George Dewey at Port Hudson

The following post was submitted by Alan Guthrie. We thank Alan for bringing this story to light!



Lieutenant George Dewey

The town of Port Hudson, Louisiana lies on the Mississippi River about 40 miles downstream from the mouth of the Red River. The Confederates erected water batteries there to bar the ascent of the Mississippi much like the fortifications at Vicksburg barred the descent of the Mississippi. Moreover, these two fortifications secured the Red River so that supplies could be shipped down it and sent farther east. In an effort to frustrate the Confederates the use of the Red River, Rear Admiral David G. Farragut attempted to run the defenses at Port Hudson on the night of March 14, 1863. Port Hudson lies on a 150° turn of the Mississippi, complicating the passage by the batteries.


As detailed below, Farragut attempted to run four steamships of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron past the fortifications. The executive officer on the USS Richmond was Lieutenant George Dewey, who would go on to the Hero of Manila Bay in the Spanish American War. The passage below is from his Autobiography of George Dewey: Admiral of the Navy. The spelling has been left as is in the original.


“On March 14, 1863, we had anchored off Profit's Island, which is seven miles below Port Hudson, a little town that went into history because it happened to mark a sharp bend in the river running west-southwest for a distance of a mile or more. Beginning at the bend was a line of bluffs on the east bank, varying from eighty to a hundred feet in height. On the opposite bank there was a dangerous shoal-point. On the bluffs were heavy guns that could bear the length of the bend and cover this point. They had a plunging fire on us, while we had to fire upward at them. There were also guns at the base of the bluffs. The time chosen for the passage was night, again much against the predilections of Captain Smith.


“First and last, the old Mississippi, on account of her side-wheels, had been in a class by herself in Farragut's fleet. Now the other big ships, the Hartford, the Monongahela, and the Richmond, each were to have a gun-boat made fast to the port side, which was the opposite side from the batteries. The object of this pairing was the assistance of the gunboat in helping her heavy-draught companion off the bottom if she ran aground. Thus Farragut applied the principle of the twin screws' facility in making a short turn by backing with one screw and going ahead with the other. But the Mississippi, being a side-wheeler, had to make the passage without a consort. We had an experienced pilot at our service, as had every ship. He was in one of the cutters under the guns on the port side, where he would at the same time be safe—for his safety was most important—and near enough to call his directions to the man at the wheel. Thus a river pilot had become a factor in fighting a ship which had been built to fight in the open sea with plenty of room for manoeuvring.


“Starting at 10 p. m., after the Hartford, which led, came the Monongahela and then the Richmond, with the Mississippi bringing up the rear. Possibly Farragut realized that the Mississippi would be the most likely of the four to run aground, and therefore assigned her to a position where she would not get in the way of any following ship if she did run aground. The Hartford was already past the first of the batteries before the enemy threw up a rocket as a signal that she was seen, and the whole crest of the bluff broke into flashes. Piles of cordwood soaked with pitch were lighted on the shore opposite the batteries in order to outline the ships to the Confederate gunners. One of my Washington friends, Chief-Justice White, was a boyish aide to the commanding general of the Port Hudson defences. He tells me that the Confederates got the better of us that night, and I must say that I have to agree with him.


“The air was heavy and misty. Almost immediately after we were engaged, a pall of smoke settled over the river and hung there, thickening with the progress of the cannonading. This was more dangerous than the enemy's fire, which was pounding us with good effect, while we could see nothing but the flashes of their guns as a target. The Hartford, however, had good luck as well as advantage of position. She was at least pushing ahead of her own smoke, while every other ship was taking the smoke of those in front of her. The Mississippi had the smoke of all three.


“At the bend, the current caught the Hartford and swept her around with her head toward the batteries, her stem touching ground. But the Albatross, her gun-boat consort, helped her off. Then, applying the twin-screw method, with the Hartford going ahead strong with her engines while the Albatross backed, the Hartford got her head pointed upstream again and steamed out of the range of the batteries with a loss of only one killed and two wounded. The Confederate gunners had not depressed their guns enough for the Hartford, but they did not make this error as the other ships came in range.


“When the Richmond, the second ship in line, was in front of the last battery, a shot tore into her engine-room. Such was its chance effect that it twisted the safety-valve lever, displacing the weight and quickly filling the engine-room, fire-room, and berth deck with steam. In short order the steam pressure fell so low that she could not go ahead under her own motive power. The Genesee, her gun-boat, was not able with her own power to make any headway for the two vessels against the strong current. There was nothing to do but for the pair to make an expeditious retreat downstream to safety.


“The Richmond's gunners, working in furious haste, intent on delivering the heaviest possible fire, did not know that their ship had turned around. Therefore they were firing toward the bank opposite that from the batteries. Mistaking the flashes of the Mississippi's guns for the flashes of the enemy's, they fired at her. On our part we did not know in the obscurity of the smoke and darkness that our ships had been disabled. The Richmond's casualties included her executive officer. Lieutenant A. Boyd Cummings, who was mortally wounded.


“As the Monongahela came along she found herself in the range of musketry from the low bank on the port side, which was silenced by her gun-boat, the Kineo. But the Kineo received a shot which jammed her rudder-post and rendered the rudder useless. As a result the Monongahela had to do all the steering. She ran aground, and the Kineo, carried on by her momentum as the Monongahela suddenly stopped, tore away all of her fasts by which she was bound to the Monongahela except one. Then the Kineo got a hawser to the Monongahela, and, laboring desperately, under fire, succeeded after twenty-five minutes' effort in getting the Monongahela free of the bottom.


“Meanwhile, Captain McKinistry, of the Monongahela, had had the bridge shot away from under his feet, and had received such a fall in consequence that he was incapacitated. Lieutenant-Commander N. W. Thomas took command in his place. The Kineo drifted on downstream, while the Monongahela proceeded on her way until a heated crank-pin stopped her engines, when she had to drift back downstream under the fire of the batteries. She sustained a heavy loss in killed and wounded.


“I refer to the experiences of the three ships which had preceded the Mississippi in order to show the hazardous nature of Farragut's undertaking. His flag-ship, the Hartford, and her consort, the gun-boat Albatross, were all of his command which he had with him the next morning, and it was many weeks before any of the other ships could join him.

“The Mississippi, bringing up the rear, was soon enveloped in the pall of smoke. We went by the Monongahela when she was aground without, so far as I know, either seeing or being seen by her. Both Captain Smith and myself felt that our destiny that night was in the hands of the pilot. There was nothing to do but to fire back at the flashes on the bluffs and trust to his expert knowledge. It was a new experience for him, guiding a heavy-draught ocean-going ship in the midst of battle smoke, with the shells shrieking in his ears. By the time that the Mississippi came within range of the batteries they were making excellent practice. Our mortar flotilla posted below the bend was adding to the uproar. When there was a cry of ‘Torpedoes!’ it might have been alarming had we not seen that bombs striking close to the ship had splashed the water upon the deck. None actually struck us. Some one else shouted, ‘They're firing chain-shot at us!’ an error of observation due to the sight of two bombs which passed by in company, their lighted fuses giving the effect of being part of the same projectile.


“We were going very slowly, feeling our way as we approached the shoal point. Finally, when the pilot thought that we were past it, he called out: ‘Starboard the helm! Full speed ahead!’ As it turned out, we were anything but past the point. We starboarded the helm straight into it and struck just as we developed a powerful momentum. We were hard aground and listing, and backed with all the capacity of the engines immediately. In order to bring the ship on an even keel, we ran in the port battery, which, as it faced away from the bluffs, was not engaged. Every precaution to meet the emergency was taken promptly; and there was remarkably little confusion, thanks to the long drills which we had had off New Orleans, and to the fact that all but a few of the crew had already been under fire in passing Forts Jackson and St. Philip.


“But no amount of training could altogether prepare men for such a situation as we were in. With our own guns barking, and the engines pounding, and the paddle-wheels making more noise than usual, because we were aground, it was difficult to make commands heard. In half an hour the engines never budged us, while steadfastly and even unconcernedly the engine-room force stuck to their duties. We were being more frequently hit; the toll of our dead and wounded was increasing. Naturally, too, gunners of the enemy, who could see the ship outlined by the bonfires on the bank on the opposite side of us from the batteries, had not failed to note that we were aground. The advantages of training on a stationary target allowed them to make the most of our distress, while the flashes of our own guns and the bursting of the enemy's shells only made the intervals of darkness the more baffling to the eyes. I remember hunting about the deck for Captain Smith and finding him lighting another cigar with a flint quite as coolly as if he were doing it when we lay anchored off New Orleans.


“‘Well, it doesn't look as if we could get her off,’ he said.


"’No, it does not!’ I had to tell him.


“Then came the report that we were on fire forward in the store-room. Investigation proved that this was true. The store-room was filled with all sorts of inflammable material and was below the water-line, supposedly out of reach of any shot. It was not until forty years afterward that I learned how the fire had started, and this from a gentleman whom I met at Palm Beach, Florida. He had served in what was called the ‘hot-shot’ battery. This battery had a furnace in which they heated their round shot red-hot before firing them. When I asked him how they kept the shot from igniting the powder, he said: ‘We put wads of wet hay or hemp between the shot and the powder.’ Our bow in grounding had risen so that the storeroom was above the water-line, and one of these hot shot having a plunging trajectory had entered. While we were fighting the fire in the store-room. Captain Smith had given the order to throw the guns of the port battery overboard in the hope that this would lighten the ship enough to float her. But the order was never carried out. He had to face the heartbreaking fact, to any captain of his indomitable courage, of giving up his ship. He had opposed fighting in the night and in the night he had come to grief.


"‘Can we save the crew?’ he asked me.


"‘Yes, sir!’ I told him.


“But there was no time to lose. Delay only meant still more wounded to move, with the danger of the fire in the store-room reaching the magazine before they were away. Not once had our starboard battery ceased firing. The gunners had kept to their work as if they were sure of victory, gaps caused by casualties among the guns' crews being filled in a fashion that was a credit to our morale; for it is in such a crisis as this that you may know whether all your labor in organization and drills has had a vital or a superficial effect.


“And the battery must continue to fire up to the very minute of abandoning the ship, the gunners being the last of the enlisted men to go. Down on the spar-deck I found everybody full of fight. I remember as I passed along seeing Ensign Barker, now Rear-Admiral Albert S. Barker (retired), sighting a gun. To show what a small detail, even in a time of such tension as that was, may impress itself on the mind, I recollect that Barker was wearing eyeglasses. I had never seen him with them on before.


"‘What are we leaving her for?’ Barker asked. He was thinking only of his part, without knowing that there was a fire forward. When I explained, he comprehended the situation. It was Barker who brought the Oregon out to Manila after the Spanish War and who took over the command of the Asiatic station on my departure for home.


“The three boats on the starboard side toward the enemy's batteries had all been smashed by shells. The three on the port side were still seaworthy.


“We got all of the wounded in the first boat, and started that down the river, with directions to go on board one of our ships. The second and the third, which had some of the slightly wounded, as well as members of the crew who were unhurt, were told to make a landing near by on the bank and to send the boats back immediately. They were slow in returning. As soon as they were against the ship's side the crew began crowding and the officers had difficulty in keeping order. For the moment the bonds of discipline had been broken. The men were just human beings obeying the law of self-preservation.

“I apprehended the reason why the boats had been slow in returning. There was disinclination on the part of the oarsmen who had reached safety to make the trip back. What if the next time the boats did not return at all? They were our only hope of safety. To swim in that swift river-current was impossible. To expect rescue in the midst of battle, when no one could be signaled in the darkness and pandemonium, was out of the question. It would be a choice of drowning or of burning for those who were caught on board the Mississippi.


USS Mississippi

“I determined to make sure of the boats' return, and in the impulse, just as they were going to push off, I swung myself down by the boat-falls into one of the boats. Not until we were free of the ship did I have a second thought in realization of what I had done. I had left my ship in distress, when it is the rule that the last man to leave her should be the captain, and I as executive officer should be next to the last.


“That was the most anxious moment of my career. What if a shot should sink the boat? What if a rifle bullet should get me? All the world would say that I had been guilty of about as craven an act as can be placed at the door of any officer. This would not be pleasant reading for my father up in Vermont. He would no longer think that I had done the "rest" reasonably well. If the ship should blow up while I was away and I should appear on the reports as saved, probably people would smile over my explanation.


“We were under fire all the way to the shore, but nobody was hit. As we landed on the beach I said to the men in the boats:


"‘Now, all of you except four get to cover behind the levee. Those four will stay with me to go off to the ship.’


“They obeyed one part of my command with great alacrity. That is, all but one scrambled over the levee in a free-for-all rush. The one who remained standing was a big negro, the ship's cook. He evidently understood that I meant him to be one of the four.


"‘I'm ready to go with you, sir!’ he said. And he was perfectly calm about it.


“Each of the others had thought that the order was not personal. But when I called out, shaming them, in the name of their race, for allowing a negro to be the only one who was willing to return to save his shipmates, I did not lack volunteers.


“Then in the dim light I discerned one man standing by the other boat, which had landed some distance up the beach. I called:


"‘Who is that standing by the cutter?’


“The answer came: ‘It is I, sir, Chase’ (one of the acting masters).


“‘Why don't you go off to the ship and get the rest of the officers and men?’ I asked.


“‘I can't get the men to man the boat!’ he said.


“When I called out asking if they meant to desert their shipmates there was no reply. Then I told Chase to use his revolver and make them go, which he did. It is my firm belief that neither one of the boats would have ever returned to the ship if I had not gone ashore in one of them.


“I was certainly as relieved to reach the ship as the men had been to reach shore. When I say that I lived five years in an hour, I should include about four and a half of the years in the few minutes that I was absent with the boats.


“As soon as I was on deck Captain Smith came to me and said:


“‘I have been looking all over for you. I didn't know but that you had been killed.’

I explained hastily, and added that we had two empty boats alongside, which we might not have had except for my indiscretion.


“‘We must make sure that none is left aboard alive,’ said the captain.


Then we began a search whose harrowing memory will never fade from my mind. We went up and down the decks, examining prostrate figures to make sure that no spark of life remained in them, haste impelling us in the grim task on the one hand, and, on the other, the fear that some poor fellow who was still unconscious might know the horror of seeing the flames creep up on him as he lay powerless to move. Meanwhile, we kept calling aloud in the darkness that this was the last chance to escape. As a result of the thorough search, we found one youngster, little more than a boy, who was so faint that he could scarcely speak. We pulled him out from under the body of a dead man, in the midst of a group of dead who had been killed by the bursting of a shell.


The next step was to make certain that the ship should not fall into the hands of the enemy. Captain Smith gave orders to fire the ship in two places in order to make absolutely sure of her destruction. This was our last service to that old vessel which had known so many cruises, and it was performed while the batteries on the bluff were continuing to improve their practice.


With Ensign O. A. Batcheller I went below to start a blaze in the wardroom, which is both the officers' sitting-room and mess-room and, in a sense, their home afloat, while the rest of the ship is their shop. I had a lantern with me, I remember, and when I got below I looked around at the bare oak table and chairs, wondering what there was that I could ignite. I did not want to delay the boat, and, under the circumstances, as long as we had to go, we did not care to remain in that inferno of shellfire any longer than necessary. I ran into my stateroom, and pulling the mattress off the berth hurried back with it to the wardroom. Then I ripped it open and put it under the dining-table.


When I had piled the chairs and any other combustibles around the table, I took the oil lamp out of the lantern and plunged it into the mattress, with the result that I had a blaze which required immediate evacuation of the wardroom by Batcheller and myself. My mattress was all that I had tried to re- move from my state-room. But just as we were going Batcheller cried: ‘I'll save that, anyway!’ and seized a uniform frock-coat before he ran up the ladder ahead of me.

In the last boat, besides the captain, were one of the engineers, Batcheller, myself, and four men. I waited on my juniors to precede me, and then the captain waited for me, so that he was the last man ever to press his foot on the Mississippi's deck. This order of our going was carried out as regularly in keeping with naval custom as if it had been some formal occasion in a peaceful port.


As soon as we were free of the ship's side the powerful current caught us and swung us downstream. At the same time, the fire we had started in the wardroom broke through the skylight in a great burst of flame, illuminating the whole after part of the ship. It must have revealed our boat clearly on the bosom of the river, and it was a signal to those on the bluffs along the banks to break into that rebel yell which I then heard in full chorus of victory for the first and only time in my life. It was not pleasant to the ear. The Confederates were gloating over what was the most triumphant of sights to them and the most distressing of sights to us. I remember thinking: ‘How they must hate us!’

Meanwhile, there was no cessation in the fire, and our boat was a target for the batteries. Not one of the officers and crew, except Ensign Batcheller, had saved any of his personal belongings. All the clothes we had were those in which we were clad. Captain Smith had on his sword, and also buckled to his belt a pair of fine revolvers. He still had a cigar in his mouth, and was as calm as ever. But suddenly he unbuckled his belt and threw both sword and revolvers overboard.


“‘Why did you do that?’ I asked. He was a man of few words, who made up his mind decisively, and his answers were always prompt


“‘I'm not going to surrender them to any rebel,’ he said.

This illustrated very well the strong feelings of the time, which now, happily, have no interest for us except in the psychology of history.


“‘We need not land, but go to one of our ships downstream,’ I answered.


“At all events, I concluded to keep my sword. Every one in the boat, except Captain Smith and myself, was at the oars, rowing as energetically as if we were in a race. I had the tiller. We were moving so rapidly that we were not hit, and when we were safe around the bend and in sight of the Richmond of our fleet, which we were to board in safety, it was evident that the captain had been a little precipitate. A few days afterward, when he was still without a sword. Captain Smith gave my sword a glance and remarked: