Apr 18

The Navy Runs the Guns at Vicksburg: April 16-17, 1863

Sunday, April 18, 2010 12:26 PM

 

One event in U.S. Naval history slipped by this past week, that had it not been successful, would have delayed and perhaps stopped Grant’s campaign to seize Vicksburg during the Civil War. 

The winter of 1863 saw General Ulysses S Grant trying to find a way to take Vicksburg, Mississippi. Located on a commanding bluff at a hairpin turn in the Mississippi River, the guns of Vicksburg made a any thought of a direct assault a suicide mission. The only reasonable approach was along the broad band of high ground that lay between the Yazoo and Black Rivers, stretching off to the northeast. The idea then was to get the army across the river by moving them down the west bank and then crossing the river south of Vicksburg so as to gain access to the broad plain.

From January to March, the army labored to find a way to bypass Vicksburg. First, they tried digging a canal across the peninsula at De Soto Point, a long finger of land that made up the inside of the hairpin turn opposite Vicksburg. When the canal failed to produce enough draft to be useful;Grant turned to other schemes, Lake Providence, Yazoo Pass, and Steele’s Bayou all ending in failure. By late March Grant turned to the only hope he had to get army across the river. 

On March 29, Grant sent a message to Admiral David Dixon Porter who since October 1862 had commanded the Mississippi Squadron. Grant’s plan was bold and should it fail the navy would be completely out of any future efforts to take Vicksburg. The plan was for Porter to run his gunboats past Vicksburg’s guns and seize control of the river south of the city. It was a simple plan, but fraught with massive reasons for failure. First the river took a sharp turn and then narrowed right under the the bluffs. Then, there were the guns, 9 inch Confederate Dahlgren copies, and 10 inch Columbaids, for a total of 37 siege guns and 13 field pieces, all ready to blast shot and shell into anyone trying to steam past the city.

USS Benton

USS Lafayette

The plan was twofold. First, it would involve running the gunboats downriver, then later running a fleet of transports, regular wooden riverboats past the bluffs. Grant’s first plan was to just have Porter move one or two gunboats past Vicksburg to control the lower river. But, Porter countered that he would need most of his squadron. Porter warned Grant that once he got his gunboats downstream, all hope of getting them back up river was lost, due to the speed of the boats, six-knots, and the river, four-knots. Porter studied the plan and made careful preparations to make the attempt. On April 16, he ordered seven ironclad gunboats, one armed ram, three army transports and a tug to start down river towards the guns of Vicksburg. Here is where the ingenuity of Porter and the Navy is revealed, each boat had barges lashed to each side which loaded with baggage, supplies and coal. The ram and the tug were lashed to the westward side of the ironclads, USS Benton and USS Layfayette to provide them added protection. The wooden transports had wet cotton bales stacked along their sides and around their steam engines. The little fleet, filled out with the Carondelet, Pittsburg, Louisville, Mound City and Tuscumbia, rounded the bend at De Soto Point and began to take fire. The sound of Vicksburg’s guns could be heard as far as thirty miles up and down river. The whole army could hear the roar and not seeing, feared the worst for the navy. The firing continued for four long hours as the little fleet progressed past a series of Confederate batteries that ranged for twelve miles along the eastern bank. Shortly after 3:00 a.m., silence graced everyone’s ears and they were left waiting the dawn to see what the guns has wrought.

Nothing appeared on the river when dawn broke twenty miles down river at Ione Plantation, then just as the sun began to warm the landscape, smoke smugged horizon up river. Around the bend came a burned out hulk of a steamboat surrounded by burning bales of cotton. Next, came a few barges drifting slowly down river in the eddying currents. Hours passed and near noon, coming around the bend, steamed the flagship, Benton, belching smoke and proudly flying the Stars and Strips, as Porter’s little fleet followed behind. 

During the entire passage, only the transport, Henry Clay had been lost; struck by many shells, she burst into flames and was abandoned without any loss of life. Several hits were registered on the flotilla, leaving one transport with a disabled engine, and the rest a few dents and dings. The total human cost was a dozen wounded during the passage.

The significance of this little engagement was that Grant was able to secure the transports to cross the river south of Vicksburg and march on Jackson, and in the coming month, open the siege that would lead to the fall of Vicksburg.

The navy for her part, went on to provide gunfire support from the river, as well as loaning guns to the army for emplacement on the landward side. This little engagement that took place one hundred and forty seven years ago yesterday, was conducted in the finest traditions of the American Navy and made control of the Mississippi River possible. Without the Navy’s support, the outcome may have been the same, but at a horrific cost that would have left Grant’s reputation tarnished and the likelihood that he would have never been chosen to command the Grand Army of the Republic. One little action barely remembered, proved to be the linchpin that held the whole enterprise together .

 
 
 
  • SCOTTtheBADGER

    Once again, the Navy saves the day! HUZZAH! Even inland, the USN has a great presence. We are a sea going country.

 
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