The Closing of the Trans-Mississippi

5 06 2011

The confederacy badly needed at least a stretch of the Mississippi intact to remain a viable rebellion.  This can not be overstated.  While Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and Western Louisiana (collectively the “Trans-Mississippi”) contributed a relatively small portion of the troop strength used by the confederacy the most reliable trade lines with the world lay overland through Texas to Mexico.  Cutting this would further impoverish the south and hasten the end of the war.

Grant and Porter had done their best to take away this patch of river but they were not the only Union force on the Mississippi.  South of Port Hudson, General Banks and Admiral Farragut had the same mission; Close the Mississippi to confederate commerce…today or sooner.  In fact, the “plan” at this point was for Grant’s and Banks’s armies to meet and combine under Bank’s command (Grant still being a relatively junior Major General)

Banks and Farragut had the same set of issues that Grant and Porter faced at Vicksburg… only worse.  Port Hudson was no Vicksburg to be sure but the Mississippi moved in the dead wrong direction.  Upstream travel would be done at a tiny fraction of the speeds that ships assaulting Vicksburg would enjoy.  Damaged ships would effectively be repelled as they floated downstream.  Landing troops and marching around Port Hudson would be perilous given how closely the river was watched and difficult given a shortage of vessels designed for use on the river.  The union fleet had to be transported to their present theatre by a roundabout path through the Gulf of Mexico and had a shocking shortage of river capable vessels.

Banks and Farragut had one more disadvantage that made their success less likely; Banks himself.  While Farragut was every bit Admiral Porters equal (next summer he would utter the immortal phrase “Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead”  when told his ships were being sunk by mines) Banks was no Grant.  Banks was THE quintessential political general. 

General Banks

gen_banks2In 1856, Nathanial Banks’ election as Speaker of the House (while still a Democrat) would serve as a herald of the coming era of Republican domination.  In 1857 he would resign from congress (having successfully placed anti-slavery congressmen in positions of considerable power) and would become Governor of Massachusetts where he would tirelessly  work to create a militia system that would rival those of the south.  His preparations over the next few years would be credited with producing a sufficient number of troops to buy the North time to construct a proper army in the opening months of the war. 

In recognition of his visionary contributions to the war effort as Governor he was commissioned a Major General and given command of the upper Potomac (Essentially Maryland).  One of General Banks’ first campaigns was to lead an army into the Shenandoah valley to confront General Stonewall Jackson.  This is ended badly… repeatedly.  With the realization that Bank’s gifts might be limited to the purely administrative, Banks was given the task of raising troops and was eventually given command of the occupation of New Orleans.

Banks would go on to lead the Red River campaign in 1864, or, as its more commonly known, the Disastrous Red River campaign.  After this he was forced to stand in the corner and told not to touch anything.  After the War he resumed his role as a politician where he played an active role in the impeachment of president Johnson, received an astoundingly large bribe from the Russians for buying Alaska, an became one of the eras great bloody shirt wavers.

In the Spring of 1863 Banks owned the problem of opening the Mississippi up from the south along with his naval counterpart, Admiral Farragut.  Hopefully Farragut is the man.

Admiral Farragut

Admiral David Glasgow Farragut was born in battle where, while just a few hours old, he lead several successful boarding parties therein successfully ending both the American Revolution and The War and 1812.  Ok… I made this up.  The truth is only slightly less cool though

Admiral_David_G_FarragutAdmiral Farragut was born “James” Farragut to a Revolutionary War Navy veteran George Farragut.  George had served with and befriended one David Porter Sr., another revolutionary war navy veteran.  In one of those WEIRD turn of events that makes one believe the nineteenth century must have sucked more than we’ve been lead to believe, David Sr. died of sunstroke in 1808 while visiting the Farragut’s in New Orleans… the same day that Mrs. Farragut died of Yellow fever.  Really. 

David Porter (Jr.), son of David Porter (Sr) was so moved by the plight of his father’s fiend and the plight of his newly motherless son James that he offered to foster young James while George Farragut continued his service.  On Farragut’s death in 1813 James Farragut was adopted by the Porters.

David Porter Jr had been in both the war of 1812 and the Quasi-war as naval officer and had risen to the rank of commodore.  His career was distinguished enough that a number of cities and ships bore his name in his lifetime.  He had 6 sons that survived to adulthood and all survived to serve the United States Navy during the Civil war including one David Dixon Porter… who now commanded the Union Fleet in front of Vicksburg.  Porter and Farragut where adopted brothers.  Really.  It is THAT small a world.

James, (who would later change his name to David to honor his adoptive father) began his service in the US navy at the age of 9 as a midshipman.  He was given command of his first prize ship at the age of 12 in war of 1812.  He rapidly moved up through the ranks and in 1853 was tasked with creating the first US Fort and shipyard on the West Coast.  David Farragut was the Man.

Running the guns

In March of 1863, Farragut had realized the same simple truth that his step brother Admiral Porter had the previous month; One great big boat on the stretch of Mississippi between Vicksburg and Port Hudson and this critical highway would be shut down forever.

Farragut had 7 boats ready for the task of BLAZING past the forts at Port Hudson at 4 or 5 miles per hour.  Three of his boats (USS Albatross, USS Genesee, and USS Kineo) were ocean going gun boats.  These boats where actually ocean going commerce vessels that had been lightly armored and given guns.  These ships were fast and intensely useful for patrolling against commerce raiders and blockade runners.  There usefulness against forts was more limited.

The balance of his ships ( USS Hartford, USS Richmond, USS Monongahela, and the USS Mississippi) where purpose built ocean going war ships and where mighty mighty.  These ships would be more capable of taking the punishment the fort guns could hand out.

USS Mississippi:
USS_Mississippi_1863

Incidentally Farragut had no ironclads.  Ships operating out of New Orleans had to navigate the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico so his fleet was mad up entirely of ocean going vessels.  This made his fleet somewhat less suitable for service on rivers.  They would not have had the thick thick armor of an ironclad nor its river friendly shallow draft.  This would come up later on a quiz.

To increase the likelihood the gunboats could make it pass the fort, Farragut had them lashed to the port sides of his larger warships for the purpose of shielding them from the fire of the Fort on the East bank of the river.  He also painted all of the interior surfaces of his ships white to make them easier to operate in the dead of night.  Between the painting and the lashing, confederates figured something was up.

PORT_H~1

Confederates knew they were vulnerable to upstream attack and had taken precautions.  The entire west bank of the Mississippi opposite the fort was covered in pitch covered piles of wood that would serve to illuminate the river.  Furthermore spotters were stationed at points on the river and given rockets to communicate with the forts guns.  Additionally, guns had access to “hot shot”.  Cannon balls, normally quite harmful to ships, were HORRIBLY destructive when white hot.

Cannons, steam engines, bonfires, rockets and ovens for heating shot have one thing in common;  Smoke.  As Farragut’s ships moved past Port Hudson both banks and the ships themselves erupted in a cacophony and fire.  Within a few minutes visibility was reduced to nil.   While this did much to protect the ships from fire, it did very little to help them navigate.  All seven ships quickly ran aground.

Sailing ahead of its own smoke, the Albatross and Hartford managed to pass all the guns of the fort before running aground.  With some effort she pulled free and left the battle.

The Richmond managed to make the turn past the guns to move directly away from the fort but a lucky shot passing through an open portal and managed to disable both its boilers.  It rolled right passed all the guns for a second time.

The Manongahela and Kineo ran aground right under the guns of the fort.  While pulling off the shoals, the ships separated.  The Manongahela’s  engines had been disabled during its struggle to dislodge, and the Kineo suffered a direct hit on its rudder.  They were out of the fight as well and drifted down stream.

The USS Mississippi grounded and caught fire.  As it burned, it got lighter.  Getting light it got ungrounded and began to float downstream… into the awaiting union fleet recovering from its perilous assault.  Then it blew up.  Hilarity ensued.

The battle would have been a catastrophic failure had it not been for one thing; Tow ships did get passed the fort.  The Albatross and Hartford pushed off the West bank and took up station on the Mississippi. 

The only warships capable of challenging either the Albatross or the Hartford, the Queen of the West and the Webb, had been too badly wounded in the fight with the Indianola to attack either of the Union ships.  They Fled up the Red river and into obscurity.  Two weeks later, the river flotilla pulled up to Fort Sherman and resupplied.   Admiral Porter sent south two of his own ships to reinforce and with that the Mississippi, while still not open to the North, became totally closed to the South… forever.

So out of touch became the Trans-Mississippi that its theatre commander, General Kirby Smith, was given total control of the region and told not expect either support or additional orders.  For the balance of the war, this region was euphemistically called “Kirby Smithdom” and fell out of consideration as a part of the southern war effort.