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The passage of the Port Hudson batteries.

The rebels had blockaded the Mississippi from the beginning of the war with their batteries. In the progress of the war Farragut had captured the batteries below New Orleans, and above as far as Prophet's Island, just below Port Hudson, and Foote, Davis, and Porter had made a conquest of the batteries above Vicksburg, leaving only the Vicksburg, Warrenton, and Port Hudson batteries — a distance of two hundred and thirty-two miles by the river. Of these, the batteries at Port Hudson were, with the exception of those at Vicksburg, the most formidable on the river.

The bluff, rising forty feet above the level of the river, was covered with forts for a distance of nearly [225] four miles, constructed upon the most scientific principles of modern military art, and armed with the most approved and heaviest ordnance which England, seeking the ruin of the republic, could furnish the rebels. The river, just at the bend, suddenly narrows, and the current, striking upon the west bank, is thrown across, running with great velocity, and carrying the channel almost directly under the base of the precipitous cliffs. Any vessel attempting the passage would be compelled to run the gauntlet of a plunging fire from batteries which commanded the range for several miles above and below.

It was proposed, in order that the fleet might be able to co-operate with General Grant in the siege of Vicksburg, to attack Port Hudson, and, under the fire of the bombardment, to attempt to force a passage by several of our gunboats up the river.

To Rear-Admiral Farragut, already renowned for his naval victory at Forts St. Philip and Jackson, was assigned the work of attacking and passing this formidable river fortress. The fleet consisted of the flag-ship “Hartford,” a fine sloop-of-war, carrying twenty-six guns; the “Richmond,” a vessel of the same class and armament; the side-wheel steamship “Mississippi,” with twenty-two eight and nine inch guns; the “Monongahela,” a smaller steam sloop-of-war, with sixteen heavy guns; and the gunboats “Kineo,” “Albatross,” “Sachem,” and “Genesee,” each carrying three columbiads, and two rifled thirty-two pounders, together with six mortar boats, intended to assist in the bombardment, but not to attempt the passage of the batteries.

On the morning of the 14th of April, the squadron [226] having ascended the river from New Orleans, anchored off Prophet's Island, and the mortar boats took their position, and early in the afternoon commenced a vigorous bombardment of the rebel works. At half-past 9 o'clock in the evening, a red light from the flagship signaled the ships and gunboats to weigh anchor. The “Hartford” led, the “Albatross” being lashed on her starboard side; the “Richmond” followed, having. the “Genesee” lashed to her; next came the “Monongahela” and the “Kineo,” while the “Mississippi” and the “Sachem” brought up the rear. The mortar boats, from their sheltered anchorage, were prepared to renew their bombardment with marked effect so soon as it should be necessary.

Signal lights were flashing along the rebel batteries, showing that they were awake to the movements of the Union squadron. Soon the gleam of a fire kindled by the rebels was seen, which blazed higher and more brilliant till its flashes illumined the whole river opposite the batteries with the light of day. This immense bonfire was directly in front of the most formidable of the fortifications, and every vessel ascending the stream would be compelled to pass in the full blaze of its light, exposed to the concentrated fire of the heaviest ordnance. Still it was hoped, notwithstanding the desperate nature of the enterprise, that a few at least of the vessels of the squadron would be able to effect a

Silently in the darkness the boats steamed along, until a rebel field-piece, buried in the foliage of the shore, opened fire upon the “Hartford.” The challenge thus given was promptly accepted, and a broadside [227] volley was returned upon the unseen foe. The rebel batteries, protected by strong redoubts, extended, as we have mentioned, with small intervening spaces, a distance of nearly four miles, often rising in tier above tier on the ascending bluff. Battery after battery immediately opened its fire; the hill-sides seemed peopled with demons hurling their thunderbolts, while the earth trembled beneath the incessant and terrific explosions. And now the mortar boats uttered their awful roar, adding to the inconceivable sublimity of the scene. An eye-witness thus describes the appearance of the mammoth shells rising and descending in their majestic curve:

Never shall I forget the sight that then met my astonished vision. Shooting upward, at an angle of forty-five degrees, with the rapidity of lightning, small globes of golden flame were seen sailing through the pure ether — not a steady, unfading flame, but coruscating like the fitful gleam of a fire-fly, now visible and anon invisible. Like a flying star of the sixth magnitude the terrible missile — a thirteen-inch shell-nears its zenith, up and still up, higher and higher. Its flight now becomes much slower, till, on reaching its utmost altitude, its centrifugal force becoming counteracted by the earth's attraction, it describes a parabolic curve, and down, down it comes, bursting, it may be, ere it reaches terra firma, but probably alighting in the rebel works ere it explodes, where it scatters death and destruction around.

The air was breathing gently from the east, and dense volumes of billowy smoke hung over the river, drifting slowly across in clouds which the eye could not penetrate, [228] and adding greatly to the gloom and sublimity of the scene. It strains a ship too much to fire all the guns simultaneously. The broadsides were, consequently, generally discharged by commencing with the forward gun, and firing each one in its turn in the most rapid manner possible — as fast as the ticking of a clock. The effect of this bombardment, from ship and shore, as described by all who witnessed it, was grand and terrific in the extreme. From the innumerable batteries, very skilfully manned, shot and shell fell upon the ships like hail. Piercing the awful roar, which filled the air as with the voice of ten thousand thunders, was heard the demoniac shrieks of the shells, as if all the demons of the pit had broken loose, and were revelling in hideous rage through the darkness and the storm.

In the midst of this scene of terror, conflagration, and death, as the ships were struggling through the fire against the swift current of the Mississippi, there was heard from the deck of the “Richmond,” coming up from the dark, rushing stream, the cry of a drowning man. “Help! Oh, help!” The unhappy sufferer had evidently fallen from the “Hartford,” which was in advance. In such an hour there could not be even an attempt made to rescue him. Again and again the agonizing cry pierced the air, the voice growing fainter And fainter as the victim floated away in the distance, until he sank beneath the turbid waves.

The whole arena of action, on the land and on the water, was soon enveloped in a sulphurous canopy of smoke, pierced incessantly by the vivid flashes of the guns. The vessels could no longer discern each other Dr the hostile batteries on the shore It became very [229] difficult to know how to steer; and as in the impenetrable gloom the only object at which they could aim was the flash of the guns, the danger became imminent that they might fire into each other. This gave the rebels great advantage; for with their stationary guns trained upon the river, though they fired into dense darkness, they could hardly fire amiss. Occasionally a gust of wind would sweep away the smoke, slightly revealing the scene in the light of the great bonfire on the bluff. Again the black, stifling canopy would settle down, and all was Egyptian darkness.

At one time, just as the “Richmond” was prepared to pour a deadly fire into a supposed battery, whose flash the gunners had just perceived, Lieutenant Terry shouted out, “Hold on, you are firing into the ‘Hartford!’ ” Another quarter of a minute and they would have been pouring a destructive broadside into the flagship which could scarcely have failed to sink her.

A shell from a rebel battery entered the starboard port of the “Richmond,” and burst with a terrific explosion directly under the gun. One fragment splintered the gun-carriage. Another made a deep indentation in the gun itself. Two other fragments struck the unfortunate boatswain's mate, cutting off both legs at the knee, and one arm at the elbow. He soon died, with his last breath saying, “Don't give up the ship, lads!” The whole ship reeled under the concussion as if tossed by an earthquake.

The river at Port Hudson, as we have mentioned, makes a majestic curve. Rebel cannon were planted along the concave brow of the crescent-shaped bluffs of the eastern shore, while beneath the bluff, near the water's edge, [230] there was another series of what were called water batteries lining the bank. As the ships entered this curve, following the channel which swept close to the eastern shore, they were, one after the other, exposed to the most terrible enfilading fire from all the batteries following the line of the curve. This was the most desperate point of the conflict; for here it was almost literally fighting muzzle to muzzle. The rebels discharged an incessant cross-fire of grape and canister, to which the heroic squadron replied with double-shotted guns. Never did ships pass a more fiery ordeal.

Lieutenant-Commander Cummings, the executive officer of the “Richmond,” was standing with his speaking-trumpet in his hand cheering the men, with Captain Alden by his side, when there was a simultaneous flash and roar, and a storm of shot came crashing through the bulwarks from a rebel battery, which they could almost touch with their ramrods. Both of the officers fell as if struck by lightning. The captain was simply knocked down by the windage, and escaped unharmed. The speaking-trumpet in Commander Cummings' hand was battered flat, and his left leg was torn off just below the knee.

As he fell heavily upon the deck, in his gushing blood, he exclaimed:

Put a tourniquet on my leg, boys. Send my letters to my wife. Tell her that I fell in doing my duty!

As they took him below, and into the surgeon's room, already filled with the wounded, he looked around upon the unfortunate group, and said:

If there are any here hurt worse than I am let them be attended to first.


His shattered limb was immediately amputated soon after, as he lay upon his couch, exhausted by the operation and faint from the loss of blood, he heard the noise of the escape of steam as a rebel shot penetrated the boiler. Inquiring the cause, and learning that the ship had become disabled, he exclaimed with fervor:

I would willingly give my other leg if we could but pass those batteries!

A few days after this Christian hero died of his wound.

Just above the batteries were several rebel gunboats. They did not venture into the melee, but anxiously watched the fight, until, apprehensive that some of our ships might pass, they put on all steam and ran up the river as fast as their web feet could carry them. But now denser and blacker grew the dark billows of smoke. It seemed impossible, if the steamers moved, to avoid running into each other or upon the shore. An officer of each ship placed himself at the prow, striving to penetrate the gloom. A line of men passed from him to the stern, along whom, even through the thunders of the battle, directions could be transmitted to the helmsman. Should any of the ships touch the ground beneath the fire of such batteries their destruction would be almost sure.

It was a little after eleven o'clock at night when the first shot had been fired. For an hour and a half the unequal conflict had raged. The flag-ship “Hartford” and the “Albatross” succeeded in forcing their way above the batteries, and in thus gaining the all-important object of their enterprise. The “Richmond” following, had just passed the principal batteries when a shot penetrated her steam-chest, so effectually disabling her [232] for the hour that she dropped, almost helpless, down the stream. The “Genesee,” which was alongside, unable to stem the rapid current of the river, with the massive “Richmond” in tow, bore her back to Prophet's Island. Just as the “Richmond” turned a torpedo exploded under her stern, throwing up the water mast-head high and causing the gallant ship to quiver in every timber.

The “Monongahela” and “Kineo” came next in line of battle. The commander of the “Monongahela,” Captain McKinstry, was struck down early in the conflict. The command then devolved on a gallant young officer, Lieutenant Thomas. He manfully endeavored through all the storm of battle to follow the flag-ship. But in the dense smoke the pilot lost the channel. The ship grounded directly under the fire of one of the principal rebel batteries. For twenty-five minutes she remained in that perilous position, swept by shot and shell. Finally, through the efforts of her consort, the “Kineo,” she was floated, and again heroically commenced steaming up the river. But her enginery soon became so disabled under the relentless fire, that the “Monongahela” was also compelled to drop down with the “Kineo” to the position of the mortar fleet. Her loss was six killed and twenty wounded.

In obedience to the order of Admiral Farragut, the magnificent ship “Mississippi” brought up the rear, with the gunboat “Sachem” as her ally, bound to her larboard side. She had reached the point directly opposite the town, and her officers were congratulating themselves that they had surmounted the greatest dangers, and that they would soon be above the batteries, when the ship, which had just then been put under rapid headway, [233] grounded on the west bank of the river. It was an awful moment; for the guns of countless batteries were immediately concentrated upon her. Captain Smith, while, with his efficient engineer Rutherford he made the most strenuous exertions to get the ship afloat, ordered his gunners to keep up their fire with the utmost possible rapidity. In the short space of thirty-five minutes they fired two hundred and fifty shots. The principal battery of the foe was within five hundred yards of the crippled ship, and the majestic fabric was soon riddled through and through by the storm with which she was so pitilessly pelted. The dead and the wounded strewed the decks, and it was soon evident that the ship could not be saved.

Captain Smith prepared to destroy the ship, that it might not fall into the hands of the rebels, and to save the crew. Captain Caldwell, of the iron-clad “Essex,” hastened to his rescue. Under as murderous a fire as mortals were ever exposed to, the sick and wounded were conveyed on board the ram. Combustibles were placed in the fore and after part of the ship, to which the torch was to be applied so soon as the crew had all escaped to the western shore. By some misunderstanding she was fired forward before the order was given. This caused a panic, as there were but three small boats by which they could escape. Some plunged into the river and were drowned. It is related, in evidence of the coolness of Captain Smith, that in the midst of this awful scene, while lighting his cigar with steel and flint, he remarked to Lieutenant Dewy:

It is not likely that we shall escape, and we must make every preparation to secure the destruction of the ship.


After spiking nearly every gun with his own hands, and seeing that the survivors of his crew were fairly clear of the wreck, Captain Smith, accompanied by Lieutenant Dewey, Ensign Bachelder, and Engineer Tower, sadly took their leave, abandoning the proud fabric to the flames. Scarcely had they left, when two shells came crashing through the sides of the “Mississippi,” overturning, scattering, and enkindling into flame some casks of turpentine. The ship was almost instantly enveloped in billows of fire. A yell of exultation rose from the rebels as they beheld the bursting forth of the flames. The ship, lightened by the removal of three hundred men, and by the consuming power of the fire, floated from the sand bar and commenced floating, bow on, down the river.

The scene presented was indeed magnificent. The whole fabric was enveloped in flame. Wreathing serpents of fire twined around the masts and ran up the shrouds. Drifting rapidly downward on the rapid current, the meteor, like a volcanic mountain in eruption, descended as regularly along the western banks of the stream as if steered by the most accomplished helmsman. As the ship turned round, in floating off, the guns of her port battery, which had not been discharged, faced the foe. As the fire reached them the noble frigate, with the stars and stripes still floating at her peak, opened a new bombardment of the rebel batteries. The shells began to explode, scattering through the air in all directions. The flaming vision arrested every eye, on the land and on the ships, until the floating mountain of fire drifted down and disappeared behind Prophet's Island. And now came the explosion of the magazine. There was a vivid flash, shooting upward [235] to the sky in the form of an inverted cone. For a moment the whole horizon seemed ablaze with fiery missiles. Then came booming over the waves a peal of heaviest thunder. The very hills shook beneath the awful explosion. This was the dying cry of the “Mississippi” as she sank to her burial beneath the waves of the river from which she received her name.

Captain Caldwell, of the “Essex,” who, as soon as he saw the “Mississippi,” to be on fire, gallantly steamed to her aid, directly under the concentrated fire of the batteries, succeeded in picking up many who were struggling in the waves, and in rescuing others who had escaped to the shore. There were about three hundred men on board the “Mississippi” Of these sixty-five officers and men were either killed, wounded, or taken prisoners. Seventy, who escaped to the shore, wandered, for many miles, down the western banks of the stream, in constant danger of being taken captive, wading the bayous, and encountering fearful hardships, until they finally reached the ships below. Two ships, the “Hartford” and the “Albatross,” succeeded in running the gauntlet.

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