Shortly after the battle of Plains Store, Lieutenant Colonel James Francis O'Brien sought to rally his hometown of Charlestown, Massachusetts to the suddenly unnerving cause of freedom. He began by denouncing the rebellion, “ which has caused thousands of our citizens to fill bloody graves.” And he had no doubt as to the cause of all this misery, identifying it as “the noxious institution of slavery”.
However, many in the north felt that fighting to defend the Union of the States was one thing, while fighting to free black skinned men, women and children was something else. The Irish in Boston were at the bottom of America's economic ladder, and saw ex-slaves as competition. But O'Brien wanted his fellow citizens to see the connection between their lives and freedom and the freedom of others.
He wrote, “Slave labor feeds our enemy in the field, digs his ditches, and builds his fortifications. Every slave liberated by our arms is a diminishment of rebel power. Every slave who wields a spade or musket in our cause is so much added to our strength.” Then James went further. “Now ...our blood is up, our armor is buckled on, the shield and sword are in our hands, and we are ready to stand on the blood sprinkled fields of our ancestors and swear in the presence of high heaven that this Union in which the happiness of unborn millions reposes, shall live.” In that one breathless appeal, an Irish immigrant had seen the yet unborn of African ancestry joined with the yet unborn of Irish descent as partners in any future America.
At 2:00 a.m., on Friday, 22 May, 1863, the men of 34 year old Brigadier General Cuvier Grover's division began landing at Bayou Sara. Often sited for bravery - he had even led a bayonet attack against “Stonewall” Jackson at Seven Pines – Grover was a courageous and smart commander. And he did not let a driving rain storm prevent his 4th division from securing the crossings of Thompson's Creek before nightfall and meeting up with Yankee cavalry. Immediately behind came the 3rd Division of 37 year old curly haired Wisconsin lawyer, Brigadier General Halbert Eleazer Paine.
Also landing at Bayou Sara were 6 regiments of the Corps D'Afrique and the 4 regiments of the “Native Guards”, under 53 year old New York lawyer, Brigadier General Daniel Ullman (above).
Ulman had approached Lincoln a year earlier, and urged him to allow black men to fight for their own freedom. And now he was leading almost 5,000 of them into battle. The war was about to change in a very fundamental way.
Inside the trenches of Vicksburg, staunch rebel Emma Balfour was learning to face the transition into this new world. “If you see a shell burst above you,” she told her diary, “stand still, unless it is very high; if it be the sound of a Parrot, the shot has passed before you heard it...”
She thought the Yankees lacked respect for the rebels, alleging they were firing at the city, “...thinking that they will wear out the women and children and sick, and Gen. Pemberton will be forced to surrender the place on that account, but they little know the spirit of Vicksburg’s women and children if they expect this. Rather than let them know they are causing us any suffering we would be content to suffer martyrdom.”
But Brigadier General William Tecumseh Sherman, facing the extreme right of the Vicksburg defenses, had something more aggressive in mind. Two rebel cannon threatened his sappers trying to dig an outflanking trench south of Mint Spring Bayou, at the extreme end of the rebel line.
Because of the swampy ground in the area, he could not place his own artillery to suppress their fire. He asked 59 year old Admiral David Dixon Porter for the use of a single ironclad boat to knock out the offending battery.
The problem, from Admiral Porter's viewpoint, was that any gunboat sent to deal with these two guns would have to pass within range of the Upper Water Battery, at the foot of Fort Hill – three 32 pound rifled cannons, one 32 pound smooth-bore cannon and a single 10” Columbiad. There was no ship in Porter's brown water navy which could stand up to that kind of point blank fire power in daylight. And the gunboat had to come down in daylight, and hug the eastern bank, to hit the 2 offending rebel guns. In short it was damn near suicidal. Still, Porter had never yet turned down a request for help from the army, and he had no intention of starting now.
Porter chose the USS Cincinnati for the mission - a 512 ton, 175 feet long stern wheel ironclad, with a crew of 251 officers and men. She had just arrived from Cairo, having been rebuilt after being sunk in May of 1862, at Fort Pillow. And she was now steaming under the command of a great-great-grandson of Ben Franklin, 21 year old Lieutenant George Mifflin Bache, Jr. (above)
The Cincinnati (above) could make 4 knots on her own, and steaming with the current south around the Desoto promontory she would be making almost 7 or 8 knots relative to the shore batteries, which gave her at least a chance of getting her four 32 pound port side rifles close enough to silence the offending cannon. In preparation they covered her deck in layers of green wood, and stacked hay around her boiler, intending to soak it in river water just before setting out.
And then the Cincinnati had a stroke of luck. Observers on the western shore reported that the guns of the Water Battery had disappeared. At least one was seen being manhandled out of the battery, so presumably they had all been shifted to strengthen the landward defenses. Lieutenant Bache was told his odds of surviving the mission had just improved substantially. Except they hadn't. Only 1 gun, the smooth-bore 32 pounder, had been moved. The other three 32 pound rifled cannon and the big Columbiad were still there, sitting low on their carriages and no longer visible from the western shore.
Leaving the guns recessed was the idea of battery commander, 20 year old baby faced Captain William Pratt “Buck” Parks (above), out of Little Rock, Arkansas. If he had not been plagued with reoccurring bouts of illness, “Buck” might have become a major by now. After his latest absence he was returned to duty as a quartermaster, and might have been at least partially responsible for the great Vicksburg pea bread disaster. Clearly his skill was as a line officer, which he displayed after being abruptly transferred to the Arkansas Battery, aka the Upper Water Battery.
On Tuesday, 26 May, 1863, the attentive Captain Parks read a coded message being flashed via Yankee semaphore flags down the west bank of the Mississippi. And he broke the code. A federal ironclad gun boat was coming down tomorrow morning to knock out two guns on the extreme right flank of the rebel line. Overnight Parks added piles of cut brush to camouflage the now raised guns. Amazingly not a single Yankee noticed, or if they did, did not bother to notify the Cincinnati.
At about 8:30 a.m., Wednesday, 27 May, 1863, the USS Cincinnati steamed around the tip of the DeSoto peninsula. Less than thirty minutes later it was all over. The first round fired by Park's guns was a 32 pound shot, at point blank range. It blasted through the Cincinnati's 2 ½ inch sloping armor like paper, plowed through the gun deck, penetrated the magazine and passed through the keel, breaking the gunboat's back.
As the Mississippi began flooding into the ship, the second rebel shot sliced her tiller ropes, damaging her steering. The third shell passed through the pilot house, killing the helmsman and injuring several men next to him. Lieutenant Bache took the wheel. Standing now in the center of a sudden hell, he wrote, “ The enemy fired rapidly, and from all their batteries... hitting us almost every time. We were especially annoyed by plunging shots...(which) went entirely through our protection hay, woods, and iron. “
According to the correspondent for Harper's Weekly, “She went gallantly into action...and blazed away at the rebel batteries,.” But with a barrage of rifled shells cutting through the armor, Bache turned the Cincinnati back up stream. This immediately cut the ironclad's speed to a mere knot against the current, leaving her a sitting duck. “I ran her upstream,” Bache reported, “and as near the right-hand shore as our damaged steering apparatus would permit...we ran close in, got out a plank, and put the wounded ashore. We also got a hawser out to make fast to a tree to hold her until she sunk.”
In his report to Admiral Porter, Bach figured “...about 15 (men) were drowned and about 25 killed and wounded, and 1 probably taken prisoner.” The good news, according to the Lieutenant, was that, “ The boat sank in about 3 fathoms of water, lies level, and can easily be raised....” Also, “The vessel went down with her colors nailed to the mast, or rather the stump of one, all three having been shot away. Our fire until the magazine was drowned, was good, and I am satisfied did damage.”
The truth was the Cincinnati barely fired a round, and hit nothing. So after gambling a $90,000 vessel ($25 million in today's dollars), and a crew of 250 men, the government of the United States lost the boat and 50 men, and gained nothing except making it clear again to their enemy they would spare no expense in wealth or life to capture Vicksburg and destroy the rebellion.