JULY 2018

JULY 2018
One Hundred Years Later, Same Message. 1916 - 2017


Saturday, July 15, 2017


Overnight of Thursday/Friday March 12-13, 1863, the Federals found enough solid dry ground to land a brigade of 1,2000 infantrymen, who dragged 300 bales of cotton about 600 yards out in front of the rebel line north of the Tallahatchie River. At 11:00am on Friday, 13 March they opened fire with a single 30 pound Parrot gun, joining a renewed assault from just 600 yards by the repaired Chillicothe and the Baron De Kalib, as well as a mortar on a barge (above). They were answered by the same three rebel cannon, which had been resupplied.
Over the next 3 hours the Chillicothe fired 54 rounds, and was hit 38 times, wounding 6 of her crew. Low on ammunition she was forced to withdraw. The Baron De Kalib kept firing until dusk, and was hit six times. Most shots merely dented her armor, but her steering gear was disabled, 3 crewmen were killed and 3 wounded. The ironclad, the mortar barge and the shore battery were all, almost out of ammunition. And after all that shooting the Federal naval commander was forced to admit, "We are not able to perceive any advantage gained..."
Inside Fort Pemberton, the bombardment had killed one man and wounded 21 more, including an officer and 15 men injured when a lucky Yankee shot somehow penetrated 16 feet of earth and set off the magazine for the Whitworth cannon. That night another shipment of ammunition from Yazoo City arrived, rearming the fort.
Over Sunday, 15 March, the Federals added more guns to the shore battery, and the 2 repaired ironclads returned to the assault on Monday, 16 March, but again to no affect. And finally, the Federals had to admit they could not force their way past the 1,500 men and 3 large and 5 small cannon blockading the head of the Yazoo. Having breached the Great Levee and flooded the Coldwater and Tallahatchie to allow their ironclads to reach Fort Pemberton, they had also re-created the swamps which now prevented them from deploying their infantry to outflank the fort. Frustrated, the Yankees withdrew.
One Federal officer told his diary "...a more dissatisfied set of men I never saw...we could have taken it if our leaders would have but gave us the opportunity." The same spirit inspired a joke which made the rounds of Grant's army over the next few weeks. The story imagined a Yankee straggler captured by the rebels at Fort Pemberton. Ask a Confederate interrogator, "What the thunder did Grant expect to do down here?" The captured soldier explained, "He expects to take Vicksburg." The rebel officer snorted his derision. "Well, hasn't the old fool tried ditching and flanking 5 times already" And the Yankee prisoner responded, "Yes. But he has 37 more plans in his pocket, and one of them will get the job done." The enlisted soldiers on both sides recognized Grant's two great strengths as a commander, and neither was that he was brilliant. First, he did not waste the lives of his men. And second, he was stubborn as hell.
Well, crawling over maps on the floor of his spacious office on board his flagship, the 260 foot long, 900 ton side wheeler USS Black Hawk (above),  Admiral David Dixon Porter thought he had found another plan. And on Saturday, 14 March he again entered the mouth of the Yazoo River, as he had in December, before the Chickasaw Bayou operation. 
Under his immediate command were the ironclads Mound City, Louisville, Carondelet, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh and 4 mortar rafts pulled by tug boats, as well as 2 army transports filled with soldiers, commanded by General William Tecumseh Sherman himself.   Just before this little fleet came within range of the big rebel guns now atop Haynes Bluff, they turned north into Steele's Bayou.
It was 30 convoluted miles up Steele's Bayou where it connected with the short Black Bayou. Then, because of the heavy rains and the destruction of the Great Levee above Moon Lake, it was possible to follow the narrow and usually shallow Black Bayou south for 3 miles until it connected with Deer Creek. Thirteen miles upstream Deer Creek was joined by The Rolling Fork Creek, coming in from the south. Four miles down The Rolling Fork, Porter's ships would reach the Big Sunflower River, which turned west and joined the Yazoo River 20 miles upstream from the mouth of Steele's Bayou - beyond the rebel fortifications around Vicksburg.

Objectively it might seem insane to travel 200 plus miles to gain 20 miles. But this was 1863, when the advantages of buoyancy far outweighed distance. A single riverboat could carry an entire infantry regiment. An entire division required just 10 such boats. An average sized riverboat could carry about 500 tons of supplies - food, forage, and ammunition. That amount alone could maintain Grant's entire army for two days. 
And then there was the weight of floating cannon. Grant's army during the Vicksburg campaign dragged some 180 artillery guns with them, most of which threw 12 pound shells. Admiral Porter's mud navy had 200 guns, most firing shells twice to three times as heavy. Porter's Steele's Bayou expedition might seem like a clumsy elephant, entangled in clinging vines, trying to stamp out a mouse. But if it ever reached the upstream Yazoo River, the rebels would be facing a disaster.
Everything went as planned until the Ides of March, when Porter's ships reached Deer Creek (above). The 13 map miles upstream toward its convergence with the Rolling Fork Creek turned into 26 twisting, turning, narrow miles of swamp. 
At many bends the ironclads had to be winched through turns shorter than the ironclads' lengths. A canopy blocked the sun, as overhanging branches from opposite shores intertwined, threatening to bring down the transport's 200 foot tall smoke stacks. Because of this Sherman disembarked his men at Black Bayou , ready to march overland once the gunboats had reached the Big Sunflower River. 
But the ironclads were kept going, constantly clearing snags and struggling to find a channel until their progress was reduced to half a mile an hour. Only a man "‘vain, arrogant and egotistical to an extent that can neither be described nor exaggerated’ would have kept going, and that man was the impetuous imperious Admiral David Dixon Porter (above).
On Saturday, 21 March, at the junction of Deer Creek and Rolling Fork Creek (above)   2,500 rebels under Mississippian General Winfiield Scott "Old Swet" Featherston attacked the Federal gunboats. The Confederates had been defending Fort Pemberton, but the retreat of the Yazoo Pass expedition had freed them, Porter was forced to dispatch 300 sailors to act as infantry.  With support from the ironclads' guns the "swabies" drove the Confederate troops back.  
But at nightfall the sailors returned to their boats, and the rebels slipped behind the squadron and chopped down 20 large trees, blocking their escapee. In the morning, snipers kept most of the sailors behind their armor.  
Only then, outnumbered and surrounded, did Porter realize his entire command was in danger of being lost or captured.
Luckily, General Sherman  (above) had heard the fleet's cannon fire on that Saturday, and had immediately sent men by steamship up the creek.   At the same time he forced marched most of his command toward  the mouth of Rolling Fork Creek, 20 miles away.
The troops sent by boat arrived that evening, and on Sunday managed to hold the Confederate forces back. The larger force, which marched the entire way overland, did not reach the fight until the afternoon of Monday, 23 March. 
But they arrived at the perfect moment to break up a rebel attack, catching their enemy in the rear. It was, as Wellington said about Waterloo, "A damn close thing." Porter was smart enough to know he had been checked.  The infantry held off the rebels while the navy cut its way out of the trap. By Friday, 27 March, all of Porter's gunboats, and both of Sherman's regiments were back at Milliken's Bend on the Mississippi River.
And that is when  Porter and Sherman discovered that things were about to change. On Tuesday, 29 March, 1863, Major General Ulysses Simpson Grant ordered Major General John Alexander McClernand to move his XIII Corps down river to New Carthage, Louisiana. And he ordered the movement to be made by road. 
- 30 -

Friday, July 14, 2017

VICKSBURG Chapter Nine

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.
- 30 -

Thursday, July 13, 2017

VICKSBURG Chapter Eight

As early as 1743 French King Louis XV required settlers in his Louisiana colony to build levees to restrain the Mississippi River floods - from the French word "lever", meaning to "raise on top". By 1803, when the Americans paid $15 million for the colony, there were 1,000 miles of levees protecting individual towns and plantations. By the middle of that century that millage had doubled. And the greatest advocate for levees in the state of Mississippi was a 46 year old transplanted Illinois native, a Kentucky lawyer and an opportunistic politician, James Lusk Alcorn.
Assembled over 2 decades, Alcorn (above)'s "Mound Place" cotton plantation, just east of Friar's Point, Mississippi, was worked by 93 African-American slaves, and was valued in 1860 at a quarter of a million dollars. He always kept his eye on the bottom line and biographers described Alcorn's politics as "a Whig up to 1859, a Union man in 1860, a secessionist in 1861, a fire-eater in 1862, (and) a peace-man in 1863..."  Protecting his plantation was The Great Levee. At 18 feet high and 100 feet thick, it was the largest levee in the state.  It had been built in 1856 by the state Levee District, using slaves contracted from Mr. Alcorn's plantation. And the President of the Levee District, the highest paid employee in the state, just happened to be Mr. James Lusk Alcorn.
This massive earthen structure, 8 miles downstream from Helena, Arkansas, had lowered the water level in the oxbow Moon Lake just behind it by 8 feet, offering up hundreds of new secure acres for Alcorn's cotton.  But it also slammed shut what had been the Yazoo Pass (above, below), a 14 mile long "... narrow, snag filled slough..." that led to the 115 circuitous miles of  the Coldwater River...
...and then to the Little Tallahatchie River.  About 250 miles below Moon Lake, the Tallahatchie River joined  the Yalobusha River to form the Yazoo River at the small community of Greenwood, Mississippi.  This was a back door used by small Mississippi delta farmers to avoid the markets in Vicksburg, and instead sell their cotton and produce to the upstream ports of Helena and Memphis, Tennessee  The Great Levee chocked off these small farmers, cementing the wealth of  James Alcorn, at their expense. Men such as Alcorn projected the image of slavery steeped in tradition. In reality, it was a short cut to power built on other men's labors, both white and black.
And this where things sat in late January of 1863 when 43 year old Federal Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter (above) learned that the rebels were building 3 gunboats in Yazoo City, 330 miles up the Yazoo River and 80 road miles northeast of Vicksburg. The Yazoo construction yard, rescued from Memphis before its fall, included 5 saw and planning mills, carpenter, blacksmith and machinery shops, and,  reaching expectantly across the mud for the Yazoo River,  were three wooden ways, upon which were laboriously being built what would one day, hopefully,  be the gunboats C.S.S. Yazoo, the C.S.S. Mobile, and a 310 foot long yet to be named ironclad, locally referred to as the Yazoo Monster.
Admiral Porter wanted to destroy that trio before they were finished. And since Pemberton was installing heavy guns atop Snyder's Bluff, closing the mouth of the Yazoo River to the Federals, Porter needed a back door.  Some 60 road miles north of Yazoo City (above) was Greenwood, at the head of the Yazoo River, and at the bottom of the Yazoo Pass. So, in late January Porter dispatched 27 year old Acting Naval Lieutenant George Washington Brown, to see if the back door at The Great Levee could be pried open again.
Brown's ship was the 155 foot long stern wheeler, the "Forest Rose" (above).  Pittsburgh built, she was a "tin-clad" gun boat, and in 2 years the U.S. Navy had bought, converted or built 60 of these "Brown Water" or "Mud Navy" ships to control the shallow and narrow bayous and backwaters of the Mississippi flood plain. The Rose's slopping wooden front was thick enough to absorb small arms fire. Her wood sides were reinforced with boiler-plate up to an inch thick. She carried two 30 pound rifled cannons and four 24 pound howitzers. With her two boilers, she could sail and maneuver at 6 knots in just 5 feet of water. After the Fort Hindman operation, the Rose had been stationed in Helena, to deal with partisan threats to the Federal supply line.  But on Monday, 2 February 1863, she steamed downstream to the Great Levee, accompanied by a 25 year old wunderkind, already a Lieutenant Colonel of Engineers, James Harrison Wilson and 400 "pioneers" - soldiers with shovels.
Lieutenant Brown later said that he - meaning he, and Colonel Wilson and the pioneers - buried a 50 pound can of black powder in the levee, "It blew up immense quantities of earth, opening a passage for the water...We then sunk three more...and set them off simultaneously, completely shattering the mound...". Colonel Wilson reported that "The opening was 40 yards wide, and the water pouring through like nothing else I ever saw except Niagara Falls..." 
By Wednesday morning of 4 February the breech was 75 yards across, and the Forest Rose was able to enter Moon Lake 48 hours later. But it was already too late.
When the Rose tied up for the night at the junction of Moon Lake and the Head of the Pass, they captured 3 locals in a dugout canoe. They told Brown that for days a force of Confederate soldiers and 100 slaves had been chopping down trees to obstruct the Pass. In fact is was just 50 slaves under a Confederate naval Lieutenant, Francis Sheppered. 
Clearly, the move to re-open the Yazoo Pass had been anticipated by the rebels, including Confederate President Jefferson Davis (above). On Thursday, 29 January, the Mississippi native had telegraphed from Richmond, asking General Pemberton, "Has anything or can anything be done to obstruct the navigation from Yazoo Pass down?" Clearly the answer had to be "Yes."
There was a growing chorus of warning cries. In charge of the construction of the Yazoo City gunboats, 45 year old naval Commander Isaac Newton Brown (above), wrote to Pemberton, "...if the Yazoo Pass remains unobstructed it may at high water afford the enemy a passage for their gun boats...if the trees along its banks were felled from both sides across the channel, which is seldom 100 feet wide, they would offer serious impediments to its navigation."  And James Alcorn warned Pemberton when Yankee troops occupied his plantation the first week in February.  Of course, being a businessman, he also told the Yankees they should have no trouble using the Yazoo Pass. 
But it was not until Tuesday, 17 February that Pemberton dispatched all the help he could - 1,500 men and the 44 year old profane and disruptive one armed North Carolinian fire plug, Brigadier General William Wing Loring (above).
A correspondent for the Chicago Times noted later that, the Federals were assembling at Helena a powerful expedition - nine gunboats and twenty-seven transports containing over 3,000 infantrymen under 39 year old prickly General Leonard Fulton Ross, - all in the greatest possible secrecy . "A casual observer....can form no possible idea of the character or magnitude of this expedition," the Times wrote hopefully, "as he can see but one or two boats at a time...And on this I base my strongest hopes for the success of the movement." But it took 3 weeks before the Navy and the Army were ready to move.
On Sunday, 22 February, the Times correspondent accompanied the expedition into the Pass. finding the Coldwater River so narrow that it "...affords no opportunity for vessels moving in opposite directions to pass each other...." The writer noted, "On the eastern bank there are two or three fine plantations; but, with these exceptions, the surroundings are an unbroken forest... Wild ducks and geese abound here in profusion...The water being deep, cool, and comparatively clear, abounds with fish of all kinds."
It took another 3 weeks, in constant rain  to even approach Greenwood and the Yazoo River because the rebels had, "...filled the channel with logs, trees, stumps, and all manner of obstacles." This, was troubling because, as the Times warned "If we do not take the enemy by surprise,...God help us!" The fear was that partisans or rebel cavalry would block the Pass before and behind the fleet, trapping them strung out single file in the confines of the Coldwater or the equally narrow Little Tallahatchie River.  If that happened, warned the Times, "There will be no escape for any of us..."
What was awaiting the Federal Fleet in Greenwood was not the Yankee's worst nightmare. But it was almost as bad - a triangle of cotton bales covered in earth, optimistically called Fort Pemberton.
- 30 -

Blog Archive