By Dr. Terry L. Jones
The Manassas, at far right, attacks a Union ship in the Battle of Fort Jackson (Naval Historical Center)
Soon after the Civil War began, the Lincoln administration adopted the Anaconda Plan to suppress the rebellion. This grand strategy called on splitting the Confederacy in two by seizing control of the Mississippi River and using a naval blockade to cut off the South from overseas trade.
New Orleans was the largest port in the Confederacy so it ranked high on the Union navy's blockade targets. By October, five U.S. Navy vessels had taken up position at the Head of Passes where the Mississippi River splits into several channels to the Gulf.
In New Orleans, George N. Hollins was determined to drive the invaders away. Hollins was a crusty sixty-two-year old veteran from Maryland who had the reputation for being a scrapper. He had joined the U.S. Navy as a midshipman when he was just fourteen, and his ensuing forty-seven year career included fighting the British under the legendary Stephen Decatur during the War of 1812. Now a commodore in the Confederate navy, Hollins commanded a small number of armed vessels that were affectionately known as the Mosquito Fleet. None of the boats carried more than a few guns, and Hollins knew he had to have something with more punch, as it were, to lift the Yankee blockade.
Downstream from New Orleans at Fort St. Philip there was an ironclad ram christened the Manassas in honor of the Confederates' great victory that summer in Virginia. Nearly 150 feet in length, the Manassas was a formidable weapon. The ship was made by taking a tug and covering it with heavy oak timbers, which were then overlaid with 1.5 inches of iron. One antiquated 32-pounder was mounted at the bow, but the ship's most dangerous weapon was a heavy ram than could cave in the side of most ships. The iron superstructure gave the Manassas a humped back appearance so people naturally nicknamed it the "Turtle."
CSS Manassas, the "Turtle" (Wikipedia)
Commodore Hollins coveted the ironclad, but it was a privately owned vessel that had been constructed to serve as a privateer. Undeterred, Hollins ordered his subordinate Lt. Alexander F. Warley to "politely" seize it for the Confederate navy. On October 11, 1861, Warley pulled alongside the Manassas in his own ship the McRae. When he informed the Manassas crew of his intentions, one eyewitness claimed they refused to surrender the ship and pointed out that he did not have enough men to take her.
Undeterred, Warley disembarked from the McRae and rowed over to the Manassas in a small boat. The outraged crewmen lined the top of the iron turtle shell cursing Warley and warning him that "they would kill the first man who attempted to board her." With pistol in hand, Warley climbed up the ladder. At that moment, one man claimed, the men "took to their heels and like so many prairie dogs disappeared down the hole of a hatchway with Mr. Warley after them. He drove them back on deck . . . some of them jumping overboard and swimming for it." Warley informed those who remained on board that the Manassas was now a Confederate naval vessel, and as simple as that Commodore Hollins had his ram.
In the pre-dawn hours of October 12, Hollins headed downriver with his Mosquito Fleet to engage the Yankee ships at the Head of Passes. Warley led the way in the powerful but slow moving Manassas with orders to ram the Union flagship USS Richmond. Behind him tugs towed three fire rafts chained together in a line across the river channel. These rafts were piled high with pine knots and other combustibles soaked in turpentine. When released, it was hoped the chain holding them together would snag an enemy vessel and the current would swing the fire rafts together to envelope the boat in flames. Following the fire rafts were the rest of Hollins's ships.
Captain John Polk's unsuspecting Union fleet lay at anchor on both sides of the river at the Head of Passes. The moonless night and heavy river mist made conditions perfect for a surprise attack, but, incredibly, Polk had not established a picket line of boats upstream from his position to warn him of an enemy approach. He had also failed to order the lights extinguished, so each one of his ships was visible in the dark night.
When the Manassas reached the USS Preble, the first Union ship in line, Warley yelled down to the engineer, "Let her out, Hardy! Let her out now!" The engine crew poured buckets of tar, tallow, and sulfur into the fires to supercharge the steam engine, and the Manassas quickly reached its maximum speed of ten knots.
Onboard the Preble, Commander Henry French had just retired when an excited midshipman burst into his room exclaiming, "Captain, there is a steamer right alongside of us." Jumping out of his berth, French glanced out a porthole and saw the dark hulk of the Manassas rush by barely twenty yards away.
By the time French got up on deck, his crew had already hoisted a red lantern to warn the Richmond of the ram's approach, and they fired a few shots at the Manassas as it steamed out of sight into the blackness.
Richmond's gunners, alerted by the Preble's cannons and warning lantern, also opened fire but could not stop the Manassas. Warley's ram glanced off a coal barge tied alongside the ship and then drove into the Richmond's forward port side cracking the timbers below the water line.
Warley managed to back out of the Richmond but he found the collision had knocked loose one of his engines, leaving the heavy vessel unable to attain ramming speed to go after any other enemy ships. He then ordered rockets be fired to signal the rest of the Mosquito Fleet to engage. A young midshipman stood in the top hatchway and lit the first rocket but burned himself in the process and dropped the sizzling missile. It went screaming down into the ship's bowels ricocheting around the interior. Crewmen thought a Yankee shell had penetrated the armor and ran in every direction seeking cover. When the rocket finally sputtered out and they realized what had happened a roar of laughter echoed through the iron vessel. Eventually the embarrassed midshipman managed to fire off the rockets successfully.
When the Mosquito Fleet saw the signal rockets arch through the dark sky the fire rafts were lit and set loose. Commander French on the Preble looked upstream to see three lights growing steadily brighter. "Fire rafts!" he yelled to the men and ordered them to raise the anchor and get under way. By that time Captain Pope had the Richmond moving. He steamed past the Preble banging away with his guns in pursuit of the retreating Manassas but then beat a hasty retreat when he saw the fire rafts heading his way. The fire rafts caused great consternation among the Yankees but none ever actually hit a ship and they eventually burned themselves out.
On the Manassas, Warley found that the enemy's shells had sheared off one smoke stack and knocked the other one into the missing stack's open vent. With no draft, smoke quickly filled the ship and began choking the crew. Engineer William Hardy grabbed an axe and rushed up on deck. While shells screamed around them, one crewman held Hardy by his belt while he leaned over the smoking vent and chopped away the clogging debris. This brave act helped clear the ship of smoke but Warley still had little power so he ran the Manassas aground and prepared to blow it up, if necessary, to keep the vessel out of enemy hands.
The Union fleet quickly retreated down Southwest Pass toward the Gulf, routed largely by one Rebel ram. The USS Vincennes ran aground on a mud flat so Pope beached the leaking Richmond, as well, to provide protective covering fire if needed. Hollins cautiously approached the enemy and exchanged some long range cannon fire but no damage was inflicted on either side and he soon retreated, as well.
At about 8:00 a.m., Captain Pope hoisted signal flags ordering his ships "to get under way," but Capt. Robert Handy onboard the Vincennes read it to say "abandon ship." As a result, he ordered the crew to the long boats and a fuse be lit to his powder magazine to destroy the vessel.
Captain Pope must have been astonished when Handy arrived at the Richmond with the Vincennes' flag wrapped around his waist. He was absolutely mortified when Handy told him he was blowing up his own vessel. When the expected explosion never occurred (the sailor who was ordered to light the fuse cut off the end and threw it overboard), Pope ordered Handy back to the Vincennes. By the next day, all of the ships had crossed the bar into the Gulf of Mexico although numerous cannons and quantities of ordnance had to be heaved over the side to lighten the vessels enough to reach the safety of deep water.
The U.S. Navy was humiliated. Even though Pope greatly outgunned the Rebels he had been run out of the Mississippi River by the little Mosquito Fleet. Someone had to answer for the fiasco, and Pope probably would have been court-martialed had he not saved the navy the trouble by requesting to be relieved for "health" reasons. Robert Handy was sent back North to face a court of inquiry. Three of his crewmen swore that they also had seen the "abandon ship" signal from the Richmond but claimed that it was then changed to "get under way." Nonetheless, Handy's career was ruined and he was never given another command.
On the Confederate side, Commodore Hollins was at first widely praised for driving away the Yankees, even though it was Warley who bore the brunt of the fight. But then questions were raised as to why Hollins broke off the action instead of pressing home the attack against the grounded Richmond and Vincennes. Newspaper editors in New Orleans could not help but wonder if more aggressive action might have resulted in the destruction or capture of the two vessels.
The fight at the Head of Passes lifted spirits in New Orleans, and some people naively believed the blockade was broken for good. As it turned out, the only real result of the battle was to embarrass the Yankees and end two officers' careers. The U.S. Navy quickly reestablished its blockade of the Mississippi River, and prices steadily rose in the Crescent City as shortages grew. Before long soap cost one dollar a bar and coffee $1.25 per pound. It steadily got worse until people started trying substitutes such as dried ground up sweet potatoes for coffee.
While the minor clash at the Head of Passes gets little notice in Civil War literature, it is important for one thing. The Manassas was the first modern ironclad in history to attack an enemy vessel, although the CSS Virginia (aka Merrimac) is usually given that credit for its attack on the Union fleet at Hampton Roads, Virginia, five months later. Unfortunately, the "Turtle" did not survive the war. It exploded and sank in April 1862 after fighting a losing battle with David Farragut's fleet when Farragut ran past Forts Jackson and St. Philip on his way to New Orleans.
The Manassas, at far right, attacks a Union ship in the Battle of Fort Jackson (Naval Historical Center)
Dr. Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and has published six books on the American Civil War.