As part of the Union’s Mississippi River Squadron, the sternwheel steamer Celeste served on the Mississippi River and its tributaries, including expeditions on the White River during the ongoing battle for control of significant interior rivers in the Trans-Mississippi Department during the Civil War.
The Celeste displaced 300 tons, but specific details about its construction and acquisition by Union forces are not known.
In late August 1864, Brigadier General Christopher Columbus Andrews, commanding the Second Division of the Seventh Army Corps headquartered at DeValls Bluff (Prairie County), ordered an expedition up the White River to locate and pursue the troops under the command of Brigadier General Joseph Orville Shelby and Colonel Archibald Stephenson Dobbins. The initial phase of this expedition embarked from DeValls Bluff on August 30, aboard the steamer Kate Hart and Gunboat No. 30, under Captain John R. Grace, with a contingent of twenty-two officers and 515 soldiers from the Twelfth Michigan Infantry and the Fifty-fourth and Sixty-first Illinois Infantry regiments. Low water levels below Augusta (Woodruff County) forced its return to DeValls Bluff, however, before it could rendezvous with Brigadier General Joseph R. West’s cavalry division.
Andrews immediately ordered a second attempt, with reinforcements under Colonel Lyman M. Ward of the Fourteenth Wisconsin Infantry. The additional regiment increased the expedition’s strength to 1,000, and it embarked on the morning of September 3 onboard the Celeste as well as the other lighter draught steamers Nevada and Commercial. Soon afterward, the steamer Dove joined the expedition with a detachment of another 200 men from the Ninety-fifth Illinois Infantry.
While serving with the second phase of this expedition, on the morning of September 4, Confederate pickets under Captain Rufus D. Anderson of Dobbins’s command observed the expedition from the banks above Peach Orchard Bluffs (Woodruff County). At 4:00 p.m., Confederate forces estimated at 300 or 400 fired on the Commercial from bushes on the left shore near Gregory’s Landing (Woodruff County), killing one man instantly and wounding eight (including Col. William H. Graves of the Twelfth Michigan). A second volley, fired almost immediately from the right shore by forty or fifty Rebels, mortally wounded one soldier on the Celeste and wounded another on the Nevada. After initial confusion, the combined heavy fire by the Union vessels forced a Confederate withdrawal. Graves disembarked at the shore and prepared for an attack that did not materialize.
On September 5, the expedition steamed to Augusta. It met no resistance but reported Dobbins near the Cache River and Shelby near Jacksonport (Jackson County). Low water levels on this portion of the river prevented further pursuit, and Andrews ordered the immediate return of the expedition. It arrived at DeValls Bluff on September 6 without further incident. Combined Union casualties numbered nine wounded, one killed in action, one mortally wounded, and one accidental death. No Confederate reports or casualty figures exist for this incident.
The Celeste continued to serve under charter as a troop and supply transport on the western rivers until April 1865, when it struck a snag and sank in the White River at DeValls Bluff. The U.S. government paid the vessel’s civilian owners $14,689.94 for the loss.
For additional information:
Gibson, Charles Dana, and E. Kay Gibson. Dictionary of Transports and Combatant Vessels Steam and Sail Employed by the Union Army, 1861–1868. Camden, ME: Ensign Press, 1995.
Huddleston, Duane, et al. Steamboats and Ferries on the White River: A Heritage Revisited. Conway: University of Central Arkansas Press, 1998.
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1, Volume 41, Part I. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1893.
Robert Patrick Bender
Eastern New Mexico University–Roswell
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