A River Fleet In A Hail Of Fire


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

tight grasp.

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

rear-admiral now.

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

a stream.

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

taken down.