For over two-hundred years the Mystic River in Connecticut was a center for New England’s shipbuilding industry. Many of the 1400 ships built there went on to have long successful careers. One ship that gained fame at the time and now is almost forgotten is the steamer Varuna. She played a major role in the battle for New Orleans in the Civil War. “Who has not heard of the dauntless Varuna?” wrote a forgotten poet in 1862. Although her name is not a household word her story is an example of the contributions our local shipyards made to the Civil War effort.
The Varuna was named after the Hindu god of the sea and was built by Charles Mallory & Sons at their yard on the Mystic River. The yard stood where the Mystic Seaport Shipyard is today. The Varuna was originally intended for the merchant service between New York City and New Orleans. She was a sizable vessel 218 feet long, displacing 1300 tons, and had a propeller that was twice the size of an ordinary ship.
At the outbreak of the Civil War the Union Navy was desperate for vessels. Charles Mallory and C.S. Bushnell sold the Varuna to the Navy Department on December 31, 1861 for $127,460. She was converted to a gunboat and armed with eight-inch cannon and two Parrot rifles. She was subsequently assigned to service in the Gulf of Mexico.
Commander Charles Stewart Boggs was appointed to command the USS Varuna. An experienced naval officer, Boggs joined the Navy in 1832 and was a veteran of the siege at Vera Cruz. At the time of his appointment he’d been the Lighthouse Inspector in California. Boggs was to serve under Rear Admiral David G. Farragut who commanded the Western Gulf Blockading Squadron at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Farragut later became famous for his order, “Dam the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”
When the Varuna joined the squadron in February 1862 preparations for the capture of New Orleans well were under way. The entrance to the Mississippi River leading to New Orleans was well guarded with two Confederate forts. Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip were on opposite sides of the river with a combined armament of more than 100 heavy guns and a complement of 700 men. In addition the Confederates had a fleet of sixteen gunboats just outside New Orleans behind a boom bridge built out of cypress logs that stretched across the river.
Farragut carefully prepared his fleet of seventeen vessels for action, lightening them by
stripping them of their upper rigging. He ordered chain cables draped along their sides to act as armor. He had piles of sandbags and coal placed around the engines and powder magazines. He daubed the hulls with yellow river mud to help camouflage them from the Confederate gunners.
On April 20, 1862 Farragut started bombarding the two forts from a fleet of mortar vessels. At the same time he sent two gunboats, Pinola and Itasca, against the boom bridge. Pinola rammed it at full speed, opening a wide passage.
On April 24th Farragut ordered his fleet to move up the river and attack. The vessels advanced in a single line with the gunboat Cayuga in the lead. Cayuga passed the boom although raked stem to stern by enemy fire. The gunboat Pensacola was next flowed by the Varuna. The Varuna, being faster than the other gunboats, passed the Pensacola and the boom to where the guns of the forts couldn’t reach her.
However, the Cayuga was in trouble. She was charged by three Confederate steamers and Boggs could see the vessels plight. He gallantly rushed to her aid. Cayuga was able to drive off two attackers but the third came on. The rebels were about to board the Union vessel when Varuna arrived and disabled the Confederate vessel with a single shot.
Then Varuna turned up river and attacked the Confederate flotilla. “Shot, shell, grape, and canister shot filled the air with deadly missiles,” wrote one eyewitness to the raging battle. “It was like the breaking up of a thousand worlds. Crash, tear, whiz, a hailstorm of iron perfectly indescribable.”
The Governor Moore, a large Confederate gunboat, attacked the Varuna. The Governor Moore rammed the Varuna twice with her iron covered bow doing a lot of damage. Shelling from the Varuna set the enemy ship on fire and she soon sank. Another enemy vessel, the Stonewall Jackson, attacked the Varuna and also rammed her twice. The Varuna’s crew was able to drive the attacker off with shells from her cannon and the Stonewall Jackson withdrew and was soon abandoned. On the Varuna Boggs found she was sinking and he was forced to run her up on the shore. With her decks awash her crew continued firing until she sank fifteen minutes later. The crew was taken off by another gunboat. Four of Varuna’s crew were killed and another six were wounded.
By now Farragut’s fleet, including his flagship the twenty-five gun Hartford, had passed the boom and had run the gauntlet of fire from the forts. The fleet proceeded upstream and arrived at New Orleans the next day. Farragut sent his marines ashore to capture the city. It was a significant victory, a severe blow to the Confederacy, and the beginning of Union control of the Mississippi River. Congress honored Farragut by creating the rank of Rear Admiral and promoting him on July 16, 1862, a rank never before used in the U.S. Navy.
In his official report Boggs, the Varuna’s commander, stated that the Varuna had destroyed four enemy gunboats during the battle. The press hailed her for her courageous action under fire. Career navy men were unanimous in praise for the gallant conduct of Commander Boggs who kept his guns firing until water closed over them. Eight sailors of the Varuna’s crew received the Medal of Honor for their actions during the battle.
All of Farragut’s vessels had been damaged in the battle but only the Varuna was sunk. Naval experts condemned the light construction of the converted merchant vessel as being unsuitable for this type of naval action. Her executive officer noted that if she had been built with the strength of a true naval vessel, “We would yet be afloat.”
Rear Admiral Farragut's stunning victory at and subsequent capture of New Orleans electrified the North. Varuna’s part in the Union triumph was soon commemorated in George Henry Boker's poem, "The Varuna", which appeared in the Philadelphia Press that May.
For some time after the battle Farragut toyed with the idea of salvaging the ship. In the end it was found to be impractical so the Varuna’s skeleton remained on the bank of the river almost forgotten. But the story of her conduct was remembered by many. In Mystic, the news of the loss of the dauntless Varuna inspired a great deal of local pride. The Mallory’s thought so much of her that they built two more steamers of the same name, Varuna.