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New Madrid--Island no.10--New Orleans

Henry W. Elson

Cairo in 1862-on the extreme right is the church where Flag-officer Foote preached a sermon after the fall of Fort Henry--next he led the gunboats at Island no.10.


It has been truly said that without the American navy, insignificant as it was in the early sixties, the North could hardly have succeeded in the great war. The blockade was necessary to success, and without the navy the blockade would have been impossible. It may further be said that without the gunboats on the winding rivers of the middle West success in that quarter would have been equally impossible. It was these floating fortresses that reduced Fort Henry and that gave indispensable aid at Fort Donelson. At Shiloh, when at the close of the first day's conflict the Confederates made a wild, impetuous dash on the Union camp, it was the two little wooden gunboats that aided in preserving the Camp from capture or complete demoralization.

We have now to relate a series of operations down the Mississippi, in which the gunboats were the alpha and omega and almost all that falls between them. The creator of the fleet of gunboats with which we now have to deal was that master-builder, James B. Eads. It was on August 7, 1861, that Eads signed a contract with the Government to build and deliver seven ironclads, each one hundred and seventy-five feet long, fifty-one feet wide, drawing six feet of water, and carrying thirteen guns. In a week or two four thousand men were at work on the contract; sawmills were busy in five States cutting the timber; machine shops and iron foundries in several cities were running day and night. The places of building were Carondelet, near St. Louis, and Mound City, Illinois.

But the time was too short. The boats were unfinished at the end of sixty-five days. The Government refused to pay for them. And the builder, Eads — what did he do? He went ahead and used up his own fortune to finish those gunboats, [217]

The Carondelet.

On the night of April 4, 1862, the Confederate garrison of the battery on Island No.10, peering through the darkness out on the Mississippi, caught sight of the flicker of flames from the smoke-stacks of a steamer proceeding down the river. They knew at once that the attempt of the Federal gunboats to pass down to the support of General Pope's crossing of the river below had begun. The men on shore leaped to their guns, and the crash of cannon and the rattle of musketry broke forth across the bosom of the river. Aiming through the darkness at the luminous tops of the smoke-stacks the gunners poured in their vindictive fire, but the Confederates had elevated their guns too high and only two of their shots sped home. The Carondelet, for it was she, held on her way, and her commander, Henry Walke, would not permit his men to send a single answering shot. Walke had begged to be the first to take his vessel by the dreaded batteries on Island No.10. In the pilot-house he directed the daring attempt, catching glimpses of the tortuous channel amid the fitful lightning of a storm which suddenly descended on the river and added the reverberations of Heaven to those of the battery below. At one moment the Carondelet grazed the bank of the island itself, but hastily backing off, made good her escape past a dreaded floating battery below the Island, which offered little opposition. She arrived at New Madrid without a man having received a single scratch. The Carondelet and her commander had made good, and the next morning lay ready to support the army after having achieved one of the greatest feats in the record of the inland navy. On April 6th, her elated and plucky crew captured and spiked the guns of the battery opposite Point Pleasant, an event which convinced the Confederates that Island No.10 must be evacuated. That very night, encouraged by the success of the Carondelet, Commander Thompson, with the Pittsburgh, ran by the disheartened gunners on Island No.10 and joined Commander Walke. The crossing of Pope's forces then proceeded, and the Confederates, in full retreat, were hemmed in by Paine's division and surrendered, before dawn of April 8th. Colonel Cook's troops cut off in their retreat from Island No.10, were also compelled to surrender. The daring of Commander Walke in the face of this great danger had accomplished the first step in the opening of the Mississippi since the expedition left Cairo.

Commander Henry Walke

The Carondelet--first to run the gantlet at Island no.10

[218] then handed them over to the Government and waited for his pay until after they had won their famous victories down the river.

Their first commander was Andrew H. Foote, who was called “the ‘ Stonewall’ Jackson of the West.” He had won fame in the waters of the Orient and had spent years in the suppression of the slave trade. Like “StonewallJackson, he was a man of deep religious principles. On the Sunday after the fall of Fort Henry he preached a sermon in a church at Cairo. The next year the aged admiral lay sick in New York. His physician dreaded to tell him that his illness would be fatal, but did so. “Well,” answered the admiral, “I am glad to be done with guns and war.”

We must get to our story. Fort Henry and Fort Donelson had fallen. General Polk had occupied Columbus, Kentucky, a powerful stronghold from which one hundred and fifty cannon pointed over the bluff. But why hold Columbus in its isolation when Henry and Donelson were lost? So thought the good bishop-general and he broke Camp on February 25, 1862, transferring one hundred and thirty of his big guns to Island No.10, and rolling the remainder down the one hundred and fifty foot embankment into the Mississippi. That nothing might be left for the foe, he burned eighteen thousand bushels of corn and five thousand tons of hay, and when the Federals reached Columbus on March 4th they found only charred remains.

Island No.10 was situated at the upper bend of a great double curve of the Mississippi, about forty miles below Columbus. It had been strongly fortified by General Beauregard, but Beauregard was called to Corinth and Shiloh and he turned the command over to General Mackall with about seven thousand men. It was confidently believed by its defenders that this fortified island would be the final stopping place of all hostile vessels on the great river, that none could pass it without being blown out of the water by the powerful batteries. [219]

The retreat down the river.

The Flag-ship of the Confederate Fleet at Island No.10.--Below the dreaded battery at Island No.10, lay Commodore George N. Hollins, with his flag-ship, the McRae and seven other Confederate gunboats, holding in check the Federal troops chafing to cross the river and get at the inferior force of the enemy on the other side. This opposing fleet was further strengthened by a powerful floating battery which could be pushed about by the gunboats and anchored at the most effective points. When the Carondelet accomplished her daring feat of passing Island No.10 on the night of April 4th, creeping stealthily by this boasted battery and cutting it off from its convoys, the men who manned it cut loose from their moorings and drifted down to the protection of Commodore Hollins' vigilant fleet. All was at once activity on board the Confederate vessels. Commodore Hollins did not court a meeting to try conclusions with the powerful Eads gunboats and the mortar boats, which he supposed were all making their way down upon him. The flag at the masthead of the McRae quickly signaled the order to weigh anchor, and the Confederate squadron, dropping slowly downstream, confined its activities to storming Pope's batteries on the Missouri shore below New Madrid. Farragut, threatening New Orleans, had caused the withdrawal of every available Confederate gunboat from the upper river, and the remaining river defense fleet under Commodore Hollins was not equal to the task of standing up to the determined and aggressive attempt of the Federals to seize and hold possession of the upper Mississippi.

Commodore George N. Hollins, C. S. N.

The McRae


Below this island, a few miles, was the town of New Madrid on the Missouri shore, held also by the Confederates and protected by heavy guns behind breastworks.

On the west bank of the river, General John Pope commanded a Federal army of twenty thousand men. His object was to capture New Madrid. First he occupied Point Pleasant, twelve miles below, erected batteries and cut off supplies from New Madrid. He then slowly approached the town and meantime sent to Cairo for siege-guns. They arrived on the 12th of March, and all through the next day the cannonading was incessant. At night it ceased, and as Pope was about to renew the attack he discovered that the town had been abandoned during the night. The Confederates had not even delayed to destroy the supply stores, and they fell into the hands of the besiegers, together with all the guns and some thousands of small arms.

Island No.10 was now isolated, indeed. Above it the river was aswarm with Federal gunboats; below it and along the Missouri shore was Pope's army. Southward was Reelfoot Lake, and eastward were impenetrable swamps. The only possible way of escape was by a road to the southward between the river and Reelfoot Lake to Tiptonville. But the brave defenders of the island were not ready to give up or to flee. They determined to remain and dispute the possession of the river at all hazards. At this time the river was very high. The whole wooded peninsula made by the great bend was covered with water. Houses, fences, trees — every movable thing — had been swept down the current.

General Pope's great desideratum was to secure boats to ferry his army across the river that he might capture Island No.10. But the threatening cannon on the island forbade, in language without words, any attempt to pass them. The overflow of water on the peninsula was deep enough to float the transports, but a dense forest six miles in width prevented any such passage. At length a novel plan was devised — to cut a [221]

The Flag-officer's good-bye The decks of this staunch gunboat, the Benton, w<*>e crowded on the morning of May 9, 1862, by her officers and men waiting solemnly for the appearance of Commodore A. H. Foote. The Benton had been his flag-ship in the operations around Island No.10 and Fort Pillow; but the wound he had received at Fort Donelson continued to undermine his health until now, supported by Captain Phelps, he feebly made his way on deck to bid good-bye to his brave and faithful comrades and resign his command to Captain Charles H. Davis. At sight of him the old tars swung their hats and burst into loud huzzas, which quickly gave place to moist eyes and saddened countenances, as Foote, with tears trickling down his cheeks, addressed to them some simple, heartfelt words of farewell. The men leaned forward to catch every syllable uttered by the beloved commander's failing voice. An hour later the De Soto dropped down to the Benton. Foote was assisted to the transport's deck by his successor, Captain Davis, and Captain Phelps. Sitting in a chair on her guards, his breast filled with emotion, he gazed across the rapidly widening space separating him forever from the Benton, while the men on her deck continued to look longingly after him, till distance and tears hid each from the other's sight.

[222] channel through the forest. Six hundred skilled engineers were in the army and they were soon at work in relays of three hundred. After cutting off the trees above the water they cut the stumps beneath the water and just above the ground by means of hand-saws attached to pivots. After nineteen days of vigorous toil a channel was cut through the forest six miles long, fifty feet wide, and four and a half feet deep. The flat-bottomed transports could pass through this channel and they quickly did so — quickly, because the river was falling and the opportunity would soon pass. They were soon safely lodged at New Madrid without having come within range of the heavy guns of Island No.10.

But the ironclad gunboats — what could be done with them? They drew too much water to be taken through the newly-made channel. Above the fortified island lay the Eads fleet, as it should be called (for the patriotic engineer still owned it in part), restless, eager for a fight. There were the Benton, the flag-ship, the Carondelet, the St. Louis, the Cincinnati, the Pittsburgh, the Mound City, and eleven mortar-boats. But these vessels could do something: they could shoot, and they did on March 17th. On that day they trained their guns on the island; for nine long hours the boom of cannon was continuous. The results were slight. Beauregard, who had not yet departed for Corinth, wired to Richmond that his batteries were not damaged and but one man was killed.

General Pope was sorely in need of a gunboat or two to silence a number of batteries guarding the Tiptonville road, on the east side of the river. Could he get possession of that road the last hope of escape from the island would be lost and ere long its defenders must surrender. Pope believed it possible for the gunboats to run the gantlet of the batteries of Island No.10. But Foote thought it impossible, in the face of the mouths of half a hundred cannon that yawned across the channel. He refused to force anyone to so perilous an undertaking, and the commanders of the vessels all agreed [223]

A veteran of many river fights The St. Louis was the earliest of the Eads iron-clad gunboats to be completed and is first mentioned in despatches on January 14, 1862, when with the Essex and Tyler she engaged the Confederate batteries at Columbus, Kentucky. The St. Louis, commanded by Lieutenant Leonard Paulding, participated in the capture of Fort Henry, going into action lashed to the Carondelet. She was struck seven times. At Fort Donelson she was Foote's flagship. Island No.10, Fort Pillow, Memphis — at all these places the St. Louis distinguished herself. On October 1, 1862, the St. Louis was renamed the Baron de Kalb. All through the Vicksburg operations the De Kalb saw service with Admiral Porter. On July 12, 1863, after the fall of Vicksburg, she was sunk by a torpedo in the Yazoo River. This photograph was a gift to the present owner from James B. Eads, the builder.

[224] with him that the running of the batteries was too great a risk, except one--Henry Walke, commander of the Carondelet.

“Are you willing to try it with your vessel?” asked Foote, of Commander Walke, in the presence of the other officers. “Yes,” answered Walke, and it was agreed that the Carondelet should attempt to run the batteries. The next few days were spent in preparing the vessel for the ordeal. Chains, hawsers, and cables were wound around the pilot-house and other vulnerable parts of the vessel. A coal barge loaded with coal and hay was lashed to the side where there was no iron protection for the magazine. The steam escape was led through the wheel-house so as to avoid the puffing sound through the smokestack. The sailors were armed to resist boarding parties, and sharpshooters were placed on board.

The night of April 4th was chosen for this daring adventure. At ten o'clock the moon had set and the sky was overcast with dark clouds. The Carondelet began her perilous journey in total darkness. But presently a terrific thunderstorm swept up the river and the vivid flashes of lightning rendered it impossible for the gunboat to pass the island unseen. Presently when near the hostile island the vessel was discovered. Next moment the heavy guns began to roar, as if to answer the thunders of the sky; the flashes from the burning powder commingled with the vivid lightning, the whole presenting a scene of indescribable grandeur.

The Carondelet was saved, chiefly, no doubt, through the fact that she ran so near the island that the great guns could not be sufficiently depressed, and they overshot the mark. About midnight the gunboat reached New Madrid uninjured.

Two nights later the Pittsburgh ran the gantlet of Island No.10. The two vessels soon reduced the batteries along the east bank of the river to silence. Pope's army crossed and occupied the Tiptonville road. The Confederate garrison of seven thousand men could only surrender, and this they did, while the second day's battle was raging at Shiloh--April 7, 1862. [225]

A gunboat of fighting fame, the Cairo The first engagement of the Cairo, a third-rate ironclad of 512 tons, mounting six 42-pounders, six 32-pounders, three 8-inch guns and one 12-lb. howitzer, was under the command of Lieutenant N. C. Bryant on February 19th, in the Cumberland River in Tennessee. At Clarksville with the gunboat Conestoga the Cairo engaged three forts, capturing the town. On May 10th the Cairo, still commanded by Lieutenant Bryant, participated in the action at Fort Pillow and the river combat with the Confederate “River defense” fleet. While being rammed the Cincinnati was so injured that she sank. The Mound City also was injured and three of the Confederate vessels were disabled. Once more the Cairo, on June 6th, with four other ironclad gunboats and two of the Ellet rams, engaged the Confederate flotilla off the city of Memphis. On December 12, 1862, the Cairo, then under the command of Lieutenant T. O. Selfridge, was destroyed by a torpedo in the Yazoo River.

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