Having received written orders from the flag-officer, under date of March 30th, I at once began to prepare the Carondelet for the ordeal. All the loose material at hand was collected, and on the 4th of April the decks were covered with it, to protect them against plunging shot. Hawsers and chain cables were placed around the pilot-house and other vulnerable parts of the vessel, and every precaution was adopted to prevent disaster. A coal-barge laden with hay and coal was lashed to the part of the port side on which there was no iron plating, to protect the magazine. And it was truly said that the old Carondelet at that time resembled a farmer’s wagon prepared for market. The engineers led the escape-steam, through the pipes aft, into the wheel-house, to avoid the puffing sound it made when blown through the smoke-stacks.
All the necessary preparations having been made, I informed the flag-officer of my intention to run the gauntlet that night, and received his approval. Colonel Buford, who commanded the land forces temporarily with the flotilla, assisted me in preparing for the trip, and on the night of the 4th brought on board Captain Hollenstein, of the Forty-second Illinois, and twenty-three sharp-shooters of his command, who volunteered their services, which were gratefully accepted. Colonel Buford remained on board until the last moment to encourage us. I informed the officers and crew of the character of the undertaking, and all expressed a readiness to make the venture. In order to resist boarding parties in case we should be disabled, the sailors were well armed, and pistols, cutlasses, muskets, boarding-pikes, and hand-grenades were within reach. Hose was attached to the boilers for throwing scalding water over any who might attempt to board. If it should be found impossible to save the vessel, it was designed to sink rather than burn her, as the loss of life would probably be greater in the latter case by the explosion of her magazine. During the afternoon there was promise of a clear, moonlight night, and it was determined to wait until the moon was down, and then to make the attempt, whatever the chances. …
At ten o’clock the moon had gone down, and the sky, the earth, and the river were alike hidden in the black shadow of a thunder-storm, which had now spread itself over all the heavens. As the time seemed favorable, I ordered the first master to cast off. Dark clouds now rose rapidly over us, and enveloped us in almost total darkness, except when the sky was lighted up by the welcome flashes of vivid lightning, to show us the perilous way we were to take. Now and then the dim outline of the landscape could be seen, and the forest bending under the roaring storm that came rushing up the river.
With our bow pointing to the island, we passed the lowest point of land without being observed, it appears, by the enemy. All speed was given to the vessel to drive her through the tempest. The flashes of lightning continued with frightful brilliancy, and “almost every second” wrote a correspondent, “every brace, post, and outline could be seen with startling distinctness, enshrouded by a bluish white, glare of light, and then her form for the next minute would become merged in the intense darkness.” When opposite Battery No. 2, on the mainland, the smoke-stacks blazed up, but the fire was soon subdued. It was caused by the soot becoming dry, as the escape-steam, which usually kept the stacks wet, had been sent into the wheel-house, as already mentioned, to prevent noise. With such vivid lightning as prevailed during the whole passage, there was no prospect of escaping the vigilance of the enemy, but there was good reason to hope that he would be unable to point his guns accurately. Again the smoke-stacks took fire, and were soon put out; and then the roar of the enemy’s guns began, and from Batteries Nos. 2, 3, and 4 came almost incessantly the sharp crack and screaming sound of their rifle-shells, which seemed to unite with the electric batteries of the clouds to annihilate us.
While nearing the island or some shoal point, during a few minutes of total darkness, we were startled by the loud, sharp order, “Hard a-port!” from our brave and skillful pilot, First Master Hoel. We almost grazed the island, and it appears were not observed through the storm until we were close in, and the enemy, having no time to point his guns, fired at random. In fact, we ran so near that the enemy did not, probably could not depress his guns sufficiently. While close under the lee of the island and during a lull in the storm and in the firing, one of our pilots heard a Confederate officer shout, “Elevate your guns!” “Yes, confound you,” said the pilot, in a much lower key, “elevate.” It is probable that the muzzles of those guns had been depressed to keep the rain out of them, and the officers, not expecting another night attack in such a storm, and arriving late, ordered the guns elevated just in time to save us from the direct fire of the enemy’s heaviest fort; and this, no doubt, was the cause of our remarkable escape. Nearly all the enemy’s shot went over us.
Having passed the principal batteries, we were greatly relieved from suspense, patiently endured, however, by the officers and crew. But there was another formidable obstacle in the way — a floating battery, which was the great “war elephant” of the Confederates, built to blockade the Mississippi permanently. As we passed her she fired six or eight shots at us, but without effect. One ball struck the coal-barge and one was found in a bale of hay; we found also one or two musket-bullets. We arrived at New Madrid about midnight with no one hurt, and were most joyfully received by our army. At the suggestion of Paymaster Nixon, all hands “spliced the main brace.”