Friday, March 23, 2012

Tennessee River Expedition – Official Report of Lieut. S. L. Phelps

Tennessee River, February 10, 1862

Flag Officer H. H. Foote, U. S. N. Commanding
Naval Forces Western Waters

SIR – Soon after the surrender of Ft. Henry on the 6th inst., I proceeded in obedience to your orders up the Tennessee river with the Tyler, Lieut. Commanding Gwin, Lexington, Lieut. Commanding Shirk, and this vessel, forming a division of the Flotilla, and arrived after dark at the railroad crossing, 25 miles above the Fort, having destroyed on the way a small amount of camp equipage abandoned by the fleeing rebels.  The draw of the bridge was found to be closed and the machinery for turning it disabled.  About one and a half miles above were several rebel transport steamers escaping up stream.  A party was landed, and in one hour I had the satisfaction to see the draw open.  The Tyler being the slowest of the gun boats, Lieut. Gwin landed a force to destroy a portion of the railroad track, and to secure such military stores as might be found while I directed Lieut. Shirk to follow me with all speed in chase of the fleeing boats.  In five hours this boat succeeded in forcing the rebels to abandon and burn three of their boats, loaded with military stores.  The first one fired (Samuel Orr) had on board a quantity of submarine batteries which very soon exploded.  The second was freighted with powder, cannon shot, grape, balls, &c.  Fearing an explosion from the fired boats (there were two together) I stopped at a distance of 1,000 yards, but even then our sky lights were shattered by the concussion, the light upper deck was raised bodily, doors were forced open and locks and fastenings everywhere broken.  The whole river for half a mile around about was completely beaten up by the falling fragments and the shower of shot, grape, balls, &c.  The house of a reputed Union man was blown to pieces, and it was suspected there was design in landing the rebels in front of the doomed house.  The Lexington having fallen astern, and without a pilot on board, I concluded to wait for both of the boats to come up.  Joined by them we proceeded up the river.  Liut. Gwin had destroyed some of the trestle work at the end of the bridge, burning with them a lot of the camp equipage.  J. N. Brown, formerly a Lieutenant in the Navy, now signing himself Lieut. C. S. N. had fled with such precipitation as to leave his papers behind.  These Lieut. Gwin brought and I send them to you, as they give an official history of the rebel floating preparations on the Mississippi, Cumberland and Tennessee.  Lieut. Brown had charge of the construction of gunboats. – At night on the 7th we arrived at a landing in Hardee county, Tenn. Known as Cerro Gordo, where we found the steamer Eastport being converted into a gunboat.  Armed boat crews were immediately sent on board, and search made for means of destruction that might have been devised.

She had been scuttled, and the suction pipes broken.  These leaks were soon stopped.  A number of rifle shots were fired at our vessels, but a couple of shells dispersed the rebels.  On examination I found that there were large quantities of timber and lumber prepared for fitting up the Eastport, that the vessel itself, some two hundred and eighty feet long was in excellent condition and already half finished.  Considerable of the plating designed for her was lying on the bank and everything at hand to complete her.  I therefore directed Lieutenant Commanding Gwin to remain with the Tyler to guard the prize, and to load the lumber, &c., while the Lexington and Conestoga should proceed still higher up.  Soon after daylight we passed Easport, Mississippi, and at Chickasaw, farther up near the State line, seized two steamers the Sallie Wood and Muscle, the former laid up the latter freighted with iron destined for Richmond and for rebel uses.

We then proceeded on up the river, entering the State of Alabama and ascending to Florence at the foot of Muscle Shoals.  On coming in sight of the town three steamers were discovered, which were immediately set on fire by the rebels.  Some shots were fired from the opposite side of the river below.   A force was landed and considerable quantities of supplies, marked “Fort Henry” were secured from the burning wrecks.  Some had been landed and stored.  These I [secured], putting such as we could bring away on board our vessels, and destroying the remainder.  No flats or other craft could be found.  I found also more of the iron plating intended for the Eastport.

A deputation of the citizens of Florence waited upon me, first desiring that they might be able to quiet the fears of their wives and daughters with assurance from me that they should not be molested and secondly, praying that I would not destroy their railroad bridge.  As for the first, I told them that we were neither ruffians nor savages, and that we were there to protect from violence and to enforce the law, and with reference to the second that if the bridge was away we could ascend no higher, and that it could possess, so far as I saw no military importance, as it simply connected Florence itself with the railroad on the south side of the river.  We had seized three of their steamers, one the half finished gunboat, and had forced the rebels to burn six others loaded with supplies, and their loss with that of the freight, is a severe loss to the enemy.  Two boats are still known to be on the river, and are doubtless hidden in some of the creeks where we shall be able to find them when there is time for the search.  We returned on the night of the 8th to where the Eastport lay.  The crew of the Tyler had already gotten on board of the prize an immense amount of lumber etc.  The crews of the boats set to work to finish it immediately, and we have brought away, probably 250,000 feet of the best quality of ship and building lumber, all the iron machinery, spikes, and plating, nails, etc., belonging to the rebel gunboat, and I caused the mill to be destroyed where the lumber had been sawed.  Lieut. Commanding Gwin, in our absence, enlisted some twenty-five Tennesseeans, who gave information of the encampment of Colonel Drew’s rebel regiment at Savannah, Tennessee.  A portion of the six hundred or seven hundred men were known to be pressed men and all were badly armed.  After consultation with Lieutenants Commanding Gwin and Shirk I determined to make a land attack on the encampment. – Lieutenant Commanding Shirk with thirty riflemen came on board the Conestoga, leaving his vessel to guard the Eastport and accompanied by the “Tyler,” we proceeded up to that place prepared to land 130 riflemen, and a 12 pound rifled howitzer.  Lieutenant Commanding Gwin took command of this force when landed, but had the mortification to find the encampment deserted.  The rebels had fled at 10 o’clock, at night, leaving considerable quantities of arms, clothing, shoes, camp utensils, provisions, implements, etc., all of which were secured or destroyed, and their winter quarters of log huts were burned.  I seized also a large mail bag, and send you the letters giving military information.

The gunboats were then dropped down to a point where arms gathered under the rebel (press) law had been stored and an armed party, under Second Master Goudy, of the Tyler, succeeded in seizing 70 rifles and fowling pieces.  Returning to Cerro Gordo, we took the Eastport, Sable Woods and Muscle in tow, and came down the river to the railroad crossing.  The Muscle sprung a leak, and all efforts failed to prevent her from sinking and we were forced to abandon her, and with her a considerable quantity of fine lumber.  We are having trouble in getting through the draw of the bridge here.

I now come to the most interesting portion of the report, one which has already become lengthy, but I trust you will find some excuse for this in the fact that it embraces a history of labors and movements day and night, from the 6th to the 10th of the month all of which details I deem it proper to give you.  We have met with the most gratifying proofs of loyalty everywhere across Tennessee, and in the portions of Mississippi and Alabama we visited. – Most affecting incidents greeted us almost hourly.  Men, women and children several times gathered in crowds of hundred, and shouted their welcome and hailed their national flag with an enthusiasm there was no mistaking.  It was genuine and heartfelt.  These people braved everything to go to the river bank, where a sight of their flag might once more be enjoyed, and they have experienced, as they related, every possible form of persecution.  Tears flowed freely down the cheeks of men as well as of women, and there were those who had fought under the stars and stripes at Moultrie, who in this manner testified to their joy.  This display of feeling and sense of gladness at our success, and the hopes it created in the breasts of so many people in the heart of the Confederacy astonished us not a little, and I assure you, Sir, I would not have failed to witness it for any consideration.  I think it has given us all a higher sense of the character of our present duties.  I was assured at Savannah that of several hundred troops there, more than one half, had we gone to the attack in time, would have hailed us as deliverers, and gladly enlisted with the national force.  In Tennessee, the people generally, in their enthusiasm, braved secessionists and spoke their views freely, but in Mississippi and Alabama what was said was guarded, “If we dared express ourselves freely, you would bear such a shout greeting your coming as you never heard.  We know that there are many Unionists among us, but a reign of terror makes us afraid of our shadow.”  We were told, too, “Bring us a small, organized force, with arms and ammunition for us and we can maintain our position and put down rebellion in our midst.”  There were, it is true, whole communities who, on our approach, fled to the woods, but these were where there was less of the loyal element.

I am, respectfully, your obedient servant,

Lieutenant Commanding, U. S. N.

– Published in The Burlington Weekly Hawk-Eye, Burlington, Iowa, Saturday, March 1, 1862, p. 1

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