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Gunboat War At Vicksburg

July 2024
19min read

A Union seaman’s nightmarish memories of shot, shell, and shoal waters in Grant’s Mississippi River campaign, 1862–63

When in April of 1861 he first learned that the Confederate States of America had forced Federal troops to evacuate Fort Sumter, seventeen-year-old Daniel F. Kemp of Buffalo, New York, immediately wanted to enlist; but not until late summer of the next year, sometime after his eighteenth birthday, did Kemp’s parents consent to his signing up for a one-year hitch in the United States Navy. That service at once sent him west to join the freshwater flotilla which in cooperation with the Army was working its way down the Mississippi River.

When he left the navy fifteen months later (his discharge papers were three months late in reaching him), Kemp was a seasoned sailor who had participated on the broad river itself in two expeditions against Vicksburg, taken part on the Arkansas River in the foray against Fort Hindman, seen action near the mouth of the Red River against Confederate guerrillas, and survived the war’s only instance of an ironclad vessel sunk solely by gunfire.

Back in Buffalo, Kemp, like many a veteran, meant to write his memoirs of those times in the service; but also in common with many others, he found himself too busy earning a living. Not until 1927 did he finally write down his recollections of the war.

A commonplace among historians, of course, holds that the longer the eyewitness to past events waits to record his or her impressions, the less faithful to those events they are apt to be. This dictum seems to be undergoing re-evaluation. Aged people may have sharper recollections of their youth than of their later years. Unusual events experienced during impressionable years can leave indelible memories. If the historian finds that the subject took care to check surviving records, and if fidelity of recall matches our established knowledge of the events in question, then it seems safe to conclude that the distance between the past and the recalling of the past was not after all an insuperable impediment to accuracy.

In any case, Daniel Kemp’s Civil War reminiscences pass the tests of both external and internal historical criticism. Just as important, the simple and completely unpretentious fashion in which he recorded his personal observations adds to the impression that this particular chronicler was at pains to tell his story as honestly as possible.

The original manuscript of Kemp’s memoirs is in possession of the Buffalo and Erie County (New York) Historical Society, and these edited portions are reproduced with the society’s permission.

On November 2,1862, Kemp was assigned to duty on the U.S.S. Cincinnati , one of seven gunboats known irreverently as Pook Turtles—they had been designed by naval constructor Samuel Pook, and with their squat outline and slanting sides they did look a bit like turtles. They were lightly armored and heavily armed, and they were essential to the Federal drive to reopen the Mississippi River. The campaign was under the overall command of General U. S. Grant, who correctly believed that success depended on reduction of the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg, Mississippi. The Navy’s part in it was directed by Flag Officer David Dixon Porter.

As 1863 began, Grant had his army west of the river, opposite Vicksburg, and he wanted to put his troops on the east side of the river above the fortified bluffs which protected the Confederate flank. The Yazoo River, entering the Mississippi a short distance above Vicksburg, led directly to the spot Grant had in mind, but was unusable because the fortified bluffs covered its mouth. Between them, Grant and Porter decided to get into the Yazoo from the other end, via a confusing network of interlaced streams and backwaters—Steele’s Bayou, Black Bayou, Deer Creek, Rolling Pork, Sunflower River, and finally the upper reaches of the Yazoo itself. If the Navy’s gunboats could use this route to lead a fleet of transports to the defenseless area beyond the fortified bluffs, Grant’s army could reach its goal and Vicksburg would fall.

So the campaign was launched. Remarking that it involved 120 miles of travel through a waterway so narrow that in many places growing trees blocked the way, young Kemp said that in his opinion this was “one of the great mistakes of the Civil War.” The whole expedition was a sailor’s nightmare, and in the end it accomplished nothing—except to persuade Grant that he needed to find a different approach. Kemp’s narrative picks up the story:

We left our place of anchor on M[ar]ch 15/63 at 4 O.C. A.M. and made very slow progress getting thro’, on account of the difficulties we encountered. The five gunboats which constituted our fleet were the Carondelet, Cincinnati, Mound City, Pittsburgh , and Louisville . [Four tugs, each towing a mortar boat, also went along.] The Carondelet was in the lead, mowing down trees as if they were so much grass, the Cincinnati next following. …

The trees were mostly sycamore, willow and cypress and were covered with long moss hanging from their branches. As it was the middle of March the trees were j ust beginning to bud. The bayou was full of fish which we could see jumping out of the water as we pushed thro’. We heard the early morning birds of all kinds singing in the trees. Owls and bats disturbed by our coming flitted noiselessly past. For the first time in my life I saw a flock of parrots fly chattering over the tree tops as we were clearing … some brush that impeded us.

All our Marines and several of the officers went out on a foraging expedition to a plantation nearby and brought in about 150 chickens, 600 lbs. of bacon, a young bull, some geese and a couple of guinea hens, bed clothes, pictures, crockery, &c. The planter was plowing in the field [but when he] saw our Marines coming, he left his plow and made tracks for parts unknown. I did not know our men were permitted to plunder in this fashion but it was done just the same. There was a large amount of cotton at the plantation which was to be put on board our boats. I supposed cotton was legitimate plunder but didn’t think the bed clothes and other stuff was.


I thought until then the people of the South were in a starving condition but they seemed to have an abundance of everything. Every plantation we passed we saw plenty of cattle, horses, sheep, chickens, geese &c. At one plantation some distance off a large fire was burning showing us that the Rebels were burning their cotton to keep it from falling into our hands.

I wondered what the Rebels would think when they saw five gunboats crawling out of the woods for it was really like traveling thro’ a woods that had been flooded. They would probably say, “The Yankees will make gunboats that will sail on a wet sponge one of these days.” Sometimes our boats would be so tightly wedged between two trees that we’d have to get the trees up by the roots before we could proceed. I was hoping we would get thro’ before the Rebels heard of our coming for they could give us a great deal of trouble by cutting down trees and placing them across the stream. March 18,1863 still found us battling our way thro’ the woods knocking down trees, pulling down bridges and in fact everything else that came in our way.…

Whenever we passed a plantation a lot of Negroes—men, women and children—would congregate on the bank and gaze at us in wonder. Some of the men took off their hats to us. On every plantation there seemed to be a Planter’s House, a Cotton Gin and some times a Saw Mill and a long row of Negro cottages, not huts or cabins but cottages which any poor person North would be glad to live in. Therefore we must have passed thro’ a prosperous section of the South.

As we passed one plantation a group of Negro women stood on the bank gabbling away as fast as their tongues would let them. One of them sang out to one of our darkies, “When you all coming to take us? Hearn tell of ye a long time but now you are going on without us.”

“We’ll come and get you bye and bye,” said one of our darkies.

“Oh pshaw,” said she, “right now dots de word.” Then they all set up one of those Negro laughs which is indescribable and showed their teeth which glistened like so much ivory.

As we were passing a plantation this [particular] morning, one of our men threw a piece of plug tobacco to a little darky standing on the bank and in a short time a whole gang of little darkies were following us calling out, “Gimme a piece please.” It was laughable to see the little fellows wrestle and scramble after tobacco and hard tack that was thrown to them. Some of the pieces fell into the water and as the little fellows didn’t wear much clothes, off they stripped and into the water they jumped after the plunder. Some of the men brought eggs to us in exchange for tobacco. The Negroes we have taken on board seem to like their new life first rate.

After Lincoln had proclaimed emancipation, the Federal armed services began to recruit fugitive slaves in earnest. The Navy eventually took in thousands of black men and many black women. It put the men to work as seamen, stewards, and cooks and the women as seamstresses, laundresses, and maids.

We had now gotten thro’ the worst part of the bayou with nothing to disturb us except occasionally we came to a bridge which had to be knocked down or in going around a bend we might run against a tree which we had to clear away. One of our boys was badly hurt by a large bough from a tree falling upon him and carrying away part of our smoke stack.

[By this time] all the plantations we passed were burning their crops but this was not the doings of the planters, for six contrabands we took on board said that two cotton burners (supposed to be Rebel officers) passed along the night before and said they had orders to burn all cotton along this stream.…

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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