April 22, 1863 – A fleet of transports and supply vessels tried to duplicate Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s feat of passing the Confederate batteries at Vicksburg and joining the Federal forces downriver.
Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Confederate Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana from Jackson, initially thought that Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federal army had given up trying to capture Vicksburg and was returning to Memphis. But by the 18th, Pemberton was convinced that Grant was not giving up, but instead planning to assail Vicksburg from the south. Pemberton was also convinced that he did not have the resources to stop Grant. He wrote President Jefferson Davis:
“There are so many points to be defended at this time–Vicksburg, Grand Gulf, Port Hudson, Snyder’s Mill, and Fort Pemberton–that I have only twenty-eight guns at Vicksburg. Vicksburg and Port Hudson, and if possible Grand Gulf, ought to be greatly strengthened in guns… A large supply of ammunition and projectiles should be constantly forwarded.”
Pemberton asked Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, for help since Grant’s army was in Louisiana, part of Smith’s jurisdiction. But Smith’s resources were tied up trying to stop Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federal Army of the Gulf from capturing Port Hudson. So all Pemberton could do was to try strengthening the defenses at Grand Gulf.
When reports arrived that Federal cavalry was closing in from the north, Pemberton once again asked General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Western Department, to send him horsemen, particularly those under Major General Earl Van Dorn. Pemberton wrote, “Heavy raids are making from Tennessee deep into this state. Cavalry is indispensable to meet these expeditions. The little I have is… totally inadequate. Could you not make a demonstration with a cavalry force on their rear?” Johnston again replied that he could not spare the troopers.
Meanwhile, Porter, commanding the Mississippi River Squadron supporting Grant, noted the confusion among the Confederates ever since his naval fleet passed the Vicksburg batteries. He wrote Grant from New Carthage:
“I think 10,000 good men landing in Vicksburg the other night would have taken it… This move has demoralized these fellows very much, don’t give them time to get over it. I wish twenty times a day that (Major General William) Sherman was here, or yourself, but I suppose we cannot have all we wish.”
Noting that Pemberton was scrambling to reinforce Grand Gulf, Porter wrote, “They will move heaven and earth to stop us if we don’t go ahead.” Porter offered to “go down and settle the batteries” without Grant’s support, but if the ships sustained heavy damage, Porter could not “cover the landing when it takes place.”
Porter reconnoitered the Grand Gulf batteries on the 21st aboard the U.S.S. Lafayette. He reported seeing a “strong fort” under construction, with the Lafayette’s guns driving the workers off. The Federals also chased off the steamer Charm, which tried delivering supplies to the Confederates from the Big Black River. Based on this, Porter recommended to Grant a joint army-navy assault on Grand Gulf: “I don’t want to make a failure, and am sure that a combined attack will succeed beautifully.”
Grant agreed, but first he wanted to run more supplies past the Vicksburg batteries to his troops. By this time, two of his three corps (John A. McClernand’s XIII and James B. McPherson’s XVII) were below Vicksburg on the west bank of the Mississippi. Sherman’s XV Corps stayed behind to create a diversion on the Yazoo River, north of the city. Grant wrote General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “If I do not underestimate the enemy, my force is abundant, with a foothold once obtained, to do the work.”
On the night of the 22nd, a supply fleet tried running the batteries. Unlike Porter’s attempt to send a flotilla downriver on the 16th, this one was commanded by the army and did not include Porter. The fleet would consist of just six transports and 13 barges, without gunboat support. Also, the Confederates would be on high alert for any Federal attempt to duplicate Porter’s run.
The transports conveyed tons of rations, medical supplies, and other equipment for the Federals below Vicksburg. The fleet had orders “to drop noiselessly down with the current… and not show steam until the enemy’s batteries began firing, when the boats were to use all their legs.”
As the fleet rounded De Soto Point around 11:30 p.m., the Confederates were waiting. They lit up the river and immediately began firing at the ships. Colonel William Oliver, commanding the transport Tigress, reported that the fleet endured “a shower of missiles of all shapes and kinds, from Minie balls to 200-pound shot and shell.” The Tigress took a hit that tore a four-foot-hole in her hull.
The men abandoned ship and used cotton bales to float downriver before they were rescued by another Federal vessel. The Tigress sank with three newspaper correspondents on board. Sherman, who disdained the press and did not know the reporters had been rescued, said, “We’ll have dispatches now from hell before breakfast.” Six barges were also sunk.
Of the five transports that made it through, only two were still operable. Nevertheless, enough of the fleet got through for Grant to proceed with his plan. He now had ships to ferry his troops across the Mississippi and supply them for the coming campaign.
The next day, Pemberton notified Major General Carter L. Stevenson at Vicksburg:
“… that communications, at least for infantry, should be made by the shortest practicable route to Grand Gulf. The indications now are that the attack will not be made on your front or right, and all troops not absolutely necessary to hold the works at Vicksburg should be held as a movable force for either Warrenton or Grand Gulf.”
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