Vicksburg is Still in Command of the Rebels: The U.S. Navy Takes a Crack at Vicksburg

To some, it appeared by early July 1862 that the war in the west was all but won. Federal forces had defeated Albert Sidney Johnston's army at Shiloh and a massive Union army now occupied portions of northern Mississippi, Alabama, and much of Tennessee. General Don Carlos Buell's army slowly marched towards Chattanooga while Grant's army lay poised to penetrate into Mississippi.

    One of the major Union war objectives remained opening the Mississippi River to navigation. Much progress had been made since April when General Benjamin Butler's army, following the naval battle at Forts Jackson and St. Philip, occupied New Orleans and continued north, occupying Baton Rouge. Operating from Cairo, Illinois, Federal naval forces had won engagement after engagement and had seized control of the river as far south as Memphis. Vicksburg became the focal point for the Union navy which pushed towards the river bastion from both upstream and downstream. By late June, Federal gunboats arrived near town and began to pick at the Vicksburg defenses looking for a weak point.

    Among those brown water sailors at Vicksburg was Fireman Freeman A. Hurd of the gunboat U.S.S. Kennebec. A 691-ton Unadilla-class gunboat, the Kennebec mounted five heavy guns and possessed a top speed of 10 knots. The vessel had been commissioned in February 1862 and had already seen action at Forts Jackson and St. Philip prior to arriving at Vicksburg on June 24, 1862. A native of Massachusetts, Fireman Hurd wrote the following letter home to the editors of the Southbridge Journal describing these initial operations against Vicksburg. The letter appeared in their August 8, 1862 edition. 

The U.S.S. Kennebec was built and launched in Maine before being commissioned at the Boston Navy Yard on February 8, 1862. A total of 23 of these vessels were built in the first year of the war and they quickly proved their worth by comprising the bulk of the fleet that passed the batteries at Forts Jackson and St. Philip in April 1862. Measuring 158 feet in length and 28 feet abeam, Unadilla-class gunboats utilized two 200-horsepower steam engines and carried a total of five guns: an 11-inch Dahlgren smoothbore, two 20-pdr Parrott rifles, and two 24-pdr long guns. Classed as a "90-day wonder" due to their quick construction, the Unadilla-class gunboats cost roughly $100,000 to build and proved to be a good investment for the navy which used them extensively in both river operations and as blockade ships. The image above is of the U.S.S. Aroostock, sister ship to the Kennebec. 

At anchor two miles below Vicksburg, Mississippi

July 4, 1862


          We have been to New Orleans since I wrote you last and have had our boiler patched and the engine repaired and it is in very good trim now. All is quiet down the river except at Grand Bluff town, which town was leveled by us. The reason for so doing was that none of our vessels could pass without being fired upon by the citizens and from a few of General Mansfield Lovell’s men from the bluff over the town. Some of our men have suffered by their shots and now the town lays in ruins, not a stick left standing.

          We got up here on the night of the 24th of June. On the 25th, we went up to reconnoiter before Vicksburg a little on which occasion the Rebels took an opportunity to fire a number of shots and shells at us but did us no damage of any account. The mortar boats are up here and 25 steamers, 18 of which are war vessels. They took a position on each side of the river and threw a few shells towards the batteries on the bluff just to get their hand in again, I suppose. The 26th and 27th of June were spent in getting the men-of-war ready for a general engagement with the Rebels.

          On the morning of the 28th, we were aroused at 2 a.m., the ships were got into line, the mortars had begun their music, and at 3:45 a.m. we were advancing as at Fort Jackson to engage the batteries. We were ordered to stay in the rear of the sloop-of-war Brooklyn and to act accordingly. At 4 a.m. we were abreast of the town and blazing away at each other finely. The masked batteries were exposed to view and the way shot and shell poured into them was a sight to see. It was just daylight and the flashes of the guns could be seen often. We blazed away for three hours until the Rebels, finding it too hot for them, left their batteries and all firing ceased. When we stopped, I saw that two-thirds of the fleet had gone by to join Captain Davis’s fleet two miles above the town while we were to await below to protect the mortar vessels with the Brooklyn and several other steamers. We lost a few men., What damage was done to the fleet which passed, I have not learned yet. The Sciota lost her foremast.

This young sailor poses proudly in his uniform in front of a faux ship's deck backdrop. He's wearing the standard Navy blue dungarees and shirt topped by an oversized neckerchief. The flat cap came in both navy blue and white, worn at the captain's discretion. Sailors in general enjoyed considerable latitude in how they tied their neckerchief, but much of the formality (or lack thereof) of the rest of their uniform depended on the personal taste of their commanding officer. 

          On the 29th the Rebels manned the batteries again and sent a few shots toward us, doing no damage. The mortar boats engaged again, having found the exact position of the 28th and for several hours kept up a killing fire upon all the batteries, tearing up dirt around them, falling into them, and sending up large black clouds of dirt when they exploded. I saw one of their guns tipped over broken in two by coming in contact with a shell. While the mortars were at it, we lent a hand and put a few shell over the town into some woods to pick up what straggling pickets there were out there, I suppose; anyway, in a short time the Rebels could be seen running towards the large depot in the town and when they were seen, the fire was all sent in that direction and better shots could not be made for every shot fell in and around the station, preventing any cars leaving at that time for certain.

          The town is still in command of the Rebels, and all we wanted that morning was a few troops to back us to take possession of the batteries, spike the guns, and Vicksburg would have been ours. But now the town is filling with Rebels, new guns are being mounted on every bluff, intending to drive us off if possible; but that don’t go down for we did not come here to be driven by such men. No sir. We shall stay here until the town comes down, if necessary.

General Benjamin Butler

          We have a few troops here now who are engaged in opening a new canal across a point in front of the town. The river has fallen from 8-10 feet since we were up here before and is fast falling now. While I was at New Orleans, I did not go on shore at all. There are no cases of yellow fever there yet. General Butler rules there like a true man. He had four men hung for bad conduct while we were there as an example to the rest. The river is now practically open and our two fleets are joined. Foote’s flotilla and ours are above Vicksburg. On Tuesday we convoyed a boat by Grand Bluff but no shots were fired at us while every other boat in the fleet has received more or less shots. A body of Rebel troops came down from the town and opened fire upon the mortar boats which are made fast to the bank of the river. They fired several volleys into the vessel together with artillery; but in ten minutes the woods were cleared of them and shell after shell were poured into the woods to hurry up stragglers.

          We had a brisk fight before their batteries I can tell you. The shots whistled over us spitefully, but nothing compared with the fight before Forts Jackson and St. Phillip. It seemed like old times to hear the shot come and go. They got the worst of it, for we could see ambulance wagons go over to the batteries from the town and pick up men who were killed and wounded. The shells must have fallen among them like hail. There is no stop to one of our shells when it gets to going, till it reaches its destination.

          We have got our eyes on a party of Rebels who are mounting a gun on a bluff not 700 yards abreast of us. It is a large gun and we expect to hear it speak. Our cable was already for slipping and if they open again on the Kennebec, they may possibly get a few bullets in the back by a part of the crew of the Kennebec. We will spoil the looks of that crowd. It is about a mile below the city and nothing will or can prevent a boat’s crew from surprising them.

          On Wednesday July 2nd, Davis’s mortars having come down from Memphis to the point above the city opened fire upon the city, a distance of three or four miles, throwing very good shots. The Rebels have mounted a new rifled gun upon the upper battery and they have tried it upon us. They fired well, but as quick as they fire, they are paid all the attention needed by our mortars which put a dozen or more shells fair and square into the battery. We have found out just where they are now. A Vicksburg paper states that Beauregard’s army has been partly disbanded and that 30,000 of his men are here. If that be true, there will have to be some hard fighting. We can keep them away from the batteries while General Halleck is putting them through on land.

          On Thursday July the 3rd, the batteries opened on us again but all to no purpose as their shots were either falling over or falling short. The mortar boats fired a long time today from both fleets, their shells falling always around or in the batteries. The Rebels have erected two new batteries to the left of the city near our fleet above and have fired a number of times. The Fourth of July passed off with all the sloops-of-war firing a salute at noon and every mast was decked with the stars and stripes. Other than the salutes, no firing was done today.



Letter from First Fireman Freeman A. Hurd, U.S.S. Kennebec, Southbridge Journal (Massachusetts), August 8, 1862, pg. 1


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