Prelude to Jackson

28 05 2012

On May 1st, Grant’s army had pressed its way into Mississippi and defeated Bowen’s Brigade at Port Gibson.  Now, with the East Bank of the Mississippi abandoned by the Confederacy, Grant was free to do what he pleased without confederate supervision  and it pleased him very much to march on Jackson.  Jackson was the point that connected Vicksburg to the Confederacy.  It has rail connections to the South, North, and (as Grant rightly feared) the East.  If he were to ignore Jackson it would be the point were a great Confederate host would emerge in 3 or 4 weeks to crush him against the anvil of the Vicksburg defenses.  It would be the point at which food and supplies needed for a proper counter attack would (and had already begun to) be collected everyday until the counter attack was ready.  It needed to go.

With the destruction of Jackson on his mind Grant, began snaking his army east through Mississippi toward Jackson with McPherson’s XVII Corp in the lead.  Their march was deliberate but their decision to invade without supply would have consequences.  Grant’s army could not just march, they had to forage as well.  They spread into the rich countryside and gathered what they needed.  In fact, the land (and by land I mean the occupants of central Mississippi) provided amply.  No army ever marched better fed but it would take well over a week before Union Forces appeared at the outer defensive perimeter of Jackson near Raymond.

The Battle of Raymond

General John Gregg arrived at Raymond on May 11th with 3000 men and some really bad intelligence.  Pemberton was convinced the Grant would turn north towards Vicksburg at the the Big Black River Railroad crossing near Edward’s Station.  He wanted Gregg in place to attack Grant’s rear once the Union army turned north and began their march towards Vicksburg.  From this position Gregg’s force would destroy Grant’s ability to move food and supply to the front and would disrupt his communications.

Leaving aside for a moment that Grant’s decision to ignore conventional military thinking and spurn supply for forage meant that cutting his supply line was not that useful, Pemberton’s plan had one other MAGNIFICENT short coming; Grant was ignoring Vicksburg in favor of Jackson.  Raymond is on a direct path from Port Gibson to Jackson.  His entire army was moving towards Gregg and his men.  The displacement of Confederate Calvary in Mississippi by Grierson’s raid and Nathan Bedford Forests defense of Alabama meant Grants army had effectively disappeared.

250px-John_GreggOn arriving at Raymond, Gregg began to hear tales of the industrial foraging that was going on to the west.  He also heard that troops where coming his way and would likely be there the next day.  Not doubting Grant’s intention to wheel towards Vicksburg, Gregg assumed that he would be running into a foraging brigade that was flanking the main advance.  Confident he could lick such a force, he spread his men out across the 3 roads that entered Raymond from the west.  The land here was very hilly and forested; well suited for defense.  He would have the element of surprise and would have no difficulty licking a marching brigade burdened with gathering and carrying forage.

On the Morning of May 12 McPherson’s lead division, lead by General John A. Logan, marched directly into a fight.  Picket’s began to fire from well obscured lines on wooded hilltops and the three guns that the confederates brought to the battle began to rain down shells from a commanding position to the confederate rear.  Logan deployed his lead brigade and the ample artillery he had at hand.  In short order he was able to set up 10 guns and soon began to give better than he got.


Gregg found himself in a peculiar situation.  It appeared to him that the blue clad scavengers had brought more guns than soldiers.  This was clearly a weird way to forage but “oh well”.  The confederates could not skirmish with big guns and had to either retreat from their hill top position or advance on the union troops now lined near the creek bed below.  The decided on the latter.  Greggs Brigade rose up and went on the attack.  This was, as you can imagine, the last thing that Logan expected.  Out of their original positions the union guns lost their targets to the topology of the battlefield and soldiers that were that morning intent of scourging local farms for bacon and beets found themselves the target a determined Confederate assault.

Gregg’s initial position astride three separate roads converging on Raymond meant his troops were in a good position to flank his initial target.  It appeared that the main confederate spearhead was coming from the direct from and Union troops began to bend in order to apply the fire of a seemingly longer line to the smaller confederate from.  As more confederate regiments converged on the fight they began to find the union soldiers badly out of position to received them.  Had this been a brigade on brigade assault it would have been a short one.

Despite initial success, Gregg finally began to understand the full gravity of his situation.  The brigade he had attacked began to be reinforced by other brigades.  Soldiers began attacking his position from both the left and right of brigade directly to his front.  The large numbers of artillery that outnumbered his own three guns suddenly doubled.  Furthermore, Logan began to make strengthened counterattacks directly to the confederate front.  This was not a foraging party.  This was a Union army.

Gregg realized that, despite early success, the gig was up.  He now had to get out of his current position as intact as possible and return to his base of supply.  Gregg’s troops successfully withdrew, screened by the topography of the battlefield.  They were through and out of Raymond before the ladies of the city had finished preparing a meal for their gallant defenders.  Not to fear though, the Union troops would be along soon enough.

Jackson was clearly the target of this invasion and Gregg would be needed there.  A whole army would be needed there.  What’s more… an army commander would be needed.  The city would have to be prepared for assault and the various disconnected commands of the west would need a respected  overall commander to coordinate them.  …And the south had such a man!  A man who’s audaciousness had saved the south from invasion time and again.  Robert E. Lee!  Sadly, Lee was busy in Virginia so they sent Joseph E. Johnston instead.


The Steele Bayou Expedition

1 05 2011

Despite the loss of two of his best ironclads, Admiral Porter was not giving up.  If there were no spare heavy ships for running the guns and Vicksburg then there was at least an abundance of shallow draft transports and cottonclads for turning the confederate position along the Yazoo.

Back in December, Grant had lost nearly 2000 men assaulting Haines Bluff.  This position was not only proofed against a frontal assault but its guns dominated the river itself and would have made the passing of a fleet carrying troops and supplies too expensive to be considered.  What was needed was way to go around the confederate defenses and with the Mississippi Delta flooded from the breaking of the dykes from the Yazoo Pass expedition in February many new “rivers” had bee created where only streams and swamps had been previously

Preliminary scouting revealed that Steele’s bayou, who’s mouth attached to the Yazoo just below the Haines Bluff fortification, was navigable for nearly 20 miles.  Navigable in fact until it connected to Black Bayou which jogged east and connected to Deer Creak.  Deer Creek was connected to the Rolling fork which attached to the Sunflower which in turn ran back to the Yazoo upstream of the confederate Fortifications.  It was 200 miles of meandering swamp but it appeared that Porter was in business.

Steele's Bayou

On March 16th 1863, on its assent up Steele’s bayou, Porter’s fleet picked up one of Sherman’s Divisions.  Up until very recently Sherman’s men had been trying to dig their way pass Vicksburg.  Flooding had ended this effort.  The very flooding that made this expedition possible made his men available for the work required to circumnavigate the confederates on the Yazoo.

All went well until the union fleet made its way to deer creek.  The assumption that flooding would make the waterways of the delta deep enough for navigate had proven true but the flooding had done little to move the trees lining the creek further apart.  Flooding had also moved the canopy of the forest that much closer to the surface of the water.  As with the Yazoo river expedition, navigation of the river had become perilous to man and ship alike.  River vessels had stacks and rigging destroyed by continual contact with the Delta’s flora and with each bump of a tree, the decks of the union fleet would be covered by all the bugs and critters of the swamp that had been forced to seek refuge.

In order to make Deer Creek passible to union navigation, Sherman’s men took to felling and moving trees.  A task that had them in the water and tugging on ropes for days.  In the mean time Porter’s gunboats continued ahead without infantry support.  What could possibly go wrong?

By this point Confederates had a pretty good idea of what the union fleet was up to.  At choke points in the creek cotton was stacked near the edge of the water and would be lit as the union ships approached.  This didn’t stop the fleet but it did manage to make life pretty miserable for union crews.

On the night of the 18th, when the ships stopped and made repairs the sound of axes could be heard as confederates had taken to blocking the waterway with trees.  After sending mortar rafts ahead to run off the gray woodsmen in the night, the fleet pressed ahead the next morning and nearly made the mouth of the Rolling Fork.  There they found a problem.

Near an Indian mound, the river turned on a ominous bright green.  For an extended stretch of deer creek, a pervasive patch of willow weed grew beneath the surface of the water.  Believing that steam powered river gunboats had what it took to make it through such a growth, Porter ordered his lead gunboats to go ahead at full speed.  Of course this did not work.  Porter’s fleet became completely stuck, and stuck in a really bad place.

High ground could be found in range of the river fleet and the ironclads would have difficulty shooting back given their inability to move and their relative elevation.  Porter was screwed and he knew it.  He put ashore some of his more mobile smoothbores which took up position on the nearby Indian mound.  His crew he put overboard with knives and hooks in an effort to free his ships.

No sooner had the union troops fortified the mound than confederate artillery had taken position both north and south of the fleet and opened fire.  Not just any confederate artillery either but rifles with much more accuracy and range.  Porter was desperate and had to send for Sherman.  Unable to send back some of his still mobile gunboats for help because of the guns in his rear and the felled trees they used to block the river, Porter was forced to rely on slaves to deliver messages to Sherman many miles away.

Three days later, on the 22nd, Sherman’s  men arrived, wet, muddy and disgruntled.  Forced to travel cross country due to the inability of the fleets transports to navigate Deer Creek, Sherman’s men took a full day to make it to the stranded fleet.  Once there however they had no difficulty pushing the confederates out of both of their positions and clearing the river of felled trees.  After a short discussion both Porter and Sherman agreed that they had been whooped and it was time they made their way home… in reverse.

The Seventh Failure

This phase of the Vicksburg campaign is known by historians as the “Seven Failures”. We have chronicled six failures so far including Grant’s advance through Holly springs, Sherman’s assault on the cliffs of Normandy Haynes Bluff, Grant’s canal, the Yazoo Pass expedition, the Lake Providence expedition and the Steele Bayou expedition.  For Grant’s final failure he chose another canal.

Grant’s canal across Desoto Point had been obliterated by spring floods but, with higher water, new routes for a canal were possible.  A mile or so above the original canal site, at a place improbably named Duckport, a new canal was begun.  This new canal would connect the Mississippi to the Walnut bayou, which connected to Roundaway Bayou and in turn into Bayou Vidal with reconnects to the Mississippi at New Carthage below Vicksburg.

This is not really a sexy story.  It was never thought a very good idea as only small boats could use the bayou on the far side of the canal.  This plan was only practical because of the flooding and when the flooding stopped in April the plan was abandoned.

Grant had failed to get around Vicksburg.  He had Failed seven times.  Fear not though.  Grant had one more plan… and it was a corker.

Deluded people, Cave In.

3 04 2011

It is my pleasure to relate to you the sad and glorious tale of the USS Queen of the West, the USS Indianola and the greatest military hoax since Odysseus said “Hey… why don’t we build a giant horse out of wood… No one will see it coming.”   Go ahead, get yourself a beer.  I’ll wait right here.

391px-David_Dixon_PorterIn February of 1863, Admiral David Porter had an idea; He could destroy the last vestiges of confederate trans-Mississippi commerce through violence and piracy.  The Mississippi and Red rivers were in Confederate hands by the grace of its enormous remaining forts on the Mississippi (Vicksburg to the north and Port Hudson to the south near Baton Rouge).  Nothing afloat on these rivers could more than just bother the mighty union ironclad fleet.  Only a handful of forts remained on the river and these could be easily passed without fear so long as ships did not dally beneath their guns.  Porter knew that to rob the south of this vital transportation highway, one need not destroy the forts guarding its entries; one need only pass them with serious warships… once. 

In addition to having piracy on his mind, Admiral Porter had two more things; A landing on the west bank of the Mississippi south of Vicksburg and a spare ironclad.

USS Queen of the West

Grant had spread his army around Mississippi and Arkansas in order to find some way to break into Vicksburg’s rear.  One of these efforts resulted in a the establishment of Fort Sherman on the west bank of the Mississippi in Arkansas.  This is a particularly useful place to have a fort if you intend to operate a ship on this part of the river.  From here ships could be resupplied and repaired.  Captured troops and equipment could be unloaded.

Admiral Porter ordered the Queen of the West, along with it’s 19 year old captain, Charles Ellet jr, to run the guns of Vicksburg and then to capture, burn, harass, inhibit and frustrate confederate commerce.  On February 2nd 1863 the Queen of the West ran past the guns of Vicksburg where it received an even dozen hits.  The Ironclad then pulled up to Fort Sherman where it’s damage was repaired and was resupplied.


On February 4th the Queen of the West began its career as river privateer. Admiral Porter, clearly excited by the prospect of taking the war to new battlegrounds in the south, wired the secretary of the navy that the Queen of the West was under way with supplies of coal and ammunition.  To the end of this communication he added “This gives the ram nearly coal enough to last month, in which time she can commit great havoc, if no accidents happens to her.”  Ok… that’s not ominous at all.

For days the Queen of the West was bad news for confederate shipping.  Several VERY valuable ships including the Desoto and the Era No.5 where captured laden with food and supplies.  What the Union ironclad did not care to steal, it destroyed.  A great many ships, including one medium sized confederate ironclad were forced up the Red River and the Queen of the West gave pursuit.  On February 14th, At Fort DeRussy in Louisiana, The CSS William H. Webb, along with a small flotilla of scratch made warships (Mostly steam launches with a single field gun), made a stand.

Within moments of discovering Fort DeRussy, the Queen of the West suffered a tremendous set back. In the 10 days prior to the 14th, several soldiers, including the ships pilot, had been wounded either by sniper fire on the ship itself or as a part of landing parties sent ashore to burn or capture valuables.  Neither the Webb (and its Lilliputian counter parts) nor the Guns of Fort DeRussy should have provided the Queen of the West a proper challenge but the two combined made Captain Ellet uncomfortable.  He ordered the replacement pilot to turn the ship about and head back towards the Mississippi.  In response, the pilot plowed the Queen of the West bow first into the river bank directly under the guns of the fort. 

This left the young Captain with a dilemma.  Escape OR destroy the Queen of the West…. not both.  Unable to bring himself to destroy his ship, and therefore his wounded, he gave the order to abandon ship.  Men pushed cotton bails (which apparently float) into the water and road them downstream to the captured DeSoto and Era No. 5 which would give them a ride back to the sanctuary of Fort Sherman.  Or so they thought.

A few hours later the Desoto plowed into a sand bar where it had both rudders torn off and its paddle wheels destroyed.  The ship was piloted by none other than the same replacement pilot that had beached the Queen of the West.  Needless to say, he was arrested for being either a confederate sympathizer or the worse riverboat pilot in the history of the world.  Either way, he was going to jail and rightfully so. 

After another brief ride on a cotton bail, Captain Ellet and his crew now began their long, upstream, journey back to the safety of union guns.  The Confederates, thrilled at the prospect of capturing a Union crew began to give chase with their much faster fleet.  Oh dear.

USS Indianola

Delighted by the early reports of the Queen of the West’s success on the Mississippi, Admiral Porter decided that he had one more spare Ironclad.

On February 13th, the day before the Queen or the West changed teams, the USS Indianola ran the guns of Vicksburg and, having received no meaningful damage set out to join her sister ship with a great of coal lashed to her sides on barges.  Apparently running out of coal was Admiral Porter’s greatest concern and to this end he had begun moving large barges of coal past the fort of Vicksburg to resupply his pirate fleet.  Two of the barges were lashed to the sides of the USS Indianola providing it not only quite enough fuel but also a good bit of protection from Confederate rams.


Ramming is an old school attack method that briefly regained popularity during the Civil war.  Virtually all warships of the Civil War era had giant iron rams attached to their bows below the waterline.  With the armoring of ships and the shortage of the really big guns needed to punch through such armor (particularly in the south), it was felt that this weapon system provided an excellent secondary attack method.  Everyone was wrong of course.  Ramming sucked but rams were cheap so all the ships got one anyway.  Captains weren’t told how dumb ramming was but most of them had figured it out by the end of the war.

On February 16th the Indianola ran into the Era No. 5 running for its life with the Webb hot on its heals.  The Webb, again no match for a fully armed Union Ironclad, realized that it had no business fighting the Indianola and retired.  Captain Ellet and Captain Brown (the Indianola’s skipper) met and decided that it was unlikely that he Queen of the West could possibly be put back on the river soon and that the Indianola should patrol the mouth of the Red River while Era No. 5 return to Fort Sherman and ask, pretty please, for one more Ironclad to help with the recapture or destruction of the Queen of the West.

The Queen of the West was not NEARLY as damaged as Captain Ellet supposed.  Within 2 days she had been pulled from the bank and her damage repaired.  Within another 2 days she would be crewed and ready for action.  The newly rechristened CSS Queen of the West, along with the CSS Webb and two steam boats armed with field cannons and armored with cotton set out to sink or capture the Indianola commanded by Major Joseph L. Brent.

By a stroke of luck the Indianola had landed at a plantation where they had hoped to secure cotton bails for armoring the ships deck (and for future use as floatation devices presumably) when they were informed by slaves of the Queen of the West’s resurrection.  It was now the Indianola’s turn to run for its life.

When running for one’s life, it is essential that one does so quickly.  If something should slow you down, say, hypothetically, a pair of giant coal laden barges lashed to the sides of your boat, you should cut them loose.  You should forget about them.  They are not your problem.  Also, despite the regulation manual’s insistence that recoaling should be done in daylight, you should do this at a night when you are not moving, OR, better yet, not at all, because, as we have already established, keeping several months of coal on hand is not your problem when you are running for you life.

With the Indianola essentially walking fast, albeit for its life, the Confederate fleet had no difficulty running it down.  It could have overtaken it virtually point in its pursuit but it really wanted the Indianola to receive as much harm as possible from forts along the Mississippi.  In particular, their was a really nice fort at Port Hudson just south of Vicksburg that had a fighting chance to wound the Indianola.

On the 24th of February, the Indianola passed Fort Hudson in the late afternoon where it received a smattering of direct hits but no real harm.  That evening Major Brent and his Fleet attacked the Indianola under cover of night a scant 13 miles south of Fort Sherman.  The battle that resulted could be clearly heard by both the city of Vicksburg and its Union blockaders.

Unable to accurately fire its massive guns in the darkness, the Indianola only managed to score a single hit.  The Webb made several ramming attacks on the Indianola including a highly inadvisable head on ram that very nearly disabled the Webb and only managed to bring the Indianola to a halt.  (When ramming, mass counts.)  Slowed by this collision, the Indianola made an easy target for the ram on the of the Queen of the West and a battle ending blow was delivered.  Both ships were badly damaged by the collision but the Indianola had sprung a leak.  When your ship is made of solid iron, leaks are bad.  With the Indianola taking on gobs of water it was now time to end the battle on the best possible terms. 

Captain Brown steered his ship towards the Arkansas bank of the Mississippi where he would be able to send his crew ashore on the less hostile side for the river.  Once the crew had disembarked, the ship was set afire in the hopes that it would not fall into Confederate hands.  Remarkably, not only did boarding confederates put out the fires but they succeeded in moving the smoldering ship to the Mississippi bank of the river where it sank in shallow water.  By moving the ship the Confederates would have better access to tools and supplies they would need and would be able to work on the ship unharassed by union snipers on the Arkansas bank.

Admiral Porter’s big black lie

Just prior to the battle and beaching of the Indianola, Admiral Porter had a a very disturbing debriefing with young Captain Ellet.  (How awesome was that conversation!)The sounds of the battle just down river and the subsequent lack of returning Indianola led the Admiral to a very bleak place.  The next day it was confirmed that even though the confederate fleet was really beaten up, the confederates had captured the Indianola and were busy repairing her.

Only three week earlier he was conquering the Trans-Mississippi with spare boats.  Now, not only was completely out of ironclads, an attack downriver by anything less than a large fleet would be easily repelled, and subsequently disabled ships would be easily captured by a rapidly growing confederate fleet.  (Remember, when ships are disabled, they float downriver.)  Things were bad.

If only the north had one more Ironclad.  If available right now, a single undamaged ironclad could go down river, engage the wounded confederates and force them to either destroy the Indianola and run for their lives OR stay and fight which, of course, they couldn’t do because they weren’t dumb.  Hey… wait a second.

Within 24 hours Admiral port had constructed an ironclad, or at least what appeared to be an ironclad if you didn’t get within 3 or 4 hundred yards.  The faux warship was constructed on an old flat bottom barge along with several rafts to give it the proper length and girth.  It had a forward facing casemate and armored wheelhouse made of wood framing and canvas covered in pitch.  Several large caliber logs protruded though its various gun ports.  It’s smoke stack was made of stacked barrels which even had fires for producing real smoke.


Early in the morning the day after the Indianola’s capture, the fake ironclad “ran” the guns of Vicksburg.  Early the next morning, with the Queen of the West stationed up river to watch for the union ironclad that had run the guns in the night, a column of smoke appeared on the horizon.  The Queen of the West waited just long enough to confirm a third union ironclad was on its way in the distance. With this, the Confederate fleet withdrew and the desperate confederate salvage team had no choice but to destroy the Indianola.  With the guns spiked and the fire raging and on the verge of reaching the magazine, the Trojan warship floated into view.  Painted on its wheelhouse in giant letters were the words “Deluded People, Cave In”.

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.

Untitled picture

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.