Thursday, February 26, 2015

Donated gunboat model will be star of Sat. program at Louisiana's Port Hudson site

USS Essex (Marvin Steinback, Port Hudson SHS)

The USS Essex was a great big sister. Mess with me, and you’ll have to deal with her.

The Essex was converted in stages from a steam ferry to a fully armored Federal gunboat. Along the way, the crew saw action in the Fort Henry, Vicksburg, Port Hudson and Red River campaigns. The vessel took a beating, but it helped save the garrison in Baton Rouge, La., and it contributed to eventual victory at Port Hudson.

A 1:32 scale model of the gunboat was recently donated to Louisiana’s Port Hudson State Historic Site off U.S. 61 north of Baton Rouge.

“It is one of seven remote-controlled vessels that have a relationship to Port Hudson that I have built,” said Robert Seal, a park volunteer. “It is the largest, by far, and the most complicated.”

Using foam insulation and balsa wood, Seal, 69, crafted a vessel that is nearly 7 feet long and weighs about 30 pounds. “Everything is scratch built,” Seal told the Picket this week.

USS Essex in 1862 (Library of Congress)
(Martin Steinback, Port Hudson SHS)

Local artist Bill Toups has assisted with the USS Essex model, using a lathe to make 13 guns that comprise the business end of the ironclad.

The historic site and Seal at 11 a.m. Saturday will put on a program, “The Waterfront: Vicksburg, Port Hudson and the Fight for the Mississippi.” The event will be held at a pond that seasonally holds 1:32 models of ships that took part in Mississippi River and other campaigns. (The models are kept inside the rest of the year)

Seal, who researches their design and history, built them all, including a few in his personal collection. His entire fleet will be at Saturday’s program. The USS Essex and CSS Arkansas  -- which clashed in July 1862 -- will briefly sail across the water to help educate visitors.

The Confederacy put a lot of effort and manpower into defending the vital Mississippi River in 1861-1863.

“The whole purpose was to keep the Federals from going upriver at Port Hudson, while Vicksburg was to keep them from going downriver,” said Mike Fraering, an interpretive ranger at Port Hudson. The two forts were about 175 miles apart.

The Federal army and navy early in the war realized the importance of waterways and by controlling the Mississippi River, they could cut the Confederacy in half, disrupting commercial and military traffic and communication.

Annual re-enactment at Port Hudson (Robert and Pat Seal)

The USS Essex was heavily damaged by enemy gunfire at Fort Henry in February 1862. She was fitted with stronger armor and returned to service to take part in the Vicksburg campaign that summer. The Essex later hammered the CSS Arkansas and repelled an attack on Baton Rouge. The Arkansas was scuttled by its Rebel crew.

For a time, the USS Essex was the only Federal ironclad gunboat below Vicksburg, until July 1863.

“All the other gunboats on the southern end of the Mississippi were wooden or seagoing gunboats,” said Fraering. “The Essex had guard duty and protected wooden gunboats from gunfire. ‘Here comes the Essex to the rescue.'”

The Essex took part in the 1863 siege against Port Hudson and later served in the Red River.

The garrison at Port Hudson surrendered on July 9, 1863, five days after Vicksburg fell to the Union. Exhausted, short of supplies and knowing the fall of Vicksburg left them in a hopeless situation, the Confederates laid down their weapons after 48 days – the longest true siege on U.S. soil.

But it did not come without a few tries and heavy casualties among Federal troops and sailors over several months.

In March 1863, Union Adm. David Farragut defied Port Hudson, an earthen fort built on the east bank of the river.

“What we have on the pond is an annual static fleet,” said Seal. “They are anchored in position that represented the movement of Farragut as he attempted the battery.”

The 10 models on the pond include the Kineo, Genesee, Albatross, Monongahela, Richmond and Hartford. Seal acknowledges those models are not built with great detail, given visitors see them from about 50 feet away.

Port Hudson withstood the assault, and several of Farragut’s vessels were damaged. The USS Essex – which was about 200 feet long and had a crew of 250 -- helped rescue the crew of the sinking USS Mississippi.

The post was attacked two months later by a large Union ground force, among them soldiers of the Louisiana Native Guard, the first significant use of African-American troops during the war.

They earned respect of generals and white comrades, and black soldiers would see more action elsewhere in the months ahead.

“They were repulsed. (But) they showed they were capable,” said Fraering. “Everyone else got repulsed that day.”

The siege would continue for another six weeks.

Models are in pond February into June each year (Marvin Steinback)

Seal, an LSU retiree, said he wants to help schoolchildren learn what happened in Louisiana during the Civil War. He built a diorama of the Native Guard assault and has helped with other exhibits.

He and Fraering decided the Port Hudson story needed more of the naval aspect. “We like our boats,” Seal quipped about Louisianans.

Given the fact that he puts many of them in the water and transports and handles them, Seal says he cannot build his models to detail that includes individual rivets.

“(The Essex) is not sitting like a pretty girl. They break and if I put all the rigging and stuff on, you would have a difficult time launching them.”

Still, he wants them to be of high quality and reflect his research and period photographs.

CSS Arkansas model (Robert and Pat Seal)

Here’s a description of a radio-controlled models Seal will bring Saturday. They all likely will be placed in the water during an annual re-enactment on March 28-29.

-- CSS Arkansas: After the ironclad was intentionally sunk, its crew rushed to Port Hudson to help fortify its defenses.

-- CSS Manassas: Converted vessel fitted with iron plating, the Manassas did not see direct action at Port Hudson.

- - USS Barataria: The converted sternwheeler was lost in April 1863 during Louisiana operations.

CSS Missouri (Robert and Pat Seal)

-- CSS Missouri: Confederate ironclad paddle steam deployed in the Red River.

-- USS Carondelet: The City-class ironclad was “very effective in bombardment” and was used against Vicksburg and in the Red River Expedition.

Seal occasionally lets children use the radio controls to move the models.

“It would be good for people to learn something they didn’t know about the era, ships, crew and the different actions,” he said. “It lights me up on school days. We’ll have a couple hundred kids. There might be in a class of 30 with one or two kids that really connect with the program.”

Admission to the site and Saturday’s event is $4 per person and free for children 12 and under and those 62 and older. For more information, call (888) 677-3400 toll free or (225) 654-3775.

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