Warship Wednesday, April 4, 2018: The often imitated but never duplicated Indy

Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off 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. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday, April 4, 2018: The often imitated but never duplicated Indy

Image Courtesy Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield; WICR 30184-B

Here we see the “Western gunboat ram” USS Indianola in 1863 during her brief service to the Navy. A one of a kind vessel, the Indy was laid down as a riverboat in Antebellum times but was rushed into service in the Civil War, rode hard, and never made it out alive.

A 174-foot long side-wheel screw steamer, Indianola was constructed in the Cincinnati yard of Mr. Joseph Brown in early 1862, specifically for service with the U.S. Navy on the Western river systems for operations against the newly-formed Confederacy.

Indianola under construction via LOC https://www.loc.gov/item/2013647478/

Compared to the 15-vessel City class-ironclads designed by Mr. Samuel M. Pook, the infamous “Pook’s Turtles,” Indianola was about the same size and had iron-plating 2.5 inches thick, enough to ward off musketry and shrapnel but not serious artillery rounds.

Pushed out into the Ohio River on 4 September, the partially complete 511-ton armored gunboat was placed in commission just 19 days later under the command of Acting Master Edward Shaw. The reason for the rush job was that Cincinnati at the time was considered under threat of capture by Confederate Gen. Kirby “Seminole” Smith whose “Heartland Offensive” reached its high-water mark in Lexington, Kentucky, just some 80 miles to the South a few days prior.

Armed with a pair of 11-inch Dahlgren smoothbores and another pair of smaller 9-inch guns, Indianola remained in the Ohio for several months even after Smith retreated to the Deep South and by January 1863, under the command of LCDR George Brown, she was detailed to the infant Mississippi Squadron, a force that the Navy never knew it would have. By 13 February, the plucky new ironclad met the enemy for the first time by running past the fearsome Confederate batteries at Vicksburg, Mississippi at night.

As noted by DANFS:

She left her anchorage in the Yazoo at 10:15 p.m. 13 February and moved slowly downstream until the first gun was fired at her from the Vicksburg cliffs slightly more than an hour later. She then raced ahead at full speed until out of range of the Confederate cannon which thundered at her from above.

The United States gunboat INDIANOLA (Ironclad) running the blockade at Vicksburg [Feb. 13, 1863] via Harper’s Weekly, v. 7, (1863 March 7), p. 149. LOC https://www.loc.gov/item/99614196/

She anchored for the night 4 miles below Warrenton, Miss., and early the next morning got underway downriver, with orders from Adm. David Dixon Porter to blockade the mouth of the Red River.

Two days later, Indianola chased and engaged in a long-range artillery duel with the Confederate Army-manned “cotton-clad” 655-ton side-wheel converted tug, Webb, that proved ultimately unsuccessful, her high speed (for a river boat) negated by the fact that she had to tow pair of coal barges alongside for refueling in hostile enemy-controlled waters.

On the evening of 24 February, the Union gunboat came across the Confederate steamer Queen of the West, formerly a U.S. Army-manned ram, who, along with her partner and recent Indianola-nemesis Webb, cornered the Yankee in the shallow water near New Carthage, Mississippi and commenced a river warship battle. While Indianola was better armed with her big Dahlgrens compared to the Parrots and 12-pdr howitzers of the Rebel ships, she was no match for the demolition derby unleashed on her by the Confederate vessels on either side who smashed her a reported seven times leaving the ship “in an almost powerless condition.”

LCDR Brown had more than two feet of cold Mississippi river water over the floor of his fighting deck and she was surrounded by now four Rebel vessels, packed with armed infantry ready to board. With that, Indianola ran her bow on the west bank of the river, spiked her guns, and surrendered to Confederate Major Joseph Lancaster Brent, her service to the U.S. Navy lasting just six months.

The loss meant that Porter would keep his fleet north of Vicksburg and that Farragut, entering the Mississippi from the Gulf, would be forced to run his own past Port Gibson the next month to join him.

While Brent went to work salvaging his newest addition to the Confederate fleet, Brown, who was wounded, handed over his personal Manhattan .36 caliber percussion revolver and was toted off to Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia

However, Brent would not “own” the ex-Indianola for long.

While the rebs were busy trying to save as much as they could from the Union gunboat, members of Porter’s fleet “resurrected” the ghost of the stricken ship and crafted a fake version of her to run past the batteries at Vicksburg in a scare job the night following Indianola‘s capture. The cobbled-together craft was complete with a Jolly Roger flag and the words “Deluded People Cave In” painted on the faux paddle wheel housings.

Admiral [David Dixon] Porter’s Second Dummy Frightening the Rebels at Vicksburg. This shows a wooden dummy “ironclad” made from an old coal barge. Wood engraving after a sketch by Theodore R. Davis – Harper’s Weekly


A dummy monitor was made by building paddle boxes on an old coal barge to simulate a turret which in turn was adorned with logs painted black to resemble guns. Pork-barrel funnels containing burning smudge pots were the final touch added just before the strange craft was cast adrift to float past Vicksburg on the night of Indianola’s surrender, Word of this “river Monitor” panicked the salvage crew working on Indianola causing them to set off the ship’s magazines to prevent her recapture.

And, it worked, with Brent triggering the Union vessel’s powder stores and sending her wheelhouse to the sky.

USS Indianola (1862-1863) Is blown up by her Confederate captors, below Vicksburg, Mississippi, circa 25 February 1863, upon the appearance of Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter’s fake monitor “Wooden Dummy “Taken from a sketch by RAdm. Porter, this print is entitled “Dummy Taking a Shoot”. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph NH 53235

On the bright side, Brown only languished at Libby prison until May and was exchanged, going on to command the Unadilla-class gunboat Itasca at the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864 and retire at the rank of Rear Admiral in 1897. Brent, his first captor, went on to become a one-star general leading the Louisiana Cavalry Brigade in the tail end of the war. He passed in 1905 and his papers are preserved at LSU.

As for Indianola, once the Mississippi river calmed down, her wreck was refloated, towed to Mound City, Illinois, and sold on 17 January 1865. Her name has never again appeared on the Navy List.

Brown’s Manhattan .36 caliber revolver? It is on display at Wilson’s Creek battlefield near Republic, Missouri.


Displacement: 511 tons
Length: 174 ft (53 m)
Beam: 50 ft (15 m)
Draft: 5 ft (1.5 m)
Propulsion: Sidewheel, Steam-driven screw
Engine Size: Cylinders 24 inches diameters by 6 foot in length of the piston stroke, 5 boilers – Side Paddlewheels
Speed: 9 knots
2 – 11-inch Dahlgren smoothbore
2 – 9-inch Dahlgren smoothbore

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/membership.htm

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.

With more than 50 years of scholarship, 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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About laststandonzombieisland

Let me introduce myself. I am a bit of a conflict junkie. I am fascinated by war and warfare, assassination, personal protection and weaponry ranging from spud guns and flame throwers to thermonuclear bombs and Soviet-trained Ebola monkeys. In short, if it’s violent or a tool to create violence it is kind of my thing. I have written a few thousand articles on the dry encyclopedia side for such websites as Guns.com, University of Guns, Outdoor Hub, Tac-44, History Times, Big Game Hunter, Glock Forum, Firearms Talk.com, and Combat Forums; as well as for print publications like England Expects, and Strike First Strike Fast. Several magazines such as Sea Classics, Military Historian and Collector, Mississippi Sportsman and Warship International have carried my pieces. Additionally I am on staff as a naval consultant and writer for Eye Spy Intelligence Magazine. Currently I am working on several book projects including an alternative history novel about the US-German War of 1916, and a biography of Southern gadfly and soldier of fortune Bennett Doty. My first novel, about the coming zombie apocalypse was released in 2012 by Necro Publications and can be found at Amazon.com as was the prequel, Chimera-44. I am currently working on book two of that series: "Pirates of the Zombie Coast." In my day job I am a contractor for the U.S. federal government in what could best be described as the ‘Force Protection’ field. In this I am an NRA-certified firearms, and less-than-lethal combat instructor.

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