previous next

Doc. 30.-naval fight at Fort Pillow.

Official report of Captain Davis.

U. S. Flag-steamer Benton, off Fort Pillow, May 11.
Hon. Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy:
sir: I have the honor to inform the Department that yesterday morning, a little after seven o'clock, the rebel squadron, consisting of eight iron-clad steamers--four of them, I believe, fitted as rams — came round the point at the bend above Fort Pillow, and steamed gallantly up the river, fully prepared for a regular engagement.

The vessels of this squadron were lying at the time tied up to the bank of the river--three on the eastern and four on the western side — and (as they were transferred to me by Flag-Officer Foote) ready for action. Most of the vessels were prompt in obeying the signal to follow the motions of the commander--in chief.

The leading vessels of the rebel squadron made directly for mortar-boat No. Sixteen, which was for a moment unprotected. Acting-Master Gregory and his crew behaved with great spirit during the action; he fired his mortar eleven times at the enemy, reducing the charge and diminishing the elevation.

Commander Stembel, in the gunboat Cincinnati, which was the leading vessel in the line on that side of the river, followed immediately by Commander Kilty, in the Mound City, hastened to the support of the mortar-boats, and were repeatedly [125] struck by the enemy's rams, at the same time that they disabled the enemy and drove him away. The two leading vessels of the enemy's line were successively encountered by this ship. The boilers or steam-chest of one of them was exploded by our shot, and both of them were disabled. They, as well as the first vessel encountered by the Cincinnati, drifted down the river.

Commander Walke informs me that he fired a fifty-pound rifle-shot through the boilers of the third of the enemy's gunboats, of the western line, and rendered her for the time being helpless.

The action lasted during the better part of an hour, and took place at the closest quarters. The enemy finally retreated with haste below the guns of Fort Pillow.

I have to call the especial attention of the Department to the gallantry and good conduct exhibited by Commanders Stembel and Kilty, and Lieut. Commanding S. L. Phelps. I regret to say that Commander Stembel, Fourth Master Reynolds, and one of the seamen of the Cincinnati and one of the Mound City were severely wounded. The other accidents of the day were slight.

I have the honor to be,

Your most obedient servant,

C. H. Davis, Captain Commanding Mississippi Flotilla, pro tern.

Commander Pennock's despatch.

Cairo, May 13, 1862.
Hon. Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy:
News from the fleet is just received. The Mound City was injured on the starboard bow by a ram, and is now on her way to Cairo for repairs.

The Cincinnati was injured on her starboard bow and sunk in twelve feet of water. She will be raised and sent here for repairs, which will be done with all possible despatch. Commander Stembel is here at the Naval Depot, doing well. Fourth Master Reynolds of the Cincinnati was mortally wounded. Two of the Cincinnati's crew were slightly wounded. There were no other casualties. Commander Stembel fought his ship gallantly.


A. W. Pennock, Commanding and Fleet Captain.

Chicago times report.

off Fort Pillow, May 10.
At last the monotony is broken. We have had a fight and a glorious one too, purely naval, with nearly an equal number of boats on each side, and have sent the rebels back down the river badly crippled. They attacked us this morning at six o'clock, and before eight they were so badly whipped that they will never again attempt such a job.

Yesterday morning they sent a boat up with a flag of truce, ostensibly to arrange an exchange of two surgeons, captured at the battle of Belmont, but, as now appears, simply to ascertain definitely the position of our fleet.

Early this morning, as usual, our mortar-boats were towed down to their position for firing, it being a point on the Arkansas shore about one mile from the end of Craigshead Point. The gunboat Cincinnati ran down as a convoy.

Scarcely had the mortars been moored in their position, when the rebel ram Louisiana appeared coming around the point, accompanied by four other gunboats. The ram immediately opened fire on the Cincinnati, to which the latter replied with interest. The rebel boats were all held in check by the Cincinnati alone, when the rest of the Federal fleet got under way and came to her assistance.

In the mean time the rebel ram, finding her guns ineffectual against the iron armor of the Cincinnati, approached her with the evident intention of running her down. Capt. Stembel, of the latter, prepared to meet the assault of the ram by opening his steam batteries and putting them in readiness for use.

As the rebel craft approached within close range, the Cincinnati turned her head about, causing the ram to run along close beside her, when Capt. Stembel drew his pistol and very coolly shot the pilot, killing him instantly; but a second afterwards, a musket-ball struck the gallant Captain in his left shoulder, inflicting a painful though not serious wound.

At this time the contest between the two boats was most intensely exciting. The crews of each were armed with carbines, cutlasses and boarding-pikes, and were discharging volley after volley in quick succession at each other; while the ram was also endeavoring to get her head about so as to run into, and, if possible, sink her antagonist.

Just then the steam batteries of the Cincinnati were opened with terrific effect, throwing heavy volumes of steam and scalding water into the midst of the rebel crew, placing all who appeared on deck hors du combat instantly, and causing the craft to withdraw with all haste.

In the mean time the rebel fleet had been reenforced by three other vessels, and among them the new iron-clad gunboat Mallory, lately built at Memphis. These three ran immediately up to the Cincinnati and engaged her at once. She withstood the assault most nobly, the shot of the enemy glancing off from her iron plating without causing the slightest damage, while her own guns were raining shot and shell with fearful effect upon the enemy.

Capt. Stembel, though badly wounded, remained at his post and directed every movement with the coolness and deliberation for which he is noted.

During the engagement the Mallory approached the Cincinnati with the design of accomplishing that which the ram had failed in doing. As she came in close proximity, the Federal boat St. Louis bore down upon her, and coming with a full head of steam on, struck her amidships, cutting her nearly in two, and causing her to sink in a very few minutes. Numbers of her crew escaped by clinging to the St. Louis, and others [126] were picked up by the Cincinnati; but the larger proportion went down with the boat.

While this work was in progress the other boats of our fleet had engaged the remainder of the rebel fleet, and a most terrific battle was raging, the like of which the usually peaceful waters of the Mississippi have never before witnessed.

Report followed upon report, like the continuous rattle of musketry. The rebels fought bravely and with determination, but they were met by greater bravery, skill and metal, and were being badly worsted.

Capt. Davis, on the flag-ship Benton, directed every movement of our fleet with the sagacity and style of a veteran in naval warfare. He made no mistakes. Not a boat was moved but with fearful effect upon the enemy. Did the Carondolet put her bows up-stream, it was to let fly her stern guns; did the Cairo turn about, it was that a broadside might give its destruction to the foe.

The Mound City, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and the old war-horse Benton were each and all diligent and effective, while the Conestoga (wooden) lay off at a safe distance and made good use of her long-range guns.

The cannonading was fearful and its reverberations most grand and terrible. The noise was almost like one continuous report, while the broad river was covered with a dense volume of smoke that for a time completely enveloped both fleets and hid them from view. It was at this time that a report, louder and more distant than that of a gun, attracted the general attention, and when the smoke lifted a little, it was found that one of the enemy's boats was blown to atoms.

I have no means of knowing the loss of life by this terrible casualty, but it must have been very great. A few lucky fellows were seen floating about on fragments of the wreck, and were picked up by the rebel boats, but the majority of the rebel crew perished miserably.

Scarcely had the excitement caused by this fearful and unlooked — for event passed away, when a second report startled all ears, and another rebel boat with its crew had disappeared. Both vessels were blown up by the explosion of shells from our guns in their magazines. All this time our boats continued to pour their deadly rounds into the enemy, crippling such of their craft as were not wholly destroyed, and carrying death to hundreds of their crews. While themselves unhurt, they proudly defied the heaviest missiles of the rebel guns, their invulnerable armor, sloping sides, repelling both shot and shell with perfect success. No enemy could stand against such extreme and destructive fire as our boats continued to give, while their own guns were impotent for mischief, much less in their crippled condition, with three of their boats destroyed, could the rebels maintain their ground.

At twenty minutes past seven they withdrew to the shelter of their batteries.

The casualties on our side were scarcely worth mentioning. Capt. Stembel was slightly wounded in his left shoulder, and two seamen were injured, though to what extent has not been learned.

Our gunboats behaved most admirably, and all of them came out of the action without any serious damage.

The Cincinnati was in the thickest of the fight throughout, and bore the brunt of the attack, but was not injured enough to prevent her from immediately going into action again. The report that she was badly disabled or sunk is erroneous. The St. Louis, which run down the rebel Mallory, was but slightly damaged herself, and is ready again for duty.

When the engagement closed the gunboats returned to their several positions, and their crews prepared their breakfasts as though nothing unusual had happened.

To do justice in the way of credit to our officers engaged in this affair, would require the mention of all, but I cannot forbear speaking of the efficiency and signal abilities of Capt. Davis, the Acting Flag-Officer, nor of the coolness and determined bravery of Capt. Stembel.

Rebel official report: report of Captain Montgomery.

Flag-Boat Little Rebel, Fort Pillow, May 12.
I have the honor to report an engagement with the Federal gunboats at Plum Point Bend, four miles above Fort Pillow, May tenth, 1862.

Having previously arranged with my officers the order of attack, our boats left their moorings at six o'clock A. M., and proceeding up the river, passed round a sharp point, which brought us in full view of the enemy's fleet, numbering eight gunboats and twelve mortar-boats. The Federal boat Carondelet was lying nearest us, guarding a mortar-boat that was shelling the Fort. The General Bragg, Capt. W. H. H. Leonard, dashed at her; the Carondelet, firing her heavy guns, retreated toward a bar, where the depth of water would not be sufficient for our boats to follow.

The Bragg continued boldly on under fire of nearly their whole fleet, and struck her a violent blow that stopped her further flight, then rounded down the river under a broadside fire, and drifted until her tiller-rope that had got out of order, could be readjusted. A few moments after the Bragg struck her blow, the General Sterling Price ran into the same boat aft, a little starboard of her midships, carrying away her rudder, stern-post, and a large piece of her stern. This threw the Carondelet's stern to the Sumter, who struck her running at the utmost speed of his boat.

The General Earl Van Dorn, Capt. Fulkerson, running according to orders in the rear of the Price and Sumter, directed his attention to the Mound City, at the time pouring broadsides into the Price and Sumter. As the Van Dorn proceeded, the Mound City sheered, and the Van Dorn struck her a glancing blow, making a hole four feet deep in her starboard forward quarter, evidenced by splinters left on the iron bow of the Van Dorn.

As our remaining boats, the General M. Jeff. [127] Thompson, the Colonel Lovell and the General Beauregard, were entering boldly into the contest in their prescribed order, I perceived from the flag-boat that the enemy's boats were taking positions where the water was too shallow for our boats to get at them, and as our cannon were far inferior to theirs, both in number and size, I signalled our boats to fall back, which was accomplished with a coolness that deserves the highest commendation.

I am happy to inform you, while exposed at close quarters to a most terrific fire for thirty minutes, our boats, although struck repeatedly, sustained no serious injuries.


J. E. Montgomery, Senior Captain Commanding River Defence Fleet.
N. B. Our casualties were two killed and one wounded, (arm broken.)

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Sort places alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a place to search for it in this document.
Fort Pillow (Tennessee, United States) (7)
Cairo, Ill. (Illinois, United States) (2)
Cincinnati (Ohio, United States) (1)

Download Pleiades ancient places geospacial dataset for this text.

hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
May 13th, 1862 AD (1)
May 10th, 1862 AD (1)
May 12th (1)
May 11th (1)
May 10th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: