The USS Essex - most powerful gunboat on the Mississippi River. Wikipedia image
In January 1862, Capt. “Dirty Bill” Porter of the Yankee navy was itching to blast Rebel skipper Marsh J. Miller to the bottom of the Mississippi River.
The New York Times reported that William D. Porter – dubbed “Dirty Bill” – challenged Miller to “show yourself any morning in Prenty’s [probably Puntney’s] bend, and you shall meet with a traitor’s fate.”
The gunboat duel never came off, according to Clinton historian John Kelly Ross. But Porter’s challenge grabbed front page headlines in the Times.
Porter commanded the U.S.S. Essex, “the most powerful ironclad gunboat on the Mississippi River at the time,” Ross said. Miller was captain of the Grampus, a little sternwheeler steamboat. “The Grampus was Porter’s nemesis,” Ross added.
The Essex was based near Cairo, Ill. The Grampus was from Columbus, about 12 miles down the Mississippi from Cairo. “The Union gunboats would test the defenses of Columbus,” Ross said. “The Grampus would wait for them a few miles above Columbus and, blowing her steam whistle, the little scout boat would race ahead of the Yankee fleet to warn the Confederates.”
His vessel armed with only two or three small cannons, according to Ross, Miller prudently preferred flight to fight. Even so, the plodding Essex almost caught the speedier Grampus one time.
The Rebel boat stopped upriver from Columbus so the crew could pick paw-paws, Ross said. “When they saw the Union fleet, the men rushed back to the boat and got away to Columbus.”
Porter demanded a showdown. He sent the challenge to duel, possibly by truce boat, on January 18, 1862. “Come out here, you cowardly rebels, and show your gunboats,” the Times quoted Porter.
Miller picked up the gauntlet. The Times published his reply: “SIR: The ironclad steamer GRAMPUS will meet the ESSEX at any point and any time your Honor might appoint, and show you that the power is in our hands.”
The Times also printed Porter’s reply to “the traitor Marsh Miller.” “Dirty Bill” demanded, “If you desire to meet the ESSEX, show yourself any morning in Prenty’s Bend, and you shall meet with a traitor’s fate – if you have the courage to stand. God and our Country; ‘Rebels offend both.’”
Miller kept the Grampus out of range of the Essex’s powerful cannons. The boat escaped with the Confederates when they abandoned Columbus in March, 1862. But with the Yankees closing in, the Grampus' crew scuttled her in April, 1862.
Meanwhile, in February, the Essex was badly damaged by enemy cannon fire in Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's attack on Fort Henry, Tenn., on the Tennessee River. "The war was no longer a game for 'Dirty Bill,'" Ross said.
-- Berry Craig is a professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and is the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War, Hidden History of Kentucky Soldiers and Hidden History of Western Kentucky. All four books are being sold to raise money for scholarships at WKCTC. They are available by contacting Craig by phone at (270) 534-3270 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.