The siege of Vicksburg is one of the greatest stories of the American Civil War. In July of 1863, it’s downfall, along with the defeat of the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg on the same day, is often referred to as the beginning of the end for the Confederate States of America. Although it is the crowning achievement of Ulysses S. Grant, it is also the setting of one of the finest pranks in US history.
To help bring about the fall of the strategically important city, David Porter, Admiral of the Union fleet on the Mississippi River, drew up a highly risky plan to halt Confederate shipping on the river nearby. Porter figured that if he could float a ship downstream past the city, it could decimate anything the Confederates put on the river. The only thing that lay between him and success was a line of Confederate artillery pieces along the river near Vicksburg itself.
In early February of 1863, the U.S.S. Queen of the West moved past Vicksburg with no problem, and proceeded downstream to pound Confederate shipping. For about a week, the Queen ruled the Mississippi River, until a series of incidents forced her to be beached and captured by the Confederates.
Still, the mission’s success encouraged Porter to send another ship to aid the Queen of the West in her task, so the U.S.S. Indianola ran the gauntlet and moved past Vicksburg. Porter however, did not know the Queen’s capture, and it was only a matter of time before the Indianola ran into a Confederate fleet made up of four ships, including the repaired Queen of the West. In no time at all, the Indianola was sunk and captured by the Confederates.
Historians dispute whether or not Porter actually knew about the capture of his two ironclads. Whatever the situation was in his eyes, he concocted yet another daring scheme to harm the Confederates in control of the river. His first two ships managed to float past Vicksburg, but the city had taken the liberty of increasing the number of cannons placed near the river. Porter noticed in the past two runs that the Confederate cannons were manned mostly by rookie artillery men who often fired fast with poor accuracy. Porter figured that he could rig up a fake ship and send it down river, the Confederates would let loose, wasting ammunition, and if fate proved to be with the Federals, maybe cause a few cannon misfires.
Using an old coal barge as the hull, Union troops built a fake ironclad to send downstream. The “ironclad” was lengthened to over 300 feet long with the help of logs, and pork barrels made to look like smoke stacks gave the impression that the ship’s power was indeed mighty. Fake sidewheel covers, and numerous logs sticking out of the side to look like cannons also helped make the Black Terror an impressive sight. At night, most eyes would believe this beast was an actual ironclad sent down the river by the Union navy. The boat was painted black, and on the side some soldier had painted “Deluded Confederates– Cave In.” To make it even more intimidating, a skull and crossbones was added to the ship along with the American flag.
24 hours after the Indianola’s capture, Union troops pushed the “Black Terror” off the shore, and the vessel set sail towards Vicksburg, controlled completely by the river current. Of course, once within view of the Confederate artillery, cannons unleashed upon it. After taking a few hits, the ship floated safely past the city. After hitting ground and being pushed back into the river current by Union soldier down stream, the Black Terror met the Queen of the West
When the Queen saw the oncoming vessel, its officers were frightened out of their wits. Assuming that the Terror did not fire on the Vicksburg batteries because it was looking for the Queen, the Confederate ship fled without firing a shot. As she passed the beached Indianola being repaired by one hundred Confederate soldiers, her officers sent a distress signal, which went unheeded.
When the currents carried the Black Terror towards the Indianola, the officer in charge of the repair crew ordered the ship sunk. After trying to fire the ship’s two 11-inch guns at one another, the crew set the ship on fire. By the time news from Vicksburg had revealed the Yankee ship as a ruse, the crew could not salvage her. The greatest naval prize the Confederacy would ever capture was lost.
The importance of this loss was extreme. Had the Indianola finished repairs and set sail on the Mississippi, the Union would be unable to threaten Vicksburg by water ever again. With the C.S.A. in control of the river, Grant would have had to establish a greater hold south in Mississippi without using ships to carry men and guns. Vicksburg might have held out for months to come, and the fall of the Confederacy might have been delayed.
Eisenschiml, Otto; Long, E.B. As Luck Would Have it. Indiannapolis: Bobbs-Merril,1948.
Johnson, Clint. Civil War Blunders.Winston-Salem: John F. Blair, Publisher, 2002.