• search-icon

The Union Saved An Ironclad By Deploying $9 Trash Decoy

The USS Indianola was pressed into service before her completion, yet she managed to serve with honor–and be the subject of a thrilling rescue mission.

The Civil War ironclad USS Indianola was rushed into the war, guarding Cincinnati in 1862 before she was even complete. But at the start of 1863, she was cutting through Confederate defenses on the Red River to support Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks's campaign there. But when a crisis hit, Union Navy officers had to figure out how to prevent it from falling into Confederate hands.

The Indianola was part of the Mississippi River Squadron tasked with severing Confederate logistics and defenses on that river and the surrounding waters. But in early 1863, the Confederacy still held 240 miles of water from Vicksburg, Mississippi, down to the Gulf of Mexico. The fiery Rear Adm. David D. Porter sent ships down the Red River to disrupt Confederate shipping at the end of January.

Related: The True Glory of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment 

For a few weeks, the Union ships captured Confederate ones and typically seized any supplies and paroled the crews. But the Union vessels took damage in engagement after engagement and were not able to seize as much fuel as they needed to continue operations so, on February 13, Porter sent the Indianola with two coal barges past the Confederate guns at Vicksburg to reinforce and refuel those ships already downriver.

For a few days, the Indianola stayed downriver and chased off Confederate vessels, but it was headed back upriver on February 24 when a group of Confederate rams hunted it down as darkness fell.

The Indianola was already heavy thanks to its armor, and it maneuvered even more slowly in the river with the two coal barges attached, so the Confederate rams were able to slam into it quickly and then pour fire into its portholes. The Union sailors fired their artillery as quickly as they could, but their fire was largely ineffective in the poor moonlight.

Related: 11 Books About Abraham Lincoln

Lt. Cmdr. George Brown exposed himself to enemy fire repeatedly in his efforts to save the ship and repel the Confederate attack. He fired his revolver against the Confederate sailors, and he was seen ordering his engineers and defenders even as incoming fire was bouncing around him.

The Union ship quickly began to sink, but the commander and crew worked to destroy the signal books and get the vessel to deep water before surrendering it so the rebels could not recapture it. Unfortunately, in an effort to save himself and his crew, Brown surrendered the ship a bit too soon, and the Confederates were able to take it in tow.

uss indianola
  • Building the USS Indianola.

  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Indianola sank soon after its capture, but the Confederates were able to tow it to a sandbar before it did so, leaving most of the ship exposed and giving the Confederacy a solid chance to raise it and turn it against the Union forces. Rear Adm. Porter was loathing to risk sending more ships past Vicksburg's guns to prevent the salvage, but he really didn't want to square up against the Indianola in rebel hands.

So, he looked around for some cash, bought up some scrap wood and iron, and quickly constructed a fake ironside warship built on top of an old flatboat. It had smokestacks complete with thick smoke, fake artillery positions with blackened wood cannons, as well as typical structures like the pilothouse. In all, it cost $8.63, about $170 in 2018 dollars.

Related: 9 Essential Books About Slavery in America

As a little cheeky addition, "Deluded People Cave In" was painted on the paddle wheel housings.

On the night of February 25, Porter had the Black Terror, as the faux ship was dubbed, released into the current with no crew. It was quickly spotted by a Confederate ship that raced downriver ahead of it to warn other rebels of the approach of a Union "ironclad". When it reached the Indianola, the order was given to scuttle and destroy the ship rather than risk its recapture.

uss indianola
  • Wooden dummy "ironclad".

  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Confederate salvage team spiked the ship's guns and threw them in the river, burned the hull down to the waterline, and set off all the powder. Almost nothing remained of the Indianola when the Black Terror came down the river. But, of course, the Black Terror simply kept drifting, eventually running aground two miles downriver.

The Southerners, already confused by the lack of Union fire, were made even more suspicious when there was no sign of crew activity after the Black Terror ran aground. Soon, a small team rowed out to the vessel and discovered that they had been tricked.

Related: 12 Essential Civil War Books 

Despite the fact that the second ironsides attack was a fake and the first was defeated, the bulk of the Confederate fleet still withdrew from the river. The land defenses at Vicksburg, Port Hudson, and a few others, held the line until the following year when land offensives captured them, cementing Union control of the river and choking off what remained of Confederate resupply. After the capture of Vicksburg, the Union recovered the wreck of the Indianola.

And a large contributor to the successful recovery was an $8.63 expenditure on scrap wood and iron.

Published on 24 Jul 2019

scroll up