Wednesday, March 5, 2014

No Quarter Asked or Given: The Yazoo Expedition of 1864

In February, 1864, Union Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman led approximately 26,000 men across the state of Mississippi toward Meridian. On the 14th, Sherman’s men wrecked the rail center there and destroyed miles of tracks in all directions. With the work of destruction complete, Sherman pronounced that “Meridian…is no more.” In addition to the main thrust toward Meridian, Sherman ordered two other expeditions, one a cavalry raid under the command of William Sooy Smith (a raid which ended in disaster at Okolona) and another expedition up the Yazoo River, involving both Union naval and army personnel. The Yazoo expedition ended in a small but sharp engagement at Yazoo City on March 5, 1864. The battle included a number of black troops, including former slaves from Mississippi who had enlisted in the Union army. Because of their presence, the battle of Yazoo City was particularly ferocious and would serve as a template for much of the fighting to come in 1864 and 1865.  

The Yazoo River had long been viewed as a likely avenue of approach for the Union navy, but the river had been blocked by Confederate batteries at Snyder’s Bluff north of Vicksburg and by Fort Pemberton in the north, an earthen and cotton bale fortification just west of Greenwood. With the fall of Vicksburg, however, the river was open to Union navigation, at least part of the way. The purpose of the 1864 expedition was two-fold: first, Sherman wanted to capture or destroy the enemy’s cotton and corn in order to “Impress on the people along Yazoo and Sunflower that we intend to hold them responsible for all acts of hostility to the river commerce.” Second, he hoped to draw Confederate cavalry in the region to the defense of the Yazoo and away from his main column.  On January 31, the fleet, including the tinclads Exchange, Petrel, Marmora (above), Prairie Bird and Romeo, assembled for the move upriver. On board transports were men from Embury Osband’s black Mississippi cavalry (later designated the 3rd United States Colored Cavalry), the 1st Mississippi Cavalry (African Descent), the 11th Illinois Infantry and the 8th Louisiana Colored Infantry, all commanded by Col. James Coates.  A grain merchant by trade and a native of Pennsylvania, Coates would be promoted to Brevet Brigadier General in March, 1865. The force totaled approximately 1,200 men.     

Just a few days prior to the launching of the expedition, Confederate Brigadier General Lawrence Sullivan (“Sul”) Ross returned to the Benton area with his brigade of hard-riding, hard-fighting Texans. They had recently been on a journey across the Mississippi into Arkansas ferrying much needed arms. The weather had been abominable, with ice and freezing rain. Not long after they had returned, Ross learned of the latest Union excursion in his district. Born in Iowa but raised on the frontier of Texas, Ross (above) had plenty of combat experience by the time of the Civil War. As a young man, he spent his holidays from Wesleyan College in Alabama in Texas fighting Indians. After graduation in 1859, he returned home to become a Texas Ranger and with secession entered Confederate service as a private with the 6th Texas Cavalry. He had been promoted all the way to brigadier by the end of 1863. To counter the threat to Yazoo City, Ross moved most of his brigade to Satartia and then to Liverpool Landing, but left the 3rd Texas Cavalry at Mechanicsburg. In addition to the 3rd Texas, Ross’ brigade consisted of the 27th, 6th and 9th Texas Cavalry regiments, as well as King’s Missouri Battery, in all a bit more than 1,000 men.

Liverpool was a good choice for a defensive position. At that point, the river bent sharply and there were steep bluffs. In addition, the steamboat Ivy, which had been scuttled a year earlier, blocked the channel. Ross placed infantry below and artillery above to stop Coates’ expedition.  As the flotilla moved upriver, the vessels received fire from the Confederate artillery on the bluffs. After several failed attempts to get past the obstruction, Coates decided to land infantry to try and dislodge Ross’ men. Struggling up the steep banks, the 11th Illinois and the 8th Louisiana Infantry (A.D.), under heavy fire, drove in Ross’ skirmishes. Met by fire from King’s Battery and by the timely arrival of Confederate reinforcements, however, the Federals were driven back and the two lines settled into a duel until darkness ended the affair. Repulsed, the fleet turned back downriver to below Satartia. The fighting at Liverpool had been vicious, especially between the black Federals and white Confederates. A soldier in Ross’ brigade stated that “as for Negro troops…for some time the fighting was under the black flag – no quarter asked or given.” If captured, then, black troops faced a decidedly uncertain future, as did their white officers. Despite this (or perhaps because of it) Coates wrote that the Colored Troops “acquitted themselves most handsomely displaying the courage, coolness and discipline of the most experienced troops.”

Low on ammunition, but pleased with his brigade’s performance, the fight at Liverpool was hailed in the Confederate press as a signal Confederate victory. Ross withdrew his artillery to resupply, but positioned his dismounted cavalry along the banks and waited for the resumption of the fleet’s ascent. The next day, the gunboats were allowed to pass unmolested, but as the crowded troop transports passed by, the 3rd and 9th Texas fired into the decks, causing a number of casualties. Ross then hurried with most of his brigade to Yazoo City, where they immediately dug in, reusing earthworks constructed earlier in the war. Ross also positioned men along the riverbank, leaving the 6th Texas at Liverpool. On February 5, Commander Elias K. Owen (right) cautiously approached Yazoo City with the Marmora and Exchange. Opening fire on the tinclads, a lucky shot from one of Moore’s guns struck the Marmora within two feet of her boiler. That, combined with particularly accurate rifle fire from Ross’ dismounted cavalrymen, convinced the Federals that a large force, estimated as perhaps 8,000 men, was now at Yazoo City. Facing what they believed to be overwhelming odds, the flotilla once again headed back downriver to Satartia. For the time being, Yazoo City had been saved by Sul Ross and his Texas brigade.
The townspeople were jubilant, and showered the tired and hungry Texans with whatever food and drink they had to offer. Convinced that the threat had passed for the time being, the Texans moved back to their camp west of Benton. On the 8th, Ross received an order from William H. “Red” Jackson to rejoin the cavalry division in order to harass Sherman’s main column as it moved toward Meridian. Hastening east, the Texas brigade spent the next twenty days operating on the flanks of Sherman’s two corps. Following Nathan Bedford Forrest’s dramatic victory at Okolona on February 22, Ross was ordered back to the Delta. For twenty days, however, Yazoo City was left undefended.

Just as Ross’s brigade abandoned Yazoo City, Coates’ force once again moved upriver. Now unopposed, the Federals took possession of Yazoo City on the morning of the February 9.  On the 11th, the fleet moved further upriver, where only slight Confederate opposition was encountered and even a handful of inhabitants appeared to welcome the Federals. On February 14, the same day the Sherman entered Meridian, Coates and Owen occupied Greenwood unopposed. Reaching the town at night, the fleet was welcomed by the Greenwood Leflore, who was waving a small U.S. flag as the boats arrived. Finding Greenwood to be “an insignificant place” and deserted except for “a few poor Irish,” Commander Owen argued that they should soon drop back downriver. The water level, it seemed, was falling rapidly, and the sunken Star of the West prevented any further movement north. Before departing, the Union officers toured the site of Fort Pemberton (above), which had stopped the Union navy during the Yazoo Pass Expedition. Ominously, on the same day the fleet arrived at Greenwood, the New York Tribune reported the murder of a black soldier by “the Rebels.” The paper also reported that three Confederates had been summarily executed in retaliation. Whether true or not, these reports would further inflame the passions of armed men on both sides.

Before heading back downriver, Col. Embury Osband’s black cavalry regiment, later to be designated the 3rd United States Colored Cavalry and one of the finest all-black units in the Civil War, was sent east from Greenwood toward Grenada. Approaching within eight miles of their objective, they were turned back after skirmishing with some of Col. Jeffrey Forrest’s men guarding the railroad. The younger Forrest (right) would die eight days later at Okolona in the arms of his older brother Nathan Bedford Forrest. Unable to reach Grenada, Osband’s regiment turned back toward the Yazoo to rejoin the fleet, heading southwest through Black Hawk and toward river landings farther down. Word that black cavalry was roaming freely through the countryside east of Greenwood caused the all-Tennessee brigade of Robert V. Richardson to move from Grenada toward Carrollton in hopes of cutting the black Mississippians off from the Yazoo.

Robert Vinkler Richardson (left), a native of North Carolina, was associated in business with Bedford Forrest before the war. Serving with Forrest in the early months of the war, he was elected colonel of the 12th Tennessee Cavalry, a unit considered by Union Major General Stephen Hurlbut and even some Confederate officers, including Pemberton, to be an illegally formed partisan outfit and full of renegades. Still, on December 3, 1863, Richardson was promoted to brigadier general. Although his promotion was duly confirmed by the Confederate Senate, his appointment was later rescinded at the request of President Davis himself. This action took on February 6, 1864, just days before Richardson found himself chasing Osband’s troopers near Black Hawk. Unable to catch up, Richardson returned to Grenada by way of Lexington.

Continuing their slow descent downriver, the Union fleet gathered as many cotton bales as they could locate. The total would be in the hundreds. On Sunday, February 28, as the flotilla once again approached Yazoo City, Coates ordered most of his cavalry to disembark and move quickly to Yazoo City and secure the roads. The rest of the convoy would head downstream to the city wharf. Confederate pickets quickly attacked some of the Federal cavalry, and Coates inadvisably sent a detachment of the 1st Mississippi Colored Cavalry pounding to the east down the plank road toward Benton to investigate. What they found would be most unpleasant news for the Union expedition.

Sul Ross, released from duty in east Mississippi, had just arrived back at his camp when the mule-mounted black cavalrymen came charging down the road. They were shocked to discover not just Confederate scouts but an entire brigade of Texans! Quickly backpedaling, much of the detachment was ridden down by the Confederates. Before reaching the safety of the Yazoo City garrison, which had since been occupied by the 11th Illinois and 8th Louisiana Infantry, the detachment lost eight men killed, ten missing and three wounded, including Captain Francis Cook, who was severely wounded. The fighting was brutal. Walter Jones, a trooper in the 6th Texas, emptied his pistol and used his sabre to fell two of the black cavalrymen. “We would charge in amongst them and shoot them off their horses,” he wrote, “and many would fall off and get on their knees uplifted and pray for mercy, saying they had not meant to fight the whites, but the response would be only a few curses and the boys would…blow their brains out and leave them to wither in their own blood.” Ross bragged that the “Negroes after the first fire broke in wild disorder, each seeming intent upon nothing but making his escape. The road all the way to Yazoo City was literally strewed with their bodies.” Back in Grenada, Robert V. Richardson received urgent dispatches from Ross to hurry to the Yazoo. Richardson’s force arrived on March 4 after a forced march with his brigade, numbering perhaps 550 men.  On arrival, Richardson was briefed by Ross on the positions occupied by the enemy. “I found General Ross well informed,” he wrote, ”as to the position of the enemy, his works of defense, and the topography of Yazoo City.” 

In Yazoo City, the Federals had positioned their troops in a series of earthen forts constructed earlier in the war by the Confederates. These forts guarded the roads leading into Yazoo City, the largest of which was a square fort on the north side of the Benton Plank Road.  Flanking the fort were steep gullies, and outside was a ditch into which troops from the 8th Louisiana Infantry (A.D.) were placed as forward skirmishers. Inside the fort, which was known as Redoubt McKee, was the 11th Illinois Infantry under the command of Major George Colin McKee (right). In addition to the infantry, a 12-pound howitzer from the Exchange had been mounted in the fort and manned by gunners from the boat’s crew. Redoubt McKee defiantly displayed a large United States flag atop its parapets. Other smaller forts protected the Lexington Road, bearing to the northeast, and two roads leading south. These were manned by dismounted black cavalrymen. On the Lexington Road, only two companies of the 1st Mississippi Cavalry were in the works.  Additional troops were posted in the town itself and Col. Coates made his headquarters in a brick bank building on Yazoo City’s main street. In position, the Federals watched and waited for the anticipated Confederate attack.


(1) Map:
(2) Marmora:
(3) Ross:
(4) USCT:
(5) Owen:
(6) Fort Pemberton:
(7) Forrest:
(8) Richardson:
(9) Cavalry: McKee:

1 comment:

  1. Great story! I grew up in Yazoo City but I never knew we had so much Civil War history there!