Vicksburg Rebels in a Tight Spot! Yankees Through Yazoo Pass!

February 23, 1863 (Monday)

Confederate General John Pemberton had to watch everywhere at once. While his men huddled behind the Vicksburg entrenchments along the Mississippi River, he had to look to his front, his left, and also his right.

John Pemberton – Here I am, stuck in the middle with you…

To his front was a rather large chunk of General Grant’s Union Army of the Tennessee. Joining them was the Federal Naval flotilla under Admiral David Porter. They had already raced a handful of ships past the Rebel guns – too many more and provisioning his garrison would start to become an issue.

When the several Union ships slipped past the Vicksburg defenses, they were headed south, with the flow of the river, to his left. He knew that the Union Army of the Gulf, commanded by General Nathaniel Banks, was somewhere south of Port Hudson. For an entire Federal army to move north, past Port Hudson, was a long shot, but still, a weary eye was cast. Additionally, while one of the Union ships that had run the Vicksburg gauntlet had been captured (Queen of the West), the other (the USS Indianola) was reported steaming north, passing Natchez in the predawn.

But it was his right that probably concerned him most. For weeks now, he had kept his ear cocked towards Yazoo Pass, 150 miles to the north, as the crow flies.

Yazoo Pass was a waterway that led east from the Mississippi River to the Coldwater, then to the Tallahatchie, and then to the Yazoo. Mostly, it paralleled the Mississippi, but provided a faster way to travel from Memphis to Yazoo City, and eventually to Vicksburg. Some years prior, when the railroad came through, the Pass was cut off by a levee. Hoping to reach Vicksburg’s back door, General Grant authorized the levee to breached and the Pass to be opened.

The Rebels, however, figured it out pretty early on and went to spectacular lengths to obstruct the Pass. Since then, it had been a waiting game.

General Pemberton figured that eventually the Yankees would break through, and did what he could to bolster the force and defenses at Yazoo City. There had been scares and rumors, but now, it all seemed certain.

Word rolled in on this date that the Federals had cleared the obstructions and gotten through the Pass to where it connects with the Coldwater River with gunboats and three transports, but turned back.

There was some Rebel cavalry operating in the area, but their artillery had been on the wrong side of the river. Pemberton would do what he could to give General William Loring, commanding in Yazoo City, more troops and guns.

This information was mostly accurate. Actually, the Federal ships got a bit farther than the confluence with the Coldwater, taking the river another ten miles downstream, but they did turn back.

Lt. Col. John L. Wilson, chief topographical engineer in Grant’s Army, was on the ship that cleared the Pass. He deemed both Yazoo Pass and the Coldwater navigable, but allowed that cutting some overhanging vegetation would make things easier.

Work crews were still working, and while a handful of ships could make it through the Pass, further work would need to be done to make it a useful military route. He gave it four days or less. Much would depend upon the water level. If the waters remained high, then the ships could easily make it over the bar between Yazoo Pass and the Coldwater. If levels dropped, then it might take longer.

All the while, General Loring had been searching for a place to defend. For 100 miles up the river, he could find only one site for a fort. It was near Greenwood, about fifty miles north of Yazoo City.

There, he had built a line of works consisting of dirt mounds and cotton bails. It wasn’t much, but would hopefully stop the Yankees, should they try to press this Yazoo Pass idea into existence. Soon, he would have a pair of guns and hopefully a garrison enough to man them.

It was clear that General Pemberton had his hands more than full. But still, reports were filtering in that the USS Indianola was slowly making her way up the Mississippi towards Vicksburg. There were also reports of a Confederate fleet following her, but so far, nothing could be confirmed.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, Part 1, p376-378, 413; Part 3, p642, 643. []

Porter Broils Over His Losses, While Rebels Draw Closer

February 22, 1863 (Sunday)

David Dixon Porter was hardly a man with whom to trifle. He was a Navy man through and through. His father had fought on the seas in every war from the American Revolution through and after the War of 1812. By 1823, a year before his father resigned, the ten year old David Porter joined him on the water with his foster brother David Farragut. By sixteen, he was a midshipman, and from there until the present, he was in the Navy (aside from a few years here and there when he left to captain his own ship).

David Dixon Porter is not amused.

Now, in his fiftieth year – four decades of which were spent at sea – Porter, now a Rear Admiral, was in command of the Union’s Mississippi River Squadron operating near Vicksburg, Mississippi.

There was much on his plate, but the capture of the Rebel port was paramount. Apart from a canal or two, his main focus was upon opening Yazoo Pass to the north and cutting off supplies coming into Vicksburg from the south.

Yazoo Pass was slowly being cleared, but to the south, a debacle had unfolded concerning the loss of the Queen of the West to the Confederate Navy.

Col. Charles Rivers Ellet, who had commanded the Queen when she was taken, had yesterday returned to base on a small, captured transport. Before turning in for the night, Ellet wrote his official reports and submitted them to Rear Admiral Porter. On this day, Porter was in no mood for Ellet’s optimistic excuses.

Porter, after reading the reports, immediately shot off his own report to Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, in Washington. He explaining that his plans had been “disarranged by the capture of the Queen of the West,” and claimed that Ellet had “foolishly engaged” the batteries at Fort Taylor.

Ellet’s reports, according to Porter, were incomplete. They lacked detail and provided little to no explanations as to why he did what he did. Porter wished to have a face-to-face conversation with the reckless young officer, but the river was effectively blocked at Vicksburg by Confederate artillery and the road leading to the landing was in a pitiful condition.

Following a very brief and general outline of Ellet’s action, Porter resignedly wrote: “This is all I can learn of this affair.”

Unable to learn the full story, Porter had more than a few critiques for Ellet. “Had the commander of the Queen of the West waited patiently,” grumbled Porter, “he would, in less than twenty-four hours, have been joined by the Indianola, which he knew.”

Intrinsically, the Queen, said Porter, was worth nothing. She had more than paid for herself in goods captured. However, “it was a loss without any excuse,” he scolded, “and if not destroyed by the Indianola she will fall into rebel hands.”

Situation on this date.

And he was not yet finished. Hardly bemoaning the loss, Porter reasoned that if Ellet would have waited for the Indianola, together, they could have captured the same Confederate batteries that had bested the Queen. Now, the ship would most definitely fall in to Rebel hands.

“We are sadly in want of a good class of fast ironclad rams on this river,” Porter reported to Secretary Welles. The Confederates were making a number of them, but the only ones he had were “fit for nothing but tow boats.”

In fact, Porter felt that the only ship worth anything in his fleet was the Indianola, and he would have to “depend on that vessel alone for carrying out my cherished plan of cutting off supplies from Port Hudson and Vicksburg.”

“My plans were well laid, only badly executed,” Porter surmised. “I can give orders, but I can not give officers good judgment.” The Indianola was now at the mouth of the Red River and on her own, and this did nothing to quell Porter’s mood. “Whether the commander will have the good sense not to be surprised, remains to be seen. He should return for the present.”

Joseph L. Brent

That was exactly what the Lt. Commander of the Indianola was planning to do. He had wanted to steam up the Red River, but had heard that several Rebel ships, as well as the captured Queen of the West were lying in wait. He had gathered as many cotton bails as he could, padded out his ship and, on this date, began to steam up the Mississippi towards Vicksburg.

Brown was certain that he would see another ship, perhaps even Ellet or Admiral Porter, descending the river to come to his aide. By nightfall, no ships had come and he continued onward. Well after nightfall, the Indianola passed Natchez.

There were no ships coming to help from the north, but to the south, several were on their way – though helping was far from their minds. The previous day, when it was learned that the Indianola was leaving the mouth of the Red River, Confederate Major Joseph L. Brent was running three ships to catch up with the Yankee ironclad, which had a forty-eight hour head start.

The three ships under his commander were the CSS Webb, the Grand Era, and a refurbished Queen of the West, now flying the Rebel flag as Porter so feared. As they steamed down the Red River, they picked up another ship, the Dr. Beatty, and continued on. By nightfall, the fleet had probably reached the Mississippi and Brent was confident that he could intercept the Indianola, the only ship Admiral Porter could depend upon.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, p380, 382-383, 402, 408. []

After a Reckless Campaign on the Mississippi, Col. Ellet Returns

February 21, 1863 (Saturday)

It hardly bodes well when there is but one photo of you…

When last we left Col. Charles Ellet, the Era No. 5 and the ironclad USS Indianola, they had followed the CSS Webb down the Mississippi to the mouth of the Red River.

Meanwhile, the Webb, with a good head start, was able to make better time and slip away, up the Red to Fort Taylor and the Queen of the West, which had been captured on St. Valentine’s Day from Col. Ellet.

From the 17th to the 21st, Lt. Commander George Brown and his USS Indianola anchored at the mouth of the Red, blocking the river, and hoping to find a pilot that could take them to the Rebel fortress. Nothing could be procured but rumors – and these rumors spoke volumes.

Not only was the CSS Webb waiting at Fort Taylor, but so were two other cottonclad ships. To make matters even worse, the Queen of the West was reported to be operational. The Rebels must have dragged her from her grounding, and readied her for battle. Each of the four vessels were reportedly manned by full boarding parties, ready and willing to capture the Indianola.

On this date, when Lt. Commander Brown learned all of this, he immediately searched for more bails of cotton to fill up the open spaces between the wheelhouses and casemates to better fend off boarding parties. By the next day, he would be amply supplied.

In the meantime, Col. Ellet and the Era No. 5 (the captured Rebel transport that was now serving in the US Navy), left the Indianola at the Red River to return to Vicksburg. Ellet began the journey on the 18th. As much as he wanted to retake the Queen, the odds were now against him. Also, the Era was only a transport and could hardly defender herself, let alone attack.

Soon after starting, Ellet captured 170 bails of cotton and fortified the Era as best he could.

For nearly 100 miles of steaming against the current, there was nothing of interest to report. But when he landed the Era at St. Joseph, Louisiana on this date, he learned that Rebel cavalry commander, Wirt Adams, was waiting for him with two pieces of artillery at not ten miles upriver at Grand Gulf.

Figuring that he could make it without too much trouble, thanks to the cotton, Ellet and the Era steamed against the current towards Grand Gulf. As he reached it and Col. Adams saw the Federal vessel, and fired his two guns, throwing thirty-six rounds at the Era. The cotton, while a fine idea, was hardly needed. But one shot hit a cotton bale and bounced harmlessly into the water. All of the rest missed their mark.

A few miles farther, near Island No. 107, Adams’ cavalry opened upon the Union craft from the Mississippi side of shore. The fire was heavy, but Ellet thought it a ruse to get the Era to veer to the far bank. Avoiding what he believed was certain capture, the small transport braved the flying lead and pushed ever onward.

But just as she cleared the island, her furnaces became so clogged that Ellet was forced to stop and clean them out. Fortunately, this only delayed the Era for about twenty minutes as she drifted back downstream. But as soon as he pulled a bit farther, a three-gun Confederate battery from the Louisiana side opened upon him. He and his tiny ship struggled silently against the forty-six rounds fired at them. Again, none of the shots hit home.

William Wirt Adams

Upon nearing Warrenton, Mississippi at dusk, yet another Rebel battery opened upon him. From two 20-pound rifles, the Confederates fired twenty-four shots, and as before, none were able to touch him.

Unharmed, Ellet pulled into Bigg’s Landing below Vicksburg. For the remainder of the night, he wrote his report about the loss of the Queen of the West, doing his best to explain his reckless actions to Admiral David Dixon Porter.

The following day, Porter would respond.1

  1. Sources: Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, p379-380, 386; Ellet’s Brigade by Chester G. Hearn; Guns on the Western Waters by H. Allen Gosnell. []

The Battle of the Handkerchiefs

February 20, 1863 (Friday)

General Banks

Union General Nathaniel Banks did not have an easy job in his command at New Orleans. While it was true that he could hardly do a more damaging job than his predecessor, Benjamin “The Beast” Butler, he understood that it was a thin line upon which he walked.

In November, Banks raised the 30,000-man Army of the Gulf and replaced Butler. Though he ruled with an absurdly iron fist, Butler did much of the organizing and sorting out, saving Banks the trouble. After getting settled in, Banks went to work.

First, he found jobs for the newly-freed slaves. They were to be paid, allowed to stay with their families, and corporal punishment was outlawed. He also gave the freemen the right to bear arms, allowing them to join the militia. It wasn’t all wonderful, however. The former slaves had to sign year-long contracts, had to carry passes, and were subject to slave labor if found to be vagrants or “strolling the city.” Though probably well-intended, it angered blacks and former slave owners in kind.

Bank’s main political concern now was bringing Louisiana back into the Union. This, thanks to Ben Butler, would be no easy task. As one of Banks’ staff officers put it: “Since Butler had stroked the cat from the tail to head, and found her full of yawl and scratch, Banks was determined to stroke her from head to tail, and see if she would hide her claws, and commence to purr.”

Jumping on this right away, Banks released Butler’s political prisoners and allowed Confederate-leaning churches to resume services. He did what he could for the poor, placing price caps on bread and establishing social programs.

The Beast, Butler

For a time, the Secessionists in New Orleans believed that Banks would be quite the opposite of Butler. They believed that since he had given them back some of their rights, that all of them had returned. This simply wasn’t so. When the press once again began to highlight Union defeats and publish pro-Confederate diatribes, Banks shut them down.

But, like Banks, New Orleans was learning how to play this game. They understood that Banks was certainly better than Butler, and afforded him some modicum of outward respect. Inside, however, they were every bit as enraged.

This passive-aggressive protest came to a head (if it can even be called “a head”) on this date. Banks had been collecting Rebel prisoners in New Orleans for some time, and today was the day they would be moved out of the city to be exchanged for a like number of Union prisoners held by the Rebels.

This was a huge to-do in New Orleans. Secessionists threw balls and sorries celebrating the event. All of this was done out in the relative open, with doors and windows thrown ajar. Confederate flags, dancing and general tipsy merriment could be seen and heard throughout the city on the nights leading up to the exchange.

We leveled our guns and the ladies kept a’comin.
There wasn’t nigh as many as there was a while ago.
We poked ’em in the backs and still they were a-wavin’
‘Huzzah for Jeff Davis and to hell with the Yankee foe!’

A New York Times correspondent noted that much of this reckless abandon had to do with the string of Federal defeats, and was most boisterously engaged in by women.

“The men have, as a general rule, been perfectly quiet,” he wrote, “but the women, more demonstrative, have had a happy time in getting up clothing and pound-cake, and scribbling letters to their different friends in the Confederacy, which they could conceal in the linings of their sojer boys’ coats, or perchance tuck snugly away in a biscuit or pound-cake.”

And it was these women who were quickly gathering in the morning light to see off and cheer on the 300 Confederate prisoners. By noon, there were around 10,000 Secessionist women clogging the streets, making their way to the waterfront. Soon, the levees were flooded with hoop skirts and handkerchiefs, the air filled with huzzahs for Jeff Davis and the Confederacy.

As the Confederate prisoners drew near, the crowd surged and the scant number of Union soldiers acting as guards were brushed aside with “the most opprobrious epithets” flying from the mouths of these ladies. The Federal guards struggled against overwhelming numbers to maintain some control of the situation.

Corporal James Lewis Sherman, 23rd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry

The guards demanded that the crowd disperse and that the ladies stop waving their handkerchiefs. This was met with more epithets and huzzahs for Southern Rights. As news of the engagement reached the rest of the women in the crowded streets, there was an even greater surge forward. On the docks, the USS Laurel Hill was surrounded by 800 ladies, effectively seizing the ship as their own.

When the news reached General James Bowen, commanding the troops in the city, he ordered the 23rd Massachusetts to disperse the mob. But this would be no picnic. Now even greater in number, scores of Rebel flags were seen everywhere. Some women waved them, while other had pinned them to their bonnets or breasts. Even some of the Confederate prisoners were adorned with them – gifts from the ladies, no doubt. One lady even managed to smuggle in a large cake decorated with the Stars and Bars.

When the well-trained and very business-like Massachusetts regiment filed into line, the crowd hardly took notice. It wasn’t until a battery of six pieces of artillery was unlimbered before them that they began to slowly back away. As they did, the blue language flowed and the flags of Rebellion were waved with even more vigor than before.

To put a finer point on it, Admiral David Farragut, commanding the Union Navy in the Lower Mississippi, ordered a gunboat with its ports thrown open and guns run out, hoping this too would disperse the throng.

Admiral David Farragut

Now, backed by the artillery and Navy, the 23rd Massachusetts was ordered to clear the levee. Before the silent guns, the women could stand indefinitely. They must have known that nobody was going to fire cannons into a crowd of ladies. But against the bayonets of the infantry marching steadily onward and into their masses, they stood not a chance.

With the ladies moving back, the infantry made a flanking maneuver, positioning themselves between the Secessionists and the Rebel prisoners, who had now been boarded on a steamer. As the infantry advanced, the artillery was pushed forward behind them.

The mob was not dispersed, it was simply displaced. The levees and docks were cleared, but the women flooded into other, unoccupied streets, continuing their now hateful and bitter flag waving until nightfall finally sent them back into their homes.1

  1. Sources: Pretense of Glory by James G. Hollandsworth; Women During the Civil War edited by Judith E. Harper; New York Times, March 4, 1863. []

Davis Grows Tired of Joe Johnston’s Personal Honor

February 19, 1863 (Thursday)

When last we left Confederate General Joe Johnston, headquartered in Chattanooga, Tennessee, he wanted to take command of an army, any army. As it stood, he was the commander of the huge and unwieldy Department of the West. This behemoth encompassed Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama, including their coastal defenses.

Davis: You take it on the run, baby!

Two large armies facing off against two larger enemy armies were at Vicksburg and Tullahoma, well south of Nashville. It was incredibly difficult to reinforce one army with the other as they were hundreds of miles apart.

The Army of Tennessee, at Tullahoma, 42,000-strong, was commanded by Braxton Bragg. After fighting and losing the Battle of Stones River, BRagg also lost any of the remaining respect his men and officers still held for him.

This growing anti-Bragg faction wanted to place Johnston in direct command of the Army of the Tennessee. As Department commander, Johnston would have been well within his rights to do just that. His honor, even his embarrassment, would not allow him.

But rather than simply leave it at that, he supported Bragg. For a time, Johnston was in good, though sparse, company. President Jefferson Davis thought Bragg fit for the job and, at first, was bolstered by Johnston’s support of Bragg. Three weeks later, however, he wasn’t so enamored by it.

This had much to do with the fact that though Davis supported Bragg, he knew he had to leave. It would have been much better for everyone if Johnston would have just stepped in – personal honor be damned.

And on this date, Davis clearly explained that. He expressed great doubts that Bragg held the confidence of anybody in the Army of Tennessee. The views of the disgruntled officers, no doubt, trickled down to the men, like little bits of table scraps for the poor.

“It is not given to all men of ability to excite enthusiasm and to win affection of their troops,” Davis continued, “and it is only the few who are thus endowed who can overcome the distrust and alienation of their principal officers.” The President seemed to believe that if Bragg saw that he was not wanted and could do no good, he “would surrender a desirable position to promote the public interest….”

Johnston: If that’s the way you want it baby, then I don’t want you around…

After reiterating his “confidence… and zeal” in Bragg’s abilities, Davis turned blame upon Joe Johnston. “You limit the selection to a new man,” wrote Davis, “and, in terms very embarrassing to me, object to being yourself the immediate commander.”

Johnston’s roll as Department commander had never been very clear to him [Johnston]. Was he to take field command? Just act as a referee? Be a mysterious inspector general? He had no idea.

Now, Davis tried to clear that up in the most simple terms imaginable: “I had felt the importance of keeping you free to pass from army to army in your department, so as to be present wherever most needed, and to command in person wherever present.”

And so Davis wanted Johnston to take the same position that Union General Grant was taking. Grant was the Federal Department commander, and yet was personally in the field commanding the Army of the Tennessee.

“When you went to Tullahoma,” Davis continued, recalling Johnston’s short time visiting Bragg’s Army, “I considered your arrival placed you for as long a period as you should remain there in the immediate command of that army, and that your judgment would determine the duration of your stay.”

But then, that is where Johnston’s personal honor came into things. It was embarrassing to hover over Bragg, an officer Johnston believed could take care of himself. But Davis no longer cared.

“I do not think that your personal honor is involved,” he wrote, “as you could have nothing to gain by the removal of General Bragg. You shall not be urged by me to any course which would wound your sensibility or views of professional propriety, though you will perceive how small is the field of selection if a new man is to be sought whose rank is superior to that of the lieutenant-generals now in Tennessee.”

Beauregard: I don’t believe it. Not for a minute.

Davis was, of course, right. There simply was nobody else in the theater with the rank that could take over for Bragg. The only other officer in the army who could was P.G.T. Beauregard, but his hands were more or less full with suspected Yankee attacks upon Charleston and Savannah.

Johnston, who had once commanded the Army of Northern Virginia, wanted his old job back. He realized, of course, that there was no way that could happen – Lee was more than holding his own. But Johnston wanted a field command. He could take over Bragg’s Army, but didn’t feel it was right to do so. If Davis ordered him to do it, however, that might be another thing altogether.

All he really knew was that his job was dreadfully dull and there was little he could (or would) do to change that.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 23, Part 2, p640-641; Joseph E. Johnston by Craig L. Symonds; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, Vol. 1 by Grady McWhiney. []