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Chapter 17: evacuation of Fort Pillow and battle of Memphis.

  • Bombardment and evacuation of Fort Pillow.
  • -- Col. Ellet's ram flotilla. -- capture of a Confederate transport. -- the vessels composing the Confederate fleet. -- battle of Memphis. -- capture of the City. -- destruction of the Confederate fleet. -- a brilliant victory. -- noble action of the commander of the monarch. -- capture of forts up the White River. -- explosion of the steam chest of the Mound City. -- valuable lives lost. -- saving the crews of the Confederate vessels. -- Confederate accounts.

After this river battle, Flag-officer Davis commenced a heavy and continuous bombardment of Fort Pillow, which lasted up to the 4th of June, and gave the enemy great annoyance, although he continued to reply with a constant and well-directed fire. But the Confederate guns were defective, and their shell often exploded before reaching the point intended to be struck.

Davis determined to have no more surprises, and two of the gun-boats were detailed to guard the mortar-rafts until evening, when they were towed to a position where they would be under the protection of the fleet until morning.

The constant explosion of the bombs in the fort or in the air, by which numbers of the garrison were killed. had its effect at last. The enemy saw that it was now only a matter of time, and that the Union forces must win in the end. The Confederate troops at Iuka, Corinth and other places in West Tennessee, were being gradually driven back, and once more the base of operations was to undergo a change in obedience to the law of strategy.

Fort Pillow had to be evacuated, and when the Confederates did evacuate a position they generally did so with an unaccountable haste. In this case they may have heard that an army was marching on them from the rear, or that Pope was returning with a great force from Pittsburg Landing. Whatever it was, something had a very demoralizing effect upon the garrison, and the guns of the fort were no longer well aimed or rapidly fired.

On the night of June 4th, a great many explosions were heard in the fort, which indicated to the officers of the fleet that the enemy was preparing to evacuate. The Flag-officer on receiving this intelligence, gave orders for the gun-boats to get under way at 4 o'clock on the morning of June 5th, and to move down the river in the following order: Benton, Mound City, Louisville, Carondelet. Cairo, and St. Louis. (The Mound City had been fished up out of the river and repaired, but the Cincinnati was still at Cairo.)

Since the battle with the Confederate rams a new organization had been added to the Union fleet in the shape of a ram flotilla,commanded by a very gallant man, Col. Charles Ellet, of the U. S. Army. These vessels were simply ordinary river steamers converted into rams, though not in a very effective manner. They had been strengthened with timber and had the boilers partially protected from shot, but they were not nearly so well designed as the Confederate rams. They were named the Monarch, Queen of the West, Switzerland and Lancaster, all commanded by an Ellet, brother, son, or nephew, all gallant men, and ready for any enterprise.

The Flag-officer assigned a proper position to Col. Ellet, and the combined fleet proceeded down the river to Fort Pillow, which they found to be abandoned.

Capt. Davis sent for Col. Fitch U. S. A. [169] and turned over the fort to him. This officer brought a detachment of his troops over in a transport without delay, and the American flag was soon floating over this stronghold, which at one time seemed able to defy all the gun-boats and armies of the Republic.

Large army spoils were captured, and many heavy guns (40 at least); for although the Confederates had set fire to the works, they had neglected to make the destruction

Rear-Admiral Chas. H. Davis

complete and retired with their usual precipitancy.

At noon the fleet again steamed down the river. leaving the Pittsburg and Mound City to co-operate with the Army.

At a bend in the river on the way down. a Confederate transport came in sight of the fleet, but turned and attempted to escape. She was captured by a fast tug, with a body of armed men. under the command of Lieut. Joshua Bishop: she proved to be a valuable prize.

At 8 P. M. the fleet anchored at the lower end of Island No.45, a mile and a half above the City of Memphis. The mortarboats, tow-boats, ordnance and commissary vessels, anchored for the night at Island 44.

At daylight the enemy's fleet of rams and gun-boats, now numbering eight vessels, was discovered lying at the levee at Memphis. They dropped below Railroad Point, and returning again arranged themselves below the city.

At 4.20 the Union flotilla got under way in the following order: Flagship Benton, Lieut.-Com. Phelps; Louisville, Com. B. M. Dove; Carondelet. Corn. H. Walke; Cairo, Lieut.-Com. N. E. Bryant; St. Louis, Lieut.-Corn. Nelson McGunnegle.

They dropped down the river according to signal, and prepared for battle. The Confederate gun-boats opened fire upon our fleet as it moved down. with the seeming intention of having the city injured by the return fire; but due care was taken in regard [170]

Action of the gun-boats at Memphis, June 6 1862.

[171] to this matter, and shot and shell were sent among the Confederates with good effect.

At this moment the ram fleet was several miles up the river, though coming down rapidly, and it was necessary for our gunboats to maneuver so as to enable it to overtake them.

The Confederate vessels (still under the command of Montgomery) were the rams General Van Dorn, General Price, General Lovell, General Beauregard and General Jeff Thompson, mounting each four heavy guns; the General Bragg and General Sumter, mounting three guns, and the Little Rebel, mounting two guns.

When the battle had fairly commenced, two of the army rams, the Queen of the West, Col. Charles Ellet, and the Monarch, Lieut.-Col. Ellet (a younger brother), dashed fearlessly ahead of the gunboats and ran for the enemy's fleet. At the first encounter they sank one and disabled another of the Confederates, who were taken greatly by surprise, as they did not know that we had any rams, but took them for transports.

The rams were closely followed by the Union gun-boats in order of battle, under the lead of Flag-officer Davis, and opened a vigorous fire which was kept up until the end of the battle.

Up to the time of the attack by the Union rams, the enemy had kept up a spirited and rapid fire, but as the vessels closed it became necessary for the gunners on both sides to exercise more care.

The Queen of the West being in advance of the Monarch, was now badly rammed by the Beauregard, which vessel, in company with the General Price, then made a dash at the Monarch as she approached them, but missed their mark and crashed together, the Beauregard cutting the Price down to the water line and tearing off her port wheel. The Monarch then rammed the Beauregard, and she quickly sank in the river opposite Memphis, being struck at the same time in the boilers by a shell from an iron-clad.

The General Lovell having been struck by the Queen of the West, or the Monarch (as the latter claims), went to the bottom so suddenly as to take a number of her officers and crew down with her. The General Price, Queen of the West and Little Rebel being disabled (the latter by a shot through her steam-chest), were run ashore on the Arkansas side of the river to prevent their sinking. By this time the best part of the Confederate rams and gun-boats had been disabled and the fight now became a running one. The ram Van Dorn escaped down the river and was pursued by the Switzerland and Monarch, but not overtaken. The Jeff Thompson was set on fire by the shells from the iron-clads, and ran into the right bank of the river, where she burnt to the water's edge, and finally blew up. The Sumter and Bragg were somewhat cut up, but did not sink, and thus of all the Confederate fleet, the Van Dorn alone escaped.

The commander of the Monarch, after disabling the Beauregard and putting her in a sinking condition, towed her into shoal water and saved her crew. This was a noble action, as enemies in combat do not often stop to save sinking ships that have been firing into them. But this was not the only instance where humanity was shown during this battle: when it was known in the fleet that some of the enemy's vessels were sinking, and a cry came up for help, the flagship Benton lowered her boats and sent her officers and men to the rescue of their bitter foes. So eager was the rush to undertake this duty that the first boat was swamped.

How glorious was this conduct when compared with the treatment which the sailors of the Cumberland and Congress received at Hampton Roads, when they were struggling in the water and subjected to a murderous fire from the guns of the victorious Merrimac. At Hampton Roads the cry was “Death to the Federals!” At Memphis it was “Help for the drowning Confederates!”

The battle had carried most of the Union vessels ten miles below Memphis, and they now found themselves to have been successful beyond all hopes. The enemy was completely swept away, as if his vessels had been made of paper — a result which our officers had hardly expected since the gallant action at Plum Point, in which these same vessels, under Montgomery, proved such formidable foes.

Rear-Admiral Davis had no military authority over the ram fleet. He could only request co-operation, which the Commander, Col. Ellet, was eager to give. The latter fought well, but unfortunately his vessels did not keep together and therefore did not accomplish as much as they would have done by a combined attack. Three of the rams did not get into action until after the Queen of the West and Monarch had made their charge upon the enemy. Had they made a rush at the same time, it is probable that five of the enemy's vessels would have been sunk, and not even the Van Dorn would have escaped. However, as matters turned out, it was a brilliant victory, and the Union commander had every reason to be satisfied with it.

The Confederates fought with a coolness and energy that entitled them to the greatest credit, and although the Van Dorn escaped, it was only after the commander [172] saw that he could be of no further use to his friends.

Capt. Maynardier, who commanded the mortar batteries, accompanied the fleet in a tug and rendered good service. When the Beauregard was disabled he steamed alongside of her and made her crew prisoners — he also received many persons of the Confederate fleet, who returned and de livered themselves up after their vessels had been deserted. Rear-Admiral Davis says: “It is with pleasure that I call the attention of the Department to his personal zeal and activity, the more conspicuous because displayed while the mortar-boats under his command could take no part in the action.”

Two of the enemy's rams, the Price

Battle of Memphis, enemy retreating.--(drawn by Rear-Admiral Walke.)

and the Bragg, were sea-going vessels. strongly built and heavily armed, each of them being superior to any in Ellet's fleet. No doubt the enemy calculated a great deal on them. They were saved and refitted, and afterwards formed part of the Union fleet in Western waters. The Sumter and “Little rebel” were also saved and made use of, but all the rest were destroyed by sinking or blowing up.

To those who stood on the river bank at Memphis, this battle must have appeared like a horrid dream, so different was the result from what they had anticipated. Here were assembled the relatives of those who manned the powerful and swift vessels, which were fully expected to wipe the slow moving and awkward iron-clads off the face of the river. Who can tell what they felt when they saw the Confederate fleet sunk. blown up, or burnt — for it was an awful sight to see a ship going down in an instant with all on board, not even her masts appearing above the deep waters of the Mississippi. Can any one who witnessed the battle ever forget the heart-rending shrieks of drowning men as the waters closed over their heads, or the sounds of woe that went up from relatives and friends upon the river bank who witnessed the appalling scene!

The Lovell was the first vessel that went to the bottom, giving the spectators a fair idea of what would be the fate of all the rest. Many human beings were buffeting the waves while the battle was going on, and the cry for help arose above the sounds of conflict. No aid could reach them from the shore, and their friends clasped their hands over their faces to shut out the agonizing sight.

But even in the excitement of battle, humanity was uppermost in the hearts of our brave western sailors; boats were lowered with that rapidity which can only be seen on board a vessel-of-war, and the sinking wretches, who a moment before had given up all hope, were rescued and taken to a place of safety.

The Monarch, even before the battle was ended, towed the Beauregard on to [173] a shoal, while Capt. Pike, of the Ordnance department, went along-side and helped the wounded into his tug. Bright, amid all the horrors of that day, will shine these deeds of humanity, and our sailors may feel a more glorious pride in having saved their helpless enemies than in having conquered them.

The capture of Memphis was a terrible blow to the South, for this city had been of great use to the Confederacy as a base of supplies for their armies in Tennessee, which supplies we had not up to this time been able to intercept. This naval success opened the river all the way down to Vicksburg, and three other depots of supplies were soon to fall into our hands,when our fleet penetrated the Yazoo River in the heart of the enemy's country.

For the second time Rear Admiral Davis won a strictly naval victory, and won it without a single mistake. He was no doubt much assisted by the two rams, Queen of the West and Monarch, which by their gallant and unexpected attack did so much to demoralize the enemy.

The Confederate account of this battle differs very little from the Union one, the only exception being in the case of the General Lovell, which vessel, they say, was sunk by a shot from the fleet, and not by being rammed by the Queen of the West. The Confederates ought to know which is the correct version.

Rear-Admiral Davis, in his report, makes no distinction among his officers. He simply says, “the officers and men of the flotilla performed their duty.” The proof of the manner in which it was performed was the total annihilation of the enemy's forces.

Take the battle, together with its results, it was one of the handsomest achievements of the war, but it did not receive that general notice which it deserved.

If Mr. Secretary Welles, who was liberal with his eulogistic letters to those whom he approved of, ever congratulated Rear-Admiral Davis and his officers for their brilliant success, it nowhere appears in the Secretary's Report for 1862. But history will eventually give due credit to all the brave men who served their country faithfully in the time of her greatest need. The prejudices and jealousies of the times will have passed away, and the truthful historian who takes time to examine the records carefully, will give to each his proper place, and render justice to those who have not yet received it. The writer of this work regrets that his space is so limited that he can only do partial justice to the scenes enacted in the war.

In the battle just described, there were only three men wounded and one killed in the Union fleet, and only one vessel was struck by the enemy's shot — which looks like a cheap victory; yet it was none the less important. The city of Memphis was surrendered that day to the Army and Navy, and garrisoned at once by the Indiana Brigade under Colonel Fitch.

A great deal of property fell into the hands of the Federal troops, who kept possession of the place until the end of the war, and soon converted it into a loyal city.

The Confederates had now to seek a new strategic line of defence : they established their fifth Gibraltar at Vicksburg, where the gunboats will catch up with them after a while.

Expedition against St. Charles, on the White River.

On June 16th, 1862, Rear-Admiral Davis sent an expedition up the White River to destroy some batteries located at St. Charles. The expedition was under the charge of Com. Kilty. and was composed of the gun-boats Mound City, St. Louis, Lexington, and Conestoga, and several transports with troops under Col. Fitch, U. S. A.

The Confederates had mounted batteries at this point and had obstructed the river with piles and sunken vessels.

On June 17th, Com. Kilty reconnoitered the place in a tug, and having gained the desired information, at six o'clock next morning the gun-boats got under way in the following order: Mound City, St. Louis, Lexington, Conestoga, and opened fire on the enemy's works.

The Mound City had advanced to within 600 yards of the forts, when a well-directed shell penetrated her port casemate, killing three men and exploding in the steam-chest. The ship was instantly filled with scalding steam, and many of the crew jumped overboard in their agony. All boats were manned and sent to pick up these men, and as the ship was disabled she was towed out of action by the Conestoga.

The St. Louis, Lieut.-Com. McGunnegle, moved close up to the forts and continued to pour in shot and shell, while the enemy kept firing on the St. Louis and also on the men who were struggling in the water. A more dastardly thing never was done in the history of the war, and was very different from the conduct of the Federals at Memphis, where, as stated above, boats were lowered in the heat of battle to pick up the drowning enemy.

At this moment Col. Fitch made signal for the gun-boats to cease firing, and having gained a position he immediately charged the enemy's works and carried them without the loss of a single man. Eight of the enemy were killed and twenty-nine were taken prisoners, including Capt. [174] Fry (formerly a Lieutenant in the U. S. Navy), Commander of the post. All their guns and ammunition fell into the hands of the Federals. The batteries consisted of two 12-pounder brass pieces, two 9-pounder parrot guns (rifled) and two 42-pounder seacoast howitzers.

The victory was a complete one, but the loss of life on board the Mound City was frightful. To describe the scene after the explosion is beyond the power of any pen. Among the scalded and suffering was Com. Kilty, who, a moment before the accident, was seen coolly walking the deck and fighting his ship most gallantly. All honor to his name.

Out of the entire crew of the Mound City (175 officers and men), only three officers and twenty-two men escaped uninjured; eighty-two died from wounds or scalding, and forty-three were either drowned or killed in the water. The wounded men received the greatest care and consideration, and were finally sent to Memphis on board the Conestoga and an army transport.

To Lieuts. McGunnegle, Shirk and Blodgett is due the highest honor, not only for their bravery during the action, but for their humanity in providing for the comfort of the poor fellows who were so badly scalded. Dr. George W. Garber, of the Lexington, and Dr. William H. Nelson, of the Carondelet, also deserve great credit for their judicious care of the wounded.

With regard to Col. Fitch, who stormed and carried the fort with his soldiers, we have only to say that he exhibited that cool courage and judgment which he had always displayed since co-operating with the Navy at Island No.10.

This victory, though a small one, was very important, as it opened the White River to our gun-boats and transports, and showed the enemy the futility of attempting to bar the way against our vessels with Confederate batteries. It also showed what. could be done by a small force of the Army and Navy when working together harmoniously.

Although the Confederates congratulated themselves on the great death-roll of the Mound City, they had to bear the ignominy of having fired upon drowning men, which almost debarred them from the clemency of their victors.

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