The Federal army-navy expedition trying to get at the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, Mississippi, was stalled at Fort Pemberton near Greenwood. The gunboats had been unable to neutralize the fort’s guns, and the Tallahatchie River was too narrow for the vessels to line up and concentrate all their fire on their target. Moreover, the ground on either side of the river was not suitable for an army landing.
On March 17, the day after the latest failed effort to destroy Fort Pemberton, Lieutenant-Commander Watson Smith, commanding the navy portion of the expedition, relinquished command to Lieutenant-Commander James P. Foster. Smith had suffered from health problems and finally requested to be removed after issuing incoherent orders that subordinates could not follow.
Lieutenant-Colonel James H. Wilson, the lead Federal topographical engineer on the expedition (and no fan of Smith), reported, “His Excellency Acting Rear-Admiral Commodore Smith left to-day for a more salubrious climate, very sick, giving it as his opinion that the present force of iron-clads could not take the two (largest) rebel guns in our front.”
Foster consulted with Brigadier-General Leonard F. Ross, heading the army portion of the expedition, and it was “deemed advisable to retreat to Helena, Ark., as the strength of Fort Greenwood (i.e., Fort Pemberton) is such that it is impossible, with the naval forces alone, to conquer it, and it being impossible for the army forces to combine in the attack in consequence of water, etc., and as we are in imminent danger of being outflanked and cut off by rebel forces coming down to the mouth of the Coldwater.”
Wilson protested the retreat, writing, “We have thrown away a magnificent chance to injure the enemy, and all because of the culpable and inexcusable slowness of the naval commander in the first place, and his timidity and cautiousness in the second.” He stated he knew from Confederate deserters that the fort was almost out of ammunition, and it could be taken if three more ironclads were sent to help. Wilson persuaded Ross to wait for reinforcements on their way under Brigadier-General Isaac Quinby, Ross’s immediate superior, before withdrawing.
Ross waited for three days, during which time his Federals searched for a way to get at the fort and clear the path to the Yazoo River. Meanwhile, rumors began circulating that the Confederates were about “to establish a blockade at the mouth of Coldwater by sending infantry and artillery by railroad to Panola, and thence down the Tallahatchee.” This would trap the Federal flotilla between the blockaders and Fort Pemberton. Hearing no news on when Quinby might arrive, Ross began withdrawing on the 20th.
Major-General William W. Loring, commanding the Confederates at Fort Pemberton, had worried that the Federals might try to besiege his garrison and thereby starve his men into submission. But he was happy to report on the 20th, “Enemy in full run as fast as steam can carry him, and my men after him.” Loring dispatched a cotton-clad vessel to pursue the Federals, having repelled their “great plan for the attack of Vicksburg in rear.” Loring added:
“After many months of secret preparations, they were certain of success. With but little time to fortify, they were determinedly met and forced to an ignominious retreat, leaving behind them evidences that their loss was great in men and material–a check which will undoubtedly prevent a further invasion of the State of Mississippi by the way of Tallahatchee and Yazoo Rivers.”
The Federals returned to Moon Lake on the 21st, where they met Quinby and his reinforcements. Ross and Foster explained how the Confederate guns and natural obstructions in the waterways had forced them to retreat. Quinby said that retreating “would have a depressing effect upon our army and the country, and raise the hopes and the determination of the rebels.” He therefore ordered Ross to turn the transports around, go back down the Tallahatchie with the reinforcements, and renew the assault on Fort Pemberton. Since he had no authority over the navy, Quinby then persuaded Foster to join Ross.
The flotilla began its return voyage on the 22nd and arrived within range of the fort the next morning. The ironclads Chillicothe and Baron de Kalb fired some probing shots at the fort, but the Confederates did not respond. The Federals pulled back and prepared to launch the main assault the following day. But rain poured for the next five days, during which time Federal scouting reports made Quinby doubt that the fort could be taken.
Quinby suggested other ways to get to Fort Pemberton, but Foster finally announced that the navy was pulling out of the expedition. Quinby reported to his superior, Major-General James B. McPherson, “Should he act on this determination, the land forces would be left here in a very precarious position, with nearly 200 miles of unguarded water communications between them and the Mississippi.”
When Foster led the gunboats out, Quinby had little choice but to follow with the transports. Quinby hoped to get reinforcements at Yazoo Pass and try going back down again. But the troops did not arrive as expected, and Quinby told McPherson on the 28th, “This delay is to be greatly regretted, for the rebels are constantly receiving re-enforcements, adding to and strengthening their works. It is evident that they intend to make a determined stand at this point. Every move that we make is answered by one from them.”
Quinby finally realized what Ross and Foster had known since the 16th: the expedition was futile. Confederates had planted a battery where Quinby wanted to bridge the Tallahatchie and cross troops for a ground attack. Moreover, heavy rains had made the rivers and tributaries too high to bridge. There were also delays in getting the men, artillery, and supplies needed for the operation.
Finally, Major-General Ulysses S. Grant, the Federal army commander, called the expedition off: “The troops that have gone down Yazoo Pass are now ordered back” to Helena, Arkansas. He would need these troops for another plan he had in mind.
- 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).
- 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.