Monday, April 13, 2015

The great navy cattle drive of 1862

Two great things that go great together – the mighty United States Navy and…cattle?

As a veteran of the navy and a rancher, I find this a fun bit of history.

I've been fortunate to have been involved in a number of cattle drives in my life, though none of them ever approached the legendary status of old west trail drives. No camping out, no stampedes, no gunfights with bandits, no cow-towns. Not even a river to ford.

The drives I've been on are more properly described as leisurely country excursions, lasting no more than a few hours and covering at most a dozen miles of county road. In fact, since the cattle have usually known where they were going, it would be more accurate to describe them as “cattle follows” rather than cattle drives. Although in the past we’ve used horses to move cows, it’s been more than a decade since we’ve done so. Our modern horses are pickups and four-wheelers. Our cattle drives are long on comfort and short on romance.

The legendary old west trail drives, the stuff of countless Hollywood productions, mostly took place during a two-decade period between 1865 and 1885. But there were big cattle drives before 1865, and once upon a time, the US Navy had one. With perhaps a bit more excitement than even Hollywood could imagine.

In the early morning hours of April 24, 1862, navy gunboats sailed boldly past a pair of Confederate forts guarding the approaches to New Orleans and captured the Crescent City. It was a bold move, completely unexpected by rebel defenders and an absolute shock to Confederate leadership.

The Federal forces were in a tough position, though. They held New Orleans but were surrounded by teeming hordes of surprised but tough and experienced Confederate soldiers. Federal forces patrolled vigorously, both by foot ashore and with a squadron of steam-powered gunboats up and down the mighty river.

Sketch courtesy US Naval Historical Center, in the public domain. USS Katahdin, one of four Unadilla class gunboats present during the Great Navy Cattle Drive, depicted on the Mississippi near New Orleans in 1862.
During one riverine foray the Union sailors found evidence that cattle were being moved nearby and set an ambush, hoping to deprive rebel troops of their much needed hoof-borne rations.

As a hammering sun chased away the morning fog on Wed., Oct. 1, 1862, lookouts aboard the Yankee gunboats spotted a large herd of cattle approaching the eastern bank of the river. A single musket shot stopped the herd, and a shore party quickly arrested five drovers with Confederate passes to move the beeves through Rebel lines for slaughter at Camp Moore, a large Confederate training camp.

While standard procedure during the war was to destroy anything of benefit to the enemy (this was a common practice for both sides), the navy squadron Commodore hesitated to destroy such a valuable prize. A tally counted more than 1,500 head of genuine Texas Longhorns, estimated at 470 pounds each and worth $13 per hundredweight.

As an aside, my yearling cattle will sell today at the Platte Valley sale barn. They average about 585 pounds, and I'm expecting something closer to $250 per cwt.

In 1862 the value of the captured herd was more than $90,000 dollars. So let's do some pencilin'. According to this inflation calculator, $90,000 in 1862 would be worth $2,093,023 today. And according to current cattle markets, 1,500 head of 475 weight calves would bring $1,999,000 today.

Now isn't that interesting.

Back in 1862, the Commodore wasn't about to destroy those valuable animals, so he ordered the herd escorted to New Orleans. Thus began “The Great Navy Cattle Drive of ‘62.”

Taking the valuable herd away from a handful of Confederate forces was one thing. Moving the herd eighty miles through enemy territory was a far more difficult and risky proposition.

The half-dozen gunboats assigned the task put drover parties ashore and the drive got underway. As sailors chivied the Longhorns along the river path, the gunboats provided artillery support and supplies. The drive took a full week, and while Rebels repeatedly attacked the gunboats from ambush, the herd and drovers managed to slip past most of the Confederate forces without coming under direct attack. The gunboat squadron slipped up and down the river, sniffing out enemy forces and engaging in a half-dozen fierce artillery duels. While the sailors afloat suffered several killed and more than a score wounded, post-war records showed Rebel losses to be in the hundreds. Those extremely heavy losses, caused mostly by the skillful use of superior naval gunfire, may explain how the herd and drovers remained unscathed.

After a week of steady progress, which saw part of the herd loaded on barges for a river passage, the last of the cattle were delivered to a pasture a mile below Carrollton, in Jefferson Parish. The navy drovers turned over responsibility for the herd and returned to more nautical duties, and the great cattle drive was over.

In thinking about this astonishing bit of history, my first reaction is one of wonder and amazement. I can hardly imagine contemporary sailors embarking on such a task. But the sailors of 1862 weren't the sailors of the twenty-first century. Most of them, even the city boys, were raised around livestock. They'd have clearly seen a cattle drive a nothing out of the ordinary. Still, as routine an experience as it may have been at the time, The Great Navy Cattle Drive of ‘62 must have been a remarkable experience.


  1. Again, Fascinating! Lot's of History in the wordsmithers' quiver lately. Did a terrain walk of Vicksburg while I was at ARRRRMYYY Training Sir. It was interesting to see how Grant used the Navy in support of his campaign.

    1. As it turns out, the Brown Water Navy wasn't invented by John Kerry after all!

  2. A great story Shaun. Especially as I'm in the midst of reading Jeff Shaara's novel on the Vicksburg campaign, Chain of Thunder.

    So your story was timely and connected. Well done!

    1. I've got that Shaara fellow on the list.

      Interesting coincidence on the timing. I had to shift gears a bit because I'm in the middle of 1940 in my other reading. I should write about the WWII cattle drives. Lots of beef, pork and mutton flowed from all over the world into Europe during the war. Of course it does that anyway, but more during wartime. Hmmm.

  3. Very interesting! What sources did you use? Would like to do some more reading on this subject.
    Thank you!