March 15, 1863 (Sunday)
James H. Wilson was a Lt. Colonel of Engineers in Grant’s Army of the Tennessee and was the chief engineer on the Yazoo Pass Expedition. At the start of the war, he was a mere twenty-two, and a year out of West Point, where he graduated sixth in his class.
While at the academy, he was known for being suborn and outspoken. He seemed to never back down from a fight – a trait that got him more than his share of demerits. Nevertheless, he was of high intelligence. Following graduation, he was appointed the topographer at Fort Vancouver in Washington state. When the war broke out, he found a way east.
Prior to slashing his way through the Yazoo Pass, he served in the siege of Fort Pulaski and then was placed on General McClellan’s staff. After Antietam, he was made chief engineer in Grant’s Army of the Tennessee.
So important was Wilson to Grant that when the latter learned that the former would be promoted and carried back east, Grant made him assistant inspector general and a Lt. Colonel – the position and rank he held on this date.
Wilson’s time in close quarters with Grant’s staff allowed him to become close friends with several of the fellow officers, including John A. Rawlins, to whom he wrote the letters and reports about the Yazoo Pass Expedition contained in the Official Records. These letters are brash, to the point, terse and often border on insubordinate. They are also fun to read.
At first, all through February, his writings are official and describe events with little of his opinion given. Following the first encounter between Confederate Fort Pemberton and the USS Chillicothe, however, he seems to gave gained a bit of spunk.
In a letter to Grant, quickly scribbled after the action of the 13th, he informs the General that the Chillicothe was going to give it another go. “I understand Commander [Watson] Smith [overseeing the Navy] intends to go close up to-morrow,” wrote Wilson, “though I don’t think he or his commanders are very sanguine.”
In his next letter, this one to Col. Rawlins of Grant’s staff, he asks Rawlins to apologize to Grant for its “meager character,” explaining, “I’ve now been two days and entire nights without sleep, and am almost dead.”
The lack of sleep certainly did his disposition no favors. After apologizing, he flies into a rant about artillery. “I’m disgusted with 7, 9, 10, and 11 inch guns,” Wilson exclaimed, “to let one 6-inch rifle stop our Navy. Bah! They ought to go up to 200 yards and ‘make a spoon or spoil a horn.'” We’ve heard this expression before as Baldy Smith used it concerning General Hooker.
But Wilson was far from finished. “I have no hope of anything great,” he admitted, “considering the course followed by the naval forces under direction of their able and efficient Acting Rear-Admiral, Commodore, Captain, Lieutenant-Commander Smith.”
Smith was only a Lt. Commander, and Wilson was clearly not impressed with the man.
“I think we have troops enough to whip all the rebels in this vicinity if we can only get by the fort. One good gunboat can do the work, and no doubt; the two here are no great shakes.”
Wilson lamented how long it took Smith to get moving from the start of the expedition. “We are stopped now certain. [General Leonard] Ross [commanding the infantry] has done all in his power to urge this thing forward. If what he suggested had been adopted, the iron clads would have been here fifteen days ago and found no battery of any importance. So much for speed.”
Two days later, on this date, he was in no better of a mood. Again, he blamed Smith. The Navy did not attack on the 14th because the ships were being repaired, and they “put it off to-day out of respect for the Sabbath.” Of the coming fight, he was “not over-sanguine of success, since I can see a disposition on the part of the Navy to keep from a close and desperate engagement.”
The coming failure, he completely blamed on the Navy. He had “tried to give them backbone, but they are not confident.” Though he admitted that the commanders of both the Chillicothe and the De Kalb were good men, it was the Navy, and specifically Smith, who were responsible.
“Smith, you doubtless have understood by this time,” reminded Wilson, “I don’t regard as the equal of Lord Nelson,” referring to the illustrious British Flag Officer.
And as if Rawlins contained even a sliver of doubt over Wilson’s true feelings, our boisterous Lt. Colonel continued: “I don’t hesitate to say that, although the rebels got ahead of us in obstructing the Pass, and thereby kept us back ten days, and although we were furnished with miserable old transports and a new element of delay introduced, Commodore Smith is entirely responsible for the detention at this point and the consequent failure of the expedition, and responsible for no other reason than his timid and slow movements.”
Wilson’s entire point was that if he had been in charge things would have been different. “I’ll bet my life,” staked Wilson, “I could have brought them [the gunboats] to this point in three days.” Even if it would have taken five days, that would have brought the flotilla to Fort Pemberton on March 1st, before there was hardly even a fort here!
Wilson now turned to more practical affairs, telling Rawlins of the coming fight. “The Chillicothe is an inglorious failure,” he reported, “the wooden backing to her armor is of only 9-inch pine, and shivers into pieces every time the plating is struck ; her bolt-work flies off at a terrible rate.” It seemed that the ship was falling apart so quickly that “there was no fun in it.”
Wilson then asked Rawlins to preserve his letters. “They are semi-official,” he reasoned, “and I believe in no case will you find a misstatement of facts or an error in judgment stated in them. I should have directed them to the general [Grant], perhaps, but upon deliberation thought I could write with more freedom to you, and subserve the same purpose.”
More freedom, indeed.
Wilson was worried that the debacle that the Yazoo Pass Expedition was quickly becoming would reflect poorly upon him. “I would not have you or any one else imagine I have stood upon punctilio [military etiquette] in matters that concern the public welfare,” wrote Wilson, “but, to the contrary, I have not hesitated to tender my opinion upon a single occasion where I thought it worthy of attention, even to the naval authorities.” It’s fairly certain that this, in no way, surprised Rawlins.
In closing, Wilson explained just what the expedition needed to be successful. “As the thing stands now, without two or three good iron-clads are sent very soon, together with a siege train of six or eight 8-inch howitzers and 30-ponnder rifles, or unless fortune should favor us to-morrow, the game is blocked on us here as well as below.”
There was little chance that more gunboats and a siege train would be sent, and, at least according to Wilson, even less chance of fortune’s smile. He then predicted that if they were defeated by the Rebels at Fort Pemberton, the campaign was lost, “Vicksburg becomes subordinate, our department secondary, and Rosecrans’ army our hope in the West. Won’t we, in that event, be required to furnish 50,000 or 60,000 men?”
In Wilson’s mind, everything teetered upon taking Fort Pemberton. If they could not, then Vicksburg itself would be forgotten. Worse still, the Army of the Tennessee and even James H. Wilson would be little more than footnotes.
Of course, Wilson was no seer, and though some of his predictions would come to fruition, others would not. Only time would tell.1
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, Part 1, p378-382; Encyclopedia of the American Civil War by David S. Heidler – used for biographical information. [↩]