February 7, 1863 – A Federal army-navy expedition began in an effort to capture Vicksburg by entering Yazoo Pass and approaching the city by water from the north.
Acting Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the Federal Mississippi River Squadron, had lost all hope that Vicksburg could be taken by naval force alone. Confederates now had 50 guns overlooking the river, atop bluffs so steep that 10,000 troops could not climb up to them. Porter wrote, “We can, perhaps, destroy the city and public buildings, but that would bring us no nearer the desired point than we are now, and would likely put out the little spark of Union feeling still existing in Vicksburg.”
He then came upon the idea of destroying a Mississippi River levee to flood Yazoo Pass. This would allow his gunboats to move to the Coldwater River, a tributary of the Tallahatchie, and then on to the Yazoo River in Vicksburg’s rear. Grant could then “follow with his army and Vicksburg attacked in the rear in a manner not likely dreamed of.”
Major General Ulysses S. Grant was not confident that such an operation would work. But he would not be ready to launch an all-out offensive against Vicksburg until spring, and he could not afford to appear idle until then. He therefore approved this and other minor operations, standing ready to exploit them in the slim chance that they succeeded.
The expedition would include elements of the army headed by Brigadier General Leonard F. Ross of XIII Corps, and the navy led by Lieutenant Commander Watson Smith. Seven gunboats, led by the ironclads U.S.S. Baron de Kalb and Chillicothe, would escort 5,000 troops aboard army transports.
Lieutenant Colonel James H. Wilson, chief Federal topographical engineer, devised the plan to open the levee sealing Yazoo Pass. Federal soldiers and engineers mined and detonated explosives that blew a 75-foot-wide hole in the levee and flooded the pass. The water swept away everything in its path, running too fast to guarantee safe navigation. This delayed the start of the expedition for several days.
The flotilla finally moved out on the 7th, riding the fast current onto Moon Lake. Obstructions such as underwater tree stumps and low hanging tree branches damaged the tinclad U.S.S. Forest Rose and generally hindered the Federal advance.
Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Confederate Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, knew that Yazoo Pass could be a weak point and directed his troops to obstruct the area with felled trees even before the Federal expedition began. The natural impediments combined with the Confederate obstructions to slow the Federal advance to about 10 miles per day.
As the flotilla struggled ahead, the Confederates quickly installed a garrison at Fort Pemberton, also known as Fort Greenwood, near Greenwood, Mississippi. The small work stood on the neck of land between the Tallahatchie to the north and the Yazoo to the south, about 50 miles north of Yazoo City. The troops, led by Major General William W. Loring, built defenses out of cotton bales but had just 10 guns to defend against a Federal naval approach. Loring also scuttled the former Star of the West to obstruct the waterway.
Meanwhile, the Federals continued pushing through the obstructions using “picks, spades, and wheelbarrows.” Smith insisted that the entire flotilla move together, rejecting Ross’s pleas to allow the ironclads to go ahead. This delayed the advance and gave the Confederates more time to build their defenses.
Two weeks after the Federals blew up the levee, Pemberton received a report from a Confederate naval lieutenant:
“The enemy have driven us off from the works on the Pass, and are coming through. Hasty obstructions with fortifications may save Yazoo City. I have done my best; worked under their noses, till their pickets came in 100 yards of me.”
Captain Isaac Brown, commanding Confederate naval forces at Yazoo City, also wrote Pemberton:
“I regret that we have so little time to make preparations, so little, in fact, that I cannot be answerable for what may happen, in other words, I can give no assurance that we shall be able to stop the enemy, as we cannot tell with what amount or description of force he is coming through. We will do all we can.”
Pemberton in turn wrote President Jefferson Davis:
“Many believe that the enemy will get through the Yazoo Pass, and I am informed that, by the use of steam saw-mills, three quarters of a mile of solid obstructions were removed in two days. I do not apprehend anything serious from this demonstration, still, if it be the enemy’s purpose to lay siege to Vicksburg, this is doubtless part of his plan to cut off our supplies, and would materially assist the investment of the place.”
Pemberton requested a “full supply of ammunition to be furnished for the defense of Vicksburg.” On the 23rd, Pemberton received word that the Federal flotilla had reached the Coldwater, en route to the Tallahatchie. He sent more troops to bolster Loring at Fort Pemberton. However, the Federals turned back when Colonel Wilson advised them to clear more obstructions before continuing forward. By the end of February, the Federals had finally cleared Yazoo Pass and entered the Coldwater River.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 259, 264; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 202; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 260-62, 265-67; Grant, Ulysses S., Memoirs and Selected Letters: Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Selected Letters 1839–1865 (New York: Library of America, 1990), p. 267; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 75-76; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 321; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 846