Battle of Grand Gulf
Rear Adm. David D. Porter led seven ironclads in an attack on the fortifications and batteries at Grand Gulf, with the intention of silencing the Confederate guns and then securing the area with troops of McClernand’s XIII Army Corps who were on the accompanying transports and barges. The attack by the seven ironclads began at 8:00 am and continued until about 1:30 pm. During the fight, the ironclads moved within 100 yards of the Rebel guns and silenced the lower batteries of Fort Wade; the Confederate upper batteries at Fort Cobun remained out of reach and continued to fire. The Union ironclads (one of which, Tuscumbia, had been put out of action) and the transports drew off. After dark, however, the ironclads engaged the Rebel guns again while the steamboats and barges ran the gauntlet. Grant marched his men overland across Coffee Point to below the Gulf. After the transports had passed Grand Gulf, they embarked the troops at Disharoon's plantation and disembarked them on the Mississippi shore at Bruinsburg, below Grand Gulf. The men immediately began marching overland towards Port Gibson. The Confederates had won a hollow victory; the loss at Grand Gulf caused just a slight change in Grant’s offensive. (NPS summary)
With the gunboats and necessary transports now below the Vicksburg and Warrenton batteries Grant could turn his attention to moving his army across the river. The plan was a reduction of the enemy forts at Grand Gulf and landings there. The plan made good sense; if Grand Gulf could be taken the Union forces would not only have removed a significant Confederate military presence but also gained an excellent base of supply for inland operations. A beachhead there would also open the opportunity for a direct move against Vicksburg from the south or if the situation called for it a move eastward against the capital, Jackson. The two Confederate forts there were well positioned and represented a major challenge to Grant’s plan. The Union commander again called on his naval counterpart, Porter, for assistance. Porter was busily tending to the repair of his fleet but accepted the challenge. An attempt at reducing the two forts was set for April 29th. The assault was elaborately planned by Porter to the smallest detail. He issued instructions to his commanders on April 27th. The attacking force would consist of:
Benton – The converted center wheeled catamaran snagboat served as the flagship for Porter’s armada. She was considered the most powerful warship on the Mississippi. She was armed with 16 guns of various sizes.
Louisville, Mound City, Carondelet, and Pittsburg - The four City Class ironclads were identical in layout but each packed a different array of guns ranging in size. Totaled they added 48 guns to the fight.
Lafayette – This former side wheeled merchant steamer was armed with two 11” Dahlgrens, two 9” Dahlgrens and two 100 pounders. She had seen action on the 21st when she chased the Confederate supply ship Charm back up the Big Black River when she tried to supply the Grand Gulf defenders.
Tuscumbia – An awkwardly shaped steamer that carried three 11” Dahlgrens and two 9” Dahlgrens.
Price – This former Confederate ram carried no significant armament and was ordered to lay off at 1000 yards with two disabled transports in tow. Once the Confederate batteries were engaged she began a run down the far side of the river at top speed. She was struck three times but delivered her charges safely.
The City Class boats were to attack and reduce the lower fort and then move up river to assist Tuscumbia, Lafayette, and Benton at the more formable upper fort. Porter instructed his commanders :
“Louisville, Carondelet, Mound City, and Pittsburg will proceed in advance, going down slowly, firing bow guns at the guns in the first battery (Fort Cobun) on the bluff, passing 100 yards from it, and 150 yards apart from each other.”
The four ironclads would then move down river to take the lower fort (Fort Wade) under fire. The impressive armada left New Carthage and fought their way into their assigned positions. Once the fleet was in place a furious five and a half hour gun battle ensued. The rugged ironclads managed to silence the guns at the lower batteries and moved up to join in the attack on the upper guns. Pittsburg arrived just in time to aid the stricken Benton. During the bombardment the Benton was caught under fire of the Confederate guns after her steering was crippled by a shot through the pilot house. The Pittsburg was brought along side by Acting Volunteer Lieutenant Hoel to absorb the pounding while pushing the Benton to safety. She suffered the only casualties among the City Boats while accomplishing this feat. Her losses were 6 killed and 13 wounded. The act entered Hoel into Navy history as a hero and lent his name to a Fletcher class destroyer launched in 1942 (DD533).
Despite the heroism Porter eventually had to admit that the task of defeating the upper guns was impossible. He decided to save his fleet from further pounding and retired to New Carthage where he called Grand Gulf “the strongest place in Mississippi.” The action resulted in 80 casualties and left the fleet “much cut up.” The casualties included members of Co. D 29th Illinois (1K, 2W) and seven companies of the 58th Ohio (6K, 8W) who were on detached service to Porter’s fleet. Porter reported to Grant, who conceded that any attempt at forcing a landing with the guns at the upper fort still in operation would cause unnecessary casualties. Another new plan would have to be made if the guns of Grand Gulf were to be avoided.