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The Gunboat Essex

By C. E. Lester
Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, February 1863 

Among the strange and startling incidents which will hereafter clothe this war with the lights and shadows of romance, the gallant little Essex and her achievements in the Western waters will always find a prominent place. A certain curious feeling is inspired by the name of a ship that has “done and suffered great things,” different from the feeling with which we look on or read about any other work of human hands. Every timber in “the old Constitution” was sacred. Each plank in her oak-ribbed sides uttered a voice which has come down to us from the far-off waves, and which will be transmitted to the latest hour of time. When Nelson fell upon the deck of the Victory, that proud palace of the British Navy became a shrine where valor could worship forever. The Monitor, the Cumberland, and the Essex have already taken their places in history. The career of the Essex, however, being far less familiar to most readers, we shall offer some account of her deeds, and the heroic conduct of her commander and crew.

The name of Porter has for sixty years been known wherever the ensign of the republic has floated. Nearly every vessel in our older fleets has felt the tread of a Porter on her deck. Commodore William D. Porter[1] had been in the naval service of the United States thirty-eight years when the rebellion broke out. Born in New Orleans—a son of Commodore David Porter—educated and domiciled in Pennsylvania, and ever after rocked on the sea, he was (September 27, 1861) ordered to the Western Department, to take command of the gunboat Essex, under Commodore Foote, to operate on the Mississippi.[2]

When the Essex was bought by the government she was a St. Louis ferry-boat, plying on the river of that city.[3] How she was made into a gun-boat, capable of such enormous power of resistance and attack, will best appear from Commodore Porter’s own words, which are sufficiently amusing. He says:

The commander-in-chief (flag officer A. H. Foote) gave me only eighteen days to get her together. So in that time I had her off the docks, and in three days was steaming down the Mississippi River. Of course there was much to be done in that time, and no place to do it. I therefore set up on my own hook; seized three large coal scows, and converted them into a locomotive navy yard. Of one I made a blacksmith’s shop and iron-working establishment in  general. Another is my boat shed and carpenter’s establishment; and another my coal depot. When I move upstream I tow them all with me; if down stream, they follow. I sometimes go into action fighting at one end, while carpenters, caulkers, blacksmiths, and painters are working at the other. You see, therefore, that the Essex has been built about in spots. I have my crew divided off into gangs—wood-choppers, coalmen, carpenters, caulkers, etc.—and we are a perfect workshop in ourselves.[4]


As the Essex was originally built her tonnage was, and still is, about 500 tons.[5] She fought the first naval battle on the Mississippi at Lucas’s Bend,[6] in which she whipped three of the hostile gun-boats that were on their way to attack Cairo, and drove them under the batteries of Columbus, with considerable damage. Her bow alone was iron-clad at that time, but all hands on board were making the spiteful little craft stronger every hour; and she acted all through her perilous crusade as if conscious that she carried officers and men worthy to sail her.

Her armament, though not large, was powerful and admirably chosen. She had three 9-inch Dahlgren shell guns, on 10-inch ditto, two 50-pound rifled Dahlgrens, one long 32-pounder, and one 24-pound boat howitzer. Her management, however, added a hundred-fold to her strength when she started down the river; and there was a cool but desperate determination on the part of the officers and men that she should sweep the Mississippi to New Orleans, or send her last plank floating into the Gulf.

Having driven Miller, the commander of the rebel gun-boat Grampus, back at least half a dozen times, Porter—who likes fair play and an open field—sent him a challenge to come out and meet him. The challenge was accepted, on paper; but the Confederate commander took good care not to make his appearance; and the Essex went to Paducah, whence she steamed up the Tennessee, on the 3d of February, upon the memorable expedition against Fort Henry, accompanied by the gun-boats Saint Louis and. The Essex opened fire on the fort at a distance of a mile and a half, which was returned heavily; a 24-pound rifled cannon was brought to bear on the Essex, which held herself steady at her working post. The first rifled shot struck close; the second grazed the ship; the third went straight through Porter’s cabin, on the poop-deck. Warm work was coming. Meantime the Carondelet had transferred the troops from Pine Bluffs to the shore of the river, where the fleet lay. It was a moment for counsel and vigorous preparation.

It was a splendid night, and our camp-fires were all burning, for there was no necessity for concealment or ruse de guerre now. For more than a mile each little fire blazed out on the cool night sky, all illuminated by the moon-tide of silver light pouring its waves over camps of friend and foe alike, and tingeing the lines of our gun-boat fleet.

Orders had been received from flag-officer Foote to be ready for action on the morning of the 6th. At the time appointed, and 1000 yards from the fort, Foote’s flag-ship, the Cincinnati, with the Essex by her side, opened fire simultaneously, planting their shot and shell with splendid precision. The engagement had been carried on for about half an hour, the Essex having dismounted five of the enemy’s guns during that time, and continued her advance slowly toward the fort—to which her close proximity, although the post of honor, proved also the post of danger—when a round 32-pounder shot from the fort entered her bow-port, passed intone of her boilers, scalding, by the sudden escapement of steam, Porter and thirty-two of his brave men.[7]

Porter was blown senseless on the deck, and remained utterly unconscious until, in falling out one of the ports, some of the crew picked him up. Many even of the scalded men in a few minutes returned to their guns, and, with flesh actually dropping and peeling from their limbs, continued the action until the fort surrendered. One poor fellow, dreadfully scalded, who had continued at his post, on hearing of the surrender, ran on the deck, cheered, and fell dead: excitement had stimulated until victory was won. The action was hot, though it lasted but an hour, during which period, notwithstanding the destruction of her boiler and consequent temporary confusion, the Essex had fired seventy-five rounds from two forward 9-inch guns alone.

The next day the Essex dropped down the Tennessee and the Ohio Rivers to Cairo, carrying the news of the victory. On arrival there the steamer John Ives came alongside and took away the brave fellows who had died or become disabled on the vessel. In passing the fleet at Cairo all flags were at half-mast. On the 15th flag-officer Foote came to Cairo from the Fort Donelson victory: He was, he thought, only slightly wounded in the foot; but that gallant officer knew little what he was to suffer in consequence of that slight wound, much less how deeply he was to have the cup of domestic bereavement pressed to his lips.

Now came also a weary period of suffering for the gallant commander of the Essex. Porter’s wounds were far more severe than was at first anticipated. For weeks he was deprived of sight, and at one period fears were entertained that the loss would be permanent. Kindness, care, and the devoted attention of valued friends, added to a good constitution, eventually triumphed; and health and strength were again restored to enable him more earnestly than ever to devote himself to his country in her time of trial.

The Essex, up to this period, had been only a partially iron-clad boat. The damage sustained at Fort Henry had been serious, and required extensive repair; and for that purpose she was ordered to St. Louis, Porter, although blind, remaining on her, desirous, though unable to see, yet to mentally direct her being prepared for a grander and harder struggle. Her reconstruction, it may be called, was ably and energetically carried on by that gallant and competent officer, Mr. R. K. Riley, at that time executive officer of the Essex.[8]

Though unable, in consequence of wounds received himself, and repairs necessary for his vessel, to participate in the naval operations on the Mississippi through the months of March, April, May, and June, 1862, yet, during this period, Porter’s active mind could not be kept passive. Besides the thoughtful supervision necessary for the reconstruction of the Essex, he designed and commenced building for the War Department, two gun-boats, the Fort Henry and Choctaw, which, had his original designs been followed after his leaving St. Louis, would unquestionably have proved the most formidable vessels on the Western waters. Much is it to be regretted that any deviation from his plans should have been allowed, as from the peculiarity of their intended construction, and defensive as offensive power, those ships would be more effective to open the navigation of the Mississippi than the balance of our iron-clad navy on that river.

On the 27th June the Essex was considered ready for service, and made her trial trip, which was perfectly satisfactory. True it was that minor details were required for defense, but Vicksburg was then being attacked by Admiral Farragut’s fleet, assisted by D. D. Porter’s mortar fleet below, as well as Commodore Davis’s vessels above that city, and Porter was impatient to share in the enterprise, and test the power of his almost newly-built vessel.

The Essex is certainly far too squatty and broad for beauty. Her casemates are higher than those of any other gun-boat on the Western waters, and her hull is entirely buried in the water. Her wheels are set in a recess at the stern, and on the front part of her chimneys, near the top, are the letters S.X., one letter on each. The pilot-house is very low, conical in shape, and admirably protected. Since her engagement at Fort Henry she has been lengthened to forty feet, had her boilers and machinery placed below water-line, and her casemates raised from 6½ to 17½ feet in height. She received entirely new boilers, and was generally reconstructed. Altogether her cost to the government amounted to $91,000, which is considerably less than that of any other gun-boat built in the West. The armament on the boat is as follows: Three 9-inch Dahlgren guns, one 10-inch Dahlgren shell gun, two 50-pound rifled Dahlgren guns, one long 32-pounder, and one 24-pound howitzer. Her forward casemate is of wood, 30 inches thick, plated with India-rubber one inch thick and ¾ inch iron. The roof is bomb-proof. The pilot-house is of wood, 18 inches thick, plated with one inch India-rubber, and 1¾ inches iron. With false sides, no steam ram could attack her effectively. She has 42 water-tight compartments, which would render her proof against sinking. She is 205 feet in length, and 60 feet in width. Her hold is 5½ feet in depth, and draws 6½ feet of water. She is provided with two engines, with cylinders 23 inches in diameter, with 6 feet stroke. She has three boilers, 26 feet long and 42 inches in diameter, working two wheels 26 feet in diameter and 8 feet bucket, and has excellent and extensive accommodations for the comfort of officers and crew. The following is a list of officers, with and according to rank:

Captain W. D. Porter, Commander
Robert R. K. Riley, First Master and Executive Officer
D. P. Rosenmiller, J. Harry Wyatt, Matt.  Snyder, Spenser Kellogg, Acting Masters
Jos. H. Lewis, Paymaster
Thomas Rice, Surgeon
Joseph Heep, Chief Engineer
J. Wetzell, Second Assistant Engineer
Thomas Fletcher, Third Assistant Engineer
C. W. Long, Gunner
J. H. Mammon, E. H. Eagle, Boatswain’s Mates
Thomas Steele, Carpenter
Officers and crew number 146, all told.

Orders were received in St. Louis on the 5th July for the Essex to join the fleet under Commodore Davis above Vicksburg, and on the 6th she left the wharf of that city, arriving at Cairo on the 7th, and immediately commenced taking in her ammunition and stores, which having completed on the 9th, she on the evening of that day left, and, steaming down the Mississippi, arrived at the anchorage ground of Davis’s fleet, above Vicksburg, on the 13th July. Unfortunately, on her passage down the river, her port boiler burned out, and fires had to be extinguished for repairs.

Our Union forces were found to be on the alert to learn the whereabouts of the Confederate ram Arkansas, which had caused some degree of anxiety, for it was well known that all that skill or money could command had been exhausted in building and fitting out the most powerful and destructive naval vessel that had ever been launched. When Memphis fell into our hands it was ascertained that she had, a few days previously, been towed down the Mississippi, and, as was supposed, to the Yazoo River, which, though narrow, is a deep stream, and admirably fitted for the security of boats, where also means for her completion by the enemy were readily accessible.

The Yazoo runs into the Mississippi River from the east a few miles above the city of Vicksburg; and it was between the mouth of this river and Vicksburg that our iron-clad Western squadron, including Colonel Ellet’s steam-rams, lay at anchor; several of Admiral Farragut’s ships, that had passed the forts some time previously from New Orleans, also were anchored there.

On the evening of the 14th, accompanied by one of his officers, Porter went ashore on the point immediately opposite Vicksburg, to reconnoiter the batteries of that city. On his reconnaissance he took two enemy prisoners, who gave intimation that the ram was up the Yazoo, and intended her advent to the Mississippi on the morrow. These prisoners were sent to the Commander of the squadron on board the flag-ship Benton. This information confirmed the Commander-in-chief in the previous supposition that the ram lay up the Yazoo, and induced him, at dawn on the 15th, to send the gun-boats Tyler and Carondelet up that river to reconnoiter. At about 7a.m. heavy firing was heard in that direction, and half an hour after the Tyler hove in sight, followed closely by the Arkansas. The Carondelet had grounded and been disabled by the enemy up the Yazoo. The Arkansas continued her way through the fleet, very deliberately firing her guns, moving at moderate speed, and apparently impregnable to the fire of the guns from the Federal ships. She especially selected for her fire one of Colonel Ellet’s vessels—the ram Lancaster—which in a few minutes she disabled by the explosion of the boiler. The flag-ship Benton did not escape; and heavy damage was received by several ships in the fleet. The Tyler and Carondelet were severely crippled, and obliged to return to Cairo for repairs. The ram had passed unscathed the broadsides of Farragut’s fleet and the fire of over twenty vessels. Shot and shell struck her, but they fell as harmless from her sides and deck as hail from the walls of a fortress. She politely sent some rifled shot at the Essex, but with little effect, which compliment was a courteously returned by a 32-pound steel plug, which struck her stack, and a 10-inch shell, which exploded on her quarter, with some damage, it was supposed. But the Essex could not follow, her boiler being under repair, which prevented getting up steam.

An attack was made on the Arkansas on the evening of the same day by the combined fleets under admiral Farragut and Commodore Davis, the ships belonging to the fleet from New Orleans which had previously passed Vicksburg repassing the enemy’s forts to their anchorage below that city, where lay the remaining portion of it, with Commander D. D. Porter’s mortar-boats.

Desultory attacks were kept up from day to day on the enemy’s defenses at Vicksburg by our fleets, as also the mortars above and below the city, but without apparent effect, the enemy’s strength in battery increasing rather than diminishing. The Arkansas during this period lay alongside the wharf, either repairing or adding to her defenses, and taking in munitions and stores.

On the 21st July, in consultation with Flag-officers Farragut and Davis, Porter offered to attack the Arkansas at close quarters as she lay under the batteries at Vicksburg. The proposition was acceded to, with the understanding that Commodore Davis’s fleet was to attack the upper and Admiral Farragut’s fleet the lower forts, to take from the Essex the otherwise too heavy fire of the enemy, if concentrated on her alone.

Accordingly, the next morning, the 22nd, at 4 o’clock, Porter lifted anchor and steamed slowly down the river, passing Davis’s fleet, which had previously weighed, before rounding the point above Vicksburg. Turning the bend of the river which this point creates, he came within range of the enemy’s upper batteries, which immediately opened on the Essex at about 1200 yards, pouring on her a fire which in ten minutes would have sunk any other gun-boat on the Western waters.

The moment had now arrived when the little Essex must sink or swim, and she had but a short time to have her fate decided. While shot and shell were striking, glancing, and exploding over her she steamed right up toward the water-batteries on the Mississippi shore, under which the Arkansas lay moored, reserving the fire of her own guns for still closer quarters.

To the spectator her approach toward her antagonist must have appeared fearful and desperate. Battery after battery opened on her as she advanced and made straight for the Arkansas, upon whom she opened her forward battery of 9-inch guns, at about 10 yards distance, the fire of which until then had been reserved, and attempted to run her down; but just at that moment the Arkansas let go her bow line, and the river current drifting her stem on, the Essex only grazed her side, and running with considerable force into the river-bank her engines stopped.

For several minutes she sustained in this position, a terrific fire from the water-batteries, mounting heavy siege guns. Several pieces of field artillery were also lending their aid to sink the ship that had the temerity to attack so closely. The Essex, however, now floated just where her fire would do execution, and for some time it was a duel of interest such as few have ever witnessed. The fire of the enemy’s shore-batteries slackened, so close were the two vessels together—the Arkansas with her 68-pounder rifles, the Essex with her 9-inch smooth-bore. Within six yards of the ram the Essex got her 9-inch battery to bear on her antagonist, and almost simultaneously was the fire of those guns delivered, raking her enemy and forcing up her iron plating as if it had been only so much pine lumber. Above the deafening roar of the guns a yell of distress from the crew of the Confederate ship told the anguish and confusion which the fire of the Essex had caused.

Dropping down with the current she again became exposed to the concentrated cannonades of the enemy’s forts, both upper and lower—water and bluff batteries. Field artillery added their force to the attack, and musketry missiles were literally poured on the devoted ship. For some time she sustained this terrific fire, expecting the fleets both above and below to engage the forts. The smoke prevented seeing whether assistance was near or not; and as to hearing, that was out of the question. Presuming, however, from the concentrated fire on his ship, that as yet the fleets had not arrived, Porter drifted down the river, hugging the Mississippi shore to avoid the fire of the bluff batteries, which could not then depress their guns in angle to bear on the brave cruiser of the Father of Waters. It was thus ascertained that the ships below had not moved from their anchorage, and that the upper fleet was not in sight.

To remain unassisted under the fire of those batteries would have been suicidal, and after waiting as long as prudence would allow, Porter determined to run the gauntlet of the lower forts, although this act compelled his ship to exposure for over two miles from the enemy’s fire. Reluctantly indeed was the order given to steam down stream while our daring enemy the Arkansas remained above water. But there was no help for it. The Arkansas was a far superior vessel, and, besides, he had to contend with over 100 siege guns that could and were then playing on his ship.  He had then been over an hour under fire from not less than 120 guns of heavy caliber, which were belching forth on the gallant Essex every conceivable missile known in the art of modern warfare, either by land or sea. Yet she bore it bravely. The lower forts were successively encountered, and though fearfully battered the Essex passed down the river safely. Arriving at the anchorage ground of the lower fleet, shouts of congratulation arose from the various crews of the ships lying there to welcome the dashing steamer which had run the blockade. They appreciated, for they were eye-witnesses of the desperate struggle although distant.

But the Essex had yet her chief work to do. The plan was for the fleet below and the fleet above to assail the Vicksburg forts while Porter with his Essex was to grapple with the ram; but for reasons not explained this was not done, and the Essex had to shirk for herself.

So completely had Porter fitted his craft for her hard work that, with only two exceptions, no projectile leveled at her did material damage. One, a shell, exploded in her side, tearing away her timbers, killing one and wounding several of her crew; while the other, a rifled cannon conical shot of 68 pounds, struck the port-quarter aft, penetrating and passing through her iron casing, the executive officer’s cabin, where it demolished everything, the ward-room, and wheel-house, and finally lodged in the starboard side under the iron plating. The wheel-house and smoke stacks were riddled with grape-shot, and shell explosions and indentations of cannon-shot of every caliber were visible on the iron plating all over the vessel.

Vicksburg at this time was occupied by 16,000 Confederates under Van Dorn, and had over 100 siege guns in battery, commanding the river for more than three miles. In fact, defenses had daily increased during the whole time of bombardment, notwithstanding the heavy fire constantly kept up on the city from upper and lower fleet and the mortars. At the end of May, the time of the first attack by the Federal forces, the enemy had not twenty siege guns in position. In fact, on the approach of Farragut’s ships the town was abandoned by its inhabitants, and the military authorities were on the point of surrendering the city, and would have done so, had a demand to that effect been made. The occupation of Vicksburg at that time would have secured the uninterrupted Federal navigation of the Mississippi, and one of the main objects of this fearful war would have been accomplished. Now the prevailing sickness (malarial fever) had so prostrated our troops under General Williams that there remained scarcely one-third of the original number of the expedition that could be relied on for duty—a force totally inadequate to storm, or even hold the place if taken by the naval forces. Hence it was determined to raise the siege; and on the 23rd and 24th the land forces of this abortive expedition embarked and left for Baton Rouge; and Admiral Farragut’s fleet for New Orleans.

Porter, separated from the upper fleet to which the Essex belonged, she being the only vessel of that squadron save the Sumter, a two-gun iron-clad steamer, below Vicksburg, hearing of the intended abandonment of the object of the expedition on the 23rd, wrote Commodore Davis, and in reply thereto received on the 24th orders to the effect, that as all communication with him was cut off, to cruise between Vicksburg and Baton Rouge, giving discretionary power to extend the cruising ground to New Orleans, provided necessary supplies could not be obtained at the latter place; and to make that city his head-quarters. On the evening of the same day, General Williams’s forces having all embarked, the transports proceeded down the Mississippi, followed by the mortar fleet and Admiral Farragut’s war ships; the Essex by desire bringing up and guarding the rear against the anticipated attack from the Arkansas, at about four miles’ distant. This plan was carried out until the arrival off Baton Rouge on the 26th July.

Some little time was now used for getting the battered ship ready for her grand business—to meet the Arkansas and “sink something.”

On the 5th of August, at half past 3a.m., the Essex, from her anchorage above the arsenal, heard firing in the direction of the outposts of our army at Baton Rouge. At six o’clock on the same morning an aid-de-camp from the commanding officer hailed the Essex, reporting General Williams killed, and our left wing falling back on the town, unable to hold the ground, and begging Porter to open his large guns on the advancing enemy, who already occupied the cemetery attached to the Penitentiary at the head of the town, with some of the buildings. Porter’s guns opened in a few minutes, and the enemy’s position was, by half past 10 o’clock, rendered untenable, and he retreated just as he was on the point of laying Baton Rouge in ashes. But while the Essex was thus closing this little but memorable action a heavy column of smoke up the river gave Porter notice of the approach of his old antagonist. The ram was coming down to “sink the Essex” and “blow the Yankees out of New Orleans.”

On the night of the 5th the Essex kept a bright look-out. Breckenridge had demanded the surrender of Baton Rouge at 6 o’clock, and although the ram had not yet come in sight she was doubtless awaiting the result of that demand before coming nearer.

About daylight, the ram not having come in sight, Porter determined to find her. He started his vessel up the river at 8 o’clock a.m. Rounding Nigger Point an hour and a half after, and when within a short distance of her, the ram opened with her heaviest guns. The shot just cleared the Essex aft. Porter steamed up a quarter of a mile further, when he opened his 9-inch bow guns. After about ten minutes’ fire a shell from the Essex entered her after-starboard port, and another shot struck her rudder and disabled her maneuvering power. The Essex, wanting closer work, steamed up, firing rapidly from her bow-guns till within a quarter of a mile, when every shot struck with dead certainty. Suddenly the ram made for the shore. As the smoke of the Essex cleared away Porter saw that the terrible Arkansas was on fire, and on reaching shoal water her crew were escaping for their lives. Porter’s shells were too well aimed, they were irresistible—they had put the vessel into an inextinguishable blaze. The desperate crew—all picked men from the desperate cohorts of the Southern Confederacy—could not put that fire out, and they worked at it till the last moment with the energy of despair. But the flames would not be quenched. The most daring lingered on the deck, or around the sides of the splendid stronghold crusader of the Confederacy of the South, till they had to plunge into the water to escape the fiery vengeance of a swifter and more terrible destruction.

The abandoned floating castle of secession, upon which all the wealth and genius of modern naval warfare had been exhausted, slowly swung from her mud anchorage and drifted out into that irresistible tide which gathers its tributes of a million streams from the frozen and temperate zones, to empty them into the torrid bosom of the grand continental gulf. No living soul was on her iron-clad deck—no heart, even in dying, palpitated inside of her iron walls. Down on the bosom of that continent-piercing river the dark form of the rebel ram Arkansas floated as helpless as a child. as she lit up her desperate passage to destruction the officers and crew of the sturdy and victorious Essex counted numerous shot-holes in her. About four miles above Baton Rouge the fire, kindled by the shells of the Essex, reached her magazine of 18,000 pounds of powder, and she blew up with an explosion which sent the news of her destruction far and wide over the great Valley of the Mississippi. The Essex turned downstream and sailed over her wreck. Such was the fate of the ill-starred Arkansas.[9]

Baton Rouge with its army of occupation was safe, ad New Orleans breathed freely again. All glory to the Essex and her brave crew and commander!

There has been much misapprehension as to this naval duel. Reports were circulated that the whole Federal fleet off Baton Rouge attacked the Arkansas. This was not so. On the morning of the 6th August Breckinridge with 15,000 Confederates were about five miles from that city, ready to attack our land, on the Arkansas engaging the naval force, which she was well able to cope with from her vast superiority over the Federal ships. The fleet off the city consisted of the Essex, Cayuga, Kineo, Katahdin, and Sumter; the Cayuga was ordered, by Porter, to assist in the attack and keep close up, which she complied with until the Arkansas opened fire on the Essex, immediately on which she put her helm up and ran back, leaving the Essex alone. The Kineo and Katahdin, wooden gun-boats, had been left at Baton Rouge by Admiral Farragut on account of the machinery of these vessels being unfit for sea service; for this reason they could not be relied on to attack an iron-clad ship like the Arkansas, even if their absence from before Baton Rouge could have been allowed. They were more vulnerable off that city as stationary batteries, and, with the Sumter, were left to act in concert with our army in repelling the force under Breckinridge which had so nearly defeated our troops the day previously.

It is worthy of remark that Porter had previously urged on the General commanding at Baton Rouge, as also the Department of the Gulf, the necessity of immediate fortification of that city, as also the probability of a near attack; his representations, however, were not considered, and the very idea of Confederate attack on our forces ignored. This attack had convinced the military authorities, however, of the truth of Porter’s suggestion, and, though late, the proposed fortifications were commenced to protect the city and entrench our land forces.

The Essex having received necessary repairs and taken on board the stores she could obtain at Baton Rouge, she steamed up the river, on the 9th August, to procure coal at Bayou Sara—a town on the Mississippi about thirty miles above—arriving off that place on the morning of the 10th. The presence of the Essex caused some commotion among the inhabitants, as considerable supplies of subsistence stores, just brought across the river from West Louisiana, were on the levee awaiting transportation to the Confederate forces in the interior under Generals Ruggles and Breckinridge. This town is a terminus of a railroad running from the State of Mississippi and Northeastern Louisiana, and prior to the war carried on a very important trade with the interior. The Mayor was sent for, who came on board, and an arrangement was made that personal safety of the inhabitants should be guaranteed and personal property respected as long as there was reciprocity toward Federals observed; that coal laying at the wharf at the Bayou must be supplied to the Essex, being contraband of war and not private property; and the immediate delivery to the Essex of all Federal prisoners held by the municipal authorities. It had been ascertained that some Union men had been imprisoned in the town who were demanded, and an officer being sent on shore they were delivered to him and taken on board the Essex. Coal, as contraband of war, was taken possession of by Porter, and notice given the Mayor that he would be held responsible if its destruction were allowed. The Essex remained off this town until the 14th, when she was joined by the Sumter, United States steam-ram, and on the 15th the Essex returned to Baton Rouge.

The gun-boat Sumter was left anchored off the town of Bayou Sara to protect the captured stores, for which as yet transportation could not be secured. This protection was necessary, as there were indications of desire on the part of the municipal authorities to break the amicable arrangement made with the Mayor. Threats against the lives of Union men had been made, which led to Porter’s writing strongly, expostulating with them, and insisting on rigid faith being kept. Considerable excitement existed at this time among the inhabitants of towns on the Lower Mississippi, in consequence of outrages constantly being committed by the troops in occupation of Baton Rouge on the Confederate population. Porter’s return to Baton Rouge on the 15th had for its object conference with the commandant of that post, and to enter his protest against the continuance of such irregularities.

The gun-boat Sumter, left at Bayou Sara on the 14th, had unfortunately grounded, and, fearing attack from the enemy, been abandoned by her officers and crew. The Essex hastily returned to that place on the 16th, but too late to prevent the destruction of the Sumter, which had been fired by the citizens. They had also, contrary to agreement, shot at and wounded Union men residing there, and grossly maltreated all politically opposed to them, of whatever sex. The stores also which the Sumter had been left to protect had been destroyed.

Information had been communicated to Porter of the intended abandonment by the Federal troops of the city of Baton Rouge, and also of the intention of the Confederates to fortify Port Hudson, situated about 140 miles above New Orleans. He at once communicated with Colonel Paine, then in command at Baton Rouge, urging him to delay his intended evacuation of that city, as also to the commander at New Orleans, earnestly asking for gun-boats to prevent the erection of batteries at Port Hudson, and enable him to cut off the supplies sent from Texas and the Valley of the Red River to the enemy on the east side of the Mississippi.

Porter again brought the Essex to Baton Rouge to personally urge this request; but notwithstanding his entreaty the evacuation was continued, and no result came in the shape of additional gun-boats, or at the present moment the country would not have the conviction forced on it that there existed on the Mississippi a stronger fort than Vicksburg, which, to give free navigation to that glorious river, can be gained only by fearful sacrifice of life and treasure.. A gun-boat stationed at Port Hudson would have effectually prevented the erection of the present formidable batteries. The same urgent attention was called to this point by Porter, from the navy Department, under date 20th August, 1862, on which day was completed the entire abandonment of Baton Rouge by our troops, leaving that city in undisputed possession of the guerilla bands that infested the whole of the district—enemies alike to Federal or Confederate. Few indeed of the inhabitants of that unfortunate city waited the advent of those pests of humanity, who assert the “black flag” as their flag, and “plunder and murder” for their motto.

The Essex remained off this deserted city until the 23rd August, when, lifting anchor, she steamed up the river to procure coal at Bayou Sara, the only place then known where any could be obtained. But on arrival there it was found that the greater portion of it had been burned, contrary to express stipulation with the Mayor of that town. On the morning of the 24th a boat’s crew was sent ashore to see if any fuel could be saved, as also to ascertain if any of the inhabitants remained—which seemed doubtful from the deserted appearance of the place. Deserted of its peaceful people truly it was, but not so by the ubiquitous guerillas. A heavy musketry fire was poured on the officers and men from the Essex as they advanced toward the center of the town from the buildings which were turned into places of concealment, compelling the boat’s crew to retreat toward the shore under cover of the guns of their vessel which opened on the enemy with shell, and soon led to the abandonment of their position. To avoid repetition of attack the houses on the levee, near which there was fuel, were burned to prevent such being used for cover by the enemy while the Essex’s men were removing the coal. A large number of the enemy had concentrated at Saint Francisville, a suburb of Bayou Sara, who were shelled and dispersed. This place appeared the center of a body of guerillas that constantly sent their bands through the woods, which at this place ran down to the river bank, to fire at any person they could see on the deck of the Essex, keeping the worn-out crew ever anxiously alert.

The Essex steamed downstream on the 26th, and came to anchor off Port Hudson to reconnoiter reported batteries in progress. No effectual reconnaissance could be made, as the small number of men left on board for duty prevented hazarding a force on shore for such a purpose. A company of soldiers to act in that capacity would have proved invaluable. Earth-works were seen which brought on them the fire of the Essex and their consequent destruction. Unfortunately, in cannonading these earth-works the 10-inch pivot gun of the Essex burst. She remained off this port keeping up a desultory fire on the position supposed to have masked batteries, and shelling the woods, until the 28th, when she again returned to Bayou Sara for the small amount of coal left at that place.

At dawn on the morning of the19th an armed boat’s crew was sent to bring off this fuel, when it was again attacked by the guerillas from the Market-house and buildings remaining. The officer in charge returned the attack, drove the enemy out of the Market-house, which he burnt, as well as what buildings were left of the town. The fuel left uninjured was brought on board, and leaving the site of this treacherous town, the Essex weighed anchor and steamed upstream for the mouth of the Red River.

Porter intended going up this tributary of the Mississippi, but was unable to do so, the low stage of water at its mouth preventing the Essex from passing the bar. A boat was sent up, however, a short distance, and information confirmed that large supplies of cattle, salt, cotton, etc., were being constantly brought down for the enemy east of the Mississippi River. Intelligence was also obtained that two transports laden with these commodities, and convoyed by a Confederate gun-boat, had the previous day steamed up for Natchez.

Losing no time, the Essex started in pursuit, and arriving off the city of Natchez anchored on the 1st September. The enemy had anticipated her untiring antagonist, however, for transports and gun-boat had cleared out—without doubt seeking protection under the guns at Vicksburg. Fuel was all but exhausted, but fortunately there was found a good supply at Vidalia, a town situated on the west bank of the Mississippi, immediately opposite Natchez. The Mayor was apprised that, as being contraband of war, the coal would be confiscated for the use of United States vessels. Exception was taken to this confiscation on the ground that it was the property of private individuals; but this could not be proved, and hence not allowed. It was absolutely necessary to have fuel, and sufficient for the wants of the Essex was at once taken possession of.

Having completed coaling by 2p.m. on the 2nd September, prior to leaving Porter sent ashore to procure ice for his sick and wounded men, which were many; and also a letter to be delivered to the Mayor. Up to this time courtesy had existed between the citizens of Natchez and the Federals of the gun-boat. The men sent from the Essex having obtained the ice required, and on the point of returning to their boat, which lay alongside the wharf, were suddenly attacked by over two hundred citizens armed with muskets. One seaman was instantly killed; and the officer in charge, with five seamen, wounded. No provocation had been given, nor had anything occurred to lead to the supposition of intended attack. The outrage was wanton. The wounded crew hastened to their boat, while the Essex opened her guns without delay on the treacherous city, and continued the bombardment for an hour and twenty minutes—a severe retribution, though richly deserved. Throughout this bombardment a heavy musketry fire was kept up by the enemy, which literally swept the decks of the Essex.

Some have condemned the bombardment of this city, on the ground that time was not allowed for the helpless to leave the place; but the responsibility rests with the attacking party. Porter could not see his men murdered and have preventive power in his hands. The attack was evidently premeditated, as was proved by the number of armed men who kept constant fire on his vessel. The Mayor, by raising a flag of truce, could have stopped the fire of the Essex at any moment. If, there, the weaker inhabitants suffered by the bombardment, the odium and cruelty rests on the authorities; and punishment for injuries done should be visited on those whose murderously attacked the boat’s crew of Essex.

During the bombardment of Natchez another misfortune befell the armament of the Essex by the explosion of one of her 9-inch forward guns.

Porter was anxious to push on up the river; so, leaving the arrangement of peace or more extended punishment for Natchez to a future visit, he steamed toward Vicksburg to find, if possible, the supply transports and gun-boat which were supposed to have taken refuge there. The Essex arrived about five miles below that city on the morning of the 5th, and discovered the Confederate vessels lying snugly under the batteries and alongside the wharf. Steaming on toward our old fighting-ground, it was soon found that, since leaving on the 24th July, great additions had been made to that strong-hold. At that part of the river, where, in July, Farragut’s fleet had rested quietly at anchor, two batteries abreast and one to her rear opened on the Essex. The ridge that extends from the southern extremity of Vicksburg, parallel to and distant from the Mississippi about 1000 yards, may be called one continual battery, which will sweep the whole of the river and any ships advancing from the south for over give miles. Though not seen by Porter, yet information received led him to believe the upper or northern defenses were strengthened in equal ratio by our indefatigable enemy.

It had been ascertained that Commodore Davis’s fleet had left the vicinity of Vicksburg, and was then either at Helena or Memphis; and to attempt to run the gauntlet of those forts, up stream, when no friendly fleet was near to assist in the event of being disabled, was thought imprudent. One officer and thirty men were all that could be mustered for duty. For some time previously “contrabands,” left destitute by their masters and taken on board, had been trained to work the guns to take place of a number of crew disabled or prostrated by sickness. The armament of the Essex was weakened by the bursting of two of the heaviest guns, provisions had been exhausted for a week, and a daily forage on shore was requisite for our necessities; added to this was the important fact that ammunition was short.

Under such circumstances Porter determined to exercise the discretionary power given by the commander of the Western flotilla to go to New Orleans to obtain ammunition, ship stores, and have general renovation. He had also left that important point, Port Hudson, for some day, and was desirous of obtaining better knowledge of its reputed strength. After two hours’ desultory fight with the batteries below Vicksburg from her rifled 50-pounders, which scarcity of ammunition prevented liberality with, the Essex was put head down stream, and arrived off Natchez on the morning of the 6th.

A letter was immediately dispatched to the Mayor, calling for the instant surrender of the city. Shortly after, three citizens, appointed by the municipal authorities to treat on the subject, were sent on board, and an arrangement was agreed on to the effect:

1. That the city of Natchez surrenders to the United States naval force before it, and that in future all citizens of Natchez will hold the flag of the United States sacred from attack, they promising protection to all Federal citizens, soldiers, or sailors who may land, with freedom for traffic and intercourse. 2. That all the coal now at Vidalia (a town on the opposite bank of the river to Natchez) be considered property belonging to the Government of the United States, to be, by the authorities of the city of Natchez, preserved for the use of United States vessels. 3. Should this second clause be deviated from, the city to be levied on for the value of the coal. 4. These conditions being observed inviolate by the city of Natchez, all property and persons of that city to always have the protection of the United States forces.

Leaving Natchez the Essex continued her way down the river, clearing ship for action at 3:30 a.m. on the 7th September, on her approach to Port Hudson, where an attack from the enemy was expected. At 4:15 a.m. the Essex, then about 1500 yards from the town, came within range of the enemy’s first or upper battery, the guns of which opened on the gallant vessel with tremendous vigor, sending their 10, 9, and 8 inch shot, some of which were from rifled cannon, with great precision. Hard and sharp the Essex returned the fire, advancing nearer and nearer to this first fort, when a second and almost immediately a third, battery opened on the devoted ship. Battery No. 2, or the central, as it may be termed, is situated in the extreme bend of the river, which there is scarcely in width 500 yards across, and the channel running close to the bank compelled the Essex to run within 30 yards of the battery, at the same time having to receive the cross-fire from the other two batteries. Steadily, however, she went on, the shot crashing against her sides, and shell exploding in every direction, and vigorously pouring on the Confederate forts the fire of her forward and aft guns, damaging at every shot, until the second battery was partially destroyed. The firing of the enemy was good—far better than at Vicksburg. A 10 and 9 inch, as also a 32-pounder solid shot, struck the Essex within a square of 10 feet almost simultaneously, the concussion sending in the 24-inch wood-work as if it were of the most fragile character, shattering the iron and rubber, though no shot penetrated the ship’s side. For an hour and twenty-five minutes the brave little craft continued this fight against from thirty-five to forty guns, until her ammunition, previously low, was exhausted. She then dropped down the river slowly out of range, and continued under way to New Orleans, off which city she arrived and anchored on the evening of the 7th September.

Port Hudson is a small village on the eastern bank of the Mississippi, about fifty miles below the mouth of the Red River. The bluffs rise full 60 feet above the high water level of the river, and command either approach to the narrowest part of the stream from Vicksburg to New Orleans. These bluffs are fortified, having 120-pounder, 68-pounder, and other siege guns in battery, while the plateau at the base and either approach to these heights, have heavy batteries with siege guns of similar caliber. The river here is so narrow that the sinking of an ordinary vessel, such as usually navigates the Western waters, would effectually block the channel. The rear of these batteries is well protected, and a land force would find serious impediment to approach, in the numberless creeks, bayous, and swamps that protect the position. Indeed no point could have been chosen on the Mississippi that has such great natural advantages for defense on the land or water side, and for offense against shipping navigating the river; it is a fort more formidable than Vicksburg. It is also a considerable depot for the reception of cattle from Texas, sugar from West Louisiana, and now of salt from the red River; supplies of which are sent by the railroad from thence to the Amite River, and then transported to the interior of the States of Mississippi and Alabama. Camp Moore, the great rendezvous of the Confederates for military instruction, receives most of its supplies from this point. The Confederates holding Vicksburg north, and Port Hudson south, on the Mississippi, thus secure for themselves the free navigation of the river between these points, as also the valley of the Red River entirely. This is the most fertile part of the great Southwest; and its products have given food, vigor, and articles of commerce to the Southern States, creating means for continuing the present fearful contest far longer than is generally supposed.

The Essex was severely damaged in the Port Hudson fight, and heavy repairs were found necessary. Her scalded, battered, and sick crew wanted rest. Two months’ exposure to an almost tropical sun, and the heated atmosphere that cannot be avoided on a close iron-clad gunboat, had effectually shown its prostrating power. Out of a crew of one hundred and forty-six, that on the 6th of July left St. Louis in health, there remained but thirty-four for duty on the 7th of September.

The officers and crew of the Essex behaved so gallantly through all that crusade of unsleeping vigils and desperate struggles, by night and day, for months together, that they can never be praised enough. It will be enough for them to say, hereafter, in “the piping times of peace” which are sure to come after the sovereignty and glory of our vindicated republic are fully acknowledged, that “I was with porter on the Essex.” It would be wrong, however, to omit one name here; for he was an Englishman then Acting-Master, a complete officer through all that crusade, who was always at the right place at the right time, and by his great skill and heroism earned no small share of the glory with which the Essex has covered herself forever. The writer refers, without the knowledge of any other person, to Mr. Harry Wyatt, who, with his heart in our cause, has generously given, as a volunteer, nearly two of the best years of his life to sustain the supremacy of our republic. He may well say, that, after pointing the guns of the Essex which sunk the ram Arkansas, he has not lived in vain.

Porter, on his arrival at New Orleans, found that the government had recognized his brave acts, notwithstanding the unfair action of a naval advisory board, which had omitted his name for promotion, and that the president had ordered him, for distinguished service, to be promoted to the rank of Commodore—a compliment as graciously and generously awarded as highly deserved.

Subsequent History

Essex, with the Mortilla, took part in the bombardment and capture of Port Hudson from 8 May until 8 July 1863. The following day she engaged Confederate forces at Donaldsonville; although damaged in that battle Essex continued her patrol duties through 6 March 1864, at which time she took part in the Red River Campaign. On 17 April 1864 she sailed for Vicksburg and then to Memphis, where she remained for the rest of the war. Porter was promoted to Commodore in recognition of his achievements, but was detached from the Essex in September 1863; he died on 1 May 1864. USS William D. Porter (DD-579), 1943-1945, was named in honor of him. Essex was decommissioned at Mound City, Ill., on 20 July 1865, and sold on 29 November 1865. After her sale to private interests in November of that year, she reverted to the name New Era. She was scrapped in 1870. Essex well deserved her reputation as one of the most powerful and effective gunboats on the Mississippi River.



The Gunboat Essex, by C. E. Lester, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, No. CLIIL, February 1863, Vol. XXVI, at Cornell University’s “The Making of America” (cdl.library.cornell.edu/moa/)

The Ironclad Gunboat, Essex at the Missouri Civil War Museum’s website www.missouricivilwarmuseum.org/1essex.htm

USS Essex (1856) at Wikipedia www.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Essex_(1856)

USS Essex (1861-1865) at the Naval Historical Center website at

Commodore William D. Porter at the Naval Historical Center website at www.history.navy.mil/photos/pers-us/uspers-p/wd-portr.htm

NavalHistory.com at www.multied.com/Navy/CWNavy/Essex.html

Ironclads and Blockade Runners of the Civil War at www.wideopenwest.com/~jenkins/ironclads/ironclad.htm

The Iron Captains at www.wideopenwest.com/~jenkins/ironclads/ironcapt.htm

[1] William David Porter, son of Commodore David Porter and elder brother of Admiral David Dixon Porter, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana on 10 March 1808. He entered the Navy as a Midshipman in January 1823 and attained the rank of Lieutenant at the end of 1833. He was retired in September 1855, but was later reinstated on active duty with the rank of Commander. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, he was commanding the sloop of war USS Saint Mary's. (Naval Historical Center)

[2] The ship was purchased on 20 September 1861 by the U.S. Army for its Western Gunboat Flotilla--an organization maintained, operated, and controlled by the Army but commanded by A.H. Foote, a naval officer.  She was modified into a 355-ton "timberclad" gunboat, and retained the name New Era until after the expedition up the Cumberland River. The entire Western Flotilla, including Essex, was turned over to the Navy on 1 October 1862 and thereafter was named the Mississippi Squadron.

[3] USS Essex was constructed in 1856 at New Albany, Indiana as a steam powered ferry named New Era.

[4] Porter upgraded his ship without official authorization. He renamed her Essex, after his father's old ship of the War of 1812. After the gunboat was damaged in action with Fort Henry, Tennessee, in February 1862, Porter had the ship virtually rebuilt.

[5] Specifications actually as follows: Displacement: 640 tons, length: 250 feet, beam: 60 feet, draft: 6 feet, crew: 134, speed: 5.5 knots.

[6] 11 January, 1862.

[7] The Missouri Civil War Museum website claims forty men killed and wounded.

[8] Her refit into a full ironclad took place in the yards of James B. Eads of St. Louis.

[9] While dramatic reading, this description of the second battle between the Essex and the Arkansas was penned in the middle of the war. Later research showed turned up the familiar story of mechanical failure that doomed so many Confederate ironclads. Essex did destroy the enemy vessel—whose crew abandoned her when unable to maneuver the ship.

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