Using their superior speed and maneuverability, the two wooden Confederate rams darted from one side of the river to the other, using the serpentine curves of the Mississippi to stay out of the line of fire of the Union ironclad immediately ahead of them. Each captain knew that one salvo from the enemy boat’s powerful guns could blow his own boat apart.
The Confederate commander was content to wait until the skies were dark. His boats were twice as fast as the ironclad, and he knew he could overtake her before she could reach the safety of the Union fleet above Vicksburg. He wanted darkness to blind the Union gunners’ aim, enabling the Confederate boats to get close enough to use their rams.
In the midwinter darkness the lookouts lost sight of the ironclad near Palmyra Island. Suddenly they spotted her. She had come about with her lights extinguished and was slowly drifting down the river toward them. The Confederacy had always used the Mississippi River to supply Vicksburg and Port Hudson. For the last three weeks, Union boats had blockaded it. Now the crucial battle for control of the supply lines was about to take place.
By the beginning of 1863, the Union Army’s advance down the Mississippi Valley had ground to a halt. The 100,000-man army that Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck had assembled at Pittsburg Landing, Tenn., following the Battle of Shiloh, had been broken up, part of it now at Murfreesboro, Tenn., under Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans, another part at Oxford, Miss., under Maj. Gen. U.S. Grant.
In December, the ever-aggressive Grant tried to seize Vicksburg, but Maj. Gen. William Sherman’s corps was repulsed at Chickasaw Bluffs. While the Army contemplated other operations, the Navy decided to take its turn in attacking the Confederates. Commanding the Western Flotilla on the Mississippi was Rear Adm. David D. Porter. Porter had helped plan the attempt to relieve Fort Pickens before the firing on Fort Sumter and commanded that expedition. He later was deeply involved in planning the attack on New Orleans (and after the war would claim chief credit for originating the idea).
For his efforts, the Navy Department gave Porter command of the mortar boats during the News Orleans operation. Porter publicly vowed to reduce Forts Jackson and St. Philip in two days. Admiral David Farragut gave him his two days, and when the defenses of the forts seemed to be as strong as ever, led his warships past the forts (over Porter’s protests) to seize New Orleans.
Porter’s actions during the campaign were a blemish on his record. He thought he should have commanded the Gulf Squadron instead of Farragut, and he constantly tried to undermine Farragut’s position in private letters to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox in which he criticized Farragut’s handling of the operation.
Flag Officer Charles Davis had done a creditable job as commander of the Western Flotilla during the summer of 1862, but the Navy could not forget that he was a blue-water oceanographer. Later that year, the Navy appointed Porter to replace him. By the end of January 1863, Porter was ready for the Navy to take the offensive against the two remaining Confederate positions on the Mississippi–Vicksburg, Miss., and Port Hudson, La.
The Confederacy controlled the Mississippi between these two bastions, using the river to keep them supplied. Porter believed that if he could put one or more boats at the mouth of the Red River he could stop the Confederates from supplying these positions from the west, especially from Texas.
The first boat Porter sent downriver was Queen of the West. A former freight boat on the St. Louis to New Orleans run, Queen was the flagship of the Marine Brigade, formerly the Army Ram Fleet. Commanded by 19-year-old Colonel Charles R. Ellet, Queen was a veteran boat, having participated in the Battle of Memphis.
Porter knew the operation would be dangerous. The initial problem was getting past Vicksburg. Although Farragut had run the Gulf Squadron past it twice in early summer 1862, the defenses were much stronger in January than they had been six months before.
The Confederates had one warship on the river that particularly worried Porter. He wrote Ellet: ‘There is one vessel, the Webb, that you must look out for. If you get the first crack at her, you will sink her, and if she gets the first crack at you, she will sink you. Webb had been a lower river towboat noted for her speed and endurance. Heavy iron plate protected the machinery and boilers, but the boat was essentially unarmored.
Queen’s movement south on February 2 began ominously. Problems with her steering caused a delay in departure that caused Queen to arrive at Vicksburg at dawn. Queen‘s first mission was to sink the steamer City of Vicksburg, tied up at a wharf below the city. Queen tried to ram her, but only succeeded in staving in some deck planks. The crew then threw firebombs onto Vicksburg, but her crew extinguished them. Queen tried to ram the steamer a second time, but only succeeded in driving her into the mud.
Ellet wanted to try again, but fire from the Confederate batteries worried him. Queen had been hit 12 times already. All of the hits were above the waterline, but they had set fire to cotton bales on her deck. Ellet brought Queen safely about and continued downriver.
During the next 10 days, Queen ruled the Mississippi and Red rivers. Fifteen miles south of the Red River she captured the steamer A.W. Baker, which had just unloaded her cargo at Port Hudson. Going up the Red River, she seized the steamers Moro and Berwick Bay.
With coal supplies low, Queen returned to the Mississippi. Finding that his prizes slowed him up, Ellet removed some supplies from them before burning the enemy vessels. On the 10th, Queen was at Warrenton, where she took on 20,000 bushels of coal from the tender De Soto.
Queen returned to the Red River, and on the 12th prowled the Atchafalaya River in search of a transport reported to be there. On the 13th, Porter sent another boat downriver to join Queen, the powerful new ironclad Indianola.
Indianola, which cost a lordly $183,662.56 to construct, mounted four guns, two 11-inch Dahlgrens forward and two 9-inch rifles aft. She was unusual in that she had two sidewheels plus a pair of screw propellers. In 1863, Appleton’s Cyclopedia described Indianola as a new iron-clad gun-boat, one hundred and seventy-four feet long, fifty feet beam, ten feet from the top of her deck to the bottom of her keel. Her sides five feet down were thirty-two inches thick of oak. Outside of this was three-inch-thick plate iron. Her casemate stood at an incline of twenty-six and a half degrees, and was covered with three-inch iron. She had seven engines–two for working her side wheels, two for her propellers, two for her capstans, and one for supplying water and working the bilge and fire pumps.
The problems associated with building Indianola foreshadowed the problems she would later encounter during her brief career. When a Confederate army under General Edmund Kirby Smith threatened Cincinnati in September 1862, Union Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace seized the still-uncompleted Indianola to help in the defense of the city. But though her guns were in place, there was no ammunition for them. The builder immediately complained to the Navy that the Army was interfering with completion of the boat.
To try to regain control of Indianola from the Army, the Navy appointed Acting Master Edward Shaw to command her. With the Confederates retreating toward Tennessee, Wallace had no reason to retain control of the ironclad. Construction resumed soon after Shaw assumed command.
The man chosen to command Indianola permanently was Lt. Cmdr. George Brown, an 1855 graduate of the Naval Academy. Brown knew Porter, having served under him on Powhatan during the attempt to relieve Fort Pickens in 1861. In 1862, Brown had commanded the six-gun, 829-ton steamer Octorara as part of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.
Brown discovered more problems once in command. Captain Alex M. Pennock, at the naval depot at Cairo, Ill., provided Brown with a crew, but everyone had the rating of seaman and, as Brown reported to Porter, expected the higher pay of a seaman. Security was another problem. Captain J.B. Hull, the Navy officer responsible for overseeing construction of Indianola, was upset about a report in the Missouri Republican giving details about her construction. Citing a Navy General Order, he ordered Brown to keep newspaper correspondents off the boat during construction. In addition, he wanted Brown to try to find out who had given the Republican the information, telling him to pay particular attention to the Cincinnati newspapers.
When Indianola was ready to sail, low water kept her from leaving Cincinnati. Finally, in December, Porter ordered Brown to take her to Louisville to be ready to cross the falls of the Ohio at the first opportunity, and pointedly criticized him for not making the move sooner.
These problems were mere nuisances. The real problems with Indianola lay in her design. Indianola‘s engines took up so much space that there was no room for a crew. Porter tried to get Hull to correct it, but he refused to take any action without prior authorization from Washington. Temporary quarters were built on top of the boat, but they were not enough to house the entire crew. When Brown steamed south from Vicksburg, he could take only a skeleton crew and did not have sufficient crew members to man all his guns at once.
The gunports were too small to allow the gunners to elevate their guns to achieve the maximum range. At the same time, the portholes in the pilothouse were too small to allow the pilots to help the gunner aim their guns at night.
By December 1862 Indianola had joined the Western Flotilla, being assigned on the 25th to the second division under Lieutenant Gwin in Benton. As in the case of many other ironclads, the Navy had actual possession of the ironclad before having legal title to her. It was not until January 12, 1863, that Hull informed Porter that Indianola had completed her testing as required by the contract and was officially being turned over to Porter.
Porter planned to make the war personal. If Brown captured a good steamer, he was to go to Jeff Davis’ plantation and his brother Joe’s and load up said steamer with all the cotton you can find and the best single male negroes. Brown was also to send Queen down to Port Hudson, where Ellet was to transmit a message to Porter’s brother Commodore William Wild Bill Porter in the gunboat Essex just south of that Confederate position. The Essex was to run past Port Hudson’s defenses to join the other two boats. The two ironclads and the wooden ram would have given the Union Navy an invincible force on the Mississippi in the Confederate’s rear if all had gone according to plan.
At 10:15 on the night of February 13, Indianola left her anchorage at the mouth of the Yazoo River. As both protection and a source of supply, Indianola had a barge fastened to each side, each containing 7,000 bushels of coal.
At 11:10 p.m. she passed the upper batteries of Vicksburg. Twelve minutes later the Confederates opened fire, dropping 18 shots into the river around Indianola without hitting her. By 11:41 the ironclad was out of range of the last battery.
Porter watched Indianola run past the Confederate defenses. Between her passage and that of Queen he had seen (or at least thought he had seen) five Confederate guns blow up. He reasoned that the more the Confederates fired, the more damage they would do to their own defenses, at the same time telling the Union forces where the batteries were located.
If the Confederates wanted something to shoot at, he would provide it for them. He placed a mortar boat in position where it could bombard that part of Vicksburg known to contain military stores. The Confederates fired at it for a while but, not being able to hit it, soon ceased fire. Porter then began plans to give them another target to shoot at, and in so doing, he set in motion the final steps of Indianola‘s bizarre end.
Fog delayed Indianola‘s departure for 18 hours. Had she left earlier, events would have been different, since she would have joined Queen before she sortied up the Red River. As it was, the Army ram made the trip alone.
On the 14th, Queen captured the Southern steamer Era No. 5 on the Red River, full of corn for the Confederates at Little Rock. The prisoners told Ellet that there was a battery at Fort Taylor at Cordon’s Landing, 80 miles from the mouth of the river. They convinced him that he could capture it easily. Accordingly, Ellet impressed George Wood, pilot of Era, to guide Queen upriver. One-quarter mile from the battery, Wood ran Queen aground. Almost immediately, Fort Taylor opened fire with three rifled 32-pounders.
Ellet tried to back Queen free as Confederate shells slammed into her. The boat shook violently, convincing the crew that the boilers had exploded. They abandoned ship, using cotton bales to float over to De Soto. Ellet later wrote that he did not destroy Queen because there was a wounded officer on board who could not be removed.
As the crew reached De Soto, Confederates on the shore shouted for them to surrender. The steamer drifted with the current, picking up more survivors from Queen. Three miles downriver she unshipped her rudder. In three hours she drifted 15 miles, sometimes floating down the river stern first. About 11 o’clock she reached Era, at which time the second rudder on De Soto was lost.
Expecting Webb to arrive at any time, Ellet put everyone on Era before destroying De Soto. To try to gain more speed, they tossed some of the cargo of corn overboard. Through the foggy night the boat continued down the Red River to the Mississippi, the only fuel being corn and some water-soaked cypress logs they found stacked along the riverbank.
Era went aground once during the trip, but the crew managed to get her free. As they passed Ellis’ Cliffs just south of Natchez, they saw the smoke of a steamer coming downriver toward them. At first they could only see the smoke, not the boat making it. As it came closer they saw that it was Indianola.
Ellet told Brown what had happened, then agreed to accompany the ironclad south. Approaching Ellis’ Cliffs again, Era made the signal for danger. Up the river toward them came Webb.
The Confederate ram quickly came about and headed downriver at full steam, with Indianola in close pursuit. Brown put his guns at the maximum elevation the gunports would allow and fired two shots, one of which landed in the water 50 yards astern of Webb. Before he could fire again, Webb passed out of sight around a bend in the river. When Indianola came around that same bend, she entered fog so thick that Brown could not see Webb‘s smoke. Indianola anchored that night at Glasscock Island and at 5 p.m. on the 16th arrived at the mouth of the Red River.
For the next four days Indianola blockaded the mouth of the Red River. On the 18th, Era left her to join the Flotilla north of Vicksburg. The Confederates, in the meantime, towed Queen to Alexandria to be certain the Union forces did not recapture her. By the 19th they had her effectively repaired.
Brown learned that the Confederates intended to come after him with both Queen and Webb, plus four steamers full of infantry. On the 21st he left the Red River to get cotton bales to fill the spaces between the casemate and wheelhouse to help repel boarders. By the afternoon of the next day, he had all the cotton he needed and was back at the mouth of the Red River. Expecting Porter to send another boat down to assist him, he chose to remain there instead of trying to flee north.
Overall commander of the Confederate forces set to attack Indianola was Major J.L. Brent, with Captain James McCloskey commanding Queen and Captain Charles Pierce Webb. Supporting them were the steamer Dr. Batey (with 250 soldiers from Port Hudson on board) and the tender Grand Era.
Indianola finally left the Red River on the 23rd, steaming up the Mississippi, slowed considerably by the two coal barges still lashed to her sides. Brown was reluctant to abandon them, as he thought they would need the coal if Porter sent another boat downriver to join him.
The Confederate boats could travel about twice as fast as the Union boat. Brent thought he could have overtaken Indianola on the morning of the 24th, but realizing the power of the Union boat’s guns, he wanted to engage her at night so that his wooden rams could get close to the ironclad before the Union gunners could sight their guns.
On the afternoon of the 24th, Brown stopped along the river for several hours, for some reason he did not mention in his official report. When the Confederates arrived at Grand Gulf at sunset, they learned that Indianola had passed by four hours before.
Although the Confederates had seen Indianola near the mouth of the Black River, the Union lookouts did not notice the Confederates until they were just above the head of Palmyra Island. Both Queen and Webb were running with all lights covered. A lookout in Indianola‘s wheelhouse saw the lights of Grand Era a quarter-mile behind the rams.
Brown extinguished all lights on his boat and turned her bow downriver. With the engines shut down, the Confederates could not hear her. Confederate lookouts saw the ironclad at 1,000 yards dead ahead on the west bank. At 500 yards Brent could make out the coal barges lashed to Indianola‘s port side.
At 100 yards the Confederates opened fire with two Parrott guns and one Cross 12-pounder. None of the shots hit the ironclad. A second shot disabled one of the Parrotts. The weather conditions were ideal for the type of battle Brent wanted. 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, he reported.
Brent directed Queen toward Indianola, intending to strike the ironclad near the wheelhouse just behind the coal barge, but as Queen attacked, Brown backed up Indianola, putting the barge between them. Queen sliced into the barge, passing through it and denting the armor plate of Indianola without causing any real damage. For several minutes Queen remained stuck in the barge while riflemen on Dr. Batey peppered the Indianola to keep the Union crew from trying to board.
As Queen backed away, Webb attacked, striking Indianola near the bow. The collision did little damage, but Webb got her bow between the coal barge on the starboard and the ironclad. By pushing forward, she was able to knock the barge loose.
Queen waited until Webb was clear before making her second attack. Brown tried to bring Indianola around to face the Confederate ram, bow-to-bow. Queen struck a little forward of midships, doing little damage. As Queen backed away, Brown took men from the bow guns and had them man one of the 9-inch aft guns. The flames from the muzzle almost reached Queen, and the blast blew a dozen cotton bales off the deck. The shell entered a forward porthole, disabling two guns.
Both Queen and Webb attacked again. Queen struck aft of the wheelhouse, shattering the frame and loosening some planks, while Webb punched a hole in Indianola’s hull. Both Confederate boats were also damaged in the attacks. Queen listed, forcing Brent to pause to throw some cotton bales overboard in an attempt to right her. Webb lost part of her bow, but Pierce thought her strong enough for another attack.
With this attack, Webb crushed Indianola’s starboard wheel, disabled the starboard rudder, and started a number of leaks. The paddle wheel came loose and dropped into the water. Brown knew that another attack on the stern would cause Indianola to sink, with a heavy loss of life. He ran the bow ashore with the screw engines and dumped the code books overboard before running out on the deck with a white handkerchief to surrender. Brent boarded Indianola, and on the upper deck he accepted Brown’s sword.
Brent decided to try to save the ironclad, appointing Lieutenant Thomas H. Handy as acting prizemaster. He thought the western bank was too easy a place for the Union to recover the boat, so he had Webb and Dr. Batey tow her toward the eastern bank. She sank on a sandbar in 10 feet of water, ironically just opposite Joseph Davis’ plantation. The next morning the Confederates put a 100-man salvage crew and two pieces of field artillery on Indianola in an attempt to save her.
In his History of the Confederate States Navy, former Confederate midshipman J. Thomas Scharf stated that Indianola was blown up to prevent her recapture by the Federals. However, the destruction of Indianola was not that mundane.
Upriver, Porter did not know about the loss of Indianola, though he knew about Queen and he had reports that she was at Warrenton, seven miles south of Vicksburg. Porter prepared to give the Confederate batteries something else to shoot at. Finding that they could not be provoked to fire without an object, I thought of getting up an imitation monitor….An old coal-barge, picked up in the river, was the foundation to build upon. It was built of old boards in twelve hours, with porkbarrels on top of each other for smoke-stacks, and two old canoes for quarter-boats; her furnaces were built of mud, and only intended to make black smoke and not steam. Painted on the side was the taunting slogan: Deluded Rebels, cave in!
Since he wanted it seen, Porter launched his monitor during daylight. Soon word spread out from Vicksburg that a turreted monster that dared run the defenses in daytime was loose on the river.
A Mississippi cavalry officer watched the reaction at Indianola: In a short time, Queen of the West came back in great haste, reporting a gunboat of the enemy approaching. All the vessels at once got underway in a panic, abandoning without a word the working party and field pieces on the wreck…the Federal vessel did not approach nearer than 2 1/2 miles, and appeared very apprehensive of attacking.
In the panic to escape from Porter’s monitor, Dr. Batey collided with another boat and sank. Despite the advantage of being able to see the target clearly, the Confederate gunners were unable to hit the boat as it drifted past their positions. It finally came to a halt on a sandbar 2 1/2 miles upriver from Indianola.
The salvage party made a half-hearted attempt to raise Indianola during the night before losing their nerve. On the 26th they blew up the wreck, although a couple guns were later recovered.
On March 7, the Richmond Examiner wrote a fitting epitaph for the entire riverine misadventure: The reported fate of the Indianola is even more disgraceful than farcical.
This article was written by Robert Collins Suhr and originally appeared in the July 1993 issue of America’s Civil War magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to America’s Civil War magazine today!