March 18, 1863 (Wednesday)
While the Rebels under William Wing Loring were trying to figure out how they were going to survive a few more Union attacks upon Fort Pemberton, Mississippi, the Federals were trying to figure out how to oust the Rebels. Nothing, thus far, had worked.
Following the previous battle, which lasted all of fifteen minutes, the Union ironclad Chillicothe was in a wretched state. The entire Navy on the scene had been horribly mismanaged from the start. Most blamed Lt. Commander Watson Smith, who had been on again, off again ill since breaking through Yazoo Pass well over a month ago.
Due to this (or, more probably due to his performance) Smith left Lt. Commander James Foster of the Chillicothe in charge of the Naval side of things. He would hardly be missed. General Leonard Ross, commanding the Federal infantry, didn’t even bother to mention Smith’s egress in his official report.
The outspoken Chief of Engineers, James H. Wilson, however, had quite a bit to say. He started with his old standby of sarcasm: “His Excellency Acting Rear-Admiral Commodore Smith left to-day for a more salubrious climate, very sick, giving it as his opinion that the present force of iron-clads could not take the two rebel guns in our front.”
Of course, there were more than two Rebel guns at the fort. Wilson was referring to the two largest. If those fell, the remaining five or so would follow.
The next in rank, Lt. Commander Foster, believed it was hopeless and wanted to pull out. After talking with General Ross and a few other officers, they determined that it was “deemed advisable to retreat to Helena, Ark., as the strength of Fort Greenwood [Fort Pemberton] is such that it is impossible, with the naval forces alone, to conquer it, and it being impossible for the army forces to combine in the attack in consequence of water, etc., and as we are in imminent danger of being outflanked and cut off by rebel forces coming down to the mouth of the Coldwater.”
There really was no immediate danger, as described by Foster. Rumors had it that the Rebels were building a gunboat at Yazoo City and that reinforcements were on their way, but there was still time.
“I am satisfied there is but one right way to take the fort,” wrote Wilson on this date, “and that is for the gunboats to go right at it and hammer it till they take it.” This was, of course, tried, but the gunboats never got close enough to hammer in such a way that might compel the fortified Rebels to scurry away.
Wilson was in a fury. He couldn’t understand how the Navy hadn’t taken Fort Pemberton. “We have thrown away a magnificent chance to injure the enemy,” he raged, “and all because of the culpable and inexcusable slowness of the naval commander in the first place, and his timidity and cautiousness in the second.”
Through Confederate deserters, he had a pretty good idea of the conditions inside the fort. The enemy was running out of ammunition. More had arrived, but not much. If the ironclads could keep the fort firing, the Rebels would have no choice but to surrender.
What Wilson wanted was for Admiral David Dixon Porter, in command of the entire Navy on the Upper Mississippi, “to send three good iron-clads.” If they were “well supplied with ammunition, say, 400 rounds for each gun, and a good man to fight them, they can yet capture the place. If he can’t do so, it is childish folly to keep the present force here, thereby causing the enemy to strengthen his position and allowing him an opportunity to bag our entire force.”
In another fit of anger, Watson spat: “It’s provoking beyond measure to think that everything we undertake must be marred by incompetency and stupidity! I am intensely dis gusted to-night.”
He wasn’t the only one. Sometime after General Ross had agreed with Lt. Commander Foster that it was best to withdraw, Watson must have gotten his ear. The previous day, Ross had written his commander with some fatalistic news: “I don’t believe our two iron-clads can stand the terrific fire of the guns now on the fort for one hour without total destruction.”
This convinced him that the only answer was to withdraw. Wilson convinced him to wait. Reinforcements were indeed coming. General Isaac Quinby was coming through Yazoo Pass with a division of reinforcements. They had been delayed by shoddy transports, but on this date at least some of them were through the Pass.
Ross agreed. When Quinby arrived, he would take over command. Perhaps he could even find a way to send the Rebels running.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, Part 1, p385, 390, 396-398; Part 3, p120; Official Naval Records, Vol. 24, p280-284, 516. [↩]