Lafayette SwRam


(SwRam: t. 1,193 1. 280' b. 45'; dr. 8' s. 4 k.; a. 2 11" D. sb., i 9" D. Bb., 2 100 pdr. P. R.)

The first Lafayette, a sidewheel steamer built at St. Louis Mo., in 1848 as Aleck Scott (often spelled Allick Scott;, was purchased by the War Department as Fort Henry 18 May 1862 for use in the western flotilla, converted to an ironclad ram at St. Louis; renamed Lafayette 8 September 1862; transferred to the Navy with the entire western flotilla by executive order 1 October 1862; and commissioned at Cairo, Ill., 27 February 1863, Capt. Henry Walke in command.

The new ram Joined Rear Adm. David D. Porter's Mississippi Squadron above Vicksburg in time for the famous dash 6 April 1863 past the deadly batteries which protected the vital Confederate fortress. The gunboats engaged the southern gnus as they shepherded Army transports through the gauntlet to New Carthage. Ram General Sterling Price was lashed to the starboard side of Lafa11ette 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. Lafavette, 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 21/2 hours, all ships of the squadron were ready for servicewithin half an hour after the passage. The successful steaming of the squadron past the heavy batteries contributed to the early seizure of Grand Gulf, the eventual fall of Vicksburg itself, and ultimately the conquest of the entire Mississippi.

Five days later Porter, in 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 the 24th, 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 the 29th Porter's ships engaged the heavy Con,federate works at Grand Gulf, which, the admiral acknowledged, "were very formidable." In the 51/2 -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. Though Benton, Tucumbia, and Pittsburg were "pretty much cut up" in the engagement, the expedition was successful, and the net result was summed up by Porter, "We are now in a position to make a landing where the general Grant] pleases." The following night Grant took advantage of this mobility and ferried his troops across the Mississippi and landed them at Bruinsburg for lightning operations to isolate Vicksburg from reinforcements.

On 3 May Porter once again moved his gunboats against the Confederate batteries, but the southerners, flnding 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. AB Porter reported to Secretary Welles, ". . . the Navy holds the door to Vicksburg."

Porter departed Grand Gulf with his gunboat squadron and rendezvoused that evening with the Farragut fleet at the mouth of the Red River. He preceeded up the river the next day with Benton, Lafayette, Pittsburg, General Serling Price, rams Switzerland, and Ivy. Strella and Arizona joined en route. The evening of 5 May the ships arrived at Fort De Russey, La., "a powerful casemated work" which the Oonfederates had recently evacuated in the face of the naval threat. Porter pushed past a heavy obstruction in the river and proceeded to Alexandria, La., which he occupied on the morning of the 7th. Subsequently turning the town over to Army troops and unable to continue upriver because of the low water, Porter's force returned to Fort De Russey and partially deetroyed 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, La., 4 June, 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, Vicksburg surrendered, ending a long and valiant siege.

During the summer and fall Lafayette, with other Union ships, patrolled the river protecting Federal communications. On 29 September she and Kenwood arrived at Morganza, La., 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 General Dana, demonstrating the ability of gunboats to vastly strengthen otherwise relatively weak ground forces.

The Mississippi Squadron's next mayor operation took the gunboats up the Red River to open the 2-month campaign aimed at obtaining a lodgement across the border in Texas Eastport led the way 12 March 1864 followed by ironclads 1~8Oe~, Ozark, Osage, and Neosho and wooden steamers Lafavette, Choctaa, Fort Hindman, and Cricket. When they reached the obstructions which the southerners had taken 5 months to build below Fort De Russey, ". . . our energetic sailors," Porter observed "with hard work opened a passage in a few hours." Eastport and Neosho passed through and commenced bombarding Fort De Ruseey as the Union troopsbegan their assault on the works; by the 14th it was in Union hands. Porter wrote: "The surrender of the forts at Point De Russey is of much more importance than I at first sup.posed. The rebels had depended on that point to stop any advance of Army or Navy . . ."

On the l5th, after ordering Benton and Essex~ to remain at Fort De Russey to support the Army detachment deatroying the works, Porter convoyed the main body of troops up the Red River toward Alexandria. The Union ships reached Alexandria the next morning a,nd a landing party occupied the town and awaited the arrival of MaJor General Banks' army, delayed by heavy rains. Slowed by low water and obstructions, Porter pushed his vessels up the river. At Grand Encore he left the heavier gunboats behind, including Lafayette, and continued up stream 7 April with three ironclads and three wooden steamers to meet General Banks at Shreveport,La. Three days later they were stopped at Springfield Landing by a huge steamer, Neu' Falls City, sunk athwart the channel. Before this formidable obstruction could be removed, word arrived that General Banks had been decisively defeated in the Battle of Sabine Cross Roads near Grand Encore and was in headlong retreat. Porter had no choice but to withdraw. Falling water and incoming 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

After returning to the Mississippi, ships of the squadron were constantly occupied with safeguarding river transportation from southern attack. On 16 May sidewheeler General Sterling Price engaged a Confederate battery which had flred on transport steamer Mississippi near Ratliff's Ianding, Miss. 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.

After the war, Lafayette decommissioned 23 July 1865 and was laid up at New Orleans until sold there 28 March 1866.