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 September 2020 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
Please recall Grant’s campaign in the West to capture Vicksburg where we left off at the CCWRT December 2019 meeting with the “Battle of Chickasaw Bayou.” This was a defeat for General Grant, who commanded a two-pronged attack to vanquish the fortress. The first prong was his own movement through central Mississippi that would hopefully draw Confederate troops from Vicksburg to allow a direct thrust at the fortress. The second prong along the Mississippi River was under his friend and colleague, General Sherman. Grant’s drive was short-lived as his supply lines were disrupted by “that devil” General Nathan Bedford Forrest amongst others. Accordingly, Confederate General Pemberton maintained the majority of his troops in the Vicksburg defenses and decisively repulsed Sherman’s attack through the Chickasaw Bayou.
Soon after, a small Union tactical victory occurred at Arkansas Post which gave no strategic advantage to the North, so Grant pondered how to use the winter months to his advantage. Always an innovator and unafraid to try unconventional means to defeat the South, he contemplated unique methods to bypass Vicksburg altogether. Grant mentions in his “Memoirs” that his goal was to find a way to get his 40,000 or so troops on dry land on the east side of the Mississippi below Vicksburg. Further, he wanted to improve the morale of his men that winter by involving them in gainful pursuits. Therefore, he would endeavor to employ his troops with spades to attempt to reroute the Mississippi River. President Lincoln, being familiar with the mighty Mississippi, supported Grant’s efforts.
The first attempt was made where the river bends near Vicksburg and forms what could be characterized as a peninsula. The idea was to dig a ‘trench’ to reroute the Mississippi River away from the Vicksburg bluffs. Work began on the trench, which was to be dug northwest to southeast across the peninsula with a dam to hold back the water on the most northwestern point. Once the trench was completed, the idea was to open the dam and hopefully the force of flow through the trench would carve out a deeper channel than the Mississippi River itself. Grant’s river transports could then navigate through the newly trenched channel and bypass the fortress. Unfortunately for Grant, on March 8, 1863 the river rose so high from heavy rains that it naturally overwhelmed the dam on the northwest end of the trench, spreading inundation and destroying the soldiers’ camps and equipment. As such, the first attempt thereby failed chaotically.
A second creative engineering attempt was made at roughly the same time, using the sizable Lake Providence about 50 miles northwest of Vicksburg on the west side of the Mississippi River. The lake was separated by a levee from the river. Grant thought that if the levee was breeched, river water would flow through the opening, forcing a navigable channel through the many swamps, streams, and small tributaries that dominated the terrain. From that vicinity and then to a point about 150 miles below Vicksburg, the flow would join the Red River and its tributaries and on to the Mississippi. It might not be very deep, but substantial enough for shallow-bottom boats to transport men, munitions, and supplies. To make it feasible, another different contingent of Grant’s troops would need to hack, cut, yank, and pull numerous trees and tree stumps from the deeper potential channels and marshes. Over time, much effort and toil were spent, but frustration mounted at the slow pace of progress and led Grant to conclude this second project impractical. However, as noted in Grant’s “Memoirs,” it was at least a fine way to keep the troops from idleness.
A third creative effort, perhaps more warlike in nature than those just noted, was made on the east side of the river about 200 miles north of Vicksburg at Yazoo Pass. This was a swampy area of marsh and streams through which an amphibious assault could perhaps be launched to land troops down in the vicinity of Chickasaw Bluffs where Sherman was recently defeated. In late February of 1863, a mine was set off in an embankment at Yazoo Pass, allowing swollen waters of the Mississippi River into this swampy area. Grant ordered two gunboats and transports with about half a division of soldiers through the breach to head downstream. Shortly thereafter, Confederate troops caught wind of this and began chopping down trees in the path of the Union vessels. The fallen trees needed to be individually removed, wasting time and exhausting the laborers. Further, in this densely wooded area low-hanging branches snapped the vessels’ smokestacks, and submerged tree stumps were a threat to rupture their hulls. Often, the currents were so strong that the ships lurched out of control, and other times shallow sluggish waters loaded with driftwood slowed them to a crawl. Mosquitoes and insects bit mercilessly. Upon reaching the Yazoo River, itself, the Union force found its way blocked by rebel guns positioned on a rare piece of dry ground now named “Fort Pemberton.” This was at a narrow stretch of flow where the superior firepower of the gunboats could not be maneuvered into position. Admiral Porter ordered a retreat.
The Admiral suggested another route through Steele’s Bayou to avoid Fort Pemberton. This was a narrow, winding, wooded, and circuitous route, but hopes were still high for success. Porter used the gunboat bows to ram through trees. This venue featured all manner of wildlife dropping out of low-hanging trees, which then had to be swept from the decks. Thence emerged rebel sharpshooters picking off those exposed sailors. Eventually the Union leadership became aware that this narrow route was being blocked from behind by Confederates felling trees. As this activity was recognized as having the potential to trap and surround the entire fleet, Sherman was ordered to send some of his regiments to subdue these rebels. Sherman’s men then helped haul the vessels backwards until the Yazoo was wide enough once again for the vessels to turn around and head back out under their own propulsion. So much for the last of Grant’s unique winter projects!
Grant had at least kept his troops busy, but there were now rumblings amongst the troops and some of the nastier Northern press as these efforts bore no fruit in getting the Union closer to solving the Vicksburg dilemma. Accusations reemerged that Grant had been drinking again and should be replaced. Some wanted the troops withdrawn to Memphis for a fresh start, but this would be seen as a demoralizing retreat. However, back in Washington Lincoln and General Halleck stood firmly by Grant. In his “Memoirs” Grant wrote, “With all the pressure brought to bear on them, both President Lincoln and General Halleck stood by me to the end of the campaign. I had never met Mr. Lincoln, but his support was constant.”
Next month we will learn more of Grant’s continued persistence in overcoming Vicksburg as the spring campaign season resumes for the Northern and Southern armies!