Gunboat USS Pittsburgh during the Civil War.

Pittsburgh served in the lengthy series of operations which wrested control of the lower Mississippi from the Confederacy. Her flotilla, previously under Army control, came under naval command on 1 October 1862. Lieutenant Commander William R. Hoel, USN took command of the Pittsburgh at this time. Highlights of her service were the operations against Plum Point Bend, Fort Pillow and Memphis in April, May and June 1862; the Steele’s Bayou Expedition of March 1863; and the passing of the Vicksburg batteries on 16 April 1863. She led the attack on the batteries at Grand Gulf on 29 April, and was heavily damaged during the five-and-a-half hour engagement that secured Union control of an important stretch of the river, making it possible for Grant to cross the river and attack Vicksburg from the rear. The strong Confederate river fortress surrendered on July 4, allowing President Abraham Lincoln at last to report, “The Father of Waters flows unvexed to the sea.”

Patrol and bombardment missions on the Mississippi were interrupted the following year when Pittsburgh joined in the Red River Expedition from March to May 1864. On 1 March 1865, Hoel was detached from Pittsburgh to take command of USS Vindicator; Acting Master Morgan commanded the Pittsburgh until her decommissioning at Mound City, Illinois at close of the war. Pittsburgh was sold there on 29 November 1865.

William R. Hoel, born 7 March 1825 in Ohio, was a Mississippi River steamboat pilot who entered the Navy 19 October 1861. On 6 February 1862, while serving as the First Master of Cincinnati, Hoel was wounded during the Battle of Fort Henry. Less than two months later, on 4 April he volunteered to pilot gunboat Carondelet in her famous run past the Rebel batteries at Island Number 10 to reach Maj. Gen. John Pope’s Army at New Madrid. The gunboat’s valiant dash through a hailstorm of Confederate fire enabled Union forces to cross the river and to take this key island with quantities of cannon, equipment and stores. It thus opened the Mississippi for operations by Union gunboats bringing the Federal Armies in a long stride to within sight of Memphis. Hoel’s courageous and skillful service on this occasion won the praise of Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote, the thanks of the Navy from Secretary Gideon Welles, and promotion to the rank of Acting Volunteer Lieutenant effective 29 April 1862.

On 10 May 1862 Hoel assumed command of Cincinnati when serious wounds incapacited her Captain, Commander Roger N. Stembel. The new commander of the Western Flotilla, Captain Charles H. Davis, took this opportunity to express his admiration of Hoel. “I cannot praise more than they deserve his high valor and ability. He sets the highest example to those below him, and if it were possible to give him a permanent position worthy of his merits, the Navy would be the gainer. . . .”

On 29 October, Hoel then took command of Pittsburg on which he served with distinction in the campaign to take Vicksburg. One of Lieutenant Hoel’s exploits during this campaign is of special interest since it foreshadowed the heroism of the World War II destroyer which bore his name, USS Hoel (DD 533). On 29 April 1863, as Acting Rear Admiral Porter’s flotilla was bombarding the Confederate Batteries at Grand Gulf, his flagship, USS Benton, became unmanageable and was caught under heavy fire in a position where she could neither steer nor reply to the enemy guns. On seeing Porter’s predicament, Hoel slipped the Pittsburg in between Benton and the flaming Rebel batteries to protect her by taking the fire himself. In the next 10 minutes, his heroism cost the Pittsburg six men killed and eight wounded, but the sacrifice allowed Benton to extricate herself from the deadly trap. The bombardment was so successful that the next day General Grant safely moved his troops across the Mississippi to begin the operations which at long last isolated and captured Vicksburg.

Hoel was promoted to Acting Volunteer Lieutenant Commander on 10 November 1864. Detached from Pittsburg, he then took command of Vindicator on 1 March 1865 on which he served until 7 July 1865. He was honorably discharged on 30 December 1865.