It was not the horrors of battle that transformed John Alexander Ritter (above) from a naive patriotic volunteer into a cynical veteran, but a place - Young's Point, Louisiana, 10 miles up river from Vicksburg. The 44 year old Republican doctor was one of 32,000 members of Grant's Army of Tennessee who arrived at Mr. Young's abandoned plantation on 20 January, 1863. John had left a growing medical practice, a thousand acres of land, a wife and 7 children, to enlist as a private soldier to put down the rebellion. Only later had he been promoted to captain and appointed regimental Surgeon of the 49th Indiana Volunteers.
Two weeks after his arrival at Young's Point - on Monday, 9 February - Dr. Ritter wrote to his eldest son that "We have quite a pleasant camp but....The river is very high and still raising." Because of the damp conditions, all of the Federals made camp atop the large levee Mr. Young had built to defend his property - his cotton and his human slaves - from the ravages of the mighty Mississippi River.
Three cold, rainy days later Dr. Ritter wrote ominously,"We have considerable sickness in the regiment..." Just a months later, an Ohio Democrat, a corporal in the same camp, complained, "It is alarming to see the deaths that occur daily." He suggested, "Any man that would volunteer or go drafted now ought to be shot the very day he goes." As March of 1863 ended, a depressed Doctor Ritter wrote his wife, Margaret, "...It rained, it hailed...My tent blew down...I had a cold damp place to sleep that night .." These were, as Tom Paine said four score and a few odd years earlier, "The times that try men's souls". And not just the souls of Captains and Corporals. It was also a bad, really horrible time for Major Generals as well.
The bad times began on Wednesday, 3 December, 1862 when Confederate Major General Thomas Carmichael Hindman (above) and his 11,000 man Legion crossed the upper Arkansas River at Fort Smith, on the border with the Indian territory.
Hindman's Legion intended to make a lightening 100 mile forced march through a corner of the Boston Mountains, visa the 30 mile long Cove Creek canyon, in order to pick off an isolated Federal Division of 5,000 men near the village of Cane Hill. But then things went wrong.
First, the federal commander, Brigadier General James Gilpatrick Blunt, sensed what was coming and a second Federal division of 5,000 men under General Francis Herron was dispatched on a 110 mile forced march to their support. Second and worse, on the night of Thursday, 4 December, the clouds burst over the Ozarks and the usually placid Cove Creek (above) became a rampaging Amazon. During that Friday, 5 December, the drenched rebel Legion had to cross and re-cross the swollen Cove Creek 37 times. They finally escaped the mountains 24 hours later, late, soaked to the skin and exhausted.
Learning of the approaching Federal reinforcements, Hindman decided to defeat Herron's road weary command first. If his own men had been fresh, it might have worked, but they were drained and exhausted and wet, and after bypassing Blunt's 5,000 men, the best HIndeman could do was to block Herron's division at the little village of Prairie Grove, Arkansas.
On Sunday, 7 December, 1862, the numerically superior rebels drove the Yankees back. But just when it looked like a southern victory, Blunt's men threw themselves on the rebel flank, and the day ended with 1,400 Confederate casualties to 1,200 Federal dead, wounded and missing. Major General Hindman had no choice but to retreat back to Fort Smith. having accomplished nothing of value. His mood was not improved two weeks later when his namesake fort on the lower Arkansas River was captured and destroyed by a Federal Army under Lieutenant General McClernand.
Back in July of 1862 the Desoto Canal (above) had been abandoned because of low water. Now in January of 1863, after almost a month of rains, Federal Colonel of Engineers Josiah Bissell, thought he could turn the flooding Mississippi to his advantage.
Major General Ulysses Simpson Grant explained the plan to his boss, "Old Brains" 58 year old General-in-Chief Henry Wagner Halleck (above) , " I propose running a canal", wrote Grant, "...(which) will debauch below the bluffs on the opposite side of the river..". And a second work crew would weaken the shore of the peninsula, and force the river to redirect the currents to widen the cut-through, thus bypassing Vicksburg entirely
Colonel Bissell divided the work into 160 foot sections and 1,000 man work crews, who returned each night to their camp, atop the levee at Young's Point. McClernand's three divisions, and slaves drafted from the abandoned plantations around Desoto, would widen the old canal by 9 feet and deepen it to 10 feet.
At the same time, 500 feet down stream from the canal entrance, Sherman's 3 divisions and drafted slave labor were digging a second channel into the peninsula, throwing the excavated earth into the stream to direct the river back toward the canal, where it was hoped the current would turn the Desoto high ground into an island.
On 22 January, 52 year old Major General John Alexander McClernand,, informed his boss, General Grant, "The water of the Mississippi River...is in the upper end of the canal and must run through in a few hours..."Two days later he added, "The waters...are now running through the canal a foot deep." Two days after that he informed Grant "The water flows three feet deep in the canal, but gives no evidence of diverting the channel of the river...."
He was complaining about the lack of success of 43 year old Brigadier General William Tecumseh Sherman, whose men were supposed to be diverting the Mississippi. Sherman restricted his complaints to his private letters home, where he bemoaned “Rain, rain — water above, below and all around." The locals had their own word for the viscus mud of the bottom land that weighed down the shovels of the Union soldiers. They called it "gumbo" And Grant's infantry spent 12 hours a day knee deep in the gumbo, struggling with spades to move the mud a few feet. Each night they would form up and march the 2 to 3 miles upstream to their miserable camps atop the Young's Point Levee. While they slept the rain would wash most of their work back into the canal.
The entire command was exhausted, wet and discouraged. During that winter and spring, they were losing 19 men a day to disease - pneumonia , malaria and dysentery. At least two men were also reported killed by alligators, and an unknown number by poisonous snakes. Since the only ground dry enough dig graves in was the Young's Point levee , one soldier wrote home that “The troops were thus hemmed in by the burial-places of their comrades.”
The Sanitary Commission was appalled by the Young's Point levee camps, "For miles, the inside of the levee was sown with graves... In places the levee was broken or washed out by the waters, and the decaying dead were partially disinterred.” The observer added that The River was so far over its banks, that it was, "...shore-less in some places, and stretched its dull, turbid waste of waters as far as the eye could reach...”.
Remembered one Illinois soldier, "The swamps became lakes, and camps and roads were sloughs of black mire. If one put his foot squarely down anywhere...it brought with it a pound or two of unctuous earth..." On the high ground, at Memphis, that February, the river was recorded 34 and a half feet above flood stage. At Vicksburg it reached 51 feet, and at Natchez, 42 feet.
But the soldiers were not digging the canal on high ground. Captain Lewis Harris, of Richmond, Indiana, told his wife that month, "Our Company F has lost six men...four died from sickness. Five are sick in the hospital and six in the quarters..." He also mentioned desertions and at least one attempted suicide in his company.
The ultimate insult to morale was that many of the soldiers were experienced enough to know the eddy just below the canal's entrance meant the current was not going to shift to the canal. And the irregular bombardment of the work crews from the Vicksburg batteries, just 900 yards across the river, meant the rebels were still on guard,. Grant's men became convinced their sacrifice was useless. And Grant quietly and quickly agreed the canal would never work, And yet he kept the men digging. Some nameless enlisted sages composed a prayer to mock themselves as they climbed inside their wet bunks atop the Young's Point levee every night. "Now I lay me down to sleep, in mud that’s many fathoms deep. If I’m not here when you awake, just hunt me up with an oyster rake."
Why did Grant keep the men digging? Perhaps because every day, Halleck informed Grant, President Lincoln asked how the work was progressing. On 9 February, with the river still rising 2.5 inches every 24 hours, Engineer Captain Fredrick Prime explained to General Grant, "A dam has been erected at each point where the canal crosses the levee." But, because of a layer of clay a few feet below the surface, "The water seeps in so that...the new entrance cannot be pushed deeper than about 4 feet." So, even as the river rose, and the flooding got worse, the water actually in the canal was not deep enough for gun boats or loaded transports. Finally, on Friday, 6 March, 1863, Grant telegraphed the War Department and Lincoln that the canal was almost complete. The very next day, the river burst through the coffer dam and flooded the works, but only with 4 feet of muddy water All work had to be halted while the damn was rebuilt . The entire process was so discouraging that a lesser man then Grant or Lincoln, might have given up.
In far off Virginia, on Tuesday, 20 January, 1863 - the same day that Major General Grant issued orders for work to begin on the Desoto Canal - 39 year old Major General Ambrose Everett Burnside (above) ordered a new offensive he believed would revive the Army of the Potomac and his own career. He would feint toward Fredericksburg. At the same time his engineers would establish a bridgehead upstream. Artillery would then be rushed across the Rappahannock River, and dug in on the road to Richmond. Then Lee would have to throw his Army of Northern Virginia against an impregnable defense, just as in December Burnside had thrown his Army of the Potomac against Marye's Heights outside of Fredericksburg. But then, as in Arkansas and Louisiana, it began to rain.
It began raining on northern Virginia that Tuesday night, and continued the next morning while Federal engineers pushed 5 pontoon bridges across the river. Lee's army did not move an inch, and that evening in looked as if Burnside had stolen a march on his enemy. Delighted, he ordered up his artillery and infantry. But on Wednesday, it kept raining. The columns of guns and wagons churned the mud into deepening, grasping paste. The march first slowed and then, by Thursday, with it still raining, regiments struggled all day to traverse a mile or two.
That Thursday, Burnside issued the dumbest order in the sorry sad bloody history of the Army of the Potomac. In a desperate attempt to improve moral, he issued the full whiskey ration to his wet, miserable soldiers. Suddenly the roads were not only clogged with wagons and soldiers stuck in the mud, but drunken soldiers, and wagons driven by drunken teamsters stuck in a rapidly freezing mud. Enough fights broke out that the army stopped moving entirely. Burnside realized his secret move had been discovered when rebels solders across the river erected signs that read, "Burnside's Army Stuck in the Mud!"
The only good thing that came from "The Mud March" was that the incompetent Major General Burnside was relieved. before he completely destroyed the Army of the Potomac. And many critics, both inside and outside the government, wondered if the same fate would have to be meted out to Major General Grant (below), to save his poor Army of Tennessee, which was still no closer to capturing Vicksburg.
- 30 -