As May began, Flag Officer David G. Farragut looked to follow up his capture of New Orleans by pushing his Federal naval squadron further up the Mississippi River. Farragut wanted to join forces with the Federal Western Flotilla stationed above Fort Pillow, Tennessee. His greatest obstacle would be Vicksburg, Mississippi, which was protected by batteries atop steep bluffs along the river. If the Federals captured Vicksburg, they would essentially cut the Confederacy off from the Trans-Mississippi and split it in two.
Before Farragut could take on the stronghold, he had to repair the ships that had been damaged in the operation against Forts Jackson and St. Philip. This gave the Confederates more time to strengthen their defenses. Farragut would be further handicapped by having a naval fleet more suited for the sea than a river. Nevertheless, he resolved to push as far upstream as he could.
The U.S.S. Iroquois, one of Farragut’s leading vessels headed by Commander James S. Palmer, steamed up the Mississippi and captured the Louisiana capital of Baton Rouge on May 8. Baton Rouge was defenseless against the Iroquois’s firepower, which would soon be backed by the rest of Farragut’s fleet. Federals also seized the local arsenal after a tense exchange with the city mayor.
Four days later, the Federal squadron captured Natchez, Mississippi, 280 river miles from New Orleans. The Iroquois remained at Natchez while Farragut led the rest of the fleet 80 miles upriver to Vicksburg. (Confederates later regained control of Natchez and nearly executed the man who had offered to deliver the mayor’s surrender. Only General P.G.T. Beauregard’s personal intervention saved the man’s life.)
The Federal vessels reconnoitered the Mississippi between Natchez and Vicksburg over the next week. The crew of the U.S.S. Calhoun captured the Confederate gunboat Corypheus at Bayou Bonfuca, Louisiana, and the U.S.S. Oneida under Commander Samuel P. Lee bombarded Confederates stationed at Grand Gulf, Mississippi, about 40 miles below Vicksburg. The fleet then continued upriver.
The Federals approached Vicksburg around 11 a.m. on May 18. The stronghold was protected by artillery atop 200-foot-high bluffs, 8,000 Confederate troops, and a gunboat fleet. Commander Lee of the Oneida, acting on Farragut’s behalf for the navy and Major General Benjamin F. Butler for the army, dropped anchor at a bend in the river and dispatched a small boat under a flag of truce.
A Confederate boat met the Federals and received their message, which demanded “the surrender of Vicksburg and its defenses to the lawful authority of the United States, under which, private property and personal rights will be respected.” A Confederate gunner fired a cannonball across the bow of the ship that had delivered the surrender demand. This symbolized the fact that the Federal thrust up the Mississippi would no longer go uncontested.
A messenger returned with military and civilian responses about five hours later. Brigadier General Martin L. Smith, a New Yorker in command of the Vicksburg garrison, wrote, “Regarding the surrender of the defenses, I have to reply that having been ordered here to hold these defenses, it is my intention to do so as long as in my power.” Mayor Lazarus Lindsay explained that even though the military, and not city officials, had built the defenses, “neither the municipal authorities nor the citizens will ever consent to a surrender of the city.”
Lieutenant Colonel James L. Autry, Vicksburg’s military governor, offered an even stronger response on behalf of the state government: “I have to state that Mississippians don’t know, and refuse to learn, how to surrender to an enemy. If Commodore Farragut or Brigadier-General Butler can teach them, then let them try.” (Autry added further inadvertent insult by under-ranking Captain Farragut and Major General Butler.)
These answers, along with the extensive armament ringing the bluffs, prompted Lee to wait for Farragut’s arrival. When Farragut arrived, he was surprised to learn of such strong Confederate defiance, and he knew that he could not destroy their defenses by himself. Farragut informed Butler that the navy could not get past Vicksburg without army help, and the nearby forces under Brigadier General Thomas Williams were inadequate for such an undertaking.
Farragut told Butler that he would “occasionally harass them with fire until the battle of Corinth shall decide its fate. General Williams is going up the Red River, where he thinks he will be more useful… I shall soon drop down the river again, as I consider my services indispensably necessary on the seaboard… I do not see that I can be of any service here, and I do not see as General Williams will be of any use here with the small force he has.”
Once he returned to New Orleans, he reported to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles on the expedition, which had extended “at least 300 miles farther than I was ever from sea water before since the days of my childhood.” Farragut erroneously claimed that thousands of Confederates defended Vicksburg and hundreds of Confederate rams patrolled the Mississippi. Consequently, he had been forced to “abandon the idea of attacking Vicksburg beyond harassing it, to prevent the erection of more batteries.”
The Federals would threaten Vicksburg again soon.
- Ballard, Michael B., Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi. The University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- 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.