Federals Finally Clear Yazoo Pass

By mid-February, Federal work details were still laboring to cut their way through Yazoo Pass in Mississippi. This was part of a plan to move a joint army-navy expedition through a broken levee on the Mississippi River into Moon Lake. From there, the flotilla would move through Yazoo Pass to the Coldwater River, and then on to the Tallahatchie, which flowed into the Yalobusha to form the Yazoo River. This would place the Federals in the rear of the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, where they would be poised to capture the city.

It had taken the Federals, led by Lieutenant-Colonel James H. Wilson, nearly two weeks to navigate through Yazoo Pass due to the massive amount of natural and Confederate-made obstructions in the waterway. It also did not help that the naval commander, Lieutenant-Commander Watson Smith, insisted on proceeding slower than the other commanders would have liked.

Meanwhile, Major-General John A. McClernand, commanding the Thirteenth Corps in the area of Helena, Arkansas, was still smarting over being superseded as commander of the Vicksburg expedition. He urged Major-General Ulysses S. Grant, the army commander, to give him 21,000 men so that he could go up the Arkansas River and attack the Confederate stronghold at Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Because this would have forced the Federals to abandon their thrust down the Yazoo, Grant refused. Once more he stressed that all efforts should be directed toward getting at Vicksburg.

Finally, two weeks after the Federals blew up the levee, they cleared enough obstructions to move down Yazoo Pass and prepare to enter the Coldwater. Captain Isaac N. Brown, commanding Confederate naval forces at Yazoo City, passed along a message from a Confederate naval officer to Lieutenant-General John C. Pemberton, overall Confederate army commander, on the 17th: “The enemy have driven us off from the works on the Pass, and are coming through. Hasty obstructions with fortifications may save Yazoo City. I have done my best; worked under their noses, till their pickets came in 100 yards of me.”

Brown added a message of his own: “I regret that we have so little time to make preparations, so little, in fact, that I cannot be answerable for what may happen, in other words, I can give no assurance that we shall be able to stop the enemy, as we cannot tell with what amount or description of force he is coming through. We will do all we can.” Brown brought up two gunboats to meet the threat.

Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton | Image Credit: Wikipedia

Pemberton sent two heavy guns to Major-General William W. Loring, commanding Confederates at Fort Pemberton (i.e., a garrison on the 400-yard-wide neck of land between the Tallahatchie to the north and the Yazoo to the south). He prepared to send reinforcements as well. Pemberton then reported to President Jefferson Davis:

“Many believe that the enemy will get through the Yazoo Pass, and I am informed that, by the use of steam saw-mills, three quarters of a mile of solid obstructions were removed in two days. I do not apprehend anything serious from this demonstration, still, if it be the enemy’s purpose to lay siege to Vicksburg, this is doubtless part of his plan to cut off our supplies, and would materially assist the investment of the place.”

Pemberton requested a “full supply of ammunition to be furnished for the defense of Vicksburg.” Only later was it learned that the Federals had not yet broken through to the Coldwater as feared. In fact, it was not until the 21st that Colonel Wilson’s fatigue party managed to work their way through the Pass. Pemberton received word the next day that Federal vessels were beginning to enter the Coldwater. Heavy guns were sent to bolster the garrison at Fort Pemberton, now manned only by Colonel Thomas Waul and his Texas Legion.

Federal ships entered the Coldwater on the 22nd, but it was determined that more of the overhanging vegetation would need to be cleared before they could proceed. It was not until the 28th that the Federals had finally cleared the way into the Coldwater and were ready to advance in earnest.


  • Ballard, Michael B., Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi. The University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
  • Catton, Bruce, Grant Moves South. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, Inc., 1960.
  • Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 (original 1885, republication of 1952 edition).
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • 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.

Leave a Reply