USS Lafayette was a side-wheel steam-powered gunboat which served with distinction on the Mississippi during the Vicksburg Campaign. She was named for Marie Joseph du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, a French national who aided General George Washington during the American Revolutionary period.
She was built at a shipyard in St. Louis, Missouri in 1848 as Aleck Scott, originally to serve in the civilian commercial river traffic. After the war began - and Federal authorities saw a need for steamers to patrol the major rivers - she was purchased by the War Department and renamed Fort Henry on 18 May 1862, and served under the Western Flotilla. Just scant months later she came out of the yards at St. Louis as an ironclad ram at St. Louis; renamed Lafayette on 8 September 1862, she was transferred to the Navy along with the entire Western Flotilla by executive order on 1 October 1862, and commissioned in Cairo, Illinois on 27 February 1863, under the command of Captain Henry Walke.
Lafayette joined Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter's Mississippi Squadron above Vicksburg in time for the dash on 6 April 1863 past the deadly batteries that protected the vital Confederate fortress. The gunboats engaged the southern guns as they shepherded Army transports through the gauntlet to New Carthage. The ram General Sterling Price was lashed to the starboard side of Lafayette for the passage. The ships were covered with heavy logs and bales of wet hay, which proved to be an excellent defense. Each ship, except Benton, also towed a coal barge. Lafayette, hampered by the ship lashed to her side, received nine "effective" shots through her casemate and had her coal barge sunk. Although under fire for 2½ hours, all ships of the squadron were ready for service within half an hour after the passage.
Five days later, Porter, aboard Lafayette, reconnoitered the Confederate works at Grand Gulf. He found a "strong fort" under construction and shelled the workers out. When Confederate steamer Charm attempted to land supplies for the fort the Union gunboats drove her back up the Big Black River. By 24 April 1863, Porter had stationed his gunboats so that they commanded the upper battery at Grand Gulf and closed off the mouth of the Big Black River.
On 29 April 1863, Porter's ships engaged the heavy Confederate works at Grand Gulf, which, the admiral acknowledged, "were very formidable." In the 5½-hour battle, the gunboats silenced the lower batteries, but could succeed in stopping the fire from the upper forts only "for a short time." Meanwhile, Army transports passed safely below the batteries. Although Benton, Tuscumbia, and Pittsburg were "pretty much cut up" in the engagement, the expedition proved successful. "We are now in a position," Porter later declared, "to make a landing where the general (Ulysses S. Grant) pleases." The following night, Grant took advantage of this mobility and ferried his troops across the Mississippi and landed them at Bruinsburg for operations to isolate Vicksburg from reinforcements.
On 3 May 1863, Porter once again moved his gunboats against the Confederate batteries, but the southerners, finding their position totally untenable after Grant had taken his army into the country back of Grand Gulf, had evacuated. The great land-sea pincer could now close on Vicksburg. As Porter reported to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, "the Navy holds the door to Vicksburg."
Porter departed Grand Gulf with his gunboat squadron and rendezvoused that evening with the fleet under Rear Admiral David Farragut at the mouth of the Red River. He proceeded up the river the next day with Benton, Lafayette, Pittsburg, General Sterling Price, rams Switzerland, and Ivy. Estrella and Arizona joined en route. The evening of 5 May 1863, the ships arrived at Fort De Russy, Louisiana, "a powerful casemated work" that the Confederates had recently evacuated in the face of the naval threat. Porter pushed past a heavy obstruction in the river and proceeded to Alexandria, which he occupied on the morning of the 7th. Subsequently turning the town over to Army troops but unable to continue upriver because of the low water, Porter's force returned to Fort De Russy and partially destroyed it.
As the Union noose around Vicksburg tightened, Lafayette steamed up and down the river gathering information and dispersing Confederate defensive works. With Pittsburg she shelled Simmesport, Louisiana, on 4 June 1863, forcing the defenders to abandon strong riverside positions. The gunboats then returned to the mouth of the Red River to resume blockade duty. Exactly a month later, on Independence Day, 4 July 1863, Vicksburg surrendered, ending a long and valiant siege.
Louisiana and Texas
During the summer and fall, Lafayette, with other Union ships, patrolled the river protecting Federal communications. On 29 September 1863, she and Kenwood arrived at Morganza, Louisiana, on Bayou Fordeche, to support troops under Maj. Gen. Napoleon J. T. Dana. There more than 400 Union troops recently had been captured in an engagement with Confederates under Brig. Gen. Thomas Green. The Union ships deterred the Confederates from attacking the smaller force of Maj. Gen. Dana, demonstrating the ability of gunboats to vastly strengthen otherwise relatively weak ground forces.
The Mississippi Squadron's next major operation took the gunboats up the Red River to open the two-month campaign aimed at obtaining a lodgement across the border in Texas. Eastport led the way on 12 March 1864, followed by the ironclads Essex, Ozark, Osage, Lafayette, Choctaw, and Neosho; the tinclad Fort Hindman, and the wooden steamer Cricket. When on the 14th they reached the obstructions, which the southerners had taken five months to build below Fort De Russey, "...our energetic sailors," Porter observed "with hard work opened a passage in a few hours." Eastport, Osage, Fort Hindman and Cricket passed through and provided some support for the Union troops as they assaulted Fort De Russy, which quickly fell. "The surrender of the forts at Point De Russey is of much more importance than I at first supposed," Porter later wrote, "The rebels had depended on that point to stop any advance of army or navy..."
On 15 March 1864, after ordering Benton and Essex to remain at Fort De Russy to support the Army detachment destroying the works, Porter convoyed the main body of troops up the Red River toward Alexandria. The Union ships reached their destination the next morning and a landing party occupied the town to await the arrival of Major General Nathaniel P. Banks's army, delayed by heavy rains. Slowed by low water and obstructions, Porter pushed his vessels up the river. On 24 March, Porter reported that he and his squadron (including Lafayette) "...have captured 2,021 bales of rebel cotton since we came into this river." At Grand Ecore, he left the heavier gunboats behind, including Lafayette, and continued up river on 7 April with the ironclads Osage, Neosho, and Chillicothe, the tinclad Fort Hindman, and the wooden steamers Lexington and Cricket, to meet Banks at Shreveport, Louisiana. However, the Union force discovered the large steamer New Falls City sunk athwart the channel that prevented their progress beyond Springfield Landing. Before this formidable obstruction could be removed, word arrived that Banks had suffered a defeat in the Battle of Pleasant Hill near Grand Ecore and was in headlong retreat, leaving Porter no choice but to withdraw. Falling water and increasing Confederate fire from the riverbank strained the seamanship and ingenuity of the Union sailors in their desperate struggle to avoid being trapped above the Alexandria Rapids. On 17 April Porter sent Lafayette, as part of a naval force, to Fort Pillow, Tennessee, in response to its capture and temporary occupation by Confederate troops under Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Lower Mississippi operations
Lafayette spent the remainder of the war stationed on the lower Mississippi, safeguarding river transportation from attack, suppressing illicit trade in cotton, and interdicting the movement of Confederate forces. On 16 May 1864, sidewheeler General Sterling Price engaged a Confederate battery, which had fired on transport steamer Mississippi near Ratliff's Landing, Mississippi. Lafayette and General Bragg converged upon the battery, and the three heavy steamers forced the Confederate gunners back from the river, enabling the transport to proceed.
Sniping by southern guerillas along the riverbank vexed Union ship captains and demanded a dramatic response. Following the verbal orders of Rear Adm. Porter, Lafayette's commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. James P. Foster placed placards along the shore that warned that one Confederate prisoner would be executed for each person killed on board a transport by rebel fire. Foster reported ten days later that there were no further incidents of sniping at Union vessels.
Throughout the rivers and coastal waters of the Confederacy southern engineers made attempts to destroy or damage Federal warships with explosive devices they called torpedoes. One such attack targeted Lafayette on an August night in 1864. Suspended beneath a bouy disguised to look like a piece of driftwood, Confederate engineers placed the device so that the current would carry it into the ship's hull, where the explosive charge would be detonated by pulling a lanyard. Fortunately for Lafayette's crew, a sharp lookout spotted the suspicious contraption, and had it intercepted before it could reach the ship.
The U.S. Navy on the western waters shrank in size after the end of the Civil War. Acting on a recomendation from the squadron's commander, Rear Adm. Samuel P. Lee, the Navy Department ordered Lafayette to New Orleans on 22 May 1865 to be put "in ordinary." Concern over potential resistance by Confederate forces in the Trans-Mississippi Department to the surrender agreement, however, delayed the ironclad's final journey. The Union warship was part of a force that steamed up the Red River at the end of May to secure Confederate property, including the ironclad CSS Missouri. Accepting the surrender of the formidable vessel on 3 June, Lafayette escorted the southern warship to the mouth of the Red River, and departed for New Orleans soon thereafter.
Lafayette was decommissioned on 23 July 1865 and was laid up at New Orleans until sold there on 28 March 1866 for $10,770.
Part of the text is incorporated from the United States Navy's Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, a work in the public domain.