Sunday, February 24, 2013

February 24, 1863: The U.S.S. Indianola is captured!

U.S.S. Indianola
The U.S.S. Indianola was a powerful but flawed vessel. The Indianola was built in Cincinnati, Ohio and was meant to be an improvement on the earlier City-class of gunboats. The City-class of river gunboats had an armored casemate extending most of the length of the vessels and mounted 13 guns in the bows and along the sides. The Indianola did not have a single casemate. Instead, she mounted two heavy 11-inch Dahlgren guns in a forward casemate and two 9-inch Dahlgren guns pointing directly astern in an after casemate that protected her engines and paddle wheels as well. Between the two armored casemates was an unarmored deckhouse where the crew's quarters were located. By limiting the area of the boat that was armored, the thickness of the armor could be increased.

The Indianola's weak spot was her armament. The City-class carried thirteen guns of various sizes ranging from 32-pounders to 8-inch Dahlgren guns. The Indianola carried only four guns, and the two 9-inch guns in the after casemate only fired directly astern. That left the two big 11-inch guns in the forward casemate to cover the area directly ahead of the boat as well as her sides. Both of the 11-inch guns could fire directly forward, and each could pivot to one side.

The 11-inch Dahlgren gun was a very powerful weapon for its time, firing shells weighing 136 pounds nearly 2,000 yards. The down side was that these big guns took an experienced gun crew 80 seconds to reload between firings--and the Indianola's crew was not experienced. The Indianola's armament was optimized for bombarding fixed fortifications in front of the boat at a distance outside the range of the defenders' artillery, not for firing at fast moving steamboats at close range. On the night of February 24, 1863, the Indianola's crew was not able to load and fire her guns fast enough to fend off the attack launched against her by two Confederate rams.
C. S. Webb, thirty miles below Vicksburg,
Off Prize Ironclad Indianola,

February 25th, 1863.

Maj. E. SURGET, A. A. Gen.:

Major—My last dispatch to you, exclusive of the telegram sent you last night, was from Natchez. The Federal ironclad Indianola had forty-eight hours start of us at Acklin's Landing; at Natchez she was less than twenty-five hours in advance. We left Natchez on the evening of the 23d instant; and I found that we could easily overhaul her on the evening of the 24th, but I determined not to do so, in order that I might bring the enemy to an engagement only at night, considering for many reasons that this time was most advantageous to us.

We reached Grand Gulf before sunset, and there learned that the enemy was only about four hours in advance of us. As we were running more than two miles to his one, the time required to overtake him could be easily calculated, and I determined to overtake and bring him to action early in the night.

We came up with the Indianola about 9.40 last night, just above New Carthage, near the foot of Palmyra island, and I immediately signalled the Webb to prepare for action.

Our order of approach was as follows: The Queen of the West about 500 yards in advance of the Webb, and the Batey, Lieutenant-Colonel Brand commanding (who I wrote you joined us with a force and steamer fitted out at Port Hudson) over two miles in the rear, and lashed to my tender the Grand Era.

The moon was partially obscured by a veil of clouds, and gave and permitted just sufficient light for us to see where to strike with our rams, and just sufficient obscurity to render uncertain the aim of the formidable artillery of the enemy.

We first discovered him when about 1,000 yards distant, hugging the western bank of the Mississippi, with his head quartering across and down the river.

Not an indication of life appeared as we dashed on towards him, his lights obscured, and his machinery apparently without motion.

We had also covered our lights, and only the fires of the Era could be seen, two miles back, where she was towing the Batey.

The distance between him and the Queen had diminished to about 500 yards, when, for the first time, we could clearly distinguish the long black line of the two coal barges which protected his sides from forward of his bow to nearly abreast his wheels.

The impatient desire of our men to open fire could be scarcely restrained, but I would not allow it, as the vast importance of traversing the distance to be passed over without drawing the fire of his powerful guns was too apparent. At last, when within about 100 yards, I authorized Captain McCloskey to open fire, which he accordingly did with his two Parrot guns and one Cross 12-pounder; but at the second round the 20-pounder Parrot was disabled by blowing out its vent-piece.

Our intention was to dash our bow near the enemy's wheel-house, just in rear of the coal barge, but when about fifty yards distant he backed and interposed the barge between us and him. Our bow went crushing clear through the barge, heavily loaded with coal, and was not arrested until it struck with a violent shock, and scattered some of his timbers amidship, deeply indenting the iron plating of his hull.

So tremendous had been the momentum of our attack, made under full pressure of steam, that for some minutes we could not disengage ourselves, but remained with our bow against the sides of the Indianola, held fast by the pressure of the coal and barge through which we had crushed. In this position our sharp-shooters kept up fire, sweeping the deck of the enemy, who feebly answered.

After a brief interval one of the coal barges sank, and the other drifted down the current; and the Queen finding herself free, immediately rounded up stream, to add to her next charge the additional power obtainable from the descending current of the river. Just then the Webb came dashing by us, and plunged into the Indianola with great force just in rear, or on the turn of her bow.

Some of the iron plating was loosened, but this blow of the Webb produced no serious external injury, though prisoners since report that it disabled the left-hand engine.

As the Webb approached on this her first charge, the two 11-inch Dahlgreen guns in the forward casemate of the enemy opened on her at seventy-five yards distant, but fortunately she was untouched.

The vigor of the Webb's onset forced the enemy around, and carrying her forward laid her across and in actual contact with these monitor guns, if run out in battery. Dashing safely around from this perilous position, the Webb swung across the bow and on to the starboard side of the enemy, getting between him and his remaining coal barge, breaking its fastenings and setting it adrift.

The result of our first onset was to strip the Indianola of the two coal barges which protected her sides, and to injure her to some extent in her wheel, which was apparent from the subsequent want of rapidity and precision in her movements.

As soon as the Webb swept away clear of the enemy the Queen swung around and again dashed upon him, who this time with partial success endeavored to break the force of the onset, by presenting his bow to our bow. But his movements were too torpid, and not entirely successful, which tends to confirm the belief that his machinery was injured by the first blow.

The Queen struck a little forward of midships, but, as he was turning, the force of the blow glanced along his side and passed his wheel-house.

Just as the Queen swung clear of his stern, he opened upon us with two 9-inch guns in his after iron casemate at so near a range that the flames of the guns almost touched us—their heat being felt.

One shot struck the Queen on her starboard shoulder and knocked away ten or twelve bales of cotton, causing us to list over, and then a shell entered under our front port hole, on the port side, struck the chase of a brass 12-pounder gun and exploded, killing two men, wounding four, and disabling two pieces.

This time the Queen swung around rapidly up stream, and in a very brief interval dashed on the enemy for the third time, striking a little to the rear of his starboard wheel-house, crashing through and shattering his frame work, and loosening some of his iron plates. By this time the Webb had run up stream, making a wide circuit, had turned, and, for her second onset, came charging on with a full head of steam just as the Queen had rounded out after her third blow, and striking the enemy very nearly in the same place where the Queen had just before hit him.

Through and through his timbers, crushing and dashing aside his iron plates, the sharp bow of the Webb penetrated as if it were going to pass entirely through the ship. As the Webb backed clear the Indianola, with all the speed she could raise, declined further fight and ran down the river towards the western bank, with the intention, as afterwards appeared, of getting a line out on shore, in order that the officers and crew might land and abandon their steamer. In fact a line was got out on shore, but not fastened, and three of the crew effected their escape, but were captured to-day by the cavalry of Major Harrison.

After the Queen had struck the enemy for the third time, she was for sometime almost unmanageable—she had listed so much over on the port side that one of her wheels was raised nearly out of the water. She was making water, and presented every appearance of sinking.

Captain McCloskey righted her a little by throwing over cotton from his upper decks.

He was able to bring her around very slowly; but still this gallant commander succeeded in weaning her with difficulty, and headed her for her fourth charge.

Whilst the Webb had her bow knocked off to within fourteen inches of the water line, her splendid machinery was unhurt, and she quickly and gallantly bore up for her third charge. When bearing down and approaching the enemy, Captain Pierce reports that he was hailed from the enemy's deck, announcing his surrender, and begged to be towed ashore, as he was sinking. Captain Pierce further represents that he then placed a line on board and commenced towing the Indianola, when the line parted.

As the Queen of the West was running off from her last charge, making a circuit to obtain room and space to add increased momentum to her onset, we encountered the steamer Batey, Lieutenant-Colonel Brand commanding, who had cast off from the tender Grand Era, and was hovering around to enter the fight when an opportunity offered.

The Batey is a frail steamboat, with but little power, and incapable of being used as a ram. She was crowded with two hundred and fifty gallant volunteers from the forces at Port Hudson, who had embarked in the Batey with the resolution to fight the enemy by boarding him. We called out to them that the opportunity for boarding had arrived, as it was apparent the enemy was disabled and much demoralized.

Lieutenant-Colonel Brand with his command gallantly bore away, approached the enemy after the line from the Webb had parted, and gave, as I am informed by him, the command, "prepare to board," when he was greeted by a voice from the Indianola, announcing her surrender, and that she was in a sinking condition.

Lieutenant-Colonel Brand then boarded her upper deck, and received the sword of the Federal commander, Lieutenant Brown.

This result must have been very gratifying to Colonel Brand, as it was obtained without the loss or injury of a single man of his command.

Upon my reaching the deck of the Indianola, Lieutenant-Colonel Brand most handsomely acknowledged that the capture was entirely due to the Queen of the West and to the Webb, and he has so officially reported.

I have no doubt, if it had been necessary, that Colonel Brand and his gallant command would have again demonstrated that nothing can resist the desperation of troops who regard not their own lives, but victory.

Upon taking possession, I immediately appointed Lieutenant Thomas H. Handy prize-master.

We found our prize a most formidable gunboat, mounting two 11-inch guns forward, and two 9-inch guns aft, all protected by thick iron casemates, utterly impenetrable to our artillery, even at the very shortest range. The motive power consisted of side wheels and two propellers. She was filled with a valuable cargo, embracing supplies, stores, etc. The officers and crew, amounting to over one hundred, fell into our hands as prisoners. Nothing shows more clearly how well she was protected than the fact that our artillery, though frequently fired at the range of twenty and thirty yards, utterly failed to injure her. Lieutenant Handy, of the Webb, fired an 80-pound shell from his rifled and banded 32-pound gun so close to the forward casemate of the enemy that it actually enveloped his port-holes in flames, and yet no injury was sustained by the casemate.

Our sharpshooters deliberately and coolly fired at every onset.

Notwithstanding all these circumstances, the enemy lost but one man killed and none wounded. The Webb had one man wounded, and the Queen two killed and four wounded.

The fire of the enemy was terrific, and delivered at short range mostly. His huge shot and shell were directed a little wide of the mark, except the two shots that struck the Queen, and one shot that passed through the bulwarks of the Webb. This was remarkable, as he frequently fired at such close range that the flames of his enormous guns almost enveloped our bows.

The escape from destruction of the feeble crafts, that were five times precipitated upon the iron sides of this powerful war-steamer, mounting an armament of 9- and 11-inch guns, was Providential.

On taking possession, we found our prize rapidly making water, which we could not arrest. Seeing that she would sink, I did not wish that this should take place on the western side of the river, where the Federal forces could easily have retaken her, and therefore made fast to her with two of my steamers, and towed her over the river to the eastern side, where she sunk in the water up to her gun-deck, just as we reached the shallow water, thus losing us the enormous value of her capture, as well as the valuable stores that were in her hold.

I am much indebted for the success of the expedition to the skill and gallantry of my officers and men. Captain James McCloskey, commanding the Queen, combined with the courage of the soldier, the skill and apititude that characterizes the sailor of our western waters. Lieutenant Thomas H. Handy, of the Crescent artillery, commanded the troops on the Webb. He exhibited skill and courage in handling his command, and in person assisted in manning the 32-pound rifled gun. Lieutenant Rice, of the Twenty-first Tennessee, was on the Webb with a detachment from his regiment, and bore himself well and gallantly. Lieutenant Prather, also on the Webb, served his two-field pieces entirely unprotected with praiseworthy courage, and was well seconded by Mr. Charles Schuler, acting as chief of one of the guns.

Captain Charles Pierce, a civilian, commanded and controlled the movements of the Webb. It was he who selected the weak spots of the enemy, and with a steady hand and eye dashed the Webb against the Indianola.

Not only did the officers act well, but I have nothing but commendations for the private soldiers.

Captain Caines' and Lieutenant Rice's company, of the Twenty-first Tennessee, and the detachment of Lieutenant Doolan, adjutant of Major Burnett's battalion of Texans, and detachment from the Third Maryland artillery, were in the expedition, and acted with courage and discipline when under fire.

Captain J. W. Mangum, Assistant-Adjutant General of Brigadier-General Moore, accompanied the expedition as a volunteer and acted as my adjutant. He comported himself gallantly under fire; and throughout the expedition rendered me valuable services.

I herewith submit the report of Captain McCloskey, commanding the Queen. He mentions favorably Captain Caines and Lieutenant Miller of the Twenty-first Tennessee, Lieutenant Doolan, adjutant of Major Burnett's battalion, Sergeant E. H. Langley, of the Third Maryland artillery, acting as lieutenant in charge of the two Parrot guns; and the volunteers, Captain J. H. White, slightly wounded, acting with efficiency as ordnance officer; Captain Tank and Lieutenants Fisk and Stanmeyer, both wounded, and Lieutenant R. R. Hyams, who as quartermaster and commissary exhibited much energy. As I was on board the Queen during the action, the conduct of the officers and men was under my own eye, and I cheerfully endorse the commendation of Captain McCloskey. He also speaks highly of the intrepid promptness and skill of his pilots and engineers, and of the conduct of Assistant Surgeon Blanchard, who manifested much care and coolness, coming on the gun-deck in the midst of the action and personally supervising the removal of the wounded.

Sergeant Magruder, of the signal corps, also deserves mention for having rendered very important services in the discharge of the responsible duties devolved upon him.

Captain Pierce, of the Webb, verbally reports to me that his pilots and engineers behaved themselves with coolness and bravery, and discharged their duties with promptness and energy.

I have no doubt that this is correct, from the skillful and efficient manner in which his boat was handled.

This report is dated from the Webb, as I have dispatched the Queen, Captain McCloskey, to Warrenton, and if possible to Vicksburg.

I am, Major, yours respectfully,

J. L. BRENT,
Major Commanding.

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