The Mississippi Theater

The naval yard at Mound City, Illinois, served as a supply and repair base for Union river gunboats. The facilities were basic but, following the transfer of the river fleet from Army to Navy control in August 1862, more extensive floating repair shops were created.

\i the outbreak of the Civil War, both sides were largely unprepared for ilit' conflict. This lack of readiness was most apparent in the two navies; the Union fleet was scattered across the globe and the Confederate Navy had riot yet come inio being. From die start, President Lincoln and his Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, both supported the adoption of a broad strategy, outlined by General Winfleld Scott, His strategy, nicknamed "the Anaconda plan." envisioned the blockade and encirclement ol the Confederacy by naval forces. A coastal blockade would be augmented by a strike down the Mississippi River from the north, linking up with the ocean-going fleet at New Orleans, iiv seizing control of the Mississippi Riven the Union would be able to split the Confederacy in two. Not only would ihis starve the heartland of the Confederacy of resources of men and provisions from the western states of Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, but it would also reopen the river to Northern trade, a vital prerequisite For economic growth.

The only problem was that ihe Union had no naval forces on the river which could fulfil these lofty strategic goals. On April 29, 1861, a St Louis businessman called James M. Eads sent a proposal to the Navy Department outlining the facilities available on the Missouri and Illinois shores of the Mississippi River. Although Gideon Welles was fully involved in the establishment of a blockade around the Confederate coast, a dialog involving Lads and both the Army and the Navy resulted in the order to produce a small riverine flotilla. The first of these wooden gunboats entered service in August, at a time when the Confederates were busy constructing their own fleet. The state of Louisiana had purchased a couple of river steamers, and had converted them into gunboats. A second flotilla was earmarked for the defense of the upper Mississippi River, along the Tennessee shore. Similarly, the capture of the Union's Norfolk Navy Base in Virginia ensured the Confederated had access to sufficient guns to defend the river, and several powerful batteries were planned to block Union access to the Mississippi, Cumberland, and Tennessee Rivers. The Confederates were well aware of the importance of the Mississippi River to their survival, and the

Union river transports played a vital part in the campaigning along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. This rare photograph is of the river transport Chickamauga, operated by the War Department. (National Archives)

Union strategy. Even if they only held one bastion on the river, or kept one warship afloat, ilie South would deny the use of the river to tile enemy. Both sides braced themselves for a campaign that would be fought over huge distances, and require the close cooperation of both land and naval forces. The challenges facing strategists were daunting.

Wh at emerged was a campaign involving the attack on these Confederate naval and riverside defenses by two fleets: One descending the river from Cairo, Illinois, and the other (after the fall of New Orleans in April 1862) working its way up from 1 lie Gulf of Mexico. After a brilliantly executed attack on Fort Henry and Fort Do nelson on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, Union naval forces in tin; upper Mississippi faced a series of imposing fortifications. Although the fortifications at Island No. 10 and Fort Pillow were captured by other means, Union wooden gunboats had their chance for glory in two battles at Fort Pillow and Memphis. In these two engagements the Confederate River Defense Fleet was decimated, and only the gnus ofVicksburg prevented the entire river falling into Union hands. Even then, Confederate naval units on the Yazoo River caused a near collapse of the Union naval effort before the city of Vi< ksburg fell to General Grant in July 1863. When Port Hudson fell a week later, the entire Mississippi lay in Union hands, and dozens of wooden gunboats patrolled the hard-won water. Control of tributaries such as the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers ensured that Union gunboats, transports, and supply boats could travel unimpeded into Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and upper Alabama. Further to the west, Confederate forces operated on the Red River, and a campaign there would culminate in a humiliating retreat by the Union, and would ensure that Confederate resistance in Arkansas and northern Louisiana would continue until the end of the war.

The gunboats produced by both north and south represented a solution to the strategic and logistical problems which faced the naval commanders of both sides. Both converted and purpose-built wooden gunboats would play their part in this great conflict. Although to most sailors, they were mere "floating wooden bandboxes," these vessels were capable of performing tasks other warships were unable to perform. Like u giant fan, the Mississippi River and its tributaries spread across thousands of miles of the American heartland. The little wooden gunboats of both combatants would reach into virtually every part of this brown-watered arena.

Union river transports played a vital part in the campaigning along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. This rare photograph is of the river transport Chickamauga, operated by the War Department. (National Archives)

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