previous next

Chapter 24: Second attack on Vicksburg, etc.

Rear-Admiral Porter took command of the Mississippi Squadron in October, 1862.

Rear-Admiral Davis had ordered all the vessels except the Benton and the Carondelet up to Cairo for repairs, for what with being rammed and shaken up by constant firing of the guns, they required a thorough overhauling.

There being at this moment no actual operations in progress, Rear-Admiral Porter devoted his attention to putting the vessels in thorough order, changing their batteries to Dahlgren guns, and adding a number of small stern-wheel vessels, covered with light iron (called “tin-clads” ), to the squadron.

Up to this time the gun-boats had, strictly speaking, been under the control of the Army. but now all this was changed, and the Mississippi Squadron, like all the other naval forces, was brought directly under the supervision of the Secretary of the Navy. The Commander-in-Chief of the squadron had no longer to receive orders from General Halleck or Army headquarters, but was left to manage his command to the best of his ability, and to co-operate with the Army whenever he could do so. This was a much better arrangement, as it allowed the naval commander-in-chief to exercise his judgment, instead of being handicapped, as Foote and Davis were.

It may be remembered when Donelson fell, and Foote suggested to Halleck the importance of pushing on with the gun-boats to Nashville. General Halleck forbade his doing so. The new arrangement left the commander of the squadron at liberty to undertake any expedition he thought proper, and he was not in the least hampered by any instructions from the Navy Department regarding his movements; so that when the Army was operating in the interior of Tennessee, which seemed at that time the great battleground, the Navy could take advantage of the opportunity and make raids on the enemy along the Mississippi and its tributaries, keeping down guerillas, and enabling army transports to go and come without hindrance.

In October, 1862, the guerillas were exceedingly troublesome all along the rivers, firing at every unarmed steamer which passed. Large quantities of goods were shipped from St. Louis to points along the river professedly Union, which ultimately reached the Confederates. All this was stopped, and the guerillas, when captured, were summarily dealt with, and the houses where they were harbored laid in ashes. No commerce was allowed on the Mississippi except with Memphis, and the river looked almost as deserted as in the early days of its discovery, its silence being seldom disturbed except by gun-boats and army transports, and the sharp report of the howitzers as they sent the shrapnel shells into the dense woods or over the high banks [284] where it might be supposed guerillas were lying in wait to fire on the transports.

This was slow work compared to the active warfare the iron-clads had been engaged in under Foote and Davis, but they were merely getting ready for the hard work before them and will be heard from ere long again.

Before Admiral Porter left Washington he was informed by the President that General McClernand had been ordered to raise an Army at Springfield, Ill., to prosecute the siege of Vicksburg. The President expressed the hope that the rear-admiral would co-operate heartily with General McClernand in the operations to be carried on. But as Vicksburg never would have been taken if it had depended on General McClernand's raising an Army sufficient for the purpose, the admiral, immediately on his arrival at Cairo, sent a message to General Grant, at Holly Springs, Miss., informing him of McClernand's intention, that he, Porter, had assumed command of the Mississippi Squadron, and was ready to cooperate with the Army on every occasion where the services of the Navy could be useful.

A few days afterwards General Grant arrived at Cairo and proposed an expedition against Vicksburg, and asking the rearadmiral if he could furnish a sufficient force of gun-boats to accompany it. Grant's plan was to embark Sherman from Memphis, where he then was, with thirty thousand soldiers, to be joined at Helena, Arkansas, by ten thousand more. Grant himself would march from Holly Springs with some sixty thousand men upon Granada. General Pemberton would naturally march from Vicksburg to stop Grant at Granada until reinforcements could be thrown into Vicksburg from the south, and while Pemberton was thus absent with the greater part of his Army Sherman and Porter could get possession of the defences of Vicksburg.

General Grant having been informed that the gun-boats would be ready to move at short notice, and having sent orders to Sherman to put his troops aboard the transports as soon as the gun-boats arrived in Memphis, returned immediately to Holly Springs to carry out his part of the programme.

This interview between Grant and Porter lasted just half an hour, and thus was started the expedition against Vicksburg, which, after a long and arduous siege and a great expenditure of men and money, resulted in the capture of the strongest point of defence occupied by the enemy during the war.

The expedition from Memphis got away early in December, 1862, Commander Walke, in the Carondelet, being sent ahead with the Cairo, Baron DeKalb, and Pittsburg. (iron-clads,) and the Signal and Marmora ( “tin-clads” ) to clear the Yazoo River of torpedoes and cover the landing of Sherman's Army when it should arrive. This arduous and perilous service was well performed. On the 11th of December, Commander Walke dispatched the two “tin-clads” on a reconnoisance up the Yazoo. They ascended some twenty miles, when they were apprized of the presence of torpedoes by a great number of small boats along the channel of the river and an explosion near the Signal. Another torpedo was exploded from the Marmora by firing into it with a musket as it appeared just below the surface. The commanding

Lieut.-Commander T. O. Selfridge, (now Captain U. S. Navy.)

officers of these two vessels reported that with the assistance of two iron-clads to keep down the sharpshooters, they could clear the river of torpedoes, but not otherwise, as there were rifle-pits all along the left bank of the Yazoo, and the enemy were supplied with light artillery. At Lieutenant-Commander Selfridge's request he was sent on this duty in the Cairo, with the Pittsburg, Lieut.-Commanding Hoel, and the ram Queen of the West, Colonel Charles Ellet, Jr., commanding. These officers were cautioned to be particularly careful and run no risks.

On the 12th of December the vessels proceeded on the duty assigned them under a shower of bullets from the rifle-pits, which was only checked by the gun-boats dropping [285] close into the left bank and enfilading the rifle-pits with shrapnel. This cleared the enemy out, and the boats from the vessels were enabled to drag for the infernal machines and haul them to the shore. where they were destroyed by firing volleys of musketry into them.

After this work had been prosecuted for some time Lieut.-Comr. Selfridge proceeded ahead in the Cairo to cover the Marmora, which was thought to be sorely beset by the enemy's sharpshooters. The Cairo encountered a floating torpedo. Two explosions in quick succession occurred, which seemed almost to lift the vessel out of the water. Everything was done to keep the Cairo afloat, but without avail, and she sank in twelve minutes after the explosion, in six fathoms of water, with nothing but the tops of her chimneys showing above the surface. All the crew were saved. No fault was imputed to the commanding officer of the Cairo. It was an accident liable to occur to any gallant officer whose zeal carries him to the post of danger, and who is loath to let others do what he thinks he ought to do himself.

U. S. Iron-clad Cairo sunk by a torpedo. (from a sketch by Rear-Admiral Walke.)

This was a bad day's work for a beginning, but the admiral looked upon it simply as an accident of war, and Selfridge was immediately given command of the Conestoga. The loss of the Cairo was the more regretted as she had lately been made “shot proof,” by covering her weakest points with railroad iron. It appeared on examination of the river banks that the torpedo wires were connected with galvanic batteries, and that the enemy was prepared with a system of torpedo defence that would require the utmost caution in ascending the Yazoo and seizing a point at which to land an Army.

Rear-Admiral Porter arrived in the Yazoo a day or two after the loss of the Cairo, and the whole squadron was set to work to clear the river of torpedoes. The gun-boats ascended to within range of the forts on Haines' Bluff and brought on an engagement with the enemy's batteries, during which the boats of the squadron pushed ahead, and succeeded in destroying numbers of torpedoes.

General Sherman moved his transports to a point on the river called Chickasaw Bayou without the loss of a man from torpedoes or sharpshooters, his landing being covered in every direction by the gun-boats.

Sherman first made a feint on Haines' Bluff as if to attack the works and then landed at Chickasaw Bayou. Owing to the late heavy rains he found the roads to Vicksburg heights almost impassable, and when he attempted to advance with his Army he was headed off by innumerable bayous, which had to be bridged or corduroy roads built around them. It was killing work.

Even at this time Vicksburg had been fortified at every point, and its only approaches by land led through dense swamps or over boggy open ground, where heavy guns were placed, so as to mow down an advancing Army. A general has seldom had so difficult a task assigned him, and there was little chance of Sherman's succeeding unless Pemberton had drawn off nearly all his forces to oppose Grant's advance on Granada, thus leaving Vicksburg without a garrison; for even a small force could hold the place against a vastly superior attacking one.

There was only one point where the Confederates had possibly left a loophole open for an enemy to get in; if they neglected that point it would be because they never supposed any one would attempt to penetrate swamps where men had to wade up to their middle in mud and water, and the passage of artillery was almost an impossibility.

At the time of which we are writing the rain had fallen in such torrents that the low lands in the vicinity of Vicksburg were submerged, the water extending nearly to the base of the frowning hills covered with earthworks and rifle-pits, against which an Army would have made little impression. There was, then, no other course but to attack the enemy's works by the road leading from Chickasaw Bayou and attempt to reach the landing at the foot of the high hills overlooking river and plain, where nature had placed obstacles nearly as formidable as the enemy's guns at other places.

Sherman gained that point and established himself under the high hills it was necessary to assault before he could see the inside of Vicksburg; but what was encountered in reaching that point no one but the brave [286] officers and men of that Army will ever know. An Army of thirty thousand men can accomplish a great deal when well directed but it cannot convert swamps into dry land.

But the enemy had not neglected the swamps around Chickasaw Bayou or the approaches to Vicksburg on that side. On the contrary they seemed to have exercised their ingenuity to make that route impassable. Acres of wood had been felled, the trees overlapping one another and forming a chevaux de frise which extended through the swamp for several miles.

The difficulties seem great enough in the description, but this falls far short of the reality. However Sherman and his Army overcame everything and at last reached terra firma.

In the meanwhile the Navy was doing what it could to help the Army, but its work was necessarily confined to the water, shelling the edges of the woods all around the peninsula where Sherman and his Army were struggling, and keeping the enemy from bringing their artillery to bear.

Sherman was of course aware of the perilous character of his undertaking, and the probability of his being driven back, but he had one strong motive to induce him to extra exertions and that was his loyalty to General Grant. The latter had run considerable risk in leaving his base at Holly Springs to draw Pemberton from Vicksburg. Time was precious and Sherman had to act with promptness, and he felt that it was due to his chief that he should leave nothing untried that would help Grant to carry out his plans. Those plans were well conceived but the best calculations in the world were liable to be upset in the face of such elements as prevailed at Chickasaw Bayou, when Sherman found himself in the swamp beneath the heights of Vicksburg.

Grant had left Holly Springs with a large Army at the time he had appointed, merely with the design of drawing Pemberton from Vicksburg and thus helping Sherman in his attack on that place. This was all Grant proposed to do, although it was suggested that in case Pemberton retreated before him, Grant would follow him up.

Grant moved towards Granada and everything looked well, but the Confederate general, Earl Van Dorn, dashed into Holly Springs twenty-eight miles in the rear of the Union Army, capturing the garrison and all their stores. At the same time General Forrest pushed his cavalry into West Tennessee, cutting the railroad to Columbus at several points between that place and Jackson. This completely cut Grant off from his only line of communication with the North and also from his several commands. Due precautions had been taken to prevent this mishap by leaving a strong force behind at Holly Springs, but the commanding officer was not on the alert and his capture was a complete surprise. In this raid of the Confederates a million dollars' worth of stores were destroyed.

Under the circumstances it was impossible for Grant to continue his march on Granada, which Pemberton perceiving, the latter returned to Vicksburg in time to assist in Sherman's repulse.

Had Grant been satisfied that he could subsist his Army in the enemy's country, he would have doubtless pushed on to Vicksburg at all hazards and the place would have fallen at that time, but such was not to be. “There's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them as we may.” Had Vicksburg been taken at that moment, one of the best opportunities of displaying the strength and resources of the North would have been lost.

Sherman made all his arrangements to attack the enemy's works on the 29th of December, 1862, and the assault took place early on that day. One division succeeded in occupying the batteries on the heights and hoped shortly to reach those commanding the city of Vicksburg, but the division that was to follow the advance was behind time and the opportunity was lost. A portion of Pemberton's Army had returned from Granada, just in time to overwhelm and drive back the small force that had gained the hills. The latter were outnumbered four to one and were driven back. The enemy did not follow, being satisfied with driving our troops from the heights and there was nothing left for Sherman to do but to get his Army safely back to the transports.

Throughout these operations the Navy did everything that could be done to ensure the success of General Sherman's movement. As the soldiers pushed their way through the swamps the Benton and two other iron-clads with the Marmora and ram Queen of the West, moved up to within easy range of Haines' Bluff. The Benton opened on the Confederate batteries and also shelled the road leading to Vicksburg to prevent the enemy from sending reinforcements to Vicksburg and also to make them believe that Haines' Bluff was the intended point of attack.

Boats were sent towards the forts to drag for torpedoes with the intention if the latter could be removed to advance the gun-boats to close quarters. When the small boats approached the enemy's works a rapid fire was opened on them, but they did not retire until it was supposed that the torpedoes were removed and the way was clear. Then the Benton advanced to the point where the boats had ceased work, some twelve [287] hundred yards from the fort, or as near as the boats could operate against such a fire.

At this point the Yazoo River was very narrow and only one iron-clad could pass up at a time. There was no room for two vessels to fight abreast, consequently the Benton had to bear the brunt of the battle, which lasted two hours. During this time the Benton received many heavy blows from the enemy's shot and shells, while her consorts had to lie idle, for if they threw shells over the Benton they might endanger on board. Although the Benton was much cut up her efficiency was not impaired. She was hit on her bow casemates, which were “shot-proof,” thirty times without damage, but plunging shots passed through her decks. Lieut.-Commanding Gwinn, stood on the upper deck

Lieut.-Commander William Gwinn, U. S. Navy.

during the whole action, as he was of opinion that a pilot-house or casemate was no place for the commander of a ship of war in battle. This idea cost him his life, for he was struck with a fifty-pound rifle shell which tore away the muscles of his right arm and breast. His executive officer, Acting Lieutenant George P. Lord, was severely wounded, and ten of the crew were killed and wounded.

It was impossible for gun-boats alone to capture the works at Haines' Bluff, as but one vessel at a time could operate against them. Their reduction required a combined Army and Navy attack. The Confederates proved themselves good artillerists but had two of their guns dismounted by the Benton's fire. The gallant commander of the Benton notwithstanding his dreadful wounds, lingered two days and died in the admiral's cabin deeply regretted by every officer and man in the squadron. The gunboats withdrew from before Haines' Bluff for it appeared evident that Vicksburg could not be taken from that direction.

General Sherman came to the same conclusion with regard to attacking it from the Chickasaw Bayou. He met with no loss in withdrawing his troops to the transports, but in the assault he lost in killed, wounded, and missing, seventeen hundred men, a large number considering the short time his Army was actually engaged. The soldiers had to work their way back to the Yazoo through heavy rains, and the hardships they encountered in the march can hardly be realized by those who did not share them. That evening the sun came out again as if to let the soldiers dry themselves and all the signs promised fair weather.

Rear-Admiral Porter being still hopeful, proposed to run the iron-clads at night close up under the forts and attack at close quarters with grape and canister, while a division of the Army disembarked and assaulted Haines' Bluff in the rear. General Sherman approved the plan and General Steele and his division Were assigned to co-operate with the Navy on the following night, but the good weather indications proved a delusion and a snare, and on the afternoon of the day when the attack was to have been made on Haines' Bluff, a fog set in that shut out all objects at a distance of fifty feet, and this continued until the next day.

The proposed expedition could do nothing on such a foggy night, At noon the following day it began to rain again heavier than ever and the land almost disappeared from sight. There was no longer any chance for a successful attack on Haines' Bluff and nothing was left but for the Army and Navy to retire from the scene where they had been so unsuccessful.

General Sherman, on visiting the rearadmiral on board his flag-ship, opposed further operations and at once proposed that Vicksburg should be given up for the present, and as his troops were somewhat demoralized he must go with them to attack Arkansas Post and secure a success which would impart new confidence to them. He desired the admiral to go along with the gun-boats, and this being agreed to, preparations were made to start next day on the new expedition.

The following morning General Sherman learned that Major-General McClernand had arrived at the mouth of the Yazoo to take command of Sherman's Army. This was a surprise to every one, for although it was known that McClernand had received orders to proceed to Illinois and raise troops for the purpose of undertaking the siege of Vicksburg, yet it never was supposed [288] that he would take command of forty thousand men of Grant's Army, without even paying the latter, his superior officer, the compliment of informing him of his intention. However, General McClernand came with such orders from Washington that Sherman unhesitatingly agreed to turn over the command to him.

As Admiral Porter did not come under Army rule and knew exactly the terms on which General McClernand had received his orders, he declined to have anything to do with the proposed expedition to Arkansas Post, unless General Sherman should go in command of the troops. To this McClernand agreed, only stipulating that he should accompany the expedition. So the matter was arranged, and the expedition started.

The last act of the Navy in the Yazoo was one to be remembered by the Confederates who, finding that our troops were re-embarked and ready to depart, determined to pounce on the rear transports and give them a parting remembrance.

Two regiments made an attack with field-pieces which were hauled along the road made by Sherman's soldiers, but unfortunately for the enemy they mistook the Lexington, Marmora, Queen of the West and Monarch--the two latter Colonel Ellet's rams — for transports. Before the Confederates could fire a second round, these vessels opened on them with shrapnel, grape and canister, cutting them up and sending them flying in all directions without the loss of a man on our side.

In the meantime the transports steamed down the river in good order leaving nothing behind that could be of any use to the enemy.

The following named vessels took part in the Yazoo expedition: Black Hawk, (flagship) Lieutenant-Commander K. R. Breese, Benton, Lieutenant-Commander Wm. Gwinn, Baron DeKalb, Lieutenant-Commander Jno. G. Walker, Carondelet, Commander Henry Walke, Louisville, Lieutenant-Commander E. K. Owen, Cincinnati, Lieutenant-Commander G. M. Bache, Lexington, Lieutenant-Commander James W. Shirk, Signal, Acting-Volunteer-Lieutenant John Scott, Romeo, Acting-Ensign R. B. Smith, Juliet, Acting-Volunteer-Lieutenant Edward Shaw, Forest Rose, Acting-Master Geo. W. Brown, Rattler. Lieutenant-Commander Watson Smith, Marmora, Acting-Volunteer-Lieutenant Robert Getty, Monarch, (ram) Queen of the West, (ram) Colonel Chas. Ellet, Jr.

The second attack on Vicksburg terminated quite as unsatisfactorily as the first, and every one came to the conclusion that Vicksburg could only be conquered by a long and troublesome siege which would severely test the endurance of both parties.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
October, 1862 AD (2)
December 29th, 1862 AD (1)
December, 1862 AD (1)
December 12th (1)
December 11th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: