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Doc. 155. attack on the United States fleet at the Passes of the Mississippi.

Commander Handy's report.1

United States ship Vincennes, off Southwest Pass, Mississippi River, Oct. 14, 1861.
sir: I have to report my safe arrival at this place, having left the head of the Passes on the 12th instant, in company with the Richmond and Preble. On my route down it was my misfortune (as anticipated) to ground some distance from the bar, going head on. The three vessels were pursued by rebel armed steamers, who, after a while, commenced a brisk firing. The Vincennes not being able from her situation to bring her broadside guns to bear on the enemy, I took down all the cabin bulk-heads and caused two of the 8-inch shell guns to be run out of the stern ports; continued a rapid firing with them until the signal, No. 1, (as understood aboard this ship,) was displayed from the Richmond; I continued my firing, however, until some time afterward. I then directed the officers and crew to repair to the Richmond and Water Witch. Previously to leaving this ship I caused a slow match to be placed in the magazine, which, fortunately, did not cause an explosion. I then reported myself to Captain Pope, ascertaining from him that there was a misunderstanding about the signal. I repaired, with the officers and crew, then on board the Richmond, to the “Vincennes,” obtaining his permission to throw overboard the fourteen 32-pounders, round shot, and any article that might have a tendency to lighten the ship, as I was more than anxious to save her from the grasp of the rebels, feeling that the vessel was of more value to the Government than the guns. Although the ship was lightened by the operation, still it was not sufficient to float her; but the day following I was relieved from my embarrassing situation by the South Carolina and McClellan. I trust, sir, that my conduct will meet with your entire approbation, governed as I was from a strict sense of duty. I am, sir, respectfully, your obedient servant,

Robert Handy, Commander.

Captain Pope's report.

United States steamer Richmond, off Pass à L'Outre, Mississippi River, October 17, 1861.
sir: My report to you in regard to our leaving the head of the Passes having been made in a great hurry, in order to acquaint you as soon as possible of the leading facts of the case, many incidents were omitted which I will now report.

After the first blow given to this ship by the ram on the morning of the 12th instant, it remained under our port quarter, apparently endeavoring to fix herself in a position to give us a second blow, but the slipping of our chain and the ship ranging ahead under steam frustrated the object. The ram dropped astern, but soon gathered headway and ranged our port beam, receiving the fire of the port battery, some guns of which were discharged twice. It then ranged ahead, passing up the river, receiving the tire of the port battery of the Preble, disappearing in the darkness. Owing to the darkness, I was unable to see the effect of our shot upon her, but some officers are of opinion they heard shot strike the ram. I passed the Preble and stood up the river, when Acting-Master Wilcox reporting we were getting too close to the starboard shore, the helm was put up, and the ship rapdily fell off, presenting her broadside up and down the river. As soon as she had drifted near the head of the Passes, ineffectual attempts were made to get her head up stream, when I found myself a mile and a half down the Southwest Pass. I then put the helm up, continued down the river, hoping to be able to get her head round off Pilot Town. In doing this she drifted some distance below, grounding broadside too. Soon after this, the enemy opened their fire upon us, which was kept up for about two hours. The day before leaving the head of the Passes I had succeeded in placing one of our 9-inch broadside guns on the top-gallant forecastle, giving a long range, and it was continually fired during the engagement. About nine o'clock A. M., during the firing, it was reported to me that several boats filled with men were leaving the Vincennes; some went on board the Water Witch, others came to this ship. In a few minutes, Commander Handy, with several of his officers, came on board; Commander Handy having wrapped around his waist, in broad folds, an American flag, and, upon being asked, stated he had abandoned his ship in obedience to signal. Being told no such signal had been made, he insisted “he so read it,” that Captain Winslow had so read it.

The following day Lieutenant Commanding Winslow being asked, remarked “he saw no such signal;” that when he was asked by one of Captain Handy's officers if that was the meaning of the signal, sent word to Captain Handy “that it was impossible” to get guns out of his stern ports and fight his ship. As soon as it was thought, from the description of the slow match, that it had gone out, Captain Handy, his officers and crew, returned to their ship. In the evening I received a note from Captain Handy, a copy of which, and my reply, is enclosed.

After I had taken the guns and ammunition from the McClellan she was sent to the assistance of the Vincennes, and endeavored to get her afloat; in the mean time I carried out a stream anchor from this ship astern, and, after unsuccessful attempts, for two or three hours, the McClellan returned to this ship, and was lashed alongside to wait until a rise of the tide. At early daylight of the 13th instant, the South Carolina, Commander Alden, came in, and I directed [368] him to proceed, and, if possible, get the Vincennes afloat. Soon after, this ship was got afloat, her head down stream, and the McClellan was instantly cast off and went to assist in getting the Vincennes afloat. As there was not room for his ship to lay at anchor, or to turn to point her head up the stream, I had no other alternative than to cross the bar and anchor outside. My mind was very much relieved, knowing that the armament of four rifled guns on board the McClellan, together with the long gun of the South Carolina, would keep the enemy at bay. At about 2 P. M., the Vincennes was got afloat, crossed the bar, and anchored near this ship, and the South Carolina was immediately despatched to Pass à l'outre, to guard that place until I could send him a relief.

My retreat down the pass, although painful to me, was to save the ships, by preventing them being sunk, and falling into the hands of the enemy; and it was evident to me they had us in their power, by the operation 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 no time was left for reflection, but called for immediate action and decision. The ram having made its 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.

It having been rumored 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 exhibited the utmost coolness and determination to do their duty. My orders, and those of all the officers, were carried out with as much coolness as if it had been an everyday affair, and their whole conduct merits high commendation; and they would feel 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 this subject. In both engagements with the enemy, the whole fire appeared to be directed to the destruction of this snip, most of the shot being, apparently, directed to the quarter of this vessel, presumed for the purpose of disabling our rudder and propeller.

I omitted, in my hasty report, to mention the essential aid I have received from Captain Gray, commanding the army transport McClellan, in getting this ship and the Vincennes afloat. From Lieutenant Commanding Winslow, commanding the Water Witch, I received every possible assistance that could be rendered.

I directed Commander French, of the Preble, as soon as it could be done, to Pass à l'outre to guard that entrance. This he was unable to do at the time; the wind being ahead, and a strong current setting to leeward, he was barely able to hold his own. He came in and anchored and reported to me; he was quite out of wood and coal. I told him he could procure wood off the Northeast Pass, where he would be stationed after the arrival of one of the steamers at Pass à l'outre. He replied, it was impossible to get wood there, and earnestly requested to go to Ship Island, where he would in two days procure wood sufficient for himself and the Vincennes. I reluctantly consented to his doing so, knowing that one of the steamers, either the South Carolina or Huntsville, would reach Pass à l'outre in advance of him.

All of which is respectfully submitted. I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

John Pope, Captain. Flag-officer Wm. W. Mckean Commanding Blockading Squadron.
P. S.--This and my first report to you embraces all the facts, to my best recollection; and if they are not satisfactory, I respectfully ask for a court of inquiry in the matter; and if it cannot be granted without detriment to the service at this time, that it may be referred to the honorable Secretary of the Navy.

The following is a copy of a note received from Commmander Handy on the eve of his ship getting aground, and my reply to the same:

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 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? Respectfully,

United States steamer Richmond, Southwest Pass, October 12, 1861.
Sir: You say your ship is aground. It will be your duty to defend your ship up to the last moment, and not to fire her except it be to prevent her from falling into the hands of the enemy. I do not think the enemy will be down to-night, but in case they do, fight them to the last. You have boats enough to save all your men. I do not approve of your leaving your ship until every effort is made to defend her from falling into their hands. Respectfully, your obedient servant,

John Pope, Captain. Commander R. Handy. Commanding U. S. ship Vincennes.

Commander French's report.

United States steamer Preble, off Southwest Pass, Mississippi River, October 22, 1861.
sir: In obedience to your order, I have to make to you the following statement of the occurrences at the head of the Passes, on the morning of the 12th instant.

This ship was anchored about one hundred and fifty or two hundred yards distant from the [369] Richmond, and about two points on her starboard bow, being the most advanced ship of the forces there at anchor. I had been on deck most of the time during the night; had left it but a short time previously, and was lying in my birth asleep, with all my clothes on, when a midshipman rushed into the cabin exclaiming “Captain, here is a steamer right alongside of us.” I sprang instantly on deck; the order had already been given to “beat to quarters,” and the men were then assembling at their guns. This was about 3.40 A. M. The moon had set or was obscured by clouds, and the night somewhat dark, with the wind from the northward. As I passed out of my cabin on my way to the deck, I saw through a port an indescribable object, not twenty yards distant from our quarter, moving with great velocity toward the bow of the Richmond. My orders from the senior officer were, in the event of discovering any danger at night, to hoist a red light at the gaff. This had been done by the officer of the deck instantly on the discovery of the object, which was first seen about fifteen or twenty feet directly ahead of this ship, and drifting with the current directly toward us. Not a speck of light, smoke, or any moving thing could be seen in or on it, and it looked somewhat like a huge whale in the water.

The instant the persons on board of it discovered our movements, it seemed to change its direction to avoid us, and made directly for the Richmond. In an instant huge clouds of the densest, blackest smoke rolled up from it, and we all expected to see her blow up, but afterwards concluded it must have been the ram, of which we had been told so much. It next made its appearance about a hundred yards distant, and directly abeam of this ship, where it lay quietly for a few minutes, apparently hesitating whether to come at us or not. I instantly opened my port battery, and gave her three broadsides in rapid succession, the Richmond also firing. She then slowly steamed up the river, and when on our port bow, threw up a rocket. This ship had been lying all the time with a range of only fifteen fathoms' cable, in readiness to slip in case of emergency. While firing at him, word was passed that the Richmond was going ahead of us, and to hold our fire. I was directing the firing of the battery, and hearing it, looked out of a port and saw that she was astern, barely, lapping my quarter, and therefore continued my firing until the ram was out of line of pointing. I at once manned my deck tackle, (for my capstan has been crippled since the hurricane at Key West, and I am therefore compelled to use deck tackles,) and began to heave in my chain. Immediately on the rocket being thrown up from the ram, three bright lights were seen coming down the river, directly toward this ship, which we at first supposed to be steamers coming to attack us. They soon, however, increased so rapidly in size that we were fully convinced they were fire-ships, and such they proved to be. I was then working smartly with my deck tackles, and should have succeeded in weighing my anchor, when it was reported to me that the Richmond was steaming down the river. I could not and would not believe it possible, until I ran aft and saw her astern, and heading down. The fire-ships were then not more than one hundred and fifty yards distant, directly ahead, and coming down upon this ship. At the urgent suggestion of the first lieutenant and other officers, I then gave the order to make sail and slip the cable, having first taken off the slip buoy so that the enemy should not easily obtain it. The ship's head was immediately headed toward the Southwest Pass, orders to that effect, in the event of our being obliged to slip at any time, having been for some time previously given by the senior officer present.

The moment this ship was discovered by the fire-ships (which were in tow of two steam tugs, one on each wing) to be under way, their direction was changed toward the Richmond and Vincennes, which were on the opposite side of the river and below this ship. Continuing down the river, I came up with the Richmond, which was burning the Coston's signals; and, passing within a few yards of his stern, I hailed and said, “I can hear your orders, what are they?” The answer was, “Proceed down the Pass.” We were so near, my reply was made without the use of a deck trumpet. I continued down the Pass, and soon passed by the Vincennes, which soon after signalized, to the Richmond, “Shall I anchor?” which was answered by general signal, “Cross the bar.” Not long after, the “Vincennes” was discovered to be aground, with her stern up the river. This ship shortly after took the bottom, and I feared would also stick; but after two or three smart rolls worked herself over and crossed the bar, when I anchored near the coal ships Kuhn and Nightingale, to protect them in case of necessity. I should have stated that the fire-ships were towed on shore by the enemy at the head of the Pass, and two or three steamers were seen coming rapidly down the river to attack the ships. The Richmond was at that time slowly moving down, the Water Witch assisting the Vincennes. The engagement had now commenced between the Richmond, Vincennes, and Water Witch on our side, and three of the enemy's steamers; one of them being a large bark-rigged vessel, said to be the Miramon, but now called the McRea. Two other steamers were also in company, but I could perceive no firing from them. At this time signal was made from the Richmond to ships outside the bar to get under way. I, of course, obeyed the signal, as did also the Kuhn; the Nightingale, being ashore, of course could not. It was not long before we discovered the Richmond to be aground. The firing continued about two hours or more, when the enemy's steamers retired up the river. [370] About noon received from the Water Witch six officers and seventy men from the Vincennes, which we then learned had been abandoned.

The only signals I saw made by the Richmond during the engagement were those made to this ship, and one other to the Water Witch, “Engage the enemy.”

Respectfully, your obedient servant,

H. French, Commanding U. S. Ship Preble. Flag-officer Wm. W. Mckean, Commanding Gulf Blockading Squadron, United States Ship Niagara.

Lieutenant Winslow's report.

United States steamer water Witch, off Southwest Pass, October 24, 1861.
sir: In compliance with your instructions, the following statement of the recent occurrences in the Mississippi River, on the morning of Saturday, October 12, 1861, is respectfully submitted:

The Water Witch, after towing a schooner laden with coal alongside the Richmond, had anchored the preceding afternoon on her starboard quarter, a little in shore, and the Richmond was employed during the night discharging the schooner, which was made fast on her port side.

The Preble was anchored a short distance ahead, and on the starboard bow of the Richmond, and the Vincennes lower down, on the opposite side of the river, and nearer the entrance of the Southwest Pass.

The moon having gone down, and the sky being partially overcast, the night was dark and every way favorable to the operations of the enemy. Between half-past 3 and four o'clock A. M. the alarm was given on board the Frolic, a small prize schooner anchored nearly ahead of us, the officers in charge hailing the Richmond, to apprise her of danger from a steamer descending the river. Almost immediately after, the crash of a collision with the Richmond was distinctly audible on board the Water Witch. The coal schooner was next observed drifting astern, and apparently in contact with her, a low dark steamer, almost obscured by a dense column of smoke. The peculiar puffing sound of a high-pressure engine was also heard. The steamer passed near the Water Witch, steering over toward the Vincennes, as we supposed, but soon turned and commenced ascending the river. The Richmond's battery was now opened on her, and soon after a broadside was discharged from the Preble. A signal rocket was then thrown from the steamer toward the Richmond, and shortly afterward three dim lights appeared up the river, in the vicinity of the eastern shore.

The Richmond, having now slipped her chain, turned her head slowly in the direction of the Vincennes, and, apprehending an immediate attack, the chain of the Water Witch was also slipped, and she was backed astern a short distance, to allow the prize schooner Frolic to coast and pass her.

The lights up the river, rapidly increasing and expanding, were soon ascertained to proceed from three fire rafts gradually drifting down toward us, and it was now deemed expedient to steam over toward the opposite shore. As we passed the Vincennes she was observed to be under way and heading down stream. A night signal (interpreted to “Act at discretion” ) was now made by the Richmond, and soon afterward the Preble also passed us, steering toward the Southwest Pass. Finding that the fire rafts were drifting with the wind steadily over toward the western shore, the Water Witch was now steered to the northward and eastward, (up stream,) and easily cleared them. They subsequently stranded on the western bank, together with the schooner from which the Richmond had been coaling — a leaky prize vessel, of little value, with no men on board.

Ignorant of the exact position of the squadron, the Water Witch, toward daybreak, dropped down to the entrance of the Southwest Pass, and with the earliest light (about half-past 5 A. M.) made out the Richmond, accompanied by the sailing vessels, some three or four miles down the pass, steering for the bar.

The river, at this time, in the vicinity of the “head of the Passes,” was entirely clear of the enemy; but an officer, sent to the masthead, reported the smoke of four steamers beyond a bend in the river, five or six miles above us, besides a large bark-rigged propeller still higher up.

Deeming it important to communicate these facts to the senior officer, and apprehending a design on the part of the enemy to run the bark out to sea by the Pass à l'outre, (which the light howitzer battery of the Water Witch would have proved inadequate to prevent,) she was now steered after the Richmond at full speed, stopping her wheels for a moment only to take in tow the prize schooner Frolic, which was dropping astern of the other vessels.

About this time general signal No. 435, “Cross the bar,” was made by the Richmond. On ranging alongside that ship the urgent necessity of an immediate return to the “head of the Passes” was represented, but as her propeller was in motion, I am not sure the suggestion was understood. An order was received to “Get the sloop over the bar,” and the importance of the Richmond's anchoring at once, (to cover their passage out,) was pressed in reply. The Water Witch then ranged ahead to execute her orders. Lieut. Davis (the executive officer) was put on board the Preble to pilot her out, but before I could reach the Vincennes she had unfortunately grounded on a flat to the left of the channel, and all efforts to tow her afloat proved fruitless. The Richmond, in attempting to turn her head up stream, also grounded near the Vincennes. The Preble was safely taken over the bar by Lieutenant Davis, who promptly returned to [371] his station on board, while the Water Witch was still under fire of the enemy's steamers.

Finding the “head of the Passes” evacuated, the Confederate steamers followed us down the Southwest Pass, the Ivy leading and opening fire on the Richmond, at a long range, with a heavy rifled gun; shortly after the Vincennes grounded. The Richmond replied from a nine-inch shell-gun mounted on the “forecastle,” and a rifled howitzer on the “poop,” and occasionally from her broadside guns.

Signal to “engage the enemy” being also made to the Water Witch, our efforts to relieve the Vincennes were discontinued, and our rifled twelve-pounder howitzer (the only gun of adequate range on board) was brought to bear upon the Ivy.

The bark, (supposed to be the McRae,) having also got within range, commenced firing with a rifled or Parrott gun, throwing shot and shell beyond the Richmond, and almost down to the bar.

The Richmond succeeded once or twice in backing off into deeper water, but drifted down with the current, and finally grounded again about a quarter of a mile below the Vincennes, with her broadside up the river, obliging us to exercise some care in keeping clear of the range of her guns.

The Vincennes, with her stern up stream, from which but two guns could be brought to bear on the enemy, remained in a critical position, exposed to a raking fire. A signal, made by the Richmond, at this time, to the vessels below the bar, (to get under way,) was erroneously reported to Commander Handy as a signal to abandon ship, and an officer was sent to me from the Vincennes to ask if any such signal had been made, and that Captain Handy should continue to defend his vessel. Soon afterward, however, several boats came alongside of the Water Witch, with the marine guard and a portion of the officers and crew of the Vincennes. Subsequently, Captain Handy, with the remainder, repaired on board the Richmond, the formidable battery of which ship alone prevented the enemy from taking possession of the abandoned vessel, as the Confederate steamers at no time ventured to drop within effective range of her broadside guns.

Between nine and ten A. M., apparently contented with the result of the action, they ceased firing, and steamed up the river.

It is satisfactory to have it in my power to report the coolness and steadiness of those under my command on this occasion, as well while awaiting, in uncertainty and obscurity, the breaking of day at the “head of the Passes,” as subsequently, when under the fire of the enemy.

After transferring to the Preble the officers and men of the Vincennes who had taken refuge on board our vessel, the Water Witch was next engaged in another unsuccessful attempt to get that ship afloat, Commander Handy, with the greater part of his crew, having returned on board. During the afternoon the steamer McClellan arrived from Fort Pickens with two Parrott guns, which were immediately placed on board the Richmond, and about four P. M. the Water Witch was despatched by Captain Pope to communicate with the steamers South Carolina and Huntsville, (in Barrataria and Berwick bays,) taking verbal orders to Commander Alden to proceed to Pass à l'outre, and to Commander Price to join the Richmond at Southwest Pass.

Regretting my inability to communicate more briefly a faithful detail of the events of the day, I have the honor to remain, with much respect, your obedient servant,

Francis Winslow, Lieutenant Commanding. Flag-officer Wm. W. Mckean, Commanding Gulf Blockading Squadron.

1 see Doc. 78, page 180 ante.

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