A River Fleet In A Hail Of Fire
ADMIRAL PORTER RUNS BY THE FORTS IN A NOVEL WAY
OF course you know what a tremendous task the North had before it in the
Civil War. The war between the North and the South was like a battle of
giants. And in this vast contest the navy had to do its share, both out
at sea and on the rivers of the country. One of its big bits of work was
to cut off the left arm of the Confederacy, and leave it only its rig
arm to fight with.
By the left arm I mean the three states west of the Mississippi River,
and by the right arm, the eight states east of that great river. To cut
off this left arm the government had to get control of the whole river,
from St. Louis to the Gulf, so that no Confederate troops could cross
the great stream.
You have read how Farragut and Porter began this work, by capturing New
Orleans and all the river below it. And they went far up the river, too.
But in the end such great forts were built at Vicksburg and Port Hudson
and other points that the Confederate government held the river in a
In this way the Confederacy became master of the Mississippi for a
thousand miles. We are to see now how it was taken from their grasp.
James B. Eads, the engineer who built the great railroad bridge over the
Mississippi at St. Louis, made the first iron-clads for the West. There
were seven of these. They were river steamers, and were covered with
iron, but it was not very thick. Two others were afterward built, making
nine in all.
Each of these boats had thirteen guns, and they did good work in helping
the army to capture two strong Confederate forts in Kentucky. Then they
went down the Mississippi to an island that was called Island No. 10. It
was covered with forts, stretching one after another all along its
A number of mortar boats were brought down and threw shells into the
forts till they were half paved with iron. But all that did no good.
Then Admiral Foote was asked to send one of the boats down past the
That was dreadfully dangerous work, for there were guns enough in them
to sink twenty such boats. But Captain Walke thought he could take his
boat, the Carondelet, down, and the admiral told him he might try.
What was the Carondelet like, do you ask? Well, she was a long, wide
boat, with sloping sides and a flat roof, and was covered with iron two
and a half inches thick. Four of her guns peeped out from each side,
while three looked out from the front door, and two from the back door
of the boat.
Captain Walke did not half expect to get through the iron storm from the
forts. To make his boat stronger, extra planks were laid on her deck and
chain cables were drawn tightly across it. Then lumber was heaped
thickly round the boiler and engines, and ropes were wrapped round and
round the pilot-house till they were eighteen inches thick.
After that a barge filled with bales of hay was tied fast to the side
that would catch the fire of the forts. Something was done also to stop
the noise of the steam pipes, for Captain Walke thought he might slip
down at night without being seen or heard.
On the night of April 10, 1862, the boat made its dash down stream. It
started just as a heavy thunderstorm came on. The wind whistled, the
rain poured down in sheets, and the men in the forts hid from the storm.
They were not thinking then of runaway gunboats.
But something nobody had thought of now took place. The blazing wood in
the furnaces set fire to the soot in the chimneys, and in a minute the
boat was like a great flaming torch. As the men in the forts sprang up,
the lightning flashed out on the clouds, and lit up "the gallant little
ship floating past like a phantom."
The gunners did not mind the rain any more. They ran in great haste to
their guns, and soon the batteries were flaming and roaring louder than
the thunder itself.
Fort after fort took it up as the Carondelet slid swiftly past. The
lightning and the blazing smoke-stack showed her plainly to the gunners.
But the bright flashes blinded their eyes so that they could not half
aim their guns. And thus it was that the brave little Carondelet went
under the fire of fifty guns without being harmed.
Soon after that Island No. 10 was given up to the Union forces. Then the
gunboats went farther down the river, and had two hard fights with
Confederate boats, one at Fort Pillow and one at Memphis. Both these
places were captured, and in that way the river was opened all the way
from St. Louis to Vicksburg.
The City of Vicksburg is in the State of Mississippi, about two hundred
miles above New Orleans. Here are high river banks; and these were
covered thick with forts, so that Vicksburg was the strongest place
along the whole stream.
There were also strong forts at Port Hudson, about seventy-five miles
below Vicksburg; and these seventy-five miles were all the Confederates
now held of the great stream. But they held these with a very strong
hand and were not to let go easily.
There were some great events at Vicksburg; and I must tell about a few
of these next.
After New Orleans was taken Farragut took his ships up the river,
running past the forts. He could easily have taken Vicksburg then, if
he had had any soldiers. But he had none, and it took a great army of
soldiers, under General Grant, to capture it a year afterward.
David D. Porter, who had helped Farragut so well in his great fight, was
put in command of the Mississippi fleet. He had a number of iron-clad
boats under him, some of them having iron so thin that they were called
Commodore Porter had plenty to do. Now he sent his boats up through the
Yazoo swamps, then they had a fight on the Arkansas River; and in this
way he was kept busy.
In February, 1863, he sent two of his boats, the Queen of the West and
the Indianola, down past the Vicksburg forts. That was an easy run.
There was plenty of firing, but nobody was hurt. But after they got
below they found trouble enough.
First, the Queen of the West ran aground and could not be got off.
Then the Indianola had a hole rammed in her side by a Confederate boat
and went to the bottom. So there wasn't much gained by sending these two
boats down stream.
But a curious thing took place. The Confederates got the Queen of the
West off the mud, and tried to raise the Indianola and stop its
While they were hard at work at this they heard a frightful roar from
the Vicksburg batteries. Looking up stream they saw a big boat coming
down upon them at full speed. When they saw this they put the two big
guns of the Indianola mouth to mouth, fired them into each other to
ruin them, and then ran away. But weren't they vexed afterward when they
learned that the boat that scared them was only a dummy which Porter's
men had sent down the river in a frolic.
After that, the river batteries did not give the ships much trouble.
When the right time came Porter's fleet ran down the river through the
fire of all the forts. One boat caught fire and sank, but all the rest
passed safely through. This was done to help General Grant, who was
marching his army down, to get below Vicksburg.
I suppose all readers of American history know about the great event of
the 4th of July, 1863. On that day Vicksburg was given up to the Union
forces, with all its forts and all its men. Five days afterward Port
Hudson surrendered. Porter and his boats now held the great river
through all its length.
But there is something more to tell about Admiral Porter, who was a
In the spring of 1864 General Banks was sent with an army up the Red
River. He was going to Shreveport, which is about four hundred miles
above where the Red River runs into the Mississippi. Porter went along
with his river fleet to help.
Now, no more need be said about Banks and his army, except that the
whole expedition was only a waste of time, for it did no good; and there
would be nothing to say about Porter and his fleet, if they had not
gotten into a bad scrape which gave them hard work to get out.
The boats went up the river easily enough, but when they tried to come
down they found themselves in a trap. For after they had gone up, the
river began to fall and the water came to be very low.
There are two rapids, or small falls, on this part of the Red River,
which show only at low water. They showed plainly enough now; and there
were twelve of the boats above them, caught fast.
What was to be done? If they tried to run down the falls they would be
smashed into kindling wood. It looked very much as if they would have to
be left for the Confederates, or set on fire and burned.
By good luck there was one man there who knew what to do. He was a
lieutenant-colonel from Wisconsin, named Joseph Baily. He had been a
log-driver before the war and knew what was done when logs got jammed in
When he told his plan he was laughed at by some who thought it very
foolish, but Porter told him to go ahead. So, with 2,000 soldiers from
Maine, who knew all about logging, he went into the woods, chopped down
trees, and built a dam below the falls.
The men worked so hard that it took them only eight days to build the
dam; which was wonderfully quick work. A place was left open in the
center, and there four barges loaded with brick were sunk.
When the dam was finished it lifted the water six feet higher, and down
in safety went three of the steamers, while the army shouted and
cheered. But just then two of the sunken barges were carried away, and
the water poured through the break in a flood.
The gunboat Lexington was just ready to start. Admiral Porter stood on
the bank watching.
"Go ahead!" he shouted.
At once the engines were started and the Lexington shot down the
foaming rapid. There were no cheers now; everybody was still.
Down she went, rolling and leaping on the wild waters; but soon she shot
safe into the still pool below. All the other vessels were also safely