Chapter 55: operations of the Mississippi Squadron in the latter part of 1864 and in 1865.
- Acting Rear-Admiral S. P. Lee takes command. -- loss of the tin-clad Undine. -- burning of the gun-boats Towah, Key West and Elfin. -- operations of the Army under General Thomas against General Hood. -- the effective work performed by the Squadron in conjunction with the Army. -- destroying the Confederate batteries on the Tennessee River. -- General George H. Thomas compliments the Navy. -- General Hood's retreat and losses. -- the Confederate ram Webb. -- gallantry of Lieutenant-Commander Fitch and his men. -- end of the Confederate Navy in the Mississippi region. -- surrender of Confederate property at Shreveport. -- list of vessels and officers of the Mississippi Squadron, 1865.
Acting-rear-admiral. S. P. Lee, who followed Rear-Admiral Porter in October, 1864, in the command of the Mississippi Squadron, was not fortunate on his arrival in the West. On the 4th of November, Admiral Lee reports the loss of the “tin-clad” gun-boat Undine in an engagement with the Confederates on the Tennessee. The enemy had seven pieces of artillery against the gun-boat's four. On the 4th of November the light-draft gun-boats Towah, Key West and Elfin had a severe engagement with the enemy, lasting several hours, when Acting-Volunteer-Lieutenant E. M. King, finding it impossible to save the vessels, ordered them to be set on fire and abandoned. These gun-boats had previously recaptured and burned what was left of the Undine and also the transport Venus. The latter and seven other transports were obliged to be destroyed to prevent their falling into the hands of the enemy. The commanding officers of these light gun-boats fought their vessels with great bravery, but they had been sent on duty that more properly belonged to iron-clads, and in contending against the enemy's works their ardor eclipsed their judgment. In their desire not to dim the record of the Mississippi Squadron, these officers held their position longer than they should have done, by which eleven steamers, including transports, were given to the flames. Lieutenant-Commander Le Roy Fitch, a most gallant officer, was in command of the 10th District, Mississippi Squadron, which included the vessels destroyed. Had he been present, his good judgment would have led to a different result. Fitch arrived on the scene when the batteries of the gun-boats had been mostly disabled, and to have run the enemy's batteries to join the gun-boats would only have added to the disaster. So he witnessed the desperate engagement from below the enemy's works, and had time to reflect on the want of judgment displayed in sending such frail vessels against strong earth-works mounting rifled field-pieces in a narrow river full of shoals and sand-bars. Notwithstanding it had been evident from the commencement of the civil war that Tennessee was one of the prizes for which the Confederacy would contend, and in spite of all the trouble the Federal Army and Navy had incurred to get the State under subjection, it had again been abandoned  to the tender mercies of the Confederate rangers. General Thomas, with a comparatively small force, was left to occupy the whole State, so that when General Sherman defeated Hood, at Atlanta, the latter fell back upon Tennessee, and but for the generalship and foresight of that sturdy old Roman, George H. Thomas, a great disaster would have overtaken the Union cause. The Confederate General, Forrest, had invested Johnson ville, and Hood's entire army was reported as moving on that place, the scene of the late destruction of the gunboats and transports. It is not likely that Acting Rear-Admiral Lee had been apprised of the advance of Hood's army into Tennessee, as otherwise he would have sent some iron-clads to that quarter, since the “tin-clads” were entirely too light to contend against the heavy batteries opposed to them. Soon after these events, the Carondelet was sent to Lieutenant-Commander Fitch, who, on the 3d of December, had pushed on up to Nashville in the expectation of cooperating with General Thomas against the advancing forces of Hood. The Carondelet, Acting-Master Charles W. Miller, was stationed to assist that portion of the army resting on the river, while the other vessels of Fitch's command were kept in readiness to move wherever they might be required. During the day, Lieutenant-Commander Fitch made constant trips up and down the river in the gun-boat Moose, getting everything in readiness to cooperate with the Army to the best advantage. At 9 P. M., Fitch received intelligence that the enemy's left wing had reached the river and planted batteries at Bell's Mill, four miles below Nashville by land, but, owing to the bends in the river, eighteen miles by water. It was learned that the enemy had captured two steamers, and, although the night was dark and a storm threatening, Fitch determined to recapture or destroy the vessels, so that the Confederates would derive no benefit therefrom. The squadron moved in the following order: Neosho, Acting-Volunteer-Lieutenant Samuel Howard; Carondelet, Acting-Master Charles W. Miller; Fair Play, Acting-Master Geo. J. Groves; Moose, Lieutenant-Commander Le Roy Fitch; Reindeer, Acting-Volunteer-Lieutenant H. A. Glassford; Silver Lake, Acting-Master J. C. Coyle. Acting-Master Miller, in the Carondelet, was directed to run below the enemy's lower batteries, giving them grape and canister as he passed, then round — to and fight the batteries heading up stream. The Fair Play was to follow close to the Carondelet and act in concert with her; the Reindeer was to follow the Moose, and the Silver Lake was to bring up the rear. All these vessels, with the exception of the Carondelet and Neosho, were light gun-boats, known in the vernacular of the Mississippi Squadron as “tin-clads.” The vessels moved quietly down the river, with no lights visible, and were not seen by the enemy until the Carondelet opened fire on his lower battery and encampment. The Confederates sprang to arms, and volley after volley of musketry was poured into the Union vessels, while the shore batteries kept up a brisk fire. The gun-boats responded with equal rapidity, and the narrow river was soon filled with smoke, which caused great confusion for a time, preventing the vessels from firing, while it was no hindrance to the enemy, who could see the position of the gunboats and kept up a galling fire upon them. The chances of the vessels coming in collision with each other, in the thick smoke, caused Lieutenant-Commander Fitch, in his flag-ship, to back up the river past the upper batteries, as that portion of the stream was clear of the smoke. In performing this manoeuvre, the Moose was subjected to a severe fire from the enemy's 20-pounder rifles; but in a short time the fire of the Moose began to tell, and the enemy were driven from their guns by the shower of shrapnel. The Reindeer, now coming to the assistance of the Moose, the two vessels swept the field. The Moose and Reindeer were lashed side by side together, and kept up the engagement through the night. The enemy's fire was not well directed, most of their shots passing over the vessels. The latter, although a good deal cut up, were not in any way disabled, and there was no loss of life on board. At about midnight the enemy ceased firing, and in the morning were nowhere to be seen. The Moose then moved down the stream and met the Carondelet and Fair Play, in company with the transports the enemy had captured the day before. The enemy had been driven out of these vessels before they had time to destroy them or to remove the forage and stores with which they were loaded. The prisoners captured by the Confederates in the transports escaped from their guards and rejoined the vessels. This whole affair, like everything else undertaken by Lieutenant-Commander Fitch, was well managed. Although his command was not a large one, this young officer was often mentioned for gallant and efficient service, and he ever displayed sound judgment, no matter in what position he was placed. His officers and men, inspired by his spirit, were conspicuous for  their bravery. The management of the vessels on the occasion we have just mentioned required great judgment and coolness to avoid collision. The greatest width of the stream was seventy-five yards, and it was so filled with smoke that it was almost impossible to see anything. The little flotilla arrived in Nashville with the two recaptured transports, “Prairie State” and “Prima Donna,” in tow, and also the Magnet, which had been retaken from the enemy. The loss of the Confederates in their engagement with the gun-boats was afterwards found to be considerable. On the 4th of December the iron-clad steamer Neosho had joined the flotilla of Lieutenant-Commander Fitch. She carried two 11-inch smooth-bore guns and was well protected against shots from field batteries. On the 9th of December Lieutenant-Commander Fitch started down the river with the Neosho and some of the lighter gun-boats of his command, together with a number of army transports. When nearly abreast of the scene of the encounter of the 3d inst., a large force of Confederates was discovered advantageously posted to dispute the passage of the vessels. Fourteen pieces of artillery at once opened on the gun-boats, accompanied by heavy volleys of musketry from rifle-pits. Fitch, with his usual judgment, had left the transports three miles in the rear under charge of Acting-Volunteer-Lieutenant Glassford, and when so furiously assailed did not hesitate a moment what to do. He ordered the pilot of the Neosho to proceed slowly, while the enemy's fire was deliberately returned, until the vessels arrived abreast of the lower battery. Fitch then rounded — to and fought with his vessel's head up stream using grape and canister, while the Neosho was receiving the concentrated fire of all the enemy's batteries. Lieutenant-Commander Fitch's position was the only one from which he could bring his guns to bear upon the different batteries, owing to the manner in which they were sheltered behind the spurs of hills. He had also great faith in the Neosho, which had been built to defy the enemy's field batteries. She was now in a position to test her strength and to allow her to use grape and canister at a distance of thirty yards. The enemy kept up a terrific cross-fire, and their shot and shell rattled against every part of the vessel; but the deliberate and accurate fire of the gunboat soon drove back the sharp-shooters and infantry, although the artillery, being strongly posted on the high bluffs with a plunging fire, was found more difficult to silence. In a short time everything perishable on the outside of the Neosho was demolishel, yet the little vessel maintained her position for two hours and a half, until, finding that the enemy's shells were cutting away the “fair-weather pilot-house,” and letting it down so that it would hide the “fighting pilot-house,” and thus obstruct the sight of the commanding officer and pilot, Fitch steamed up the river again under a raking fire, and gained the convoy of transports. Finding it would be impossible to get the transports below the batteries, without having them cut to pieces, Fitch sent them back to Nashville under convoy of the Fair Play and Silver Lake. But Fitch was not to be balked by the Confederate batteries as long as his ammunition lasted. He set all hands to work to clear away the debris, and then proceeded down the river to his old position, taking with him the Carondelet, a vessel which had withstood the tempest of shot and shell from Forts Henry. Donelson, Vicksburg and Grand Gulf. Having secured the Carondelet to the bank above the enemy's batteries, with orders not to open fire until after the Neosho should engage, Fitch, in the latter vessel, proceeded below the Confederate batteries, rounded-to, and opened as before. As on the former occasion, the enemy opened also, but this time they got the worst of it, the Carondelet, with her heavy guns, dealing destruction right and left. Two of the enemy's pieces were soon dismounted, and by dark all but two of them were silenced. These were fired as the Neosho proceeded up stream, there being nothing more for her to do. This event is mentioned as an exhibition of pertinacity and courage seldom equalled. The gallant Fitch never shrunk from the performance of any duty however hazardous. He was always under fire whenever opportunity offered, not owing to chance circumstances, to which sluggards often attribute a man's reputation for heroism, but to a determined will. This gallant officer gained little promotion for his war services, and his highest recognition was a complimentary letter from the Secretary of the Navy on the occasion when he brought about the capture of General John Morgan, the celebrated Confederate partisan leader. In the engagement with the Confederate batteries, the Neosho was struck one hundred and ten times with shot and shell, ranging in size from 20 to 30 pounders, but she received no injury that would have prevented her from going into battle immediately afterwards. From the 7th to the 15th of December, 1864, Lieutenant-Commander Fitch's little flotilla was most active in co-operating with  the Army, making reconnoissances and attacks on Confederate batteries whenever they showed themselves along the river. On the 14th inst., Fitch was requested to co-operate with the Army in order to capture some artillery. By a very skillful manoeuvre on the part of the Army and Navy, a battery of four guns was captured. While the Navy were advancing in front, the cavalry surrounded and captured the battery. In the afternoon the same tactics were successful against another battery of four guns, which fell into the hands of the Federal cavalry. The loss of these guns was a severe blow to General Hood at that moment, for he was deficient in artillery
|Surgeon Ninian Pinkney, fleet Surgeon, Mississippi Squadron.|
These were about the last important events in the history of the Mississippi Squadron, as the war was now drawing rapidly to a close. The retreat of Hood left the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers comparatively free from Confederates, and there was little prospect of another invasion of the State while General Thomas remained in command. The vessels of the Mississippi Squadron were scattered along the great river, where the guerillas still carried on their operations on a small scale. Very little occurred that could embellish the pages of history. The Red River region was revisited, the Washita and Black Rivers patrolled, and every precaution taken to guard those inland waters. At this time the Confederate ram Webb succeeded in making her way past all the vessels of the fleet and reached a point twenty-five miles below New Orleans, where she was destroyed, as we have heretofore mentioned. This episode created quite an excitement in the fleet for the time, but it appears that no one was to blame for the Webb getting so far down the river unharmed. The dash of the Webb was the last affair of the expiring Confederate Navy, and the last attempt to carry out a valuable cargo of cotton and naval stores; which, had it been left on the levee at Shreveport, La., a few days longer, could have been shipped to New Orleans, openly insuring the owners a good profit. The Confederate naval officer in command at Shreveport, Lieutenant J. H. Carter, notified the U. S. naval authorities at the mouth of Red River that he was ready to surrender to the United States Government all the property in his possession, consisting of one useless iron-clad and a quantity of naval stores. Twenty-four officers and eighteen men surrendered themselves and were paroled, and that was the last of the Confederate Navy in the Mississippi region. When Lieutenant-Commander W. E. Fitzhugh proceeded to Shreveport to take possession of the Confederate naval property at that place, he was received in a friendly manner, and all seemed anxious that he should secure everything that had belonged to the Confederate Government. Above Alexandria, the few ravages made by the invasion of General Banks' army had been obliterated, and the people were living quietly on their farms, although deprived of many comforts to which they had been accustomed. They were delighted at the return of peace, and in their hearts, no doubt, welcomed the Union flag as an old and well-tried friend. They saw in the Union gun-boats the symbols of lawful authority, that would respect the rights of citizens and punish law-breakers; and so conscious were the civil authorities on Red River that it was necessary to have within reach the strong arm of power, that they requested a sufficient naval force should be stationed in their vicinity to overawe the malcontents, if there should be any, and assure those anxious to return to their allegiance that they should receive protection. As a rule, however, the people of Louisiana were only too glad to lay down their arms and return to the pursuits of peace. Many of them had seen, from the time when the Navy obtained possession of the Mississippi and its tributaries, that it would be useless to contend against the power of the North. It is true that the Confederate forces in Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas showed an indomitable spirit in resisting the advance of the Federal armies, yet they received a sufficient number of checks to convince them that the subjugation of the whole country was merely a question of time. It is a fact, which has been little commented on, that at least three hundred and fifty thousand soldiers from the slave States fought on the side of the Union, and, had Texas and Western Louisiana been securely held, there would have been a number of recruits in that quarter obtained for the Federal Army.