Pummeled at Grand Gulf
In one of the opening operations of General U.S. Grant’s Vicksburg campaign, the gunboat U.S.S. Tuscumbia along with several other gunboats under the command of Admiral David D. Porter attacked the Confederate riverside fortifications at Grand Gulf on April 29, 1863. The chief engineer, working in the 108-degree heat of the engine room, recalled that the vessel was struck 82 times during the engagement.
“It is impossible to count the shells that exploded in her,” Engineer John W. Hartupee wrote. “Her upper work is a complete wreck. No man could have lived on her deck for a minute. It is believed here that we were under the heaviest fire ever known to naval warfare. The Rebels concentrated all their fire upon us for at least two hours. More than half the time during the fight we were not more than 50 yards from the muzzles of 30 guns and some of these guns were 100-lb Parrott guns which throw projectiles with greater force than any gun now in use. But all would not do as they could not penetrate the iron sides of the Tuscumbia. We received more shots than all the other vessels combined, but our plating proved perfectly invulnerable against all efforts to penetrate it,” he concluded proudly.
The Tuscumbia had been in service less than two months when it went into action at Grand Gulf. Its first action had taken place a few weeks prior when the vessel ran past the guns of Vicksburg on the night of April 16-17. A 915-ton vessel built by Joseph Brown’s firm in Cincinnati, Ohio, the gunboat measured 178 feet long, 75 feet abeam, and drew seven feet of water. Manned by a crew of 130 officers and men while armed with three 11” and two 9” Dahlgren smoothbores, the Tuscumbia had five engines which gave it a top speed of ten knots.
John Hartupee’s letter describing the engagement at Grand Gulf originally saw publication in the May 30, 1863 edition of the Princeton Clarion published in Princeton, Indiana.
On board gunboat Tuscumbia
Lying off Grand Gulf, Mississippi
May 4, 1863
Believing you would like to hear from the Tuscumbia and those on board, I will write you a few lines. In the first place I will give you a short extract from the engineer’s log belonging to this vessel.
April 29, 1863: Received orders to raise steam and prepare for action and got underway at 7:15 a.m. Engagement opened at 10 o’clock by the gunboats Pittsburg, Carondelet, Louisville, and Mound City on the lower batteries. The gunboat Lafayette entered the engagement and opened fire on the middle battery while the gunboats Benton and Tuscumbia enter the engagement. We engage the upper battery and open a brisk fire with our 11-inch guns at 400 yards. The engagement becomes general and a shell enters the forward porthole, exploding in the turret killing three men and wounding eleven. Engines working well with steam at 120 lbs pressure; First Engineer Perry South and Third Assistant Engineer Benjamin Bull on the engines.
At 11 o’clock, the engines are working well with steam at 115 lbs pressure and thermometer at 105 degrees in the engine room. A shell entered the upper pilot house wounding Joseph McCammant, pilot. Hog chains all shot away but one; a shell entered the port side passing through the cylinder timbers and setting the vessel on fire. The fire was soon extinguished and First Assistant Engineer Joseph Hillard and Third Assistant Engineer William Millegan at engines.
At noon, the engines are working well with steam pressure at 120 lbs and the thermometer at 107 degrees. Two shells entered our port side exploding between the cylinder timbers tearing Perry South’s engine room to fragments. No one was hurt. A shell entered our port side exploding in the after turret, killing two men and wounding nine. Second Assistant Engineer Homan and Third Assistant Oliver Cough at engines.
1 p.m.: engines working well with steam at 115 lbs and thermometer at 105 in the engine room. A shell entered our starboard side between the cylinder timbers. Firing from guns very heavy as a second shell enters the starboard side exploding between the cylinder timbers. Perry South and Benjamin Bull at engines.
2 p.m.: A shell entered the wheelhouse carrying away all the wheel chains. Engines working well with steam at 120 lbs. A shell passing through the pilot house shot away all bell wires and starboard speaking trumpet so we handled the engines by passing orders through the port speaking trumpet. Joseph Hilliard and William Millegan at the engines. The port piston breaking caused by the stern of the vessel dropping but working as well as can be expected.
3 p.m.” Starboard engine in good order but the port engine is out of line but not disabled. Steam at 120 lbs and thermometer at 108 degrees in the engine room. A shell entered the starboard side exploding between the port cylinder timbers thus disabling the port engine by breaking full stroke cam yoke. Started the propeller but could not handle the vessel. We came to anchor by changing the cut off yoke to full stroke yoke; got underway in half an hour and worked the engines full stroke, ready for action again. The engagement ended and we landed opposite Grand Gulf.
The engagement lasted 5-1/2 hours and the Tuscumbia received 82 solid shots and it is impossible to count the shells that exploded in her. Her upper work is a complete wreck. No man could have lived on her deck for a minute. It is believed here that we were under the heaviest fire ever known to naval warfare. The Rebels concentrated all their fire upon us for at least two hours. More than half the time during the fight we were not more than 50 yards from the muzzles of 30 guns and some of these guns were 100-lb Parrott guns which throw projectiles with greater force than any gun now in use. But all would not do as they could not penetrate the iron sides of the Tuscumbia. It is believed that we were under heavier fire than the Keokuk at Charleston. We received more shots than all the other vessels combined, but our plating proved perfectly invulnerable against all efforts to penetrate it.
There was one great blunder committed in building the Tuscumbia and that is in the location of her magazine. To give you an idea of this, I will just say that in action the hatches are necessarily left open. When the shell exploded in her turret, the fire from it burned the boy very badly in the face who was stationed in the door of the magazine to pass powder up. This will be altered before the vessel is pronounced fit for action again.
You must not think that the Tuscumbia is disabled beyond repair. She will soon be ready again and her engines are ready now. All she wants is to raise her wheels and weld her wheel chains and that is a short job. I think you will hear a good account of her yet. We took 490 prisoners and I think from what one of them said when he saw the Tuscumbia that gave them as good as they sent. He said, “There is the damn square box that gave us hell and she does not look as if she was hurt.” Since the fight we have buried three men who died from the wounds received making in all eight killed.
Letter from Acting Chief Engineer John White Hartupee, U.S.S. Tuscumbia, Princeton Clarion (Indiana), May 30, 1863, pg. 2