The River Defense Fleet

Initially, a small flotilla, consisting of the gunboats Livingston, General I'olk, Pontchartrain and Maurepas, was available for service and was stationed at Island No. 10. These four gunboats were all sidewheelers, and displaced between 390 and 460 tons each. Three were built in New Albany, Indiana, and purchased into service in New Orleans in 1861, while the Livingston was originally designed as a towboat, but was purchased while still being built in New Orleans, and she was completed as a gunboat. The General Polk was a long, sleek vessel, but only carried three 32-pounder guns, two of which were rifled. The remaining three vessels were shorter, stockier, and slower, but carried a larger armament, six to eight guns, including at least two 32-pounder rifles per vessel. Three of them were destroyed to prevent their capture after the fall of Memphis in June 1863, but the Pontchartrain continued to operate on the Red River until her destruction in turn in October 1863.

Until March 1862 the flotilla was augmented by the Confederate naval vessels McRae and Jackson (described above), but these returned south to defend New Orleans when Union forces threatened the city.

The floating battery New Orleans also assisted the naval flotilla at Island No. 10. It was immobile, and had to be towed into place, then moored. Consequently, when I he land defenses were flanked, the naval flotilla escaped downriver, but the New Orleans had to be destroyed to prevent her capture.

While this small flotilla was operating around Island No. 10, a second force was being converted in yards in and around New Orleans. Like their counterparts in the New Orleans Squadron, this Confederate River Defense Fleet was operated by the War Department, and charged with the def ense of the upper stretches of the Mississippi, while the southern contingent remained around New Orleans. This force, which took part in the defense of Fort Pillow and the Battle of Memphis (June 6, 1862), centered around a force of eight river steamers, most of which were converted into rams. Under the command of Captain J.E. Montgomery, whose flagship was the Little Rebel, the eight-vessel fleet consisted of the General Bragg, General Sterling Price, General Sumter, General Karl Van Darn, General M. Jeff Thompson, Colonel Lovell and General Beauregard. When the four light gunboats retired from Island No. 10, this fleet constituted the only effective naval force on the upper stretches of the Mississippi, between Cairo and Memphis.

The largest of these ships was the CSS General Bragg, formerly a brig-rigged paddlewheel passenger steamer called the Mexico, which had operated in the Gulf of Mexico. She was built in New York in 1850 for lite Southern Steamship Company, based in New Orleans, and was purchased by the Confederate government in January 1802. A four-inch oak beam was added to her bow, then covered in a one-inch layer of iron, making a rudimentary ram. As the vessel displaced over 1,000 tons and could attain a speed of over 10 knots, she was a powerful ramming vessel. In addition to her ram, she was fitted with a 30-pounder Parrott rifle on Iter forecastle, and a 32-pounder smoothbore on her quarterdeck.

Of the other seven vessels in the fleet, the General Sterling Price, the General Sumter, and the Colonel Lovell all displaced over 500 tons. The General Sterling Price was formerly the Laurent Millaudon, a sidewheel riverboat built in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1856. Apart from her ram, she was armed with four guns, one on the forecastle, another on the quarterdeck, and two in broadside mounts inside her wooden casemate. All were 9-inch Dahlgren smoothbores, making her one of the best-armed wooden vessels on the river.

Almost as powerful was the General Beauregard (formerly the New Orleans towboat Ocean), which carried four 8-inch and one 42-pounder smoothbore guns. By contrast, the General Sumter (once the New Orleans towboat Junius Beehe) carried four 32-pounder and one 12-pounder smoothbores. Both the Cincinnati-built steamer Colonel Lovell and the former towboat General F.arl Van Dorn were armed with a single smoothbore gun, mounted on their forecastles. The armament of the M. Jeff Thompson was most probably a single bow gun, and the Little Rebel (formerly the Pennsylvania screw steamer R. <±f f. Watson) carried three 12-pounder rifles.

The Confederate cottonclad ram Stonewall Jackson as she looked before the Battle of New Orleans. A wall of cotton bales protected her, reaching from her keel to above the top of her superstructure.

The cottonclad ram CSS General Sterling Price was one of the Confederate River Defense Fleet which fought at Plum Point and Memphis in 1862. Although she was sunk in the Battle of Memphis in June 1862, she was raised, repaired, and operated by the US Navy as the gunboat USS General Price. This photograph was taken when she was in Union service.

Css General Sterling Price
The CSS General Bragg was the largest vessel in the Confederate River Defense Fleet. Although she was sunk at the Battle of Memphis, she was raised and served against her former owners. In this photograph taken in Mound City, Illinois, she is being repaired before entering Union service. (US Navy)

With their varied armament these vessels were little match for the Union river ironclads which opposed them, but they were fast, capable of speeds of 8-10 knots, and they were fitted with crude rams. Apart from the modifications to their bows and the addition of ordnance, they were further protected by the creation of extra bulkheads around their machinery and gundecks, and cotton was compressed into ihe space between the sides of the superstructure and a false inner bulkhead (like a wood and cotton sandwich) creating a basic form of cottonclad protection. Additional bales were probably stacked around their exposed guns and around their pilot houses.

Following the destruction of the Confederate gunboat flotillas at New Orleans and Memphis, only one other wooden Confederate gunboat caused serious problems for the Union. In January 1863, Colonel W.S. Lovell, the creator of the ram fleet was sent to Alexandria, Louisiana, to convert ihe riverboat Webb into a warship. This wooden sidewheeler had been built in New York in 1856, and was being converted into a privateer in New Orleans when the city fell lo the Union. The Webbescaped to the Red River. Lovell gave her a ram bow, and placed a 130-pourider James rifle on her forecastle. She was also equipped with two 12-pounder howitzers, as anti-personnel weapons. Cotton bales were stacked around her machinery, so that only her beam engine remained unprotected. The CSS Webb performed well in an engagement with the ironclad USS lndianoUi, and ended her career in a dramatic charge down the Mississippi in the last days of die war.

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