March 9, 1863 (Monday)
Though the North saw General Grant’s many attempts to get into Vicksburg to be slow and fumbling, the same could not be said concerning the opinions of the Rebels in and around Vicksburg. To them, Grant’s many attempts only meant that something would eventually work, and before long, the Federals would be at the gates.
The two main plans that Grant had been working on were the canal and the Yazoo Pass Expedition. Both were on Confederate General John Pemberton’s mind on this date.
“The enemy’s operations in the canal indicate great probability of his getting through,” wrote Pemberton to Richmond. “If he succeeds, will have to fortify Grand Gulf.”
It might be well worth it to explain just which canal Pemberton was talking about. During late February and early March, General Grant had stepped up work on the William’s Canal on De Soto Point opposite Vicksburg. When completed, it would effectively bypass the Rebel bastion. Troops, gunboats and transports could easily steam past Vicksburg, well out of range of the guns atop the bluffs.
Grant was also in the process of attempting one other canal project to the north of Vicksburg. The Lake Providence Canal, when open, would allow river to traffic flow from the upper Mississippi all the way to the Red River, which had been cut off ever since the capture of the Queen of the West.
A third canal, near Duckport, was but a glimmer in Grant’s eye at this point. It would also bypass Vicksburg. But that’s in the future.
The canal that worried Pemberton so much was the one right across the river from Vicksburg. If the Federals were able to complete it, troops could be transported safely downriver to Grand Gulf and then brought by land to the back of Vicksburg. Pemberton wanted to fortify Grand Gulf, but had no guns and too few troops.
Before Richmond could reply to the message about the canal, they wired Pemberton with a question of their own. Federal gunboats had finally made it through Yazoo Pass, well north of Vicksburg, and were reportedly steaming towards Yazoo City. “What are the facts? And where are the boats?” asked an anxious Richmond.
From his headquarters in Jackson, Pemberton had the answer, but he had also received even more bad news. First, six gunboats and maybe twenty troop transports were cruising south towards Yazoo City. The good news was that Confederate General William Loring was in command at Fort Pemberton. General Pemberton made no promises, however.
The bad news was that reports from Port Hudson, south of Vicksburg, had it that upwards of 30,000 Yankees were gathering at Baton Rouge. While the report doubled the actual number, this was a fairly big deal. Pemberton now had two large Federal armies coming at him from several different directions.
Sometime during the day, he decided to strip a few naval ships of their guns to fortify Grant Gulf, since it seemed preordained that Grant’s canal was nearing completion.
Could this day get any worse for Pemberton? Yes, of course it could. He was expecting transport ships from the Yazoo River to arrive in Vicksburg in order to carry infantry troops north to Fort Pemberton, if needed. These ships had not arrived and now if General Loring needed reinforcements, they’d have to come from the cavalry roaming around the countryside somewhere. Also, Pemberton informed Loring that there was no chance of him getting any more artillery or ammunition.
Needless to say, things were looking very bleak for the Confederacy on this date. But perhaps it would be more accurate to say that things were looking bleak to the Confederacy, or at least to John Pemberton. In reality, life was not nearly as bad as it seemed.
For starters, the loss of the USS Queen of the West and the Indianola were still very fresh in the minds of the Federals. Making matters worse, rumors had it that the Indianola was not sunk, but hardly damaged at all, and in Rebel hands. More rumors had it that General Nathaniel Banks had been bloodily repulsed at Port Hudson. In truth, Banks and his army were still at Baton Rouge, but how was Grant to know?
Up at Yazoo Pass, there were multitudes of Federal troops just waiting for transports to take them through so they could join their comrades headed towards Fort Pemberton. Unfortunately for them, the transports that were sent were too large and couldn’t fit through the small pass. Also, the weather was, as described by Grant, “intolerably bad.”
Nobody could yet know this, but the weather had been growing so bad that the dam holding back the water from the canal opposite Vicksburg collapsed. All of the work Pemberton had been seeing was from two dredgers that had been brought in to continue since the men could not do so underwater.