The Civil War – Using the USS Indianola

By C.J. Johnson

This week in 1863, Vicksburg continued to be a “hot spot” in the war, even though winter weather had halted fighting most everywhere else. During winter months, often roads were muddy or impassable. Ice and snow would make movements impossible.

In Mississippi though, armies were attempting to move into position north of Vicksburg. On the river, Union vessels were attempting to take over a 200-plus mile section of the Mississippi, from around Vicksburg to Port Hudson, Louisiana, currently under Confederate control.

But now, there was a new “player” on the river – the ironclad USS Indianola, an enormous 511-ton river gunboat, built in Cincinnati, Ohio, completed and ready for service in January 1863. With her heavy armored plates, two 9-inch smoothbore Dahlgren guns and two 11-inch Dahlgren smoothbore guns, she was a formidable opponent. With a speed of nine knots, and dual power sources (side wheels and steam-driven screws) she was armed and ready for action.

In late January, she was sent toward Vicksburg to join the Mississippi Squadron. On February 13, 1863, the Indianola “ran past the guns of that fortress city…in an effort to cut off Confederate supply lines,” according to the Naval Historical Center.

Another source gave the following account of the action. “She left her anchorage in the Yazoo River at 10:15 p.m., 13 February, and moved slowly downstream until the first gun was fired at her from the Vicksburg cliffs slightly more than an hour later. She then raced ahead at full speed until out of range of the Confederate cannon, which thundered at her from above. She anchored for the night 4 miles below Warrenton, Mississippi, and early the next morning got underway down river.”

The Indianola was unharmed after running the gauntlet, but Rebel vessels were still in the vicinity and would be a danger to other Yankee vessel. The Indianola continued downriver to a position on the mouth of the Red River, just north of Port Hudson.

There, only ten days later, the Indianola would meet up with two Confederate vessels and engage in battle. The Union ironclad was chased, rammed several times and after losing power, run aground. Then she surrendered.

Associated Press reported the surrender of the Indianola, via a column in the Mobile, Alabama Advertiser and Register, which stated “…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.’”

What happened next added a bizarre end to the story of the USS Indianola. Almost immediately, Rebels went to work to salvage the Yankee ironclad. Meanwhile, U. S. Rear Admiral David Porter quickly developed a scheme to regain his prized vessel.

Porter planned to build a mock-up of an ironclad, and float it close enough to the Rebel salvage operation to scare away the men and regain the Indianola. In an article by Donald L. Barnhart, Jr., the plan unfolded. “Starting with an abandoned flatboat, Porter put his command to work constructing his ruse…As a final touch, two iron pots filled with tar and oakum were placed at the base of the smokestacks and ignited. Clouds of black smoke curled upward as the ersatz ironclad was set adrift in the Mississippi current.

Dubbed Black Terror, she was built in 12 hours for a mere $8.63…Confederate crewmen on Queen of the West saw Black Terror approaching and turned about and headed downriver to warn any vessels of the Union’s latest threat. Coming upon the wrecked Indianola, Captain McCloskey of Queen warned the salvage party of the ironclad’s approach. The frightened salvagers decided to scuttle Indianola to prevent her recapture.”