Individual Rank or Status (Listed Alphabetically)
Acting Rear Admiral—Acting RAdm.
Brigadier General—Brig. Gen.
Captain (army or navy)—Capt.
Lieutenant (army or navy)—Lt.
Lieutenant Commander—Lt. Cmdr.
Lieutenant Colonel—Lt. Col.
Lieutenant General—Lt. Gen.
Major General—Maj. Gen.
The storm broke in April 1861. At 2:30 p.m. on April 13, Maj. Robert Anderson surrendered his beleaguered Fort Sumter, in Charleston harbor, South Carolina, to the Confederacy. Two days later, U.S. president Abraham Lincoln declared a state of insurrection and called for 75,000 three-month volunteers to quash the revolt. Years of talk, hope, and work spent in seeking a solution to the economic, political, and social differences that divided the North and the South had ended in failure. The most tragic conflict in American history was “on.”
The Mississippi Valley west of the Allegheny Mountains lies partly in the North and partly in the South. When the Southern states enacted ordinances of secession, they claimed as their own that portion of the valley lying within their borders and prepared for its military defense. Such militarization was designed to cut the “Father of Waters” in half. Despite the coming of the railroad, the move was expected to effectively halt the heavy lift commerce so long important to the South down highways nature defined. It was hoped that such an approach would force Midwestern Union political leadership to pursue conflict resolution from Washington.
Within a few weeks of the beginning of the war, Northern planners began to formulate big river recovery strategies. Among the military measures envisioned in these plans was the construction of a flotilla of naval vessels that would operate on the great inland rivers in support of an advancing U.S. Army. Even before they were fully consolidated into the overall strategy called “Anaconda,” tactical portions of the various suggested ideas were implemented, including the establishment of a base at Cairo, Illinois.
Many Rebel politicians and generals quickly became aware of Federal plans to sweep down the Mississippi and appreciated the danger powerful Cairo-based warships might pose. This new understanding forced the South, already aware of the danger from the Gulf of Mexico at New Orleans, to respond. Fortifications were thrown up or enhanced at key locations. These included not only on the Mississippi between New Orleans at its mouth and Memphis, the upper Western river limit of the Confederacy, but on Dixie-held tributaries or portions of tributaries stretching from the Ohio southward. With virtually no significant warships of their own available, faith was taken by leaders of the breakaway nation that riverbank fortifications, armed with big cannon and often situated in elevated locations, would be able to hold the Yankees at bay. This approach, anchored as it was on Western river strongpoints, was shortly proven faulty.
Because geography largely dictated the flow of Civil War military activities, understanding of the fighting rapidly devolved into knowledge that there were really two major physical areas in which land campaigns were undertaken. Known simply as the Eastern and Western theaters, their border was the Allegheny Mountain range. The majority of the American population, to say nothing of their capitals, leaders, and media, was located in the East in the 1860s, and so, perhaps, it is not surprising that major attention was then focused on the conflict there experienced.
Over a century would pass before it was recognized by many students of the conflict that the geographical area of the Mississippi played a key if not decisive role in quashing the Southern rebellion. As historian Steven Woodworth has acknowledged: “While … the Virginia front was by far the most prestigious theater…. Here in the West the truly decisive battles were fought.”1
The Federal government devoted major resources to achieving Western victory that rapidly bore fruit. In addition to the Northern field armies one might expect to become engaged in the Western theater, two squadrons of the U.S. Navy participated in support, their roles gradually bolstered beyond fighting enemy warships, communications and logistics, and commerce control/protection.
Following his capture of New Orleans in April 1862, elements of Flag Officer (seconded USN captain) David G. Farragut’s West Gulf Blockading Squadron addressed the mission from below. Regular ocean-going warships paid an unsuccessful visit up the Big Muddy to Vicksburg, Mississippi, in July. From that fall, they were regularly in the waters around and below Port Hudson, Louisiana.
Meanwhile, Southern water citadels in the upper part of the theater were addressed by the Western Gunboat Flotilla, a nautical unit of the U.S. Army created in May 1861. This unique organization was subservient to generals but officered and manned by the navy, having the status of a division. Employing specially constructed or modified gunboats under the able and cooperative leadership of Cmdr. John Rodgers, II, and Flag Officers (also seconded USN captains) Andrew Hull Foote and Charles Henry Davis, it joined with the Federal military to remove Confederate hegemony over the areas of the Lower Cumberland, Lower Tennessee, and the Mississippi above Vicksburg. Fights at locations like Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, Island No. 10, Pittsburg Landing, Fort Pillow, Memphis, all in Tennessee, and Helena, Arkansas, were won by coordinated combined arms action.
The gunboat unit, also called the Mississippi Flotilla, having grown in size, function, and success, the need for a complete makeover of the organization was recognized by congressional action in July 1862. Consequently, the flotilla was transferred from the U.S. War Department to the Navy Department the following October, with RAdm. David Dixon Porter in command. Partnering with U.S. Army theater commanders, both Porter and Farragut were intensely engaged for the next nine months in the Herculean labor that eventually rendered victories at Vicksburg and Port Hudson.2
On July 4, 1863, Vicksburg fell to Northern arms just as other blue-coated land and water warriors rebuffed a Southern assault on Union positions at Helena. Simultaneously, a thousand miles east in the most famous of all North American battles, Union soldiers turned back a Southern invasion at the little Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg. Five days later Port Hudson also surrendered. Although much hard fighting remained, it was possible to foresee an end to the rebellion.
On July 15, exactly two years and two days after Fort Sumter, the steamer Imperial, having departed St. Louis a day before Port Hudson’s capture, docked at New Orleans. Widely acclaimed as the first complete transit of the Mississippi River since the beginning of the conflict, the achievement led many to conclude that the War on Western Waters was essentially finished.
It was widely believed at the time and has been reported ever since that Union control of the great Western rivers had been firmly established by the Vicksburg/Port Hudson achievements. The earlier partnership between the USN West Gulf Squadron and the Mississippi Squadron, as the Western Gunboat Flotilla became on October 1, 1863, was altered and the final geographical definition of “Western waters” as an operational area referred to here and elsewhere was officially defined by the latter’s commander:
The limits of the West Gulf Squadron extend from the Mexican Line to just eastward of Pensacola, and up the Mississippi only to New Orleans, and of this squadron from New Orleans up the Mississippi, embracing its tributaries and connecting rivers and bayous.
Thereafter, as the Western theater was pushed east toward Atlanta and then the Carolinas and southern Virginia, the dramatic emphasis placed on the region’s brown water faded. As the belief that the water war was won took hold, detailed commentary upon events on the Western waters (with the exception of the 1864 Red River campaign) largely disappeared from the headlines of the day, both North and South. Was the conviction of total Union control accurate? My colleague and friend Mark Jenkins summed up the situation in 2013:
Control of a river is a tenuous thing. For the moment, we can define it as a condition where there is a reasonable expectation of safety from attack. Under this definition, the Union unquestionably controlled a great deal of the river, but it might be too much to say that the entire length was under control.
For the remainder of the Civil War, the midcountry engagements along the great streams continued, but usually on a much reduced scale. In addition to several regional campaigns by large marching armies or giant attempted incursions of Northern territory, the Confederates in this theater came to believe they could best influence the war’s outcome and establish some measure of control with a sustained assault on Federal logistics, particularly bulk waterborne transportation. With no available sailors of their own this mission was left to Southern troops (regular and irregular) and guerrillas. So it was that ship-to-shore combats and counterinsurgency strikes on the Mississippi and her tributaries continued. These largely unheralded but intense fights reveal courage and determination on both sides that is worthy of more detailed coverage.
Many of the 1863–1865 actions which occurred were recorded as miscellaneous backwater events and escaped telling in the subsequent naval histories of the war (even those devoted to the river war). In the premier major recounting of the river war, Adm. Alfred T. Mahan labeled his first post–Vicksburg chapter as one concerned with “minor occurrences.” For the most part, accounts of brown water actions during the last nine months of the conflict languished not in works designed to foster common memory but in dusty archival records, old newspapers, or pages of the Official Records.3
From 1865 to the present, many who lived through it or wrote of it considered the Mississippi Valley campaign finished with the Vicksburg triumph. No less a figure than Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman recalled in his memoirs that the town’s capture “produced … a general relaxation of effort.” Although he meant the Union’s Western war effort, he could as well have meant its recording for posterity. Other than Admirals Porter Mahan, Dewey, and Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr., few naval officers then active in the theater wrote memoirs and even fewer, if continuing their river assignment, recorded their post–Vicksburg details. For example, in his recollections, famed campaign participant and onetime captain of the Carondelet, Adm. Henry Walke, chose to end his very detailed river war recollections just after the citadel’s fall and his transfer east (omitting all naval accounting thereafter save a final chapter on the 1864 Battle of Mobile Bay).4
With the exception of some accounts of the 1864 Red River campaign, there have been no published Civil War surveys of Western waters action devoted exclusively to the years 1863–1865. As late as 2016, Barbara Brooks Tomblin’s excellent history The Civil War on the Mississippi closed with Vicksburg, and though my own detailed previous works granted space to Western waters events, none was totally devoted to the theater.
This overall coverage deficit has occurred in the writing of numerous other authorities, who have recounted in their pages the momentous events on the Western streams prior to Vicksburg’s surrender—and Red River. Mark Jenkins sighs: “Action on the rivers in the latter half of the war has not attracted much attention from historians, although the documentation, in the form of the OR/ORN, letters, diaries, etc., is available.” Craig L. Symonds opines that “the fall of Vicksburg did not end the war in the West, but it did complexly change its character.” Spencer C. Tucker has concluded that the 1863–1865 conflict on Midwestern streams has been “largely forgotten today.” Noting that the capture of Vicksburg and Port Hudson “did not end Union riverine operations,” Earl J. Hess in two important studies reveals that, despite Federal success over Vicksburg and Port Hudson, “the war in the West was far from over.”5
Criteria and Arrangement
Downplayed, forgotten or ignored events—and a few unknown incidents—of the brown water Civil War which occurred after the capture of Vicksburg and Port Hudson in July 1863 have a berth within these pages. To accomplish our aim, our study opens with a review of the Western rivers and the communities they supported. A look at the USN Mississippi Squadron in the summer of the two Union successes follows. It also sets the stage for the remainder of our tale with a review of that fleet’s bases, organization and administration, warships and personnel. Plans and war-fighting concepts by the North and South to advantage area control or alleviate actual and perceived political, military or commercial challenges are noted as well.
Operational events chronologically dominate the chapters that follow, several of which have overlapping time frames to permit fullness of story. Naval participation in various raids and larger campaigns is highlighted, as well as in the necessary, often mundane but sometime exciting counterinsurgency, economical, and logistical protection or assault efforts. Details are therein offered or enhanced on units or streams previously underreported or completely ignored. Examples include the birth and function of the Mississippi Squadron’s Eleventh District, the role of U.S. Army gunboats, and the war on the Upper Cumberland and Upper Tennessee Rivers. Our account concludes with the coming of the peace in 1865 and the decommissioning of the U.S. river navy and the sale of its ships.
Fifty years ago when hair still rode atop my head, I was first drawn to the story of the Western gunboats in connection with my postgraduate work. In all the time since, I have continued to find it a subject exciting to explore and enjoyable to record. It is hoped that this outing will help to demonstrate that no longer is the war on Western waters, particularly those events following the surrender of Vicksburg and Port Hudson to the Union, “the ignored war,” Virgil Carrington Jones once labeled it.6
Personnel at a number of libraries and archives helpfully provided insight and access to resources directly or by loan or photocopy during the research and writing stages of this outing. Among them were the kind folks manning the libraries and collections of the U.S. Navy Department; U.S. Army Military History Institute; Library of Congress; National Archives; Mariners Museum; University of Tennessee; Tennessee State Library and Archives; Missouri Historical Society; University of Arkansas; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Duke University; East Tennessee State University; Kentucky Historical Society; University of Rochester (NY); U.S. Army Historical Center; Vicksburg National Military Park; Louisiana State University; Tennessee State Library and Archives; Illinois State Library; Illinois State Historical Society; Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library (IL); Indiana Historical Society; Chicago Historical Society; Cairo (IL) Public Library; Ohio Historical Society; The Ohio State University; The Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library (OH); The Battle of Nashville Preservation Society; Greeneville-Greene County Public Library (TN); and Tusculum University.
Over the years, a number of folks have kindly gone beyond to provide encouragement or aid as I launched my various Civil War writings. The list is long, though hopefully all were appropriately acknowledged in the books preceding this one. For this outing, I would particularly like to give a special tip of the hat to my longtime friend and Henry Walke aficionado Mark F. Jenkins for his insights and support. I would also like to send appreciation to my newest colleague, himself a scholar of the Western gunboat wars, Mark Zimmerman.
Myron J. Smith, Jr.
1. Steven Woodworth, Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990), xi–xii. The West and Western rivers in Civil War literature refers generally to the Western theater of operations, which encompassed the area beyond the Allegheny Mountains. See Bruce Catton, "Glory Road Began in the West," Civil War History, VI (June 1960), 229–237.
2. That portion of the navy’s mission regarding support of shore control or acquisition grew into what came to be known as amphibious warfare and is now codified in the document Supporting Arms Coordination in Amphibious Operations (NTTP 3–02.2; Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2004). The rank of USN rear admiral did not exist until authorized by Congress to honor Farragut later in 1862. Given the need for fleet commanding naval officers’ equality in status with U.S. Army officers, this temporary title was assigned. Dave Cipra, “A History of Sea Service Ranks and Titles,” Commandant’s Bulletin, V (March–June 1985), 1.
3. U.S. Navy Department, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (31 vols.; Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1894–1922), Series I, Vol. 27: 227; Mark F. Jenkins, “War on the Mississippi, Post Vicksburg,” Civil War Talk, July 15, 2013, https://civilwartalk.com/threads/war-on-the-mississippi-post-vicksburg.86763/#post-677882 (accessed November 1, 2019); Alfred T. Mahan, The Gulf and Inland Waters, Vol. 3 of The Navy in the Civil War (New York: Scribner's, 1883), 175. For a helpful summary view of the war on Western waters through July 1863 with the Red River as the subsequent major action, see Spencer C.Tucker’s “Capturing the Confederacy’s Western Waters,” Naval History, XX (June 2006), 16–21.
4. William T. Sherman, Memoirs; edited with an Introduction and Notes by Michael Fellman (New York: Penguin Books, 2000), 308; Henry Walke, Naval Scenes and Reminiscences of the Civil War in the United States on the Southern and Western Waters During the Years 1861, 1862 and 1863 with the History of That Period Compared and Corrected from Authentic Sources (New York: F. R. Reed and Company, 1877), 428. Sources for the other seamen referenced here include David Dixon Porter, Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War (New York: D. Appleton and Co, 1885; reprint, Harrisburg PA: The Archive Society, 1997); Porter, Naval History of the Civil War (New York: Sherman Publishing Company, 1886; reprint, Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books, 1984); Alfred T. Mahan, From Sail to Steam: Recollections of Naval Life (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1907); George Dewey, Autobiography of George Dewey (New York: Scribner’s, 1913; reprint, U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1987); Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr., Memoirs of Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr., Rear Admiral, U.S.N. (New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1924; reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987).
5. Barbara Brooks Tomblin, The Civil War on the Mississippi: Union Sailors, Gunboat Captains, and Their Campaign to Control the River (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2016), 280; Mark F. Jenkins, “War on the Mississippi, Post Vicksburg,” Civil War Talk, July 15, 2013, https://civilwartalk.com/threads/war-on-the-mississippi-post-vicksburg.86763/#post-677882 (accessed November 1, 2019); Craig L. Symonds, The Civil War at Sea (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-Clio, 2009), 118; Spencer C. Tucker, The Blue and Gray Navies (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2006), 235; Myron J. Smith, Jr., The Tinclads in the Civil War: Union Light-Draught Gunboat Operations on Western Waters, 1862–1865 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., Inc., 2010); Earl J. Hess, The Civil War in the West (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 162; Hess, Civil War Logistics: A Study in Military Transportation (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2017).
6. Virgil Carrington Jones, “The Navy War: Introduction,” Civil War History, IX (June 1963), 117.