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Gunboat War At Vicksburg
A Union seaman’s nightmarish memories of shot, shell, and shoal waters in Grant’s Mississippi River campaign, 1862–63
August/September 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 5
I now come to what I consider the disgraceful part of our expedition. The Rebels got news of our coming and began cutting down trees throwing them across the stream blocking our advance. These of course had to be removed and caused considerable delay, besides we had to remove brush and trees that were growing in the bayou.
On Friday [March 20] we reached a part of the bayou about five miles from Sunflower. A force of Rebels was reported to be up the stream some distance ahead and about sixty or seventy men were detailed from each gunboat and sent out to drive them back. Each gunboat sent out a cutter to remove bushes and cut down trees that were in our way. Our men stationed themselves on a mound (supposed to have been thrown up by the Indians) about a mile from where our gunboats were located near a bridge.
About 5 O.C. P.M. the Rebels opened a heavy fire of shell and grape from seven pieces of artillery which they had stationed in the woods. As soon as the Rebels commenced to fire our men commenced to run. I had heard of the retreat from Bull Run but the retreat from the mound on Green [Deer] Creek beat anything I ever knew about. Each man tried to reach his boat ahead of anyone else. Some left their muskets, cartridge boxes and anything that hindered and ran like devils. … I must say however to the credit of the Cincinnati boys, they were the last to leave the mound and not a musket was left behind. The men in the small boats left them and ran. …
That night our fleet began falling back but I had no idea we were retreating but so it proved. Our fleet was now on its way back to the Yazoo and the stream was so narrow we had to back down until we came to a fork of the stream giving us room to turn around. … The Rebels kept following us up and we had to be at our quarters night and day. We dared not go up on the spar deck for as soon as a man made his appearance he was fired upon by some sharp shooter skulking along the bank. Our Executive Officer and a man named Gill were wounded. …
We loaded all the gunboats with cotton as we retreated then burned the gins and all the cotton we couldn’t carry. It was said we had about $25,000 [worth] aboard the Cincinnati .
Our own army had been notified of our plight and on Saturday [March 21] the Eighth Missouri reached us and reported that General Sherman’s army was coming to our relief. General Sherman arrived with his army on Sunday night. We were then on half rations as we had taken on so many contrabands they ate us out of house and home.
Sherman’s troops had come by a circuitous route. Transports too large to enter the bayou system had first ferried them thirty miles up the Mississippi. There they had disembarked on the east bank and marched one mile overland to Steele’s Bayou from where two small transports had shuttled them to the mouth of Black Bayou. Finally, the 8th Missouri had covered the remaining distance on foot, while the rest of Sherman’s men had been brought up part way on barges towed by tugs and then were marched by land to Admiral Porter’s flotilla.
Thus ended this disastrous mistake. It was said we only had a few miles farther to go before we would have gotten into water where it would have been impossible for the [Confederates] to block the stream. However we didn’t get there but retreated before a small band of Rebels.
Kemp’s criticism of Porter’s decision to retreat needs qualifying. True, the Confederates confronting the admiral’s gunboats at first numbered only 250, mostly snipers, but they were soon strongly reinforced from Vicksburg by three regiments and a section of artillery which came on transports by way of the Sunflower River to Rolling Fork. It also must never be forgotten that had the defenders of Vicksburg succeeded in capturing the five stalled ironclads and turned them against the Federals, they might have altered the whole naval picture on the western waters.
After our retreat from the Sunflower, the powers that be decided that the Cincinnati was in such bad shape she would have to be repaired before we would be of any use as a fighting gunboat. … We arrived at St. Louis on April 23d 1863 and on the 24th came to anchor in front of the ship weighs at Carondelet. … We had a couple of coal barges alongside but strange to say we did not have to do the coaling up as we had a number of steamboat roustabouts who did the job for us.…
While at Carondelet we who had money lived on soft tack and milk so you see we had good healthy food. One old fellow used to bring us bread, milk, apples, pies, cakes &c and the way our boys bought he’d have gotten rich if we had stayed long enough. But opposition came along and while our old friend got 10¢ a quart the new man charged only five for which our man said he paid 6¼ cents per quart. We finally got our boat safely on to the weighs but it took five days hard tugging to get her high enough so the caulkers could work on the bottom. We usually broke two or three chains at every pull but perseverance crowned our efforts with success. The carpenters, caulkers, painters and other workmen were busily engaged in getting us ready to go down to the fleet once more.