March 20, 1863 – The Federal vessels comprising the Yazoo Pass expedition began steaming back down the Tallahatchie River after failing to neutralize Fort Pemberton near Greenwood, Mississippi.
Lieutenant Commander James P. Foster, commanding the U.S.S. Chillicothe, took charge of the Federal naval fleet in the Yazoo delta. He replaced Lieutenant Commander Watson Smith, who had suffered from health problems and finally requested to be removed after issuing incoherent orders that subordinates could not follow.
Lieutenant Colonel James H. Wilson, the lead Federal topographical engineer on the expedition (and no fan of Smith), reported, “His Excellency Acting Rear-Admiral Commodore Smith left to-day for a more salubrious climate, very sick, giving it as his opinion that the present force of iron-clads could not take the two (largest) rebel guns in our front.”
Foster consulted with Brigadier General Leonard F. Ross, heading the army portion of the expedition, and it was “deemed advisable to retreat to Helena, Ark., as the strength of Fort Greenwood (i.e., Fort Pemberton) is such that it is impossible, with the naval forces alone, to conquer it, and it being impossible for the army forces to combine in the attack in consequence of water, etc., and as we are in imminent danger of being outflanked and cut off by rebel forces coming down to the mouth of the Coldwater.”
Wilson protested the retreat, writing, “We have thrown away a magnificent chance to injure the enemy, and all because of the culpable and inexcusable slowness of the naval commander in the first place, and his timidity and cautiousness in the second.” He stated he knew from Confederate deserters that the fort was almost out of ammunition, and it could be taken if three more ironclads were sent to help. Wilson persuaded Ross to wait for reinforcements on their way under Brigadier General Isaac Quinby, Ross’s immediate superior, before withdrawing.
Ross waited three days; during that time, rumors circulated that the Confederates were about “to establish a blockade at the mouth of Coldwater by sending infantry and artillery by railroad to Panola, and thence down the Tallahatchee.” This would trap the Federal flotilla between the blockaders and Fort Pemberton. Hearing no news on when Quinby might arrive, Ross began withdrawing on the 20th.
Major General William W. Loring, commanding the Confederates at Fort Pemberton, had worried that the Federals might try besieging his garrison, which would starve the men into submission. But he was happy to report on the 20th, “Enemy in full run as fast as steam can carry him, and my men after him.” Loring dispatched a cotton-clad vessel to pursue the Federals, having repelled their “great plan for the attack of Vicksburg in rear.” Loring added:
“After many months of secret preparations, they were certain of success. With but little time to fortify, they were determinedly met and forced to an ignominious retreat, leaving behind them evidences that their loss was great in men and material–a check which will undoubtedly prevent a further invasion of the State of Mississippi by the way of Tallahatchee and Yazoo Rivers.”
The Federal flotilla returned to Moon Lake on the 21st, where they met Quinby and his reinforcements. Ross and Foster explained how the Confederate guns and natural obstructions in the waterways had forced them to retreat. Quinby said that retreating “would have a depressing effect upon our army and the country, and raise the hopes and the determination of the rebels.” Thus, he ordered Ross to go back down the Tallahatchie and renew the assault on Fort Pemberton. Since he had no authority over the navy, Quinby then persuaded Foster to join Ross.
The flotilla began its return voyage on the 22nd and arrived within range of the fort the next morning. The ironclads Chillicothe and Baron de Kalb fired some probing shots at the fort, but the Confederates did not respond. The Federals pulled back and prepared to launch the main assault the following day. But rain poured for the next five days, during which time Quinby began doubting that the fort could be taken.
Quinby proposed other ways to try getting to Fort Pemberton, but Foster finally announced that the navy was pulling out of the expedition. Quinby reported to his superior, Major General James B. McPherson, “Should he act on this determination, the land forces would be left here in a very precarious position, with nearly 200 miles of unguarded water communications between them and the Mississippi.”
When Foster led the gunboats out, Quinby followed with the transports, hoping to get reinforcements at Yazoo Pass for another attack. However, the troops did not arrive as expected, and Quinby told McPherson on the 28th:
“This delay is to be greatly regretted, for the rebels are constantly receiving re-enforcements, adding to and strengthening their works. It is evident that they intend to make a determined stand at this point. Every move that we make is answered by one from them.”
Quinby finally realized what Ross and Foster had known since the 16th: the expedition was futile. Confederates had planted a battery where Quinby wanted to bridge the Tallahatchie and cross troops for a ground attack. Moreover, heavy rains had made the rivers and tributaries too high to bridge. There were also delays in getting the men, artillery, and supplies needed for the operation.
Finally, Major General Ulysses S. Grant, the Federal army commander, ended the expedition: “The troops that have gone down Yazoo Pass are now ordered back” to Helena, Arkansas. He needed the troops for another plan he had in mind.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 272-73; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 77; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 846