March 11, 1863 (Wednesday)
The Federal expedition through Yazoo Pass was not going well. Though the last of the ships broke through the strangling Pass on the 2nd, the journey from there, while easier, was anything but speedy.
Many of the rations aboard the ships had spoiled and frequent stops to forage at riverside plantations had to be made to replace them. All along the way, Rebel guerrillas shot from the shores, forcing the Federals to keep their heads down.
All the while, they heard rumors, mostly from slaves, that the Confederates had constructed some sort of fortification in Yazoo City or Greenwood. Lt Commander Watson Smith, overseeing the Naval side of the expedition, paid no mind. He simply didn’t believe it.
It seems that General Leonard Ross, commanding the infantry on the ships, didn’t buy into it, either. He assumed that he could be in Greenwood by the 10th. But on the 10th, they were thirty miles away from Greenwood and even more rumors – specific rumors – were taking shape.
Slaves told of extensive Confederate fortifications at Greenwood. In the water, they said, Rebels had placed obstructions. Rafts, fires and even the Star of the West had been sunk in order to prevent the Federal fleet from passing.
Though General Ross commanded the infantry, he was not the overall commander of the Yazoo Pass Expedition. That task was given to General Isaac Quinby, division commander in James McPherson’s XVII Corps. Quinby and his division were preparing to load up and join Ross. When they did, Quinby would take over.
By this point, Ross had probably received Quinby’s strong suggestion to be careful. “He [General Grant] evidently attaches great importance to the movement down the Yazoo River,” wrote Quinby, “the failure of which would in all probability render it necessary to make a complete change in the present programme, and, to say the least, delay for a long time the accomplishment of our immediate object.”
Fearful of what might happen if Ross attacked without Quinby’s division, he ordered him to “proceed with extreme caution, and under no circumstances bring on an engagement until re-enforced by at least my division, unless confident of victory.”
And that was the rub. Ross was absolutely confident of victory.
On the morning of this date, the Federal flotilla of eight gunboats, two rams, and a slew of troop transports, arrived within several miles of Fort Pemberton. Ross joined Lt Commander Smith and Lt. Col. James Wilson (Chief Topographical Engineer) aboard the USS Chillicothe to mull over what to do.
The fort that they did not believe was there, was there, but so far off in the distance, they couldn’t tell how much of a fort it was. And so they decided to take the Chillicothe downstream towards the Rebels.
As the ship moved closer, they could see that Fort Pemberton (which, at this point, the Federals were calling “Fort Greenwood”) was an earthen fort, setting low to the ground. It had been constructed of dirt and bails of cotton, and was so designed that it spanned the entire point on the bend of the river, anchoring its right, northern flank (which faced the coming Federals) to the Tallahatchie River, while its left, southern flank held tight to the Yazoo, which was formed when the Tallahatchie and Yalobusha Rivers met (see the larger map, please).
Eight Rebel cannons dotted the embrasures, nearly 1000 yards in length. Their largest gun was a 32-pounder, which, though situated on the left, southern flank, had a clear shot all the way up the Tallahatchie as far as the eye could see. The other guns had a smaller field of fire, but not by much. Joining the artillery were about 2,000 soldiers from Texas and Mississippi. All was under the command of General William Wing Loring.
Around 10am, the Chillicothe made her way towards the fort, and received a warm welcome. For thirty minutes, the gunboat and the fort exchanged shots, with two of the larger shots hitting, but doing no damage.
Shortly after the gunboat returned to the flotilla, General Ross sent the 46th and 47th Indiana on shore for a forced reconnaissance. After driving in the Rebel pickets, the troops remained near the water, even setting up a camp.
In the afternoon, Ross, Wilson and Smith decided to try the Chillicothe once more. And once more, the action was short, lasting only thirty minutes. The Rebels got in a well-placed shot, which burst through a gunport and exploded inside the ship, killing four and wounding twelve. Quite a bit of damage was sustained before she withdrew.
As night drew over them, the Federals constructed a battery fortified and protected by cotton bales. It was placed 700 yards away from the largest Rebel gun in some attempt to dismount it. Since no siege guns were available, crews dragged a 30-pound naval gun from the ships and positioned it in the hastily fashioned lunette.
The Rebels finally received some much-needed supplies as the day closed. Both sides set to repairing the damage caused by the other. Almost immediately, the Confederates added more fortifications around their larger gun, rendering the new Union land battery basically useless.
An uneasy hush would fall over the place on the following day.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, Part 1, p379, 395, 397, 401, 412; Part 3, p21; Official Naval Records, Vol. 24, p246; Vicksburg by Michael Ballard. [↩]