- 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
To show what a perfect range the Rebels had, I should say that they shot down our flag three times. We carried our flag on the aft mast; that was shot away. We then hoisted it on our main mast; that was shot away. Then one of the Quartermasters called to me and we went up on the spar deck to hoist our flag on the forward mast when a shot from the batteries came flying over our heads carrying away the forward mast, and the flag and lanyards came tumbling down into the Quartermaster’s hands. All we could do then was fasten the flag to the stump of the mast and leave it there. Now of course these shots may have been random ones but I think they showed what a perfect range the Rebels had and what wonderful gunners they were.
There was one man, a half witted fellow, that got on to a bale of hay and was floating down the river. Our Captain saw him and thinking he was escaping to the Rebels began firing at him from the spar deck. However he was a poor shot for he couldn’t hit a bale of hay, and the half wit floated down to Vicksburg and was taken prisoner by the Rebels. I often wondered how that poor fool ever got into the navy as I thought only men sound of mind and body were admitted.
There was nothing to laugh at that day except one incident. In some way our Captain and the Doctor had contrived to get a large chest into the water (the Doctor’s medicine chest, I think) which they were attempting to paddle ashore, the Captain at one end and the Doctor at the other. They found it too much for them and began yelling for help. Our Boat-swain’s Mate saw them and, swearing a blue streak and calling them all the mean names he could think of, ran along the deck to where they were. Of course he was excited or he would not have [sworn] so, but the Captain and Doctor were making so much noise they could hear nothing but their own voices. We got them back on deck, and I think the chest also, altho’ it may have gone down after the man on the bale of hay.
After the hospital flag was raised we got down the second cutter and put the dead and wounded into it and took them up to the Flag Ship. As I was one of the crew of the dinghy they took me into the cutter to help row her up to the Flag Ship. We left a wreck of what an hour or so before was one of the finest gunboats on the river.
We remained on the Flag Ship for several days and every night one of our officers and a boat’s crew would go down to the wreck to see if everything was all right. As I belonged to the boat’s crew I was always with them. Our [the Cincinnati ’s} upper works were still above water. I think we did this for five [four] nights but on the fifth [fourth] night [May 30] when we got back to the Flag Ship we saw looking down the river quite a fire about where the Cincinnati was sunk. The next night when we got down to the wreck we found that the Rebels had come over in a small boat and set fire to what was left of the Cincinnati , burned it to the water’s edge and carried away our flag which we had left fastened to the stump of our forward mast. That was certainly a bold undertaking.
After the Cincinnati was lost, Kemp served in the Choctaw during the continual bombardment of Vicksburg—and then came down with yellow fever just about the time the place finally was surrendered. He recovered, eventually, and spent the rest of the summer and all of the fall on routine blockading duties along the Mississippi, unable to get the discharge he was entitled to because a paymaster was unable to lay hands on his accounts. He at last was discharged on December 23,1863, three months and one week over his proper time.
The final paragraph of his memoir reads: “In looking back over my story there are many incidents I have overlooked which I might have added, but I hope I have written enough to make it acceptable to my friends.”