Thursday, October 18, 2012

U.S. Naval Cowboys on the Mississippi-October 1862

In 19th century American history, the long range cattle drive is one of the great icons of the era.  One such drive of 1,500 head of cattle started in Texas in early August 1862.  The Confederate Army purchased the herd and directed the drovers to take the cattle to Camp Moore, the headquarters for local Confederate ground troops in Louisiana.  The drovers succeeded in overcoming the biggest geographic obstacle when they moved the herd across the Mississippi River at Plaquemine, Louisiana.  Here the drovers could finally rest while they waited at the local depot for the New River Railroad to take the herd the rest of the way.

USS Katahdin, one of the four gunboats that seized 1,500 head of cattle
It was then quite unfortunate for the drovers that a U.S. Navy squadron consisting of USS Kineo, Sciota, Katahdin, and Itasca (all "90-day" gunboat-type warships) happened to spot the herd during a patrol.  The squadron's commander, Lieutenant-Commander George Ransom, found Confederate Army purchase orders among the drovers' papers and declared the herd contraband property. 

Ransom, however, was unsure what to do with the cattle, as this was not the usual type of property Naval officers would condemn and send to a prize court for adjudication. He thought about destroying the herd, but then decided that 1,500 head of cattle was extremely valuable and worth saving.  He had to act quickly, as Confederate partisans were extremely active.
Lieutenant Commander
George Ransom, USN

Ransom decided to keep the herd and sent one ship to New Orleans to retrieve five Army transports.  Upon retrieving the ships, Ransom hired several African American men on the spot to help load the herd.  The loading started at 2:30 in the morning on October 3rd.  By noon the next day, 1,300 cattle had been loaded. The rest were considered too wild and the commander instructed his African American labor force to drive the rest south to Donaldsville on the eastern shore of the river.  He assigned Katahdin and Itasaca to stay with this part of the herd at all times.

 The rest of Ransom's gunboats and transports convoyed south towards New Orleans.  As the flotilla approached Donaldsville, Confederate partisans attacked with four batteries of horse artillery.  The squadron returned fire with their XI-inch Dahlgrens and 20-pounder Parrot Rifles.  After a few hours of fighting, the partisans called off their attack.  While the convoy rolled on, the partisans' artillery did cause a significant number of causalities, including the executive officer of Sciota who had a cannon ball bounce off his hip and then exploded on his right hand.  He died two hours later.  His last words to his captain were "Tell my mother I tried to be a good man."

By October 10, the convoy and the 1,300 head of cattle got through to New Orleans. A few days later, Katadhin and Itasca successfully escorted the other 200 to safety. 


  1. Amazing details on this blog! This post in particular. The economic warfare aspects of the Civil War are the most important part of its eventual outcome and learning the specifics of how that warfare occured are very valuable to understanding the whole effort. Salt work attacks, cattle seizures, port closures, escapes of enslaved people, isolation from foreign powers, all wore away at the Confederacy. For the Confederacy, novel strategies like the partisan activity on the river shore described here, slowed the Union efforts. I was surprised to see the partisans had batteries. I wonder how common that was? Also, even though the African American drovers of the remaining 200 cattle had gunboat escort it would seem that they could not always have been within site of the boats and could easily have been vulnerable to these partisans as well. Were they just lucky?

    1. I also enjoyed this article. Stories such as these never get the wider attention that they deserve. I also find articles regarding the economic aspects of the war, as posted by anonymous quite delightful and germane to the discussion of the Civil War. It is more than just Gettysburg or Kearsarge vs. Alabama. Thanks again.