March 23, 1863 (Monday)
But perhaps all was not lost for the Union forces near Fort Pemberton, Mississippi. It was true that they had tried several times, and had been ultimately repulsed. It was also true that they had decided to retreat. Reinforcements had been promised and when none showed, General Leonard Ross and Lt. Commander James Foster came to the conclusion that it was pointless. On the 20th, the Federal flotilla, including the infantry transports, turned tail and began their long journey back up the Tallahatchie River to Helena, Arkansas on the Mississippi River.
Coming down the Tallahatchie, however, was General Isaac Quinby. In command of the reinforcements, which were still making their slow and tangled way through Yazoo Pass, Quinby rushed on ahead, correctly fearing that General Ross might be rereating.
General Quinby started from Helena, Arkansa on the 14th. It had taken him a week to steer through Yazoo Pass and the Coldwater River. On the 21st, he was surprised to see before him the Union flotilla that was supposed to be before Fort Pemberton.
The state in which he found the ships, especially the USS Chillicothe, which had tangled with the Confederate guns serveral times, was alarming. They had really taken a beating. General Quinby immediately sat down with General Ross and Lt. Commander Foster to talk it over. Ross explained to him the reasons he decided to make the retreat. Quinby, who outranked Ross, then decided to send them back. The way Quinby saw it, the retreat “would have a depressing effect upon our army and the country, and raise the hopes and the determination of the rebels.”
Since Quinby had no technical authority over the Naval end of things, he had to convince (rather than order) Foster to comply. Apparently, General Quinby put a better light on things for Foster. Yes, supplies and ammunition were both dangerously low, but soon they would be replenished. There were not enough infantry troops to storm the fort, but soon there would be more. Any problem Foster placed at the lap of Quinby was defeated with promises of better things to come.
With Foster and Ross both in agreement, the next day, the Union flotilla turned around and headed back towards Fort Pemberton. In the morning of this date, the 23rd, the flotilla, along with General Quinby, arrived at their former position.
Around 3pm, as the rain poured down, Quinby somehow “induced” Lt. Commander Foster to take the battered Chillicothe and the De Kalb in range of the Rebel guns to draw their fire. When the ships pulled into range, there was no response from the Confederates. After waiting for a bit, the Chillicothe fired a round into the bastion. And then another. With the third shot, they was still no response.
While all this nothing what happening, Generals Quinby and Ross were on the shore, only 700 yards away from the fort. They could plainly see the guns, but could see no enemy soldiers. This was certainly odd, but they figured that the Rebels were just hiding; waiting for the Federal ships to get even closer.
Unable to get the Rebels to bite, both ships withdrew. When General John Pemberton, Confederate commander in Mississippi, for whom the fort was named, caught wind of the news that the Federals were back, he scrambled to find them more guns.
In the meantime, General Quinby would devote the next day or so to taking a look around, trying to see what General Ross and Lt. Commander Foster must have missed.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, Part 1, p398, 417; Part 3, p687; Official Naval Records, Vol. 24, p285, 287, 289, 303. [↩]