The Other Western Siege – Port Hudson Part 4

Running the Guns – March 14

The Union preparations were complete and the commanders of the individual vessels had their orders and the army had been assembled for their diversionary effort. During the afternoon of the 13th the Essex, Sachem, and six mortar schooners steamed into position near Profit Island. During the night the remainder of the fleet took station just out of reach of the Confederate guns. About 1400 on the 14th the covering fleet (Essex, Sachem and the mortar boats) conducted a brief ranging bombardment of about 75 rounds. The shelling established accurate distances to the Confederate batteries but also alerted the enemy gunners to potential action.

The Confederate defenders made the last minute preparations to contest a passage. A large bonfire was prepared on the bank to illuminate the targets as they entered the kill zone, officers were sent down river with signal rockets to announce the movement of the Federal fleet, and the unoccupied gunners of the 1st Alabama Regiment posted as sharpshooters on the bluffs overlooking the river. In a coincidence of major importance there were four steamers delivering badly needed corn to the garrison and the forewarned commander, MG Frank Gardner, hastened them away as soon as they were emptied.

At 1700 Admiral Farragut received word from MG Banks that the diversionary attack was in position and replied that he would make his effort at midnight. Farragut started to line his ships up at 2100 but there was some delay as the Mississippi and the Monongahela did not come onto line as ordered. The tug Reliance was dispatched to bring the wayward ships on line and the move up river began at about 2230. Despite all the indications of the voyage Farragut reported that the Hartford/Albatross, leading the way, “took them by surprise somewhat.” The trailing vessels were not so lucky. About 2320 the Confederate signal officer launched a rocket and the battle was opened by the light lower batteries. The supporting fire of the Essex and the mortars kicked in as arranged on the first round. The illumination fires were started but the green wood did little more than add more smoke to the area and they were doused. A favorable breeze cleared the area and the heavier batteries pummeled the trailing five ships.

Hartford/Albatross – Although they were the only ships that managed to get through the gauntlet they suffered a combined loss of 2 killed and 2 wounded. The Hartford was relatively unscathed while the more vulnerable Albatross took more damage in their brief battle with the batteries. Both ships were able to resume action in the waters between Port Hudson and Vicksburg after repairs.

Richmond/Genesee – This was a coupling of the fastest and slowest of Farragut’s ships but the arrangement made no difference. At 0050 as they approached the bend in the river a shot severed a steam pipe in the Richmond and her pressure dropped to 9 pounds. She unable to make way against the current on her own. The Genesee could not supply the necessary power to overcome the current and she was “compelled to turn the Richmond around and tow her down the river.” The return trip proved no safer than the journey upstream and both vessels suffered heavy damage. Combined casualties amounted to 3 killed and 16 wounded including Lieutenant Commander A. B. Cummings who had his “left leg carried away by a cannon shot.” A week later Captain Alden would announce his death to the crew.

Monongahela/ Kineo – The smoke from the engagements in front of them and the attempted bonfire obscured the vision of Captain McKinistry and the ship grounded near the west shore just short of the bend. The shock of the abrupt stop of the larger ship tore away the lashings holding the two vessels together. Free of her partner, the Kineo moved ahead and attempted to pull her free up stream. For thirty minutes she struggled to free the larger boat, as the Monongahela was pounded, but could not. Finally she attached a hawser and moving down stream managed to drag the Monongahela free. The two ships separated and started back. The overworked engine on the Monongahela seized and she eventually drifted out of range. The badly damaged Kineo luckily survived the ordeal without casualties but the Monongahela suffered badly while grounded. They reported 6 killed and 21 wounded. The repairs necessary to make the ship ready for action were estmated to take three weeks.

The final ship in the parade was the Mississippi. Traveling alone and into an area where the Confederate gunners had plenty of time and practice getting the ranges just right she would suffer the worst fate.

Death of the Mississippi

Captain Melanchthon Smith intrepidly steamed the Mississippi into the growing maelstrom with a keen eye on the vessels in front of him. At 0030 he saw the Richmond making its way back downstream in “the smoke and darkness”. The disabled ship was at first thought to be an enemy vessel and Smith had to restrain his crew from firing on her. The ships directly in front of him, the Monongahela/Kineo went out of view and Smith believed she had “increased her distance.” In response he ordered “go ahead fast” to close up the column. The additional speed proved of no great benefit; in fact it may have been the cause of his ship’s ultimate fate. As the Mississippi neared the bend in the river at high speed she grounded violently, listing to port, in front of the “most formible batteries.”

Immediately understanding the grave situation that he now found his ship in Smith ordered the port guns “run in” to help level the ship and the engine was thrown into reverse. For thirty-five minutes the engines strained, eventually reaching the maximum allowable pressure of 25 pounds. Still the ship would not come free. During this period “the enemy had obtained our range and we were exposed to the galling and cross fire of three batteries.” The ship was repeatedly hulled much to the delight of the Confederate gunners who “were not merciful to their naval visitors.” With no other available targets the Confederate gunners pounded the stricken vessel, raising a cheer at each telling hit. Finally Smith was forced to concede that the ship was doomed. The three available boats were launched and the crew, starting with the wounded were put ashore.

While the crew was being evacuated Captain Smith ordered that “all the small arms” be thrown overboard and the engine disabled. A fire was set in the forward storeroom, meant to destroy the ship, but three rounds breeched the hull there and allowed water to rush in and extinguish the flames. To ensure the destruction of the ship Smith had four fires set in different locations and remained on board with LT Dewey until “the combustion had made sufficient progress.” The two men were then the last to leave the Mississippi.

As the fire consumed the ship she lightened and eventually broke free from the shoal. At 0300 she drifted lazily down the river, the other ships giving her wide berth for fear of an explosion. She finally blew up at 0530 “producing an awful concussion which was felt for miles around.” The casualty roll for the doomed ship was 64 killed or missing and 8 known wounded, although the ship surgeon Robert Maccoun readily admits that his count is probably light due to the number of men who jumped overboard. The support fleet that had added the weight of 296 rounds (90 from Essex and 206 mortar rounds) to the battle in the end were relegated to searching for survivors from the Mississippi. LT Amos Johnson, commanding the Sachem, reported remaining on post until 0400 “picking up stray men from the Mississippi.” Commander C.H.B. Caldwell of the Essex
took on a boat load of wounded and then crossed the river to scour the western shore for survivors.

The expected diversionary attack by Banks troops never materialized. In a major misunderstanding Banks believed that the run on the batteries was not to begin until 0400. Following the elaborate review on the 13th a triumphant march from Baton Rouge was made with three divisions. Because of the coordination error only a small skirmish line was forward at the time of the battle on the river. Confederate commander MG Gardner described the land action as “skirmishing three miles from the breastworks.” He also reported his total loss at 1 killed and 8 wounded. Once he learned that the river battle was over Banks again withdrew his forces.

Reporting to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Farragut called the operation “a disaster to my fleet.” Responding Welles disagreed and noted that despite the loss of the Mississippi and the failure of the other vessels to get above Port Hudson all the crews had acted “gallantly”. He also absolved Captain Smith of responsibility for the loss of the Mississippi in a private letter stating that he had “stood by her as long as prudence dictated.”

Port Hudson (Campaign Series)






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