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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
We had fine times playing ball on a common a short distance from our boat, also in fishing in a small stream just a little below where we were located. Some of our boys could not bear good treatment and would wander off and get drunk. The consequence was that we were not allowed to go ashore without a pass and orders were sent to the Provost Marshal to arrest any of the crew found ashore without a pass and bring them aboard.…
On May 18th 1863 our vacation ended. Our boat had been repaired and we were on our way to Cairo. We came off the weighs on the 13th and left Carondelet on the 18th. A new turret of half inch iron had been built on the wheel house and two howitzers were to be put into it when we reached Cairo. This was for our protection against Guerrillas and would be a wonderful help if we got into a place like Sunflower Bayou once again. …
We hadn’t got more than half a crew, for sickness, discharges, desertions &c left us very short handed and to make things still worse our Marines were to be taken from us when we got to the fleet and sent back to their regiment. If this was so we would only have men enough left to manage our bow battery. They made a change in our gun crews and I was made first loader of No. 3 gun, bow battery.
We stopped at Memphis on our way down and sent our sick boys to the hospital. We expected to reach Helena on May 23, 1863 where we would coal up.
Nothing worthy of mention took place after leaving Helena and we finally reached the Yazoo but found only the Black Hawk , our Flag Ship, and the [new ironclad] Gunboat Choctaw there as the other boats had run the batteries.
While the Cincinnati had been repairing upriver, Admiral Porter on the night of April 16 had taken most of his fleet through the fire of the Vicksburg batteries, losing one transport in the process. Once below, his fleet ferried Grant’s army, which had marched down the west bank, across the river and landed them in the state of Mississippi. Now, as Grant put it, at last his army “was on dry ground on the same side of the river with the enemy.” The maneuver outflanked the Confederate works at Vicksburg and Grand Gulf and allowed the general, by fighting and circling inland, to force the evacuation of the latter and to put the former under siege from its weaker side.
As we did not have a full crew a levy of men was sent to us from the Choctaw in charge of their Boatswain’s Mate, a Scotchman by the name of Dow. I don’t know how many there were but I think about forty. We had hardly got anchored before we were ordered down the river to attack a water battery at the edge of a ravine which separated the two armies. Here was another mistake of the powers that be, I think. Why they didn’t send the Choctaw , I can’t understand for it was a very much better protected Gunboat than ours. It seemed such a pity to spoil our nice brand new boat.
By May 20,1863, Grant had invested Vicksburg from the east, obliging the Confederate defenders to withdraw from the bluffs along the Yazoo and permitting his army to establish a new base of supplies on that tributary. The enemy battery in question had been troubling the right wing of W. T. Sherman’s corps which abutted on the Mississippi above Vicksburg. Admiral Porter had agreed to send one of his ironclads to attempt to enfilade the battery, but only after Sherman and Grant himself had assured him that the Confederates had moved most of their other big guns away from that part of the river and that Sherman’s sharpshooters would prevent even the guns of the intended target from firing on the Union vessel. To judge from what occurred, the generals erred regarding the first point and failed regarding the second. Indeed, a captured enemy colonel would later tell Porter that the Confederates, having broken the army code and being able to read the signals passing between Sherman and Porter, were fully ready for the attack of the Cincinnati .
On the morning of May 27,1863 we started down the river. We had protected our stern with bales of hay, also piled them around the Pilot House altho’ it was protected by iron plating. Our sides were partially protected [by armor] but only on the sides next to our boilers so we hung chains over the Starboard and Port bows. However we were poorly protected as we had to fight head downstream and it was impossible to keep her so because every time our big guns went off our boat swung around and exposed our poorly protected parts to the enemy.