Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War

Author: David Dixon Porter  | Date: 1885

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Gunboat Warfare (1863)

BY ADMIRAL DAVID DIXON PORTER (1885)

ONE of the liveliest reminiscences I have of the siege is what is called the Yazoo Pass expedition—one of three attempts we made to get behind Vicksburg with a fleet of ironclads and a detachment of the army—in which I have to say that we failed most egregiously.

At one period of the siege the rains had swollen the Mississippi River so much that it had backed its waters up into its tributaries, which had risen seventeen feet, and, overflowing, had inundated the country for many miles.

Great forests had become channels admitting the passage of large steamers between the trees, and now and then wide lanes were met with where a frigate might have passed.

The ironclads drew only seven feet of water and had no masts or yards to encumber them, and but little about their decks that could be swept away by the bushes or lower branches of the trees. I had thoughts of trying the experiment of getting the vessels back of Vicksburg in that way. . . .

I determined to go myself, and, to make it a success, I omitted nothing that might possibly be wanted oil such an expedition. I selected the ironclads Louisville, Lieutenant-Commanding Owen; Cincinnati, Lieutenant-Commanding Bache; Carondelet, Lieutenant-Commanding Murphy; Mound City, Lieutenant-Commanding Wilson; Pittsburgh, Lieutenant-Commanding Hoel, and four tugs; also two light mortar-boats built for the occasion, to carry each a thirteen-inch mortar and shells enough to bombard a city. . . .

At the same time General Sherman prepared his contingent to accompany the expedition. . . .

It was a curious sight to see a line of ironclads and mortar-boats, tugs and transports, pushing their way through the long, wide lane in the woods without touching on either side, though sometimes a rude tree would throw Briarean arms around the smoke-stack of the tin-clad Forest Rose, or the transport Molly Miller, and knock their bonnets sideways. . . .

We ran on, in line of battle, eight or ten miles through the open way in the trees, carrying fifteen feet of water by the lead-line. Let the nautical reader imagine an old quartermaster in the "chains" of an ironclad steaming through the woods and singing out, "Quarter less three!" Truth is stranger than fiction.

At last we came to a point where the forest was close and composed of very large trees—old monarchs of the woods which had spread their arms for centuries over those silent solitudes: Titans, like those in the old fables, that dominate over all around them. . . .

We had to knock down six or eight of these large trees before we could reach the point where Sherman was disembarking part of his troops. When I came up he was on a piece of high ground, on an old white horse some of his "boys" had captured.

"Halloo, old fellow," he sang out, "what do you call this? This must be traverse sailing. You think it’s all very fine just now, don’t you; but, before you fellows get through, you wont have a smoke-stack or a boat among you. . . .

"steam on about twenty yards to the west, and you will find a hole through a kind of levee wide enough, I think, for your widest vessel.

That is Cypress Bayou; it leads into the Sunflower about seventy-five miles distant, and a devil of a time you’ll have of it. Look out those fellows don’t catch you. I’ll be after you." . . .

I pushed on, my fleet following, and soon found myself inside the bayou. It was exactly forty-six feet wide. My vessel was forty-two feet wide, and that was the average width of the others. This place seemed to have been a bayou with high levees bordering, reaching, indeed, above the vessel’s guns.

. . . This bayou had not been used for many years for the purposes of navigation. It had almost closed up, and the middle of it was filled with little willows which promised to be great impediments to us, but, as there was nine feet of water in the ditch, I pushed on. . . .

I was in the leading vessel, and necessarily had to clear the way for the others. The bayou was full of logs that had been there for years. They had grown soggy and heavy, and sometimes one end, being heavier than the other, would sink to the bottom, while the other end would remain pointing upward, presenting the appearance of chevaux-de-frise, over which we could no more pass than we could fly. We had to have working parties in the road with tackles and hook-ropes to haul these logs out on the banks before we could pass on. . . .

Then, again, we would get jammed between two large, overhanging trees. We could not ram them down as we did in the woods, with plenty of "sea room" around us. We had to chop away the sides of the trees with axes. . . .

An hour after entering the very narrow part of the ditch, where we really had not a foot to spare, we had parted with everything like a boat, and cut them away as useless appendages. . . .

That day, by sunset, we had made eight miles, which was a large day’s work, considering all the impediments, but when night came—which it did early in the deep wood—we had to tie up to the bank, set watches, and wait until daylight. . . .

At daylight next morning we moved ahead, and all that day toiled as men never toiled before. . . . Evening found us fourteen miles ahead, but where was Sherman? There was only one road, so he couldn’t have taken the wrong one. . . .

It were vain to tell all the hardships of the third day. The plot seemed to thicken as we advanced, and old logs, small Red River rafts, and rotten trees overhanging the banks, seemed to accumulate. . . .

We had steamed, or rather bumped, seventy-five miles, and had only six hundred yards to go before getting into the Rolling Fork, where all would be plain sailing; but I waited for all the vessels to come up to repair damages, and start together.

I noticed right at the head of the pass a large green patch extending all the way across. It looked like the green scum on ponds.

"What is that?" I asked of one of the truthful contrabands.

"It’s nuffin but willers, sah," he replied. . . .

I thought I would try it while the vessels were "coming into port." I sent the tug on ahead with the mortar-boat, and followed on after.

The tug went into it about thirty yards, began to go slower and slower, and finally stuck so fast that she could move neither ahead nor astern. I hailed her and told them that I would come along and push them through. We started with a full head of steam, and did not even reach the tug. The little withes caught in the rough iron ends of the overhang and held us as if in a vise. I tried to back out, but ’twas no use. We could not move an inch, no matter how much steam we put on. Ah, I thought, this is only a temporary delay.

We got large hooks out and led the hook-ropes aft, and tried to break off the lithe twigs, but it was no use; we could not move. We got saws, knives, cutlasses, and chisels over the side, with the men handling them sitting on planks, and cut them off, steamed ahead, and only moved three feet. Other withes sprang up from under the water and took a fresher grip on us, so we were worse off than ever. . . .

Just then a rebel steamer was reported coming up the Rolling Fork and landing about four miles below. . . .

There was nothing easier than for two thousand men to charge on us from the bank and carry us by boarding. Only the enemy didn’t know the fix we were in. They didn’t know how it was that we could fire those thirteen-inch shell, that would burst now and then at the root of a great tree and throw it into the air. They didn’t know that we had only four smooth-bore howitzers free to work, that our heavy guns were useless, below the bank. So much for their not being properly posted. But I was quite satisfied that they would know all this before Sherman came up.

We drove the artillery away about four o’clock in the afternoon. Then I sent a hawser to the tug, and another to the ironclad astern of me, while the latter made fast to another ironclad. Then we all backed together and, after an hour’s hard pull, we slipped off the willows into soft water. Laus Deo!

Then went forth the orders to unship the rudders and let the vessels drift down stern foremost, and away we all went together with a four-knot current taking us—bumping badly—down at the rate of two miles an hour—which was twice as fast as we came up. . . .

Sharp-shooters made their appearance in the morning. About sixty of them surrounded us. First it was like an occasional drop of rain. Then it was pat, pat against the iron hull all the time. . . .

Suddenly the Louisville, Captain Owen, brought up all standing. There were eight large trees cut down ahead of us—four from either bank, and they seemed to be so interlaced that it was apparently impossible to remove them.

I sent out two hundred riflemen, and found that they were quite equal to the enemy. They drove them to a safe distance with the aid of the mortar fire. . . .

Under fire from the sharp-shooters we removed the eight trees in three hours, and started to push on, when we found those devils had sunk two large trees across the bayou under water, and pinned them down.

Another hour was spent in getting them up, and under renewed sharp-shooting. . . .

We had no sooner got rid of these obstructions than we saw a large column of gray-uniformed soldiers swooping down on us from the woods.

We opened mortar fire on them. They didn’t mind it. On they came. They were no doubt determined to overwhelm us by numbers, and close us in. Their artillery was coming on with them. Now would come the tug of war. We were jammed up against the bank, and the stream was so narrow where we were we could not increase our distance from it. Their sharp-shooters had now taken up positions behind trees about one hundred yards from us, and our men were firing rapidly at them as they opened on us. . . .

The sharp-shooters were becoming very troublesome about this time, when suddenly I saw the advancing column begin to fall into confusion; then they jumped behind trees, or fell into groups, and kept up a rapid fire of musketry. It looked as if they were fighting among themselves. But no! they were retreating before some one. They had run foul of Sherman’s army, which was steadily driving them back. . . .

The game was up, and we bumped on homeward. . . .

I am quite satisfied that no one who went on that party desired to try it again. It was the hardest cruise that any Jack Tar ever made, and we all determined to cultivate the army more than we had done, in case we should go on a horse-marine excursion.

Admiral [David D.] Porter, (New York, D. Appleton & Co., 1885), 137–172 passim.

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Chicago: David Dixon Porter, Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War in American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. Albert Bushnell Hart (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1903), Original Sources, accessed July 3, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=G7H47K39S6AZPD9.

MLA: Porter, David Dixon. Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War, in American History Told by Contemporaries, edited by Albert Bushnell Hart, Vol. 4, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1903, Original Sources. 3 Jul. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=G7H47K39S6AZPD9.

Harvard: Porter, DD, Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War. cited in 1903, American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. , The Macmillan Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 3 July 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=G7H47K39S6AZPD9.