March 26, 2012

Into Battle on a Mississippi River Mortar Boat with "Ranger"

Location: New Madrid, MO, USA
"Bombardment and Capture of Island Number Ten on the Mississippi River, April 7, 1862" (Source)
Note the mortar boats firing along the bank of the river on the right.

In February 1862, one soldier from each company of the Pennsylvania Reserves (and it looks like other divisions in eastern and western armies) was selected to be transferred to gunboat service on the Mississippi River.  Representing Company K, 5th Pennsylvania Reserves--the "Cookman Rangers," recruited in Columbia--was Pvt. Francis Kilburn.

Kilburn presumably was the correspondent, "Ranger," who had written five or ten letters since the beginning of the war with the Cookman Rangers.  Ranger's last letter from the seat of war in Virginia appeared in the December 20, 1861, Daily Evening Express.  Kilburn's transfer was officially dated February 18, 1862, [Bates] and Ranger's first letter of 1862 had a dateline of Cairo, Illinois, on March 13, 1862.

Gravestones of Francis and Caroline Kilburn
Woodward Hill Cemetery, Lancaster (vws)
Born in 1817, Kilburn was also unique in that both he was born in England, where he married his wife Caroline.  Together the immigrated to Lancaster in 1848.  Caroline's obituary [Daily Intelligencer, 6/23/1882] mentions they lived on East Chestnut Street in Lancaster City, they had five grown children, and that she was a member of St. James Episcopal Church.  Francis Kilburn also shows up as an active Democrat after the war, and as the publisher of A Brief History of the City of Lancaster, a business directory printed in 1870.

Reprinted below are four letters spanning March and April 1862 and operations against Island Number Ten in the Mississippi River.  Dates of publication in the Daily Evening Express include March 19, April 1, March 27, and April 21, 1862.  (alternate link)

The Judge Torrence (Cowan's Auctions)
The letters detail the interesting and novel operation of the Western Gunboat Flotilla, which left Cairo on March 14 to support a Union army besieging Island Number Ten, an important double turn of the Mississippi River near the Kentucky-Tennessee border.  Kilburn noted that the flotilla included six ironclad ships and and two steamers towing mortar boats, as well as an "old-style gunboat" and two transport ships.  One of these transport ships was the Judge Torrence, aboard which Kilburn stayed when not on his mortar boat.

"Steamers Towing Mortar Boats into Position" (HW  4/5/1862)

In battle, Kilburn served as the "wadder and fuse-cutter" of mortar boat number 12.  He described the boats:
The mortar boats are built like large flats, seventy feet long, sharp at each end, and drawing, when laden, four feet six inches of water--down to their gunwale; above this, six feet high, they are plated, with half inch iron plates, riveted together.  When in action the stern is thrown open by two falling doors.  The mortar is placed in the middle of the boat: it is three feet six inches long, fifteen inches thick and has a bore of thirteen inches.  The charge is from thirteen to twenty pounds of powder, and the shell, which is thirteen inches in diameter and two and-a-half inches thick, is filled with seven pounds of powder and secured with a hollow wooden fuse, cut in various lengths, according to the distance of the object it is intended to burst over.  The whole responsibility for the effectual striking and bursting of a shell, at its proper time and place, rests with the loader, fuse cutter, and elevator.  When all is reader for firing, so tremendous is the concussion caused by the explosion, the word is given and the men run aft, and jump out on to the apron of the boat.  The firing is done by a friction fuse with a line attached, and when she is let rip the effect is as if this "too firm earth" had caved in.
Read on to learn about Kilburn's experiences in the Battle of Island Number Ten, a fatal accident that he barely escaped, the attempt to raise a hot air balloon, and his tour of the captured island.  The battle's outcome was the capture of a small Confederate army and the opening of that section of the Mississippi River, although it would be overshadowed by the Battle of Shiloh.  Historians have questioned whether the Union army involved could have been better occupied as the island would have fallen anyway. 

For more on the battle, I recommend browsing through articles by Craig Swain at the Civil War Monitor's "Front Line Blog" and his blog, "To the Sound of Guns."

Also, if anyone has time to further investigate Francis Kilburn biographically and genealogically, I would appreciate learning what you uncover.

"Bombardment of Island 'Number Ten'" by Currier and Ives
(Library of Congress #LC-USZC2-2125)

UPDATE: From the November 25, 1862, Daily Evening Express:
Mr. Francis Kilburn, formerly a reporter for the Lancaster press, subsequently a member of the Pennsylvania Reserves, and more recently a gunner in the Mississippi River mortar flotilla, returned home last week, having partially recovered from a protracted illness from which nearly all the mortar-men suffered, owing to the severe nature of their duties.  Mr. K's visit home resulted in a mission of sorrow.  His eldest daughter, who was the first to welcome him home, then in perfect health, was stricken by death after a few hours illness.  His two sons in the army are both in the hospital, one having been wounded in both thighs at the battle of Perryville, and the other being dangerously ill in the hospital at Washington.  Mr. K. can enjoy the conciousness of having done his whole duty to his adopted country in the hour of her greatest peril. 

1 comment:

  1. Remarkable how ships were back two centuries ago. Those iron clad ships are phased out except for the steam boat ferry types. There are also pontoons for hire in the same spot of the subject.