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The navy in the Red River.

by Thomas O. Selfridge, Captain, U. S. N.
The Red River expedition was essentially a movement of the Army of the Gulf to control more thoroughly Louisiana and eastern Texas, in which Admiral Porter was called upon to cooperate with the naval forces of the Mississippi.

For this purpose, early in March, 1864, he assembled at the mouth of the Red River the ironclads Eastport, Essex, Benton, Lafayette, Choctaw, Chillicothe, Ozark, Louisville, Carondelet, Pittsburgh, Mound City, Osage, Neosho, and the light-draught gun-boats Ouachita, Lexiugton, Fort Hindman, Cricket, Gazelle, Juliet, and Black Hawk, bearing the admiral's flag.

This was the most formidable force that had ever been collected in the western waters. It was under a courageous and able commander, full of energy and fertile in resources, and was manned by officers and men who, from a long series of conflicts on the Mississippi, had become veterans in river warfare. With a powerful army, reenforced by ten thousand of Sherman's old soldiers under General A. J. Smith, the navy felt there would be but few laurels left for them to win, and little did it dream of the dangers, hardships, and possible loss of a portion of this splendid squadron that the future had in store for it, owing to the treacherous nature of this crooked, narrow, and turbid stream, whose high banks furnished the most favorable positions for artillery and for the deadly sharp-shooter. That the naval portion did not meet with greater loss of life is owing to the skill, derived from long experience, with which the officers prepared and fought their vessels.

The active cooperation of the navy was dependent to a considerable extent upon the usual spring rise; but this year the rise did not come, and the movements of the army, which forced the navy to risk its vessels in insufficient depths of water, were the main causes of the almost insurmountable difficulties it had to contend with. Had the river been bank-full no force that the Confederates could have controlled could have stood for a moment against the fleet; its movement to Shreveport would have been but a holiday excursion. But against nature it could not contend, and the very low stage of water soon reduced the active squadron to three iron-clads and a half-dozen light-draughts.

On the 12th of March the fleet and transports moved up the Red River. The greater part turned off at the Atchafalaya to cover the landing of Smith's force at Simsport; from which point they were to march by land to Alexandria, where the junction with Banks's army was to be made. The Eastport (Lieutenant-Commander S. L. Phelps), Osage (Lieutenant-Commander T. O. Selfridge), Fort Hindman (Acting-Master John Pearce), and Cricket (Lieutenant H. H. Gorringe) were ordered to go ahead and clear the obstructions that were known to exist below Fort De Russy, a strong fortification constructed by the Confederates earlier in the war, recently strengthened, and now armed with heavy guns in casemates protected with railroad iron.1 These obstructions were reached March 14th, and were found to consist of a row of piles across the river, supported by a second row bolted to the first; a forest of trees had been cut and floated against them, with their branches interlaced with the piles. It was slow work clearing a passage, owing to the strength of the current and to the raft of logs and the snags above the piling, so that a day was consumed; and before the squadron had finally pushed through and had arrived in proximity to the fort the guns of the Union forces were heard, so that for fear of injury to them the fleet could only fire a few rounds at the water-battery.

The capture of Fort De Russy was a most gallant feat, General Mower actually riding into the fort at the head of his attacking column. Porter's orders to Phelps to push ahead were delayed by the dispatch vessel getting entangled in the obstructions, or else we should have captured the Confederate transports, which were just out of sight as we reached Alexandria, about ten miles above the fort.

On the morning of March 16th nine gun-boats had arrived. I was directed, with 18 0 men from the fleet, to occupy the town until the arrival of the land forces under General A. J. Smith. It had been agreed that General Banks should be at Alexandria by March 17th, but the cavalry did not arrive till the 19th, and his whole force was not assembled till the 26th. [See p. 350.]

On March 29th fourteen of the squadron left Alexandria for the upper river, the Eastport and [363] Osage being in the advance; thus fourteen days of precious time had been lost, allowing the Confederates to concentrate their forces for the defense of Shreveport, our objective point. As we advanced the enemy's scouts set fire to all the cotton within ten miles of the river-bank. Millions of dollars worth of it were destroyed, and so dense was the smoke that the sun was obscured, and appeared as though seen through a smoked glass. One Sunday morning a man was seen waving a white handkerchief in front of a handsome dwelling. Captain Phelps and myself stopped and went ashore to inquire the reason. He told us his name was Colhoun; that he was a brother of Captain Colhoun of the United States navy; that, being over age, he had taken no part in the conflict, but had remained at home cultivating his plantation. With tears in his eyes he told us that that night his cotton pile, of 5000 bales, had been set on fire, and his ginhouse, costing $30,000, destroyed. He was a rich man the night before, and the morning found him penniless. A bale of cotton was worth at that time $400 in New Orleans, so that he had lost at a single blow $2,000,000. He was but one of many innocent persons who suffered the loss of all their property through this indiscriminate destruction. [See p. 372.]

Our supply of coals having given out, we were dependent upon fence rails for fuel. Two hours before sunset the fleet and transports would tie up to the bank, and whole crews and companies of soldiers would range over the country, each man loading himself with two rails, and in an incredibly short time the country would be denuded of fences as far as the eye could see. So dependent were we upon these rails for fuel that it was a saying among the Confederates that they should have destroyed the fences and not the cotton. Had they done so, our progress would have been much slower. As it was, it proved a laborious task for the crews of the gun-boats to cut up these cotton-wood rails in lengths to fit the furnaces, which were much shorter than those of the transports.

On April 3d, Acting Volunteer Lieutenant J. P. Couthouy, commanding the iron-clad Chillicothe, was shot by a guerrilla a few miles above Grand Ecore. He was a brave officer, and his loss was much lamented in the squadron.

April 7th, Admiral Porter, on the Cricket, bearing his flag, left Grand Ecore for Shreveport, accompanied by the Osage, Neosho, Fort Hindman, Lexington, and Chillicothe, convoying twenty transports, containing General Kilby Smith's division of the Sixteenth Army Corps; a rendezvous being agreed upon with the army within three days at Springfield Landing, 110 miles by the river below Shreveport. The river was stationary, at a lower stage than usual at this season, and there was barely water to float the gun-boats.

April 10th, the fleet, as agreed upon, arrived at Springfield Landing, about 30 miles, as the crow flies, from its destination, meeting with no obstruction beyond the usual amount of bushwhacking. Here the channel was found obstructed by the sinking of a large steamboat, the New Falls City,2 across the channel, both ends resting upon the banks. Of the disastrous results of the battles of Sabine Cross-roads and Pleasant Hill, April 8th and 9th, the fleet were entirely ignorant until a courier reached Admiral Porter from General Banks stating that the army was falling back upon Grand Ecore.

Signal was made for commanding officers to repair on board the flag-ship, when the repulse and retreat of the army was first made known to them. It was announced that it would be necessary for the fleet to go back. The gun-boats were distributed through the transports, and my vessel, the Osage, was directed to bring up the rear.

The return of the fleet was fraught with peril: The Confederates, being relieved by the falling back of the army, were now free to attack us at any point of the river. There were but half-a-dozen gun-boats to defend the long line, two of which were light-draughts, known as “tin-clads,” from the lightness of their defensive armor, which was only bullet-proof. The river was falling; its narrowness and its high banks afforded the best possible opportunities for harassing attacks, and the bends of the river were so short that it was with the greatest difficulty they were rounded by vessels of the Osage type. Steaming with the current, the Osage was almost unmanageable, and on the morning of April 12th the transport Black Hawk3 was lashed to her starboard quarter, and thus the descent was successfully made till about 2 P. M., when the Osage ran hard aground opposite Blair's Plantation, or Pleasant Hill Landing, the bows down stream and the starboard broadside bearing on the right bank. While endeavoring to float her, the pilot of the Black Hawk reported a large force gathering in the woods some--three miles off dressed in Federal uniforms. I ascended to the pilot-house, and scanning them carefully made sure they were Confederates, and at the same time directed Lieutenant Bache of the Lexington to go below and open an enfilading fire upon them. Every preparation being made, the attack was quietly awaited. The battery unlimbered near the Lexington, but a caisson being blown up they quickly withdrew. The enemy came up in column of regiments, and, protected by the high and almost perpendicular banks, opened a terrific musketry fire, and at a distance not exceeding one hundred yards. Shellfiring under the circumstances was almost useless. The great guns of the Osage were loaded with grape and canister, and, when these were exhausted, with shrapnel having fuses cut to one second. Our fire was reserved till the heads of the enemy were seen just above the bank, when both guns were fired. Everything that was made of wood on the Osage and Black Hawk was pierced with bullets. Upon the iron shield in the pilot-house of the latter were the marks of sixty bullets, a proof [364]

The fight at Blair's plantation. From a War-time sketch.

of the hotness of the fire. This unequal contest could not continue long, and after an hour and a half the enemy retreated with a loss of over four hundred killed and wounded, as afterward ascertained. Among the former was General Thomas Green, their foremost partisan fighter west of the Mississippi.4 The Osage sustained a loss of seven wounded. Company A of the 90th Illinois were on board and behaved most gallantly.

The Confederates did not again molest the fleet until the 25th of April, when they attacked Admiral Porter in the light-draught gunboat Cricket. At this late period the low condition of the river had forced him to send the Osage and Neosho down the river, or the rebels would have suffered as severely as at Blair's Plantation.

The 15th of April found the squadron with its fleet of transports safe back at Grand Ecore, not much the worse for their encounters with the enemy and the snags and sand bars of the river. Admiral Porter was called to Alexandria by the affairs of the Mississippi squadron, leaving the Osage and Lexington at Grand Ecore. The larger iron-clads had with great difficulty been forced over the bar below Grand Ecore and sent on toward Alexandria, whither the Osage and Lexington followed them.

The Eastport (Lieutenant-Commander Phelps), the largest of our iron-clads, which had joined the squadron for the first time on this expedition, unfortunately struck a torpedo eight miles below Grand Ecore, and her bottom was so badly injured that she sank. Captain Phelps was very proud of his ship, and went to work with a will to save her. After the most untiring efforts he succeeded in bulkheading the leak, and, assisted by two steam-pump boats which the admiral had brought to his assistance, succeeded in getting her some forty miles down the river. Here she grounded again, but after strenuous efforts, assisted by the admiral, who remained behind, she was floated, but after proceeding a few miles again grounded on a pile of snags. From the 21st to the 25th of April Captain Phelps, one of the bravest and most competent commanders in the squadron, had worked day and night with his officers and crew to save his ship, but the retreat of the army had left the banks of the river unprotected [see p. 357], and the low stage of water had compelled the admiral to send his squadron to Alexandria. There was no longer a chance to save the Eastport, and he reluctantly gave the order to blow her up. Hardly had this been done when the little squadron was attacked by a large force of infantry, which was quickly driven off. It was evident that serious work was ahead. The squadron now consisted of the light-draught gun-boats Cricket (flag-ship), Juliet, and Fort Hindman. They had proceeded some twenty miles when the enemy opened upon them with twenty pieces of artillery. Nineteen shells went crashing through the Cricket, and during the five minutes she was under fire she was struck thirty-eight times and lost twelve killed and nineteen wounded out of a crew of fifty, one-third of [365] whom were negroes. The escape of the Cricket was almost miraculous, and was largely owing to the coolness and skill of the admiral.5 The remainder of the squadron turned up stream, except the two pump-boats, Champion No. 3 and No. 5, which being unarmed were destroyed.

Captain Phelps concluded to wait till the next day to run the batteries, which was successfully accomplished under a heavy fire, the Juliet sustaining a loss of 15 killed and wounded, and the Fort Hindman 7.6

April 27th found the fleet once more assembled at Alexandria. During all this hazardous and harassing return from Springfield Landing there had been no instance in which the navy had withheld support from the army when called upon; of which there is no better proof than that every transport returned safely, though by delaying the return to the last possible moment the safety of the fleet was jeopardized, and the Eastport and the two pump-boats were lost.

Twelve of the squadron were now assembled above the falls, the rocks of which were bare, while the channel between them was hardly twenty feet wide, and three feet deep. No spring rise had come, and General Banks with the army was anxious to leave Alexandria and the region where no laurels had been gained. What should be done with the squadron stopped by this seemingly impassable barrier, the falls of the Red River? At this critical moment Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Bailey, chief engineer of the Nineteenth Army Corps, came forward with the proposition to construct a dam at the falls. It seemed almost an impossibility to accomplish what had before been attempted without success in more peaceful times; but it was only necessary to propose the plan for both army and navy to enter into the scheme with characteristic American energy.7 While the work was in progress, the side armor was stripped from the larger iron-clads, taken up the river after nightfall, and dropped in a deep hole, while the lighter guns, 32-pounders, some dozen altogether, were put ashore. In about ten days the unique and Herculean work was completed. All the credit is due to the gallant men of the army, who for eight days worked good-humoredly in water, and exposed to a hot sun,

The current was now rushing through the gap in the dam at a rate of nine miles an hour, and yet upon the falls there lacked a foot of water to float the larger boats. To close the gate, two strong loaded coal-barges were shipped into it, secured by lines from the banks. After all but the largest vessels had descended safely over the falls, it seemed assured that the morning would show enough water to float the whole squadron over. But during the night the lines parted, and the barges were swept away and struck a ledge of rocks below the dam and bilged. What then seemed a great misfortune, however, proved our salvation, for the Lexington, the first gun-boat to go through, though carried against this very ledge and striking the sides of the barges, caromed off down stream, when, but for them, she would doubtless have been sunk, most seriously obstructing the channel against the passage of the others.8 Colonel Bailey, as a next resource, proceeded to construct below the upper falls wing dams from each bank, by which a further rise of a few inches was obtained. Hawsers were run out from the gun-boats to the shore, and these manned by a brigade, and the united. force of three thousand men, enlivened with a band of music, dragged them over the bottom till they floated in the deeper water below, and both army and navy breathed more freely in this rescue of the squadron upon seeing them anchored in the stream below Alexandria. On the morning of May 13th I was dispatched to the upper falls to destroy the 32-pounders left behind, the army having already begun its march for the Mississippi. Just as the last one was blown to pieces, a rebel cavalry regiment galloped down the road and fired a volley which happily did no damage, and before it could be repeated the swift current had carried the boat out of their range.

During the building of the dam a gallant but disastrous action took place between the small light-draught gun-boats Signal (Acting-Master Morgan) and Covington (Acting Volunteer Lieutenant Lord), at Dunn's Bayou, below Alexandria, while convoying the Warner, a quartermaster's boat, down the river. The rebels, having passed round the rear of our forces at Alexandria with six thousand men and twenty-five pieces of artillery, established themselves on the river and opened on the Warner when she came in sight. The gun-boats rounded to immediately and opened the fight, but the fire was so severe that the steam-pipes were cut and the boilers perforated. Though virtually disabled, they continued this unequal contest for five hours, when Lieutenant Lord landed his crew and set fire to his vessel. The Signal had too many wounded to permit her commander to pursue a like course, and she fell into the hands of the enemy, who, after removing the guns, sunk her in the river as an obstruction. [366]

Of this action, Admiral Porter writes:

The brave men in their light vessels, only musket-proof, defended them for four or five hours, and many of the actions heralded to the world during the late war were much less worthy of notice than this contest between two little gun-boats and twenty pieces of artillery, most of which had been captured from the army at Pleasant Hill [meaning Sabine Cross-roads].

On the 21st of May, the squadron and transports reached the Mississippi. And thus ended the Red River expedition, one of the most humiliating and disastrous that had to be recorded during the war. The vessels lost were the Eastport, sunk by a torpedo; the two pump-boats, Champion No. 3 and No. 5, and the small gun-boats Covington and Signal. The total casualties of the navy in killed, wounded, and missing were about 120, exclusive of the crews of the pump-boats, which lost upward of 200.

1 Fort De Russy was captured by the navy in the first movement up the Red River in May, 1863, but was afterward abandoned when the army marched to Port Hudson (see Vol. III., p. 592).--editors.

2 This steamer was sunk, as stated in the text, on the 5th of April by Captain James McCloskey, acting under the orders of Generals E. K. Smith and Taylor. After the return of the fleet to Grand Ecore, the obstruction had to be removed before the Confederates could recover the use of the river.--editors.

3 Not to be confounded with the naval steamer of the same name, which remained at Alexandria.--editors.

4 Of this action Admiral Porter, in his “Naval history of the civil War,” writes as follows: “Selfridge conducted this affair in the handsomest manner, inflicting such a punishment on the enemy that their infantry gave no more trouble, having come to the conclusion that fighting with muskets against iron-clads did not pay. To say nothing of the loss in men inflicted upon the enemy, the Osage had killed the best officer the Confederates had in this quarter, who, judging from his energy on this occasion, would have given no end of trouble had he lived. Lieutenant [George M.] Bache managed the Lexington beautifully and did great execution with his guns, though less exposed to the infantry fire than the Osage.”--editors.

5 When the pilot was wounded, Admiral Porter piloted the vessel himself. See Mahan's The Gulf and inland waters, p. 201.--editors.

6 The destruction of the Eastport and the action of the Cricket occurred on the 26th. While the Cricket was running the gauntlet of the Confederate position, the pump-boat Champion No. 3 received a shot in her boiler, causing it to explode. The captain, Stewart, three engineers, and all the crew, composed of some 200 negroes, were scalded to death, with the exception of 15. The Champion No. 5 retreated with the Hindman and Juliet, above the Confederate battery, and on the 27th attempted to make the passage down in their company. Unable to get by, she was guided to the opposite bank by her pilot, Maitland, who remained at the wheel after having received eight wounds. The boat finally sank, and most of the crew were captured.--editors.

7 For a description of the dam, see p. 359.--editors.

8 The Osage, Neosho, and Fort Hindman passed the falls on the 8th, the other vessels remaining above. On the 9th, after the barges had been carried away, and thus had opened the break in the dam, these three gun-boats and the Lexington passed through the opening. The vessels remaining above, which passed through on the 11th and 12th, were the Carondelet, Louisville, Mound City, Pittsburgh, Ozark, Chillicothe, and two tugs.--editors.

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