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[802]

Chapter 55: operations of the Mississippi Squadron in the latter part of 1864 and in 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 [803] 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 [804] 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

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