Is There Any Hope Left for Yazoo Pass? Quinby Says Yes!

March 28, 1863 (Saturday)

For most involved, the Yazoo Pass Expedition was a complete bust. Federals under General Grant had breeched a levee to open the Pass, cleared away obstructions, battled Rebel cavalry and finally, after more than a month, got several ships into the Coldwater and Tallahatchie Rivers. But when they came up against the unsuspected Confederate Fort Pemberton, they were stopped cold.

Quinby: We can do this!

General Leonard Ross, commanding the infantry portion of the expedition, had decided to call it off following several failed attempts by the Navy to reduce the fort. On their retreat, they met General Isaac Quinby and a transport of infantry reinforcements. Since Quinby outranked Ross, he took command and decided that Fort Pemberton was but another obstacle on the way to Vicksburg’s back door. But when Quinby arrived before the Rebel bastion, and after he called for another attack, he saw what he was up against.

Five days had now passed since the latest attempt. During which, the rains had poured upon Quinby and Ross as they looked for some other way to best the fort. There really wasn’t one, so Quinby looked for other passages in the myriad distributaries of the Yazoo and Mississippi Rivers.

“By crossing the Yalabusha just above its mouth,” reported Quinby, “and following down the Yazoo until we get below the fort, we could cut off the supplies of the garrison, and compel it to come out to fight or surrender.” Of course, this would take a 250 foot pontoon bridge – something they didn’t have. He also proposed another plan to cross the Tallahatchie. This would also require the bridge.

Things were getting so bad that Lt. Commander James Foster, heading up the Naval portion of the expedition, was finished. He had had enough. The Navy was independent from the infantry, and so Quinby could only strongly suggest that Foster stick around. But Foster was adamant about leaving and promised to do so unless specifically ordered not to.

“Should he act on this determination,” wrote Quinby to his corps commander, James McPherson, “the land forces would be left here in a very precarious position, with nearly 200 miles of unguarded water communications between them and the Mississippi.”

Here’s an approximate map for you.

The situation wasn’t as precarious as Quinby let on. The infantry transport ships were commanded by the Army, not the Navy. Still worried, however, Quinby coaxed Foster into promising to leave the transports so his troops could escape should they have to. Left behind and under his command, Quinby ordered the transports back up the river to Yazoo Pass so they could bring more troops down to Fort Pemberton.

By this date, the troops Quinby expected had not yet arrived. “This delay is to be greatly regretted,” he wrote to McPherson, “for the rebels are constantly receiving re-enforcements, adding to and strengthening their works. It is evident that they intend to make a determined stand at this point. Every move that we make is answered by one from them.”

To Ross and anyone who had been at Fort Pemberton prior to Quinby’s arrival, this was not news. How it took Quinby so long to realize this must have been a complete mystery to them.

With the gunboats scheduled to leave on April 1st, Quinby needed more artillery, and on the day previous to this he received four 24-pounder siege guns. Two had been of US manufacture and two had been captured from the Rebels. However, upon examination, only one was in operating condition.

Adding to the mounting problems, the spot where Quinby wanted to span the Tallahatchie with a pontoon bridge was now covered by a Confederate battery. Still, his other plan to cross the Yalabusha near its mouth might be accomplished, but he still needed that pontoon bridge (now required to be 300 feet).

But even if the bridge arrived, complained Quinby, due to the heavy rains, his troops wouldn’t even be able to get to it. The roads were completely impassible. He had also wanted to build a shelter for his four-gun land battery, but, again due to rains, that would have to wait.

Grant: Come on home. I’ve got a better idea.

To make the bridge, he would need a sawmill. He had seen one up the river a ways that would do the trick. “My fear is that our troops on their way down injured and destroyed the machinery to such an extent that the mill cannot be put in repair in time for our purposes,” he worried.

But Quinby’s worry was all for nothing. Back at his headquarters before Vicksburg, General Grant was formulating yet another plan. For it, he needed troops. Like everyone but Quinby, Grant understood that the Yazoo Pass Expedition wasn’t working. And so on this day, he officially called it off.

Writing to General Benjamin Prentiss, commanding at Helena, Arkansas, Grant relayed the news: “The troops that have gone down Yazoo Pass are now ordered back.” He had specific ideas concerning what to do with each of the divisions. General Alvin Hovey’s Division, fortified with a few veteran regiments from Ross’ command, was to report to John McClernand at Milliken’s Bend – this was in support of Grant’s new plan, of which he wrote not a word.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, Part 1, p407-409; Part 3, p149, 151. []
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Is There Any Hope Left for Yazoo Pass? Quinby Says Yes! by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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