150 Years Ago This Week: River warfare intensifies

February 1863

Three blockade runners successfully broke through the Federal blockade off Charleston, S.C. on Saturday, Feb. 7. The same day, the Federal Department of Washington was recreated and Maj. Gen. Samuel Heintzelman was placed in command. Near Williamsburg, Va., Confederate soldiers ambushed a Union cavalry patrol, resulting in the deaths and wounding of eleven Federal troopers.

Maj. Gen. William F. Smith, newly appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac’s Ninth Army Corps, was ordered by Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker to transfer his command to Newport News, Va., to increase the threat to the Confederate States’ capital at Richmond from the east.

On Sunday, Feb. 8, the Federal government clamped down on the Chicago Times for publishing allegedly disloyal statements, another example of the government’s reaction to certain articles published by press in the North; the order to shut down the newspaper was rescinded the following week. On Feb. 9, the Confederate Army of the Southwest was extended to include the entire Trans-Mississippi Department.

In response to orders from Adm. David D. Porter, the Federal vessel Queen of the West, under command of Capt. Charles Ellet, steamed south of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River and headed for the Red River on Feb. 10. Fighting this day took place all over the warring nations: Moscow, Tenn.; Somerville, Va.; Batchelder’s Creek, N.C.; Sarcoxie Prairie, Mo.; Old River, La.; Chantilly, Va.; and Independence, Mo.

In London on Feb. 11, James M. Mason, the Confederate commissioner to Great Britain, addressed a Lord Mayor’s banquet in his continuing drive to have the British government recognize the Confederacy. On the Red River, Queen of the West destroyed a Confederate wagon train of twelve wagons, barrels of beef and ammunition, and military stores.

In another bit of naval action, the U.S.S. Conestoga captured two Confederate steamers on the White River in Arkansas on Feb. 12. Off the West Indies, the Confederate raider C.S.S. Florida captured and destroyed the clipper ship Jacob Bell, with a cargo of over $2 million value.

At the Executive Mansion in Washington on Friday evening, Feb. 13, President Lincoln entertained the famous midget Gen. Tom Thumb (real name: Charles Stratton) and his diminutive bride, Lavinia, the couple made famous by P. T. Barnum in the 1850s.

While these festivities took place in Washington, the Federal gunboat U.S.S. Indianola, under command of Capt. George Brown, passed south of the Vicksburg artillery batteries on the Mississippi River with two barges at night. The Confederate batteries opened fire on the gunboat as it passed by, but no shells struck the vessel or the barges.

On Saturday, Feb. 14, on the Red River, Queen of the West captured the Confederate vessel New Era No. 5. A few hours later, while engaging Confederate batteries, the Queen ran aground. The steam pipe ruptured and the vessel had to be abandoned.

The Union men aboard escaped by floating on cotton bales to the nearby U.S. Army steamer DeSoto. Capt. Charles Ellet of the Queen put his men on New Era No. 5 and burned the DeSoto. Capt. Ellet blamed the loss of the Queen on a disloyal pilot, claiming he intentionally ran the Queen aground.

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Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.