When the American civil war broke out in 1861, the Union was pitted against the Confederate states. Besides all the underlying political reasons for this war breaking out, it is interesting for another reason. Because when Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815, it took decades for another war to break out between Western powers. Sure, there were uprisings such as the Belgian Revolution against the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, the 1848 revolutions that spared nearly no European state, and even the First Schleswig War from 1848 to 1851 between Denmark and mainly Prussia.
But all these wars had at least one relatively small party. No full-fledged war between ‘Great Powers’ occurred. These decades of relative peace saw a lot of technological advancements in warfare, yet there was no real war yet where these weapons had been tested out. I suppose what got closest was the Crimean war of 1853 between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, France and Britain. This war was one of the first to see modern technology and tactics in use, such as trenches, artillery fire, tactical use of railways and explosive naval shells. I mention this war because I want to paint the full picture, but the American Civil War really was one of the first, if not the first war where modern weaponry such as the Gatling gun was used.
Now, another modern technological invention saw action: the Ironclad. Ironclads were the first type of armoured ships, powered by steam, armoured with iron or steel plating, hence the name. Because of the technological advancements in warfare, such as explosive naval shells, classic wooden ships became a hazard to enter combat due to them being very flammable. There wasn’t enough technical knowledge yet to build fully armoured ships. Instead, Ironclads were wooden ships that were covered with iron- and steel plating to mitigate the impact of explosive shells.
Ironclads weren’t exactly first used during the American Civil War though: during the Crimean War at the Battle of Kinburn three French ironclad batteries, so a primitive version of the eventual warship, besieged Russian fortresses on the Kinburn Peninsula. These batteries were covered with iron plating, but by no means had the qualities a mobile ironclad warship would have. Although the batteries were hit several times, they weren’t destroyed nor did the crew suffer many casualties. Drawing on this success, other states started to develop and improve armoured batteries, leading to the eventual ironclad warship design.
The first ocean-going ironclad was the French warship Gloire, launched in 1859. With its steam engine and sails, it could reach a speed up to 13 knots, about 24 kilometres per hour. One year later the British launched their own ironclad warship, the HMS Warrior. Due to the heavy metal plating, the ships lay rather deep in the water.
This too was the case for the Union’s ironclad river gunboat, the USS Indianola. The ship was commissioned after the American Civil War had broken out, was launched soon after and belonged to a new, ‘faster’ type of Ironclads. It had a three-inch iron plate in the bow and stern and was equipped with two 11-inch Dahlgren cannons and two nine-inch guns on its rear. It was a relatively mobile vessel too, thanks to independently powered paddle wheels. Its commander was George Brown, a capable lieutenant. In late January 1863, the Indianola joined the Union Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter’s Mississippi squadron, consisting of steamboat rams, mortar schooners and Ironclads. They were positioned north of the City of Vicksburg, which was a confederate stronghold, fiercely defended by its strategically located batteries.
Gideon Welles, nicknamed “Father Neptune” was secretary of the Navy. He described Rear Admiral Porter as having “stirring and positive qualities. He’s fertile in resources, has great energy and is brave and daring.” As the confederacy would soon find out, Porter indeed was fertile in resources.
The USS Indianola
By this point of the war, the Confederacy still controlled nearly 400 kilometres of the Mississippi River, among which the Red River of the South. This tributary was essential to the Confederacy for its supply lines. Capturing Vicksburg was vital to the Union to disrupt the Confederacy. But after bombarding Vicksburg for months, Rear Admiral Porter could only admit that this tactic was far from effective.
Porter switched up his tactics: he sent the 19-year-old colonel, yes colonel, one of the youngest of the Union, Charles Rivers Ellett, on a mission with the ram ship USS Queen of the West. Ellett initially had some successes, capturing a confederate steamboat, the Era No. 5, and burning plantations of Union sympathisers. But on February 14th, 1863, Ellett made a fatal mistake. Neither he nor any of his crew knew the Red River’s layout. As they approached Fort Taylor, Ellett decided to wait until nightfall to attack. When that night they sailed within range of the fortresses cannons, the helmsman ran the Queen of the West into a mudbank. They were bombarded by the Fort’s 32-pounder cannons and had to abandon the battered ship soon after. In a lifeboat, the crew managed to be rescued by the steamer De Soto, anchored downriver. But due to thick fog, this vessel too ran into a mudbank. Eventually, most of the crew was rescued by the recently captured steamboat, Era No. 5. The mission was a complete disaster: they lost the USS Queen of the West and the De Soto, not to mention several dead among the crew.
Two days before this disaster Rear Admiral Porter, unbeknownst of what was going to happen to part of his fleet, sent the USS Indianola downstream from up north, to resupply the Queen and De Soto. The Steamboat Era No. 5 was sailing upstream, but during its escape ran out of coal. This led to Colonel Ellet ordering the burning of corn. As you can tell, they were rather desperate. So when the USS Indianola came in sight, they could not be happier, mainly because this Ironclad brought fresh coal supplies with it. A contemporary reporter from the New York Tribune wrote: “It was a miraculous escape… [for] from the depths of despair they were raised to the heights of exaltation.” The Indianola stayed behind to guard Red River, while the Era No. 5 sailed back to base up north.
But Porter’s trouble wasn’t over yet. After all, the captured Queen of the West would certainly be salvaged and reused on patrol as a Confederate ram. And it was, near-immediately. Major General Richard Taylor, the confederate commander, ordered it to be repaired and simply changed its prefix from USS to CSS. Long story short: the Queen of the West ended up, together with the William H. Webb and the steamers Grand Era and Dr Beatty to pursue the Indianola, which was slowly heading back north against the current. Although it had a lead, it was much slower than the small Confederate flotilla.
On the evening of February 24th, the Queen of the West caught up to its former ally, and a bit north of Palmyra Island the Indianola came under attack by the Confederate ships. Heavily outnumbered and outgunned it didn’t take long for commander Brown to surrender, offering his sword to the commander of one of the steamers. The entire crew of the Indianola was put in jail at Vicksburg, only to be sent off to a POW camp in Texas.
The Confederate forces ordered nearby labourers, including slaves, to repair the Indianola so they could redeploy her, just like they did with the Queen of the West. Over in the North, Rear Admiral Porter had other plans, however. He was incredibly frustrated he lost the Indianola, and understandably so. In his eyes it was of vital importance to recapture the Ironclad, not just because of its military value, but also because without it, the South would gain an advantage by continuing to use the Red River as a supply line. But Porter was painfully aware he didn’t have enough naval- and manpower to recapture the Ironclad.
Porter Tricks the Confederacy
In Dutch, we have a saying: “wie niet sterk is, moet slim zijn.” It translates to as much as those that aren’t strong must be clever. That is what Porter must have thought when he created a ruse to prevent the Confederacy from salvaging the Indianola.
In order to do so, Porter used a flat-bottomed boat, akin to a barge, used to transport coal. He then ordered his men to build it up, use canvas and wooden planks to create the outer shape of an Ironclad, a hull. They tried to construct a proper dummy Ironclad, with a wheelhouse and casemate and a fortified gun site on deck.
Porter’s men crafted two fake lifeboats for the non-existent crew. Besides the wheelhouse barrels were placed that resembled chimneys. They contained pots with tar that, when set alight, produced actual smoke like Ironclads produced. To appear more threatening the dummy Ironclad was painted black and to top it all off tree trunks, painted black as well, were positioned on it as cannons. Sources state the entire hoax cost Rear Admiral Porter half a day of construction work and 8 dollars and 63 cents. The ship was, fittingly named, the Black Terror.
The night after the Indianola was captured by the Confederacy, somewhere near midnight, the Black Terror was sent on its way. There was no crew on board, and the only thing that captured the eye aside from the slowly moving silhouette of the mock Ironclad was the “coal barge with stacked pork barrels to represent smokestacks and logs shaped like a cannon.” Because there was no crew on board to steer the vessel (although it couldn’t be steered even if there was) the Black Terror ran into the riverbank once. The Union soldiers had to manually push the dummy ironclad back onto the river, where it slowly drifted downstream to the confederate camp. It must have been quite a sight, to see soldiers push a wooden raft that was nothing more than a bunch of wooden planks and pots of burning tar onto the river, in an attempt to intimidate their enemy.
But it did intimidate the confederate soldiers. The ram Queen of the West, which laid in the trajectory of the Black Terror, quickly turned around to sail away upon the realisation that this Ironclad was undeterred, and seemingly in pursuit. Unbeknownst to its crew if they only waited a little longer, or decided to confront the slowly approaching vessel, would they have found out it was nothing to be feared.
A bit more downstream of the Red River, at their guardpost, a salvaging crew was repairing the Indianola. As the guards saw the silhouette of the Black Terror approach in the moonlight, a black skull-and-bones flag on its bow, they rang the alarm and opened fire. Although several of their cannons hit their target, it didn’t seem to dissuade the ironclad slowly moving their way. Rear Admiral Porter later recalled: ‘Never did the batteries of Vicksburg open with such a din.’ Because the barrage of fire didn’t deter the vessel, the confederate soldiers had to act quick: the last thing they’d want was to lose a firefight with an Ironclad and in turn, lose their recently captured Indianola.
Although unsure who gave the command, the confederate soldiers decided to scuttle the Indianola. The only thing that they took off the vessel so far was the drink. Classic. So there was enough flammable material to sink it. They set its magazine, still filled with ammunition, ablaze. A massive explosion followed, here’s an original sketch of the blast by Theodore Davis, published in Harper’s Weekly in 1863 following the event. The explosion ended the Indianola. The ruse by Rear Admiral Porter, surprsingly enough, worked.
Following the scuttling of the Indianola, the Black Terror drifted on, towards the confederate soldiers. I mean, obviously, it wasn’t like someone would turn it around. It ended up running into a riverbank, again, and this time the confederate soldiers discovered what it consisted of: nothing more than some wood, tar and canvas.
Learning about the true nature of the craft, Southerners “became convinced that their enemies were diabolically cunning”, according to contemporary reports in papers prepared for the Ohio Commandery. The Richmond Examiner ran the headline “Laugh and hold your sides lest you die of a surfeit of derision.” And the ruse by Rear Admiral Porter lived on to cause laughs over the years. It is quite the exceptional story for sure.
As for the war itself: in the next couple of months, both Vicksburg and Port Hudson, the Confederacy’s strongholds around the Mississippi fell, and eventually, the Union emerged victoriously.
Girardi, Robert I. The Civil War Generals: Comrades, Peers, Rivals-In Their Own Words. Zenith Press, 2013.
Hearn, Chester G. Ellet's Brigade: The Strangest Outfit of All. LSU Press, 2006.
Hess, Earl J. "Northern Response to the Ironclad: A Prospect for the Study of Military Technology." Civil War History 31, no. 2 (1985): 126-143.