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Chapter 10: naval engagement at South-West pass.--the Gulf blockading squadron in November, 1861.

  • Attempt to blockade the passes of the Mississippi.
  • -- escape of the Sumter. -- the Manassas rams the Richmond. -- the battle at the pass. -- attempt to destroy the Vincennes. -- final results of the engagements. -- capture of the Royal Yacht in Galveston harbor by Lieut. James E. Jouett. -- attack on Fort McRae and Fort Pickens by the Niagara and Richmond, November 22, 1861. -- correct account of attempt to relieve Fort Sumter, April 12, 1861, and of relief of Fort Pickens, April 17, 1861. -- list of ships and officers of West Gulf Blockading Squadron, 1861.

It would be a pleasant task to be able to record nothing but successes and have no defeats checked against us; but that could not very well be unless we admitted that our enemy was deficient in all the qualities which distinguish the American soldier and sailor, and that we gained our victories easily because we had no one of any courage, energy or ability to contend with.

On the contrary, we had all these to meet us at every step; and our enemies, although men of the same stamp as ourselves, had their energies quickened by an amount of rancor which the Federals could never be made to feel, as they were fighting simply to preserve the Union,while the Confederates were fighting with a cherished object, to gain something new and beyond their reach, which they thought would conduce to their happiness, and of which they thought the North was trying to deprive them.

We could not expect impunity from losses and defeats upon the water any more than the soldiers could on the land; for though the Confederates had nothing like the resources of the North in naval matters, yet they put forth so much more energy and converted so many ordinary vessels into powerful rams and gunboats, that they made up in that way for what they lacked originally.

The reader must not therefore be surprised if the Union Navy was now and then caught tripping; nor must they take it for granted that every officer in the Navy was a perfect man, patterned after some rare type, who never made mistakes or knew defeat.

In so great a field of operations as that through which our Army and Navy labored for so long a time, it would be strange indeed if a great many mistakes were not committed.

New Orleans was the Queen City of the South; the great emporium through which the Confederates at one time hoped to inflict great injury upon the North by fitting out vessels-of-war or privateers to prey upon the Northern merchant ships, and by converting the factories of this place into shops for casting guns and making small arms.

The Confederates considered that it would be a difficult matter for the Union forces to blockade the different mouths of the Mississippi, the bayous and sounds, and flattered themselves that New Orleans would become the rendezvous for all the blockade runners that had early in the war commenced to swarm upon the coast like bees about the honey flowers. But they were disappointed in their expectations, for as early as June, 1861, Commodore McKean sent the Powhatan, Lieut. D. D. Porter, to close up the Southwest Pass of the Mississippi, and Commander [88]

U. S. Sloop of war Brooklyn, off Pensacola.


Charles Poor, in the Brooklyn, to blockade Pass à l'outre.

It was through the latter channel that the Sumter, Captain Semmes, escaped to sea, while the Brooklyn was off in chase of a strange sail, and she was thus enabled to commence her career of havoc on American commerce.

This drew the attention of the Navy Department particularly to the mouths of the Mississippi, and a small squadron of vessels (quite inadequate for the purpose) was appointed to blockade the different passes.

The river Mississippi divides into several channels before reaching the Gulf of Mexico, and this division takes place at a point simply known as “the head of the passes,” about fifteen miles above the mouths of the river. It was supposed that if a squadron could occupy this point it would be able to intercept anything going up or down.

It was not until the 12th of October, 1861, that this squadron reached “the head of the passes.”

It was composed of the following vessels: Richmond, screw steamer, Capt John Pope, twenty-two 9 inch guns; Vincennes, sloop-of-war, ten guns; Preble, sloop, eleven guns: Water Witch, small screw steamer, four guns.

This squadron, mounting in all forty-seven guns, seemed to be quite able to defend “the head of the passes” and not only prevent anything going up or down, but to drive off any force the Confederates could collect at that moment.

But the Confederates had already fitted out a ram (the Manassas), armed with one gun in the bow, covered with iron and considered of sufficient power to sink a heavy ship with one of her blows.

The Commander of the Union squadron did not seem to be aware that the enemy had a vessel of this kind on the river, or if he did, he attached but little importance to the fact, having the impression that she was nothing more than a small converted tug.

The rule that a man should never despise his enemy was never more thoroughly illustrated than on this occasion.

The Richmond was coaling from a schooner which lay alongside of her, not keeping any particular lookout, her crew being employed in getting the coal on board. It was 3:45 in the morning, the Water Witch was not in the advance, keeping a lookout, and the ships of war were all anchored in the stream, when the Richmond discovered a strange craft approaching, which immediately afterwards struck her a heavy blow abreast the port forechannels, tearing the schooner from her fastenings, crushing in three planks of the ship's side and making a small hole two feet below the water line.

That was the only blow the ram struck, for, as we now know, she was somewhat disabled by the shock, and she moved off slowly up the river, glad to get away so easily.

This vessel proved to be the ram Manassas, at that time one of the improvised squadron of Commodore Hollins, late of the U. S. Navy.

The Richmond's crew flew to their quarters as soon as she was struck, and, as soon as they could they fired a random broadside, for there was not much chance of seeing anything in the darkness which then prevailed.

The ram. it is reported, remained under the quarter of the Richmond for some time, apparently trying to give another blow (but in fact partly disabled), and then drifted away.

Commodore J. S. Hollins, C. S. N.

Had the Richmond stood up the river until daylight the Manassas would have fallen into her power. The Preble opened her port battery on the ram as it passed slowly up the river, but without any effect.

After a time the Richmond got underway and went a short distance above the passes, but Acting-Master Wilcox reported that she was getting too close to the starboard shore (where there was water enough to float a three-decker), and the helm was put hard a starboard (instead of proceeding on up, as could easily have been done) and the vessel sheared off into the stream with her broadside bearing up the river; she then drifted down with the current until she neared the “head of the passes,” when “ineffectual attempts were made to get her head up stream” (which could easily have been done by letting go an anchor).

The vain efforts continued until the steamships [90] had drifted a mile and a half down the Southwest Pass, when they were discontinued, the helm put up, and the vessel headed towards Pilottown, where her commander thought he would be able to turn round!

When she arrived at Pilottown she still drifted on, and strange to say, she drifted toward the exit from the river. All this time the other vessels were doing all they could to drift after the Richmond! In other words, having been sent to the passes to defend them, on the first appearance of an enemy they deserted their posts and made a most shameful retreat — a retreat from a few river boats that a broadside of either ship would have sent to the bottom in five minutes. In fact, it was a perfect stampede if there ever was one, and there seems to have been a desire to get into deep water, which was entirely unwarranted by the circumstances.

The Richmond and Vincennes both drifted broadside on until near the bar, when they grounded in that position (the most favorable one to receive an attack from the enemy.)

The day before Captain Pope had mounted on the Richmond's forecastle one of his 9-inch guns, in order to be ready for any emergency, and it served him a good turn when the time came for using it.

As soon as the enemy saw that the two ships had grounded near the bar, they came down below Pilottown and opened fire on them with some light Whitworth guns of good range, which could reach the Federal ships while the heaviest guns on the Richmond could not reach them.

The enemy kept up this fire for about two hours without doing any particular damage, the bolts from their rifles being quite small. One of them lodged in a drawer of the bureau containing Captain Pope's clothes, and there seemed to have spent itself, without doing any harm whatever.

There is no account of any injury being inflicted on the vessels, or of any one being killed or wounded. It was very much like the celebrated “battle of the kegs” which once set a whole fleet in motion.

While the firing was going on, the enemy's shot flying over and the shot from our ships falling short, it was reported to Captain Pope that several boats filled with men were leaving the Vincennes.

Some went on board the steamer Water Witch, others went to the Richmond, and Captain Handy (the Commander of the Vincennes), in company with several of the officers, presented himself on the quarter-deck before Captain Pope, with the American flag wrapped around his waist in large folds [!], and on being asked the object of his coming in that guise, stated that he had abandoned his ship in obedience to signal, and on being informed that no such signal had been made, he insisted that Captain Winslow of the Water Witch had so read it.

When Captain Winslow was asked regarding the matter, he said that he saw no such signal. It was, in fact, simply the power of imagination acting on Capt. Handy's nerves.

He did send to Capt. Winslow asking if that was not the meaning of a signal that was made by the flagship, but the answer he received was “No; it is impossible that any such signal can have been made. Get your guns out of your stern ports and defend your ship.”

It appears that on leaving his ship Capt. Handy determined that nothing of her should fall into the hands of Commodore Hollins, and he therefore ordered that a slow match should be placed near the magazine, and a train of powder laid, so that by the time he reached the Richmond the old Vincennes, that had performed many a useful cruise, should go up in a blaze of glory. He never reflected that his small 32-pounders might be whisked about in the air and fall upon the decks of the stranded Richmond.

Capt. Handy's reception on board the flagship by Capt. Pope was not a flattering one. He was immediately ordered back to his vessel when it was seen that she did not blow up, and the quarter-gunner who had been directed to light the match informed them that he had cut the lighted part off and thrown it overboard.

In the mean time the steamer McClellan came in with stores for the squadron and some rifled-guns of large calibre, and this put the Commander of the squadron at his ease. He could now drive the Hollins flotilla off if it should reappear.

The McClellan was then set to work to get the grounded vessels afloat, which she finally succeeded in doing, and they crossed the bar and anchored safely in deep water.

Capt. Pope in his report of this unhappy affair says:

My retreat down the pass, though painful to me, was to save the ships and prevent them from being sunk and falling into the hands of the enemy [!] as it is evident to me that they had us in their power by means of the ram and fire-rafts. If I have erred in all this matter it is an error of judgment. The whole affair came upon me so suddenly that there was no time left me for reflection, but called for immediate action and decision. The ram having made her appearance next day at the mouth of the river [!] the impression is she sustained no injury from our shot, only waiting an opportunity to destroy our ships. [91]

It having been rumored that there was a panic on board this ship at the time she was engaged with the enemy, I state it to be false. Both officers and men maintained their coolness and determination to do their duty. My orders and those of the officers were carried out with as much coolness as if it had been an every-day affair, and their whole conduct merits high commendation.

They would be gratified to prove their bravery by being permitted to take part in the contemplated attack on Pensacola, as requested in notes from me to you on the subject.

In both engagements with the enemy the fire appeared to be directed to the destruction of this ship, most of the shot being apparently directed to the quarter of this vessel, presumed for the purpose of disabling our rudder and propeller.

This relation would not be complete if Capt. Handy had not had the opportunity to place himself on record, on the eve of his ship getting aground, as follows:

Sir: We are aground. We have only two guns that will bear in the direction of the enemy.

Shall I remain on board after the moon goes down with my crippled ship and nearly worn-out men?

Will you send me word what countersign my boats shall use if we pass near your ship?

While we have moonlight would it not be better to leave the ship? Shall I burn her when I leave her?


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