The story of the Eastport—from packet steamer to Confederate gunboat to U.S. ironclad to shipwreck—is one of the most intriguing of any Civil War vessel.ter. Plagued by damages and under almost continuous repair, she had an undistinguished war career, despite early expectations. In March 1864, the Eastport struck a Confederate mine on Louisiana’s Red River, and the once-vaunted gunboat was abandoned and scuttled.1
The Eastport was a large sidewheel steamboat built in 1852 at New Albany, Indiana, on the Ohio River. Her wooden hull measured 230 feet, 10 inches long; 32 feet wide; and 8 feet deep. The New Albany Daily Ledger of 2 December 1852 reported that construction cost $45,000. The ship’s original owners were a group of businessmen and planters living along the upper Tennessee River in northern Alabama. The steamboat was named after the town of Eastport, Mississippi, located on the banks of the Tennessee in the northeast corner of the state.
No photographs or illustrations exist of the Eastport as a packet steamer, but large river steamboats typically had two levels of cabins above the main deck, topped by a pilothouse. Resting on the main deck, the Eastport’s five boilers powered two high-pressure steam engines, each with a cylinder 26 inches in diameter. Each engine drove one of the large side paddlewheels, measuring about 30 feet in diameter. From 1853 to 1861, the Eastport made between 4 and 12 trips a year from the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers to New Orleans. Cotton was her main downstream cargo, and she carried an estimated 54 million pounds of it, valued at almost $5 million.
The formation of the Confederacy in February 1861 did not immediately halt commerce between North and South. During those early months, many steamboats, including the Eastport, traveled uninterrupted up and down the Mississippi. Under command of Captain Elijah Wood, the boat arrived in New Orleans for the last time on 8 April, several months after Louisiana had seceded from the Union. The steamer quickly took on passengers and cargo and began the return voyage up the Mississippi.
On 12 April, about the time the Eastport left New Orleans, Confederate artillery in Charleston, South Carolina, and fired on Fort Sumter. The outbreak of the Civil War disrupted trade on the Mississippi River and halted steamboat travel between North and South. On returning north in mid-April, the Eastport was laid up Paducah, Kentucky. That summer Union commanders formulated plans to extend control over the Western rivers. By July, the North had converted three river steamboats into wooden-clad gunboats in an effort to prevent any Rebel steamboats on the Ohio, including the Eastport, from traveling south.
Mustered into Confederate Service
Early on, the Confederate government recognized that navigable rivers provided Union forces easy access into the heart of the South, necessitating the construction of fortifications along major rivers and the conversion of river steamers into gunboats, an action advocated by Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory. The Eastport was one of the first vessels selected.
In late August Captain Wood left Paducah and ran the Eastport up the Tennessee to Fort Henry, the principal Confederate fortification on the river. There he sold the steamboat to Major General Leonidas Polk, commander of Confederate forces in western Tennessee, for $9,688.92. Polk was among the early proponents of using ironclad gunboats on inland rivers, and the Eastport provided him an opportunity to proceed with the idea. By October the steamer was moved upriver to Cerro Gordo, Tennessee, where her conversion into an ironclad began. Lieutenant Isaac Brown, who later would command the ironclad Arkansas, was charged with the conversion. The Eastport became one of the first vessels selected to play a part in the innovative naval strategy championed by Secretary Mallory.
But Federal forces captured Fort Henry on 6 February 1862, and three gunboats under the command of Lieutenant Phelps pushed upriver and captured the partially converted Eastport, despite Confederate efforts to destroy her. Phelps found that the steamer’s superstructure had been entirely removed and an “inclined” framework for an armored casemate had been erected on the main deck, ready to be sheathed with iron. The Eastport was towed to Mound City, Illinois, on the Ohio River, where her conversion into an ironclad would be completed—but for the Union.
Phelps considered the Eastport his personal prize and foresaw that the conversion started by the Confederates could be easily completed, turning the vessel into the most powerful gunboat in the Union river fleet. On 18 February, he wrote to Flag Officer Foote and, drawing on his already considerable experience in gunboat warfare, gave his thoughts on the idea:
The Eastport is beautifully modeled, the hull is in excellent condition, and she can be made capable of enduring the fire of the batteries, while her speed and manageable qualities will render her specially useful in this river service. Such a gunboat is very much needed, as the iron-plated boats are very slow and the old side-wheel boats are mere shells, liable to be disabled by a single shot from a fieldpiece.2
Foote concurred and immediately requested authority from Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles to continue the conversion. On 1 March, Foote telegraphed his intentions to the chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance:
I have applied to the Secretary of the Navy to have the rebel gunboat, Eastport, lately captured in the Tennessee River, fitted up as a gunboat, with her machinery in and lumber. She can be fitted out for about $20,000, and in three weeks. We want such a fast and powerful boat. . . . I should run about in her and save time and do good service. Our other ironclad boats are too slow. The Eastport was a steamer on the river, and she, being a good boat, would please the West.3
The bureau’s assistant inspector, H. A. Wise, telegraphed Foote the following day: “The President instructs me to inform you that you have his authority to fit the Steamer Eastport according to the plan proposed in your telegram.”4
Promising Prize for the U.S. Navy
At first, work on the Eastport progressed on schedule. By 25 March, a 32-pounder and two 50-pounder rifles, in addition to other ordnance, were at Mound City ready to be placed aboard. However, Foote’s estimate of a three-week conversion proved overly optimistic, and delays began to occur because of shortages in manpower and material, the constant need to keep other vessels of the fleet in repair, and bad weather.
The conversion, finally completed in August, transformed the steamer into a very different-looking vessel. The hull was lengthened and widened and now measured 280 feet long, 43 feet wide, and 6 feet, 3 inches deep. The entire cabin superstructure was gone, and the smokestacks rose high above the enclosed gun deck. The casemate was armored with inch-thick iron plates. The paddlewheels were shielded with wood and iron, and the bow was fitted with a solid, wrought-iron ram weighing almost three tons. Armament consisted of four 32-pounder smoothbore cannon, two 30-pounder Parrott rifles, and two 50-pounder Dahlgren rifles. The conversion is reported to have cost $56,230. Manned by 150 sailors, the Eastport was the largest U.S. gunboat in the West and became the flagship of the Western Flotilla.
Seth Phelps desperately wanted command of the Eastport, repeatedly making his desires known to Foote. The flag officer was impressed with Phelps and readily granted him the command. The Eastport’s first U.S. service was escorting transports carrying Confederate prisoners downriver to Vicksburg, Mississippi, where they would be exchanged for Union POWs. Flag Officer Charles H. Davis, having replaced Foote as commander of the Western Flotilla, was on board his new flagship when the convoy departed Cairo, Illinois, on 28 August 1862.
On this first voyage, the Eastport experienced a series of problems making it clear that early predictions of her becoming the finest vessel in the fleet would never be realized. The boilers leaked, she could not attain the speed that Phelps hoped for, and she was too big and heavy to operate in shallow river waters, constantly running aground. The Mississippi was so low that the Eastport could not get below Helena, Arkansas, where she remained while the rest of the convoy proceeded south to Vicksburg.
In late October 1862, the river rose and the Eastport was able to return upriver to Cairo, where it was found that her bottom had been seriously damaged by the numerous groundings. Necessary repairs were not completed until 14 January 1863. Phelps, despondent over the hapless Eastport, wrote to Admiral Porter, new commander of the flotilla, renamed the Mississippi Squadron, that he was unable to “shake off the idea of ill luck being the attendant of this vessel.” Phelps, however, remained confident that alterations would make the Eastport “the best vessel of the fleet.” Porter sympathized with Phelps, writing “Faint heart never won fair lady—so you must not get faint hereafter over the broken bottom of the Eastport. Go ahead and try it again.” The admiral had confidence in the ironclad, noting, “Her best feature is her Ram power, which makes her I think the best vessel we have.”5
Over the next year and a half, the Eastport continued to be beset by problems. Some armor was removed and her armament was changed to lighten the boat, but this did not eliminate the grounding problems or her slow speed. As a result, the Eastport was out of service for long periods, undergoing repairs at yards in Cairo and Mound City. She lost her position as flagship.
The Red River Campaign
In the spring of 1864, the Eastport was involved in her final military action, the Red River campaign. This was a combined Army-Navy operation involving a move up the Red River to gain control of western Louisiana and Arkansas and cut off Confederate supplies flowing from Texas (see “Red River Fiasco,” December 2011, pp. 46–53). The overall commander of the campaign was Major General Nathaniel Banks, while Rear Admiral Porter commanded the naval forces. The plan was for Banks to march 22,000 soldiers overland from New Orleans to the lower Red River, where they would meet Porter’s naval forces. From there the troops would march up the south side of the Red River to Shreveport, while Porter’s vessels moved upriver in support. A third force, under Major General Frederick Steele, was to march from Little Rock, Arkansas, and join Banks when he reached the upper Red River. Ultimately Steele never became involved in the campaign. Opposing the Union forces were Confederate troops under the command of Major General Richard Taylor, son of former President Zachary Taylor.
The fleet that Porter assembled at the mouth of the Red River in March 1864 included more than 20 ironclad gunboats, heavily armored monitors, and lightly armored steamboats known as “tinclads,” in addition to numerous support vessels. On 12 March Porter’s squadron started upriver with the Eastport, under the command of now Lieutenant Commander Seth Phelps, taking the lead. On 14 March, Fort De Russy, the only Confederate fortification on the lower Red, surrendered after being attacked by the Eastport, other vessels, and some of Banks’ men. By 16 March, most of the squadron had reached Alexandria and Army troops were arriving. At Alexandria the Red River was so low that boats had difficulty crossing the shallow rapids stretching across the river just above the town. The Eastport, the largest ship in the squadron, ran aground, and two days were spent pulling her over the rapids. Finally, on 29 March, Porter proceeded upriver with 12 gunboats and 30 transports and supply vessels, leaving the remainder of his squadron behind at Alexandria.
By 2 April the vessels with Porter began arriving at Grand Ecore, the river landing near the town of Natchitoches. Leaving his larger gunboats there, including the Eastport, Porter continued upriver with six light-draft gunboats and several support steamers. This flotilla ascended the Red to a point about 30 miles below Shreveport where Confederates had sunk the steamer New Falls City, completely blocking the channel. At the same time, Taylor’s force attacked Banks’ troops near Mansfield and Pleasant Hill on 8–9 April and forced them to retreat south toward Alexandria. Hearing this, Porter turned his gunboats around and headed downriver. In addition to low water and torpedoes, or mines, planted in the river by the Confederates, the Union boats had to contend with almost continuous sniper fire from the riverbanks.
On 15 April, while moving downriver, the Eastport struck a mine and sank in shallow water. Through tremendous effort she was pumped out and lightened of much of her heavy gear and continued down the Red. Over the next several days the ironclad’s guns were removed as she continued to ground. On 26 April, just below the small town of Montgomery, the Eastport ran aground in shallow water, and no amount of effort could free her. Phelps, realizing that his ship was doomed, removed everything of value, placed eight barrels of gunpowder aboard and blew them up, reportedly “utterly destroying” the gunboat. He and his crew then proceeded downriver on board other vessels.
Seth Phelps, who had experienced almost nothing but trouble as the one and only commander of the Eastport, mustered his crew for the last time in Alexandria on 28 April. He thanked the men for their service, and they were then dispersed among other boats in the squadron. While in Alexandria, funeral services were held for Acting Ensign Sylvester Poole, the only member of the Eastport’s crew killed in the retreat down the Red.
The destruction of the Eastport did not entirely end her ill-fated involvement in the events of the Civil War. On 23 June 1865, over a year after she was blown up, the sidewheel steamer Ed. F. Dix struck and sank on top of the submerged wreck of the gunboat. The Dix was steaming up the Red River laden with government stores and supplies and U.S. cavalry troopers destined for service in northwestern Louisiana and east Texas. Two months earlier, General Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, but several Confederate units had gathered in Texas, refusing to surrender. To combat these renegade forces, Union forces under the overall command of Major General Philip Sheridan were sent to Texas. They included the First Louisiana Cavalry Regiment, which was on board the Ed. F. Dix. She sank quickly and most of the military supplies and goods, but no lives, were lost. Steamboat sinkings normally were of great interest in river towns such as Alexandria and Montgomery. However, the spring of 1865 was anything but normal in central Louisiana. Four years of war had produced great disruption in the region. The economy was in shambles, lawlessness was rampant, and the future was uncertain. People had more immediate concerns than steamboat wrecks, and the loss of the Ed. F. Dix received little interest and almost no notice.
With time the Red River shifted course, and the wrecks of the Eastport and Ed. F. Dix were covered with sand and silt, disappearing from view. The loss of the Dix was largely forgotten. The Eastport was another matter. She was a large naval warship whose loss had been widely reported, and it was well known the gunboat was destroyed near Montgomery. Between 1989 and 1993, archaeologists and geologists from the Vicksburg District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, conducted a search for the shipwreck. Using remote-sensing survey and drilling equipment, they found her remains adjacent to the Red River about one mile below Montgomery, buried beneath more than 30 feet of earth. In 1995 those remains were excavated and proved to be the well-preserved wrecks of the Eastport and Ed. F. Dix. The excavations revealed that the hull of the Dix lies directly on top of the Eastport, lodged on the armored casemate, where it came to rest in June 1865. Additionally, it appears as if much of the hull of the Eastport is intact and in good condition, despite Admiral Porter’s statement that “The vessel was completely destroyed, as perfect a wreck as ever was made by powder.”6 Following the excavations, the wrecks were reburied, and they still lie where they sank more than 150 years ago.
The Eastport was among the largest vessels lost by the U.S. Navy during the Civil War. Plagued by bad luck and misfortune throughout her military career, she never lived up to the Navy’s expectations as a fighting vessel. Ironically, the Eastport’s loss and ultimate burial on the Red River led to her preservation, while most of the other river gunboats have long since disappeared.
1. The information in this article is drawn from Charles E. Pearson and Thomas C. C. Birchett, The History and Archaeology of Two Civil War Steamboats: The Ironclad Gunboat U.S.S. Eastport and the Steamer Ed. F. Dix (Baton Rouge, LA: Coastal Environments, 2001). Lieutenant Phelps’ comments are from the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion [hereinafter ORN] (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1911), Series 1, vol. 24, 316.
2. ORN, 1908, Series 1, vol. 22, 615.
3. Ibid., 650.
4. Ibid., 655.
5. Phelps’ comments are from ORN, 1911, Series 1, vol. 24, 314–16. Porter’s observations are from Jay Slagle, Ironclad Captain: Seth Ledyard Phelps and the U.S. Navy, 1841–1864 (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1996), 324.
6. ORN, 1914, Series 1, vol. 26, 74.