Civil War Ironclads: Union River Ironclads Part Two

This entry is part 10 of 10 in the series The Civil War at Sea

In yesterday’s post we discussed the design and construction of the Union river ironclads. We also discussed some of their engagements in order to understand their strengths and their deficiencies. We’ll continue with the rest of the primary engagements and their outcomes.

On June 28, 1862 the “brownwater” navy of Charles Davis joined the “bluewater” navy of Admiral David Farragut above Vicksburg. As they USS Carondeletconferred they heard rumors of a Confederate ironclad on the Yazoo River. Davis dispatched the USS Carondelet and two wooden gunboats to investigate. On July 15th this small flotilla encountered the CSS Arkansas and a running battle ensued. The two gunboats used the Carondolet for cover from the Arkansas. The Carondelet was badly damaged and the Arkansas sailed on through the Union fleet to the safety of Vicksburg.

A week later, on the 22nd, the Union navy had an opportunity to exact a measure of retribution against the Arkansas. In a night action, four Union ironclads accompanied by two wooden rams attempted to disable the Arkansas. The USS Essex attempted to ram the Arkansas but ran aground where she was subjected to heavy fire from the shore batteries. After a battering, the Essex managed to get free and retire. Once again the Arkansas escaped the Union ironclads.

Farragut received permission to return to the New Orleans area and he departed on July 24th. Davis took his force to Helena, Arkansas on the Mississippi River where they could maintain watch north of Vicksburg.

There really wasn’t much activity other than patrolling until General Ulysses Grant began the siege of Vicksburg. The Confederate stronghold had CSS Arkansas passing through the Union Fleet above Vicksburgbeen impervious to every attempted attack. Positioned on a bend of the Mississippi River, the city controlled the flow of supplies to the Confederate armies in the Eastern Theater.

David Dixon Porter had taken over the naval command in the west. In October 1862 he was promoted to rear admiral and given the command of the newly-renamed Mississippi River Squadron. The responsibility for the riverine squadron was transferred from the Army to the Navy.

Grant had devised a plan for the assault and capture of Vicksburg. His plan required Porter’s squadron to run past the city and ferry Grant’s troops to the east side of the river. On the night of April 16, 1863, Porter with his ships protected from plunging fire from the enemy shore batteries successfully sailed past the city.

On April 29th seven of Porter’s ironclads attacked Confederate defenses at Grand Gulf, Mississippi in an all-day action. They were able to silence the batteries at Fort Wade but the guns at Fort Cobun were out of range. The Tuscumbia was put out of action and the Benton was damaged.  The transports were able to embark troops south of Grand Gulf and then disembark them further downriver.

After more than two months of constant land and naval battles, Vicksburg and its Confederate Army surrendered on July 4, 1863. Approximately 3,200 men were killed or wounded and almost 30,000 men were captured. The Vicksburg campaign was costly for the Mississippi River Squadron had lost four ironclads, although one, the Cincinnati was raised and repaired.

From the fall of Vicksburg until March of 1864, the riverine squadron patrolled the Mississippi River and its tributaries. The squadron with 13 ironclads embarked on a joint operation up the Red River towards Shreveport, Louisiana. The Army contingent was led by Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks who was not in favor of the expedition. According to William T. Sherman it was “One damn blunder from beginning to end.”

The falling water of thye river almost trapped the squadron but a major engineering feat of building tow dams to trap the water that was there allowed the ships to escape to the Mississippi.

In December 1864 two ironclads, the Carondolet and the Neosho, accompanied by wooden gunboats moved up the Cumberland River to support the Union army at Nashville. In less than two weeks the small flotilla recaptured three Union transports, shelled a number of Confederate shore batteries and provided supporting fire when General George Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland turned the Confederate right flank.

In the closing days of the war the Mississippi River Squadron participated in actions around Mobile Bay in conjunction with Union monitors. Despite suffering the loss of two ships the Union force was able to force the surrender of Fort Blakely on April 8, 1865. Four days later, the city of Mobile fell. The USS Cincinnati pursued the CSS Nashville up the Tombigbee River where it surrendered on May 10, 1865.


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