Destruction of the USS Indianola
The USS Indianola was a Union ironclad river gunboat that served in the Western Theater during the American Civil War with the US Navy’s Mississippi Squadron, operating in the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers. She ran past Confederate batteries in Vicksburg to reach the Red River and help block Confederate supplies from sailing down its waters, but once she got there she was set upon by Confederate rams on the night of February 24th, 1863, ran aground, and was captured.
The Indianola’s capture derailed the plans to blockade the Red River, and its presence in Confederate hands was too great a threat to Union operations in the region to be endured. Plans were thus made to recapture the ironclad or destroy it so as to deprive the enemy of its use, setting in motion one of the war’s most successful deception operations and hoaxes.
Union naval commander David Porter ordered the construction of a dummy ironclad out of an old coal barge that was made to resemble a real warship, with paddle boxes, fake gun emplacements out of which stuck “cannons” that were actually wooden logs painted black, and barrels stacked to look like funnels, out of which poured smoke produced by smudge pots to mimic the smoke produced by a steam engine.
The dummy warship was then floated past Vicksburg, and when word that a powerful “ironclad” was headed their way reached the Confederate salvage crews working to repair and refloat the recently captured Indianola, they panicked, and in order to prevent the Indianola’s recapture, the Confederates set fire to the ship’s magazine and blew her up.