An ironclad vessel versus a poorly manned land battery? It seemed so easy. Secure in an iron cocoon, a crew could simply move in close and shower the target with shot and shell. Commander Augustus Kilty of USS Mound City stood confidently in the pilothouse. The first battery at St. Charles, Arkansas, was about to fall to a ground assault. Support troops would not be needed for the second one. Kilty opened the trap door to the gun deck and ordered his crew to be wary of Confederate sharpshooters. At that moment there was a crash, followed by a rushing sound and a chorus of screams. Kilty was knocked off his feet by a vaporous blast coming up through the trap door. The pilot next to him fell headlong into the steam below. That was the last order his crew would ever hear.
Mound City was constructed at the city in Illinois it was named for. The vessel was part of a fleet of seven river ironclads built by wealthy steamboat salvager James Eads. At the start of the Civil War, Eads was semiretired and under treatment for exhaustion. Nevertheless, he was eager to contribute to the Union cause. Eads had researched the use of ironclad batteries in the Crimean War. His findings led to the design of a riverborne ironclad to conquer the Mississippi River, and Eads subsequently received a telegram to come to Washington, D.C. Armed with sketches, he met with Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and a select group of naval officers. He obtained Welles’ approval for his design. Bids were advertised for the construction of seven ironclads. Eads was the lowest bidder at $89,600 per vessel. Naval constructor Samuel L. Pook was charged with bringing Eads’ ideas to fruition.
Using all of his bank credit, Eads completed construction in about four months. Each of Pook’s vessels, or “Turtles,” was 175 feet long and 50 feet wide. A sloping casemate held 13 guns. Segments of 2l⁄2- inch iron plate were affixed to the bow and the sides and abreast of the paddle wheels. The roof and stern were not armored.
The armored casemate could deflect water-level fire from an enemy vessel but not plunging fire from batteries on a high riverbank or bluff. The downward trajectory of battery fire could actually shatter the casemate’s iron plating. To prevent the Pook Turtles from running aground in shallow water, armor was reduced in critical areas to lessen their draft. The boilers and steam drums were placed on deck, not below the waterline, with scant armor protection. A well-placed shot might penetrate the casemate, rupture a drum and release the super-heated steam. The armor problem was tragically exposed during the Fort Donelson campaign. Plunging fire from the fort’s high bluffs penetrated four of the Pook Turtles. Carondelet alone suffered 54 hits. Carondelet’s commander, Henry Walke, wrote, “The shots came harder and faster, taking flag-staffs and smoke-stacks, and tearing off the side armor as lightening [sic] tears the bark from a tree.” Forty-seven of his crew were killed or wounded. Captain Andrew H. Foote, the river fleet commander, suffered a shattered ankle from which he never recovered. Yet a more tragic incident was still to come.
The crews were also a vexing problem. Recruits were in short supply, which led to lower standards for enlistment. Most were offscourings from infantry divisions and naval blockade squadrons—rejects with questionable and even criminal backgrounds. Rear Admiral David D. Porter referred to them as rubbish. Foote wired Secretary Welles: “We want no more from the Army. I prefer to go into the action half manned than to go in with such men.”
River gunboats manned by these men would generate intense hatred along the Confederate home front. Those living in the backwater areas of the Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas rivers could suddenly find Union gunboats in their own backyards. Gunboat crews would often pull over and pirate cotton bales from nearby plantations. Fearing destruction or seizure of their property, armed civilians began to snipe at gunboat crews on a regular basis. Seaman Frederic Davis wrote, “They are our bitterest foe, so cowardly, so ignorant, and taking up every unfair means to make our numbers less.” In retribution, the crews would torch homes and entire towns where guerrilla activity was suspected. Responding to guerrillas in Arkansas, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Richard Meade Jr. wrote that his sailors destroyed “all houses and cornfields for miles along the river. The inhabitants of the place were given half an hour to remove necessary articles from the houses, then buildings, and fields were laid in ashes.”
After a stunning victory at Pea Ridge in March 1862, Union Maj. Gen. Samuel Curtis led his Army of the Southwest east across southern Missouri in April. Department of Missouri commander Henry Halleck had sent a message that Confederate Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn was heading northeast, presumably to cross the Arkansas border and invade Missouri. Curtis moved to head him off, but the terrain proved difficult. Narrow trails, dense forests and flooded valleys hampered large-scale troop movements. “I have a long, rough road before me, and the matters of supply may retard me,” Curtis wrote. The forests offered little to support their meager rations. The Union army fanned out across a 40-mile front to forage for food. “I leave nothing for man and brute in the country passed over by my army,” he reported. Foraging would become a daily ritual for his command.
The impetuous Van Dorn had other intentions. Instead of invading Missouri, he would leave Arkansas altogether. While campaigning toward Pea Ridge, where he would barely escape total destruction, a message arrived at Van Dorn’s headquarters. General Pierre G.T. Beauregard asked him for help in a planned offensive into Tennessee. On the heels of an ignoble rout, Van Dorn was presented with a second chance. Beauregard wrote: “The combined armies could seize Cairo, Paducah, the mouths of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, and most probably be able to take also Saint Louis by the river. What say you to this brilliant program?”
The brilliant program, however, would divest Arkansas of badly needed troops. In his haste, Van Dorn sent all available men and supplies east of the Mississippi. Arkansas was left wide open to Curtis. Governor Henry Rector panicked and called out the militia to defend their sovereign state. He packed up the state archives and fled south to Hot Springs. Governor Rector warned Confederate authorities in Richmond that Arkansas might secede from the Confederacy unless support was forthcoming. To calm the situation, a former Arkansas congressman and rabid secessionist, Maj. Gen. Thomas Hindman, was dispatched to the state. “I have come to drive out the invader or perish in the attempt,” Hindman announced. Few would doubt his sincerity.
Upon hearing of Van Dorn’s departure, Halleck ordered Curtis to cross the Arkansas border and proceed south to Jacksonport. From there he was to move east and threaten Memphis. Geography dictated otherwise. The land between Jacksonport and the Mississippi River was actually a vast shallow lake. Instead of menacing Memphis, Curtis was now ordered to march 100 miles southwest and capture Little Rock. Incessant supply problems would once again plague his march.
Hindman arrived in Little Rock to a barren command. “I found here almost nothing,” he wrote. “Nearly everything of value was taken by General Van Dorn.” He began building a new army from square one. He declared martial law and enforced a very unpopular conscription act. A homegrown defense industry was established for the manufacture of arms, ammunition and uniforms. Eastbound Texas troops were suddenly halted and rerouted to Little Rock.
To gain time to build his army, Hindman utilized irregular or guerrilla warfare. In an impassioned plea to drive off the Yankee invader, he urged Arkansas residents to “attack him day and night, kill his scouts and pickets, kill his pilots and his troops on transports, cut off his wagon trains, shoot his mounted officers, destroy every pound of meat and flour, every ear of corn and stock of fodder that can fall into his hands.” The plea had the desired effect. Numerous guerrilla bands hampered Curtis’ operations, and foraging parties were often murdered on the spot. Colonel Peter Osterhaus reported that guerrillas “harass my pickets and forage parties almost on every trip they make outside of our lines.” Union soldier Charles Field wrote, “The men suffered horribly from lack of water and food because the rebels had filled the wells up and had destroyed foodstuffs for miles along the route.” Curtis ordered his troops “to take no more prisoners of armed bandits.” He asked Halleck to establish a waterborne route to supply and reinforce his isolated command. The nearby White River offered the best prospect. Curtis withdrew to Batesville to fume and await supplies.
Halleck telegraphed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton about Curtis’ predicament. “He had been hard pressed by the enemy,” he wrote, “and compelled to fall back to the White River.” Flag Officer Charles Davis, commander of the Mississippi Naval Squadron, was ordered to dispatch a river convoy to supply Curtis. Two of the Pook Turtles, Mound City and St. Louis, were tabbed to lead the convoy, and Kilty, the veteran seaman of Mound City, was selected to command it. Two timberclads, Conestoga and Lexington, and a speedy armed tugboat, Spitfire, were added. Curtis’ supplies were carried on the steamers New National, Jacob Musselman and White Cloud. The 46th Indiana, under Colonel Graham Fitch, came along to ward off any guerrilla activity.
Hindman was desperate to stop the Union convoy, but no troops were readily available. He ordered his engineers to construct a barricade across the White River. Under the command of Captain A.M. Williams, 100 men were hastily dispatched to St. Charles, a town on the White River about 100 miles from the river’s mouth on the Mississippi. To block the river, two steam-powered pile drivers were deployed to pound logs into the river bottom.
Additional help came from the Confederate Navy. The wooden gunboat Maurepas, commanded by Captain Joseph Fry, guarded the approach to St. Charles. Since Williams’ task was not complete, Fry sank his own gunboat, along with the steam transports Eliza G. and Mary Patterson, to help extend the barricade. The gunboat cannons were removed and placed in a land battery.
Two batteries, upper and lower, were established close to St. Charles. Maurepas’ crew, along with Fry, was placed a quarter of a mile downriver in the lower battery. The lower battery was armed with two 3-inch Parrott rifles transported from Little Rock. A more formidable upper battery on a bluff near St. Charles held two 32-pounder pieces from Maurepas. This battery was under the command of Lieutenant J.W. Dunnington, who commanded the gunboat Ponchartrain, which was anchored at Little Rock on the Arkansas River. Thirty members of Dunnington’s crew traveled by train to assist Fry. Williams could offer only 34 of his men, since they were the only men armed. They were deployed as sharpshooters to guard the lower battery. A brass field howitzer from Maurepas was given to Williams to bolster his sharpshooters. Many of the sailors were armed with paltry single-shot pistols—adequate for defending a ship, but of little use on a battlefield.
On June 14, 1862, Kilty’s convoy got underway from Memphis. Upon entering the White River, Spitfire was sent forward to scout. To Kilty’s delight, the vessel brought back a prize, the transport steamer Clara Dolsen. Spitfire accompanied Clara Dolsen back to Memphis and was replaced by the tugboat Spiteful. As the convoy snaked its way up the White, Kilty noticed cotton bales floating in the river. They had been discarded to prevent their capture by Union forces. Because of their value in Northern markets, he ordered them gathered up. The cotton, however, would later be of medical rather than monetary value. Kilty anchored for the night seven miles below St. Charles.
After morning reveille on June 17, the convoy steamed cautiously toward the St. Charles batteries. St. Louis and Mound City rained grapeshot on Williams’ sharpshooters and Fry’s lower battery. Fitch’s Hoosiers landed ashore near Williams’ position. After a series of volleys, the badly outnumbered Confederates were pushed back toward the lower battery. “The firing,” wrote Williams, “disclosed our position to the gunboats, from which the enemy commenced a furious fire of grape and shell, before which my men fell back to a more secure position.”
As Fitch was about to assault the lower battery, Mound City steamed toward Dunnington’s upper battery. The battery was well hidden in a timber barricade and couldn’t be easily targeted. The ironclad moved closer. At point-blank range, one of Dunnington’s guns fired a shell into its port side. Four men were torn to shreds as the shell plunged through and embedded itself into one of the steam drums. A cloud of steam rolled through the ironclad’s interior. Those not close to a porthole or companionway perished in agony. Scalded survivors tore off their burning uniforms and leaped into the river. “I sprang up the companionway,” recalled crew member Symmes Browne, “and ran over the starboard quarter-deck to the stern or fantail, but was not quick enough to escape entirely, for the rush of steam through an opening alongside the wheelhouse caught and slightly scalded my right hand and right side of my neck.” Most would not be as fortunate.
Now out of control, Mound City drifted downriver toward Fry’s lower battery. First Master Cyrenius Dominy wrapped his uniform coat around his head for protection from the steam. He made his way to the stern and shouted out to St. Louis to “come and tow me down. We are all lost! We are all lost!” Conestoga and Lexington sent boats out to pick up any survivors.
Captain Fry called on Mound City’s crew to surrender. Upon receiving no reply, Fry’s men opened fire, killing scalded crew members floating in the river. Enraged soldiers of the 46th looked on in disbelief. Fitch ordered them to move forward and “pay particular attention to such of the enemy as had been shooting our men in the river.” Fry spiked his guns and fled before the Union onrush. His men’s single-shot pistols had been fired into the river with no time to reload. Dunnington’s upper battery was also outflanked and forced to flee. Fry ran toward the house of a local resident, Charles W. Belknap, but was shot through the shoulder. He was taken prisoner and placed in irons.
After the Confederates were routed, Conestoga secured a line to the drifting Mound City. A correspondent from the Cincinnati Commercial jumped aboard the ironclad and peered into a chamber of horrors. “Here lay the bodies of 20 men scalded to death, others with their mangled bodies severed asunder by the fatal shot,” he later wrote. “The gun deck was literally strewn with from 75 to 80 others, who, being badly scalded and horribly disfigured, were tearing off their clothing, and long strings of bleeding flesh dangling from their finger ends, hands, arms, and lacerated bodies, and with eyes burnt out.” One of the wounded, who was blinded and lying near a loaded cannon, pulled its lanyard accidentally and discharged a shot into the nearby New National. One of its paddle wheels was taken out, but no one was injured.
To add to the hellish scene, a few of the sailors from St. Louis and Conestoga boarded Mound City to view the carnage and help themselves to a supply of liquor being used for the relief of the wounded. Emboldened by the alcohol, they began pillaging the officers’ quarters, crew belongings and the wounded themselves. First Master John Duble of Conestoga wrote: “Men lying in the agonies of death were robbed of their monk bags and money purses. Rooms were broken open, trunks, carpet sacks, etc., pillaged, and their contents scattered around and destroyed. Watches of the officers were stolen, and quarreling, cursing, and rioting, as well as robbing, seemed to rule.”
The wounded were taken aboard Conestoga. Dr. George Garver of Lexington and Dr. William Wilson of Conestoga offered what medical treatment they could, but the majority of the wounds were simply too severe for them to do much good. Stripped of their uniforms, the wounded men were covered with a mixture of cottonseed oil and flour. The contraband cotton taken from the river the day before was used as bedding. Kilty himself was among the scalded. Although he survived, he would lose his left arm. Conestoga and Musselman steamed back to Memphis with the wounded. Out of a crew of 175, 150 men were killed or severely scalded. Fifty-nine were buried ashore that evening. Eight Confederates killed in the assault were buried in the St. Charles cemetery.
Lieutenant Wilson McGunnegle, the commander of St. Louis, replaced Kilty as commander of the relief convoy. Unsettled by his experience, First Master Dominy, now Mound City’s ranking officer, was replaced with First Master John Duble of Conestoga. Lieutenant McGunnegle later wrote: “I deemed it best to send Mr. Dominy up to Memphis; not that he did not perform his duty well but simply for a change. He having witnessed the terrible catastrophe, his mind appeared to be greatly exercised.” Duble formed a new crew from 58 members of the 46th Indiana. Seven men were sent ashore to patrol the town. Notice was given to the locals that any guerrilla activity would lead to the destruction of their homes. Twenty prisoners from the Confederate batteries were brought aboard and placed in double irons for shooting at the Mound City wounded.
Conestoga arrived in Memphis on June 19, and the wounded were transferred to the hospital ship Red Rover. Lieutenant Seth L. Phelps wrote: “No imagination can picture to itself the condition of those burned, scalded, and wounded who still live. It is the most piteous spectacle human suffering could present. Poor Kilty was, they said, doing well; but he suffers terribly. His heart is as tender as a woman’s. Scarcely any of them are recognizable.”
Leaving Mound City behind, the rest of the convoy steamed past the obstructions and continued up the White River. Upon reaching the town of Clarendon, McGunnegle’s convoy was forced to halt because of shallow water. Fitch took his Hoosiers ashore to reconnoiter. After advancing five miles, he collided with a combined force of dismounted cavalry and guerrillas. After losing 55 men, Fitch retired.
When Curtis learned of the convoy’s predicament, he decided to go to them. In a bold move, the likes of which would not be seen again until the Vicksburg campaign a year later, he decided to discard his supply line and live off the Arkansas countryside. Destroying everything in his path, he marched down the White River toward Clarendon. An Illinois private wrote: “Anything not eaten was put to the torch. Desolation, horrid to contemplate, marks every section of the country through which the army has passed and an air of sickening desolation is everywhere visible.” Another Union soldier wrote: “Such scenes cannot be described, but will last with me while time lasts. Fields all burned out, houses, barns, cotton gins, and fences burned, and the smoke mingling with the dust darkens the heavens.” Thousands of slaves were freed six months before the Emancipation Proclamation. Property damage in one county alone was estimated at $1.5 million.
The march was all for naught when Curtis reached Clarendon. Because of the shallow water and increasing resistance, McGunnegle turned his command around and headed back to the Mississippi. Conestoga had returned to St. Charles with a contingent of boilermakers to repair Mound City. After getting up steam, the unfortunate ironclad also headed back to Memphis. Fed up with thin supply lines, guerrillas and elusive riverboats, Curtis continued marching southeast to Helena. Upon reaching his objective, he set up his own supply base on the Mississippi. He established his headquarters at the home of a prominent Helena resident—his adversary, Thomas Hindman.
Upon reaching Memphis, Captain Fry was taken aboard Red Rover to have his shoulder wound treated. He protested his iron restraints and told his captors he gave no order to fire on the wounded men from Mound City. In Fry’s account of the battle, he stated that his men were actually shooting at men who were landing on boats to cut off his retreat from the river, not at the wounded struggling in the water. Since Fry was the senior officer at St. Charles, he was responsible for the actions that took place. Was the incident misrepresented, or did he indeed order his command to fire on wounded men?
Lieutenant Dunnington’s report to General Hindman stated that Mound City’s wounded jumped into the river before the ironclad drifted down to the lower battery. “The vessel was completely deserted,” he stated, “and drifted across the stream into the bank, near Captain Fry’s battery. He immediately hailed, and directed their flag hauled down. They failing to do so, although the order was given by some of their own officers in hearing of our own people, our own men were directed to shoot those in the water attempting to escape.” In other words, Fry’s men were shooting at Union sailors trying to avoid capture and not the wounded who jumped overboard near the upper battery.
Captain Williams stated that “when the explosion took place, the boat’s crew jumped into the water and into boats, to escape the scalding steam that was pouring out of every hole and crevice. I immediately ordered all the sharp-shooters that remained on the field, about twenty in number, to the river bank to shoot them.” Obviously, Williams’ actions were more deliberate and suggest that he acted immediately, without orders from Fry.
Colonel Fitch’s report to Commander Davis tends to support Williams. He reported Mound City’s “crew were seen from the shore to spring through the portholes into the river. Scarcely had they done so before a party of the enemy’s sharpshooters [Williams’ men] descended the bluff from the batteries and, under cover of fallen timber on the river bank, commenced murdering those who were struggling in the water, and also firing upon those in our boats sent to pick them up.”
Because of the hostile attitude toward Union gunboats, especially among Williams’ sharpshooters, Fry’s command probably had little regard for wounded gunboat crews. Hindman’s call for “total war” against the Union invader may have added to their fury. The frenzied rush to leap overboard, in the midst and confusion of a battle, almost guaranteed that some of the wounded would be shot. The only ranking officer left onboard, First Master Dominy, was too mentally taxed to signal surrender and possibly prevent further shootings.
Nothing on record states that Fry gave specific orders to shoot wounded men. Nevertheless, a veteran naval officer would certainly have noticed the steam pouring out of Mound City’s casemate, the frantic departure of its crew into the river and that the vessel was adrift and no longer under control. Fry should have tried to cease all firing on Mound City immediately after the explosion.
Having convinced his captors of his innocence, Fry was later exchanged. Because of his wound, he lost partial use of his arm. He later commanded the blockade runner Eugenie. After the blockade tightened, he was sent to Scotland to procure explosives used in the manufacture of torpedoes. Lasting fame came after the war while commanding a former blockade runner, the ocean steamer Virginius. While transporting Cuban rebels, his ship was captured by the Spanish warship Tornado off the coast of Jamaica. The incident almost sparked a war between Spain and the United States. In 1873 Fry was executed by a Spanish firing squad in Santiago, Cuba.
The White River Expedition had failed in its objective and led to one of the worst naval disasters in western waters during the Civil War. General Curtis solved his own problem by capturing Helena. Now he could be supplied directly from the Mississippi. Union plans for Little Rock would have to wait until the next year.
The Pook Turtles had impressive firepower but insufficient armor. Plunging fire from land batteries could easily penetrate the iron casemate. With one shot, an entire crew could be wiped out. Kilty should have remembered the lessons learned at Fort Donelson by the crew of Carondelet and not taken on that upper battery alone. Only in conjunction with infantry operations would the Pook Turtles enjoy their greatest success. Nevertheless, the Confederacy had nothing on water to match them, and they played a crucial role in the Union conquest of the Mississippi.
Donald L. Barnhart Jr. has contributed several naval articles to CWT. For additional reading, see Rugged and Sublime: The Civil War in Arkansas, by Mark K. Christ.
Originally published in the April 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.