Centered on the Red River, modern downtown Shreveport, Louisiana is a hive of activity. Glitzy casinos and well-kept shopping malls, broad boardwalks and trendy clubs, traditional churches and intellectual colleges keep this rough-hewn, hardworking river town bustling. Through all of this activity, old Louisiana Highway One cuts diagonally through the city. I travel this road often, as it takes me home to family in Texas or friends in Arkansas. Yet for the dozens of times I’ve passed it, I’ve never paid much attention to the old, overgrown historic marker right near the river. Perhaps the throbbing of the city’s daily routine or the casino’s lights kept me from noticing it.
Nevertheless, curiosity finally got the best of me recently, and I pulled over to read the sign, little knowing that it would send me on a wild goose chase for information regarding a foggy chapter of Shreveport’s Confederate past, involving the stories of three incredibly different Confederate warships….The sign, visible despite being surrounded by bushes, shrubs and a four-lane highway, simply reads:
Confederate Navy Yard
One block west near the mouth of Cross Bayou at Red River the ironclad Missouri and ram Webb built. Missouri armored with railroad iron. In 1863, Webb fought USS Indianola near Vicksburg. Missouri was surrendered here May 1865.
Straightforward enough. I was a little surprised to discover that Shreveport was home to a Confederate naval yard—although a size-able enough town in the 1860’s, it hardly seemed to warrant the construction of a Rebel naval base. Desiring to learn a little more about this local maritime episode, I set off to the local libraries. As it turns out, the Shreveport Confederate Navy Yard was the center for one of the murkiest and little-known chapters in Confederate naval history.
Shreveport served as the Confederate headquarters for the Trans-Mississippi Department for much of the Civil War. The city was also home to an arsenal, powder house, foundry, sawmills, storage sheds and a small but active naval yard where Cross Bayou meets the Red River. The naval yard, under the command of Lieutenant Jonathan H. Carter, had been contracted in October of 1862 for the building of “one or more iron clad vessels of war” by Confederate Secretary of Navy Stephen Mallory. Work on the ironclad, however, was frustratingly slow, as manpower for its construction was in short supply. Finally on April 14, 1863, the newly christened CSS Missouri was launched. After the acquisition of armaments and trial runs, the Missouriwas ready for action by September.
The guns were courtesy of the cottonclad ram CSS William S. Webb. While the Missouri was being outfitted before her trials in the late winter of 1863, the Webb was immersed in the crucial drama unfolding around Vicksburg, Mississippi. On February 24, the CSS Webb, along with the CSS Queen of the West, tangled with the USS Indianola on the Mississippi. The Webb and the Queen used their rams on the Indianola to lethal effect, all the while peppering her with shells and small arms fire. After six heavy blows by the enemy’s rams, the Indianola finally gave way and surrendered, ending the hour and a half engagement. Banged up after her victory, the CSS Webb made its way up the Red River to Shreveport, seeking repairs in the naval yard. She brought along with her two captured Dahlgren naval guns (an 11- and 9-inch), spoils of war that were outfitted upon the newly completely CSS Missouri. Thus, in early 1863 the CSS Missouri was being outfitted and armed for service while the CSS Webb was being repaired following battle, both in the docks at the Shreveport Navy Yard.
During this busy time, however, a third strain of naval affairs was underway in northern Louisiana. Edgar C. Singer was an engineer from Port Lavaca, Texas. In 1863 Singer, along with a number of other engineers—many of whom had experience with the CSS H. L. Hunley—formed the Singer Submarine Corps. By the latter part of that year, Singer’s men, cut off from the eastern Confederacy by the fall of Vicksburg, were operating in north Louisiana in cooperation with department commander Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith. Their work was straightforward and secret: the construction of five submarines (four in Shreveport, one in Galveston) to be used against the U.S. Navy.
Secret submarines, a new ironclad, ship repairs…the Confederate Shreveport Navy Yard was a humming and hopping place in the latter part of the war. The stories of our three sets of vessels—the CSS Missouri, CSS Webb, and the four Shreveport Singer submarines—all come to a head in 1864-’65.
For the CSS Missouri, the spring of 1864 seemed to be her chance to make a positive contribution to the war effort. Her ability to do so was questionable. The Missouri had a number of serious defects. She was ungainly to steer (with only a single paddle wheel), had a top speed of only four mph, had leaks and was armored with railroad irons that didn’t fit well together. Nevertheless expectations were high for Lieutenant Carter, in command of both the newly-finished Missouri and the repaired CSS Webb.
Shreveport and the Confederate Trans-Mississippi faced its gravest threat in the spring of ’64. Union General Nathaniel P. Banks had marshaled a fighting force of roughly 30,000 men with which to invade northern Louisiana along the Red River and capture Shreveport; this was the largest army ever assembled west of the Mississippi up to that time. More pertinent to Lieutenant Carter was the cooperation with Banks of Union Admiral David Dixon Porter with his fleet of thirteen ironclads, four tinclads, and five other vessels. Opposing this massive force were approximately 8,800 men under Confederate General Richard Taylor, son of U.S. President Zachary Taylor, and the two ships under Lt. Carter.
Being heavily outnumbered (two ships against twenty-two ships), perhaps it is just as well that Lt. Carter and the Webb and Missouri never got a chance to see action. The water level in the Red River was very low that spring, and both ships were stuck in Shreveport, unable to move south and meet the oncoming enemy. Despite the lack of naval support, Taylor was able to soundly defeat Banks at the Battle of Mansfield on April 8, 1864, followed by another hard fight at Pleasant Hill on April 9. These twin battles forced Banks to retreat in ignominy and secured Shreveport and the region for the Confederacy.
For the Missouri, this one chance at battle never materialized, and in the end she never saw combat against the enemy. Following the disaster at Mansfield in April, 1864, Union forces retreated back down the Red River. Though easy enough for the army, the navy had a hard time of it—low water levels kept halting the retreat of the fleet. Porter was careful to lead with his biggest ironclad, the USS Eastport, which had the greatest chance of destroying an enemy ironclad—like the CSS Missouri, which Porter knew was stationed in Shreveport. But the low water levels that hindered Porter’s retreat also kept the Missouri from attacking. Porter escaped and no other opportunities presented themselves for the Missouri throughout the remainder of the war.
In the spring of 1865, the Missouri headed down the Red River to aid in the defenses of Alexandria; Lt. Carter would surrender here there on June 2. The CSS Missouri was the final Confederate ironclad to surrender in home waters. Similar to the Missouri, the four mysterious Singer submarines in Shreveport never emerged as a legitimate threat to Union forces. Although their existence has not been definitely proven, lots of solid evidence suggests that they were indeed a reality and construction was generally complete. Certainly the Union forces were concerned about the threat of these submersibles. David Dixon Porter, in command of the US Navy’s Mississippi Squadron, ordered a chain to be placed across the mouth of the Red River to prevent the submarines from entering the Mississippi itself.
By March of 1865, Admiral Porter had an even greater understanding of the menace in Shreveport in the form of a report by Maj. Jackson of the 10thColored Heavy Artillery in New Orleans:
The following is a description of the torpedo boats…The boat is 40 feet long, 48 inches deep, and 40 inches wide, built entirely of iron, and shaped similar to a steam boiler. The ends are sharp pointed. On the sides are two iron flanges (called fins), for the purpose of raising or lowering the boat in the water. The boat is propelled at a rate of four miles per hour by means of a crank…The boat is usually worked seven feet under water…Each boat carries two torpedoes, one at the bow, attached to a pole 20 feet long…The explosion of the missile on the bow is caused by coming in contact with the object intended to be destroyed.
The specifications of the described Shreveport Singer submarines closely match those of the H.L. Hunley, one whom some members of the Singer Submarine Corps had worked, and lend powerful credence to the existence of these submersibles. This detailed description certainly worried David Dixon Porter. Yet the subs never came, and indeed, when Union forces went north later in 1865 to secure both the Missouriand Shreveport, no submarines were found. Perhaps they lay scuttled somewhere along the silted twists and turns of the Red or Mississippi Rivers even today.
Thus, the Missouri and the mysterious Shreveport Singer submarines never experienced the heat of battle and faded into murky obscurity. The cottonclad CSS William S. Webb, however, went out with a bang. In April of 1865—the month of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender and President Lincoln’s assassination—the CSS Webb, under the charge of Commander C.W. Read, made a dash for Havana, Cuba with a load of cotton in hull. In her new role as would-be blockade-runner, the CSS Webb left the Shreveport Navy Yard and headed down the Red River into the Mississippi, no damage done. The Federals, however, were aware of the Webb’s dash, and New Orleans had been alerted. Despite the forewarning, the Webb managed to slip past the town under the guise of an army transport! Her ruse was uncovered too late by the enemy, and the Webb sailed past New Orleans in the final stretch towards the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Twenty miles south of New Orleans, however, the Webb encountered an oncoming warship. Unable to retreat back towards Federal-held New Orleans and unable to continue onward, Commander Read ran her aground and set her afire on April 24, 1865. It was a fiery and fitting end for a cottonclad that saw much action throughout the naval war in the west.
The stories of all these ships—the CSS Missouri, CSS Webb, and the mysterious Singer submarines—are all inextricably linked with the Confederate Shreveport Navy Yard. Although relatively little is known about this facility and what all went on there, it played a significant role in the naval warfare along the Red River and the lower Mississippi.
And all this, just from reading a historic marker!
Zac Cowsert received his Bachelor of Arts Degree in History and Political Science from Centenary College of Louisiana, a small liberal-arts college in Shreveport. He is currently a graduate student at West Virginia University focusing in U.S. History and the American Civil War. His studies and research often explore the Trans-Mississippi Theater. ©
Further Reading & Sources:
Johnson, Ludwell H. Red River Campaign: Politics and Cotton in the Civil War. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1993.
Joiner, Gary D. One Damn Blunder from Beginning to End: The Red River Campaign of 1864. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources Inc., 2003.
Miers, Earl S. The Web of Victory: Grant at Vicksburg. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1955.
Ragan, Mark K. Union and Confederate Submarine Warfare in the Civil War. Mason City, IA: Savas Publishing, 1999.
Soley, James Russell, USN. “Closing Operations in the Gulf and Western Rivers” in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War: Retreat with Honor. Vol. 4. Edited by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel. New York: Castle Books, 1883.
Still, William N. Jr. Iron Afloat: The Story of the Confederate Armorclads. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1971.