Friday, October 12, 2012

The Battle at Island 10


Monday, March 17. – Last night was one of unusual clearness and the river and shores were bathed in the most delicious moonlight.  If painters need any business, when the grim dogs of war are baying, they would have reveled in the scene.  Although I was surrounded by all the fearful paraphernalia of war, there was nothing to disturb the serenity of the night.  No sounds were audible save the plash of the water, the snarling trumpet calling our pickets afar off, and the sound of the bells upon the gunboats as they called the hours.  The forenoon was consumed until 10 o’clock in supplying the mortar rafts with shells and powder from the ammunition boats.  About half-past ten the mortars commenced practice, occupying the same position as the day before excepting two, which were moored on the left bank about three miles below the upper battery.  Two of the mortars shelled the rebel encampments round the point, the fire of the others concentrating upon the upper battery.  About 11 o’clock, the gunboats took position.  The Benton, Cincinnati and St. Louis lashed together, slowly dropped down the river and opened fire upon the same battery. – The scene now became animated in the extreme, the ball being fairly opened.  I took a position on shore, near the point and alongside the mortars, to witness their practice.  The firing of a mortar is the very poetry of a battle.  A bag of powder weighing from eighteen to twenty pounds is dropped into the bore of the huge monster.  The derrick drops the shell in; the angle is calculated; a long cord is attached to the primer; the gunner steps out upon the platform, and the balance of the crew upon the shore.  The Captain gives the word, the gunner gives his cord a sudden jerk, a crash like a thousand thunders follows, a tongue of flame leaps from the mouth of the mortar, and a column of smoke rolls up in beautiful fleecy spirals, developing into rings of exquisite proportions.  One can see the shell as it leaves the mortar flying through the air, apparently no larger than a marble.  The next you see of the shell, a beautiful cloud of smoke bursts into sight, caused by the explosion.  Imagine ten of these monsters thundering at once, the air filled with smoke clouds, the gunboats belching out destruction and completely hidden from sight in whirls of smoke, the shell screaming through the air with the enemy sending their solid shot and shell above and around us, dashing the water up in glistening columns and jets of spray, and you have the sublime poetry of war.  An incident, however, will show how completely the battle may lose its poetry and develop into a stern and suggestive reality.


TUESDAY, March 18, 1862. – The firing of our boats yesterday very seriously damaged the upper fort, and at an early hour this morning some two or three hundred men could be discovered busily at work repairing the breaches.  The Benton at once dropped down and commenced using her bow rifles with the happiest effect, causing a complete suspension of labor upon the works, the laborers running pell-mell to the nearest shelter.  The Benton continued her practice until the mortars commenced, when she ceased firing.  The gunboats have been idle to-day, the mortars occupying the time exclusively and making some excellent shots.  Several shells have been lodged in the head of the Island.  The mortar practice is rapidly improving, and at the present rate of improvement will warm up the rebel encampment and fortifications to a degree which must cause a speedy evacuation.

This morning I visited Com. Foote.  He expressed himself confident of reducing the place, but says it will take time.  He is fighting the battle at fearful odds.  The gunboats are too unwieldy and unmanageable to fight down stream in the mad current, which sweeps round the point with irresistible fury.  Should one of them become crippled, no power could save her from falling into the hands of the rebels, or being entirely destroyed by their floating battery.  Still the Flag Officer is hopeful.  Undaunted by the difficulties which stare him in the face, by the mean, despicable lack of sympathy with his plans upon the part of certain army officers and others high in power, thus thwarting him in his endeavors to expedite matters to a successful issue.  He will yet cut the Gordian knot by a splendid victory, and clear the river to Memphis and thence sweep triumphantly to the Balize.

– Published in The Burlington Weekly Hawk-Eye, Burlington, Iowa, Saturday, March 29, 1862, p. 1

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