History says the last great effort to avoid the guns at Vicksburg was called the Duckport Canal, but to the men who sweated in the mud for three weeks it was Pride's Ditch - named after the dark and dashing man who pushed them for 21 days, 33 year old Colonel George G. Pride (above). His official title was Chief Engineer for Military Railroads. In reality he was Grant's "Mister Fix It". But he never held an officer's commission. George had spent the 8 years before the war building railroad bridges across the south, and in 1861 he showed up in St. Louis volunteering to help defeat the rebellion. He wasn't even asking to be paid.
The first Federal commander in the west, the 50 year old "Pathfinder" John Charles Fremont (above)t, only trusted foreigners with lots of gold braid. He wouldn't even meet with George.
The next top western general, 48 year old Henry Wagnor "Old Brains" Halleck met the railroad engineer but was not impressed.
But when one of Halleck's field commanders, General Ulysses Simpson Grant (above), met George Pride, the two bonded. Grant sent George to see the 59 year old Secretary of War, Edwin McMasters Stanton, in Washington. Stanton returned the engineer to Grant without an endorsement but with permission to stick him somewhere. Grant dressed his volunteer in a "Colonel's" uniform and put him on his personal staff.
George Pride assisted Grant at Forts Henry (above) and Donelson, in February of 1862, and at The Battle of Pittsburg Landing in April. He oversaw the construction of roads and gun emplacements, foot bridges and improvements to river fords. In December of 1862 he was bridging the rivers along the Central Mississippi railroad when the defeat at Holly Springs forced Grant to retreat. George then switched to destroying the bridges he had just built. By the time he had been dispatched to find a way around Vicksburg, George Pride was considered maybe the best engineer in the Federal service. Which is why Grant asked him to get the Duckport Canal dug and open before the level of the Mississippi River fell.
Beginning on April Fool's Day, 3,500 soldiers wielding picks and shovels, and assisted by steam powered dredges, attacked the seeping mud of the flood plain to carve a passage a mile and a half long, 7 feet deep and 40 feet wide.
"Colonel" Pride pushed the men to battle the heat,the mud,, the mesquites and malaria. Any man struck with malaria was relieved immediately and sent to the hospital - any man except volunteer George Pride He could not be spared. Barges were already being collected to carry 20,000 men via the canal through Brushy and Roundabout Bayous to Bayou Vidal and into New Carthage, south of the Vicksburg guns. Suffering high fevers and bone shattering chills, George Pride kept pushing the men and himself.
On Saturday, 11 April, 1863, George warned Grant there were still some large trees to be removed in Brushy Bayou, and low water in Bayou Vidal required a switch to Harper's Bayou Then, at noon on Monday, 13 April - just two weeks after the work had begun - the dam at the head of the canal was blown and water poured into Pride's Ditch. But not enough. Steam dredges could now be sent to deepen the canal and George rode the first steamboat from Milliken's Bend to Richmond on Saturday, 18 April. But the river level kept falling.
A week later, on Saturday, 25 April, the dredges had finished their work and General William Tecumseh Sherman rode down to take a look. He was not impressed. He wrote Grant, "The first mile is comparatively good; the middle mile is bad....will take near fifty days' work to make a canal 8 feet deep. Your tugs draw 71/2 feet." The race against spring had failed. George Pride had so worn himself down, that he had to withdraw from Grant's staff, and return home. He would play no further direct role in the war. Grant now turned to 50 year old Acting Rear Admiral, David Dixon Porter, who had been running some experiments of his own.
The great Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson (above), the ultimate expert on naval warfare for the previous sixty years, supposedly said that it was madness for a ship to attack a fort, and that one gun on land was worth 3 on the water.
But on the Monday morning of 2 February, 1863, Admiral Porter decided to put that adage to the test. His pawn for this suicide mission was the 180 foot long, 406 ton U.S.S. double side wheel ram Queen of the West (above), sailing under 20 year old Colonel Charles Rivers Ellet.
Just after sunrise, Colonel Ellet rounded Desoto Point, making 7 knots with the current. The rebel gunners were caught by surprise, but the whirlpool at the end of the point spun the under-powered Queen in a graceful pirouette, before she broke free. Each rebel battery in its turn opened fire. In the few moments as she passed, they hit the Queen 12 times. Most of the shots were swallowed by the cotton bales Ellet had stacked on the deck. Then, just when it looked as if the Queen would sail past the city, she turned toward the southern most docks and struggled across the current. aiming her bow at the 625 ton Confederate ram, the C.S.S. City of Vicksburg.
The Queen's best weapon was the thick internal oak beam running from bow to stern, and covered by three 14 inch thick and 7 feet high solid oak bulkheads. Ellet drove the Queen into the Vicksburg, just forward of the rebel pilot house and cracking the Vicksburg's hull. And only then did Ellet order his four guns, a 30 pound cannon and three 12 pound howitzers, to fire burning turpentine balls at the Vicksburg, setting her alight. Porter's instructions were clear. "It will not be part of your duty to save the lives of those on board; they must look out for themselves."
However, the crew of the Vicksburg were more than capable of doing that, and quickly extinguish the fires on their ship. But the burning turpentine spread to the cotton bales aboard the Queen, and Ellet was forced to pull back and float downstream until he could safely throw the burning cotton overboard. With that, his first mission was accomplished. The Vicksburg took on water, and she never sailed to defend her namesake city. Eventually her guns and boilers were striped and sent to Yazoo City, to be reused. Meanwhile, the largely uninjured Queen continued down the Mississippi to its junction with the Red River, where she had a short but profitable career ambushing and destroying over $12 million of rebel shipping.
Porter followed this success two weeks later - Monday night, 16 February - when he dispatched the 511 ton, 174 foot long ironclad USS Indianola (above). She had 3 inches of iron plating over 3 feet of solid wooden hull angled at 26 degrees. Two 11 inch fat bellied Dahlgren cannon glowered out her forward casemate, and two 9 inch Dalgrens fired from her stern. Her twin side paddle wheels gave her unparalleled maneuverability, and she also had twin propellers, giving her a top speed of 9 to 12 knots. To the Confederates the Indianola was a terrifying monster.
Her captain, 27 year old Hoosier Lieutenant Commander George Brown, had a lower opinion of his ship. The monster had 7 separate engines -1 each for her side paddle wheels, one for each propeller, 2 for her capstans, to pull her off sandbars and mudflats, and one to supply drinking water, and power the bilge and fire pumps. All that equipment did not leave much room for the crew, who like sailors on other federal ironclads had to build their own vulnerable quarters above deck. The gun ports were so small, the Dahlgren's could not be elevated to maximum range, and the pilot house port holes were so small as to be almost useless. Still, when she pulled up anchor in the mouth of the Yazoo River fifteen minutes after 10:00pm, with 2 barges carrying 14,000 bushels of coal strapped to her sides, the Indianola was the most dangerous boat on the Mississippi.
By launching in the Yazoo River mouth, (above, upper right) Brown could avoid the Desoto whirlpool (above, upper center) and having to use his noisy engines. So under the merest sliver of a waxing new moon, the Indianola drifted with the current straight down the eastern bank of Old Man River, slipping silently beneath the 14 heavy guns of the Water Battery and Fort Hill (above, right). According to Commander Brown he passed a couple of hundred yards in front of the gunners at 11:10pm.
The ironclad's looming bulk must have been seen brushing quietly past, because 12 minutes later, at 11:22pm, the rebel gunners in the city batteries opened fire on the big black monster, letting fly 18 rounds. By 11:41 - less than 30 minutes after weighing anchor - the Indianola was past Vicksburg, beyond the range of even the 7 heavy guns in the Marine Hospital Battery. The ironclad had not suffered a single hit. As Confederate Western Theater Commander General Joseph Eggleston Johnston had observed back in December, the cities' batteries were too spread out to effectively close the river.
After spending the night anchored 4 miles south of Warrenton, Mississippi, at daybreak on Tuesday, 17 February, 1863, the Indianola would steam south in search of her partner, the Queen of the West. Suddenly the untold sinews required to fight a 19th century war, raised, mined and collected from the 374,000 square miles of the trans Mississippi Confederacy, might as well be on the moon. Such was the tenuous link holding the rebel slave alliance together.
But, by the time the Indianola ran the gauntlet, The Queen of the West had been isolated, damaged and captured. The rebels then used her to assist in cornering the Indianola, damaging and capturing her. Within weeks the rebels would blow up the Indianola (above) to prevent her recapture by advancing Federal forces. The lesson was that individual ships could not hold The River without land forces to support them. And that the mesmerizing psychological hold the looming guns of Vicksburg had on the Federal sailors - on Admiral David Dixon Porter - had been broken. And that would prove fatal for Vicksburg.
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