All day the rebel gunners watched the ominous columns of black smoke approach. Hour by hour the dark totems followed the twists and turns of the distant river's course. Fading for a moment, but always returning, larger, and closer they came. Unseen beneath the tree line, the Federals destroyed a rebel barge, and burned a bridge. And then, just when it seemed the threat must reveal it's face and unleash its hell, the smoke abruptly stopped. The Yankees would not come until morning. The reprieve set off a new dread.
Where ever those squat ugly ships appeared, they swept all resistance before them - Forts Henry and Donelson in February of 1862 - Island Number 10 above New Madrid, Missouri, in April - Plum Run Bend, Fort Pillow and Memphis, Tennessee in May of 1862 - and most recently, Fort Hindman, at Arkansas Post, in January of 1863. And, now it would be the turn of the 1,500 men crouched behind dirt covered cotton bales stretched across the 300 yard 2wide neck of land between the Yazoo River and its own sources. Come the dawn would come the reckoning for Fort Pemberton.
It was just after 10:00 on the next morning - Wednesday, 11 March, 1863 - when a single alien black shape materialized out of the humid mist. Dense smoke billowed from atop the monster, as it cautiously edged the muddy brown surface of the Tallahatchie aside. The two unblinking eyes of the beast stared straight ahead. At any moment they would belch death and clouds of white smoke. Standing by their guns, tools at the ready, the frightened gunners waited as they had been trained, until at 800 yards General Loring ordered his men to open fire.
The approaching beast was the 400 ton USS Chillicothe, a 162 foot long stern wheeler case-mate ironclad and a floating compromise. Rising behind her bow was a sloping wooden box covered in 2 inches of iron, a poor man's turret. It sheltered a pair of 11 inch smooth bore cannon, each with a 17 man crew. The guns were capable of firing a 172 pound shell over 3,00 yards. But the ship had to be pointed at its target, which, in the narrow shallow bayous of the Mississippi Delta, was sufficient until something better came along.
High above the case-mate and beneath 3 inches of iron plate, was the pilot house, where Acting Lieutenant J. P. Sanford commanded. During combat, the smoke and noise left him mostly blind and deaf. Behind the pilot house rose the slender 100 foot tall smoke stacks, hinged to allow the ship to pass beneath overhanging branches in the narrow bayous and sloughs of the delta. The year before, as the Chillicothe left her Cincinnati, Ohio construction yard, no other structures rose above the inch thick deck armor except the big armored box protecting the stern paddle wheel.
But after passing the Falls of the Ohio, the crew had added an above deck cabin, so in the humid south they could eat and sleep in something close to fresh air. Hidden cramped below the deck were the boilers, the drive shaft to turn the paddles, and the powder and shell magazines, all in a ship which drew just 4 feet of water.
The sweating Yankee sailors inside the iron maiden where hot and frightened. Their weapons were muzzle loaders, which meant after every shot the 16,000 pound gun had to be pulled back into the shelter and the barrel swabbed with water to prevent a premature ignition.
Then a ten pound black powder charge was slid down the barrel, followed by the 172 pound shell. Then both were rammed home against the breech. Straining on the ropes the crew then hauled the gun forward until the muzzle was free of the case-mate. The gunnery officer then sighted along the barrel, double checked his calculations, and pulled the lanyard. The resulting concussion just feet away was enough to deafen a man and loosen his bowels.
Slowed by natural and man-made snags and fallen trees, the 115 mile journey from Moon Lake down the Coldwater and Tallahatchie Rivers for the nine gunboats and twenty-seven transports had taken almost 3 weeks. Even in March the heat and humidity had spoiled half of the expedition's rations in the cans, and the opened levee had so flooded the countryside that little could be scavenged from the waterlogged plantations and farms. The invading Yankees were weary, worn by travel in a strange land. Escaped slaves told stories of a fort where the Tallahtchie and Yaloblaussa Rivers came together to form the Yazoo. But most of the Yankee officers doubted the stories were true.
But they were true. Dual citizen of Mississippi and Virginia, and Captain of Engineers, 57 year old Powhatan Robinson, had been charged with constructing the fort across the river from the little town of Greenwood, Mississippi. He collected every 400 pound cotton bale he could find, The 4 feet by 3 feet by 2 feet 3 inch bales were piled 12 to 20 feet high across the northern end of the first meander of the Yazoo. At crucial points a sheet of iron was strapped between them, and then they were covered by 8 feet of dirt.
Around the gun emplacements, raw hide was stretched, to encourage any cannon balls to simply slide off. Up the Tallahahtchie a raft was floated midstream, suspended between both banks, to block any passage. And downstream of the raft, the historic steamer, "Star of the West", played her final role in the war, as a prop.
She was built in 1852 as a 228 foot side wheeler, part of Commodore Vanderbilt's commercial fleet carrying trade between New York and New Orleans.
But the tragedy playing out in Mississippi had really begun when shots were fired at the Star of the West as she tried to enter Charleston Harbor with reinforcements for Fort Sumter, early on the morning of Wednesday, 9 January, 1861. These were the first shots fired in the American Civil War. Struck twice, The Star of the West returned to New York for repair.
But the 1,100 ton lady was immediately dispatched to the coast of Texas to rescue a Federal regiment surrounded by rebels. Off Matagorda Bay, on Thursday, 18 April 1861, she'd been boarded and captured. Now flying the Confederate flag, she sailed for New Orleans, where she was armed with cannon. But they were never fired in anger from her decks.
The Star spent a year as floating hospital, tied to a dock, until, on Tuesday, 29 April, 1862, the rebels emptied the New Orleans Mint into her hold. Just before Federal Admiral Farragut captured the city, The Star carried the Confederate reserves up the river to first Vicksburg. She was then towed to the newly re-established naval yard at Yazoo City. Without New Orleans the western Confederacy no longer had a use for ocean going ships. The Star of the West was robbed of some of her guns, her engines and her mast. Her hulk was then towed up the Yazoo to Greenwood.
And on Monday, 6 April 1863 The Star of the West was scuttled to block the last few yards of the Tallahahtchie River - A sad end for an historic lady, particularly considering what the man who ordered her destruction had to say about her sacrifice. Captain Robinson told General Pemberton, "Obstructions are worthless without artillery.”
When the rebel gunners opened fire, the Chillicothe returned it, but only for three rounds. But for 35 minutes the the rebels let loose almost a round a minute, with Brigadier General William Loring (above) running between his blazing cannon, screaming curses and obscenities and urging his gunners to "Give them Blizzards, boys! Give them Blizzards!" He was trying to convince the Yankees he had more than the 3 heavy guns actually in his 300 yard battle line - a single 32 pound and two 18 pound cannon. The rebels manged to loosen the armor on the Chillicothe's case mate, and open a leak or two in the hull. But the primary achievement of this noisy but otherwise harmless engagement was that it told the Federals what they faced and it gave Loring his nickname - "Old Blizzards".
The Chillicothe withdrew back up the river, to contemplate what had been learned, and the rebel gunners began to worry. Because of Loring's rapid fire tactic, their ammunition supply had been severely depleted. But there was nothing to be done before the Yankees returned, a few minutes after 4:00pm. The Chillicothe was in the forefront, but now she was joined by the 175 foot long, 512 ton fully ironclad USS Baron DeKalib (above), carrying a 10 inch, two 9 inch and two 8 inch cannons, six 32 pound, three 30 pound and a singe 12 pound rifled gun. When the Federals opened fire this time they were determined to pound the rebel fort into submission , all night long if necessary.
What decided the battle 5 minutes later was the kind of event which inspired Napoleon to say he would always take a lucky general over a skillful one. As the Chillicothe was loading her fifth shot of the engagement, a 32 pound Confederate shell entered one of her narrow gun ports and struck the very head of an 11 inch shell just about to be rammed down the barrel. Both shells promptly exploded. Four Yankees were killed, and 10 wounded. As a testament to Yankee metallurgy, the gun was undamaged. But the Chillicothe was out of action for the time being. And since, in the narrow channel, the two gun boats had been strapped together, with an empty fuel barge as a bumper between them, the DeKalib was forced to withdraw as well.
And that terminated the first assault on Fort Pemberton.
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