Fooling with Mother Nature

6 03 2011

January of 1863 found U.S. Grant in command of all Union forces tasked with taking the Confederate fortress of Vicksburg.  President Lincoln, Secretary Stanton,  General Halleck and, most importantly, General McClernand all knew that Grant would be the Union general to capture Vicksburg.  Now only General Pemberton needed convincing as to the identity of of the Gibraltar of the west ultimate conqueror.

Grant now had to figure out a way to take the city and plans A and B had already been tried and had proven terrible failures.  Marching overland from Memphis through the heart of Mississippi resulted in a hasty return trip thanks to the efforts of Nathan Bedford Forest and Earl Van Dorn.  Sherman’s assault on the cliffs of Normandy Chickasaw bayou had been even more disastrous resulting in the loss of 1700 men.  It was now time to consider Plan C.

Grant’s Canal

Vicksburg’s Value as river fortress cannot be understated.  It was mighty.  Given that removing the fortress from the river was a nearly impossible task, the solution that seemed most obvious to union planers in the winter of ‘63 was to remove the river from the fortress.

Rivers as big and old as the Mississippi have a wonderful way of changing courses over time.  Oxbow lakes are formed out of stretches of river that have been cut off from the main waterway due to erosion and flooding.  The more a river meanders, the thinner the neck of the land the river goes around gets, until, at last some natural event occurs and the river once again goes in a strait line abandoning its old course.

The De Soto Peninsula, a thin strip of land in front of Vicksburg, seemed a great opportunity for Grant’s men to create just such a “natural” event.

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By altering the flow of the river, Grant would have removed Vicksburg from the primary course of the river and opened the river to ironclads in transports.

Starting in January, Sherman’s men began work to scour out a channel across the strip of land .  This was, at best, a crappy job.  The land in question was quite swampy and unsuitable for equipment heavier than shovels and axes.  Furthermore, the strip of land was within extreme range of the guns of Vicksburg.  Union batteries had to be constructed to cover the troops while they worked.

In March, a canal 60 feet wide and 7 feet deep had been dredged across the De Soto Peninsula but prior to its completion the Mississippi flooded revealing an number of engineering issues with the project.  For one, a retaining dam on the west side of the river collapsed causing not only the flooding of the canal but the loss of virtually all equipment and animals used in the digging.  It also appears that 7 feet may not have been quite deep enough.  Rather than scouring out the channel and rerouting the river, the channel became clogged with sediment and much of the peninsula melted into the hole.  Attempts at scouring out the channel using boats was deterred by cannons fired by the amused defenders of Vicksburg.


Lake Providence Expedition

Plan D then!  One oxbow lake near the Arkansas border offered an unique opportunity for circumnavigating Vicksburg.  Lake Providence, separated from the Mississippi by only a narrow levee, didn’t drain into the Mississippi at all.  It was connected by a series of bayous and tributaries to the red river over 100 miles away.  The Red River itself reconnected to the Mississippi just above, Grand Gulf (the only other notable confederate fort left on the river).

General McPherson’s men set to work channeling from the Mississippi to Lake Providence and McPherson and his engineers set to work scouting Bayou’s Baxter and Macon to see what work would be needed to create a channel navigable to river transports.  As it turns out, quite lot of work would be required. 

Trees where the primary culprit preventing free navigation.  It’s not enough to just chop down a tree in a bayou.  You have to move a boat over it afterwards.  There is such a thing as an underwater saw it appears and McPhersons men employed these devices to fell a clear path the Tensas River.  Even after clearing a path, the result would have required a more shallow drafted fleet of ships than were on hand to transport soldiers and there seemed little prospect of opening this path to the types of boats readily available to Northern shipping.

Yazoo Pass Expedition

As late as 1856, boats freely navigated from the Mississippi to the Yazoo river by a series of bayous and lakes just below Helena, Arkansas.  While this provided a much shorter path to the areas of Mississippi bordering the delta, there was just too much unusable land in the delta to be ignored and cycles of flooding made its settlement problematic.  A considerable levee was laid across the mouth of the Pass and the century of effort to drain and transform the delta was begun.

Blowing up levee’s sounds fun.  On February 3rd the levee keeping the Mississippi out of the  Yazoo pass (a confusingly named bayou as it turns out) was blown up.  It took four days before the water level of the  bayou matched the water level of the river.  Once equilibrium was reached, an expedition consisting of two ironclads (the Chillicothe and the Baron De Kalb) 5 tin clads (USS Rattler, Marmora, Signal, Romeo, and Forest Rose) and 13 transports carrying an infantry division were sent into the delta.  If navigation could be opened to the Yazoo then it would be possible to land and supply troops in Mississippi north of Vicksburg in a much easier place to assault than the Chickasaw bluffs


Navigation did indeed prove possible but only just.  The width of the river did not allow much room for error with the ironclads, boats much bigger then traveled this path a generation previously.  To improve the precision of navigation, row boats would go forward and attach ropes to trees in order for crewman aboard the larger boats to pull their ships towards the farther bank.

Animals in the bayou had been much inconvenienced by the blowing of the levee.  Those that could clambered into the trees to avoid the flooding.  This is an inconvenient place to have critters when a giant gunboat bumps into a tree.  Time and again, showers of all manner of creatures, everything from ants to bobcats, rained onto the decks of the Union fleet with each bump.  The trees were a problem too.  This part of the delta had overgrown since its use as a path of commerce.  Eventually, every ship in the fleet had all protrusions sheered off at the deck by the repeated collisions with trees and their branches.

When Confederates began defending the river system the expedition began to slow down in earnest. Felled trees began to block the path of the union fleet and these had to be removed… by hand.  I should point out that one of the primary effects of flooding a bayou is that there is no dry land.  Troops would stand in chest deep water and pull on ropes to move the obstacles.

After 5 weeks, the union fleet arrived at Fort Pemberton on the confluence of the Tallahatchie and Yalobusha rivers.  Ft Pemberton had two things going for it.  1) a 6.4 inch brooks rifle that could hit what it shot at and hurt what it hit and 2) the Star of the west.

Given well over a month to prepare, General William W. Loring (a man we shall hear more about later) had moved the Star of the west up the Tallahatchie to a place just upstream of perhaps the only piece of dry land left in the delta and sunk it astride the river.  Fort Pemberton was constructed 800 yards from the sunken ship out of cotton bales and dirt and armed with the considerable gun strength of the Star of the West including one first class 6.4 inch brooks rifle.

Arriving at Fort Pemberton, the two ironclads began an extended (literally three days over a week) fire fight.  The plan, if there was a plan, which is doubtful, was for each of the ironclads to fire the two bow facing GINORMOUS 11” Dahlgren smoothbore guns at the tiny fort.  The river was too narrow at this point for either ironclad to turn sideways and use their side facing guns.

Despite the presence of 9 infantry regiments with the fleet, an assault was considered completely unviable.  Soldiers would have to advance in chest deep water nearly half a mile to assault an un-scouted position defended by an unknown number of troops.  Extended time in the water would have meant the only reliable weapon that could be carried by the soldiers were their bayonets.

In the opening day of fighting a rifled shell from the fort went through an opened port on the Chillicothe and <cringe> hit a shell as it was being loaded.  This killed 2 and injured most everyone else. By the second day of fighting crewman on the Chillicothe were being injured by bolts being forcefully dislodged by continuous hits on its front armor.  On the third day of fighting, with the Chillicothe “Kick me” sign clearly visible to confederate gunners, the Chillicothe was forced to withdraw when its so misshapen its guns no longer could be fired out its front ports. 

With this, the Union fleet retired.  If two Ironclads could not hit the lone confederate rifle then this battle just wasn’t going to work out for the Union fleet.  Now all that was left was to go Back up the river one hundred miles, IN REVERSE, and explain to General Grant how 10,000 men and 7 warships got licked by a Fort made of cotton with a single Cannon.  (I bet that was a GREAT conversation.)

BTW…at long range 1 rifle beats the britches off of 4 smoothbores.  It’s not even close.  At 800 yards it not about accuracy but rather rate of fire given how unlikely they are to hit their targets.  Furthermore, Boats tend to bob in the water in a way that dry land rarely does.