May 18, 1862 – The Federal naval squadron led by Flag Officer David G. Farragut tried following up its capture of New Orleans by pushing further up the Mississippi River. However, they met unexpected resistance.
As May began, Farragut sought to move upriver and ultimately join forces with the Federal Western Flotilla stationed above Fort Pillow, Tennessee. Farragut’s greatest obstacle would be Vicksburg, Mississippi, which was protected by batteries atop steep bluffs along the river. If the Federals captured Vicksburg, they would essentially cut the Confederacy off from the Trans-Mississippi and split it in two.
Before Farragut could take on the stronghold, he had to repair the ships that had been damaged in the operation against Forts Jackson and St. Philip. This gave the Confederates more time to strengthen their defenses. Farragut would be further handicapped by having a naval fleet more suited for the sea than a river. Nevertheless, he resolved to push as far upriver as he could.
The U.S.S. Iroquois, one of Farragut’s leading vessels headed by Commander James S. Palmer, steamed up the Mississippi and captured the Louisiana capital of Baton Rouge on the 8th. Baton Rouge was defenseless against the Iroquois’s firepower, which would soon be backed by the rest of Farragut’s fleet. Federals also seized the local arsenal after a tense exchange with the city mayor.
Four days later, the Federal squadron captured Natchez, Mississippi, 280 river miles from New Orleans. The Iroquois along with the U.S.S. Oneida under Commander Samuel P. Lee remained at Natchez while Farragut led the rest of the fleet 80 miles upriver to Vicksburg. (Confederates later regained control of Natchez and nearly executed the man who had offered to deliver the mayor’s surrender. Only General P.G.T. Beauregard’s personal intervention saved the man’s life.)
The Federal vessels reconnoitered the Mississippi between Natchez and Vicksburg over the next week. The crew of the U.S.S. Calhoun captured the Confederate gunboat Corypheus at Bayou Bonfuca, Louisiana, and the Oneida bombarded Confederates stationed at Grand Gulf, Mississippi, before the fleet continued upriver.
The Federals approached Vicksburg around 11 a.m. on May 18. The stronghold was protected by artillery atop 200-foot-high bluffs, 8,000 Confederate troops, and a gunboat fleet. Commander Lee of the Oneida, acting on Farragut’s behalf for the navy and Major General Benjamin F. Butler for the army, dropped anchor at a bend in the river and dispatched a small boat under a flag of truce.
A Confederate boat met the Federals and received their message, which demanded “the surrender of Vicksburg and its defenses to the lawful authority of the United States, under which, private property and personal rights will be respected.” A Confederate gunner fired a cannonball across the bow of the ship that had delivered the surrender demand.
A messenger returned with military and civilian responses about five hours later. Brigadier General Martin L. Smith, commanding the Vicksburg garrison, wrote, “Regarding the surrender of the defenses, I have to reply that having been ordered here to hold these defenses, it is my intention to do so as long as in my power.” Vicksburg’s mayor explained that even though the military, and not city officials, had built the defenses, “neither the municipal authorities nor the citizens will ever consent to a surrender of the city.”
Colonel James L. Autrey, Vicksburg’s military governor, offered an even stronger response: “I have to state that Mississippians don’t know, and refuse to learn, how to surrender to any enemy. If Commodore Farragut or Brigadier-General Butler can teach them, let them come and try.” (Autrey added further inadvertent insult because Farragut was a captain and Butler was a major general.)
These answers, along with the extensive armament ringing the bluffs, prompted Lee to wait for Farragut’s arrival. When Farragut arrived, he was surprised to learn of such strong Confederate defiance, and he knew that he could not destroy their defenses by himself. He opted to return to New Orleans, leaving behind some ships to watch the city for the time being. The Federals would threaten Vicksburg again soon.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com (18 May 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 167, 169-72; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 371, 380; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 149, 151-54; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 17-18; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 211, 213; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 67