Grants Winter Problems

For the North, the w inter of 1862-3 was one of profound discontent. Lincoln had three great armies in the field - in Virginia, Tennessee and on the Mississippi - but there had been no victories to celebrate, and one resounding defeat, at Fredericksburg, Virginia, on 13 December. The mid-term elections of 1862 had gone badly for the President's Republican Party. And those in the North who wanted peace at any price were gaining in numbers and in confidence. Meanwhile, in the Mississippi valley the cold rain came relentlessly down, the rivers rose and turned brown with mud, dry places became creeks and marshes.

On paper, the situation of the Northern forces on the Mississippi looked strong and promising. They controlled the river from its source to the cliffs of Vicksburg and they had control of it, too, as it approached the Gulf of Mexico in the south. Admiral Farragut had stormed past the rebel forts and taken New Orleans in the spring of 1862, and by the end of the year the Federals had an army of some 30,000 men, commanded by Major General Nathan P. Banks, in Louisiana. The obvious strategy-was for Banks to push northwards up the river, take Port Hudson and then press on to threaten Vicksburg from the south, while Grant closed in from the north. But Banks - at first preoccupied with establishing firm and incorrupt control over New Orleans, then with suppressing active rebel bands in southern Louisiana - set off up the Red River, heading north-westwards and away from the Mississippi. Grant realized that he was not going to get any help from Banks.

He now had some 40,000 men camped along the west bank of the river, on the gentle crescent known as Milliken's Bend, a few miles above Vicksburg. Their tents had to be pitched in foul-smelling mud, alive with frogs and crawfish. There was much sickness in the camps, some deaths and some desertions. Grant decided that the best thing for the men's health and morale would be to give them work to do. He would do this in such a way as to keep Pemberton uncertain as to his line of approach. 'The problem', Grant said, 'was to secure a footing upon dry ground on the east side of the river from which the troops could operate against Vicksburg.' To this end he launched three projects, each of which would keep his soldiers and sailors hard at work and involve a great deal of hydraulic engineering.

First and Second Projects

As it approaches Vicksburg, the river swings round in a tight loop, almost doubling back on itself - one moment it is running north-east, but very soon it runs south-west and past the Vicksburg bluffs. A long narrow peninsula lay between the two stretches of river. If a north-south channel were to be dug across the neck of this peninsula and if the river could then be persuaded to swing into this channel and follow a new course, Vicksburg with all its wharves, warehouses and gun emplacements would be left high and dry and entirely pointless, either as a military stronghold or as a commercial centre. The idea appealed to the Mississippi veteran, Abraham Lincoln, and Grant was happy to give it a go. He set men of Sherman's 15th Army Corps to work, digging and dredging. They built a dam at the northern end, in the hope that when this was removed the river would pour through with sufficient weight to gouge out a deep new channel for itself. This, however, did not happen. On 8 March the river rose so high that it broke through and over the dam of its own volition, then spread out far and wide, flooding camps and drowning horses. Most of the Mississippi stayed on its old course.

Some 50 miles above Vicksburg, on the western side of the river and very close to it, lay a si/eable stretch of water called Lake Providence. Only a

Vicksburg Mississippi Gangs

Grant's astonishing attempt to evade the Vicksburg guns by changing the course of the River Mississippi involved week's of heavy digging by soldiers and gangs of Negro labourers. It was futile. The river simply could not be diverted.

► Above right: The Mississippi River refusing to co-operate with the first of Grant's winter projects.

► Below right: Confederate transports taking cattle to Vicksburg.

levee (embankment) separated the river from the lake. The idea was that if the levee were breached, the level of the lake would rise, helping to make it practicable, at the farther end of the lake, to force a navigable channel through the cypress swamps and many streams and rivers so that flat-bottomed steam boats and transports might negotiate the 200-mile trip to regain the Mississippi far to the south of Yicksburg.

Grant thought this idea stood a better chance than the first and a division of XVII Army Corps was put to the task. This corps was commanded by Major General James B. McPherson, a young man of high promise and engaging personality. He had joined Grant just over a year before, when they were marching to take Fort Henry. McPherson was a lieutenant colonel of engineers at that time, and he impressed Grant and Sherman throughout the campaigning that followed and gained rapid promotion. He was bright, quick and reliable, and greatly trusted by Grant. He was also full of bounce and fun, and made the most of the Lake Providence opportunity. He had a tug-boat hauled to the lake overland, set up his headquarters on board and enjoyed some convivial evenings, cruising along with plenty to drink and the band playing.

His men liked the lake, too - the fishing was excellent - but they did not enjoy it so much when they had to start hacking a channel through the thickly vegetated wet-lands beyond. They had to remove trees and sunken tree stumps from deep water and marshes. Gradually, the going slowed to a

Grant's astonishing attempt to evade the Vicksburg guns by changing the course of the River Mississippi involved week's of heavy digging by soldiers and gangs of Negro labourers. It was futile. The river simply could not be diverted.

► Above right: The Mississippi River refusing to co-operate with the first of Grant's winter projects.

► Below right: Confederate transports taking cattle to Vicksburg.

Chickisaw Bluff Vicksburg

north of Vicksburg, giving Grant the choice of attacking the Chickasaw Bluffs again or swinging eastwards to get at Vicksburg from that side.

In late February his engineers exploded a mine in the embankment and let the swollen waters of the Mississippi Hood through the Yazoo Pass. Two ironclad gunboats and many smaller naval craft, followed by transports carrying 4,500 troops, set off on a long, circuitous voyage. They soon ran into trouble. Marauding rebels chopped down trees to block their progress and these had to be hauled out of the way by man-power, one at a time. Over-hanging branches knocked the ships' smoke-stacks down. Under-

crawl and then ground to a halt. It was the end of the second project.

Third Project

Other routes were tried, similar to the Lake Providence scheme but on the eastern side of the Mississippi. The first to be attempted was by way of the Yazoo Pass, an area of swamps and streams about 200 miles north of Vicksburg, which led to a complex river system and finally to the River Yazoo itself. An amphibious expedition following this route could put an army on to dry land a few miles

Grant's Attempts to Approach Vicksburg, Dec 1862-March 1863

Lake Providence Scheme

water tree-stumps threatened to hole the vessels. Sometimes the current was so strong that the ships were virtually out of control. At other times, in shallow, sluggish waters, blocked with rotten stumps and driftwood, the flotilla could only inch its way forward. They were plagued by mosquitoes. When they finally gained the Yazoo they found the way ahead denied them by rebel guns, set up on a sector of dry ground which the Confederates called Fort Pemberton. The river was narrow at this point which meant that the ships could not manoeuvre to bring their full fire-power to bear, and the rebel gunners could deal with them at leisure. They retreated.

Admiral Porter now suggested that a shorter way to the Yazoo, avoiding Fort Pemberton, might be found by way of a backwater called Steele's Bayou. This was another winding, circuitous route but Grant was still full of hope and confidence. He wrote to a friend: we are going through a campaign here such as has not been heard of on this continent before'. Porter pushed ahead, using his

The maze of marshes, creeks and waterways, set in dense woodlands north of Vicksburg, presented Grant's engineers, soldiers and sailors with apparently endless obstacles. Hundreds of makeshift bridges (above) had to be built. Above right: rafts were constructed to get troops across deep creeks. Right: Porter's gunboats and transports often had to hack their way through felled trees and haul out underwater obstructions, usually in semi-darkness, sometimes under Confederate fire.

Porters Chapel Vicksburg

▼ Porter'sJleet at the point where the Yazoo River meets the Mississippi.

Porter Gunboats

gunboats as battering-rams to smash a way through the trees. Sailors had to stand by with brooms to sweep the decks clear of all the small creatures that tumbled down from overhanging branches -racoons, squirrels, fledgling birds. Rebel snipers lurked in the undergrowth. Things got worse and when the sound of trees being felled across the river behind them could be heard, it was realized that the task was hopeless. Suddenly there was a real danger of the entire fleet being surrounded and trapped -in a forest. Some of Sherman's regiments came to the rescue, driving the rebels off and removing the trees, then hauling the boats backwards until the channel was wide enough for them to turn round and go back under their own power.

Spring was coming, the rains had stopped and the floodwaters were subsiding. Grant and his men had been labouring hard, often in dreadful conditions, for more than two months and they were no closer to solving the Vicksburg problem than they had been when they began. There were rumblings and grumblings in the army, and savage attacks on Grant in the scurrilous Northern newspapers revived the old charge of drunkenness and called for his replacement.

But the top men in Washington kept their faith in him. In his Personal Memoirs he wrote: 'With all the pressure brought to bear on them, both President Lincoln and General Halleck stood by me to the end of the campaign. I had never met Mr. Lincoln, but his support was constant.' In military terms, it might have made better sense to pull the whole force, still called the Army of the Tennessee, back to Memphis and start again from there. To most people, though, North and South, this would look like defeat. The President had made it clear that he wanted Vicksburg taken by the river line, and Grant was a determined man, no easy quitter. In his office aboard the steamer Magnolia, moored by Milliken's Bend, he spent many hours wreathed in cigar smoke, poring over his maps, thinking.

▼ Porter'sJleet at the point where the Yazoo River meets the Mississippi.

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