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