April 16, 1863 – Rear Admiral David D. Porter successfully passed the Confederate batteries guarding Vicksburg. This marked a successful start to Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s plan to capture Vicksburg from below.
Porter prepared eight gunboats (seven ironclads and one timber-clad), and three transports to pass the Vicksburg batteries on the dark, moonless night of the 16th (and into the 17th). Their mission was to transport supplies to the Federal troops at New Carthage, below Vicksburg, and bring those troops to the east bank of the Mississippi. This was a daring gamble that threatened to ruin Porter’s Mississippi River Squadron if it failed.
Federals placed heavy logs, wet cotton bales and haystacks on the ship decks to absorb Confederate cannon fire. Coal barges were lashed to the ships, with each barge carrying 10,000 bushels of coal to refuel the ships once they got below Vicksburg. All lights were extinguished, portholes were closed, and engine noises were muffled.
The fleet began moving from the mouth of the Yazoo River around 9:30 p.m., with Porter’s flagship, the U.S.S. Benton, in the lead. Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana observed the movement and wrote:
“It was a strange scene. First a mass of black things detached itself from the shore, and we saw it float out toward the middle of the stream. There was nothing to see but this big mass, which dropped slowly down the river. Soon another black mass detached itself, and another, then another. It was Admiral Porter’s fleet of ironclad turtles, steamboats, and barges. They floated down the Mississippi darkly and silently, showing neither steam nor light, save occasionally a signal astern, where the enemy could not see it.”
The ships rounded the toe of De Soto Point near 11 p.m. Confederate pickets immediately spotted the fleet and lit bonfires to expose the ships to the artillerists. Some Confederates ignited barrels of pitch, and others on the west bank set fire to a frame house. The four-mile line of Confederate batteries opened fire.
The people of Vicksburg were unaware of the fleet’s approach. The Confederate department commander, Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, had told his superiors that Grant gave up trying to take the city and returned to Memphis. The Vicksburg Whig stated the Federal gunboats “are all more or less damaged, the men dissatisfied and demoralized… There is no immediate danger here.” Officers and citizens held a festive ball in the city that night, which turned into “confusion and alarm” when the guests heard the gunfire opening on the river.
Many of the Confederate guns were slow to respond because the artillery officers had left their posts to attend the ball. The Confederates ultimately fired 525 rounds but scored only 68 hits. A master’s mate wrote that “we ran the Vicksburg shore so close that they overshot us most of the time.”
The run took two and a half hours, during which time nearly every Federal vessel was hit at least once. Each ship endured about 30 minutes of fire while passing the batteries, and a few minutes more while passing Warrenton. The transport Henry Clay sank, but Federals rescued the crew. Another tried turning back, but the U.S.S. Tuscumbia brought up the rear to stop her. Two coal barges had to be cut loose, but the rest made it through. The Federals sustained 14 wounded and none killed.
The 10 remaining ships continued downriver to Hard Times, their mission successfully completed. Porter minimized the damage he sustained in his official report, explaining privately to Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox that “as it will not do to let the enemy know how often they hit us, and show how vulnerable we are. Their heavy shot walked right through us, as if we were made of putty.”
With the naval part of the plan completed, it was now up to Grant to lead the troops across the river and exploit the back door to Vicksburg. Grant heard the firing from Milliken’s Bend, but when it stopped he did not know whether the ships made it through. Before dawn, he rode 17 miles through the swamps and bayous to New Carthage, where he saw that the fleet had arrived mostly intact. This was just the first of many gambles Grant would take in this campaign. The next step would be to ferry the troops to the east bank of the Mississippi, which would cut them off from their supply base in enemy territory.
Pemberton had speculated that Grant was returning to Memphis and returned 8,000 troops on loan from the Army of Tennessee. He quickly asked General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Western Department, to send them back, wiring that Grant’s “movement up the river was a ruse. Certainly no more troops should leave this department.” Pemberton also reported that 64 steamers had left Memphis, “loaded with troops and negroes, apparently with intention of making an assault on Vicksburg.”
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