Saturday, July 22, 2017

VICKSBURG Chapter Twenty-Two

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.
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Friday, July 21, 2017

VICKSBURG Chapter Twenty-One

When it was all over 47 year old politician turned Major General Nathaniel Banks (above) would claim the salt was his idea. But the salt was a strategic goal, and Bank's was never a strategic thinker. The Vice President of the United States, 53 year old Hannibal Hamlin of Paris, Maine, , called the man "wonderfully cold and self (assured)".   And he did not mean that as a complement. A modern historian - Allan Nevins -  has described Banks as  "clever (and)...showy...without much depth or purpose,”  As if to prove these charges, "General" Banks was obsessed with learning tactics. 
The strategic thinker was 25 year old Brigadier General Geoffrey "Gottfried" Weitzel, a brilliant staff officer under the corpulent and corrupt Bay State politician turned Major General Benjamin Butler. In 1862 Butler, commanding  31,000 men,  was lord of the captured city of New Orleans. It was his aide General Weitzel who dreamed up the Bayou Teche operation, because,....well for several good reasons but strategically because of 144 acres of solid high ground in the middle of a Louisiana swamp called Avery Island or more traditionally, Ile Petite Anse - "the small cove".
See, in antebellum America sodium chloride was the only available food preservative. Drawing moisture out by salting beef and pork made them inhospitable to bacteria, slowing their decomposition.  The problem in the 2 centuries prior to 1860 was that there were only a few places on dry land in North America where salt could regularly be obtained in quantity, The largest and most dependable were "The Salt City" of Syracuse, New York (above), where brine springs of 78% salt fed into Nine Mile Creek...
...and Saltville, Virginia (above)  on the North Fork of the Holston River near the Tennessee state border.  In 1840, just outside of Saltville, a gold mine was sunk 210 feet deep and struck halite - solid rock salt, like that mined in Europe.  But it was never exploited because it was far cheaper and faster to evaporate salt out of either the ocean or the brine springs.
Then in May of 1860 pure rock salt was discovered by John Marsh Avery, just 16 feet below his Louisiana sugar cane plantation. Suddenly the Confederacy had 7 million pounds of cheap salt a year which had merely to be pried from open pits, and transported 10 miles north to New Iberia, on the shores of the Bayou Teche. General Butler ordered General Weitzel to plan the destruction of this valuable resource, but in October of 1862 General Butler was relieved.
His replacement was the shallow, ambitious General Nathaniel Banks, commander of the brand new 25,000 man Army of the Gulf.  He had recruited these green troops himself, and their training was not yet complete. Almost one third were 90 day volunteers whose enlistments were already half up. Much of their equipment had never been delivered, Some had even been issued muskets that could not fire. After struggling to get this mess straightened out - he was only partially successful -  in January of 1863, Banks sent General Weitzel and a couple of thousand men into southwestern Louisiana as far as Bashear City, on Bayou Teche and on the southern shores of Grand lake - an aneurysm near the mouth of the Atchafalaya River.
What Weitzel discovered was that in 1861 Louisiana had been stripped of young white males to fill out the Army of Northern Virginia. Two years later, only 3,500 effectives could be scrapped together to defend the southern half of the richest state in the Confederacy. 
They were formed into two brigades under the command of Major General Richard Scott "Dick" Taylor (above).  Like Banks,  Richard Taylor had never attended West Point, but was smart and willing to learn. Butt Taylor's only objective qualification for command was that he was the only son of the 12th President of the United States, Zachary Taylor. 
One of his two brigades was named for its commander, 34 year old Cajun Brigadier General Jean - Jacques Alfred Alexander Mouton (above). He was the West Point trained son of an ex- Louisiana Governor. 
And commanded by the alcoholic 44 year old Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley (above), was the Arizona Brigade. This was a melange of Texas cavalry regiments which never set foot in Arizona, rarely had enough horses to operate as cavalry and never operated as an entire brigade. The one regiment which did have horses was commanded by 49 year old Texan, Colonel Thomas Green. According to Yankee Admiral David Dixon Porter, when drunk Green was so fearless he was worth 5,000 men in battle.
Weitzel's mission was cut short because President Lincoln's patience began to run short. He wanted Banks (above) to assist Grant in taking Vicksburg. And as January 1863 drew to a close,  48 year old General of the Army Henry Wager Hallack passed along Mr. Lincoln's frustration to General Banks. Wrote Halleck, "Nothing but absolute necessity will excuse any further delay on your part." So, in February, Weitzel was rejoined Bank's little half trained army in New Orleans.  They then sailed 130 miles up river to Baton Rouge, occupied since May of 1862.  They then marched the 25 miles north to invest the isolated southern outpost of Vicksburg, the fortress of Port Hudson.
It was an impressive fort.   Behind high packed earthen walls were 15,000 soldiers and 21 heavy cannon, blocking any advance further north up the Mississippi on land or water. After tapping lightly at the fortress, Banks, sheepishly retreated back to Baton Rouge, with nothing to show for the effort. Which is when Weitzel dusted off his Bayou Teche proposal. And in selling it to Banks, the Prussian born Weitzel must have echoed Mister Lincoln's own thinking.
A year earlier, the 54 year old Abraham Lincoln (above) had reminded his jubilant commanders, celebrating the capture of New Orleans,  of what still needed to be done. Recalling his own two Mississippi River flat boat trips, Lincoln lectured them, "I am acquainted with that region and...as valuable as New Orleans will be to us, Vicksburg...is the key." 
Sweeping his arms across a map of Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas, the 16th American President explained, "Here is the Red River (above), which will supply the Confederates with cattle and corn to feed their armies....From Vicksburg these supplies can be distributed by rail all over the Confederacy. It means hog and hominy without limit...The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket." And, added Weitzel, there was now the salt.
In mid-March, Banks pulled 2 of his 3 divisions out of the Baton Rouge defensive lines and returned them to New Orleans. He garrisoned that city with about half his force. Banks then ferried the best trained and armed 10,000 men across the Mississippi to Algiers, Louisiana, where they were loaded aboard cars of the New Orleans and Opelousas Central Railroad (above). This line ran 80 miles due west through swamps to the line's temporary termination just beyond Bashear City, at Pattersonville, Louisiana. 
Here elements of the 4th Division under 34 year old Brigadier General Cuvier Grover (above) were loaded onto transports and barges on the Atchafalaya River.  They then sailed up this river into Grand Lake and past the rebels at Fort Brisland. 
Their plan was that on Thursday, 11 April, they would land 15 miles north and cut off the rebel retreat by capturing the town of Franklin, Louisiana. They would then crush Taylor's entire army between them and elements of the 1st division under 41 year old Major General Christopher Columbus Agur, who would be attacking Fort Brisland.
It was not until Wednesday, 10 April, 1863 that Banks finally notified General Grant that he was no longer laying siege to Port Hudson. Banks assured Grant that the operations up Bayou Teche would be brief and productive.  By destroying Taylor's little army, he would be protecting New Orleans, and by outflanking and capturing the rebel fort up the Atchafalaya River, he would be cutting the Red River supply line and isolating Port Hudson. Having achieved all of this, Banks assured General Grant, he would be back before the gates of Port Hudson, ready to take the place by direct assault, with or without Grant's assistance, by 10 May.  It was a bold program, and it would take luck and speed to make the effort worth the effort.
Banks' artillery opened fire on Fort Brisland at 9:00am, on Friday 12 April. But General Agur's men did not emerged from the knee high sugar cane until 11:00am.  Still after a lot of long distance cannon fire and musketry and some marching back and forth, there was no direct assault on the fort. After nightfall word arrived that General Grover had finally landed a day late, and as of Saturday, 13 April, would be advancing on Franklin. General Banks ordered a dawn assault on the rebel fortress.
Inside the fort, "Dick" Taylor found himself in the role of King Leonidas at Thermopylae, except, Taylor chose the better part of valor, He saved his army to fight another day  by ordering a retreat under cover of night.  Bank's carried the abandoned works at dawn, That afternoon -  Sunday, 14 April, General Taylor fought a strong delaying action at Irish Bend (above), a mile and a half north of Franklin, which covered his army's escape..  
Taylor did not stop his retreat up Bayou Teche (above) until he reached the little town of Opelousas, 70 miles further north. After the fall of Baton Rouge in May 1862, this town of 1,000 had become the state capital - at least until the January raid by General Weitzler,  when Governor Morton had ordered the government removed even further north to Shreveport, on the Atchafalaya River.
To his credit, Banks pressed his advantage, and 30 miles north of Irish Bend, captured the town of New Iberia. And on Thursday, 18 April, 2 regiments of Federal troops arrived at Ile Petite Anse. They destroyed 18 buildings and all the mining equipment. Henceforth, General Taylor would have to get his salt - when he could - from Texas. The eastern Confederacy would now have to pay $100 for a  75 pound barrel of the precious mineral. And with each month of the war, that price would go up.
Two days later, on Saturday 20 April, General Banks achieved two more of his objectives. Tactically,, he captured Opelousas, Louisiana, The town's business leaders surrendered before the first Federal troops even entered the village. But of strategic importance was the capture on that same day of the fort Bank of the Rose - Butte a'-la-Rose - on the Atchafalaya River. This gave Banks direct access to the Red River, which joined the Mississippi above Port Hudson. Federal ships could now interdict all rebel river traffic,  No more pork or hominy would reach Vicksburg. To all intents the objectives of the entire Vicksburg campaign had been achieved, even without Vicksburg being captured.
The problems was Bank's 10,000 men could not hold the ground he'd won. The single railroad - nor the Federal Navy - could not supply his men in these swamps indefinitely. The countless bayous of Cajun country meant raiders could easily outflank every fort or town, burning Federal supplies. And the further north he allowed himself to be tempted, the worse General Bank's predicament became.
It was no accident that this region was the original source of the tale of "Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby." Although Banks would press his advantage 70 miles further north - capturing Alexandria, Louisiana, on Thursday, 7 May, 1863 - he finally realized he had already over stayed his welcome.
Over the next 4 weeks, as they slowly withdrew, the Federal troops stripped Cajun country of everything that might be of use. Colonel Thomas Edward Chickering, the 38 year old piano maker from Boston and commander of the Federal garrison of Opelousas, would "virtually denude" the region, taking or destroying all "cotton, sugar, fodder, corn, livestock, implements, wagons, slaves and anything else of value." 

By the time Banks returned to the Mississippi, the Cajun counties would need at least a year to recover enough so they could support even Taylor's small army. Bank's also brought to New Orleans 5,000 "freedmen", none of whom would ever supply the Confederacy with food or equipment again, and many of whom would be wearing Union Blue within a year, fighting and dieing for their right to be free.
So the salt quarry was destroyed, and the bounty of the rich land was denied to the rebels,, and thousands of recruits added to the Federal armies by what General Halleck called "these eccentric movements" by General Banks.  But Major General Nathaniel Banks did not return to capture Port Hudson until long after 10 May, of 1863, which he had promised. And as far the single minded Abraham Lincoln was concerned, that was all that really mattered.
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