Tuesday, February 26, 2013

February 26, 1863: The wreck of the U.S.S. Indianola is blown up

In this "time compressed" recreation, the "Black Terror" (left) tricks the Confederates into destroying
the U.S.S. Indianola (center) while the Confederate ram squadron flees in a panic (right).

The day before, February 25, 1863, Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter's forces had released the Black Terror, a phony "mock-ironclad" cobbled together in about twelve hours for a cost of $8.63. The vessel was a worn out flatboat fitted with a wooden framework made to look like a Union ironclad. Now, on the morning of February 26, 1863, the phony ironclad drifted into the view of the Confederates working to salvage the wreck of the U.S.S. Indianola. It took a few days for the Confederates to piece together what happened next. From the March 1, 1863 report of Confederate Colonel Wirt Adams:
I believe I am now in possession of all the facts relative to the capture and destruction of the Federal steamer Indianola. From the moment the Federal flag was struck and our forces took possession of the vessel, there appears to have been an utter want of authority, system, or plan. The vessel was towed or drifted down several miles, making water rapidly in her hold; not so much from injuries received as from four plug holes, opened by the Federal commander for the purpose of scuttling her. She lodged in the front of Mr. Joe Davis' place.

The following morning (Wednesday), a detail was made of about 100 men, under command of a lieutenant, to go on board the prize and try and save her. They were furnished with two 6-pounder field pieces and about fifteen muskets or rifles. Meantime the Queen of the West was sent to Warrenton with dispatches and as a picket for the fleet. In a short time the Queen of the West came back in great haste, reporting a gunboat of the enemy approaching. All the vessels at once got under way in a panic, and proceeded down the river, abandoning without a word the working party and field pieces on the wreck. The Federal vessel did not approach nearer than 2 1/2 miles, and appeared very apprehensive of attack. The position of the Indianola was such that her two 11-inch Dahlgren guns commanded the river above, and the two 9-inch guns could also have been brought in battery. With the assistance of our two vessels, the Queen of the West and Webb, there is scarcely a doubt that we could have saved the Indianola, and possibly have captured the other gunboat of the enemy. Major [Isaac F.] Harrison's command, nearly opposite, tendered their assistance.

The lieutenant commanding the working party made some effort to free the vessel of water, but finding himself abandoned by our fleet, and the enemy's gunboat lying above him, he on Thursday night burst three of the valuable guns on board, spiked the other, threw his field pieces overboard, blew up the vessel, and fled with his command. Many of them wandered about Palmyra Island, on which they were, and about 25 are supposed to have been captured by the crew of the last Federal gunboat. The others have been straggling into my camp for two or three days. With the exception of the wine and liquor stores of the Indianola, nothing was saved. The valuable armament, the large supplies of powder, shot, and shell are all lost.
Adams did not mention the fact that the Union gunboat was a phony. Either the Confederates hadn't figured that fact out at the time he wrote the report or he chose to leave that detail out. Adams reported that the Union gunboat "appeared very apprehensive of attack," but it had in fact run aground again. Within days the true story leaked out and the Southern press heaped scorn on the men who had blown up the Indianola. The Confederacy's last chance to have an operational ironclad on the Mississippi River had literally gone up in smoke.

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