Warship Wednesday March 26, The Church-house Rattler

Here at LSOZI, we are going to take out every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week.

– Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday March 26, The Church-house Rattler

Note the big red "1" on the wheelhouse and the folding smokestacks, to allow movement through densely forested bayou

Note the big red “1” on the wheelhouse and the folding smokestacks, to allow movement through densely forested bayou. This paining by Herb Mott is at the Depot Museum in Vicksburg.

Here we see “Tinclad Gunboat #1”, the USS Rattler, as she moves into the Yazoo River in Mississippi in Feb 1863, leading nine ships in an ill-fated attempt to navigate the narrow swamp to reach Vicksburg by surprise. The Rattler has one of the weirdest tales of naval lore in the world– and it includes a very spicy church service.

Built as the 165-ton, stern-wheel flat-bottom steamboat Florence Miller in Ohio, she was purchased in 1862 by the Navy and rapidly converted to a warship for river combat. Her important sections (paddlewheel, boiler, etc) were armored by lumber planks and two sheets of half-inch iron to protect the ship from shore fire. As such she was called a tinclad, and officially named as such, Tinclad Gunboat #1, the USS Rattler. Her armament was a pair of 30-pounder Parrott rifles and quartet of 24-pounder smoothbore Dahlgren Napoleon guns, plus small arms.


Under command of Master Amos Longthorne, she was commissioned 19 Dec 1862 at Cairo, ILL. With Rattler in the lead to the fleet of David Dixon Porter’s Mississippi Squadron, she was instrumental in the capture of Fort Hindman at Arkansas Point in January 1863, closing so close to the fort that she took the rebel rifle pits in enfilade. Following this, she served as the flagship of a force of nine tinclads and Army transports carrying some 6000 men of Sherman’s division in an effort to slip through the Yazoo River north of Vicksburg during that siege (in the painting above). Battling tangles, impassable bayou, and logjams, they were forced to turn around.

rattler 24

After this date, Longthorne left the Rattler for service on the ironclad USS Mound City before commanding the USS Alabama at Fort Fisher.

Her next three skippers all had a harder experience on her decks.

Rattler briefly raided up the Black, Red, Tensa and Ouachita rivers following the fall of Vicksburg before being assigned to patrol the crossings near Rodney to watch for Confederate troops. To keep the threat to his ships at a minimum while all along the still very wild Mississippi, Adm. Porter’s General Order No. 4 (18-Oct-1862) required that gunboats “must not lie tied up to a bank at any time,” when south of St. Louis and north of New Orleans, except for where Federal troops held garrison.

While stationed near the important (but ungarrisoned) river town of Rodney, Mississippi in Jefferson County, between Vicksburg and Natchez, USS Rattler had its crew invited to church. It seemed a passing Presbyterian minister, with Union sympathies, was going to run the services the coming Sunday and asked the captain to attend.

Rattler’s Master Walter E. H. Fentress (today considered a LT or LT(JG)), took the ships XO and Engineer, navigator, and 19 enlisted ashore “dressed in their best toggery” on Sunday Sept 13, 1863, just two months after Vicksburg and nearby Port Gibson, to attend church service at the First Presbyterian Church. The group was unarmed except for a revolver concealed by the engineer. Fentress even wore a civilian suit!

Well all went well for a minute but sometime between the first and second hymn, a Confederate cavalry officer, most likely one Lt. Allen of the 4th Mississippi Cavalry Regiment, which was largely a group of small mounted partisan and ranger type units drawn from across South Mississippi, walked in and placed the group under arrest.

Apologizing to the minister, he turned and announced that his men had surrounded the church and demanded that the Union sailors surrender. Allen had some 15-20 troopers lined up outside the church windows who were well armed. The most common Mississippi cavalry weapons being shotguns and revolvers, although the size in forces was comparable, the rebels had the drop on the bluejackets.

One of the very few pictures of Mississippi cavalry, this one of the 1st MS. These Gray Ghosts were not photographed very often and wandered across the state in small bands throughout the war.

One of the very few pictures of Mississippi cavalry, this one of the 1st MS. These Gray Ghosts were not photographed very often and wandered across the state in small bands throughout the war.

Well according to most accounts, the Yanks fired first, with the Engineer standing and firing a shot ‘through the hat’ of the Confederate cavalry officer (maybe it was a big hat, they did like to be flamboyant). This resulted in much confusion, yelling, and gunplay with the troopers firing through the windows, Allen firing a shot into the ceiling, and a good bit of fisticuffs. In the end, 17 Yanks ended up as prisoners of war (including Master Fentresss) while six (including the pistoero ship’s Engineer) made it back to the boat.

The Rattler, in an effort to get their captain and crew back from the scoundrels who seized them in God’s house, bombarded the town with at least 20 rounds of 24-pdr shrapnel, and 5 of 30-pdr Parrott shells that were aimed both into the town and the roads leading into and away from. These hit the church and damaged at least four homes. One of these rounds is still rumored embedded in the church at Rodney today.

Click to embiggen. The 'cannonball' (most likely a fragment from a 24-pdr shell if its the real deal) is seen embedded in the wall of the church between the center second-story window and the bell free/steeple

Click to embiggen. The ‘cannonball’ (most likely a fragment from a 24-pdr shell if its the real deal) is seen embedded in the wall of the church between the center second-story window and the bell free/steeple

The Confederates in fact did not give their prisoners back and shipped many of them to POW camps around the south. At least three (Thomas Brown, Frederick Plump, and Oloff Nelson,) died at Danville, Virginia of disease before the end of the war. A petition signed by Rodney residents and presented to the Navy after the incident plead that they had no involvement in the action .

This was not to be the end of the Rattlers troubles.

From Sept 7-10, 1864, the captain of the Rattler quietly left to boat and proceeded to occupied Vicksburg without orders on his own on personal business. He instructed his crew to “fire a shell every 15 minutes” and avoid any contact with rebels in the area. Upon arriving back, his absence had been noted and led to something of a controversy, that included speculation that the rebels were going to capture the ship.

Captian Pennock, of the Mississippi Blockading Squadron sent the Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Gideon Wells, a letter that said in part that Acting Master D. W. Glenney, late commanding U. S. S. Rattler, “In direct violation of General Orders Nos. 4 and 24, issued by Admiral Porter, he directed his boats to land and the crew to proceed beyond the distance wherein he could protect or afford them assistance, thereby losing his men by deaths, capture, and showing his want of judgment and capacity.”

Glenney was dismissed.

Just three months later, Rattler met her end in a storm at Grand Gulf. From the ill-fated skipper:

Sir: I have the honor to submit the following report of the loss of the USS Rattler while nt anchor off the bar opposite Grand Gulf, Miss., on the evening of Dec 30. A heavy storm of wind and rain arose about 0 o’clock from the southward and eastward. In a few minutes the wind shifted suddenly to the northward and blew very strong, so that we commenced dragging one anchor, although we were working ahead on the engines with all the steam we had. We dragged down afoul of the supply steamer Magnet, which was lving a short distance astern of us, she having cast off when the storm first struck us. Our starboard quarter striking her on the port bow. we swung around to starboard, head across the stream and broadside to the wind. At this time the Magnet parted her chains and went ashore on the Mississippi side. The wind was now blowing very hard, and it was so dark that an object could not be distinguished at 10 feet. Before we could get the vessel’s head to the wind we parted our chain, and swinging around stern to the wind, went ashore (on the Mississippi side), striking a snag, which stove in the port side amidships. In about five minutes she filled with water and sunk, so that the starboard side was under about 2 feet, with the exception of some 15 feet forward. The steamer Magnet lay within a short distance of us. We commenced saving everything we could get at. transferring them to the May net. I succeeded in saving all the howitzers, but had to leave two 30-pounder Parrotts, which I had spiked. I then took all the officers and men on board the Magnet and proceeded down the river to report to you for further orders. On my way down communicated with the U. S. S. Forest Roue, informing her commanding officer of the condition of the Rattler. The Forest Roue Proceeded immediately up the river to save whatever they could that ad been left. We arrived at Natchez at about 3.30 p. m. The Magnet and her officers rendered me every possible assistance. Please find enclosed a list of stores and equipments saved.

I am. sir. verv respectfully, vour obedient servant,

N. B. Wiluets. Acting Master, Late Commander U. S. S. Rattler.

Four captains in two years, three cashiered or blighted due to incidents. It seems that the Rattler could bite both the enemy and ally alike.

The Confederates in the area found the wreck of the Rattler, and burned what was left. Her spiked 30-pounder Parrotts, boiler and engine are likely buried under twenty or more feet of thick Mississippi River sediment now. With her 24-pounders salvaged towards the end of the war it is doubtful they were used elsewhere and most likely ended their life as so much iron in the scrap heap.

It would seem the only relic left from this ship not buried under the river is the cannonball at the church in Rodney.

Although there has been at least some speculation that his shell was lost to time and replaced, it’s still a good story and there is still a church in a forgotten river ghost town in Mississippi that has a cannonball stuck in it, as well as lead musket balls buried in its walls.

As for the church, in 1870 the river shifted two miles to the west, leaving Rodney in the middle of the woods. It dwindled and died, having its status as a city canceled by the Governor in 1930. Today, other than a few resolute residents, the city is a ghost town of abandoned buildings. The Presbyterian church was deeded to the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1960 and largely restored but has fallen into disrepair since then.

But it still has the cannonball and the bell-tower which houses the “buckey Bell,” which was purportedly cast with the inclusion of 1000 Silver dollars that had been donated by church members.

Another story of silver, steel and lead you are unlikely to find in another building.

Displacement:     165 tons
Length:     ~170 feet[1]
Beam:     not known
Draught:     4-feet
Propulsion:     steam engine
side-wheel propelled
Speed:     not known
Complement: typically 40-50
Armament:     two 30-pounder Parrott rifles
4 24-pounder Napoleon guns
Armour: tinclad

If you liked this column, please consider joining the International Naval Research Organization (INRO), Publishers of Warship International.

They are possibly one of the best sources of naval study, images, and fellowship you can find http://www.warship.org/

The International Naval Research Organization is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the encouragement of the study of naval vessels and their histories, principally in the era of iron and steel warships (about 1860 to date). Its purpose is to provide information and a means of contact for those interested in warships.

Nearing their 50th Anniversary, Warship International, the written tome of the INRO has published hundreds of articles, most of which are unique in their sweep and subject.

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