War on Mississippi River Commerce, 1863–1865

By the summer of 1863, United States National forces had made significant inroads in the Civil War West. Several major victories were won, including the captures of Nashville, Memphis, New Orleans, Vicksburg and Port Hudson, and with them came access to large swaths of land, many miles of river, and numerous towns and villages. Attempts were made to enhance the logistical chain established earlier in the conflict to reinforce and supply military gains, while enhancing commerce. The heaviest lift was provided by steamboats on the rivers, then natural communication arteries.

The Confederate effort to shut down Federal river transport, begun in earnest on the Mississippi in August 1862 and intensified the following year, was not originally launched by the Richmond government, but grew in response to a need for a viable plan to stop Federal logistical support for its military campaigns. After Vicksburg fell, the harassment of Northern river traffic, particularly on the Mississippi, was seen as critical to the achievement of Southern war aims in the West.

To a slightly lesser extent, this concern also applied to the major tributaries of the Big Muddy, particularly those flowing in yet contested regions such as the Tennessee, Cumberland, White, and Red. Union convoy and counterinsurgency efforts on several of these streams were beginning to pay dividends, allowing the USN to give additional attention to the Mississippi.

As earlier, Dixie’s challenge to the watery links in the Yankee supply cord continued through the use of very mobile cavalry forces (regular and partisan), supported by regular infantry and irregular, often mounted partisan units (created by Confederate law to operate independently under army sanction behind Union lines). Fighters from both of those groups were deemed worthy of POW status if captured. Civilian volunteers (variously uniformed—if at all) drawn from the indigenous population and draft dodgers or outlaws were not. All save the latter were considered patriots in the South, but Northerners collectively labeled them as guerrillas, bushwhackers, brigands, or bandits. Not only did they harass Union patrols, communications, and political functions, they also served as a “presence” in local areas. There they assisted in Confederate army recruitment, offered minor government functions in some jurisdictions, scouted for the South around local communities, and harassed ­­Union-oriented neighbors.

Federal frustration with this pesky, continuing Rebel resistance and harassment led to numerous and successively different counterinsurgency policies and initiatives (political, military, and economic), some harsher than others, with none totally effective in ending the interference. Despite official rules as to the treatment of civilians and their property, the Union’s Western gunboatmen, usually unable to pursue attackers inland, almost always responded vigorously to all riverbank attacks. Their inability to identify the residents from the “guerrillas” shooting at them led to the belief that all Caucasians living along an offending shoreline were Rebel sympathizers worthy of revenge.

The opening of the Mississippi in July 1863 was celebrated throughout the North, to great consternation in the South. Knowing that the Confederacy could not close the great stream to the Union, Richmond’s military establishment, led by Secretary of War James Seddon and his colleagues, hoped to come up with an ­­anti-shipping strategy to stifle waterborne trade.

Not all Southern military leaders were immediately concerned with the potential access to the Gulf granted Northern shippers by the Vicksburg/Port Hudson surrender. “The benefits they expect,” thundered Maj. Gen. John B. Magruder, commander of the District of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, in a message to the people of Texas, “will not be reaped by them.” “Sharpshooters,” he bragged, “will line the banks of the Mississippi River, and their deadly volleys will be the only salute to the adventurous foe who may come to force trade over Southern waters.”

Southern newspapers put on a brave face, proclaiming that even with Vicksburg’s loss, their men at arms would “prevent navigation by means of guerrillas and pieces of light artillery, located or moveable, on the river banks.” This “system of guerrillaism,” as The New York Times labeled it in an August 10 editorial, was said to be “in the process of organization” and would make it “impossible to guard both banks of the river for the thousand miles” it passed through Rebel territory.

Unhappily, there were too few regulars, mounted or foot, who could be spared for a ­­long-term and sustained assault on the riverboats while partisan bands, destructive at times, provided only ­­hit-and-miss attacks, while guerrilla endeavors were too small or uncontrollable to achieve useful results. The achievements of the few secret agents–saboteurs, while often spectacular, were insufficient in number to have a lasting impact. Although the prospect of some success for the overall mission was good, chances of shutting down the Mississippi ­­long-term with piecemeal deployments were not.1

The Confederate onslaught against Western river commerce before the capture of Vicksburg and Port Hudson, undertaken with regular and irregular soldiers, was viewed with anger and annoyance by Federal leadership. Attacks by irregulars were viewed as dishonorable and even criminal, even more so when the steamers targeted transported civilians.

Maj. Gen. William S. Sherman, Union commander at Memphis for a period after July 1862, had his hands full attempting to dissuade the “guerrillas” in his vicinity. As was demonstrated on sundry occasions, individual insurgents sniped away at Mississippi River steamers, while, at the same time, larger bands and military units also conducted ­­various-sized raids in the interior.

Regular Federal counterinsurgency operations seemed to yield no positive results. Infantry regiments on foot were no match for speedy horsemen or locals who could quickly fade into the wooded shadows. Attempts to run down those directly responsible for partisan attacks was a fruitless task, but perhaps reprisals against the populace near ambush sites might prove more beneficial.

When shots were fired at the packet Eugene from Randolph, Tennessee, in September 1862, Ohio infantry were ferried to the town and burned it. Still the attacks continued, with some boats targeted by cannon. The introduction of artillery into the ­­anti-shipping war forcefully signified to Union commanders that Confederate field forces were also now targeting the ­­river-based system.

As the war continued without any letup in the South’s watery muggings, so too did the North’s retaliatory policy. At Memphis, whole families of Confederate sympathizers were expelled from their homes. Elsewhere, not only on the Big Muddy but on her tributaries, bluecoats burned river properties and small communities in retaliation for continued assaults. Intelligence, amphibious raids, including those of the Mississippi Marine Brigade after its formation, contraband trading suppression, and interdiction patrols grew in number as major elements in the Union reaction to the enemy shipping menace.

Although largely unnoticed and thus unsung, the waterborne counterinsurgency efforts of the U.S. Army were maintained long past the fall of Vicksburg. At Memphis, for example, it was fairly regular for a steamboat or two to be loaded with troops and dispatched to locations known or thought to harbor “guerrillas.” No actual military gunboats on the order of those employed on the Cumberland or Tennessee Rivers are known to have sortied out of the Tennessee port, as they did from Nashville and also Bridgeport, Alabama.

Occasionally, however, a small contract steamer would have a howitzer and gun crew placed aboard to patrol the harbor area. With soldiers assigned, it could be sent on a specific mission. The Chicago Daily Tribune tells us of one such boat, the Maquoketa City, at the end of August 1863. With help from Frederick Way, we can piece together one of her outings.

On August 22, Capt. E. P. Lane’s ­­55-ton ­­stern-wheeler, with several squads embarked, steamed from Memphis over to the village of Union, Arkansas, to locate a band of Southern fighters believed sheltering there before making attacks on river traffic. When the Maquoketa City arrived, no irregulars were found. However, a captain from the staff of Gen. Braxton Bragg, who had just recruited 43 butternut soldiers for the Army of Tennessee, was taken along with his new men, plus a “number of fine horses,” many stolen earlier from U.S. stock. The lot were returned to Fort Pickering or its adjacent corrals.

By 1863–1864, the Union’s Mississippi River counterinsurgency effort was largely in the hands of the USN and the Mississippi Marine Brigade. RAdm. David Dixon Porter, as we will see, considered commerce protection worthy of the utmost attention. In May 1864, while the Atlanta campaign was unfolding, the U.S. Army further refined its own role.

Maj. Gen. Edward R. S. Canby was now appointed commander of the Military District of West Mississippi and given orders to protect both banks of the Mississippi through armed patrols, by the maintenance of efficient garrisons at river towns, and the encouragement of packets for travel as they did not need to halt at numerous landings. He was particularly to cooperate with the Mississippi Squadron in attacking guerrilla congregations and shoreline positions of Confederate “flying artillery” and employ its assistance in transporting troops from local outposts in raids on Southern assembly points.2

The Mississippi Squadron, initially the army’s Western Gunboat Flotilla, also actively resisted Southern attacks on the river boats, with the intensity of its tactics increasing after the summer of 1862 when new leadership and the first light draught gunboats (“tinclads”) were introduced. Almost as soon as he started his new duties on October 1, the colorful bearded seadog Porter found the guerrilla menace to be one of his command’s most troublesome problems. These irregulars were “firing on unarmed vessels from the river banks and at places not occupied by United States troops, when the steamers stopped.” It was also widely believed that “large quantities of goods were intentionally landed [along the riverbanks] for the rebels and shipped from St. Louis” by unscrupulous businessmen and agents.

The continuing Confederate assault on ­­river-borne shipping was a concern to the maintenance of communications between certain towns and various landings as well as the delivery of men and goods both before and after Vicksburg’s fall. By this point in the conflict, veteran Federal gunboat commanders on all of the rivers knew fairly well the usual locations from which they might be attacked. Many were obvious from the topography of the streams, though there were surprise hotspots. A correspondent from the Chicago Daily Tribune writing on November 23, 1863, pointed out that the prominent points for the “rascally hordes” of irregulars, that fall at least, were

Island No. 16, about 20 miles below New Madrid; Island 63 and the country between Helena and White River, on both the Arkansas and Mississippi shores; Lake Providence; Grand Gulf; Mouth of the Red River; and the West side of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and Donaldsonville. A few have been found between Fort Pillow and Memphis.

RAdm. Porter dealt harshly with irregular warfare, authorizing or condoning blockades, port closures, aggressive convoys and patrols, and counterinsurgency incursions and retaliatory shoreline landings. Key among specific countermeasures was the stationing of picket gunboats off repeat ambush points (such as the USS Rattler off Rodney, Mississippi, where she was nearly captured) and patrols close to the shore, with orders to destroy skiffs and small boats and to disrupt by cannon fire men seen to be “lurking.” Also, in many locations, the levees were breached, disrupting the protection given Southern men and their artillery—to say nothing of nearby agricultural fields.

USS Rattler. This tinclad, shown off Vicksburg, Mississippi, suffered the embarrassment of losing her captain and many crewmen to Confederate cavalrymen during services in a Rodney, Mississippi, church in September 1863. Continuing on USN patrols off that town thereafter, she conducted numerous patrols and frequently escorted merchantmen. On December 10, she was able to directly intercede to rescue the steamer Brazil from Southern attack. Twenty days later, she was lost when struck by a gale near Grand Gulf, Mississippi (Naval History and Heritage Command).

The mission of the Mississippi Marine Brigade was further enhanced when it was specifically assigned to undertake counterinsurgency work in the area near Greenville, Mississippi, and, briefly in spring 1863, on the Tennessee River. Later that fall, it joined in efforts to boost Federal economic warfare strategy by helping to legitimize and promote officially approved elements of the cotton trade along the river. When several of its units were sent to participate in the Red River campaign early in 1864, they were quickly returned to assist in the suppression of “guerrilla” activities on the Mississippi in the Vicksburg area.

As the noose of Federal might strangled both Vicksburg and Port Hudson in 1863, Southern efforts were made—and would be continued for many months—to maintain ­­trans-Mississippi communications. Weapons and foodstuffs, including cattle physically herded over the Big Muddy, were sent west to east while scouts braved the currents in small craft. Mail and other communications continued in both directions. All of these activities were relentlessly choked off by Federal soldiers and sailors, who aggressively harassed all of these operations on the water and in the numerous locations where flat- and rowboats were beached. The interdiction was so successful that Maj. Gen. John A. Wharton, CSA, cried in frustration, “A bird, if dressed in Confederate gray, would find it difficult to fly across the river.”

Most importantly from the Northern perspective, a convoy system for transport, introduced early by the USN, was enhanced and continued. Their sailings were announced days earlier in handbills posted at large and small landings and were conducted between given points thrice weekly. Steamboat captains, military and civilian, desiring naval protection were instructed to make application of the squadron commanders at Cairo, Memphis, or other ports. Three hours before setting out, the escort commander for each group would hoist a white flag with a blue cross and fire a gun as assembly notice.

The initial escort duties had been handled by the timberclads Lexington, Conestoga, and Tyler, a few light draughts, and by other auxiliaries. As time went on, additional tinclads and other gunboats entered the picture, allowing the efficient working of the naval district system established for the fleet in the summer of 1863. As they moved from the limits of one district to another, particularly on the Mississippi, steamers were handed off to escorts assigned to those regions, the captains of which knew that heavy ironclad units were available as backup upon demand. The rigidity of the requirement for this organized naval escort of merchantmen could be loosened and was, but in general, it remained an essential and successful element of the Mississippi Squadron’s counterinsurgency effort. It was practiced with regularity throughout the remainder of the conflict.

River convoy. For hundreds of years in time of war, merchantmen on oceans and streams always stood a better chance of survival against the enemy if they were escorted by warships. Convoys were employed during the Civil War, particularly on rivers, and were introduced early. Though captured on a Florida stream, this photograph of an actual wartime convoy gives the reader some impression of the regularly organized and escorted parades shepherded by vessels of the U.S. Mississippi Squadron (Miller’s Photographic History of the Civil War, v. 6).

There were drawbacks to the convoy system. In order for the boats to complete their ­­up-and-down turnarounds, it was necessary, whenever convoy requirements were in effect, for shipping to idle—often for as long as a week—at river towns waiting for the escorts to return and scheduled convoys to assemble. There were exceptions, as a July 1863 newspaper notice made clear. “Armed vessels, however, going between times will also give convoy, but no regularity must be expected from them, or dispatch, as they may have to stop along the way.”

At main ports, the arrival of large quantities of goods at one time made ­­off-loading dispersal to terminals and other land locations confusing and difficult. In addition, packets often steamed independently, but, if possible, were protected when attacked. Protection was also to be made available, assuming there was advance notice, for Northern cotton speculators and trading vessels wishing to gather or pick up cotton under Treasury Department permit. Its export prohibited by the Confederacy and its import banned under the Federal blockade, cotton, the “white gold” of the Civil War, was in great demand for New England textile mills. Officers detested the detail, though the civilian boats were subject to inspection. Despite some deficiencies in vessels and crew sizes, the effectiveness of this inland river convoy and protection system steadily grew and the number of ­­stacked-up requests for convoy from army quartermasters gradually moderated.

Later after Vicksburg was secured, great emphasis was placed upon a strategy of economic restoration in certain Federally occupied areas. Legal acquisition of cotton was seen as a way of buying the pocketbooks of inhabitants, thereby gaining their political support and also satisfying a need of Northern textile interests. Great quantities of the crop were available for shipment.

For example, the Memphis Bulletin on October 20, 1863, reported that the steamer Crescent City was loading 2,700 bales aboard at the mouth of the White River. Upon sailing, she proceeded to Memphis. Then, before completing her voyage at Cairo, she was unsuccessfully attacked by guerrillas while “­­wooding-up” at the head of Island No. 21.

Cotton steamboat headed north. After Vicksburg was captured, great emphasis was placed upon a strategy of economic restoration in certain Federally occupied areas along the Western rivers. Legal acquisition of cotton was seen as a way of buying the pocketbooks of inhabitants, thereby gaining their political support and also satisfying a need of Yankee textile interests. Great quantities of the crop were available for shipment. For example, the steamer Crescent City (represented here by a later vessel) cleared the mouth of the White River for Memphis and Cairo on October 30, 1863, with her decks stacked with 2,700 bales of cotton (Harper’s Weekly, May 7, 1887).

She was not alone. On November 17, 1863, the New York Daily Tribune reported that cotton was now ascending the river in quantities unseen since the beginning of the war. It was common for boats to arrive at Cairo with anywhere from 1,500 to 2,500 bales of cotton. Because the railroads were unable to handle this amount of private cargo, other steamers then took it up the Ohio to Cincinnati, from whence it passed to the East.

Union maritime forces also participated in the trade, though sometimes on a shady basis. Cotton was a legal prize for gunboatmen and using the stuff for armor, though usually justified, was also a ­­well-understood trick for obtaining extra cash. Assigned to the Memphis–White River area, a reporter from the Chicago Daily Tribune noted that, during the late summer of 1863, numerous gunboats were seen attempting to pad themselves with as much white protection as possible to guard against enemy shot. When covered as completely as practical, a need was suddenly found for repairs and the vessels were posted upstream to the main Mississippi Squadron base at Cairo (also site of a prize court). Upon their return to duty, “no cotton would be visible.” The practice was believed ended that fall, or if not, “the operations are more guarded.”

In addition to its counterinsurgency duty, Mississippi Marine Brigade officers in Mississippi more or less served as agents between white citizens and cotton merchants/speculators at this time. The sanctioned and assisted delivery of cotton to market by Mr. Lincoln’s soldiers convinced many plantation locals, including a number in Arkansas, that more could be achieved through cooperation with the North than support of the Confederate cause or its soldiers, regular or irregular. In spurring economic activity depressed by conflict, this policy, prior to its dissolution at the end of August 1864, actually, as Daniel R. Doyle put it, “gave the locals a reason to rejoin the Union.”3

Attacks on Federal vessels by small units of Confederate regulars or irregular forces and guerrillas of whatever number employing just rifles or muskets could not stop steamers (packets) underway in the main channels or in wider streams if they had not already been lured by ruse to or close to the riverbank. They could, however, in their often daily strikes, particularly on narrow streams where trees and brush came down to the water, do considerable damage to the boats. More importantly, many exposed Union officers and crewmen and some civilians were killed or wounded through brief group fusillades or individuals’ sniping. Several examples will illustrate.

Guerrillas attack a steamer. Dixie’s challenge to the watery links in the Yankee supply cord was executed through the use of very mobile cavalry forces (regular and partisan), supported by regular infantry and irregular, often mounted partisan units (created by Confederate law to operate independently under army sanction behind Union lines). Fighters from both of those groups were deemed worthy of POW status if captured. Civilian volunteers (variously uniformed—if at all) drawn from the indigenous population and draft dodgers or outlaws were not. All save the latter were considered patriots in the South, but Northerners collectively labeled them as guerrillas, bushwhackers, brigands, or bandits. As depicted, true “guerrillas” usually employed muskets to harass Northern steamers (Illustrated London News, June 14, 1862).

Transports passing offshore of islands or a little further out in straight stretches of the Mississippi were perhaps more likely to actually be surprised by musket attack than those passing through the tight stretches of some of her tributaries. These assaults seemed more to annoy than cause damage. An illustration of this occurred on September 5, 1863, near Cow Island, 20 miles below Memphis. While passing down, the officers and crew of the Sunny South were “startled by the report of discharge of a number of small arms discharged from the Arkansas shore.” The firing continued until she had gone by and a number of mini balls penetrated her upper works, though no one was hurt. Not long after, the Memphis Argus reported the next day, the northbound Tecumseh passed the same location and received the same greeting with the same result.

On the other hand, wherever steamers were forced to ease through a bend or otherwise approach the shore, regardless of the Southern river, the presence of Confederate riflemen, regular or irregular, could be anticipated. One such encounter involved the ­­side-wheeler Gladiator, en route from Helena to Memphis on the afternoon of Sunday, September 21. With his passenger cabins bulging, Capt. John Simpson Klinefelter, ­­part-owner and master since 1858 and a legend on the St. Louis to New Orleans run, approached Harrison’s Landing. As his craft neared Burdeau’s chute on the Mississippi shore, a volley of musketry crashed out from unseen Southerners hidden in deep brush along the bank. As the Gladiator steamed out of range, a review found over 20 balls lodged in different parts of the boat. One had passed entirely through the clerk’s office just as that worthy was stepping on deck.

Putting in at major stops, particularly Memphis, steamboat captains often reported that they had personally spotted irregulars lurking along the riverbanks intent on mischief or they had learned of same. For example, on September 19, the packet J. R. Pringle, en route to the Tennessee port from New Orleans, was warned by citizens while stopped to wood at Hagen’s Landing, five miles below. A large band of mounted guerrillas had been seen in the neighborhood and “hints” from their leaders suggested they were planning to soon hit the river to attack steamers.

We do not know if that particular sighting was accurate, but we do know that the Confederates intent upon accomplishing this mission were determined. The removal of several gunboats from districts further down the Mississippi to assist Sherman at the time of the Chattanooga reinforcement in October created opportunities—at least so the Southerners believed—for mischief and enhanced—if not coordinated—movement against ­­far-flung Federal targets of opportunity on all of the rivers. Sometimes their plans were disrupted.

It was learned at the end of September that Confederates who had recently attacked Morganza, Louisiana, from locations in the Atchafalaya were readying a steamer, the Argus, on the Red River back of the Mississippi to ferry troops across the bayou for another raid. On October 7, Acting Chief Engineer Thomas Doughty of the Osage volunteered to take 20 men and seize the boat. Cutting their way through bushes and undergrowth, the team successfully made the capture and that of a second vessel, the Robert Fulton, which came up minutes later. Unable to get the prizes out of the river, Doughty destroyed them.

Writing from the mouth of the White River on November 4, 1863, “Pontiac,” a correspondent for the Chicago Daily Tribune, informed his readers that the “guerrillas” were launching an ­­anti-shipping campaign designed “to put a stop to the navigation of the Mississippi, if such a thing is in the range of possibility.”

According to the newsman, captured Southerners were quite forthcoming in revealing their goal of river denial to all Federal steamers “except armed convoys.” Their tactics of accomplishment were simple: “open fire from the points where the boats pass nearest the shore, on occasions when they are least expected.” Chances of causing damage were believed to be high, though it was problematic as to whether they could actually establish an effective blockade. Still, riverbank foliage offered the assailants “perfect concealment and nothing but grapeshot and shells can drive them out.”

During the week between October 27 and November 3, eight to ten Northern steamers were attacked steaming independently on the Mississippi, mostly without casualties. Aboard Capt. James H. Maratta’s new ­­stern-wheeler Emma No. 2, a man had two bullets pass through the sleeve of his coat without grazing his skin. A lady had her comb shattered by a mini ball as she stood with her side toward the bank from which the Rebels opened fire. Eight people were wounded aboard the world’s largest ­­stern-wheeler, the Adriatic, but no one was killed.

As we saw in Chapter 4, a large irregular force without cannon was unable to halt the visit of Lt. Henry Glassford’s naval and transport task group to the Upper Cumberland in December 1863. One local man did, however, make a big impact.

Working out of a cave hideout near his Stewart County, Tennessee, “­­Between-the-Rivers” home above the Tennessee River, the determined Rebel partisan, John “Old Jack” Hinson, was very effective. It was said the man killed nearly 100 soldiers and crewmen aboard steamers on the waters below before the conflict ended.

These sorts of attacks by usually small groups of irregular Confederates with small arms continued throughout the remainder of the war. Our final example of attempted musket interdiction occurred on October 5, 1864.

While en route from St. Louis for the White River with a cargo of goods and horses, Capt. William G. Vohris’ Eclipse moved past Thweet’s Landing on the Mississippi River bend at the foot of Island No. 17. At this point, a volley of musketry from 10–12 partisans rang out from the Tennessee shore, followed by quick but irregular firing.

Four balls passed through the ­­stern-wheeler’s pilothouse, narrowly missing the pilot. Three others hit the texas deck and saloon while an indefinite number smacked into points below. As they fired, the Confederates shouted out for the boat to surrender and come into the western bank. Two men were wounded and two horses were killed.

Vohris remained on course and called for more steam, moving out of range of the enemy muskets. A number of enemy soldiers chased the Eclipse along the bank, but she soon moved beyond their pursuit.

By December, these kinds of attacks were largely viewed as normal by those in the steamboat business or those taking passage. New York Daily Tribune columnist John L. McKenna, traveling down the entire length of the Mississippi just before Christmas to review whether or not river cruising had changed in ­­three-plus years, summed up. “With some bloody exceptions,” he recorded, “guerrilla firing is much like lightning—if you live long enough to see it or hear it, you may be sure you are not killed!”4

Artillery on the other hand did have ­­ship-busting capability, something regular Southern troops had demonstrated on numerous occasions before the fall of Vicksburg. Its use was a devastating practice continued thereafter. The ­­anti-shipping availability of field and heavier cannon remained, however, subject to the needs of the major units to which they were attached and had no regular sector assignments, being deployed along the rivers from other commitments as immediate demand or opportunity determined. Several attacks may serve as examples.

On July 7, 1863, just after the fall of Vicksburg and before the surrender of Port Hudson, a ­­two-gun section of Capt. Thomas A. Faries’ 5th Battery (“The Pelican Battery”), Louisiana Artillery, arrived at Gaudet’s Plantation, on the east bank of the Mississippi 12 miles below Donaldsonville, Louisiana. There it unlimbered and, from behind embrasures cut in the tall river levee, fired with impunity on nearly a dozen vessels, including gunboats, over the next two days. The dikes, which Faries later called “the best of earthworks,” proved a useful Southern barrier in certain locations on the Lower Mississippi.

In late November, Maj. Gen. John G. Walker’s Texas Cavalry Division (“Walker’s Greyhounds”), then assigned to northeastern Louisiana, was ordered to harass Union shipping from locations near the junction of the Mississippi, Red, and Atchafalaya Rivers, concentrating on the larger independent packets. Among the cannoneers with him was those from Capt. William Edgar’s 1st Texas Field Battery, then attached to Brig. Gen. Henry E. McCulloch’s 1st Brigade. As in the earlier manner of Capt. Faries, Edgar chose high levees for observation and protection, spacing his guns in separated pairs in an ­­anti-shipping pattern that would become almost standardized in months ahead.

USS Choctaw off Vicksburg. Assigned to the Mississippi Squadron’s Third District off the mouth of Red River on November 1863, this powerful ironclad came to the assistance of the badly damaged tinclad Signal attempting to fight masked Confederate batteries. Sending the smaller craft for repairs, the giant offered protection three days later to the steamer Black Hawk as she tried to pass the same Rebel guns (Naval History and Heritage Command).

On November 18, the light draught Signal was towing a ­­9-inch gun on a flatboat to the Third District anchorage at the mouth of the Red River; there it would be turned over to the unit flagboat Choctaw. As she paddled into a bend abreast of the woods on the Red River side of Hog Point, Louisiana (a mile from the mouth of that stream), she was taken under fire by Edgar’s masked battery. The tinclad was badly cut up and five bluejackets were wounded before she could escape to make her delivery.

On the afternoon of November 21, the civilian steamer Black Hawk, en route from Memphis to New Orleans, stopped abreast the Choctaw for a warning of the danger ahead. Refusing an offer of convoy the next morning and believing her speed ensured her safety, the transport left the ironclad’s protection, but only made it half a mile before Edgar struck. Approximately 20 Rebel shells hit the boat, starting a texas deck fire and disabling her steering gear. Choctaw steamed to the rescue firing her great guns, only to find her grounded opposite Hog Point (with one dead and four wounded) in need of a tow.

At a point three to five miles below the river bend at Morganza, Louisiana, while en route from New Orleans to St. Louis on the morning of December 8, Capt. Patrick Gorman’s packet Henry Von Phul was assaulted. Gorman was killed by a cannonball when a third of the pilothouse was smashed, while the barkeeper and a deck hand also present were fatally wounded.

The Von Phul pushed on a few miles to the Federal anchorage off Morganza, where the assault particulars were reported to the commander of the Neosho. In late afternoon, the ­­cut-up transport, led by the monitor, steamed up the river. The two had ascended about three miles when some four pieces of Confederate horse artillery, having let the escort pass, opened fire on the Von Phul from the levee.

The Rebel gunners hit the U.S. transport at least 20 times. Three of their shot passed through the steamer’s hull below the waterline, one cut off her supply pipe, and another penetrated one of her portside boilers. Taking passage, the famous New York Herald correspondent Thomas W. Knox was in his cabin when it was pierced by a cannonball. The impact, he later recalled, was like throwing a paving stone through wet paper. The packet was soon disabled and lost way with only one of her side wheels still working. Two deckhands and seven passengers were wounded.

While the Neosho engaged the battery, driving it off, Capt. Harry McDougal’s Atlantic, steaming to New Orleans from St. Louis, came down the river and moved alongside the Von Phul. The larger craft then made fast and, at considerable risk, towed the late Capt. Gorman’s vessel to the mouth of the Red River.

USS Signal. Back in service two weeks after being damaged off Red River, this tinclad undertook numerous convoys guarding steamboats against mobile Confederate batteries. During the evening of December 8, 1863, the Signal arrived off Morganza, Louisiana, convoying three steamers. There she encountered the monitor Neosho, which had engaged nearby Rebel shore guns earlier in the day. Next morning, the two escorted the merchantmen down the river and, when off the points where the Confederate batteries had appeared, shelled the shores until all were past. A participant in the spring 1864 Red River campaign, the Signal was disabled by Southern gunners on May 4, run ashore, and burned (Naval History and Heritage Command).

During the evening, the light draught Signal arrived off Morganza convoying three steamers. The following morning she, together with the Neosho, escorted the merchantmen down the river. When off the points where the Confederate batteries had appeared, the two Union warships shelled the shores until all were past.

On the Mississippi side of the Rodney bend two days later, horsemen from Col. Wirt Adams’ 1st Mississippi Cavalry Regiment attacked the ­­stern-wheeler Brazil with four field cannon and muskets. The transport was badly cut up, two women passengers were killed and four men were wounded. The tinclad Rattler responded rapidly, arriving in time to fire upon the cavalrymen as they limbered their guns and made away into the woods. Neither troopers nor sailors were hurt and the steamer continued upriver.

Confederate assaults on Union river shipping continued throughout the fall of 1863 and into the spring of 1864. For a while after New Year’s, there seemed to be a decline on the Lower Mississippi, one which was noticed by the press. In a laudatory editorial in the April 4 edition of The New York Times, it would be suggested that, although the South had claimed control over a thousand miles of the great stream “not a great while ago,” the distance was now “not only navigable, but is navigated by large numbers of commercial steamers.” With less than two dozen steamboat attacks widely reported since January 1, it appeared that the Rebel “interruptions and eruptions” feared and anticipated since the fall of Vicksburg “had hardly amounted to anything.” Lack of spare Southern soldiers to make the attacks and swift gunboat response to those few perpetrated had, it was incorrectly believed, caused “guerrilla operations on the river to have all but ceased.”

One of the most common events in the ­­cat-and-mouse game between Union gunboats and the Confederate military after Vicksburg’s fall was a constant effort by the latter to get men, arms and foodstuffs east across the Mississippi. We review several events in January 1864 as examples.

During the first week of the year, Brig. Gen. Lawrence “Sul” Ross, CSA, commander of the Texas Cavalry brigade, appeared above Greenville, Mississippi, for the purpose of ferrying goods across the Mississippi and harassing Union shipping. While the crossings were made, horse artillery was unlimbered not far from Island No. 82.

About this time, two steamers, the Delta and Belle Creole, appeared and were fired upon. Although they were damaged to one degree or another, neither was taken. By the time news of the assault reached the tinclad Petrel on patrol near Sunnyside, Alabama, and she was able to come down, the enemy had disappeared. Abandoned ferry flatboats were, however, captured and destroyed before their logistical mission could be accomplished.

As she passed the foot of Rodney Bend with a tow of coal for the army on January 25, the steamer Champion No. 3, sometimes known as the “New Champion,” was volleyed from the west bank of the Mississippi by riflemen who did little damage. When appraised of the incident, the tinclad Forest Rose steamed in fruitless search of the perpetrators. Near the town of Rodney, an “armed Rebel” was seen fleeing from the ruins of an abandoned sawmill, which was promptly burnt by a landing party from the gunboat.

During the same week, according to a Philadelphia newspaper, the steamer Gilburn was seized by irregulars near Island No. 75 and employed to transport their horses, mules, and wagons from the Louisiana to the Mississippi side of the river. They also carried away cargo from Bolivar Landing and set fire to several houses in the town. For some unknown reason, “no harm was done to the boat or cargo.”

These sorts of activities continued for several additional months, but by late summer, the weight of Federal arms would all but end any Dixie hopes of ­­large-scale relief flowing across the Big Muddy. On September 30, the Montgomery Mail confessed that the Mississippi was “patrolled by the Yankees with sleepless watchfulness, rendering it impossible to cross anywhere.”

Despite occasional lulls in assaults on Northern steamers on the Lower and Middle Mississippi, they continued there in 1864, as well as upon most of her tributaries, including the Ohio, Cumberland, Tennessee, White and Arkansas Rivers. Almost from the year’s beginning, the ­­ship-to-shore conflict was sharp between escorted Northern steamers and Confederate raiders intent upon disrupting river traffic.

The ball always seemed to open with shooting from Southern ambushers after which Federal protectors hurled shells toward the perceived locations of the perpetrators. These skirmishes, which could last from five minutes to several hours, were extremely loud and intense, and occasionally featured sailors or shock troops sent ashore in pursuit from the gunboats or Mississippi Marine Brigade boats. Afterwards, the leaders of both sides usually reported different success levels for the outcomes of the little engagements. There were few casualties or little damage to the combatants, particular to the elusive Confederates, and far more to civilians and their property, some of which was abandoned or burned. The latter was particularly true after Union generals, on occasion, sent large forces to sweep riverfront areas in specifically targeted counterinsurgency strikes.5

Of potentially greater impact on Northern shipping than the riverbank attacks was a secretive scheme, carried out over about a year after August 1863 with Confederate government approval, to burn boats docked in port. The exact number and names of all the participants in the operation is unknown as are the particulars for a number of the losses. Men with names like Edward Frazer or Frazor, Robert Loudon, William Murphy, and J. W. Tucker, believed emissaries of Richmond leaders like Secretary Seddon, were supposedly involved and were listed in an April 25, 1865, report by Department of Missouri Provost Marshal Col. James H. Baker.

Of the 350 boats lost on the Western waters during the conflict, upwards of 29 fell victim to this shadowy conspiracy or, as Lewis B. Parsons later tabulated, 8.8 percent, a figure dwarfed by the 155 vessels (47.4 percent) destroyed in accidents. The colonel’s charting details the losses.

The operation began with the destruction of the steamer Ruth, carrying a $2.5 million military payroll, near Columbus, Kentucky, on August 4. ­­Thirty-eight lives were lost. Saboteur Murphy took out the Champion at Memphis on August 21 for a $3,500 payment, while the mysterious Frazier and associates burned the Imperial, Hiawatha, Post Boy, and Jesse K. Bell at the St. Louis levee on September 14.

While passing Milliken’s Bend on September 28, the transport Robert Cambell, Jr., was set afire allegedly by an unknown Confederate incendiary dressed as an African American. The vessel was completely consumed, with the blaze spreading so quickly that nearly all of the passengers and crew had to jump overboard with upwards of 20 killed. On October 4, Frazier struck the same port again, torching the Chancellor, Forest Queen, and Catahouls. The scene shifted to Louisville, Kentucky, on February 5, 1864, when incendiaries claimed the towboat Robert Lee and the ­­side-wheeler D. G. Taylor.

Other vessels were also eliminated; the largest number burned occurred during two 1864 incidents. At New Orleans, Louisiana, on May 28, incendiaries destroyed the steamers Laurel Hill, Empire Parish, Black Hawk, Meteor, Fawn, Time and Tide, Belle Creole, and Louisiana Belle. Saboteurs at St. Louis on July 15 accounted for the Northerner, Welcome, Sunshine, Ed. F. Dix, and Cherokee.6

Union Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele’s VII Corps participation in the Red River campaign is often called the Camden expedition because that is as far as his Federal army was able to get from Little Rock before turning about and returning to the state capital on May 3, 1864. The failure, coming before RAdm. Porter was able to extricate himself from the Red, emboldened Confederates within Arkansas and elsewhere in the ­­Trans-Mississippi and encouraged grayclad troops to ride roughshod over Arkansas, “plundering and overawing the Unionists,” as Benson J. Lossing put it right after the war.

In ­­mid-May, Confederate Lt. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith ordered preparations begun for a late summer invasion of Missouri. As the month closed, its designated leader, Maj. Gen. Sterling Price, ordered a ­­short-term sweep of Arkansas by Brig. Gen. John S. Marmaduke’s cavalry division. Specifically, his District of Arkansas unit was to end the depredations of guerrillas turned terrorists and halt contraband trading with the enemy, recruit new troops, eliminate the small riverbank Federal outposts manned by African American soldiers, disrupt Federal logistics, and, in general, rekindle the flames of the rebellion where they had died down.

The Union gunboatmen on the Mississippi, Arkansas, and White Rivers would now increasingly face the same kind of enemy challenge as their colleagues on the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers: a concentrated Southern strategy of irregular blockade initiated by regular troops, partisans and guerrillas. In a letter home on June 6, Paymaster’s Steward John Swift of the tinclad Silver Cloud observed that, during this time, Rebels were “as thick as peas everywhere.”

Inland of the Mississippi, one of the two Confederate brigades undertaking the District of Arkansas task was nicknamed the “Iron Brigade,” under the legendary cavalryman Brig. Gen. Joseph O. (“Jo”) Shelby, the most famous butternut horse soldier in the ­­Trans-Mississippi theater. His mounted force of between 2,000 and 3,000 men, with the Missouri battery of Capt. Richard Collins, moved across the Arkansas River east of Little Rock and headed toward the Federal logistical hub at DeValls Bluff on the White River. In addition to the recruiting/pacification mission, Shelby would specifically seek to block Steele’s logistical flow by attacking his supply lines between Little Rock and the Bluff.

More importantly to this chapter Marmaduke ordered the ­­less-famous but equally determined and colorful colonel, Colton Greene, to take the division’s second brigade to the banks of the Mississippi and shut down Union shipping, while also putting “an immediate quietus” on local cotton trading with the Federals. These horsemen would engage Northern gunboats and amphibious forces in a spirited, but largely unremembered, campaign from the flat, featureless bottomlands along the west bank of the Mississippi in Chicot County, the southeasternmost county in Arkansas.

Col. Colton Greene, CSA. On of the most effective Confederate Western theater anti-shipping commanders, Greene blockaded the Mississippi River in the Greenville Bends area for several weeks in late May and early June 1864. Employing Missouri cavalry and the guns of Capt. Joseph Pratt’s Texas Battery, he punished commercial vessels, as well as USN tinclads and amphibious boats of the Mississippi Marine Brigade, halting river traffic (U.S. Army Military History Institute).

Accompanying the 800–900 men of his 3rd Missouri Cavalry, temporarily led by Capt. Benjamin Crabtree, Greene was joined by four other Missouri cavalry regiments, plus six fieldpieces of Capt. Joseph H. Pratt’s Texas Battery. These artillerymen were the most experienced “­­ship-busters” along on the expedition, having attacked Federal shipping from the same location in summer 1862 while serving with the Texas Cavalry Brigade of Col. William Henry Parsons. A few other artillery sections would also join as the fortnight continued.7

While Southern ­­Trans-Mississippi area soldiers confronted the Red River campaign from January into May, the Union military and naval forces assigned to the Chicot County sector enjoyed relatively peaceful duty. In addition to the Mississippi Marine Brigade vessels stationed at Greenville, Mississippi, Lt. Cmdr. Elias K. Owen commanded the Sixth District of the Mississippi Squadron from the old ironclad Louisville at Vicksburg. On May 17, as RAdm. Porter’s fleet was escaping Alexandria, Louisiana, via the Bailey Dam, Owen recorded the stations of his four tinclads, as they undertook patrols and protected merchantmen: “The Prairie Bird was in the Yazoo, the Exchange was at Skipwith’s Landing, and the Romeo was stationed off Gaines Landing [five miles above Island No. 82] ‘as a center,’ while the Marmora patrolled ‘from Island [No.] 76 to Napoleon.’”

Over the next few days, intelligence concerning possible Confederate movements inland of the Mississippi began filtering into Union outposts. Acting Master Thomas Baldwin, captain of the Romeo, was apprised by a “reliable woman” that the Rebels would “have 30 pieces of artillery on the river in a few days.” On May 22, Acting Master’s Mate De Witt C. Morse, an officer aboard the tinclad Curlew, then passing through Vicksburg, learned “that Marmaduke, with 6,000 men and a battery of ten or fifteen guns, was at Island No. 82 preparing to blockade the river.” Simultaneously, Baldwin heard that butternut scouts had several times foraged to the edge of the river in these Greenville Bends (named for the town on the eastern bank in the state of Mississippi) and had fired into transports at the foot of that island.

On the evening of May 23, Col. Greene’s command, with Pratt’s attached artillery, arrived at Campbell’s Landing, on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River near Gaines Landing, where he could employ to his advantage the navigational dangers of the winding river stretch between Chicot Lake and Gaines Landing. Here the more heavily loaded steamboats, with a top speed of about 9–10 mph, were, depending upon their north or south direction, always forced to come closer to shore on one side of the stream than the other (closer to Arkansas going down) as they navigated through long river curves separated by narrow peninsulas of land.

Given this topography, Pratt placed his batteries in two or more locations, allowing vessels to sail past one into the teeth of another without the possibility of backward escape. Or, these horse artillery units could be quickly limbered and speed across a neck of land from one bend to another, catching surviving steamers more than once.

One of the bends, Cypress Bend, with Columbia, Arkansas, was at the upper side and Leland Landing on the lower, was a particular favorite of the Confederate leader. A steamer negotiating this bend traveled 18 miles around by water, but horse artillery and cavalry, operating at the base of the neck, had only to race 3.5 miles over a good road to get from one side to another.

The most effective Southern attempt to completely block the Mississippi River to Federal traffic during the entire war began before dawn on May 24. The trading steamer Lebanon was fired upon 10 miles below Greenville and her steam pipe was hit and burst, allowing the boat to be captured. Moving to the bank, she was boarded and looted. After $70,000 worth of dry goods and $30,000 in greenbacks were removed, the vessel was burned and her freed crewmen told to pass the word that if any additional merchants or cotton speculators were captured they would be executed. Simultaneously, Capt. Pratt’s battery was placed on top of the riverbank levee at Gaines Landing, with their support stationed under cover 50 yards in the rear. Action was not long in coming.

It was just past 4 a.m. when the Curlew paddled upstream past Island No. 82, following the timberclad Tyler by about two miles. When the light draught reached a point about ­­three-quarters of a mile away from the enemy, the disposition of the Confederate mobile battery, which Greene would repeat in the days ahead, could be clearly distinguished by her lookouts. Three or four guns were mounted on the edge of the bank in clear sight while the remainder were hidden behind the levee. The Rebel gunners, perhaps familiar with the big guns of the timberclad, chose to let the Tyler pass before opening fire.

The little gunboat responded promptly (“every officer was at his station as soon as the ball opened,” wrote Mate Morse later) allowing the four portside howitzers to “give them one broadside before the thieves had given us their second round.” Perhaps expecting an easy sinking, Greene’s gunners, like the men of the Curlew, found themselves engaged in a very spirited 20–35 minute (depending upon your source) gunfight.

The Curlew was hit multiple times by the Confederate cannon in what many would remember as the “hottest engagement” in which the boat was ever engaged. In response to the Rebel gift, the tinclad’s howitzers sent 28 rounds toward shore, some of which were believed to have struck “in their midst.” Throughout the fight, her whistle sounded to warn the Tyler of the attack, but before the ancient warship could round to and arrive with assistance, Col. Greene’s horse artillery limbered up and moved down the riverbank.8

Col. Greene, though low on ammunition, maintained his blockade. With 10–14 guns now available, he was able to split and rest his forces, alternating one battery and a covering regiment to the river each day. Additional exchanges occurred between the butternut cannoneers and the Mississippi Marine Brigade/USN, but by June 3, river traffic through the Greenville Bends had ceased. During this time, one trooper was lost and five injured, but none of Pratt’s guns were damaged or horses hit. ­­North-South cotton trading did cease in the Chicot County area as the MMB effort was transferred to Greenville. Both Greene and Marmaduke were pleased with the interdiction strike, the latter reporting that “the navigation of the Mississippi River has been seriously obstructed, and both by land and water the enemy has received no little damage.”

Out on the river, many of the ­­ship-shore combats of the ­­two-week interdiction were spirited. None of the tinclads engaged or any transports were sunk, though two of the latter were captured. Three of Lt. Col. Currie’s Mississippi Marine Brigade vessels participated in the protection of passing steamers and all were damaged, but it was the stiff defense and rough handling of the tinclads Curlew, Romeo, and Exchange which gained attention. RAdm. Porter and Lt. Cmdr. Owen praised their captains, while the success of Pratt’s gunners in combating them was remarked upon by Shelby’s adjutant, John Edwards, in his postwar history. There he claimed that the attacks on the trio

utterly destroyed the prestige and name of terror of these boats with the soldiery; indeed, so little did they come to care for them, that while the batteries were engaged, the soldiers not on duty did not interrupt their games of cards, or other amusement of the moment, though sharply exposed to their fire.

It is quite probable that news of the ­­Louisiana-Arkansas triumphs enjoyed by the Confederates against USN vessels or ships and locations under their protection in May and June was picked up by other Southern military leaders in the West, most especially Nathan Bedford Forrest. Because of these admittedly few successes, Northern newspapers lamented that Southerners of the region “have become emboldened and have less fear of the navy than formerly.”9

As might be expected, those on the receiving end of Col. Greene’s largess greatly overestimated the forces they faced. MMB, U.S. Army, and Mississippi Squadron officers all believed themselves engaged against 5,000–10,000 men with upwards of 40 guns. It would take a large force, they reasoned, to break the stranglehold. So it was that two divisions of Red River veterans from Maj. Gen. A. J. Smith’s XVI Corps, then at Vicksburg preparing to voyage to Memphis for reintegration into the Army of the Tennessee, were ordered to make a detour. Working with the MMB, it became their job to “clean out the rebels” in Chicot County or otherwise halt their ­­anti-shipping war by giving them “such a lesson as will deter them from a renewal of similar attempts.”

Smith’s people and the MMB arrived at Sunnyside Landing on the evening of June 5. When the men were ashore, they marched in the rain the next day in overwhelming numbers against Col. Greene’s few, but prepared men. The engagement at Old River Lake (Battle of Ditch Bayou) resulted in a Confederate withdrawal.

Brig. Gen. A. J. Smith. To counter the anti-shipping mission of Confederate Col. Colton Greene, the Union dispatched two divisions of Red River campaign veterans of the U.S. Army’s XVI Corps under Brig. Gen. A. J. Smith. His reinforcements arrived at Sunnyside Landing, Chicot County, AR, landing on June 6 to engage the few, but prepared, Southerners. The resulting engagement at Old River Lake (Battle of Ditch Bayou) resulted in a Rebel withdrawal (Library of Congress).

As soon as the little campaign was completed, Smith’s bluecoats reboarded their transports and departed up the river. The Southerners also rode out of Chicot County, headed for the Arkansas and White River regions. As the emphasis of our story shifts elsewhere, we note that the commerce of the Mississippi was resumed, both transport and agricultural. Although Southern attacks on steamboats continued, they were of the sudden ­­hit-and-run variety and not sustained Confederate regular army ­­anti-shipping campaigns like Greene’s. The same could not be said for some of the Big Muddy’s other tributaries, notably the White, Tennessee, and Cumberland Rivers.10

Although the Greene campaign was unique in its coordinated intensity, single encounters could be quite dramatic, like that of the Madison and the Clarabel. While nearly opposite Napoleon, Arkansas, on the morning of July 21, the troop transport Madison with the 19th Pennsylvania Volunteers embarked, was volleyed by some 30 Southerners from shore a short distance above the levee. Three Federal soldiers were wounded, one mortally, while two Confederates were seen to fall. The steamer was undamaged.

On July 23, the Clarabel departed Vicksburg for the White River transporting four companies of the Sixth Michigan Infantry. As she passed Ashton Landing, in Louisiana Bend, the next morning, she was surprised by a masked Confederate battery. When the vessel blew her whistle in surrender, it appeared that another Northern steamer was captured, but, as the butternuts prepared to board, she started ahead again with great clouds of smoke escaped from her chimneys. Angered, the angry gunners and sharpshooters targeted her once more, slamming roundshot and musketballs into her sides.

Escaping out of range with seven wounded and the enemy in pursuit, the Federal boat came to on the bar off Caroline Landing to make repairs and a messenger set off across the six miles to the USN Skipwith’s Landing anchorage for help. When the Confederates arrived and resumed firing, the tinclad Prairie Bird came over and tried but failed to drive them off. She then paddled back to base for an ironclad.

USS Louisville. The veteran Union ironclad was photographed during the Red River campaign by McPherson & Oliver of New Orleans. Following that operation, she served as flagboat of the Mississippi Squadron’s Sixth District and provided support for the U.S. Army during the June 1864 engagement at Old River Lake (Battle of Ditch Bayou). Later, in July, she recovered survivors of the steamer Clarabel, destroyed in a Confederate attack near Skipwith’s Landing. She would remain on station until withdrawn from service a year hence (Library of Congress).

While naval relief was sought and after several failed surrender parlays, the Confederates resumed firing. It was said the steamer was hit 30 times before she was enveloped in flames. Although none of the crew was injured, thirteen Michigan soldiers were wounded, two fatally, and all of the regiment’s military equipment was destroyed. The Confederates having removed toward Columbia, together the crew and the largely unarmed soldiers marched overland to Skipwith’s while the wounded, left behind to await rescue, were taken aboard when the Louisville arrived.11

The Arkansas shore in the Greeneville Bends sector remained a favorite location for Confederate ­­anti-shipping batteries throughout August. Although the perpetrators’ exact identifies are unknown, several groups assaulted Union steamers and their escorts, with the riverbanks around Gaines Landing being a particular favorite. Every Southern soldier involved dreamed that they would sink or better yet capture a fat Yankee prize.

Capt. John Molloy’s ­­854-ton Empress, the largest packet plying the Mississippi, with a manifest of 455 passengers and 45 crew, was the most impressive possibility encountered. Passing about 450 yards offshore of a point two miles below Gaines on August 10, she was attacked by a ­­six-gun masked battery. Before she could be rescued by the light draught Romeo, the giant was struck by artillery rounds 63 times; Molloy and four passengers were killed while 15 aboard were wounded. Going into the beach on the Mississippi shore below, the badly damaged vessel was repaired and continued on the next day.

In Rowdy Bend nearby the next day, the patrolling tinclad Prairie Bird was also struck by 34 rounds from a Southern battery, possibly the same one which hit Empress. Although five men were wounded (one fatally), she too was rescued by the Romeo, which was returning to base after the Empress encounter.

Another favorite and ­­long-standing location for Confederate horse artillery was far down the Big Muddy at Ellis’ Cliffs, about 15 miles below Natchez. While passing that point early on August 18, the steamer Lancaster No. 4 suddenly became a target for a ­­four-gun battery. Countless musket rounds and at least 20 cannonballs sought her, with three of the latter striking the boat, one of which “passed through the ladies’ cabin.” Fortunately, no one was hurt as the craft moved out of range.

These ­­pop-up encounters continued on a damaging, but irregular basis. By August 20, the Memphis Daily Bulletin was reporting that all transports from below were obliged to exhibit extreme caution, passing Gaines Landing by night with all lights out.12

Attacks on Mississippi River shipping continued during the summer and fall. While often newsworthy, they could not halt commercial traffic. For example, while en route north from New Orleans on the morning of August 28, the ­­side-wheeler White Cloud was attacked from the left (Louisiana) side of the Mississippi near one of the islands below Bayou Sara. Confederate cannoneers were said to have gotten off 13 shots, of which five took effect in the hull and cabin. One hit her steam pipe, causing her to be disabled. Her upper works were peppered by volleys of musketry, but no one was injured. As the White Cloud drifted toward her enemy, the tinclad Kenwood came to her rescue. After firing her guns at the grayclad attackers, the light draught passed a line and towed the transport out of danger, remaining with her until her engineers could make repairs.

Further up the river, a battery said to contain eight cannon, including two ­­12-pounder howitzers, fired into the packet Henry Chouteau as she, too, was making her way north from the Crescent City to St. Louis. In addition to mini balls, five artillery shells ploughed into the craft, but she was not damaged and none of her passengers or crew were hurt. The patrolling light draught Nymph heard the gunfire and went to the giant steamer’s assistance, arriving in time to provide escort out of the danger area.

USS Nymph. Commissioned in April 1864, Nymph was among the latter tinclads acquired by the USN Mississippi Squadron. Often called upon to deliver dispatches, she was attached to the Second District, patrolling the waters between Donaldsonville and Morganza, Louisiana. On August 28, she steamed to the rescue of the packet Henry Chouteau, under attack from Confederate batteries near Bayou Sara (Naval History and Heritage Command).

As late as fall 1864 it was still not unusual for Rebel irregulars to attempt the capture of steamers either wooding or loading cotton. On October 27, the Belle of St. Louis put into a landing near Randolph, Tennessee, to take on the white gold, at which point upwards of 40 hiding Confederates tried to rush aboard and take control. Two “guerrillas” who jumped on attempted to seize control of the pilothouse, but were killed by a pair of U.S. Army paymasters aboard protecting a secret $40,000 payroll. Although mortally wounded, their action allowed the pilot to back out and the vessel to escape.

Union arms received a break during the colder months as Confederate attacks were concentrated inland in Alabama and Tennessee and were muted further south and west. While the number was down, assaults still occurred and it remained dangerous for sailors and passengers to be aboard or from either a Northern transport or a gunboat.

Another example of these sporadic and uncoordinated assaults occurred on Saturday, November 19. Approximately 40 butternut irregulars hiding on the bank below Randolph, Tennessee, fired into the steamer Golden Eagle, paddling to Memphis from Cincinnati. Passengers later reported that only three balls entered the boat, including one each through the pilothouse and sky light and a third that struck the leg of a porter but fell “at his feet without otherwise injuring him.” Supposedly, the chief of the “bandits” hailed the craft before his men opened fire.

A half hour later, the ­­418-ton packet Southwestern passed the same spot below Island No. 35, but was not molested. Arriving at Memphis, passengers told the always ready newspaper correspondents that three guerrillas were seen lurking on the bank as the boat passed.

While ashore at Raccourci, near Williamsport, Louisiana, in the Tunica Bend area, on November 25, a party led by Acting Volunteer Lt. Charles Thatcher, captain of the tinclad Gazelle, was surprised by Rebel insurgents. In the firefight between the four navy men and an unknown number of the enemy, Thatcher was killed. The New Orleans Daily True Delta reported the Federals were “duck hunting.”

As reported above, New York reporter John L. McKenna, en route down the Mississippi from Cairo to New Orleans just before the 1864–65 holidays, was taking stock of river conditions after so many months of ­­anti-shipping and counterinsurgency warfare. One did not get far below Cairo, Illinois, when it became obvious that the prewar “pen and ink panorama” of the Mississippi would “have to be written again.” Although the “cloud of war” had cast but a light shadow over the Big Muddy between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, it was safe to say that further upstream in “guerrilla country” the shoreline was devastated. “From Memphis to Baton Rouge, a distance of some 600 miles” he observed, “there is not now standing in sight of the river more than one dozen houses … which in some instances were not destroyed.”

On December 31, the ­­stern-wheeler Venango was taken by insurgents at Pilcher’s Point, Louisiana, five miles above Skipwith’s Landing. Although there were no casualties, the perpetrators took $60,000 and quickly forced the captain, crew and passengers ashore, suspecting that another boat following a mile behind was a gunboat. When the trailing Mollie Able arrived, it found the Venango burned to the water’s edge, a $15,000 loss for her Vicksburg owners.

While landing to wood at Tiptonville, Tennessee, on the Mississippi the same day, the steamer Silver Moon was fired into by 15 “guerrillas” lurking behind the fuel near a warehouse. She escaped capture by immediately backing out into the stream and heading away.

Apprised, the tinclad New Era steamed down on the first day of January 1865 to investigate. Her captain met ashore with the town’s solons, repeating the facts as he knew them, and announcing that Tiptonville would be burned in retaliation. The community, he noted, was disloyal and a guerrilla hangout. Finally, after much discussion—some heated—the skipper relented and ordered only two small houses and the offending woodpile be torched.

In addition to wartime attacks, gunboats and steamboats continuously faced natural and navigational challenges. Not only was the river itself with its bars, shoals, rapids, bends and eddys difficult, but so was the weather, including ice, fog, and flooding. And then there was human error. Near Palmyra Island, some 30 miles below Vicksburg, on January 7, the northbound steamer John Raine ran into the port side of the troop transport John H. Dickey, which was taking elements of the 161st New York Volunteer Infantry to New Orleans from the White River. The Dickey’s guards were torn off as far back as the ­­cook-house, her chimneys collapsed, and other miscellaneous damage was inflicted on both craft. Although it was possible for the Raine to continue and the Dickey to be towed to Vicksburg, tragically, upwards of 80 Empire State soldiers were knocked overboard during the accident and drowned.

Southern insurgents continued to operate in or near towns and communities up and down the Western streams as the new year started. Outrages, such as robberies and shootings, followed. Although a number of boats were shot up, only one more was actually destroyed by Rebel enterprise before the end of the month. En route past Memphis on January 11, the Grampus No. 2 was captured by irregulars at Little Chicken Island and burned. She was insured for $6,500.13

1. U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (128 vols.; Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1880–1901), Series I, Vol. 22, Pt. 2, 114, 867–869, 946, 952–953, 971, 988, 1063 (cited hereafter as OR, followed by the series number, volume number, part number, if any, and page[s]); OR, I, 24, 2: 290, 507, 516; OR, I, 26, 2: 114; OR, I, 52, 2: 599–601, 638–639; OR, I, 34, 2: 1065–1067; U.S. Navy Department, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (31 vols.; Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1894–1922), Series I, Vol. 23, 209 (cited hereafter as ORN, followed by the series number, volume number, part number, if any, and page[s]);The New York Times, August 10, 1863; Mark Grimsley, The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861–1865 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 98, 112; Daniel Sutherland, A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 18–19.

2. OR, I, XIII, 742–743; OR, XVII, 1, 144–145; OR, I,XVII, 2: 184, 235–236, 261, 280–281, 860; OR, I, 22, 2: 792; OR, I, 34, 4: 59–60; OR, I, 39, 2: 77, 363; Evansville Daily Journal, September 30, 1862; Memphis Daily Bulletin, September 27, 1862; Nashville Daily Dispatch, October 10, 1862; Chicago Daily Tribune, August 29, 1863; William T. Sherman, Memoirs (2 vols.; New York: D. Appleton, 1875), I, 388; Brooks D. Simpson and Jean V. Berlin, eds., Sherman’s Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman, 1860–1865 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 240, 262, 282, 305–310, 347; Noel C. Fisher, “‘Prepare Them for My Coming’: General William T. Sherman, Total War, and the Pacification of West Tennessee,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, LI (1992), 78–79; Grimsley, The Hard Hand of War, 114–119; Benjamin Franklin Cooling, Fort Donelson’s Legacy: War and Society in Kentucky and Tennessee, 1862–1863 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997), 72, 321. Canby retained his command for the remainder of the war, though another officer filled in temporarily after he was wounded on the White River in November. For a biography of the general, see Max L. Heyman, Jr., Prudent Soldier: A Biography of Major General E. R. S. Canby (Glendale, CA: Clark, 1959); Frederick Way, Jr., Way’s Packet Directory, 1848–1994: Passenger Steamboats of the Mississippi River System Since the Advent of Photography in ­­Mid-Continent America (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1983; rev. ed., Athens: Ohio University Press, 1994), 306.

3. OR, I, 34, 2: 735, 746, 768; OR, I, 45, 2: 765; ORN, I, 23: 379–380, 390, 394, 451–452, 348–352, 388,395–396, 449. 472, 630; ORN, I, 24: 197–202, 224; ORN, I, 25, 372; ORN, I, 26: 503–506; Detroit Free Press, July 23, 1863; Baltimore Sun, July 27, 1863; Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, October 2, 1863; Memphis Bulletin, October 20, 1863; The New York Times, November 2, 1863; Chicago Daily Tribune, November 14, 23, 1863; New York Daily Tribune, November 17, 1863; Chester G. Hearn, Admiral David Dixon Porter: The Civil War Years (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996), 145, 151–152; Cooling, Fort Donelson’s Legacy, 115, 163; Grimsley, The Hard Hand of War, 117; Warren Crandall, History of the Ram Fleet and the Mississippi Marine Brigade in the War for the Union on the Mississippi and Its Tributaries (St. Louis, MO: Buschart Brothers, 1907), 97–129, 255–263, 316–323. 378; Chester G. Hearn, Ellet’s Brigade: The Strangest Outfit of All (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000), 73, 145–146, 181–186, 260; Gary D. Joiner, Through the Howling Wilderness: The 1864 Red River Campaign and Union Failure in the West (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2006), 71; Daniel R. Doyle, “The Civil War in the Greenville Bends,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly, LXX (Summer 2011), 155 (whole 131–161) . In August 1862, Western Gunboat Flotilla commander Flag Officer Charles Henry Davis created the Upper River Mosquito Flotilla (later Eighth District, Mississippi Squadron) under Lt. Cmdr. Le Roy Fitch as a nautical counterinsurgency and ­­convoy-army support force, equipping it with several of the first tinclads. ORN, I, 23: 207–309; Charles H. Davis, Charles H. Davis: Life of Charles Henry Davis, Rear Admiral, 1807–1877 (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1899), 274. Fitch is profiled in my Le Roy Fitch: The Civil War Career of a Union Gunboat Commander (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., Inc., 2007).

4. ORN, I, 25: 450–459; ORN, I, 26: 705; Memphis Argus, September 6, 1863 Memphis Daily Bulletin, September 22, 1863; Chicago Daily Tribune, October 21, 23, November 4, 1863, October 14, 17, 1864; New York Daily Tribune, December 26, 1864; Leo E. Huff, “Guerrillas, Jayhawkers and Bushwhackers in Northern Arkansas During the Civil War,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly, XXIV (Summer 1965), 133–135; Marion Bragg, Historic Names and Places on the Lower Mississippi River (Vicksburg: Mississippi River Commission, 1977), 110; Tom McKenney, Jack Hinson’s One Man War: A Civil War Sniper (New Orleans, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 2009); Murfreesboro Post, April 3, 2011.

5. ORN, I, 25: 570–575, 614–615, 624–627, 636; 678, 737; OR, I, 26, 1: 220–222, 525; New York Herald, December 19,1863; Evansville Daily Journal, December 19, 1863; New York Daily Tribune, January 11, 1864; Nashville Daily Union, December 15, 1863; Hartford Daily Courant, January 28, 1864; The New York Times, April 4, October 4, 1864; North American and United States Gazette, February 10, 1864; Chicago Daily Tribune, January 21, 29, March 2, 1864; Montgomery Mail, September 30, 1864; Crandall, History of the Ram Fleet, 95–97, 119–131; Norman Clarke, Warfare Along the Mississippi: The Letters of Lt. Col. George E. Currie (Mount Pleasant, MI: Clarke Historical Collection, 1961), 79–80; Joseph P. Blessington, The Campaigns of Walker’s Texas Division (Austin, TX: The Pemberton Press, 1968), 132–163.

6. New York Observer and Chronicle, August 13, 1863; Philadelphia Inquirer, August 14, 1863; Detroit Free Press, October 3, 1863; OR, 22, 2, 973, 1072; OR, I, 24, 3: 1066; OR, I, 48: 194–198; D. H. Rule, “The ­­Boat-Burners,” Civil War St. Louis, http://civilwarstlouis.com/boatburners/index.htm (accessed February 29, 2020); Lewis B. Parsons, Reports to the War Department (St. Louis, MO: George Knapp & Co., 1867), 29–42; Bruce Nichols, Guerrilla Warfare in Civil War Missouri (4 vols.; Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., Inc., 2014), IV, 291–293; Laura June Davis, Vexed Waters: Naval Guerrillas Masculinity, and Mayhem Along the Lower Mississippi River in the Civil War (unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Georgia, 2016), 84–131. The major newspapers all covered the boat burnings as they occurred and during the hunt for the saboteurs into 1865; many of the articles are noted by Ms. Davis in her work beyond the first two I’ve noted here.

7. OR, I, 34, 1: 486–487; OR, I, 34, 3: 828–829; OR, I, 41, 1: 191–192; OR, I, 41, 4: 1068–1069; John Swift, “Letters from a Sailor on a Tinclad,” edited by Lester L. Swift, Civil War History, X (March 1961), 55–56; Benson J. Lossing, Pictorial Field Book of the Civil War: Journeys Through the Battlefields in the Wake of Conflict (3 vols.; Hartford, CT: T. Belknap, 1874; reprint, Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), III, 274; Thomas A. DeBlack, With Fire and Sword: Arkansas, 1861–1874 (Histories of Arkansas; Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2003), 119; Albert G. Castel, General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968), 196–197; Charles Steven Palmer, “Our Most Noble Stranger”: The Mystery, Gallantry, and Civicism of Colton Greene” (unpublished MA thesis, University of Oklahoma, 1995); John W. Coltern, Confederates of Elmwood (Westminster, MD: Heritage Books, 2001), 183; William L. Shea, “Battle at Ditch Bayou,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly, XXXIX (Autumn 1980), 195–196; John N. Edwards, Shelby and His Men; or, The War in the West (Cincinnati, OH: Miami Printing and Publishing Co., 1867; reprint, Waverly, MO: General J. O. Shelby Memorial, 1993), 251, 363–366; Robert L. Kerby, Kirby Smith’s Confederacy: The ­­Trans-Mississippi South, 1863–1865 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1972), 323; John Anderson, Campaigning with Parson’s Texas Cavalry Brigade, CSA: The War Journals and Letters of the Four Orr Brothers, 12th Texas Cavalry Regiment (Waco, TX: Hill Junior College Press, 1967), 53–54. The most useful overview of the war in Chicot County is Daniel R. Doyle, “The Civil War in the Greenville Bends,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly, LXX (Summer 2011), 131–161.

8. ORN, I, 26: 305, 317, 323–324, 803, 805; Chicago Daily Tribune, June 2, 5, 1864; Hearn, Ellet’s Brigade, 232–233; Shea, “Battle at Ditch Bayou,” 195–196; Jeffrey L. Patrick, “A Fighting Sailor on the Western Rivers: The Civil War Letters of ‘Gunboat,’” The Journal of Mississippi History, LVIII (Fall 1996), 269–271; Don R. Simon, “Engagement at Old River Lake,” The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, http://www.encycopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/­­entry-detail.aspx?entryID=1120 (accessed November 10, 2008). Parsons, Reports to the War Department, 36; Edwards, Shelby and His Men, 364–366; Stephen B. Oates, Confederate Cavalry West of the River (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961; reprint, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992), 182–183. For an expanded version of this story, please see my “Interdicting the Mississippi: Colonel Colton Greene, CSA, vs. the U.S. Navy,” North and South, XII (March 2011), 30–39.

9. OR, I, 34, 1: 946–947, 950–953; ORN, I, 26: 326–327, 331, 335, 339, 354–355, 803, 805–806; St. Louis Daily Missouri Democrat, May 30, 1864; Chicago Daily Tribune, June 2, 5, 7, 1864; The New York Times, June 4, 1864; Memphis Evening Times, July 28, 1864; Patrick, “A Fighting Sailor on the Western Rivers,” 271–272; Hearn, Ellet’s Brigade, 233–235; Shea, “Battle at Ditch Bayou,” 196–197; Edwards, Shelby and His Men, 366–370; David Dixon Porter, Naval History of the Civil War (New York: Sherman Publishing Company, 1886; reprint, Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books, 1984), 560–561.

10. OR, I, 34, 1: 947–953, 971–985; OR, I, 34, 4: 137–138, 230–231 368; ORN, I, 26: 355–356, 364,383–384, 407–408; Chicago Daily Tribune, June 7, 1864; Edwards, Shelby and His Men, 368–377; Shea, “Battle at Ditch Bayou,” 197–207; Clarke, Warfare Along the Mississippi, 107; Hearn, Ellet’s Brigade, 234–243; Crandall, History of the Ram Fleet, 415; Charles Dana Gibson, with E. Kay Gibson, Assault and Logistics, Vol. 2: Union Army Coastal and River Operations, 1861–1866 (Camden, ME: Ensign Press, 1995), 78–79.

11. Chicago Daily Tribune, July 25, 1864; Memphis Evening Times, July 28, 1864; The New York Times, August 1, 5, 9, 1864; Baltimore Sun, August 2, 1864; Wisconsin Daily Patriot, July 30, 1864; St. Louis Daily Missouri Democrat, July 30, 1864; Parsons, Reports to the War Department, 38.

12. ORN, I, 26: 503–505; Chicago Daily Tribune, August 16, 1864; Cleveland Daily Herald, August 19, 1864; Memphis Daily Bulletin, August 20, 1864; The New York Times, August 21, September 12, 1864; New Orleans Era, August 24, 1864.

13. ORN, I, 26: 525, 745–746, 762; ORN, I, 27: 7–9, 21; OR, I, 39, 1: 880–881; The New York Times, September 11, 1864; New Orleans Daily True Delta, November 27, 1864; New Orleans Daily Picayune, January 12, 1865; Chicago Daily Tribune, September 8, 1864, January 23, 1865; New York Daily Tribune, December 26, 1864; St. Louis Daily Missouri Republican, November 7, 1885; Bragg, Historic Names and Places on the Lower Mississippi River, 37; Parsons, Reports to the War Department, 38–39. Accompanied by three tinclads and two U.S. Army transports with a thousand troops, the Gazelle returned to Williamsport on December 16. There, in retaliation for Thatcher’s death, a number of plantation buildings were burned and large quantities of sugar, corn, and molasses destroyed. ORN, I, 26: 762.

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