Excerpts from the account of Thomas O. Selfridge, Captain, U.S.N,
"Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. IV"
(This piece was transcribed from the original by Xan, a valued member of The Civil War Forum chat room)
The Confederates, being relieved by the falling back of the army, were now free to attack us at any point of the river. There were but half-a-dozen gun-boats to defend the long line, two of which were light-draughts, known as "tin-clads", from the lightness of their defensive armor, which was only bullet-proof. The river was falling; its narrowness and its high banks afforded the best possible opportunities for harassing attacks, and the bends of the river were so short that it was with the greatest difficulty they were rounded by vessels of the Osage type. Steaming with the current, the Osage was almost unmanageable, and on the morning of April 12th the transport Black Hawk [not to be confounded with the naval steamer of the same name, which remained at Alexandria] was lashed to her starboard quarter, and thus the descent was successfully made till about 2 p.m., when the Osage ran hard aground opposite Blair's Plantation, or Pleasant Hill Landing, the bows downstream and the starboard broadside bearing on the right bank.While endeavoring to float her, the pilot of the Black Hawk reported a large force gathering in the woods some three miles off dressed in Federal uniforms. I ascended to the pilot-house, and scanning them carefully made sure they were Confederates, and at the same time directed Lt. Bache of the Lexington to go below and open an enfilading fire upon them. Every preparation being made, the attack was quietly awaited. The battery unlimbered near the Lexington but a caisson being blown up they quickly withdrew. The enemy came up in column of regiments and, protected by the high and almost perpendicular banks, opened a terrific musketry fire, and at a distance not exceeding one hundred yards. Shellfiring under the circumstances was almost useless. The great guns of the Osage were loaded with grape and canister and, when these were exhausted, with shrapnel having fuses cut to one second. Our fire was reserved til the heads of the enemy were seen just above the bank, when both guns were fired. Everything that was made of wood on the Osage and Black Hawk was pierced with bullets. Upon the iron shield in the pilot-house of the latter were the marks of sixty bullets, a proof of the hotness of the fire.
This unequal contest could not continue long, and after an hour and a half the enemy retreated with a loss of over four hundred killed and wounded, as afterward ascertained. Among the former was General Thomas Green, their foremost partisan fighter west of the Mississippi. [Of this action Admiral Porter, in his "Naval History of the Civil War", writes as follows: "Selfridge conducted this affair in the handsomest manner, inflicting such a punishment on the enemy that their infantry gave no more trouble, having come to the conclusion that fighting with muskets against iron-clads did not pay."] The Osage sustained a loss of seven wounded. Company A of the 90th Illinois were on board and behaved most gallantly.
The Confederates did not again molest the fleet until the 25th of April, when they attacked Admiral Porter in the light-draught gun-boat Cricket At this late period the low condition of the river had forced him to send the Osage and Neosho down the river, or the rebels would have suffered as severely as at Blair's Plantation.
The 15th of April found the squadron with its fleet of transports safe back at Grand Encore, not much the worse for their encounters with the enemy and the snags and sand bars of the river. Admiral Porter was called to Alexandria by the affairs of the Mississippi squadron, leaving the Osage and Lexington at Grand Encore. The larger iron-clads had with great difficulty been forced over the bar below Grand Encore and sent on toward Alexandria, whither the Osage and Lexington followed them.
The Eastport (Lt.Cmdr. Phelps), the largest of our iron-clads which had joined the squadron for the first time on this expedition, unfortunately struck a torpedo eight miles below Grand Encore, and her bottom was so badly injured that she sank. Captain Phelps was very proud of his ship, and went to work with a will to save her. After the most untiring efforts he succeeded in bulkheading the leak, and, assisted by two steam-pump boats which the admiral had brought to his assistance, succeeded in getting her some forty miles down the river. Here she grounded again, but after strenuous efforts, assisted by the admiral who remained behind, she was floated, but after proceeding a few miles again grounded on a pile of snags. From the 21st to the 25th of April Captain Phelps, one of the bravest and most competent commanders in the squadron, had worked day and night with is officers and crew to save his ship, but the retreat of the army had left the banks of the river unprotected and the low stage of water had compelled the admiral to send his squadron to Alexandria. There was no longer a chance to save the Eastport, and he reluctantly gave the order to blow her up. Hardly had this been done when the little squadron was attacked by a large force of infantry, which was quickly driven off. It was evident that serious work was ahead. The squadron now consisted of the light-draught gun-boats Cricket (flag-ship), Juliet, and Fort Hudson. They had proceeded some twenty miles when the enemy opened upon them with twenty pieces of artillery. Nineteen shells went crashing through the Cricket, and during the five minutes she was under fire she was struck thirty-eight times and lost twelve killed and nineteen wounded out of a crew of fifty, one-third of whom were negroes. The escape of the Cricket was almost miraculous, and was largely owing to the coolness and skill of the admiral [When the pilot was wounded, Admiral Porter piloted the vessel himself. See Mahan's "The Gulf and Inland Waters, p. 201-Editors, B&L]
The remainder of the squadron turned up stream, except for the two pump-boats Champion No. 3 and No. 5, which being unarmed were destroyed. Captain Phelps concluded to wait till the next day to run the batteries, which was successfully accomplished under a heavy fire, the Juliet sustaining a loss of 15 killed and wounded, and the Fort Hindman. [The destruction of the Eastport and the action of the Cricket occurred on the 26th. While the Cricket was running the gauntlet of the Confederate position, the pump-boat Champion No. 3 received a shot in her boiler, causing it to explode. The captain, Stewart, three engineers, and all the crew, composed of some 200 negroes, were scalded to death, with the exception of 15]
April 27 found the fleet once more assembled at Alexandria. For a less authoritative but reasonably entertaining version of what happened next, see "Rough Ride on the Red River" by your humble transcriptionist.
During all this hazardous and harassing return from Springfield Landing there had been no instance in which the navy had withheld support from the army when called upon; of which there is no better proof than that every transport returned safely, though be delaying the return to the last possible moment the safety of the fleet was jeopardized, and the Eastport and the two pump-boats were lost.
Twelve of the squadron were now assembled above the falls, the rocks of which were bare, while the channel between them was hardly twenty feet wide, and three feet deep. No spring rise had come, and General Banks with the army was anxious to leave Alexandria and the region where no laurels had been gained. At this critical moment Lt. Col. Joseph Bailey, chief engineer of the 19th Army Corps, came forward with the proposition to construct a dam at the falls. While the work was in progress, the side armor was stripped from the larger iron-clads, taken up the river after night-fall, and dropped in a deep hole, while the lighter guns, 32-pounders, some dozen altogether, were put ashore.
The current was now rushing through the gap in the dam at the rate of 9 miles per hour, and yet upon the falls there lacked a foot of water to float the larger boats. To close the gate, two strong loaded coal-barges were shipped into it, secured by lines from the banks. [Note: he means the sides of the river. They did not tie the boats to the General.] After all but the largest vessels had descended safely over the falls, it seemed assured that the morning would show enough water to float the whole squadron over. But during the night the lines parted, and the barges were swept away and struck a ledge of rocks below the dam and bilged. What then seemed a great misfortune, however, proved our salvation, for the Lexington, the first gun-boat to go through, though carried against this very ledge and striking the sides of the barges, caromed off down stream when, but for them, she would doubtless have been sunk, most seriously obstructing the channel against the passage of the others. Col. Bailey, as a next resource, proceeded to construct below the upper falls wing dams from each bank, by which a further rise of a few inches was obtained. Hawsers were run out from the gun-boats to the shore, and these manned by a brigade, and the united force of three thousand men, enlivened with a band of music, dragged them over the bottom till they floated in the deeper water below, and both the army and navy breathed more freely in this rescue of the squadron upon seeing them anchored in the stream below Alexandria. On the morning of May 13, I was dispatched to the upper falls to destroy the 32-pounders left behind, the army having already begun its march for the Mississippi. Just as the last one was blown to pieces, a rebel cavalry regiment galloped down the road and fired a volley which happily did no damage, and before it could be repeated the swift current had carried the boat our of their range. During the building of the dam a gallant but disastrous action took place between the small light-draught gun-boats Signal (Acting Master Morgan) and Covington (Acting Volunteer Lt. Lord) at Dunn's Bayou, below Alexandria, while convoying the Warner, a quartermaster's boat, down the river. The rebels, having passed round the rear of our forces at Alexandria with six thousand men and 25 pieces of artillery, established themselves on the river and opened on the Warner when she came in sight. The gun-boats rounded to immediately and opened the fight, but the fire was so severe that the steam-pipes were cut and the boilers perforated. Though virtually disabled, they continued this unequal contest for five hours, when Lt. Lord landed his crew and set fire to his vessel. The Signal had too many wounded to permit her commander to pursue a like course, and she fell into the hands of the enemy, who, after removing the guns, sunk her in the river as an obstruction.
Of this action, Admiral Porter writes: "The brave men in their light vessels, only musket-proof, defended them for four or five hours, and many of the actions heralded to the world during the late war were much less worthy of notice than this contest between two little gun-boats and twenty pieces of artillery, most of which had been captured from the army at Pleasant Hill (meaning Sabine Cross-Roads.)
On the 21st of May the squadron and transports reached the Mississippi. And thus ended the Red River expedition, one of the most humiliating and disastrous that had to be recorded during the war. The vessels lost were the Eastport, sunk by a torpedo; the two pump-boats Champion No 3 and No. 5, and the small gun-boats Covington and Signal. The total casualties of the Navy in killed, wounded and missing were about 120, exclusive of the crews of the pump-boats, which lost upward of 200.
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