Full steam ahead and damning the torpedoes....
With the eventual fall of Fort Purepoint and the subsequent capture of Shepherds Island the way was open for the Union forces to undertake a naval attack on the remaining Confederate naval base of Immobile Bay. It was not a question of if but of when the assault would be made. The material superiority enjoyed by the Union in respect of warships and men would enable the last rebel bastion to be taken relatively easily but all were sure it would be a hard fight. Spies had already detailed the demolition efforts undertaken by the rebels as they prepared to abandon the base - two ironclads, believed to be the C.S.S. O’Hara and the C.S.S. Butler, had been burnt to the waterline due to worn out machinery and the inability to be repaired. It was believed that the only vessels remaining were the C.S.S. Secessionist, the C.S.S. Southern Belle and another vessel, believed to be river steamer the C.S.S. Jedidiah Cornpone. The latter had escaped from the Missenhitti some time previously and although she was but lightly armed and armoured she was quick as well as having been fitted with a ram. There were no shore batteries to speak of - Immobile Bay’s defences were the succession of outer works of which Shepherds Island was the last - but it was believed that the rebels would be making use of torpedoes to support their defence.
Aboard the recently repaired U.S.S. New Glory, Rear Admiral Frederick Beare, the deeply religious and teetotal commander of the Union forces, addressed the assembled officers in the Captain’s cabin. “Gentlemen, we are within a hair’s breadth of capturing Immobile Bay and thereby ensuring that the rebels no longer have access to a blue water harbour worthy of the name. I do not expect them to relinquish this lightly. We know they are deficient in just about everything but they still have the spirit to fight. This I intend to break. I want Immobile Bay to be rendered unusable by anything larger than a rowing boat and even then only when the tide is right. My plan is as follows. We will steam into the bay in two columns, each of three ships. The North column will consist of the New Glory, the Congress (sister ship of the recently sunk U.S.S. Senator) and the Pocahontas whilst the Southern column will consist of the Coeur D’Alene, the Potomac and the Hiawatha. We shall enter from either end of the bay and each column will exit from the opposite side. We shall engage whatever the rebels see fit to deploy against us and destroy it. We will also reduce whatever facilities we can to matchwood”. The Rear Admiral paused as the full import of his words registered with the assembled throng. He took a measured breath and continued. “I will not tell you that which you know so well. We are on a noble crusade to restore the integrity of the Union and as God is my judge we shall prevail. Gentlemen, to your ships, and may the Lord be with you!” The assembled gathering slowly dispersed, leaving the Rear Admiral to his thoughts and, as it was the day for it, his prayers.
The main thoroughfare in Immobile Bay was a scene of chaos. Wagons bustled hither and thither, civilians dashed in and out of buildings emerging with whatever they were able to carry only to dump it unceremoniously upon the realisation that they would not be able to take it with them. Men shouted, women comforted crying infants whilst all around the remnants of the military attempted to restore a semblance of order.
Captain Jubal Le Vite, the sole remaining and senior officer of the rapidly dwindling naval presence in Immobile Bay stood on the foredeck of the C.S.S. Secessionist surveying the chaos on shore and the smouldering remains of the C.S.S. O’Hara and C.S.S. Butler. He was bitterly disappointed that these two ships had needed to be burnt but they could not be allowed to be captured. He had issued his final orders - in truth these were more appeals to honour rather than strict instructions as the time had long passed for naval protocol - and mentally prepared himself for what he expected would be his final battle. The plan was brutally simple. He and the two other warships were to engage the Yankees and buy time for the evacuation to continue as best it could. The few remaining transports were already dangerously overloaded and he did not give them a chance should the Union ships happen upon them whilst they ran the gauntlet to safety. It was his job, so the governor had reminded him, to ensure that they could get away - the Confederacy demanded it, he added, rather unnecessarily Le Vite considered. Under normal circumstances this would be a difficult enough task and whilst he was confident his own ship would be able to give a good account of itself the rest of his command consisted of a floating battery and a converted river steamer that really had no business mixing it with purpose built warships. Two ships against God knows how many - the odds were not good.
The floating battery, the C.S.S. Southern Belle would cover the North side of the bay, supported by command detonated torpedoes and the C.S.S. Jedidiah Cornpone - a river steamer fitted as a ram and fast with it - in reserve. The C.S.S. Secessionist would take the Southern side. Given the resources they currently had it was a sound plan but it would only be a matter of time before the Yankees would prevail. The transports could have no escort other than the odd tug and these were to exit quietly via the smaller basin - in the hope that the Union ships would not notice them whilst engaged fully with the main body of the Confederate ‘fleet’.
Le Vite was tired and fully felt the weight of his sixty years. The end was near; the end of so many things he held dear and of that he was certain. He resolved that he would not go quietly or meekly into ignominious captivity and of this he was also certain. A very young and fresh faced junior officer stood stiffly to attention, his face a study in concentration. “Ship is ready for sea Sir!” He said crisply and in a clear voice with not a hint of the nerves and trepidation he must have been feeling. Le Vite, nodded slowly, “Thank You son, let’s get underway”. With a last look at the shoreline the Captain turned and made his way into the warm and oily embrace of the great ironclad, the hatch clanging shut behind him.
To Be Continued....