The six Mississippi River steamboats cast off from Young's Point as soon as the moon set - about 11:30pm, on Wednesday, 22 April, 1863; The Tigress, the Anglo Saxon, the J.W. Cheeseman, the Enterprise City, the Moderator and the Horizon. Each ship had barges lashed to their thin wooden starboard sides for desperately needed protection, and cotton bale armor stacked around their boilers and engines to absorb the anticipated torrent of abuse. Sacks of oats, corn and barley were piled chest high on their upper decks to soften the plunging fire from howitzers.
The brown water Navy of Admiral Porter was not asked, and did not offer an opinion of this lunacy. It was an army operation, from start to finish. Just a week before, Admiral Porter had made a similar run past the Vicksburg batteries, with few causalities and the loss of just one ship. But Porter's fleet were mostly ironclad gunboats, able to distract the rebel gunners by shooting back at them. And the only ship sunk that night had been, like these six, an unarmed riverboat. But this floating "forlorn Hope" was strictly an army operation, under the orders of Lieutenant General Ulysses Simpson Grant, and Grant's orders were to be obeyed.
The officer who volunteered to lead this ad hoc flotilla was Lieutenant-Colonel William S. Oliver. All 6 steamships under his command were crewed by 25 army volunteers, because none of the experienced civilian boatmen were stupid enough to risk their lives on this harebrained scheme, and not even a general was willing to order men into to sail unarmed and unarmored ships past the Vicksburg guns. Colonel Oliver had strategically placed buckets of sand about the ship, and had fire hoses unrolled, ready to extinguish the dozens of infernos certain to burst forth on each boat. After an afternoon shakedown cruise up the river, to familiarize themselves with their new environments, the men were as ready as they could be.
To be blunt, they got the hell kicked out of them. Two miles south from their starting point, as the first ship drew abreast of the Vicksburg court house at 12:20am Thursday, 23 April, "a shower of missiles of all shapes and kinds, from Minie balls to 200-pound shot and shell” fell upon the wooden sacrificial lambs "It seemed as though Heaven and Hell had turned everything loose to destroy us", remembered Colonel Oliver "The Anglo-Saxon" took one shell into her engine, followed by a second that blew apart her pilot house. Powerless and with no one at the helm, since there was no longer a helm, she drifted down river with the 4 knot current.
The steam ship Cheeseman breached on a sandbar, but managed to back off, and resume downstream. There she came to the rescue of Lieutenant Colonel Oliver and the crew of the Tigress, which sank with 30 holes in her hull, including 4 foot gaping vacuum in her stern. When a rebel shell shattered one of the Enterprise City's smokestacks, a piece of shrapnel went spinning into the pilot house killing the pilot. The ship spun out of line and ran aground right under the Vicksburg guns. Colonel Oliver directed the Cheeseman to sail between the injured boat and the guns, throw her helpless crew a line and tow them back into the river.
By the time it was all over - about 3:00am, 23 April - the Vicksburg gunners had matched their effort from the previous week, firing about 500 rounds. This time the results were more impressive. Of the 6 ships, The Tigress was sunk, the Horizon had turned back, the Enterprise City and the Anglo Saxon were barely afloat. By dawn, only the Cheeseman and the Moderator were able to get up steam to meet Porter's fleet at Hard Times Landing. But added to the 2 transports which had survived the run on 16 April, that gave Grant 4 operational steam ships to bridge the Mississippi river. Barely enough, but enough to start.
In direct command of the 12,000 men in Vicksburg, 45 year old Virginian, Major General Carter Littlepage Stevenson, jr., tried to warn his boss, 49 year old Lieutenant General John Clifford Pemberton (above), that the the Yankees were moving against the Confederate line, stretching from Jackson on the right to Vicksburg on the left. Stevenson was convinced the Federals were going to move toward the center, north of Vicksburg. But the bureaucrat Pemberton seemed to be suffering from a case of tunnel vision.
Historian Bruce Catton explained, in his beautiful centennial record of the war, what rebel President Jeff Davis' problem was in Mississippi, that spring of 1863. "Unless help could be brought in from outside the Department, the game was going to be lost. But all of the troops that might conceivably be brought in...could not be summoned without inviting disaster. To accept this argument was in effect to admit that the Confederacy was being tried beyond its strength." It might be, suggested Catton, that an answer to the problem Grant was presenting to the Confederacy did not exist. But few in the service of the slave states in 1863, were willing to admit that.
From where Pemberton sat, Vicksburg, like Charleston before it, was not vital to the survival of the Confederacy. If lost it could be retaken. Whereas the Vicksburg, Jackson and Meridian railroad - the Southern Railroad - was vital. Seriously break that line - as would be done that very day, at Newton Station - and the cattle and cereal from Texas, the salt and sugar from Louisiana, the hogs and hominy from Arkansas would not reach the beating heart of the Confederacy - General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. And then the entire game would be up.
Pemberton and his staff were struggling to shift infantry to block the fleet footed Yankee cavalry of Colonel Grierison. To defend Jackson itself, Pemberton sent 3 regiments to Morton, Mississippi. He dispatched General Loring to Meridian where that independent minded office kidnapped an infantry brigade in route to Vicksburg, and held them for the duration of the crises. Pemberton also dispatched militia on forced marches to Okolona, Canton and Carthage, Mississippi.
By telegraph he begged fellow Lieutenant General Braxton Bragg for the return of some cavalry transferred under orders from General Joseph Johnston. In response, a unit from Mobile, Alabama began the long ride north and west. Meanwhile, in his desperate search for cavalry Pemberton even stole 7 companies from his own command, at Grand Gulf, Mississippi (above), over the protests of the commander of that outpost, Major General John Bowen.
Once Porter's gunboats had run the Vicksburg batteries on Thursday, 17 April, Bowen (above) ordered 28 year old Colonel Francis Marion Cockerell to pull his two Missouri regiments back to Grand Gulf. He still maintained a few hundred men on the western shore, and he pushed pickets south on the Mississippi side to look out for Yankees scouting for crossing points. Bowen's immediate boss, Major General Carter Littlepage Stevenson, jr, and his ultimate commander General Pemberton, sent him additional soldiers, bringing his command at Grand Gulf up to 5,000 men by Wednesday, 23 April - the day after Grant's transport run. But it was still not enough for Bowen.
On Sunday, 27 April General Bowen telegraphed General Stevenson, in Vicksburg, "All the movements of the enemy...seem to indicate an intention... to march their army still lower down in Louisiana, perhaps to Saint Joseph, and then to run their steamers by me and cross to Rodney... I would recommend the sending of a regiment and section of artillery to Rodney, which would materially delay their crossing and advance." The problem was, Stevenson did not agree that Grant was planning to cross the river below Grand Gulf . He thought the threat was a lot closer to Vicksburg.
Since early April, well north of Vicksburg, a federal division under Major General Fredrick Steeele had been marching southwest out of the Mississippi River town of Greenville, pushing into the delta all the way to headwaters of Deer Creek. An Iowa private named Jacob Ritter wrote home about the operation referred to by the Yankee soldiers as "The "Greenville Wallow" , He wrote, "We nearly laid the country waste along the road - burned most of the cotton gins, and a large amount of cotton, corn, bacon...We brought in a large drove of fat cattle, besides what we got all the chickens, geese, ducks and turkeys we could eat…and we got more Negroes and mules than you could shake a stick at.” The damage was so great, and the threat so great, Stevenson had to march troops from Fort Pemberton at the head of the Yazoo River to drive the Yankees back.
And then on Tuesday, 29 April, 8 federal gunboats - the Tyler, Choctaw, DeKalb, Signal, Romeo, Linden, Petrel, and Black Hawk - followed by 10 transports loaded with infantry began steaming up the Yazoo River. They dropped anchor that afternoon at the mouth of the Chickashaw Bayou, scene of Sherman's failed attack in December. The next morning - Friday, 30 April - the ships moved upstream a mile to Drumgould's Bluff. The gunboats started blasting at the rebel guns on the heights, getting so close to the Confederate artillery positions that the Choctaw took fifty hits, although with no casualties. Then just about 6:00pm, Federal troops began disembarking.
Stevenson (above) reasoned this was a far larger operation than anything happening around Grand Gulf, or even Jackson. That must mean Grant's main thrust was a coup de main, aimed right at Vicksburg. The attack on Newton Station, and running gunboats past the Vicksburg batteries must be mere diversions. Stevenson remained certain of that, even after the Federal gunboats began bombarding the forts at Grand Gulf.
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