It is my pleasure to relate to you the sad and glorious tale of the USS Queen of the West, the USS Indianola and the greatest military hoax since Odysseus said “Hey… why don’t we build a giant horse out of wood… No one will see it coming.” Go ahead, get yourself a beer. I’ll wait right here.
In February of 1863, Admiral David Porter had an idea; He could destroy the last vestiges of confederate trans-Mississippi commerce through violence and piracy. The Mississippi and Red rivers were in Confederate hands by the grace of its enormous remaining forts on the Mississippi (Vicksburg to the north and Port Hudson to the south near Baton Rouge). Nothing afloat on these rivers could more than just bother the mighty union ironclad fleet. Only a handful of forts remained on the river and these could be easily passed without fear so long as ships did not dally beneath their guns. Porter knew that to rob the south of this vital transportation highway, one need not destroy the forts guarding its entries; one need only pass them with serious warships… once.
In addition to having piracy on his mind, Admiral Porter had two more things; A landing on the west bank of the Mississippi south of Vicksburg and a spare ironclad.
USS Queen of the West
Grant had spread his army around Mississippi and Arkansas in order to find some way to break into Vicksburg’s rear. One of these efforts resulted in a the establishment of Fort Sherman on the west bank of the Mississippi in Arkansas. This is a particularly useful place to have a fort if you intend to operate a ship on this part of the river. From here ships could be resupplied and repaired. Captured troops and equipment could be unloaded.
Admiral Porter ordered the Queen of the West, along with it’s 19 year old captain, Charles Ellet jr, to run the guns of Vicksburg and then to capture, burn, harass, inhibit and frustrate confederate commerce. On February 2nd 1863 the Queen of the West ran past the guns of Vicksburg where it received an even dozen hits. The Ironclad then pulled up to Fort Sherman where it’s damage was repaired and was resupplied.
On February 4th the Queen of the West began its career as river privateer. Admiral Porter, clearly excited by the prospect of taking the war to new battlegrounds in the south, wired the secretary of the navy that the Queen of the West was under way with supplies of coal and ammunition. To the end of this communication he added “This gives the ram nearly coal enough to last month, in which time she can commit great havoc, if no accidents happens to her.” Ok… that’s not ominous at all.
For days the Queen of the West was bad news for confederate shipping. Several VERY valuable ships including the Desoto and the Era No.5 where captured laden with food and supplies. What the Union ironclad did not care to steal, it destroyed. A great many ships, including one medium sized confederate ironclad were forced up the Red River and the Queen of the West gave pursuit. On February 14th, At Fort DeRussy in Louisiana, The CSS William H. Webb, along with a small flotilla of scratch made warships (Mostly steam launches with a single field gun), made a stand.
Within moments of discovering Fort DeRussy, the Queen of the West suffered a tremendous set back. In the 10 days prior to the 14th, several soldiers, including the ships pilot, had been wounded either by sniper fire on the ship itself or as a part of landing parties sent ashore to burn or capture valuables. Neither the Webb (and its Lilliputian counter parts) nor the Guns of Fort DeRussy should have provided the Queen of the West a proper challenge but the two combined made Captain Ellet uncomfortable. He ordered the replacement pilot to turn the ship about and head back towards the Mississippi. In response, the pilot plowed the Queen of the West bow first into the river bank directly under the guns of the fort.
This left the young Captain with a dilemma. Escape OR destroy the Queen of the West…. not both. Unable to bring himself to destroy his ship, and therefore his wounded, he gave the order to abandon ship. Men pushed cotton bails (which apparently float) into the water and road them downstream to the captured DeSoto and Era No. 5 which would give them a ride back to the sanctuary of Fort Sherman. Or so they thought.
A few hours later the Desoto plowed into a sand bar where it had both rudders torn off and its paddle wheels destroyed. The ship was piloted by none other than the same replacement pilot that had beached the Queen of the West. Needless to say, he was arrested for being either a confederate sympathizer or the worse riverboat pilot in the history of the world. Either way, he was going to jail and rightfully so.
After another brief ride on a cotton bail, Captain Ellet and his crew now began their long, upstream, journey back to the safety of union guns. The Confederates, thrilled at the prospect of capturing a Union crew began to give chase with their much faster fleet. Oh dear.
Delighted by the early reports of the Queen of the West’s success on the Mississippi, Admiral Porter decided that he had one more spare Ironclad.
On February 13th, the day before the Queen or the West changed teams, the USS Indianola ran the guns of Vicksburg and, having received no meaningful damage set out to join her sister ship with a great of coal lashed to her sides on barges. Apparently running out of coal was Admiral Porter’s greatest concern and to this end he had begun moving large barges of coal past the fort of Vicksburg to resupply his pirate fleet. Two of the barges were lashed to the sides of the USS Indianola providing it not only quite enough fuel but also a good bit of protection from Confederate rams.
Ramming is an old school attack method that briefly regained popularity during the Civil war. Virtually all warships of the Civil War era had giant iron rams attached to their bows below the waterline. With the armoring of ships and the shortage of the really big guns needed to punch through such armor (particularly in the south), it was felt that this weapon system provided an excellent secondary attack method. Everyone was wrong of course. Ramming sucked but rams were cheap so all the ships got one anyway. Captains weren’t told how dumb ramming was but most of them had figured it out by the end of the war.
On February 16th the Indianola ran into the Era No. 5 running for its life with the Webb hot on its heals. The Webb, again no match for a fully armed Union Ironclad, realized that it had no business fighting the Indianola and retired. Captain Ellet and Captain Brown (the Indianola’s skipper) met and decided that it was unlikely that he Queen of the West could possibly be put back on the river soon and that the Indianola should patrol the mouth of the Red River while Era No. 5 return to Fort Sherman and ask, pretty please, for one more Ironclad to help with the recapture or destruction of the Queen of the West.
The Queen of the West was not NEARLY as damaged as Captain Ellet supposed. Within 2 days she had been pulled from the bank and her damage repaired. Within another 2 days she would be crewed and ready for action. The newly rechristened CSS Queen of the West, along with the CSS Webb and two steam boats armed with field cannons and armored with cotton set out to sink or capture the Indianola commanded by Major Joseph L. Brent.
By a stroke of luck the Indianola had landed at a plantation where they had hoped to secure cotton bails for armoring the ships deck (and for future use as floatation devices presumably) when they were informed by slaves of the Queen of the West’s resurrection. It was now the Indianola’s turn to run for its life.
When running for one’s life, it is essential that one does so quickly. If something should slow you down, say, hypothetically, a pair of giant coal laden barges lashed to the sides of your boat, you should cut them loose. You should forget about them. They are not your problem. Also, despite the regulation manual’s insistence that recoaling should be done in daylight, you should do this at a night when you are not moving, OR, better yet, not at all, because, as we have already established, keeping several months of coal on hand is not your problem when you are running for you life.
With the Indianola essentially walking fast, albeit for its life, the Confederate fleet had no difficulty running it down. It could have overtaken it virtually point in its pursuit but it really wanted the Indianola to receive as much harm as possible from forts along the Mississippi. In particular, their was a really nice fort at Port Hudson just south of Vicksburg that had a fighting chance to wound the Indianola.
On the 24th of February, the Indianola passed Fort Hudson in the late afternoon where it received a smattering of direct hits but no real harm. That evening Major Brent and his Fleet attacked the Indianola under cover of night a scant 13 miles south of Fort Sherman. The battle that resulted could be clearly heard by both the city of Vicksburg and its Union blockaders.
Unable to accurately fire its massive guns in the darkness, the Indianola only managed to score a single hit. The Webb made several ramming attacks on the Indianola including a highly inadvisable head on ram that very nearly disabled the Webb and only managed to bring the Indianola to a halt. (When ramming, mass counts.) Slowed by this collision, the Indianola made an easy target for the ram on the of the Queen of the West and a battle ending blow was delivered. Both ships were badly damaged by the collision but the Indianola had sprung a leak. When your ship is made of solid iron, leaks are bad. With the Indianola taking on gobs of water it was now time to end the battle on the best possible terms.
Captain Brown steered his ship towards the Arkansas bank of the Mississippi where he would be able to send his crew ashore on the less hostile side for the river. Once the crew had disembarked, the ship was set afire in the hopes that it would not fall into Confederate hands. Remarkably, not only did boarding confederates put out the fires but they succeeded in moving the smoldering ship to the Mississippi bank of the river where it sank in shallow water. By moving the ship the Confederates would have better access to tools and supplies they would need and would be able to work on the ship unharassed by union snipers on the Arkansas bank.
Admiral Porter’s big black lie
Just prior to the battle and beaching of the Indianola, Admiral Porter had a a very disturbing debriefing with young Captain Ellet. (How awesome was that conversation!)The sounds of the battle just down river and the subsequent lack of returning Indianola led the Admiral to a very bleak place. The next day it was confirmed that even though the confederate fleet was really beaten up, the confederates had captured the Indianola and were busy repairing her.
Only three week earlier he was conquering the Trans-Mississippi with spare boats. Now, not only was completely out of ironclads, an attack downriver by anything less than a large fleet would be easily repelled, and subsequently disabled ships would be easily captured by a rapidly growing confederate fleet. (Remember, when ships are disabled, they float downriver.) Things were bad.
If only the north had one more Ironclad. If available right now, a single undamaged ironclad could go down river, engage the wounded confederates and force them to either destroy the Indianola and run for their lives OR stay and fight which, of course, they couldn’t do because they weren’t dumb. Hey… wait a second.
Within 24 hours Admiral port had constructed an ironclad, or at least what appeared to be an ironclad if you didn’t get within 3 or 4 hundred yards. The faux warship was constructed on an old flat bottom barge along with several rafts to give it the proper length and girth. It had a forward facing casemate and armored wheelhouse made of wood framing and canvas covered in pitch. Several large caliber logs protruded though its various gun ports. It’s smoke stack was made of stacked barrels which even had fires for producing real smoke.
Early in the morning the day after the Indianola’s capture, the fake ironclad “ran” the guns of Vicksburg. Early the next morning, with the Queen of the West stationed up river to watch for the union ironclad that had run the guns in the night, a column of smoke appeared on the horizon. The Queen of the West waited just long enough to confirm a third union ironclad was on its way in the distance. With this, the Confederate fleet withdrew and the desperate confederate salvage team had no choice but to destroy the Indianola. With the guns spiked and the fire raging and on the verge of reaching the magazine, the Trojan warship floated into view. Painted on its wheelhouse in giant letters were the words “Deluded People, Cave In”.