February 7, 1863 (Saturday)
Along the Mississippi River, Acting Rear-Admiral David Dixon Porter was trying to figure out what to do about Confederate-held Vicksburg. The gunboat Queen of the West was the only Federal ship between Vicksburg and Port Hudson, far down stream. It was a bit of fun noting the shock and surprise of the Rebels when they discovered that a ship had run the gauntlet of artillery perched high above the river, but one ship wouldn’t be enough to bring the Rebels to their knees. In fact, all the ships in his fleet couldn’t do that.
On this date, Porter put it into words. Two surveyors had worked tirelessly to make a map of the artillery emplacements around Vicksburg. With their papers and a table, they charted out the guns and the cliffs, the defenses and approaches. Surprisingly, they were shot at only once, though merely across the river – a distance no greater than 750 yards.
At one point, a Confederate officer procured a small boat, made it across the river, pulling up near them to ask just what it was they were up to. They called back that if he was really so interested, he could come and see for himself. The officer declined the invitation, leaving the rest of his Rebel friends in the dark.
When the Federals first steamed to Vicksburg, and demanded its surrender, just after the fall of New Orleans, in May of 1862, there had been but five pieces of heavy artillery. Porter reckoned that “3,000 men might have taken it with ease.”
This was a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. Even six months ago, he claimed, this could have been done. When Porter first saw the Vicksburg defenses for himself, shortly thereafter, he figured that with its twenty guns, the Confederate city could not be taken by the Navy alone. Perhaps as many as 10,000 infantry soldiers would be needed to capture it by land. His ships could take out the water batteries, but that was all. Now, however, the city boasted at least fifty guns.
Porter blamed the slow planning and the press, both of which tipped the Rebels off and allowed them to build the most formidable defenses one could imagine.
He concluded that there was “no possible hope of any success against Vicksburg by a gunboat attack or without an investment in the rear of the city by a large army. We can, perhaps, destroy the city and public buildings, but that would bring us no nearer the desired point (the opening of the Mississippi) than we are now, and would likely put out the little spark of Union feeling still existing in Vicksburg.”
Plan after plan seemed to have failed them. General Sherman could not take Vicksburg from the north through Chickasaw Bayou. The canal ideas were literally dead in the water. Both Porter and Grant had been pouring over maps almost mystified.
But Porter was not without hope. Across the river from Helena, Arkansas, well upstream, on Porter’s suggestion, General Grant had cut an old levee, allowing water to again flow freely into the old Yazoo Pass. Before a railroad was built obstructing the pass, this used to be the way ships would get to Yazoo City.
If successful, which Porter assumed it would be, this would be a coup. Through this pass, he could steam a fleet to the Tallahatchie River and that that to the Yazoo. From there, Grant could “follow with his army and Vicksburg [could be] attacked in the rear in a manner not likely dreamed of.” Porter was already outfitting five smaller boats and the ironclad Chillicothe “to go through and take the enemy by surprise.”
At this point, the Confederates held no reasonably strong forts or towns along the planned route. This would all have to be done in secrecy and with stealthy speed, otherwise the effort would be useless.
In the meantime, Porter was trying to get coal to Col. Ellet of the Queen of the West, parked well below Vicksburg. Here, time was essential as well. The Rebels, having seen Ellet’s ship mysteriously docked across the river, were quickly constructing a battery opposite his landing.
Still, the Queen‘s mission was merely “a diversion to cut off the enemy’s supplies here [at Vicksburg] and at Port Hudson.”
To Col. Charles Ellet, commanding the Queen, however, it was a bit more than a leisurely way to pass the time. If he did not get the coal, the battery being constructed across the river would send him below Warrenton, making it all the harder to refuel, and thus get back with the Queen still in one piece.
Thankfully for him, the coal arrived, accompanied by the De Soto, at 11:30pm. Now he had to find a safe place to refuel.1
- Sources: Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, p319-322, 373-374. [↩]