On April 14th 1863, 150 years ago this week, a naval battle occurred in the Atchafalaya Basin that could have had a big impact on the war; but instead of a dramatic showdown, it turned into a turkey shoot.
In the beginning of 1863 Confederate naval forces in the Gulf Coast region enjoyed a string of successes. On January 1st, though outnumbered two boats to six, the Confederates defeated the US Navy in Galveston Bay; on January 11, the CSS Alabama captured the USS Hatteras off the Texas coast; and on the night of January 20th the CSS Josiah Bell and CSS Uncle Ben chased and captured the USS Morning Light and USS Velocity off Sabine Pass. In February the USS Queen of the West ran past the batteries of Vicksburg and briefly disrupted Confederate shipping. But when she ventured up the Red River, the Queen ran aground while engaging the guns of Fort De Russy. She was captured and became the CSS Queen of the West. When the USS Indianola ran past the Vicksburg batteries, the Queen of the West attacked and sunk her.
US Admiral David Farragut, commander of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, had a large area to cover and the setbacks along the Texas coast as well as the focus on the Mississippi meant that he could spare few ships for operations on the Atchafalaya. At the beginning of the year Lieutenant-Commander Augustus Cooke had just four boats at Brashear City (modern day Morgan City) — the Estrella, Kinsman, Calhoun and Diana. In an embarrassing incident in February, the Kinsman caught on a snag, ripped its hull and sank. In March, the captain of the Diana ventured out on his own, right into an ambush, and was captured, becoming the CSS Diana. Fortunately, Farragut was able to sent the Arizona and Clifton, keeping Cooke’s command at four.
Meanwhile, Confederate General Richard Taylor was striving to build his own navy. On Bayou Teche, in addition to the captured Diana, Taylor was improving the Hart (also referred to as the CSS Stevens) with steel plate, which would turn it into a formidable gunboat. On the Red River, he was outfitting the Webb, Grand Duke, Nina Simms and Mary T (also known as the JA Cotton 2) as light gunboats. The captured Queen of the West became the centerpiece of this fleet. Given time to get all of these boats in working order, Taylor would have the strength to crush the US squadron at Brashear City, thereby changing the dynamic in southern Louisiana. But before this could happen, US General Nathaniel Banks began his offensive, forcing Taylor’s hand.
At the start of April, Banks moved to Brashear City and with the aid of the navy began crossing to the Bayou Teche. Emory’s division and Weitzel’s brigade were moved directly across while Grover’s division was sent up Grand Lake in a wide flank move. This was a bold plan with significant risks — over half the troops in Banks’ Department were transported to the other side of the Atchafalaya, making them dependent on the small navy squadron to maintain a secure connection to the supply base at New Orleans. With a limited number of boats, only one division could be moved at a time. In moving Grover’s division up the lake, the men were crowded into the boats and artillery and wagons were loaded on scows towed behind the boats. Once a landing had been secured, the Clifton turned back to update Banks of the progress and to assist in confronting the Confederates forces on Bayou Teche. This left the Calhoun, Arizona and Estrella protecting the troop transports and the landing area. Here was a golden opportunity for the Confederates: if Taylor’s fleet could close with and defeat these three boats it would be a crushing blow to the US efforts in Louisiana.
Once alerted to Banks’ movements, Taylor ordered the boats on the Red River to come down the Atchafalaya. But coordination and timing began to break down. Repairs to the Webb, damaged in the fight with the Indianola, were taking longer than hoped, so it was left. Though instructed to hurry on, the Grand Duke and Mary T lagged behind. Thus rather than having a full squadron that could overwhelm the US boats, just the Queen of the West and the Nina Simms were steaming toward the showdown with the US Navy.
The afternoon of April 13, US lookouts noticed smoke in the distance from unknown boats. During the night, a crewman on the Calhoun reported seeing boat lights up the lake. At dawn on April 14 US lookouts spotted the Confederates boats coming their way. Crews cleared for action. The Queen appeared to be aiming for the Arizona.
But then the Queen stopped. An unexpected event brought her career to an end: the Queen ground into a sand bar and became a sitting duck. The US boats bombarded her from a distance until she caught fire. The crew were rescued as prisoners and the burning husk of the Queen of the West drifted down the Lake until it exploded.
The Nina Simms retreated up the Atchafalaya, meeting the Grand Duke and Mary T on the way. The three fell back toward the Red River. Without the Queen, the Confederates lacked the muscle to go head to head with the US Navy. Bad timing and the treacherous mud of Grand Lake ended a chance for Taylor to wrest control of lower Louisiana from the US.
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