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  • Writer's pictureGordon Thorsby

An All Naval Fight at Plum Point Bend

by Gordon Thorsby

On May 10, 1862, a naval only operation took place in an effort to finish breaking the hold on the northern Mississippi River and Memphis. It came to be known as Plum Point Bend and very often, First Battle of Ft. Pillow.

Captain Charles H. Davis had been put on command of six City-Class ironclads; that of Mound City, Cairo, Carondolet, Cincinnati, Pittsburg, St. Louis , and a converted ironclad, Benton. Along with more than a dozen mortar rafts, two cottonclads and several other craft, his objective was to take Ft. Pillow while Pope’s Union infantry support departed for Corinth. The operation was a 100% Navy operation.

Confederate Col. M. Jeff Thompson had at his fingertips eight cottonclads that were also rams armed with one gun apiece of the River Defense Fleet at Ft. Pillow. The cottonclads were General Earl Van Dorn, General Sterling Price, General Bragg, General Sumter, Little Rebel, General M. Jeff Thompson, Colonel Lovell, and General Beauregard.

CSS General Bragg

The River Defense Fleet was hardly worthy of outgunning the Union ironclads. It was a “work with you got” situation. The first move was made by USS Cincinnati who escorted the mortar rafts downriver to begin bombardment. On the Cincinnati, sailors watched as the 13” mortars began pounding away at the fort when the Confederate cottonclads rounded the bend and headed straight for the Cincinnati. Cincinnati fired the three bow guns once and before they could fire again, the General Bragg rammed Cincinnati on the starboard, General Price rammed the portside and General Sumter smacked into the stern. Taking on water fast, Cincinnati was able to reach shallows where it settled on the bottom.

The other gunboats began to move but too slow in response to the approaching rams. As General Van Dorn approached the Mound City. A Union ensign recalled, “we were pouring broadside after broadside into her,” yet the General Van Dorn struck Mound City hard tearing half of the forecastle open and water poured in from the bow. Mound City also made it to a sandbar before it settle to the bottom.

Two ironclads were quickly down and the Confederate Defense Fleet was ready to go for more when the other five Union gunboats sallied forth to do battle. With the score 2-0 and with limited damage, the Confederate fleet called it a day and sailed into safe waters out of range. Three cottonclads had been disabled in gunfire from ironclads Benton and St. Louis. Confederate Captain James Montgomery felt certain that the Mississippi River Squadron was bottled up north of Ft. Pillow and unable to proceed any further and permanently. The fight was over in a brief thirty minutes. Casualties from the River Defense Fleet was two killed and one wounded. While the Mississippi River Squadron suffered four wounded, the light losses were indicative that gunfire was ineffective but ramming had been extremely effective.

Davis, not happy with the outcome, refloated the Mound City and Cincinnati and repaired them for use on another day. On June 4th, 1862 almost one month later, Davis brought his ironclads downriver again, with Ellet's rams, this time ready to fight, and proceeded to annihilate the River Defense Fleet except for the General Van Dorn a short distance downriver in what would be the Battle of Memphis.

On one day, May 10,in 1862, a Confederate navy of side-paddlewheelers with bales of cotton on their decks, and one gun each beat up the gun bristling City-class ironclads of the Union navy.

Two lessons of wisdom might have been 1) “plan for the unexpected” for an enemy that may attack even when outgunned, and 2) “never say never” for Confederate Flag Officer Montgomery, especially in the Civil War. There is always another way.

USS Carondolet

CSS Sterling Price


War on the Waters, by McPherson, James M., University of North Carolina Press, 2012, Ppg. 84-85.

"First Naval battle of Ft. Pillow," University Press Scholarship Online.

Official records of the war of the Rebellion, Report of J.E. Montgomery, Senior Captain, River Defense Fleet.

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