Mississippi (U.S.S.)

Search for the famous navy ship, Mississippi. Blown up on Mississippi River during the Civil War somewhere above Baton Rouge. May, 1989.

The Mississippi was the navy’s first ocean sailing steam ship. She served with distinction for twenty-three years and established an incredible history, which is described in the listing from the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships on a later page.

Her end came when she tried to pass the guns of Port Hudson along with Farragut’s fleet that had successfully taken New Orleans. She ran aground and was abandoned by her crew, whose executive officer was Thomas Dewey, later of Manila fame. Set on fire and blazing from bow to stern, she slid off the sand bar and began drifting down the Mississippi, ultimately blowing to pieces when the 24 tons of gun powder in her hull exploded. She then sank out of sight in deep water.

There was no recorded attempt to salvage her and descriptions of her resting place were incredibly skimpy.

She was known to have drifted for 2 to three hours under a current recorded by Farragut himself at 4 miles an hour. These figures would put her roughly somewhere between 10 and 12 miles down river from Port Hudson and well below the tip of Prophet Island. Some reports put the site of her explosion close to the Arkansas, but this has to be an exaggeration. The Arkansas was destroyed by her crew a good sixteen miles below Port Hudson just at the bend of the reach dropping toward Baton Rouge.

In May of ’89, Craig Dirgo and Clive Cussler ran search lines beginning two miles below Prophet Island and ending one mile north of the bottom tip. Using the EG&G sonar and Schonstedt gradiometer, nothing resembling a shipwreck was discovered and no targets of any consequence worth investigating.

We weren’t overly optimistic of finding the Mississippi because the stretch of river where she most likely sank is now a giant swamp. As you can see by a copy of the included chart, the new course of the river is considerably to the east of the old. Three wrecks are noted on an old chart in the general area. The one to the north that appears to be grounded on a bar just below Prophet Island was dredged away many years ago, and our instruments no longer picked her out. The two that are farther south are already marked on the encroaching swamp ground and by now must be a good half mile from the river.

The Mississippi would be a fascinating wreck to survey. Not being salvaged, much of her must still be intact. She might possibly be located with a mag trailed behind a helicopter, but even if her final resting place is found, the remoteness and bog conditions would make any excavation extremely difficult if not next to impossible.

Fragment of Letter Referencing U.S.S. MISSISSIPPI

Port Hudson Sunday Morning March 22, 1863

My Darling Julia,

I did think and believe I said that I would not write again until I received a letter from you, but I have a chance of sending a letter to Montgomery and will avail myself of the opportunity. I have not received a letter from you in almost 2 weeks. I think the 1st was dated the 2nd. I made up my mind 10 days ago to do without letters for a while for I thought the Yankeys would have us cut off, but they only cut us off one day and we have had regular mails since. I should not think so strange but the boys have been receiving letters from Prattville every mail for the past week, some as late date as the 10th. I am afraid you are sick for I knew you would have written if you are well Perhaps the letters have been lost. I will assure you I have been disappointed in not receiving them. This will make 8 letters that I have sent you this month. I am sending you the number of letters that I have written. I only count the envelopes when I put 2 sheets in one envelope. I only count it as one. I sent you a letter last Tuesday giving an account of the terrible GunBoat fight here one week ago this morning. I sent an account of it to Howell yesterday with permission to publish, thinking the friends there would like to see a letter from here. It will be signed P.E.M so you will know who it is from when you see it. Julia, it was the grandest sight I ever saw or ever expect to see and if I am here 3 years it will be impossible to have a better bombardment. It is impossible to describe it. It would be impossible for a person not here to form a correct idea of it and how we all escaped I cannot see. There is no doubt we killed many of the enemy. I was talking with a prisoner yesterday that was on the Mississippi, he says we killed a large number on his Ship, that he walked over the bodies of 6 men as he left the Ship. We think we killed quite as many on the Richmond as we did on the Mississippi[1]. Genl. Gardner gave us quite a puff and I think very justly. I do not believe there was a man or Officer that flinched. I will not say dodged for I think there was a good deal of dodging. I know I bobbed my head a few times. The fleet is laying about 4 miles below us and have been amusing themselves every evening for the past week by throwing shells up this way. Until yesterday they all fell short, and we had concluded they had no guns that they could reach us with, but yesterday evening they proved to us that they could throw their shells as far as they wanted to. 4 of our Boats were laying at the upper landing just above and near our Battery. I had carried the Co. out to do a little work in the battery, when they commenced at the Boats. The first shell fell just in front of our battery. I told the boys that was an accidental shot, that they could not do so well again, when here came another that passed just over our heads, struck the Ground and exploded about 100 yards above us. I was not satisfied yet, the next one exploded nearly over us. I then told the boys to get in the Ditch tho’ they did not need much telling. They continued sending them over us for about an hour. The Boats left as soon as possible. When they changed the direction and turned towards our Camp, one shell went over my Tent and struck the ground about 20 yards back. They only threw a few at the Camp and quit for the day. The shell that fell back of our tent we dug out. It went slanting into the ground 12 ft. and 6 ft. deep. It is 16 in. long and 6 ½ in. in diameter. One fell back of our Camp that did not explode that was 20 in. long and 8 in. diameter and weighed 153 lbs. The dirt from one of these yesterday knocked a man and a mule down but hurt neither. I expect they will disturb our rest here now all the Spring unless we take our guns down on a bluff near them and drive them off. If we had the guns to spare I think we would try it. It would be a hazardous undertaking, but I believe we could do it. Genl. Smith (the Chief of heavy Artillery) asked me yesterday how I would like to go. I told him first rate, but he told me this morning he did not think he could do it for he did not have the guns to spare, and since I have thought more about it I don’t believe I am anxious anyway. Some of the boys came to me last night and said they were not very anxious to go but if the Capt. and I would go they were with us, that they would board the Cisero[2] with the Capt. if he said so. They think everything of him and I believe most of them would follow him anywhere if they knew two thirds of them would be killed. We have got some that I don’t believe know what fear is. So far as I am concerned I had much rather they would keep their Iron and lead on their own side of the house. I think they are very extravagant in throwing so much away. They will want it for some other use after a while, and then they might hurt some one after a while if they keep on with this foolishness. It was certainly their intention to attack us by land, but they have gone back and I don’t believe they will attack us soon. They were badly whipped the other night. The scoundrels burnt a fine dwelling house on the other side of the River last Tuesday. I did want to fire at them bad but Genl. Smith would not let us. We will get even with them after a while. Lt. Jackson, the one that married Miss Lucy Young, came here last[3]

[1] The Union ship, Mississippi, was destroyed in the battle, blowing up in an explosion that was felt at Port Hudson twenty miles away. During the battle, Company K fired their one gun 32 times. Lieut. Pratt, had immediate charge of the gun with Sergeants Ellis and Royals as the gunners and William H. Fay as the ordnance sergeant.

[2] Transcribed as written

[3] End of fragment


3 Responses to Mississippi (U.S.S.)

  1. Harriet Carroll says:

    My 3rd great-grandfather was Robert Kelly, Acting master, who was killed while serving on board the Mississippi. I have yet to find a list of the casualties, but we do have a letter from him to his wife discussing the time spent in New Orleans, and we have assumed that he died in that last battle at Port Hudson.

  2. Michael W White says:

    If the Mississippi is somehow confused with USS Lancaster (ram ship) which is poorly documented as well, the final resting place is surely further north. Just southeast of Fancy Point Towhead…

  3. Clay Lord says:

    Just a footnote, “General Smith” is actually Col Marshall J Smith who was indeed in charge of the heavy artillery at Port Hudson. Interestingly enough Smith served as a mid-shipman aboard the Mississippi many years before. He must have fired on her with mixed emotions.

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