By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2020-2021, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the October 2020 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
Please recall last month’s history brief where we left off with the end of Grant’s creative winter efforts of 1862-3 to bypass Vicksburg, which sputtered out in a haze of impracticability. From the engineering attempts for a proposed trench to reroute the Mississippi River along the neck of a peninsular bend near the fortress city, itself, and the push for a channel through marshy terrain to ultimately join with the Red River and its tributaries and thence to the Mississippi and finally a military effort to land troops just north of Vicksburg through the Yazoo River environs, all of these endeavors came to naught. But not for lack of effort; Grant recorded in his “Memoirs” that he was proud of the hard work his troops had undertaken, which had at least kept them productive outside the campaigning season. Now Grant huddled with Admiral Porter to devise a daring combined arms effort to achieve his goal of landing his troops on dry ground on the east side of the river below Vicksburg.
Having been born on the Ohio River at Point Pleasant, Ohio and growing up in nearby Georgetown a mere ten miles from the river, Grant had a unique appreciation for the country’s water highways, which were useful for moving all manner of goods and materials in mid-1800s America. As such, U.S. Grant acquired in his youth an intuitive ability to make use later in life of the waterborne and naval assets that the largesse of the northern economy made available for commanders that realized the potential. Accordingly, at his very first substantial battle at Belmont, Grant used river steamers to land and evacuate his troops – and here he famously followed his men as the last person boarding the escape vessels while slip sliding his horse down a muddy bank and scurrying his mount over a narrow wooden plank to complete an improbable last minute escape of his person.
Next, Grant subdued Forts Henry and Donelson and aggressively used the substantial firepower of the powerful river ironclads built at various shipbuilding facilities along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. At Shiloh, the Tennessee River was used as a supply line by Grant, and he exploited the river to military advantage in the adroit shelling of the Confederates by the Union gunboats Tyler and Lexington at a critical stage of the battle late on the first day, blunting what had thus far been a Confederate success and demoralizing the rebel troops’ spirit.
Now Admiral Porter told Grant that he believed that with proper preparation, he could “run the guns” of the Vicksburg fortress at night, minimizing the effect of the Confederate batteries under partial cover of darkness, and take his river fleet with its ironclads and sufficient supplies on the Mississippi past Vicksburg to ultimately meet Union troops that Grant would march down the west bank. At that point, Porter’s vessels could transport the Union troops across the Mississippi River to the coveted dry location below Vicksburg, where Grant could launch an offensive to capture the city over dry approaches. Of course, “running the guns” came with a huge risk, as the fleet could become heavily damaged and lose critical firepower, transport capability, and manpower. Further, once south of Vicksburg, in the event that they needed to do so, the ships would not likely be able to steam back up past Vicksburg, as the strong southerly river current would slow the vessels to such a degree that the Confederate batteries would be expected to obliterate the fleet.
Most often, the fighting vessels employed by Grant and Porter at Vicksburg are only briefly mentioned with little detail. So let’s examine them more closely, as they would be crucial to Grant’s effort – noted below as they were armed at the time of the Vicksburg run and presented corresponding to their positions in the line.
Benton – catamaran “snagboat” converted to an ironclad at James B. Eads Yard, St. Louis Missouri; commissioned February 24, 1862; speed 5 ½ knots; armament: eight nine-inch smoothbores; three 42-pound rifles; three 32-pound rifles; two 100-pound rifles. Benton was lashed to the tug Ivy at the head of the van; Benton was the most powerfully armed ironclad in the line.
Lafayette – former river steamer converted to ironclad ram at James B. Eads Yard, St. Louis, Missouri; commissioned February 27, 1863; speed 4 knots; armament: two 24-pound howitzers; two 12-pound howitzers; two 11-inch smoothbores; two nine-inch smoothbores; two 100-pounder rifles. Lashed to the General Price.
Louisville – built as a River casemate ironclad at Carondelet Yard, St. Louis, Missouri; commissioned January 16, 1862; speed 9 knots; armament: one 8-inch smoothbore; three 9-inch smoothbores; two 42-pound rifles; two 32-pound rifles.
Mound City – built as a River casemate ironclad at Mound City Yard, Mound City, Illinois; commissioned January 16, 1862; speed 9 knots; armament: three 8-inch smoothbores; two 42-pound rifles; six 32-pound rifles; one 12-pound rifle; one 30-pound rifle; one 50-pound rifle.
Pittsburgh – built as a River casemate ironclad at Carondelet Yard, St. Louis, Missouri; commissioned January 25, 1862; speed 9 knots; armament: two 8-inch smoothbores; two 9-inch smoothbores; two 32-pound rifles; two 30-pound rifles; one 100-pound rifle.
Carondelet – built as a River casemate ironclad at Carondelet Yard, St. Louis, Missouri; commissioned January 15, 1862; speed 7 knots; armament: four 8-inch smoothbores; three 9-inch smoothbores; one 42-pound rifle; one 32-pound rifle; one 30-pound rifle; one 50-pound rifle.
Carondelet was followed by three army transports.
Tuscumbia – built as a River casemate ironclad at Joseph Brown Yard, New Albany, Indiana; commissioned March 12, 1863; speed 10 knots; armament: three 11-inch smoothbores; two 9-inch smoothbores. Tuscumbia was the final ship in the van.
Louisville, Mound City, Pittsburgh, and Carondelet were sister ships of the “City Class,” alternately called the “Cairo Class.” They were a novel design of shallow-draft ships and the vision of Samuel Pook; they became known as “Pook’s Turtles” and by now were veterans of most of the North’s and Grant’s river-related campaigns in the Western Theater. To make all of the vessels in the line less susceptible to the plunging fire of the Confederate batteries on the cliffs above, timber, cotton and additional iron were lashed to their upward decks and surfaces. Sailors would have wet cotton available to stuff holes made by rebel projectiles.
Confident in Admiral Porter’s ability and buoyed by his past combined arms successes, Grant’s patience with other potential endeavors to reduce Vicksburg had left him. So on March 29, 1863 he ordered General McClernand to send his four-division corps on the march along the west side of the mighty river and committed the Union to this daring plan.
In his “Memoirs,” General Sherman indicated his disagreement with running the guns for a variety of reasons and thought it better to go back to Memphis and then proceed down the rail line again in central Tennessee. Bruce Catton in his famous book This Hallowed Ground characterized it in a way that many of Grant’s detractors of the time would have phrased it in a somewhat condescending sentence: “It was perhaps the crucial federal military decision of the war; and it was made by a slouchy little man who never managed to look like a great captain, who had a casual unbuttoned air about him and seemed to be nothing much more than a middle-aged person who used to be a clerk in a small town harness shop – a man who unexpectedly combined dogged determination with a gambler’s daring.”
We will learn how Grant’s daring plan unfolds and whether the “slouchy little man” transforms into the “indispensable man” in next month’s history brief!