Rebel Panic Up the Yazoo

John C. Pemberton isn’t all that worried.

“The enemy have driven us off from the works on the Pass, and are coming through,” reported a Lieutenant in the Confederate Navy. “Hasty obstructions with fortifications may save Yazoo City. I have done my best; worked under their noses, till their pickets came in 100 yards of me.”

The Confederates had been trying to obstruct Yazoo Pass even before discovering the the Federals under General Grant were trying to reopen it. If successful, the Pass would lead to the Tallahatchie and Yazoo Rivers, and eventually the back door of Vicksburg.

On the morning of this date, when the news came in that the Yankees had brushed off the Confederate Navy and were coming through Yazoo Pass, General John Pemberton, commanding Southern forces at Vicksburg, flew into action.

The message had been written on the 14th, and had filtered into Yazoo City on the 16th. It wasn’t until this date, however, that Isaac Brown, commanding the Naval forces at Yazoo City, sent it along to Pemberton at Vicksburg.

Brown was in a panic of his own. He had two ships, the Mary Keene and the Star of the West (yes that one), but had nobody to man them.

“I regret that we have so little time to make preparations, so little, in fact, that I cannot be answerable for what may happen,” wrote Brown, “in other words, I can give no assurance that we shall be able to stop the enemy, as we cannot tell with what amount or description of force he is coming through. We will do all we can.”

But Pemberton did not panic – he kept his head and prepared for the worst. Immediately, he dispatched two pieces of heavy artillery to General William Loring, commanding the infantry at Yazoo City, and promised Brown 200 men for the gunboats.

Captain Powhatan Robinson, the Chief Engineer (with an amazing name) at Grenada, Mississippi, was slightly less than convinced that the Yankees were pouring through Yazoo Pass. He had just returned from the Coldwater River and there were no Federals anywhere. He vowed to “return with negroes and entrenching tools tomorrow or the next day,” and asked Pemberton to send more soldiers and artillery. Clearly, he saw there was a threat, but didn’t think it was so dire.

He wanted to obstruct Yazoo Pass around the mouth of the Coldwater, but wasn’t sure if he’d have time to do it. If he couldn’t do that, he would at least obstruct the Yazoo around the confluence of the Tallahatchie. “Obstructions are worthless without artillery,” warned Robinson.

The Star of the West (under Federal colors).

Pemberton was doing pretty much all he could. He ordered artillery and men to fill the gunboats, but honestly didn’t believe there was much to be concerned about. In a letter to President Jefferson Davis, he explained the situation.

“Many believe that the enemy will get through the Yazoo Pass, and I am informed that, by the use of steam saw-mills, three quarters of a mile of solid obstructions were removed in two days,” relayed Pemberton. Since the area around the Pass was underwater, he reasoned that the Yankees would be confined to boats. Of course, this also meant that his own men would be similarly confined.

“I do not apprehend anything serious from this demonstration,” Pemberton dismissed, “still, if it be the enemy’s purpose to lay siege to Vicksburg, this is doubtless part of his plan to cut off our supplies, and would materially assist the investment of the place.” With that, he asked Richmond for a “full supply of ammunition to be furnished for the defense of Vicksburg.”

By the next day, word had come down that the Yankees who broke through Yazoo Pass had been driven off. Closer to the truth, however, was that no Yankees broke through the pass at all. Still, Pemberton hurried along the artillery before turning his focus to other matters.1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, Part 3, p629-630. []

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4 thoughts on “Rebel Panic Up the Yazoo

    1. We’re both west coasters! I just get more rain.

      Interestingly, here’s the real story of “up the wazoo.” I kind of hoped that it came from from the Civil War via linguistic shift, but sadly, it did not.

      It *did* come from California, though!

  1. Apologies for being pedantic, but I believe the “Star of the West” was the ship that tried to re-supply Fort Sumter and was turned back by Southern fire. (Thus allowing the argument that the South fired the first shot not just once but twice.) The ship in the Yazoo area was the “Queen of the West”. (And I’m looking forward to your account of her next action!)

    1. I’m not sure what you’re saying. The Star of the West was indeed fired upon at Fort Sumter, but was subsequently captured by Earl Van Dorn in Texas. Under CS control, it was used along the Yazoo River, as mentioned in today’s post.

      The Queen of the West (a US ship) wasn’t in the Yazoo area at this point, it was in the Mississippi, around the Red River.

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