This week 150 years ago in the Civil War saw Union and Confederate gunboats vying for control of the lower Mississippi River and its tributaries. The winter of 1863 brings a formidable, new player to the fray: a powerful ironclad riverboat called The USS Indianola. The fortified city of Vicksburg, Miss., atop bluffs lining the Mississippi River, remained in Confederate hands at this stage of the war. But Union forces have eventual hopes of wresting Vicksburg and other points downriver from the Confederacy to control the entire river. If the entire waterway could be seized by the Union, it would effectively split the Confederacy in two. To that end, the Union in mid-February 1863 sent the Cincinnati-built Indianola down the Mississippi. On Feb. 13, the Indianola rushed passed Confederate guns firing from Vicksburg. None of the rebel shots struck the Indianola. But Confederate gunboats and rebel rams still plied the river nearby and posed a danger that would doom the Indianola within days. Elsewhere, winter has prevented major fighting. Both sides await better weather and passable roads. Soldiers trade letters with loved ones back home, where many worry about those missing or lost to combat or disease. One commanding officer wrote in a note from Tennessee—published Feb. 23, 1863, in the Daily Illinois state Journal in Springfield, Ill.—that loved ones
This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Feb. 24: Ramming, surrender of Union ironclad Indianola.
The USS Indianola, an ironclad that joined the Union's Mississippi River squadron in early 1863, had run the gauntlet of Confederate artillery at Vicksburg, Miss., on Feb. 13, 1863. But the recently built gunboat with armored plating and 11-inch Dahlgren guns would soon meet an early demise. While patrolling the Mississippi near the mouth of the Red River, the Indianola came under attack Feb. 24, 1863, by two enemy rams. Pursued and rammed several times, the Union ironclad lost power and ran aground. Its crew had no choice but to surrender. The loss of the Indianola struck a major blow to the Union Navy in its struggle to gain supremacy over the lower Mississippi. Days afterward, The Mobile Advertiser & Register in Alabama reported on the Indianola's surrender in a dispatch from Port Gibson, Miss. The report quoted Confederate Lt. Col. Fred B. Brand as saying vessels under his control pursued the U.S. ironclad and "engaged her for an hour." Some of the fighting was at close quarters before it was quickly over. "We went alongside, when Commander Lieut. Brown, U.S.N., surrendered to me. As all credit is due to (Confederate) Major Brent, I have turned over to him, in a sinking condition, the prize which we hope to save. Only five were hurt." Confederate forces, hoping to claim the partially sunk river gunboat as their own, did try to salvage the Indianola but detonated the ship's magazine when another Union vessel approached. Badly damaged by the blast, the Indianola would never be restored to service even after the Union took Vicksburg in July 1863. Elsewhere this week 150 years ago in the war, Confederate fighters seized and destroyed Union supplies being carried by mule train through Tennessee.
This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, March 3: Lincoln signs Enrollment Act to draft new troops.
When the Civil War erupted in April 1861, many on both sides of the conflict had expected it to be a short-lived war. But nearly two years later, after several big battles and horrific numbers of casualties, President Abraham Lincoln was compelled to sign the first Enrollment Act—instituting the first wartime draft in American history on March 3, 1863. The move 150 years ago during the Civil War was a controversial step. But the conflict was dragging on far longer than any had expected and the Union wasn't raising enough troops for combat by other means. Thus, Lincoln needed more manpower for the fight, much as the Confederacy did in resorting to a draft months earlier. The act required enrollment of every male citizen ages 20-45, with certain exemptions, and male immigrants of that age who had signed intent of becoming U.S. citizens. Nonetheless, exemptions from the draft could be bought for $300 each draft period, or by finding a substitute draftee. Those exemptions would lead to violent riots for days in July 1863 in New York City, when the first inductees were called. Fueling the draft riots was widespread outrage that such exemptions could only be afforded by the wealthy, making the conflict a "poor man's fight." Months later, the $300 "commutation fee" would be repealed by Congress. The Associated Press reports more fighting, near Franklin, Tenn., as 2,000 rebels are repelled by Union forces and compelled to retreat. AP reporters 70 prisoners have been seized by Union forces in Tennessee and some were being kept under heavy guard in shackles on suspicion of "murder" in the death of Union soldiers elsewhere.
This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, March 10: Sinking of USS Mississippi.
This week 150 years ago in the Civil War, the Union lost the USS Mississippi when the warship ran aground on the Mississippi River. Built in 1839, the side-wheel steamer had taken part in expeditions during the war against Mexico and also in the Mediterranean and Pacific waters before the Civil War. The ship had been part of a Union squadron led by the famed future admiral, David Farragut, who captured New Orleans in 1862. However, the Mississippi remained most of its time at New Orleans after the conquest because it was designed as deep draft ocean-going vessel. On March 14, 1863, the ship ran aground attempting to pass Confederate batteries near Fort Hudson as part of a battle group seeking to run upriver on the key inland waterway. Feverish attempts were made under enemy fire to free the Mississippi, but the efforts proved fruitless and Union officers had to blow up the ship. Set ablaze, the ship drifted downriver before its magazine loaded with gunpowder exploded and it sank. In a March 19, 1863, dispatch about the sinking, The Richmond Whig newspaper reported the Mississippi had been burned and Farragut's attack fleet driven back. It said Confederate forces opened fire when the Mississippi and other vessels tried to pass Southern batteries at night and only one or two ships could get beyond that gauntlet. "The firing was terrific. One gunboat passed in a damaged condition and the U.S. sloop-of-war Mississippi was burnt to the water's edge in front of one of our batteries." Added The Richmond Whig: "Our victory was complete. No casualties on our part. Thirty-six men and one midshipman of the Mississippi were brought in by our cavalry, several of them severely wounded."