Saturday, February 2, 2013

February 2, 1863: The Queen of the West runs past Vicksburg

On the morning of February 2, 1863, the federal ram Queen of the West ran past the Confederate defenses at Vicksburg, attacking the Confederate riverboat City of Vicksburg as it did. The Queen's mission was to serve as a kind of commerce raider behind Confederate lines. In 1862, the Union had captured most of the Mississippi River, sweeping Confederate commerce from all but a short stretch of the great river between Vicksburg, Mississippi and Port Hudson, Louisiana. On this short stretch of river, a handful of surviving Confederate transports continued to carry vital supplies between the eastern half of the Confederacy and the Trans-Mississippi.

Colonel Charles R. Ellet's mission was to get between the two rebel river fortresses and destroy as many of the remaining Confederate riverboats as he could, effectively cutting the Confederacy in two; but first, Ellet had to get below Vicksburg. On this day, 150 years ago, Ellet sent this report to acting Rear-Admiral David D. Porter:
Below Vicksburg, February 2, 1862.

ADMIRAL: In compliance with your instructions I started on the Queen of the West at half-past 4 o'clock this morning, to pass the batteries at Vicksburg and sink the rebel steamer lying before that city.

I discovered immediately on starting that the change of the wheel from its former position to the narrow space behind the Queen's bulwarks did not permit the boat to be handled with sufficient accuracy. An hour or more was spent in rearranging the apparatus, and when we finally rounded the point the sun had risen and any advantage which would have resulted from the darkness was lost to us. The rebels opened a heavy fire upon us as we neared the city, but we were only struck three times before reaching the steamer. She was lying in nearly the same position that the Arkansas occupied when General Ellet ran the Queen into her on a former occasion. The same causes which prevented the destruction of the Arkansas then saved the City of Vicksburg this morning. Her position was such that if we had run obliquely into her as we came down the bow of the Queen would inevitably have glanced. We were compelled to partially round to in order to strike. The consequence was that at the very moment of collision the current, very strong and rapid at this point, caught the stern of my boat, and, acting on her bow as a pivot, swung her around so rapidly that nearly all her momentum was lost. I had anticipated this result, and therefore caused the starboard gun to be shotted with three of the incendiary projectiles recommended in your orders.

As we swung round, Sergeant J. H. Campbell, detailed for the purpose, fired this gun. A 64-pound shell crashed through the barricade just before he reached the spot, but he did not hesitate. The discharge took place at exactly the right moment, and set the rebel steamer in flames, which they subsequently succeeded in extinguishing. At this moment one of the enemy's shells set the cotton near the starboard wheel on fire, while the discharge of our own gun ignited that portion which was on the bow. The flames spread rapidly and the dense smoke rolling into the engine room suffocated the engineers. I saw that if I attempted to run into the City of Vicksburg again that my boat would certainly be burned. I ordered her to be headed downstream, and turned every man to extinguishing the flames.

After much exertion we finally put the fire out by cutting the burning bales loose. The enemy, of course, were not idle; we were struck twelve times, but though the cabin was knocked to pleces, no material injury to the boat or to any of those on her was inflicted. About two regiments of rebel sharpshooters in rifle pits kept up a continual fire, but did no damage. The Queen was struck twice in the hull, but above the water line. One of our guns was dismounted and ruined.

I can only speak in the highest terms of the conduct of every man on board. All behaved with cool, determined courage.

I remain, very respectfully,

Colonel, Commanding Ram Fleet.

Acting Rear-Admiral DAVID D. PORTER
Commanding Mississippi Squadron.

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