June 18, 1862 – Flag Officer David G. Farragut began assembling a Federal naval squadron to run past Vicksburg, one of the last major Confederate strongholds on the Mississippi River.
Farragut received orders from Washington to assemble a flotilla of gunboats and mortars that could bypass the Confederate batteries at Vicksburg and link with the Federal Western Flotilla at Memphis. Although he doubted that ships could get past Vicksburg’s heavy guns without being destroyed, he began organizing a squadron downriver at Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
By this time, Major General Earl Van Dorn, the new Confederate commander in the region, had assembled 10,000 troops to defend Vicksburg. Recent Federal successes on the Mississippi had prompted soldiers and residents to strengthen the city’s defenses, which included building fortifications and placing more batteries on the bluffs overlooking the river to prevent Federal naval passage.
On June 20, a 3,000-man Federal detachment from Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s New Orleans occupation force under Brigadier General Thomas Williams boarded transports to join Farragut’s fleet upriver to Vicksburg. Their mission was to set up a base across the river from the city at Swampy Toe, and then dig a canal to allow Federal vessels to bypass a bend in the river and move upriver, beyond Vicksburg’s cannon range.
As the Federals approached, the Confederates’ rush to finish Vicksburg’s defenses accelerated. The steep bluffs on the riverbank, along with Van Dorn’s superior numbers, made an infantry attack impossible. But many worried that the Federals’ naval firepower could overwhelm the defenders. President Jefferson Davis wrote to Van Dorn, “The people will sustain you in your heroic determination, and may God bless you with success.”
The Federal troops began landing on the 24th. Unaccustomed to the southern climate, they fell ill from diseases such as dysentery, malaria, and typhoid, and many died as a result. In addition, Farragut worried that the summer drought would lower the river and strand his deep-draft vessels. Nevertheless, the mortar boats began firing on the Vicksburg defenses as the Federal troops started digging the canal.
After two days of bombardment, Farragut resolved to try moving his gunboats past Vicksburg, just as he had bypassed Forts Jackson and St. Philip in April. Nighttime navigation on the river was too difficult, so Farragut had to make the attempt at dawn. As Commander David D. Porter’s mortar fleet continued shelling the town, the gunboats began upriver. The Confederates immediately began firing down on them from the bluffs, with the ships answering with broadsides. A sailor aboard Farragut’s flagship, the U.S.S. Hartford, wrote:
“The whole fleet moved up to the attack. The shells from the mortars were being hurled right over our heads, and as (enemy) battery after battery was unmasked from every conceivable position, the ridge of the bluff was one sheet of fire. The big ships sent in their broadsides, the mortars scores of shells, and all combined to make up a grand display and terrible conflict.”
Ultimately, eight vessels made it past the batteries and three had to turn back. The Hartford made it through, even though she was “riddled from stem to stern.” A shot nearly killed Farragut, hitting the ship’s rigging just above where he stood. He wrote his wife, “The same shot cut the halyard that hoisted my flag, which dropped to half-mast without being perceived by us. This circumstance caused the other vessels to think that I was killed.”
Federal fire killed 22 soldiers and two civilians (a man and a woman). The Federals suffered 10 killed. Farragut succeeded in getting most of his fleet past Vicksburg, thus demonstrating the ability of gunboats to bypass stationary batteries. But the Confederate defenders still commanded the river, and Farragut noted that as soon as Federal fire drove Confederate artillerists from their guns, they “return to them as soon as we have passed and rake us.”
Vicksburg could not be captured by naval firepower alone, leading Farragut to write to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, “I am satisfied that it is not possible for us to take Vicksburg without an army force of twelve to fifteen thousand men.” A long, brutal campaign to take this Confederate bastion had just begun.
Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 184-86; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 169-72, 174-75; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 784; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 24-26; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 228-33; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 420-21; 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. 89-91; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 429; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 846