As early as 1743 French King Louis XV required settlers in his Louisiana colony to build levees to restrain the Mississippi River floods - from the French word "lever", meaning to "raise on top". By 1803, when the Americans paid $15 million for the colony, there were 1,000 miles of levees protecting individual towns and plantations. By the middle of that century that millage had doubled. And the greatest advocate for levees in the state of Mississippi was a 46 year old transplanted Illinois native, a Kentucky lawyer and an opportunistic politician, James Lusk Alcorn.
Assembled over 2 decades, Alcorn (above)'s "Mound Place" cotton plantation, just east of Friar's Point, Mississippi, was worked by 93 African-American slaves, and was valued in 1860 at a quarter of a million dollars. He always kept his eye on the bottom line and biographers described Alcorn's politics as "a Whig up to 1859, a Union man in 1860, a secessionist in 1861, a fire-eater in 1862, (and) a peace-man in 1863..." Protecting his plantation was The Great Levee. At 18 feet high and 100 feet thick, it was the largest levee in the state. It had been built in 1856 by the state Levee District, using slaves contracted from Mr. Alcorn's plantation. And the President of the Levee District, the highest paid employee in the state, just happened to be Mr. James Lusk Alcorn.
This massive earthen structure, 8 miles downstream from Helena, Arkansas, had lowered the water level in the oxbow Moon Lake just behind it by 8 feet, offering up hundreds of new secure acres for Alcorn's cotton. But it also slammed shut what had been the Yazoo Pass (above, below), a 14 mile long "... narrow, snag filled slough..." that led to the 115 circuitous miles of the Coldwater River...
...and then to the Little Tallahatchie River. About 250 miles below Moon Lake, the Tallahatchie River joined the Yalobusha River to form the Yazoo River at the small community of Greenwood, Mississippi. This was a back door used by small Mississippi delta farmers to avoid the markets in Vicksburg, and instead sell their cotton and produce to the upstream ports of Helena and Memphis, Tennessee The Great Levee chocked off these small farmers, cementing the wealth of James Alcorn, at their expense. Men such as Alcorn projected the image of slavery steeped in tradition. In reality, it was a short cut to power built on other men's labors, both white and black.
And this where things sat in late January of 1863 when 43 year old Federal Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter (above) learned that the rebels were building 3 gunboats in Yazoo City, 330 miles up the Yazoo River and 80 road miles northeast of Vicksburg. The Yazoo construction yard, rescued from Memphis before its fall, included 5 saw and planning mills, carpenter, blacksmith and machinery shops, and, reaching expectantly across the mud for the Yazoo River, were three wooden ways, upon which were laboriously being built what would one day, hopefully, be the gunboats C.S.S. Yazoo, the C.S.S. Mobile, and a 310 foot long yet to be named ironclad, locally referred to as the Yazoo Monster.
Admiral Porter wanted to destroy that trio before they were finished. And since Pemberton was installing heavy guns atop Snyder's Bluff, closing the mouth of the Yazoo River to the Federals, Porter needed a back door. Some 60 road miles north of Yazoo City (above) was Greenwood, at the head of the Yazoo River, and at the bottom of the Yazoo Pass. So, in late January Porter dispatched 27 year old Acting Naval Lieutenant George Washington Brown, to see if the back door at The Great Levee could be pried open again.
Brown's ship was the 155 foot long stern wheeler, the "Forest Rose" (above). Pittsburgh built, she was a "tin-clad" gun boat, and in 2 years the U.S. Navy had bought, converted or built 60 of these "Brown Water" or "Mud Navy" ships to control the shallow and narrow bayous and backwaters of the Mississippi flood plain. The Rose's slopping wooden front was thick enough to absorb small arms fire. Her wood sides were reinforced with boiler-plate up to an inch thick. She carried two 30 pound rifled cannons and four 24 pound howitzers. With her two boilers, she could sail and maneuver at 6 knots in just 5 feet of water. After the Fort Hindman operation, the Rose had been stationed in Helena, to deal with partisan threats to the Federal supply line. But on Monday, 2 February 1863, she steamed downstream to the Great Levee, accompanied by a 25 year old wunderkind, already a Lieutenant Colonel of Engineers, James Harrison Wilson and 400 "pioneers" - soldiers with shovels.
Lieutenant Brown later said that he - meaning he, and Colonel Wilson and the pioneers - buried a 50 pound can of black powder in the levee, "It blew up immense quantities of earth, opening a passage for the water...We then sunk three more...and set them off simultaneously, completely shattering the mound...". Colonel Wilson reported that "The opening was 40 yards wide, and the water pouring through like nothing else I ever saw except Niagara Falls..."
By Wednesday morning of 4 February the breech was 75 yards across, and the Forest Rose was able to enter Moon Lake 48 hours later. But it was already too late.
When the Rose tied up for the night at the junction of Moon Lake and the Head of the Pass, they captured 3 locals in a dugout canoe. They told Brown that for days a force of Confederate soldiers and 100 slaves had been chopping down trees to obstruct the Pass. In fact is was just 50 slaves under a Confederate naval Lieutenant, Francis Sheppered.
Clearly, the move to re-open the Yazoo Pass had been anticipated by the rebels, including Confederate President Jefferson Davis (above). On Thursday, 29 January, the Mississippi native had telegraphed from Richmond, asking General Pemberton, "Has anything or can anything be done to obstruct the navigation from Yazoo Pass down?" Clearly the answer had to be "Yes."
There was a growing chorus of warning cries. In charge of the construction of the Yazoo City gunboats, 45 year old naval Commander Isaac Newton Brown (above), wrote to Pemberton, "...if the Yazoo Pass remains unobstructed it may at high water afford the enemy a passage for their gun boats...if the trees along its banks were felled from both sides across the channel, which is seldom 100 feet wide, they would offer serious impediments to its navigation." And James Alcorn warned Pemberton when Yankee troops occupied his plantation the first week in February. Of course, being a businessman, he also told the Yankees they should have no trouble using the Yazoo Pass.
But it was not until Tuesday, 17 February that Pemberton dispatched all the help he could - 1,500 men and the 44 year old profane and disruptive one armed North Carolinian fire plug, Brigadier General William Wing Loring (above).
A correspondent for the Chicago Times noted later that, the Federals were assembling at Helena a powerful expedition - nine gunboats and twenty-seven transports containing over 3,000 infantrymen under 39 year old prickly General Leonard Fulton Ross, - all in the greatest possible secrecy . "A casual observer....can form no possible idea of the character or magnitude of this expedition," the Times wrote hopefully, "as he can see but one or two boats at a time...And on this I base my strongest hopes for the success of the movement." But it took 3 weeks before the Navy and the Army were ready to move.
On Sunday, 22 February, the Times correspondent accompanied the expedition into the Pass. finding the Coldwater River so narrow that it "...affords no opportunity for vessels moving in opposite directions to pass each other...." The writer noted, "On the eastern bank there are two or three fine plantations; but, with these exceptions, the surroundings are an unbroken forest... Wild ducks and geese abound here in profusion...The water being deep, cool, and comparatively clear, abounds with fish of all kinds."
It took another 3 weeks, in constant rain to even approach Greenwood and the Yazoo River because the rebels had, "...filled the channel with logs, trees, stumps, and all manner of obstacles." This, was troubling because, as the Times warned "If we do not take the enemy by surprise,...God help us!" The fear was that partisans or rebel cavalry would block the Pass before and behind the fleet, trapping them strung out single file in the confines of the Coldwater or the equally narrow Little Tallahatchie River. If that happened, warned the Times, "There will be no escape for any of us..."
What was awaiting the Federal Fleet in Greenwood was not the Yankee's worst nightmare. But it was almost as bad - a triangle of cotton bales covered in earth, optimistically called Fort Pemberton.