February 11, 1863 (Wednesday)
Though General Grant had wanted to keep the Yazoo Pass plan a secret for as long as possible, it was simply too obvious to avoid detection. Cutting the levee near Delta, Mississippi and allowing the great river’s water to once again flow down the Tallahatchie and Yazoo Rivers was something the Rebels were bound to notice.
The problem was that when Grant cut the levee, on February 3rd, he expected to have naval vessels and troop transports up and over it within a handful of days. Now, over a week since the water rushed through, it still was not ready.
The debris all along the Pass itself was thick and impossible to steam through. Over the past week, work crews had been employed to clear the passage. This task would not be finished until the passing of another week.
In the meantime, Confederate General Pemberton, commanding the Vicksburg defenses, grew wise to Grant’s machinations. It seems that he suspected it before the levee was even broken. On January 23rd, he ordered Major G.L. Blythe to take his entire command to Yazoo Pass and obstruct it the best they could. “Impress as many negroes as you deem necessary,” instructed Pemberton, “and do the work at once.” These obstructions were the debris found by Grant’s men. But the Rebels knew that it would not hold forever.
By the 6th, Pemberton admitted that he had no idea what Grant was up to. His focus turned from Yazoo Pass (if it had ever truly been there) to the Queen of the West, the Union gunboat that had slipped by the defenses of Vicksburg and was playing hell with shipping south to Port Hudson.
“Unless the enemy designs landing below Vicksburg and a protracted investment,” admitted Pemberton, “I can see no purpose in his arrangements.”
Three days later, his attention was whipped back to Yazoo Pass when a message arrived from Captain Isaac Brown in Yazoo City, reporting that the levee had been breeched. He and his boys had done everything they could to slow down the possible Federal expedition, but admitted that their “obstructions will only delay the enemy.”
Captain Brown asked Pemberton if they couldn’t have two pieces of heavy artillery from Mobile. If they had them, the Yazoo River could be controlled and, in his opinion, the Federal gunboats, should they venture his way, would be stopped.
Pemberton was certain that Mobile’s heavy artillery would be staying in Mobile. If the Federals attempted to steam down the Yazoo River, “we must depend upon light artillery and rifles.”
On this date, the Confederates seemed to think that a Federal expedition through Yazoo Pass was imminent. General William Loring, commanding a division based out of Jackson, Mississippi, reported the progress in Yazoo Pass.
He had sent Major Blythe back to the Pass to “annoy the enemy,” and also sent some cavalry. He implored Pemberton to send a steamer and move troops from Yazoo City north towards the Pass. Sending troops to the Cold Water River would be ideal, thought Loring. There were any number of chances for not only obstructing the Yankees, but for ambushing them.
Later in the day came some good news. The Confederate troops at the Pass reported that the Federal boats were completely stuck. The obstructions were impassible. The Federals were loading up transports full of soldiers armed with “picks, spades, and wheelbarrows.”
The good news would not last long. The next day, it was predicted that the Federals would indeed break through.
By this time, the Union Naval fleet commanded by Watson Smith, steaming up the Mississippi, was nearing Delta and the Yazoo Pass. To the Federals, the whole expedition would seem daunting and almost not worth it. But to General Grant, it offered the most likelihood for success. If they could steam through Yazoo Pass, down the Tallahatchie and Yazoo Rivers, it would deliver his army to the back door of Vicksburg, and they would land upon Pemberton’s right flank.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, Part 3, p608, 620-623; Vicksburg by Michael B. Ballard. [↩]