A Grand Display and Terrible Conflict

As June began, a Federal naval squadron was conducting a quasi-blockade of Vicksburg, one of the last major Confederate strongholds on the Mississippi River. The city was situated behind strong defenses atop a high bluff. Two Federal vessels fired on a Confederate battery in early June, but Confederate counterfire scored over 40 hits. This impressive display of Confederate firepower convinced the Federal high command that the blockade was futile. The squadron pulled away from Vicksburg on June 10.

Flag Officer David G. Farragut, Federal squadron commander, next planned to assemble a flotilla of gunboats and mortars that could bypass the Vicksburg batteries and link with the Federal Western Flotilla at Memphis. Although he doubted that ships could get past Vicksburg’s heavy guns without being destroyed, he began organizing a squadron downriver at Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Meanwhile, General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederate military department embracing Vicksburg, had little hope that the city could be held following the recent defeats at New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Corinth, and Memphis. This did not satisfy President Jefferson Davis, who was determined not to lose any more valuable territory in the Western Theater. He wrote to Brigadier General Martin L. Smith, commanding at Vicksburg, with questions: “What progress is being made toward the completion of the Arkansas? What is the condition of your defenses at Vicksburg? Can we do anything to aid you? Disaster above and below increase the value of your position. I hope and expect much from you.”

Gen. Earl Van Dorn | Image Credit: Wikipedia

Davis followed this up by naming Major General Earl Van Dorn commander of the Confederate Department of Southern Mississippi and East Louisiana. Van Dorn was a flamboyant general with grandiose plans, but his record was mediocre at best, punctuated by his defeat at Pea Ridge in Arkansas last March. With Van Dorn came a new urgency for soldiers and residents to strengthen Vicksburg’s defenses, which included building fortifications and placing more batteries on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi to prevent enemy naval passage.

Vicksburg was indeed vulnerable, but it would take a combined Federal army-navy force to capture the city. Had Farragut joined forces with the Western Flotilla and attacked from the river, a small army force could have taken the city from the land side. But Major General Henry W. Halleck, commanding the Federals in the West, was looking eastward to Chattanooga, and the Lincoln administration believed that since Farragut had taken New Orleans without army help, he could do the same at Vicksburg.

Farragut was given token army support when a 3,000-man Federal detachment from Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s New Orleans occupation force boarded transports and headed upriver on the 20th. Their mission was to set up a base across the river from Vicksburg at Swampy Toe, and then dig a canal to allow Federal vessels to bypass a bend in the river and move upriver, beyond the city’s gun range.

Van Dorn arrived in Vicksburg three days later and learned of the Federal expedition. He soon assembled 10,000 men to defend the city, and this combined with the steep bluffs on the riverbanks made a Federal infantry attack impossible. Van Dorn wrote Davis, “Will not give up unless beaten back by superior force. Foot by foot the city will be sacrificed. Of course citizens proud to do so.” Davis replied, “The people will sustain you in your heroic determination, and may God bless you with success.”

Van Dorn then issued a dramatic proclamation to the people of Vicksburg: “Let it be borne in mind by all that the army here is defending the place against occupation. This will be done at all hazards, even though this beautiful and devoted city should be laid in ruins.”

The Federal troops began landing on the 24th. Unaccustomed to the southern climate, they fell ill from diseases such as dysentery, malaria, and typhoid, and many died as a result. In addition, Farragut worried that the summer drought would lower the river and strand his deep-draft vessels. Nevertheless, the mortar boats began firing on the Vicksburg defenses as the Federal troops started digging the canal.

After two days of bombardment, Farragut resolved to try to move his gunboats past Vicksburg, just as he had bypassed Forts Jackson and St. Philip to get to New Orleans. Nighttime navigation on the river was too difficult, so Farragut had to make the attempt at dawn. Farragut originally planned to move out on the 26th, but delays moved the date to the 28th.

As Commander David D. Porter’s mortar fleet continued shelling the city, the gunboats began upriver in a double line. The Confederates immediately began firing down on them; General Smith watched from the bluffs and stated that “the decisive struggle was at hand.” The Federal vessels answered the fire with broadsides, and Porter recalled, “The air seemed to be filled with projectiles.” A sailor aboard Farragut’s flagship, the U.S.S. Hartford, wrote:

“The whole fleet moved up to the attack. The shells from the mortars were being hurled right over our heads, and as (enemy) battery after battery was unmasked from every conceivable position, the ridge of the bluff was one sheet of fire. The big ships sent in their broadsides, the mortars scores of shells, and all combined to make up a grand display and terrible conflict.”

Eight vessels ultimately made it past the batteries, and three had to turn back. The Hartford made it through, even though she was “riddled from stem to stern.” A shot nearly killed Farragut, hitting the ship’s rigging just above where he stood. He wrote his wife, “The same shot cut the halyard that hoisted my flag, which dropped to half-mast without being perceived by us. This circumstance caused the other vessels to think that I was killed.”

Federal fire killed 22 soldiers and two civilians (a man and a woman). The Federals suffered 10 killed. Farragut succeeded in getting most of his fleet past Vicksburg, which demonstrated the ability of gunboats to bypass stationary batteries. But the Confederate defenders still commanded the river, and Farragut noted that as soon as Federal fire drove Confederate artillerists from their guns, they “return to them as soon as we have passed and rake us.”

Farragut concluded that Vicksburg could not be captured by naval firepower alone, and he wrote to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “I am satisfied that it is not possible for us to take Vicksburg without an army force of twelve to fifteen thousand men.” A long, brutal campaign to take this Confederate bastion had just begun.


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