- Historic Sites
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
Vicksburg was situated at a bend in the river which in 1863 took a turn almost like the letter “V” and the bluffs along the “V” were lined with batteries. Just as soon as we got within range of their guns the battle began and we fought not only a water battery, but every battery at Vicksburg was pouring shot and shell into our poor doomed Gunboat and they had the range so perfect that almost every shot struck us and came thro’ and did a lot of damage. I remember one shot came plunging thro’ and strange to say struck our steel tiller rope cutting away two strands, then flew across the deck just as our Carpenter’s Mate was going forward to plug up some holes below our water line. The ball struck him in the bowels cutting him in two. His dying words were, “Chuck me overboard.” As soon as I saw what had happened to our tiller rope I jumped and placed it back in the sheave for it was our only dependence.
Another shot struck the Pilot House and striking a bolt drove it thro’ the casemate into our Pilot’s back killing him. I supposed our Captain’s place was on the spar deck to give us directions but he had safely tucked himself away as he thought in the Pilot House, altho’ the sequel proved it was not as safe as he thought.
When the Pilot was struck, Capt. Bache called a man and myself to carry him down on to the gun deck. He was not dead when we lifted him but was suffering intensely and praying to us most piteously, “Shoot me for God’s sake, shoot me.” We laid him down on the deck and his sufferings were soon over. I hope I may never see another such death.
In a fight of this kind one of the great dangers is from splinters as they fly everywhere. One of our Quartermasters who was also in the Pilot House when our Pilot was killed had his breast badly torn by the splinters that flew around but Capt. Bache was not even scratched.
The only real effective guns we had [were in] our bow battery which consisted of a hundred pound Parret [Parrott] rifle and two nine inch [8-inch] Dahlgren guns. I was on No. 3 Dahlgren gun, acting that day as second loader and first sponger, and in those days everything was done very crudely. When we loaded a gun the first loader and first sponger had to jump out into the port hole, take the powder from the powder monkey, ram it home, then take the shot or shell, ram that home and then jump back and help to pull out the gun which was done by rope attachments. Then an officer sighted the gun and fired it. I presume the loader and sponger of the gun had the most dangerous positions on the boat because they were in an open port and liable to be picked off by sharp-shooters but one doesn’t think of that in a fight.
I think no boat was ever under a hotter fire than ours was at Vicksburg. Two of the Choctaw ’s men were badly hurt. One of them had his foot shot off and the other had his leg shattered from foot to hip but strange to say [they] swam ashore after our boat was sunk. Many of our boys were hurt by splinters. I was very fortunate as I was only struck by a small block of wood that came flying my way which hit me on the right shin. It did not break my leg but it hurt like the mischief. I guess its speed was pretty well spent before it hit me.
After our Pilot was killed one of our officers took the wheel but he also was wounded but we managed to get within our own lines before we sank. We were however still within range of the batteries which kept up their constant fire at the Cincinnati .…
The river had been lowering and as we ran into the bank our men kept jumping off and ran into the woods and across the bend to where the Flagship was lying at anchor. A seaman named Legassiet was ordered ashore with a line and he called to me for help but as we jumped we went into mud above our waists and before we could clamber out the boat swung off into deep water and sank. The men were then jumping into the water when a shell came flying over, struck into the mud, exploded and sent the mud high into the air coming down on to the heads of the men in the water. I think many of our men were drowned at this time. Leopold Snyder, a Buffalo boy and friend of mine, I never saw again, so I think he drowned.
The crew of the Cincinnati suffered thirty-three casualties—five killed or mortally wounded and fourteen injured by enemy fire, and fourteen dead by drowning.
While I was struggling to get out of the mud our Assistant Surgeon was trying to get the body of our Pilot ashore. He [the surgeon] was an Italian named Cabellero and not much bigger than a ten year old boy. His helpers had deserted him so when he called me I went over to him and helped carry the Pilot’s body on to the bank. The Choctaw man who had his leg so badly shattered and the one who had his foot shot off were on the bank. The former was in a sitting position with his back resting against a tree. He never once uttered a moan but the other man seemed to be suffering intensely. The Rebels kept up their fire until we raised the hospital flag. The only [small] boat which had not been shot away was our second cutter. How it escaped is a mystery but it was entirely unharmed.