The Federal army-navy expedition to get to the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, Mississippi, via Yazoo Pass continued into March. On the 2nd, the last Federal transport finally cleared the pass after struggling for nearly a month to clear obstructions and navigate the winding waterway. The objective was to move down the Coldwater River to the Tallahatchie, and then onto the Yazoo, which would bring the Federals within striking distance of Vicksburg to the south.
Brigadier-General Leonard F. Ross, commanding the army portion of the expedition, reported that two steamers did not make it through the pass and two others, the Diana and the Emma, were badly damaged. Ross also stated, “A large force of rebels is reported on the Tallahatchee awaiting our advance. I do not credit the report, but if they are there we shall probably find them in the course of a couple of days, when we shall do just the best we can.”
Confederates under Major-General William W. Loring awaited the Federal flotilla at Fort Pemberton, near Greenwood, Mississippi. They had been waiting so long that some started to think that the Federals had given up trying to get through Yazoo Pass. A scout reported, “Fleet returned up the Pass Tuesday, except one tug, Walch, two guns, which is anchored at junction. Rest of enemy’s forces gone back to (Moon) Lake; some think to Helena (Arkansas).” Another report from a “reliable gentleman” stated that “the Federal officers proclaim that they will take Vicksburg by a dash of their gunboats, and transports will land their whole force in front, taking it by storm.”
Meanwhile, the Federal flotilla entered the Coldwater on the 3rd. It was a narrow and meandering river, and the expedition’s naval commander, Lieutenant-Commander Watson Smith, reported that his vessels could not move any faster than a mile and a half per hour due to the innumerable obstructions in the river. Wind gusts were also a problem, as they pushed the vessels into the riverbanks and further delayed the movement.
The flotilla stopped at the Tallahatchie on the 5th, where Federals went ashore and looted the countryside. Brigadier-General Clinton Fisk was appalled by this behavior and threatened to shoot those responsible. He wrote to Ross, “I fully believe in taking from the enemy whatever he may have that we, as an army, need, or if what is left with him would strengthen the rebels.” But that did not include indiscriminate pillage for its own sake.
Loring learned the next day that the Federals had reached the Tallahatchie, and he wrote to Lieutenant-General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Confederate Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, requesting guns and reinforcements. By this time, Pemberton had learned of not only the Yazoo Pass expedition, but also that Federals were digging a canal to bypass the Vicksburg batteries on the other side of the Mississippi, along with other canals north of town. He received a message from his superiors asking about reports that Federals had reached Yazoo City: “What are the facts? And where are the boats?”
Major-General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal army commander, did not have much faith in the canal digging projects, so he put all his hopes into the Yazoo Pass operation. Grant wrote General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “I will have Vicksburg this month, or fail in the attempt.” Grant did not have much information on the flotilla’s progress, but when he learned that Confederates were shifting north to oppose it, he dispatched two more divisions under Brigadier-Generals Isaac F. Quinby and John A. Logan to reinforce Ross’s contingent.
As the Federal flotilla continued east down the Tallahatchie toward the Yazoo, the men learned from local slaves that a Confederate fort awaited them up ahead, as well as the famed ship Star of the West, which had been sunk to obstruct the Federal advance. The ironclad gunboat U.S.S. Chillicothe destroyed a bridge spanning the Tallahatchie above Fort Pemberton.
Ross received a message from his immediate superior, Quinby: “He (Grant) evidently attaches great importance to the movement down the Yazoo River, the failure of which would in all probability render it necessary to make a complete change in the present programme, and, to say the least, delay for a long time the accomplishment of our immediate object.” Quinby directed Ross to “proceed with extreme caution, and under no circumstances bring on an engagement until re-enforced by at least my division, unless confident of victory.”
Ross, Smith, and Lieutenant-Colonel James H. Wilson (commanding the Federal engineers) decided to probe Fort Pemberton to determine its strength. The fort was located where the Tallahatchie and Yalobusha united to form the Yazoo River. The flotilla would have to move directly down the Tallahatchie to get to the fort, and only two gunboats could advance in the narrow waterway at a time. The Chillicothe took the lead, followed by the U.S.S. Baron de Kalb. The ground was too marshy for a troop landing, so only a small army detachment could be sent.
The Chillicothe exchanged fire with the Confederates on the morning of the 11th, and then returned in the afternoon for another exchange from about 800 yards. The Confederates had a clear line of fire, and according to Lieutenant-Commander James P. Foster of the Chillicothe, one of his gun crews was “rendered perfectly useless, 3 men being killed outright, 1 mortally wounded, and 10 others seriously wounded, while the other 5 of the gun’s crew had their eyes filled with powder.” The Confederates scored numerous hits on the Federal ironclad until she had to withdraw. The Baron de Kalb, farther out of range, sustained no damage but withdrew with the Chillicothe.
The Federals spent the next day repairing the Chillicothe, and Ross and Wilson placed a battery on shore about 500 yards northeast of Fort Pemberton, protected by cotton bales. Pemberton wrote President Jefferson Davis, “I think General Loring will be able to repel them,” because “not more than two gunboats can operate at the same time against the fort.”
The gunboats and the new Federal battery opened fire on Fort Pemberton on the morning of the 13th. The Chillicothe was again forced to withdraw after taking 38 hits. The Baron de Kalb continued the bombardment but had to withdraw when her ammunition ran low. The Confederates sustained some casualties when a Federal shell exploded some of their ammunition, but the fort was otherwise undamaged. Had the Federals known the Confederates were running out of ammunition, they might have pressed the attack harder.
Loring reported to Pemberton, “We have lost some valuable gunners and a few others. Thank God, our losses so small. Enemy’s losses must be great.” But the Federals lost just six men (two killed and four wounded) aboard the Chillicothe. Ross reported, “We have no means of knowing the extent of the enemy’s damage. If no greater than our own, I may truly say that nobody was hurt by today’s operations.”
Assessing the damage to his gunboat, Foster reported, “The Chillicothe is now in condition to engage the enemy, she is, however, badly battered and shattered, and does not withstand the enemy’s shot and shell near as well as expected.” Both sides spent the next two days strengthening their positions, with the Federals placing more shore guns and Loring receiving much-needed ammunition.
During that time, Colonel Wilson wrote a series of letters to Colonel John Rawlins, Grant’s chief of staff. In them, he expressed a low opinion of Lieutenant-Commander Smith’s handling of affairs and stated that neither Smith nor “his commanders are very sanguine” about another attack. Wilson added a touch of sarcasm in one letter:
“I have no hope of anything great, considering the course followed by the naval forces under direction of their able and efficient Acting Rear-Admiral, Commodore, Captain, Lieutenant-Commander Smith… Ross has done all in his power to urge this thing forward. If what he suggested had been adopted, the iron clads would have been here fifteen days ago and found no battery of any importance. So much for speed.”
Wilson predicted that if the Federals failed to capture Fort Pemberton, “Vicksburg becomes subordinate, our department secondary, and (William) Rosecrans’ army (of the Cumberland) our hope in the West. Won’t we, in that event, be required to furnish 50,000 or 60,000 men?”
The Federal gunboats renewed their attack on Fort Pemberton on the 16th, with the Chillicothe and Baron de Kalb advancing again, supported by a mortar boat. The Confederates disabled the Chillicothe within 15 minutes by hitting her casemate and neutralizing her guns, forcing her to withdraw. Foster reported, “The backing to the turret is shattered all to pieces, and the iron plating on the turret is penetrated, knocked loose, stove in, and almost unfit for service.”
Smith ordered the Baron de Kalb to fall back as well, and Ross concluded that the fort could not be taken with the resources at hand. Wilson, however, remained “perfectly certain the place can be taken in time, by a proper and prompt array of strength, and all the necessary materials for such an operation.” But for now, the Yazoo Pass expedition appeared to be fizzling out for the Federals.
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