Updated: Dec 6, 2022
When one thinks of the Union Navy in 1862, the mind usually brings up visions of Memphis, New Orleans, or other places along the Mississippi River. Rarely does the Ohio, bordered along the northern shore by all loyal states, ever come to mind as a place for recurrent naval operations. During the summer and fall of 1862, Confederate guerrillas frequently threatened the northern shore of the Ohio, even making it across on several occasions. Newburgh, Indiana was the first to Union town to be captured, albeit for only a few hours in July, while West Franklin, Indiana also had its own mini raid when a few Confederates snuck across the Ohio to steal horses.
The "border" areas were on high alert, especially across from the western Kentucky shore where the multiple bands of guerrillas operated. The largest, and most famous, was that belonging to Adam Rankin Johnson. His band of guerrillas, the 10th Kentucky Partisan Rangers, was in the process of being recognized by the Confederate army in the fall of 1862, but Johnson frequently dispersed his command to evade Union movements to destroy his command. In October 1862, attacks on river traffic escalated as guerrillas fired on passing steamers and also attempted to trick them into coming ashore in order to capture their cargo. Union authorities were quick to recognize the problem, and were determined to quash any Confederate actions along the Ohio. The press in Evansville, Indiana, the most vocal in their feelings on the matter, may have also given Union military leaders a bit of motivation as well.
LeRoy Fitch, a Lieutenant-Commander in the navy stationed at Cairo, Illinois, was tasked with ridding the banks of the Ohio from the annoying marauders. He had authorization to deal with the issue in a variety of ways, from burning towns that harbored guerrillas, destroying property, and collecting ransoms. After several steamboats were fired upon in October 1862, Fitch was dispatched to the are of the Ohio between Elizabethtown, Illinois and Evansville, Indiana. The guerrillas were thought to be harbored in Union County, specifically in the town of Caseyville where several attacks had already taken place. His dealings with the civilians there was anything but cordial, but it did get the job done.
The following reports and enclosures give us an interesting look at the operations of a "mosquito fleet" that fought not other naval vessels, but Confederate guerrillas on land.
The first report, addressed to Admiral Porter, details Fitch's orders and communications to the local population around Caseyville
U.S. GUNBOAT FAIRPLAY, Off Caseyville, October 21, 1862.
To: Acting Rear-Admiral DAVID D. PORTER, Commanding Naval Forces, Western Waters.
SIR: I have the honor to enclose herewith copies of communications sent to the citizens of Caseyville and vicinity previous to the receipt of your instructions.
As the disloyal citizens do not seem to be using the energy desirable in raising the amount of money called for, I will tonight act upon your instructions and take as prisoners all male citizens not known to me as good, loyal men.
Enclosed also are copies of two orders I issued on the 17th instant. If I took upon myself too much authority and erred therein it was through a desire to do my duty. The order in regard to steamers landing on the Kentucky shore is absolutely necessary within the limits specified in the order. Union County has been and is now a well-known thoroughfare for guerrillas, and I have no doubt but that they have used these same steamers, much to their own advantage, both as a means of obtaining supplies and of getting information.
The second order, in regard to the suspension of ferries, etc., was also promulgated as a means of cutting off supplies and information from the rebels. Shall I revoke these orders or let them stand? Please instruct me also in regard to the wheat and goods mentioned in my other letter of this date.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant, LE ROY FITCH Lieutenant-Commander
The "enclosures," posted below, are what were referenced to in the above message to Admiral Porter.
[Enclosure Number One]
U.S. GUNBOAT FAIRPLAY, Ohio River, October 17, 1862.
It is hereby ordered that all ferries on the Ohio River between Evansville, Ind., and Paducah, Ky. (except at the towns of Henderson and Smithland, Ky.), are from this date suspended. Any violation of this order will result in the destruction of the boats so engaged.
All boats, skiffs, scows, or flats found on the Kentucky shore, not at towns garrisoned by United States forces, will be destroyed.
All goods, merchandise, or other articles of traffic sold or sent to the Kentucky shores within the above limits, not authorized by a surveyor of a port or passed under such official signature, shall be liable to confiscation, and the parties sending or selling such articles will render themselves liable to arrest for giving "aid and comfort to the enemy."
LE ROY FITCH , Lieutenant-Commander.
U. S. GUNBOAT FAIRPLAY,
[Enclosure Number Two] Ohio River, October 17, 1862.
ORDER — Until further notice, masters of all freight or passenger steamers plying between Evansville, Ind., and Cairo, Ill., are expressly forbidden to take on freight or passengers for, or under any circumstances (unless absolutely unavoidable), land at any town or landing on the Kentucky shore not garrisoned by United States forces.
Any violation of this order will result in the confiscation of the goods or articles and the detention of the vessel.
LE ROY FITCH, Lieutenant-Commander and Executive officer, Flotilla.
U.S. GUNBOAT FAIRPLAY,
[Enclosure Number Three] Off Caseyville, October 18, 1862.
To the constable and citizens of Caseyville: Whereas the U.S. mail steamer Hazel Dell was forcibly boarded at your town and goods taken therefrom, I, on behalf of the Government of the United States, do demand as reparation for said damages the sum of $35,000, to be paid to me in good current money.
If this demand is not complied with by 10 p. m., the women and children are ordered to leave the town, as it will be immediately destroyed.\
LE ROY FITCH, U.S. Navy, Lieutenant-Commander.
[Enclosure Number Four]
U.S. GUNBOAT FAIRPLAY, Off Caseyville, October 19, 1862.
To the citizens of Caseyville and vicinity of 10 miles:
The proclamation promulgated to the citizens of Caseyville is so far modified as to extend the time allowed (for payment of the damages demanded, $35,000) to one week. If, at the expiration of that time, the money is not paid, the property of all secessionists or sympathizers with the existing rebellion against the United States, within 10 miles of the town, will be confiscated, and their houses, furniture, grain, and produce of all kinds destroyed.
LE ROY FITCH, U.S. Navy, Lieutenant-Commander.
Report of Lieutenant-Commander Fitch, U.S. Navy, commanding U.S.S. Fairplay, regarding measures of retaliation upon Caseyville, Ky.
U. S. GUNBOAT FAIRPLAY, Off Caseyville, October 21, 1862.
SIR: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of a copy of your instructions of the 16th instant; also General Order No. 2.
I had already acted according to my own judgment, and, am happy to say, nearly in conformity to your orders.
I left Evansville early on the morning of the 17th and proceeded down the river with the gunboats Fairplay, St. Clair, and Brilliant as fast as circumstances would admit. I am sorry to say that, in consequence of very low water above the mouth of the Wabash, and a thick fog which set in and compelled me to anchor over nights, our progress was so much retarded that the people had been advised by overland runners of our approach some hours before we reached the town, and many of the most prominent aiders and abettors to this guerrilla band had left. I have, though, a list of their names and amount of property.
Before arriving within sight of the place I had a detachment detailed from each boat to land with muskets. Just before dark the boats touched at the upper end of the town. The detachment was immediately landed and placed under the command of Second Master [G. J.] Groves, who, according to instructions, surrounded the place, took and sent on board all male citizens within the limits. After a close investigation I found a few good Union men who would have notified the steamer had they not been forcibly restrained. The worst and most rabid persons are the farmers living a mile or so from town. They are the ones who have been feeding and keeping Johnson's men, and the ones also who shared the spoils of the late robbery
. I first demanded on my own responsibility, before I had any knowledge of your instructions, the sum of $35,000 damages, this sum to be paid by 10 p.m., but being assured that the amount could be paid if sufficient time was allowed, I extended the time to one week. In the meanwhile the place will be guarded and nothing allowed to be removed therefrom.
The town had previously been sacked of all arms, ammunition, and the like, by Johnson's guerrillas.
I have also taken charge of, and had stowed in the wharf boat, all the goods and produce in the store of one J. M. Scantlin, who has the reputation of buying powder and selling it to Johnson's men, as well as being an informer for the guerrillas.
William Pemberton (or Pembelton) is also reported as being a suspicious character, and also as being an informer. He has some six or eight hundred bushels of wheat, which I have taken possession of. These two men I ordered arrested before leaving here for Smithland; they are now on board the St. Clair.
During my absence First Masters [J. S.] Hurd and [C. G.] Perkins, according to instructions, took possession of and had stowed in a warehouse on the bank some three or four thousand bushels of wheat, bought by Philip Acker for a firm in Paducah; the loyalty of these parties is very doubtful .
Very respectfully, your obedient servant, LE ROY FITCH, Lieutenant-Commander.
Guerrilla activity persisted along the Ohio into late October, when the Nashville was fired upon from the Kentucky side of the shore. Based on the contemporary accounts, it is not known of this particular steamer is the hospital ship belonging to the Sanitary Commission, or if it is just another cargo vessel. The Evansville Daily Journal reported, "
We receive the following particulars of another cowardly outrage committed by Adam Johnson's band of assassins." This same Adam Johnson had been wreaking havoc along the Ohio and western Kentucky since June of that year, but by late October, it seems most of his command had ventured to the southern border of the state on its way to join Bragg's army. Most likely, some of these "assassins" were just local guerrillas taking the opportunity to fire on an easy target. The paper continued, "She was fired into by a band of guerrillas concealed on the shore. At this point the channel runs within less than fifty yards of the shore, and the position affords a fine opportunity to the guerrillas to prosecute their hellish work. Some forty or fifty shots were fired, sixteen which passed through the pilot house, one of them cutting the lapel of the pilots coats."
The boat suffered but two casualties in the ordeal. A soldier of the 51st Indiana was wounded in the thigh, and a known secessionist, Judge Edmonds from Hopkinsville, Kentucky, was killed. According to the paper, Edmonds was standing next to a Federal officer when the shooting began. Apparently, the bullet was meant for the officer, but the aim of the shooter erred and struck Edmonds. With some rather dark humor, the paper reported, "happily the aim was just right to pick off the friend of the assassin...Edmonds was salted down and sent back to his friends."
The Nashville immediately joined another steamer heading down the river, the May Duke, and anchored on the Illinois side of the river at Shawneetown. The Mosquito Fleet was summoned and the gunboats escorted the steamers past the area of danger. Sick of the guerrilla attacks on shipping along the river, the Evansville Daily Journal proclaimed, "If there is no other remedy let the Southern shores of the Ohio river be made desolate."[EDJ Oct. 23, 1862, 2]
Report of Lieutenant-Commander Fitch, U. S. Navy, commanding U.S.S. Fairplay, regarding an attack upon the steamer Nashville, and proposed retaliation . U.S. GUNBOAT FAIRPLAY,
Off Uniontown, October 22, 1862.
SIR: The steamer Nashville was fired into yesterday from a thick cluster of woods and brush between Caseyville and Shawneetown. One man on board was killed and another wounded .
The captain of the Nashville sent me word of the occurrence last night. I immediately got underway and joined him at Shawneetown; from there I convoyed him as far up as the head of Mississippi Bend, above Uniontown.
There is a house standing near the place where the boat was fired at. I will tonight surround the house and seize all the male inhabitants, and unless good proofs are given, I will destroy the house.
In future, steamers, either going up or down the river, will be furnished with a convoy if they will stop at Smithland in coming up, and just above Long's Ford in coming down. If they do not find a gunboat at the place one will soon be there. They will not have to lay over long. Will you please let the masters of vessels know this if it meets your approbation?
Very respectfully, your obedient servant, LE ROY FITCH,
Lieutenant-Commander. Fleet Captain A. M. PENNOCK, Commanding Naval Station, Cairo, Ill.
Fitch also gathered many of the male population in and around Caseyville and shipped them down to Cairo. Among those rounded up was an Owensboro, Ketucky youth, who continued to find himself in difficult predicaments after "accidentally" joining Johnson's men. Of Fitch’s arrests he wrote, “He arrested every Southern-rights man he could find and examined them before a committee of Union men. All that he could find guilty of anything, he held as prisoners; the number held was thirty-four—among the rest was your humble servant, as I was spotted to have run off from home and had come from Johnson’s camp.” Fitch had all the prisoners and contraband loaded on the steamers and sent south to Cairo as prisoners of war.
Order of Lieutenant-Commander Fitch, U.S. Navy, to Second Master Coyle, U.S. Navy, to proceed in charge of a party of prisoners to Cairo.
U.S. GUNBOAT FAIRPLAY, Off Caseyville, October 22, 1862.
Sir: You will proceed on board the U.S. gunboat Brilliant and report to First Master Commanding [C.G.] Perkins for a passage to Smithland. At that place you will go on board the Duke and take charge of all the prisoners put on board of her from the Brilliant. After arriving at Cairo, deliver the prisoners over to Captain Pennock, with a complete list of their names.
Master Commanding Perkins will furnish you with a sufficient force to guard them. You will also take charge of and deliver to Captain Pennock all mail matter stopped at Caseyville.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant, LE ROY FITCH, Lieutenant-Commander.
Second Master JOSEPH C. COYLE, U.S. Gunboat Fairplay.
Fitch eliminated the problem for a time, but the complete cessation of river boat attacks along the Ohio did not stop until the war ended in 1865. For Fitch himself, the energetic naval officer was instrumental during Morgan's Raid in 1863, and continued to conduct anti-guerrilla operations along the inland rivers until the end of the war. To learn more about these events in wider context, consider purchasing my book through the Savas Beatie link below.
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