The way the story is usually told is that only after realizing his Desoto canal would not work, did Major General Ulysses Simpson Grant turn to the Lake Providence canal, 40 miles upstream from Young's Point. In fact, in early January Grant had dispatched a small battalion of engineers all across the region, seeking someway, anyway to get around or at Vicksburg. The Desoto canal was the just the most obvious choice. But it would have saved a lot of time and energy had those engineers known how the Mississippi River formed Lake Providence in the first place But that would have to wait a couple of generations for students of geology and fluviomorphology to learn their trade.
Dig into the mud of the of Lower Mississippi and beneath 35 feet of river deposits you will find 50 feet and more of yellow sand, the bottom of the 400 mile long Mississippi Embayment, an arm of the ancient Tethys Ocean, which followed the crack of the New Madrid rift valley into the very center of North America, as far north as present day Cairo, Illinois. Over most the last 100 million years this was a backwater, while American's most powerful rivers, like the Teays in Ohio and Indiana and the New River of Virginia, flowed northwest from the Himalayan heights of the Appalachian Mountains to the Arctic Sea. Then, 2.5 million years ago the first of the Laurentide glaciers blocked those rivers, forcing them south and into the bay.
About 8,000 years ago, the glacial river Warren breached the last of the ice dams at what is today the Wisconsin Dells, and blazed a path which the Illinois River followed, southward, joining the ancient Ohio in filling the 450 mile bay with that 35 feet of river sediments.
Flowing across this ancient silted up bay, Old Man river meanders at an average speed of one and one-half miles an hour, losing just 3 tenths of a vertical inch for every horizontal mile south. With such a slow current, any minor impediment will magnify current variations. Where the current is slightly faster, it eats into the bank. Where the current is a little slower it drops sediments, building up the bank. Over time this creates a curving meander, with the stronger current shifting from the inside at the base of the curve to the outside at its height.
But the current eventually cuts across the base of these meanders, isolating each as an oxbow lake. Each spring flood piles more sediments against the abandoned meander. By 1863, when the
Scottish minister's son and 40 year old artilleryman, Lieutenant Colonel William Latimer Duff arrived to investigate, Lake Providence was a six mile long oxbow, a full mile from the river's new course, and usually 8 feet lower. So a mile long canal, 100 feet wide and 5 feet deep, connecting the Mississippi to Lake Providence would get Grant's army 7 miles inland from the Mississippi.
And from there, said Lt. Colonel Duff, who had made the trip, it was relatively easy. From Lake Providence it was another short mile to the Bushy Bayou, (above) which connected to the sinuous Baxter Bayou, which connected to the 6 mile long Bayou Macon which passed through a cypress swamp. Trees would have to be cleared here, but the swamp fed the Tensas River, which split into the Ouachita River before flowing into the Black River, which flowed into the Red River of the South which finally rejoined the Mississippi River 400 miles south, just below Natchez. As Private and hospital steward Charles Allaire, noted , it seemed, "a long way around 'Robin Hood's Barn'," But such was Grant's desperation to get to Vicksburg.
The new operation began on Tuesday, 3 February, 1863, when Colonel, soon to be Brigadier General, 36 year old George Washington Deitzler was given the task of starting the Lake Providence canal. Shortly there after the 32,000 men of the 17th Crops of the Army of Tennessee under 34 year old General James Birdseye McPherson, were brought in to begin deepening and widening Bushy and Baxter Bayous. Colonel Deitzler, thought it would take no more than 6 days to dig the first mile long canal. After that, "I do not think that we will have any considerable difficulty in finding a passage for gunboats and small stern-wheel boats through Baxter Bayou and Bayou Macon, a distance of from 10 to 15 miles...it will only be necessary to cut a few trees...Once in Bayou Macon, we shall have a clear coast to (the) Red River." He optimistically figured the entire effort would take no more than 3 weeks.
Amazingly the causality rate for the 17th Corps never approached that of its less fortunate comrades working on the Desoto canal. Partly this was because McPherson's camps were on high ground, a mile away from the river, and they were well "policed", meaning clean. But mostly it was because the actual effort back in Bushy and Baxter Bayous was preformed by freed slaves. They were paid for their work, and fed a standard army diet. But no one thought them important to record their death rates. The soldiers spent their time drilling, playing baseball, and raiding the surrounding plantations for food and souvenirs.
And in this place the February floods worked in the army's favor. The river was now 15 higher than Lake Providence, and when the coffer dam at the head of the canal was breached on Tuesday, 17 March (above), the water gushed into the lake, even sweeping away a small town on the Mississippi's banks. By Monday, 23 March the lake had so over flowed its banks, as to eliminate the need for a connecting canal to Bushy Bayou.
Grant took over a lake shore mansion in early March to inspect the effort. And while he was duly impressed with the progress he told Washington that, "...there was scarcely a chance of this ever becoming a practicable route for moving troops through an enemy's country." On those narrow bayous, just felling a few trees could chock off the entire army. But more importantly there was the problem of what happened if and when Grant's army reached Natchez. Because there Grant would face an even greater threat than presented by the Illinois political General, John Alexander McClernand - the very, very ambitious politician, 46 year old Major General Nathaniel Prentiss Banks.
Nathaniel Banks (above) was an actual self-made man, having started as a bobbin boy in a Massachusetts textile mill and risen by his own initiative until, at 34 years of age, he was elected Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and at 46, Governor of Massachusetts. While in that office Banks made compromises with the anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party, and in 1860 this cost him support when he briefly contested Lincoln for the Presidential nomination. Banks' dominant characteristic was his ambition, which burned with such a flame that it often snuffed out every other spark within him.
With the start of the Civil War, Lincoln appointed Banks a Major General of Volunteers, because of his ability to inspire New England men to enlist. But it was General Nathaniel Banks who brought rebellious Baltimore under control, and kept Maryland in the union during the most dangerous year of 1861. So, despite concerns from West Point trained officers, in February of 1862 Banks was sent to clear out the rebels from the southern Shenandoah Valley. Instead, by the end of May, rebel general "Stonewall" Jackson had driven Bank's army completely out of the Valley.
Banks managed to avoid any blame for that disaster, and was given command of an entire wing of the short lived Federal Army of Virginia, under the pompous General John Pope. On Saturday, 9 August, 1862, left isolated in northern Virginia, and facing a much larger rebel force, again under Jackson, Banks attacked at Cedar Mountain (above). His audacity caught Jackson off guard, and he damn near drove "Stonewall" from the field. But the rebels rallied and at the end of the day it was Banks who was forced to repeat. One of his West Point trained officers described the battle, "...as great a piece of folly as I have ever witnessed on the part of an incompetent general." And for an officer in the sad and misused eastern armies, that was saying quite a bit.
Luckily Banks was slightly wounded in the engagement, and a brief hospitalization allowed his superiors to replace him. Then, in November, Lincoln turned to Nathaniel Banks again to recruit 30,000 new soldiers to form the new Army of the Gulf. Before the men had even began their training they and their commander were dispatched to New Orleans, to replace the even more incompetent political Major General, Benjamin Butler.
Banks was under orders to, as soon as possible, attack and capture the rebel fortress of Fort Hudson, just 20 miles north of the Yankee lines at Baton Rouge, and to then to advance on Vicksburg to assist Major General Grant. But Banks' little Army of the Gulf needed time to complete their training, and their equipment was slow in following them. Besides, the faster Banks moved north, the sooner he would fall under Grant's command.
Still, he did lead 12,000 men out of Baton Rouge toward Fort Hudson, on the unfortunate date of Friday, the 13th of March, 1863. The effort was a "Mud March" without the mud. It failed before it ever got within sight of the fort because of bad maps and bad communications with Admiral Farragut's ships, which were supposed to provide artillery support. And, of course, Nathaniel Banks could see no political advantage in helping someone else win a battle.
Perhaps it was this minor fiasco which convinced Grant that risking the maze of the Louisiana swamps just to meet up with Banks, was not a likely way to capture Vicksburg. Besides, he still had other options. On the same day when Grant had ordered work to begin on the Lake Providence Canal, further up the Mississippi River, 400 Federal soldiers were dismantling a levee at a place called the "Yazoo Pass", on the Coldwater River (below).
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