Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 01/February/Capture of the Indianola
Capture of the Indianola.
Rev. John William Jones,
Secretary of the Southern Historical Society:
Sir—The last September number of the Southern Magazine contained an article in relation to the capture of the Federal ironclad Indianola. The article, in the absence of other information, draws its narrative principally from letters published in the Northern press during the war. It would manifestly be unjust to the officers and men who effected the capture to allow the facts stated in the article to remain the only record in the archives of the Historical Society. I deem it proper, therefore, to vindicate the truth of history by transmitting to you the order of General Taylor organizing the expedition, the official report of the engagement with and capture of the Indianola, which report, I believe, has never yet been published.
For the better understanding of the report, it is well to briefly describe the Confederate rams that effected the capture.
The Webb was an ordinary tow-boat, engaged before the war in towing and piloting vessels in and out the Mississippi, and in no way materially changed or strengthened, though braced by cross pieces of timber. A row of cotton bales extended in front of her machinery, leaving its sides and rear entirely bare. The armament consisted of a rifled and banded 32-pounder, mounted on the bow, without any semblance of protection, and of two brass six-pound guns, and she was manned by about 70 artillerists and sharp-shooters. There was no cover or protection for the men.
The "Queen of the West" was an ordinary steamboat of the Western rivers, built for peaceful purposes ten years before the war, and converted by the Federals into a ram.
A wooden frame was built around her machinery to enclose it, and outside of this frame two tiers of cotton bales extended from the main deck to the cabin deck—but this arrangement was so defective, that it was unable to protect the machinery from the fire of a smooth-bore 32-pound gun, which, at the distance of over 1,200 yards, disabled her machinery, and thereby effected her capture by the Confederates when she ascended Red river and came under the fire of Fort DeRussey.
The armament of the Queen in her engagement with the Indianola consisted of only what was captured with her, and was composed of a 30-pounder Parrot gun mounted on her bow, and utterly unprotected, and a 20-pounder Parrot gun and three 12-pounder howitzers on her cabin deck.
Around these latter guns was a wall composed of 3-inch plank, which, while merely affording a screen, became a source of increased hazard and peril when exposed to artillery fire. She was manned with about eighty artillerists and sharp-shooters.
In the beginning of 1863 the Federal forces held the whole of the Mississippi river, except that portion lying between Vicksburg and Port Hudson.
It was essential for the Confederates to retain, as long as possible, this small link, as it served as the only connection between the Trans-Mississippi and the East.
If this narrow section of the river was lost, Texas, West Louisiana and Arkansas would be practically severed from the Confederacy, and Vicksburg and Port Hudson shut off from the supplies of provisions then much needed, while the constant stream of cattle which were being driven in thousands from Texas, and crossed over the river near Red river to supply the Western armies, would be interrupted and destroyed.
Major-General Richard Taylor, then commanding the Western District of Louisiana, fully appreciated the vital importance of maintaining his connection with the east of the river, and when in the beginning of February, 1863, he learned that the Queen of the West had run past our batteries at Vicksburg, he ordered one or two steamboats then on Red river to be prepared to pursue her, but it chanced that the Queen ascended Red river, and engaged his batteries at Fort DeRussey, and was captured. The Queen was immediately brought to Alexandria, and while she was being repaired, information reached General Taylor that the Indianola had run past the Vicksburg batteries, and the control of the river was again wrested from us.
General Taylor, whose marvelous energy is well known to all who ever served under him, pushed the repairs on the Queen with all the means at his command. Great wood fires were lighted on the shore, and the work continued day and night; and when, on the 19th February, the Queen left Alexandria, work was still going on, and mechanics were carried down to complete her while steaming towards the enemy.
The capture of the Indianola restored to the Confederates for several weeks the command of the Mississippi river between Vicksburg and Port Hudson, and General Taylor was able to forward immense supplies to Port Hudson and Vicksburg, which enabled the defence of these strongholds to be protracted.
But in the spring Admiral Farragut came up from the Gulf, and gave his hand to Admiral Porter, and the great river passed from the power of the Confederates.
J. L. BRENT.
Ashland, La. (New River P. O.), March 31, 1875.
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III. Major J. L. Brent will take supreme command of the two gunboats, the Queen of the West, Captain James McCloskey commanding, and the Webb, Captain Pierce.
He will apply to Major W. M. Levy, commanding post at Fort DeRussey, for such aid and assistance as he may require for fitting out the expedition in the shortest possible space of time, which will be rendered by Major Levy to the extent of his means.
So soon as the boats shall be ready for service, Major Brent will proceed down Red river, taking with him the steamer Grand Duke, if deemed advisable, and into the Mississippi in search of the enemy's gunboat.
In the event of her capture or destruction, Major Brent will act in accordance with the verbal instructions of the Major-General commanding, or in such other manner as circumstances may direct.
By command of Major-General Taylor.
E. SURGET, A. A. General.
Major-General R.Taylor's Gunboat Expedition,
Maj. E. Surget, A. A. Gen.:
Major—My last dispatch to you, exclusive of the telegram sent you last night, was from Natchez. The Federal ironclad Indianola had forty-eight hours start of us at Acklin's Landing; at Natchez she was less than twenty-five hours in advance. We left Natchez on the evening of the 23d instant; and I found that we could easily overhaul her on the evening of the 24th, but I determined not to do so, in order that I might bring the enemy to an engagement only at night, considering for many reasons that this time was most advantageous to us.
We reached Grand Gulf before sunset, and there learned that the enemy was only about four hours in advance of us. As we were running more than two miles to his one, the time required to overtake him could be easily calculated, and I determined to overtake and bring him to action early in the night.
We came up with the Indianola about 9.40 last night, just above New Carthage, near the foot of Palmyra island, and I immediately signalled the Webb to prepare for action.
Our order of approach was as follows: The Queen of the West about 500 yards in advance of the Webb, and the Batey, Lieutenant-Colonel Brand commanding (who I wrote you joined us with a force and steamer fitted out at Port Hudson) over two miles in the rear, and lashed to my tender the Grand Era.
The moon was partially obscured by a veil of clouds, and gave and permitted just sufficient light for us to see where to strike with our rams, and just sufficient obscurity to render uncertain the aim of the formidable artillery of the enemy.
We first discovered him when about 1,000 yards distant, hugging the western bank of the Mississippi, with his head quartering across and down the river.
Not an indication of life appeared as we dashed on towards him, his lights obscured, and his machinery apparently without motion.
We had also covered our lights, and only the fires of the Era could be seen, two miles back, where she was towing the Batey.
The distance between him and the Queen had diminished to about 500 yards, when, for the first time, we could clearly distinguish the long black line of the two coal barges which protected his sides from forward of his bow to nearly abreast his wheels.
The impatient desire of our men to open fire could be scarcely restrained, but I would not allow it, as the vast importance of traversing the distance to be passed over without drawing the fire of his powerful guns was too apparent. At last, when within about 100 yards, I authorized Captain McCloskey to open fire, which he accordingly did with his two Parrot guns and one Cross 12-pounder; but at the second round the 20-pounder Parrot was disabled by blowing out its vent-piece.
Our intention was to dash our bow near the enemy's wheel-house, just in rear of the coal barge, but when about fifty yards distant he backed and interposed the barge between us and him. Our bow went crushing clear through the barge, heavily loaded with coal, and was not arrested until it struck with a violent shock, and scattered some of his timbers amidship, deeply indenting the iron plating of his hull.
So tremendous had been the momentum of our attack, made under full pressure of steam, that for some minutes we could not disengage ourselves, but remained with our bow against the sides of the Indianola, held fast by the pressure of the coal and barge through which we had crushed. In this position our sharp-shooters kept up fire, sweeping the deck of the enemy, who feebly answered.
After a brief interval one of the coal barges sank, and the other drifted down the current; and the Queen finding herself free, immediately rounded up stream, to add to her next charge the additional power obtainable from the descending current of the river. Just then the Webb came dashing by us, and plunged into the Indianola with great force just in rear, or on the turn of her bow.
Some of the iron plating was loosened, but this blow of the Webb produced no serious external injury, though prisoners since report that it disabled the left-hand engine.
As the Webb approached on this her first charge, the two 11-inch Dahlgreen guns in the forward casemate of the enemy opened on her at seventy-five yards distant, but fortunately she was untouched.
The vigor of the Web's onset forced the enemy around, and carrying her forward laid her across and in actual contact with these monitor guns, if run out in battery. Dashing safely around from this perilous position, the Webb swung across the bow and on to the starboard side of the enemy, getting between him and his remaining coal barge, breaking its fastenings and setting it adrift.
The result of our first onset was to strip the Indianola of the two coal barges which protected her sides, and to injure her to some extent in her wheel, which was apparent from the subsequent want of rapidity and precision in her movements.
As soon as the Webb swept away clear of the enemy the Queen swung around and again dashed upon him, who this time with partial success endeavored to break the force of the onset, by presenting his bow to our bow. But his movements were too torpid, and not entirely successful, which tends to confirm the belief that his machinery was injured by the first blow.
The Queen struck a little forward of midships, but, as he was turning, the force of the blow glanced along his side and passed his wheel-house.
Just as the Queen swung clear of his stern, he opened upon us with two 9-inch guns in his after iron casemate at so near a range that the flames of the guns almost touched us—their heat being felt.
One shot struck the Queen on her starboard shoulder and knocked away ten or twelve bales of cotton, causing us to list over, and then a shell entered under our front port hole, on the port side, struck the chase of a brass 12-pounder gun and exploded, killing two men, wounding four, and disabling two pieces.
This time the Queen swung around rapidly up stream, and in a very brief interval dashed on the enemy for the third time, striking a little to the rear of his starboard wheel-house, crashing through and shattering his frame work, and loosening some of his iron plates. By this time the Webb had run up stream, making a wide circuit, had turned, and, for her second onset, came charging on with a full head of steam just as the Queen had rounded out after her third blow, and striking the enemy very nearly in the same place where the Queen had just before hit him.
Through and through his timbers, crushing and dashing aside his iron plates, the sharp bow of the Webb penetrated as if it were going to pass entirely through the ship. As the Webb backed clear the Indianola, with all the speed she could raise, declined further fight and ran down the river towards the western bank, with the intention, as afterwards appeared, of getting a line out on shore, in order that the officers and crew might land and abandon their steamer. In fact a line was got out on shore, but not fastened, and three of the crew effected their escape, but were captured to-day by the cavalry of Major Harrison.
After the Queen had struck the enemy for the third time, she was for sometime almost unmanageable—she had listed so much over on the port side that one of her wheels was raised nearly out of the water. She was making water, and presented every appearance of sinking.
Captain McCloskey righted her a little by throwing over cotton from his upper decks.
He was able to bring her around very slowly; but still this gallant commander succeeded in weaning her with difficulty, and headed her for her fourth charge.
Whilst the Webb had her bow knocked off to within fourteen inches of the water line, her splendid machinery was unhurt, and she quickly and gallantly bore up for her third charge. When bearing down and approaching the enemy, Captain Pierce reports that he was hailed from the enemy's deck, announcing his surrender, and begged to be towed ashore, as he was sinking. Captain Pierce further represents that he then placed a line on board and commenced towing the Indianola, when the line parted.
As the Queen of the West was running off from her last charge, making a circuit to obtain room and space to add increased momentum to her onset, we encountered the steamer Batey, Lieutenant-Colonel Brand commanding, who had cast off from the tender Grand Era, and was hovering around to enter the fight when an opportunity offered.
The Batey is a frail steamboat, with but little power, and incapable of being used as a ram. She was crowded with two hundred and fifty gallant volunteers from the forces at Port Hudson, who had embarked in the Batey with the resolution to fight the enemy by boarding him. We called out to them that the opportunity for boarding had arrived, as it was apparent the enemy was disabled and much demoralized.
Lieutenant-Colonel Brand with his command gallantly bore away, approached the enemy after the line from the Webb had parted, and gave, as I am informed by him, the command, "prepare to board," when he was greeted by a voice from the Indianola, announcing her surrender, and that she was in a sinking condition.
Lieutenant-Colonel Brand then boarded her upper deck, and received the sword of the Federal commander, Lieutenant Brown.
This result must have been very gratifying to Colonel Brand, as it was obtained without the loss or injury of a single man of his command.
Upon my reaching the deck of the Indianola, Lieutenant-Colonel Brand most handsomely acknowledged that the capture was entirely due to the Queen of the West and to the Webb, and he has so officially reported.
I have no doubt, if it had been necessary, that Colonel Brand and his gallant command would have again demonstrated that nothing can resist the desperation of troops who regard not their own lives, but victory.
Upon taking possession, I immediately appointed Lieutenant Thomas H. Handy prize-master.
We found our prize a most formidable gunboat, mounting two 11-inch guns forward, and two 9-inch guns aft, all protected by thick iron casemates, utterly impenetrable to our artillery, even at the very shortest range. The motive power consisted of side wheels and two propellers. She was filled with a valuable cargo, embracing supplies, stores, etc. The officers and crew, amounting to over one hundred, fell into our hands as prisoners. Nothing shows more clearly how well she was protected than the fact that our artillery, though frequently fired at the range of twenty and thirty yards, utterly failed to injure her. Lieutenant Handy, of the Webb, fired an 80-pound shell from his rifled and banded 32-pound gun so close to the forward casemate of the enemy that it actually enveloped his port-holes in flames, and yet no injury was sustained by the casemate.
Our sharpshooters deliberately and coolly fired at every.
Notwithstanding all these circumstances, the enemy lost but one man killed and none wounded. The Webb had one man wounded, and the Queen two killed and four wounded.
The fire of the enemy was terrific, and delivered at short range mostly. His huge shot and shell were directed a little wide of the mark, except the two shots that struck the Queen, and one shot that passed through the bulwarks of the Webb. This was remarkable, as he frequently fired at such close range that the flames of his enormous guns almost enveloped our bows.
The escape from destruction of the feeble crafts, that were five times precipitated upon the iron sides of this powerful war-steamer, mounting an armament of 9 and 11-inch guns, was Providential.
On taking possession, we found our prize rapidly making water, which we could not arrest. Seeing that she would sink, I did not wish that this should take place on the western side of the river, where the Federal forces could easily have retaken her, and therefore made fast to her with two of my steamers, and towed her over the river to the eastern side, where she sunk in the water up to her gun-deck, just as we reached the shallow water, thus losing us the enormous value of her capture, as well as the valuable stores that were in her hold.
I am much indebted for the success of the expedition to the skill and gallantry of my officers and men. Captain James McCloskey, commanding the Queen, combined with the courage of the soldier, the skill andthat characterizes the sailor of our western waters. Lieutenant Thomas H. Handy, of the Crescent artillery, commanded the troops on the Webb. He exhibited skill and courage in handling his command, and in person assisted in manning the 32-pound rifled gun. Lieutenant Rice, of the Twenty-first Tennessee, was on the Webb with a detachment from his regiment, and bore himself well and gallantly. Lieutenant Prather, also on the Webb, served his two-field pieces entirely unprotected with praiseworthy courage, and was well seconded by Mr. Charles Schuler, acting as chief of one of the guns.
Captain Charles Pierce, a civilian, commanded and controlled the movements of the Webb. It was he who selected the weak spots of the enemy, and with a steady hand and eye dashed the Webb against the Indianola.
Not only did the officers act well, but I have nothing but commendations for the private soldiers.
Captain Caines' and Lieutenant Rice's company, of the Twenty-first Tennessee, and the detachment of Lieutenant Doolan, adjutant of Major Burnett's battalion of Texans, and detachment from the Third Maryland artillery, were in the expedition, and acted with courage and discipline when under fire.
Captain J. W. Mangum, Assistant-Adjutant General of Brigadier-General Moore, accompanied the expedition as a volunteer and acted as my adjutant. He comported himself gallantly under fire; and throughout the expedition rendered me valuable services.
I herewith submit the report of Captain McCloskey, commanding the Queen. He mentions favorably Captain Caines and Lieutenant Miller of the Twenty-first Tennessee, Lieutenant Doolan, adjutant of Major Burnett's battalion, Sergeant E. H. Langley, of the Third Maryland artillery, acting as lieutenant in charge of the two Parrot guns; and the volunteers, Captain J. H. White, slightly wounded, acting with efficiency as ordnance officer; Captain Tank and Lieutenants Fisk and Stanmeyer, both wounded, and Lieutenant R. R. Hyams, who as quartermaster and commissary exhibited much energy. As I was on board the Queen during the action, the conduct of the officers and men was under my own eye, and I cheerfully endorse the commendation of Captain McCloskey. He also speaks highly of the intrepid promptness and skill of his pilots and engineers, and of the conduct of Assistant Surgeon Blanchard, who manifested much care and coolness, coming on the gun-deck in the midst of the action and personally supervising the removal of the wounded.
Sergeant Magruder, of the signal corps, also deserves mention for having rendered very important services in the discharge of the responsible duties devolved upon him.
Captain Pierce, of the Webb, verbally reports to me that his pilots and engineers behaved themselves with coolness and bravery, and discharged their duties with promptness and energy.
I have no doubt that this is correct, from the skillful and efficient manner in which his boat was handled.
This report is dated from the Webb, as I have dispatched the Queen, Captain McCloskey, to Warrenton, and if possible to Vicksburg.
I am, Major, yours respectfully,
J. L. BRENT,