The four ugly dark ships came steaming around Caffees' Point about 7:30am, Wednesday, 29 April, 1863, with the 512 ton, 175 foot long USS Pittsburg, leading the way. Twenty minutes later her big guns - two 9" and three 8" cannon, and six big rifles - opened fire on the upper battery, 50 feet above the river.
But as they approached the head on confluence of the Big Black River and the Mississippi (above, top right), the whirlpool which gave Grand Gulf its name twisted the ships around, complicating their aim, until finally they drew so close their guns could not elevate high enough to hit the battery. As they continued their attack on the lower battery south of the town, at about 8:25am, a second squadron of 3 more gunboats appeared, anchored just below the whirlpool, and continued the assault on the upper battery.
There is an underlying order to the geography of the great flat floodplain of the Mississippi Delta which reveals itself in repetition. In example; the Yazoo river is forced to join the Mississippi just above Vicksburg because it is blocked by the high bluffs the town sits upon. And forty miles to the south, the return of those same high bluffs channel the Big Black River head on into the main stream bellow the 175 foot high Point of the Rocks, just above the community of Grand Gulf. Here, unlike at Vicksburg, the western shore is flat and swampy.
After four hours 52 year old Admiral David Dixon Porter's brown water navy silenced the lower battery. But two more hours of bombardment by all 7 Federal gunboats failed to seriously damage the upper battery. And one Federal ironclad - the 930 ton casemate sternwheel USS Tuscumbia - suffered damage to her engine room, and drifted powerless downstream to beach on the Louisiana shore. The rest of Federal ships withdrew about 1:00pm to Hart Times Landing.
As the dark ships disappeared upstream, the commander at Grand Gulf , 32 year old General John Stevens Bowen had not doubt they would be back. While the attack was still in progress he telegraphed his boss, General Stevenson, in Vicksburg. Detailing the assault, he added, "Six transports in sight, loaded with troops, but stationary. "
Stevenson was at last galvanized into action. He telegraphed his boss, Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton in Jackson that, " The line to Grand Gulf is broken. Heavy firing in that direction..." He also ordered 29 year old Georgia lawyer Brigadier General Edward Dorr Tracy Jr and 35 year old Columbus, Mississippi bookstore owner Brigadier General William Edwin Baldwin to move their brigades to Grand Gulf as quickly as possible.
Across the river, Lieutenant General Ulysses Simpson Grant was on the move as well, riding toward the 500 acre plantation owned by 47 year old Doctor Jeremiah Yellott Hollingsworth, and his wife Francis, which they called "Hard Times".
This cotton plantation was the end of a 75 mile long cordoroy road from Milliken's Bend, built over April by Major General John A. McClernand's XIII Corps. The troops on the 6 transports spotted by General Bowen had been the lead elements of that corps, the 10,000 men of 40 year old Brigadier General Peter Joseph Osterhouse's 9th division and 33 year old Brigadier General Eugene Asa Carr's 14th division. But following McClernand's corps down that same road were also the troops of the XVII Corps, under 34 year old Major General James Birdseye McPherson.
The men of the XVII corps had spent February and March digging the canal at Lake Providence, Louisiana. But in early April they had moved to Milliken's Bend, and began to march down the cordoroy road, repairing it as they came on. The work slowed their progress, but as yet Grant was not certain exactly where these men were marching to.
Typical was the experience of the 20th Ohio Volunteer Regiment, of the 2nd Brigade, 37 year old Major General John Alexander Logan's 3rd Division in McPherson's Corps. They were covering an average of just 6 miles a day. Their Major, 39 year old Cincinnati lawyer Manning Ferguson Force, remembered the "6 days of plodding" down a road which was "strewn with wrecks of wagons and their loads, and half buried guns. At a halt of some hours the men stood deep in mud, for want of any means of sitting."
Major Force, "A spare grave man with an eye that penetrated to the spine of a culprit..." also remembered the humidity, and the bugs. "When the sun set, the leaves of the forest seemed to exude smoke," he wrote after the war, " and the air became a saturated solution of gnats....They swarmed upon our necks, seeming to encircle them with bands of hot iron. Tortured and blinded, we could neither eat nor see.” But they kept slowly marching south, and Grant, with his pathological aversion to retracing his steps, was going to have to quickly figure out some where to put 40,000 soldiers.
After arriving in the Hollingsworth Plantation house at about 2:30pm that Wednesday, 29 April, Grant was immediately confronted by Admiral Porter, with news of his failure to overcome the upper battery at Grand Gulf. Grant did not pause. His response was quick and quiet. "Unload the infantry. The men will march another 3 miles south of Grand Gulf over the Coffee Peninsula, and after dark I shall run every transport I have below the batteries and not one shall be injured." Porter accepted the idea at once, and issued the orders to the transports and barges waiting offshore.
The two divisions, Osterhouse's and Carr's disembarked, formed up on the levee, and set off on the five mile march to the home owned by Passmore Hoopes and his wife Eliza, bearing the romantic of French name of Disharoon. By dark both divisions were encamped, waiting for the ships to join them. With a flash and bang of covering fire from Porter's ironclads, the six federal transports with barges and flatboats in tow made the run past Grand Gulf. And as Grant had said, they made it without a single loss of boats or lives.
Grant's plan that afternoon was to re-board his men on the steamboats the next morning, and carry them 12 miles south to the Mississippi shore at the old French river port of Petit Gouffre - "Little Gulf" as opposed to Grand Gulf. The village's name had been changed in 1828, adopting the nomen of the first Chief Justice of Mississippi Territory - from 1803 to 1811 - Thomas Rodney, originally from Delaware. His older brother, Caesar, had been a member of the Continental Congress and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. To confirm his plan, Grant sent a scouting party down river to Rodney, to confirm there was a road which would lead back to Grand Gulf. But when they returned later that night they brought with them a runaway slave. And as so often happened in this war for union, a black man changed everyone's plans.
This man told Grant there was no need to travel 12 miles to find a good landing spot on the Mississippi shore. Just 3 miles south from the landing at Disharoon, a few hundred yards south of a little stream called Bayou Pierre (above), was a solid earthen bank and plenty of room for several steamboats to tie up and unload. Just inland above the river was the almost abandoned village of Bruinsburg, with a small Bethel Church.
From there the man assured Grant, two good roads climbed the bluffs north toward Port Gibson (above), and which, once captured, would outflank Grand Gulf.
By all accounts, Grant expressed no second thoughts. He ordered the transports to load troops in the morning, of Thursday, 30 April, 1863, at Disharoon Landing, Louisiana and unload them again at Bruinsburg, Mississippi. It would be the largest amphibious operation in the history of the United States, until the Normandy landings of 6 June 1944.