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Grant and Vicksburg

 By the swollen flood
Of the Mississippi, stumpy Grant is a mole
Gnawing at Vicksburg.  He has been blocked four times
But he will carry that beaver-dam at last.
There is no brilliant lamp in that dogged mind
And no conceit of brilliance to shake the hand,
But hand and mind can use the tools that they get.
This long way out of Galena.

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

Something for the weekend.  The song I Left my Love from the movie The Horse Soldiers (1959) a fictionalized account of Grierson’s Raid.

Perhaps the most daring and successful Union cavalry raid of the war, Brigadier General Benjamin Grierson, a former music teacher who, after being bitten by a horse at a young age, hated horses, led 1700 Illinois and Iowa troopers through 600 miles of Confederate territory from southern Tennessee to the Union held Baton Rouge.  Grierson and his men ripped up railroads, burned Confederate supplies and tied down many times their number of Confederate troops and succeeded in giving Grant a valuable diversion as he began his movement against Vicksburg.  The one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the raid will occur on April 17th.

With his victories at Fort Henry, Fort Donelson and Shiloh, for a time it seemed in 1862 that Grant was spearheading a Union drive that would lead to an unraveling of the Confederacy in the West and a rapid end to the War.  Instead Grant was stymied since December by Vicksburg, which was earning its nickname of the Gibraltar of the West.  Located on high bluffs overlooking the Mississippi at a horseshoe bend, the heavily fortified city prevented Union control of the Mississippi, vital for the Union war effort in cutting away from the main Confederacy, Arkansas, Texas and most  of Louisiana, while restoring the Father of the Waters to the Union for commerce.

The heavily fortified city, garrisoned by a Confederate army, seemed impregnable.  Union fleets trying to run the batteries of the City faced potentially ruinous losses.  The Mississippi Delta north and east of the city, 200 miles of largely trackless swamp, made it impossible to march an army from the north and take Vicksburg by land assault.  Somehow Grant needed to get his fleet south of Vicksburg so he and his army could cross the Mississippi.  To accomplish this Grant made five efforts prior to mid-April of 1863, all of which ended in frustration:

1.  Grant’s Ditch-Grant attempted to dig a canal across the De Soto peninsula to allow his fleet to get south of Vicksburg without running the batteries.  A rise in the river caused the project to be abandoned, with wide-spread flooding being the only result of all the effort to dig the canal.

2.  Lake Providence Boondoggle-Grant ordered General McPherson to dig a canal to Lake Providence to allow the bypassing of Vicksburg.  The effort was  a partial success, but the canal could only take 8500 men at a time in light draft transports, too few for the type of operation planned by Grant.

3.  Yazoo Pass Fiasco-The next attempt involved blowing up the Mississippi River levee near Moon Lake, some 150 miles above Vicksburg, near Helena, Arkansas, and following the Yazoo Pass  into the Coldwater River, then to the Tallahatchie River, and finally into the Yazoo River at Greenwood, Mississippi.  Ten Union boats, under the command of Lt. Cmdr. Watson Smith, with army troops under the command of Brig. Gen. Benjamin Prentiss, began moving through the pass on February 7. The combined force quickly found that it was making slow progress through a tree choked morass, with the Confederates improving upon nature by felling tress.  The Confederates constructed a “Fort Pemberton” near the confluence of the Tallahatchie and Yalobusha Rivers near Greenwood, Mississippi, which beat off the naval force on March 11, March 14, and March 16. The Union effort collapsed in early April.

4.  Steele’s Bayou Flop- In support of the Yazoo expedition, Admiral Porter sent a naval force up Steele’s Bayou to Deer Creek, outflanking “Fort Pemberton”.  The naval force became immobilized on the tree choked Steele’s Bayou, and the sailors had the embarrassment of being rescued by the Army.

5.  Duckport Landing Failure-Grant dug a canal from Duckport Landing to Walnut Bayou in order to allow his lighter vessels to avoid having to run the Vicksburg batteries.  A decline in the depth of the river, caused the attempt to be abandoned.

Frustrated Grant was, but not discouraged.  Time for a more direct approach that we will read about in posts to come.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

4 Comments

  1. That movie depicts an age/war both of high gallantry and virtue.

    I especially enjoy watching the military school cadets marching out to the fifes’ “Bonny Blue Flag”; the young boy escaping from his bedroom to join the charge; and the charge itself.

    Mac, I recommend a book by Gregory J. W. Urwin, Custer Victorious, The Civil War Battles of General George Armstrong Custer. I’m sure you would enjoy it.

    God bless John Ford and John Wayne.

    PS: The “Anaconda Plan” was the War Department’s grand strategy from day-one.

  2. Thank you, Mac!

    My wife would not be insensible to the emotions of the mother in the scene. Our son saw a year in Afghanistan.

    The Confederacy (as in the North) had imposed universal conscription.

    Colleges, including Va. Military Inst., had no students and were forced to reduce to 16 years the age for admission.

    My edition of Campfires and Battlefields, on page 433, presents the 15 May 1864 Battle of New Market. Conf. Gen. Breckenridge ordered a regiment of veterans and the battalion of cadets from VMI to capture an unsupported battery on the Union right. Of the 550 veterans, 241 were either killed or wounded. Of the 225 sixteen year-old cadets, 44 were casualties.

    If the Union had won at New Market, the book states, likely Richmond would have been laid bare to Union attack “almost inevitable capture.”

    Again, God bless John Ford and John Wayne.

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