Projects Designed to Capture Vicksburg

Major-General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the Federal Army of the Tennessee, had begun an expedition to capture the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River. Grant had failed in two previous attempts to get at Vicksburg; one overland through Mississippi, and one on water via Chickasaw Bayou. Now there were three new projects in progress:

  • Digging a canal across a peninsula of the Mississippi that would enable Federal shipping to pass Vicksburg and remain out of range of the enemy guns on the bluffs.
  • Digging a canal to connect Lake Providence to the Mississippi and Red rivers, enabling Federal shipping to bypass Vicksburg and threaten the city from below.
  • Destroying a Mississippi River levee to flood Yazoo Pass, enabling Federal shipping to get into Vicksburg’s rear from above.

The first project was overseen by Major-General William T. Sherman, commanding the Fifteenth Corps. This proved to be more difficult than expected due to the rising levels of the Mississippi. Sherman warned that “if the river rises 8 feet more–we would have to take to the trees.” By mid-February, Sherman expressed great frustration: “The river is about full and threatens to drown us out, the ground is wet, almost water, and it is impossible for wagons to haul stores from the river to camp, or even horses to wallow through.”

The Lake Providence project was overseen by Major-General James B. McPherson, commanding the Seventeenth Corps. This involved a complex process of connecting the Mississippi to the lake, and then connecting the lake to the countless bayous that eventually linked to the Red River, which emptied back into the Mississippi about 130 miles below Vicksburg.

Federal troops started on this project in late January, having stolen the equipment needed from plantations in the region. Slaves from many of those plantations fled into the Federal lines and were quickly put to work digging the canal. Grant had developed a system whereby slaves who worked for the army would be compensated; this system would soon be copied in other military departments as well.

Grant met with McPherson on February 4 and later wrote, “I saw then that there was scarcely a chance of this ever becoming a practicable route for moving troops through an enemy’s country… I let the work go on, believing employment was better than idleness for the men. Then, too, it served as a cover for other efforts which gave a better prospect of success.”

The Yazoo Pass project seemed to be the most promising. It was conceived by Acting Rear-Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the Federal Mississippi River Squadron. Porter noted that there were now 50 Confederate guns overlooking the river, all atop bluffs so steep that 10,000 troops could not climb up to them. Porter wrote, “We can, perhaps, destroy the city and public buildings, but that would bring us no nearer the desired point than we are now, and would likely put out the little spark of Union feeling still existing in Vicksburg.”

Porter then came upon the idea of destroying a Mississippi River levee to flood Yazoo Pass. This would allow his gunboats to enter Moon Lake, move through Yazoo Pass to the Coldwater River, and then on to the Tallahatchie, which flowed into the Yalobusha to form the Yazoo River. The Yazoo flowed into Vicksburg’s rear, where troops of Grant’s army could be landed to attack the city “in a manner not likely dreamed of.”

Grant was not confident that such an operation would work. But he would not be ready to launch an all-out offensive against Vicksburg until spring, and he could not afford to appear idle until then. He therefore approved this and the other operations, standing ready to exploit them in the slim chance that one or more of them succeeded.

The expedition would include elements of the army headed by Brigadier-General Leonard F. Ross of the Thirteenth Corps, and the navy led by Lieutenant-Commander Watson Smith. Seven gunboats and a tug, led by the ironclads U.S.S. Baron de Kalb and Chillicothe, would escort 5,000 troops aboard 13 army transports.

Yazoo Pass Expedition Map | Image Credit:

Lieutenant-Colonel James H. Wilson, chief Federal topographical engineer, formulated the plan to open the levee sealing Yazoo Pass. Federal soldiers and engineers mined and detonated explosives that blew a 75-yard-wide hole in the levee and flooded the pass. The water swept away everything in its path, running too fast to guarantee safe navigation. This delayed the start of the expedition for several days.

The Federal flotilla finally moved out on the 7th. The vessels rode the fast current into Moon Lake, but obstructions such as underwater tree stumps and low hanging tree branches hindered the Federal advance.

Lieutenant-General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Confederate Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, knew that Yazoo Pass could be a weak point. He assigned Major-General William W. Loring to obstruct the area with felled trees even before the Federal expedition began. The natural impediments combined with the Confederate obstructions to slow the Federal advance to about 10 miles per day.

Pemberton also directed Loring to install a garrison on the 400-yard-wide neck of land between the Tallahatchie to the north and the Yazoo to the south. This became known as Fort Pemberton, or Fort Greenwood (named for its close proximity to Greenwood, Mississippi). The fort’s defenses were built from cotton bales and there were just 10 guns to defend against a Federal naval approach. Loring also scuttled the former Star of the West (famous for being the first ship to attempt to provision Fort Sumter before the war) to obstruct the waterway.

Meanwhile, Captain Isaac Brown, commanding Confederate naval forces at Yazoo City, warned Pemberton that the destruction of the levee meant that the Federals would most likely try to get to Vicksburg via the Yazoo. Brown suggested that Pemberton reinforce Fort Pemberton. Pemberton demurred, not thinking that the Federals could send enough men down the Yazoo to seriously threaten Vicksburg.

The Federals were still trying to cut through Yazoo Pass to get to the Coldwater nearly a week after moving out. Colonel Wilson’s 500-man fatigue party used “picks, spades, and wheelbarrows” to remove the seemingly countless obstructions in the waterway. Watson Smith inspected the area on the 13th and was frustrated by what he saw; he estimated that as many as 30,000 men would be needed to push through to Vicksburg. Smith’s failing health may have also played a role in his general discouragement.

Smith reluctantly decided to proceed, but he insisted that the entire flotilla move together. Smith further stipulated that the vessels only move in daytime, and only in the hours not designated for coaling. Both Ross and Lieutenant-Commander James P. Foster, Smith’s second in command, protested this slowness and argued in vain for Smith to at least send the ironclads ahead to clear out enemy resistance. These delays gave the Confederates more time to build their defenses.


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  • Catton, Bruce, Grant Moves South. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, Inc., 1960.
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
  • Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 (original 1885, republication of 1952 edition).
  • Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
  • Stanchak, John E. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
  • Woodworth, Steven E., Nothing but Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, 2005.

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