Thursday, March 14, 2013

March 14, 1863: Farragut tries to run the batteries at Port Hudson

The Passage of Port Hudson, March 14, 1863, as imagined from the Confederate point of view.

On the night of March 14, 1863, Rear Admiral David G. Farragut, USN tried to take a squadron of warships up the Mississippi River past the heavily defended Confederate fortress of Port Hudson. Farragut's biographer, Alfred Thayer Mahan (who would someday be an important admiral in his own right), related what happened to Farragut's attempt.
The up-river squadron having failed to secure the coveted command of the river, and, besides, transferred to the enemy two vessels which might become very formidable, Farragut felt that the time had come when he not only might but ought to move. He was growing more and more restless, more and more discontented with his own inactivity, when such an important work was waiting to be done. The news of the Queen of the West's capture made him still more uneasy; but when that was followed by the loss of the Indianola, his decision was taken at once. "The time has come," he said to Captain Jenkins; "there can be no more delay. I must go—army or no army." Another appeal, however, was made to Banks, representing the assistance which the squadron would derive in its attempt to pass the batteries from a demonstration made by the army. The permanent works at Port Hudson then mounted nineteen heavy cannon, many of them rifled; but there were reported to be in addition as many as thirty-five field-pieces, which, at the distance the fleet would have to pass, would be very effective. If the army made a serious diversion in the rear, many of these would be withdrawn, especially if Farragut's purpose to run by did not transpire. The advantage to be gained by this naval enterprise was so manifest that the general could scarcely refuse, and he promised to make the required demonstration with eight or ten thousand troops.

On the 12th of March, within a fortnight after hearing of the Indianola affair, Farragut was off Baton Rouge. On the 14th he anchored just above Profit's Island, seven miles below Port Hudson, where were already assembled a number of the mortar schooners, under the protection of the ironclad Essex, formerly of the upper squadron. The admiral brought with him seven vessels, for the most part essentially fighting ships, unfitted for blockade duty by their indifferent speed, but carrying heavy batteries. If the greater part got by, they would present a force calculated to clear the river of every hostile steamer and absolutely prevent any considerable amount of supplies being transferred from one shore to the other.

For the purpose of this passage Farragut adopted a somewhat novel tactical arrangement, which he again used at Mobile, and which presents particular advantages when there are enemies only on one side to be engaged. Three of his vessels were screw steamers of heavy tonnage and battery; three others comparatively light. He directed, therefore, that each of the former should take one of the latter on the side opposite to the enemy, securing her well aft, in order to have as many guns as possible, on the unengaged side, free for use in case of necessity. In this way the smaller vessels were protected without sacrificing the offensive power of the larger. Not only so; in case of injury to the boilers or engines of one, it was hoped that those of her consort might pull her through. To equalize conditions, to the slowest of the big ships was given the most powerful of the smaller ones. A further advantage was obtained in this fight, as at Mobile, from this arrangement of the vessels in pairs, which will be mentioned at the time of its occurrence. The seventh ship at Port Hudson, the Mississippi, was a very large side-wheel steamer. On account of the inconvenience presented by the guards of her wheel-houses, she was chosen as the odd one to whom no consort was assigned.

Going up the river toward Port Hudson the course is nearly north; then a bend is reached of over ninety degrees, so that after making the turn the course for some distance is west-southwest. The town is on the east side, just below the bend. From it the batteries extended a mile and a half down the river, upon bluffs from eighty to a hundred feet high. Between the two reaches, and opposite to the town, is a low, narrow point, from which a very dangerous shoal makes out. The channel runs close to the east bank.

The squadron remained at its anchorage above Profit's Island but a few hours, waiting for the cover of night. Shortly before 10 p. m. it got under way, ranged as follows: Hartford, Richmond, Monongahela, each with her consort lashed alongside, the Mississippi bringing up the rear. Just as they were fairly starting a steamer was seen approaching from down the river, flaring lights and making the loud puffing of the high-pressure engines. The flag-ship slowed down, and the new arrival came alongside with a message from the general that the army was then encamped about five miles in rear of the Port Hudson batteries. Irritated by a delay, which served only to attract the enemy's attention and to assure himself that no diversion was to be expected from the army, the admiral was heard to mutter: "He had as well be in New Orleans or at Baton Rouge for all the good he is doing us." At the same moment the east bank of the river was lit up, and on the opposite point huge bonfires kindled to illumine the scene—a wise precaution, the neglect of which by the enemy had much favored the fleet in the passage of the lower forts.

The ships now moved on steadily, but very slowly, owing to the force of the current. At 11 p. m. the Hartford had already passed the lower batteries, when the enemy threw up rockets and opened fire. This was returned not only by the advancing ships, but also by the ironclad Essex and the mortar schooners, which had been stationed to cover the passage. The night was calm and damp, and the cannonade soon raised a dense smoke which settled heavily upon the water, covering the ships from sight, but embarrassing their movements far more than it disconcerted the aim of their opponents. The flag-ship, being in the advance, drew somewhat ahead of the smoke, although even she had from time to time to stop firing to enable the pilot to see. Her movements were also facilitated by placing the pilot in the mizzen-top, with a speaking tube to communicate with the deck, a precaution to which the admiral largely attributed her safety; but the vessels in the rear found it impossible to see, and groped blindly, feeling their way after their leader. Had the course to be traversed been a straight line, the difficulty would have been much less; but to make so sharp a turn as awaited them at the bend was no easy feat under the prevailing obscurity. As the Hartford attempted it the downward current caught her on the port bow, swung her head round toward the batteries, and nearly threw her on shore, her stem touching for a moment. The combined powers of her own engine and that of the Albatross, her consort, were then brought into play as an oarsman uses the oars to turn his boat, pulling one and backing the other; that of the Albatross was backed, while that of the Hartford went ahead strong. In this way their heads were pointed up stream and they went through clear; but they were the only ones who effected the passage.

The Richmond, which followed next, had reached the bend and was about to turn when a plunging shot upset both safety valves, allowing so much steam to escape that the engines could not be efficiently worked. Thinking that the Genesee, her companion, could not alone pull the two vessels by, the captain of the Richmond turned and carried them both down stream. The Monongahela, third in the line, ran on the shoal opposite to the town with so much violence that the gunboat Kineo, alongside of her, tore loose from the fastenings. The Monongahela remained aground for twenty-five minutes, when the Kineo succeeded in getting her off. She then attempted again to run the batteries, but when near the turn a crank-pin became heated and the engines stopped. Being now unmanageable, she drifted down stream and out of action, having lost six killed and twenty-one wounded. The Mississippi also struck on the shoal, close to the bend, when she was going very fast, and defied every effort to get her off. After working for thirty-five minutes, finding that the other ships had passed off the scene leaving her unsupported, while three batteries had her range and were hulling her constantly, the commanding officer ordered her to be set on fire. The three boats that alone were left capable of floating were used to land the crew on the west bank; the sick and wounded being first taken, the captain and first lieutenant leaving the ship last. She remained aground and in flames until three in the morning, when she floated and drifted down stream, fortunately going clear of the vessels below. At half-past five she blew up. Out of a ship's company of two hundred and ninety-seven, sixty-four were found missing, of whom twenty-five were believed to be killed.

In his dispatch to the Navy Department, written the second day after this affair, the admiral lamented that he had again to report disaster to a part of his command. A disaster indeed it was, but not of the kind which he had lately had to communicate, and to which the word "again" seems to refer; for there was no discredit attending it. The stern resolution with which the Hartford herself was handled, and the steadiness with which she and her companion were wrenched out of the very jaws of destruction, offer a consummate example of professional conduct; while the fate of the Mississippi, deplorable as the loss of so fine a vessel was, gave rise to a display of that coolness and efficiency in the face of imminent danger which illustrate the annals of a navy as nobly as do the most successful deeds of heroism.
Much had changed since Farragut had run past the forts below New Orleans the year before. Confederate gunners had much more experience and practice, and were in many cases armed with large rifled cannon forged at Richmond's Tredegar Iron Works or run through the blockade from Great Britain.

The U.S.S. Mississippi, destroyed at Port Hudson on the night of March 14, 1863.

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