Skip to main content
Related Content
Document Type
  • Ship History
Wars & Conflicts
  • Civil War 1861-1865
File Formats
Location of Archival Materials

Avenger I (Sidewheel Ram)


A general word classification.


(Sidewheel Ram: tonnage 410; length 210'0"; beam 40'0"; draft 6'0"; speed 12 miles per hour; armament 1 100-pounder Parrott rifle, 1 12-pounder Parrott rifle, 4 24-pounder smoothbores)

On 7 December 1863, the War Department transferred to the Navy two wooden-hulled, side-wheel rams then being built at New Albany, Indiana, for the Army’s Mississippi Marine Brigade. On that day, as he was reporting having taken possession of those still-unfinished vessels, Rear Adm. David Dixon Porter--who then commanded the Mississippi Squadron--suggested that they be named Avenger and Vindicator.

On 19 December 1863, the larger ship, Avenger, was assigned to the squadron’s Third District which was responsible for controlling the Mississippi between Natchez, Miss., and the mouth of the Red River. Completed late in February 1864, this ram dropped down the Ohio River and was commissioned at Cairo, III, on 29 February 1864, Acting Volunteer Lt. Charles A. Wright in command.

On 12 March 1864, Avenger, carrying dispatches and a cargo of ordnance stores, headed downstream to join a powerful naval force which Porter had recently led up the Red River to cooperate with Army troops then pushing through Louisiana in a generally northwesterly direction toward Shreveport. The major objectives of the Red River campaign were to establish a Union foothold in Texas to weaken Confederate strength west of the Mississippi, impede French interventionism in Mexico, and acquire cotton for idle textile mills in the North.

When Avenger reached a point only some six miles below Cairo, however, she encountered an upward-bound merchant steamer whose pilot attempted to pass her on the wrong side of the stream. The two vessels collided, and Avenger suffered considerable damage to her starboard side. Although she was able to continue on down the Mississippi, the ram lost nearly a day at Memphis undergoing repairs. Her trip downriver also revealed defects in her machinery which slowed her progress, but she finally reached the mouth of the Red River on 16 March 1864. There, orders from Porter awaited which directed her to return North with messages. After coaling, she got underway on the 17th and arrived back at Cairo on the 23rd.

There, Wright’s report of her engineering difficulties resulted in a survey of the ship. The inspectors recommended that a set of blowers be installed to increase the efficiency of her boilers. While this work was being performed by the repair ship Samson, it was discovered that the ship's port boilers were badly burned and required repairs. After temporary remedies were made, Avenger entered the Red River on 2 April 1864 carrying messages upstream. Two days later, she took station at the mouth of the Black River and, on 7 April entered the Ouachita in an expedition commanded by Lt. Cmdr. James P. Foster in the sidewheel ram Lafayette. The Union warships ascended that tributary as high as Ouachita City and confiscated some 3,000 bales of cotton; liberated 800 African Americans; and burned the courthouse at Monroe, La., the railroad depot there, and a bridge over the stream. They stood down the Ouachita on the 12th and returned to the Mississippi when they learned that Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, the famous Confederate cavalry commander, had attacked Fort Pillow, Tenn.

Foster, accompanied by Avenger and Choctaw, ascended the Mississippi to check Forrest, but learned upon his arrival at Memphis that, after pillaging Fort Pillow, the dreaded Southern raider had abandoned the fallen Union stronghold and retired inland. Therefore, Avenger, which had been suffering engine trouble, was free to remain at Memphis for repairs which lasted through the end of April 1864.

The ram then returned to the mouth of the Red River where she was assigned to guard the coaling barge stationed there. She was relieved by Nymph on 3 May 1864 and proceeded to the mouth of the Black River with additional coal barges in tow. There she was again relieved and steamed upriver to join Forest Rose on patrol in the vicinity of Fort deRussy. At that fort, Avenger exchanged shots with Southern sharpshooters on 12 May; and she and her consort engaged the enemy several times as they continued patrols up and down the river during the next five days.

The ram returned to the mouth of the Red River on 17 May 1864 to coal and then continued downriver to Simmesport to embark Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks, the commander of the Army forces involved in the Red River expedition, for passage to New Orleans. The advance of his troops had been checked at the Battle of Pleasant Hill and a shortage of ammunition, supplies, and water had forced him to withdraw.

In May 1864, Avenger was stationed at Morganza, La., and carried out blockading duties between Morganza and Donaldsonville through November. At that point, she received orders to help patrol the Mississippi between Vicksburg and Natchez, Miss.

On 21 November 1864, after spotting a skiff crossing the river at Bruinsburg, Miss., Avenger shelled the area and sent a landing party ashore which found contraband concealed in the undergrowth. The landing party captured several Confederate soldiers and confiscated 154 rifles with bayonets, and several skiffs and wagons. She continued to operate in the Mississippi and, in March 1865, was stationed off Cole’s Creek to prevent Confederate troops and supplies from crossing the river. The patrols were intensified in late April 1865 and early May in the effort to capture Jefferson Davis, who was believed to be attempting to escape across the Mississippi. After the President of the defeated Confederacy was captured in Georgia on 10 May, the naval forces employed in blockade duties were gradually reduced.

In July 1865, Avenger was sent to Mound City where she was decommissioned on 1 August. Sold at public auction there on 29 November 1865 to Cutting & Ellis, the former ram was documented as Balize on 16 April 1867 and began service out of New Orleans as a merchantman. The steamer continued commercial operations until 1871.

James L. Mooney

30 July 2020

Published: Thu Jul 30 17:22:19 EDT 2020