully there were 25 men wounded. But not a single death. And all ships were ready for combat the next morning.
About 10:00am that Friday, 17 April, 1863, Captain Ritter of the 49th Indiana Volunteers noted that, "...black smoke could be seen up the river and from that time on General Osterhaus seemed to be highly delighted..." And then finally, "The boats hove in sight coming down the river with the stars and stripes furled to the breeze....We (now) have at this place 8 gunboats, two transports, so we feel all safe and it was delightful to see the Rebs skedaddle when the boats came in sight..."
It was a great success for Admiral Porter and General Grant. But Confederate Lieutenant General John Pemberton was not there to see it. He was still in far off Jackson, Mississippi. And his attention was drawn to the Federal cavalry right in front of his nose.