A crudely penned map of the area prepared by the cartography section assigned to General Dursley. The Union landing was to be made at Lonesome Bay. The vanguard of the force would sweep Sawless Channel, swing around Kingsville point and then engage Fort Purepoint.
By the middle of 1864 for the most part the Union had secured control of the mighty Missenhitti river but with so many smaller waterways feeding into it - primarily from the Confederate side - it was a challenge keeping this vital artery open. Every transport needed an escort against the ever present threat of Confederate raiders both on land and occasionally from their remaining naval forces. A major boost to the Confederate cause was the breakout and escape of three ironclads that were able to fight their way to the main rebel base of Immobile Bay. The escape of the C.S.S. Secessionist, O’Hara and Butler was seen as a major failure in the Washington press but privately the Union command were pleased that these three powerful ships were now where they could keep a close eye on them.
The Missenhitti flows into the Gulf of Mexico and is joined by two other rivers also emptying into a fifty mile section of coastline known locally as Trois Bouches. The two other rivers flow into what is in effect a second estuary and these are the Yawdew and the Semaht respectively - named after two rival tribes of native Americans.
Although the Semaht is by far and away the larger of the two rivers of more immediate interest to the Union forces was the Yawdew. To begin with it was the closer of the two rivers but more importantly, it contained a substantial naval dockyard at New Chatham, second only in size to that within the main base of Immobile Bay. If it could be secured or neutralised it would be a major blow to the Confederacy as the only outlet to the sea would then be via Immobile Bay.
Since reaching the Gulf via the Missenhitti the Union forces had fought their way along the coastline and had evicted the Confederates from a number of positions. The sole remaining rebel outpost was now located on the small island - known locally as Shepherds Island - in the mouth of the Yawdew. Whilst capturing the island would not stop the Confederates from using Immobile Bay it would deprive them of the use of New Chatham as the island effectively controlled the approaches to the river.
Shepherd’s Island was a bleak and depressing place, with the sole redeeming feature of having a relatively modern fort based on the outskirts of the principal town of the island - Purepoint -and a small harbour facility able to take ocean going ships. The Confederates were under no illusions as to the strategic importance of the island but by late 1864 lacked much in the way of material and manpower to maintain the fortifications to their fullest potential. So it was decided that it was to be held for as long as was practical but certainly not to the last man.
The island had one weakness in that the entire northern side facing the mainland was rolling farmland and completely unprotected. As long as this area was in friendly hands it was not a problem except that at that stage of the war the Confederates had largely abandoned the entire region. This meant that the whole of the island’s northern face was open to an enemy landing should they choose to do so. The stretch of water separating Shepherd’s Island from the mainland was tidal and traversable by ocean going ships. It was broadest at its western end and narrowed considerably as it met the Yawdew river, close by the protecting guns of Fort Purepoint.
By the middle of 1864 the Union forces had perfected the technique of waterborne assault and so it was a common sight to see a couple of transports laden with troops being escorted by warships disembarking a short distance from an objective and then, in conjunction with a naval bombardment, successfully capturing it. Having virtual naval superiority meant that for the most part Union forces could strike where they liked. The Confederates were very mindful of this and so made extensive use of shore batteries and remote operated mines - called torpedoes - as well as the ever present threat of their remaining ironclads.
The Union had resolved to capture Fort Purepoint and so made their plans accordingly. A landing was to be made on the undefended northern side of Shepherd’s Island so the fort could taken from the landward approaches. This had to made towards the eastern end of the island as the nearest landfall was for the most part low lying marshland. A sweep by warships in advance of the landing was to be undertaken in order to silence any land or floating batteries that may be in place and to provide cover should one of the Confederate ironclads be operating in the vicinity.
The Confederates were well aware that Shepherd’s Island was the next likely target for the Union so they made there dispositions accordingly and as best as they were able. Not one but two ironclads were sent from Immobile Bay to the small harbour at Purepoint with orders to watch the channel between the north coast and the mainland and to intercept any enemy forces present. This was sound in theory but it failed to take into consideration the parlous condition of the engines of one of the two ironclads detailed for the task.
On board the U.S.S. New Glory....
Rear Admiral Dursley exuded confidence as his command steamed towards the channel to the north of Shepherd’s Island. The U.S.S. Glory, in company with the U.S.S. Coeur D’ Alene and the monitor, the U.S.S. Senator was a powerful force, more than sufficient to handle anything the Rebels were likely to have to hand. For sure he had heard the rumours that a pair of ironclads had been sent over from Immobile Bay to defend the island but he was certain that the firepower his three ships carried would be more than enough to ‘settle their cotton picking hash’ as he was wont to say. His task was to clear the channel of any enemy and then to engage Fort Purepoint. Whilst this was happening the transports would be unloading troops to assault the fort from the rear. He was aware that the channel to the east of the island offshore from the fort featured numerous sandbars so care would be needed. Indeed, the U.S.S. Richard Montgomery had run aground on such a sandbar and broke her back. Her cargo of munitions was gratefully salvaged by the Confederate garrison, along with other desperately needed supplies.
As the U.S.S. New Glory steamed into the entrance of the channel all eyes suddenly looked due east as a lookout cried ‘Smoke ahead starboard!’ It appeared that the rebels were coming out after all.
Fort Purepoint, commander’s office....
General Abe. L. Boded surveyed the map of his command and drew mightily on his cigar, a present from the Yankee ship the U.S.S Richard Montgomery, along with whisky he enjoyed during these planning sessions. His was an easy task. Essentially he had to wait until told to evacuate at which time he would be heading into Immobile Bay along with however many of his men and their material could be gotten away. Given the relative paucity of his command this should be straightforward enough as any determined Union attack was bound to succeed. He had the transports ready for loading and instant departure so could move in a hurry if required.
He was aware that the Union ships were on their way - his coast watchers were very effective, which was just as well as very little else was - and that he now had at his disposal the wherewithal to at least give the Union ships a bloody nose. The arrival a few days previously of the ironclads C.S.S. Secessionist and the C.S.S. Southern Belle was a welcome reinforcement even though it would only be delaying the inevitable. Then came the news that the Southern Belle had suffered an irreparable engine failure.
Under normal circumstances the small harbour at Purepoint would be able to cater for such a mechanical emergency but most of the available equipment and trained engineers had been sent to Immobile Bay. Chief Engineer Scott, despite his best efforts, was unable to improvise anything by way of a repair. ‘The engine canna take it’ was his stock reply when asked of the status of his charge.
Boded knew that the Union would expect to meet ironclads so ironclads he would give them. Whatever his shortcomings as an individual Boded was no mean commander and so he settled on a cunning plan. The C.S.S. Southern Belle would be towed into position in the north channel and there anchored. Her boilers would be alight so clouds of smoke would give the impression that a warships was on the move (luckily there was a light breeze to further the impressions of a ship in motion). She would be covered on three sides by some tethered mines and the C.S.S. Secessionist would be lurking out of sight to the east. The guns on the Southern Belle would be well placed to be able to cover the approaches to the only place that any transports could unload.
It was simple and would certainly give any Union attempt to force the channel pause for thought. Boded was well satisfied with his stratagem and so gave the appropriate orders to set his plan in motion.
The trap was set.
To be Continued....