March 29, 1863 (Sunday)
General Grant had been thwarted in every attempt to seize control of the Mississippi River. At this point in the war, only two strongholds remained – Port Hudson to the south and Vicksburg right in front of him. While Port Hudson was Nathaniel Banks’ concern (though “concern” might have been too strong a word), Vicksburg was all his.
The troops under Grant had dug canals, blown up levees, attacked forts, attempted detour upon detour, and were still nowhere closer to capturing the Confederate defenses.
On the 22nd, he had told General Banks that, left with no other choice, he was planning an all out infantry assault. It would cost many lives, but in the end, he felt, it would succeed. Perhaps this was simply said out of frustration, because by this date, Grant had already developed his new idea.
The previous day, he had put an end to the Yazoo Pass Expedition, recalling all of the infantry troops, feeding some of them into General John McClernand’s command at Milliken Bend, just north of Vicksburg. Grant and McClernand were far from the best of friends, but at the very least, he trusted him enough to pull this off.
There was a levee around Milliken’s Bend, holding back the water of the Mississippi from flowing into several of her many distributaries. Breeching the levee would raise the water in these inland streams and hopefully allow supply boats to bypass the Rebel guns at Vicksburg.
McClernand’s roll in this was to lead the troops by land from Milliken’s Bend to New Carthage, the Louisiana town where the supplies would end up. New Carthage was situated between Vicksburg and the Confederate batteries at Grand Gulf.
For this, he would need Admiral David Dixon Porter’s help. “I am about occupying New Carthage with troops,” wrote Grant. Once the levee was breeched and supply ships gotten through, Grant was certain he could “run the blockade with steamers sufficient to land troops, with the aid of flats, either at Grand Gulf or Warrenton, whichever seems most promising.”
New Carthage would be the staging area for attacks upon Rebels at Grand Gulf or Warrenton. And here was where the Navy came into it. “Under these circumstances,” Grant asked, “is it not absolutely essential that Warrenton and Grand Gulf should be so controlled by gunboats as to prevent further fortifications? Without the aid of gunboats it will hardly be worth while to send troops to New Carthage, or to open the passage from here there.”
This was obvious. Grant could land all his troops at New Carthage, but if he didn’t have gunboats to cover them, it was pointless.
“I am ready to co-operate with you in the matter of landing troops on the other side,” came Porter’s hesitant reply, “but you must recollect that, when these gunboats once go below, we give up all hopes of ever getting them up again.”
Porter had sent two ships past Vicksburg already – the USS Chillicothe and Indianola – both had been attacked and captured. This was not a good track record. The Admiral conceded that gunboats were necessary if Grant wanted to attack Grand Gulf, but if his vessels were sent to help, they would have nothing left with which to attack Vicksburg, should Grant still want to do that at some point.
But Porter had another suggestion. Admiral Farragut had slipped two ships past Port Hudson (the Hartford and Albatross) and was now just below Vicksburg (between Warrenton and Grand Gulf). “With the force Farragut now has,” suggested Porter, “he can easily dispense with one vessel to patrol the coast as far as Grand Gulf while we are preparing this thing.”
The force that Farragut had was two of his own ships and one ram, the Switzerland that Porter begrudgingly let him borrow two days ago. Porter had sent two, but the Lancaster was destroyed by the Confederate guns (yet another reason Porter was leery on sending more ships past Vicksburg). The lone Switzerland, on this date, still not with Farragut, being pinned between the guns at Vicksburg and Warrenton. And so Farragut’s force was actually only his two ships.
Admiral Porter, however, thought it was enough. He admitted that the ram destroyed by Confederate guns was cheaply made and “palmed off on Admiral Farragut as a good vessel.” But the Switzerland was “very strong and serviceable, and the admiral has now force enough to seal every point on the Mississippi.”
That was, of course, far from true. The whole point was that Grant was trying to make something work for his Army and he ended up in the middle of a fight between Naval officers. Still, he held out hope that once McClernand’s command took Grand Gulf, they would be able to take Port Hudson. Then, along with Nathaniel Banks’ Army of the Gulf, could head back up the river and help Grant finally take out Vicksburg.
Even Grant probably figured that this plan would eventually fizzle out like the many others. For the time being, anyway, he would give it his attention.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, Part 3, p151-152; Official Naval Records, Vol. 20, p34-36; Vol. 24, p516; Vicksburg by Michael B. Ballard. [↩]