April 22, 1863 (Wednesday)
History often remembers the second major run past the Vicksburg batteries as a sort of “Porter does it again!” scenario, calling back to Admiral David Dixon Porter’s April 16th slip down the river. It was true, the success of the first venture convinced General Grant that another could be tried, but with Porter south of Vicksburg, he would need another officer to lead the second fleet.
But it was not a mere repeat of the first go. Not only would Admiral Porter not be joining in, the Navy itself would not take part. This would be undertaken by the Army, and the Army only. The boats being used would not be gunboats, but only unarmed transports chartered from civilians. Due to the incredibly heightened awareness following Porter’s earlier run, the Rebels would, no doubt, be watching for another such movement.
So dangerous was the task that the civilian crews manning these chartered transports refused to risk their lives for it. And so the duty then fell upon the Army (after all, it was their mission). All through the previous day (April 21st), volunteers were taken to man the boats filled with supplies and towing barges for the operations out of New Carthage, just south of Vicksburg.
Once the men were ready, the ships had to be prepared. Since there were not guns, the focus necessarily turned to defense and pre-emptive damage control. Cotton bales were stacked up around boilers and engines to stop shot and shell from getting through to the ships’ vitals. Hoses and buckets were placed all around the ships to put out fires as they started.
Six boats had been selected to make the run. The plan was exactly the same as Porter’s the week before: stay close to the western bank until fired upon, then speed across to the eastern bank so the Rebel guns atop the Vicksburg bluffs couldn’t be depressed enough to do damage.
The final preparations were complete after nightfall of this date. At 11:30pm, just after moonset, from the mouth of the Yazoo river, the six transports came. Though their boilers were up with steam, the were more or less drifting with the current, trying to make as little noise as possible.
After only two miles, they were spotted and several houses on the western bank were lit by Rebels to add an illuminated backdrop to the proceedings. When the ships rounded De Soto Point and entered the range of the Rebel guns, fires were burning on both sides of the river. There would be no quiet surprise. A signal rocket went up and every Confederate gun that could be fired exploded hell and fury upon the Federal transports.
Immediately, the ships steamed at full speed to the Vicksburg banks as enemy shots fell all around them. As they arrived opposite the Vicksburg Courthouse, the world came crashing down in, as Col. William Oliver, commanding the flagship Tigress reported, “a shower of missiles of all shapes and kinds, from Minie balls to 200-pound shot and shell.”
When the ships came to the eddies closest to Vicksburg, the barges lashed to their sides began to get caught in the swift current. Other barges sent ships to the Louisiana side, grounding one in the mud until they cut themselves free. Another ship was turned completely around, stuck fast to a sandbar, and pointed upriver instead of down. Somehow, her crew freed her and they continued south.
One ship, the Anglo-Saxon, had just been freed from grounding on the Louisiana side, when a shot took out one of her engines, and another her pilothouse. Unable to be controlled, she was left to drift with the current and pray for the best.
But as they steamed or drifted, it was soon coming to an end – the last batteries of Vicksburg were nearly behind them. This could not come soon enough for the Tigress, who had just taken a heavy shot to the stern, tearing open a four-foot gash in her hull. She began to sink, and by the time Col. Oliver safely ran her into the Louisiana shore and tied up, she was on the bottom.
The crew of the Tigress tried to hail at least two ships for a rescue, but none stopped. Finally, the men abandoned ship and used bits of debris and cotton bales to float down river, finally getting picked up by another craft.
When every ship that was able to make it past Vicksburg landed near New Carthage, dawn had broken and the scene was sobering. The Rebels had fired, perhaps, 500 shots. The Tigress received thirty-five shots and was sunk. Of the five other transports that made it, only two were in working order. It was hardly a true success with the loss of so many vessels, but enough made it through for Grant to begin the next phase of his plan.
The whole reason he was trying to bring as many transports as possible to New Carthage was to ferry his troops on the Louisiana side over to the Mississippi side. Their target was the Confederate batteries at Grand Gulf. Once across, they would have a strong foothold on the Rebel-side of the River.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, Part 1, p564-566; Part 3, p215, 216-217; Nothing But Victory by Steven E. Woodworth; Grant Rises in the West by Kenneth P. Williams; Vicksburg by Michael B. Ballard. [↩]