Saturday, February 14, 2015

Ironclads, Cotton and Corn: The Civil War in the Mississippi Delta

Today, most people associate the Mississippi Delta with agriculture (and especially cotton) and as the birthplace of the Blues. Tourists from across the globe visit the Delta each year, as one travel writer put it, “to soak up the raw authenticity -- in rollicking juke joints, plate-lunch cafes and boarded-up towns with markers revealing the stories of blues legends, civil rights heroes and history-making moments that changed the nation.” All of this is true, but there is another legacy of the Mississippi Delta which is often overlooked, and that is the important role the region played in the Civil War. Seen by many historians as a sideshow to more significant campaigns, the reality is that the Delta was vital to Confederate interests and was the target of repeated Union attempts to utilize the region’s waterways as an avenue of invasion. 

By the spring of 1863, Union efforts to capture the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg had bogged down, both literally and figuratively. The bulk of the Union army, under the command of Major General Ulysses S. Grant, had, during the winter months of 1862, slowly pushed its way down the Mississippi Central Railroad in north Mississippi. Waiting behind the Tallahatchie River were Confederate forces under the command of Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton (left), the commander of the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana. In December, Grant planned a combined attack – one of many such cooperative efforts between the Union Army and Navy in the coming months – by making a push on land against Pemberton’s line and also by sending William Tecumseh Sherman down the Mississippi on transports to assault the bluffs north of Vicksburg at Chickasaw Bayou. By dividing Pemberton’s forces and holding his attention to the north, Grant hoped that Sherman would be able to overwhelm Vicksburg’s defenders and avoid a costly and lengthy campaign.

The Vicksburg nut was not as easy to crack has Grant had hoped, however. Near Christmas day, a strong Confederate cavalry column under Earl Van Dorn struck the town of Holly Springs, then a major supply depot for Grant’s army. Forced back to protect his vital supply line, Grant could no longer hold Pemberton’s attention at Grenada and the Confederates were able to begin shifting troops to Vicksburg to supplement the troops sent to protect the Walnut Hills overlooking Chickasaw Bayou, which easily repulsed Sherman’s subsequent assault. Sherman was defeated by the weather and the terrain as much as by the Confederates, however, as Chickasaw Bayou was inundated with flood waters in December, 1862, and was a jigsaw puzzle of vine-choked ravines and unfordable bayous even in the best of weather. After his repulse, Sherman’s army headed back upriver. Despite a successful reduction of Arkansas Post (under the command of John A. McClernand), the Union efforts at capturing Vicksburg had fizzled for the time being.

Vicksburg’s strength was only due in part to the towering bluffs upon which Confederate cannon frowned down on the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers above and below the city. The city was also protected by the Mississippi Delta, which ran some two hundred miles to Memphis and extended approximately fifty miles inland. Unlike the Delta today, the region at the time of the Civil War was mostly underwater. With few roads and few towns, the planters who were able to take advantage of the rich soil were perched here and there along natural levees and along the creek banks, which twisted and turned through the Delta like a medusa. Cutting through the region were larger rivers and bayous, navigable to steamboats and possibly gunboats – but difficult in either case to negotiate. An army marching through this country on foot would be hopelessly lost in the muck and mire of the terrain, just as Sherman was mired at Chickasaw Bayou. In short, the Delta was, as Greenville native Shelby Foote wrote “the exclusive domain of moccasins bears alligators and panthers” – not where any army should go. But that’s exactly where Grant decided to go in the spring of 1863.

The result was three primary military operations in the Mississippi Delta, including the Yazoo Pass Expedition, the Steele’s Bayou Expedition and Steele’s Greenville Expedition. All three were combined efforts of the army and navy, a cooperation which in many ways was an extension of the mutual admiration, one to the other, between Grant and Admiral David Dixon Porter. All three operations were successful in some ways and failures in others. This was not the first time the Federals had operated in the region. Beginning in July 1862, the Union Navy made several forays up the Yazoo River in an effort to get around the defenses north of Vicksburg at Snyder’s, Haynes’ and Drumgould’s Bluffs. In addition, numerous raids were launched along the Mississippi River, striking at military targets along the railroad or in “neutralizing” towns along the river with the torch. Typical of these raids by Union infantry and cavalry along the Mississippi was one launched by Brig. Gen. Cadwallader C. Washburn (right) in late November, 1862. Landing at the small village of Delta, Washburn’s 1,900 Union cavalry was given the task of striking the Mississippi Central Railroad at Grenada. At this time, Pemberton’s Confederates were still awaiting Grant’s army behind the Tallahatchie. Thus, Washburn’s raid would be threatening Pemberton’s left flank and endanger Grenada, a vital railroad hub. 

Opposing the Union troopers – and another 7,000 man force of infantry and artillery under Alvin P. Hovey trailing the fast-moving cavalry – was a Confederate cavalry brigade under Col. John Griffith (left). At Oakland, this undersized brigade of about 1,200 men stalled Washburn’s advance, and the Union raiders made their way back to the safety of the Mississippi River and the protection of the Union fleet. Washburn’s raid, though failing to cut the railroad or capture Grenada, was significant because it forced Pemberton to fall back to the line of the Yalobusha and into the defenses at Grenada. Thus, using the soft underbelly of the Mississippi Delta, the Federals were able to outflank the Confederates from a strong position. As with other raids in the Delta, Washburn’s and Hovey’s troops returned with the spoils of war: cotton, corn and slaves. Blacks by the hundreds, of their own accord, left the plantations as the Federals moved through the fertile Delta region. By the summer of 1863, some of these men would begin to be incorporated into the Union war effort as United States Colored Troops.

A number of towns along the Mississippi were burned by Union raiders during the Civil War period, among them Austin, Greenville and Friar’s Point. Many times, houses and plantation buildings were burned for no other reason than spite; other times, it was in retaliation for the firing on Union vessels by Confederate guerrillas. Indeed, on December 18, 1862, General Sherman issued an order specifying the rules of engagement along the river – namely, any vessel receiving small arms fire from either shore should land and disembark enough troops to take care of the opposition. If fired on by artillery, a brigade would be landed and all public and private property confiscated and all houses and public buildings burned. In the case of Friar’s Point, the end came on December 21, 1862. As Sherman’s expedition to Chickasaw Bayou made its way down the river to the mouth of the Yazoo north of Vicksburg, the fleet, including numerous gunboats and transport vessels, tied up at the Frair’s Point landing. According to a soldier in the 83rd Ohio Infantry, a rumor circulated that a Union sympathizer was put in a barrel by the citizens of Friar’s Point and rolled into the river. Angered over this insult, the Ohioans scrambled ashore and looted the town. By the next morning, most of the buildings in Friar’s Point had been burned to the ground.

The first of the three major military operations undertaken by Grant and Porter in the spring of 1863 was the Yazoo Pass Expedition. After the unsuccessful attack at Chickasaw Bayou and Grant’s forced retreat from the Tallahatchie because of Van Dorn’s sacking of Holly Springs, the Union army toiled in the swamps of Louisiana looking for a way around, or past, Vicksburg’s batteries. Using the twisting bayous of the Louisiana delta, Grant and Porter searched for a navigable route to the south on the west bank of the Mississippi. They also attempted, unsuccessfully in the end, to cut a canal across the DeSoto Point opposite Vicksburg, by which it was hoped Union gunboats could pass Vicksburg’s guns. While all these attempts, particularly the canal work, was frustrating, difficult and ultimately fruitless, it did do two things for Grant: it kept his men occupied and in good physical condition (despite a terrible disease rate) and it kept at bay the voting public in the north who demanded action. While all this going on across the river in Louisiana, Grant also kept his eye on the Mississippi Delta. Still looking for some way to get into the Coldwater, Tallahatchie and Yazoo Rivers with gunboats and transports, thereby bypassing the strong defenses on the bluffs north of Vicksburg, Grant used the navy to explore a variety of waterborne passages into the Delta. In January, 1863, Lt. Col. James H. Wilson was ordered to open a levee at Yazoo Pass near Moon Lake to allow the navy to get into the interior. The levee had been built by the State of Mississippi in the 1850s to lower the level of water and provide more land for agriculture. By blowing the levee, the Union navy believed the water level would be raised to such an extent that the vessels would be able to easily enter Moon Lake and the Coldwater. 

The levee was cut on February 2-3. By March 7, Union vessels were able to enter Moon Lake. Alerted to this threat, however, Pemberton had ordered the Confederates in the region to block the channel with obstructions of felled trees. For the Union navy personnel, the work clearing these obstructions in the twisting waterways connecting Moon Lake and the Tallahatchie was extremely difficult. On March 10, the flotilla, with 5,000 infantry under Gen. Leonard Ross and two ironclads – the Chillicothe (right) and the Baron De Kalb – entered the Tallahatchie River. From there, they moved down the Tallahatchie to the confluence of the Yalobusha River. Here the two rivers met to form the Yazoo, and here the Confederates had constructed ‘Fort Pemberton’ along a narrow neck of land. Made of cotton bales and earth, Fort Pemberton was garrisoned by troops under William W. Loring. With only ten artillery pieces, the defenders of Fort Pemberton successfully turned back the Union fleet, who had difficulty maneuvering in the narrow channel. Because of the flooded terrain, the infantry under Ross’ command were unable to land. On March 16, the Chillicothe was disabled by a Confederate shell which entered a gun port, and by the 20th, the fleet turned around and made its way back to Moon Lake. The next day, the fleet met reinforcements under Brig. Gen. Isaac Quinby, a former professor of physics. Quincy persuaded Ross to head back to Fort Pemberton, where another round of artillery duels were fought on April 2-3. Just as hopeless as before, the Federals finally gave up for good and headed back to the Mississippi.

William Wing Loring, the Confederate defender of Fort Pemberton, was an interesting character. A Mexican War veteran, Loring lost an arm at the battle of Chapultepec. After his arm was shattered, it was said that Loring “laid aside a cigar, sat quietly in a chair without opiates to relieve the pain, and allowed the arm to be cut off without a murmur or a groan. The arm was buried on the heights by his men, with the hand pointing towards the City of Mexico.”  While at times exhibiting flashes of military genius during the Civil War, Loring nonetheless had real trouble getting along with his superiors. He had a well-publicized spat with Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley in 1862; when Jackson threatened to resign, Loring was sent West and promoted. At the time, Jedediah Hotchkiss, Jackson’s famed mapmaker, noted that Loring struck him as “lacking in nearly all the qualities necessary for command of an army designed to carry on an offensive campaign…[that] he was always hesitating ]in] what to do, was always suggesting difficulties in the way of active operations, and worse than all in my mind, he was always filling himself with brandy…” Certainly, Loring’s ability to get along with his superiors did not improve when he came west, and his performance during the Vicksburg Campaign can best be described as inadequate and perhaps insubordinate. At Fort Pemberton, however, he was decisive and effective. Indeed, Loring got the nickname “Old Blizzards” at Fort Pemberton because he paced the cotton bale works shouting “Give them blizzards, boys! Give them blizzards!” Loring (right) survived the war and in 1869, at the recommendation of William T. Sherman, of all things, accepted a post with the Khedive of Egypt, where he spent the better part of ten years and attained the rank of Fareek Pasha (or Major General) in the Egyptian Army. He also managed to visit at least eighteen countries on an extended tour of Europe and the Middle East. After his return to the U.S. in 1879, he published a book called A Confederate Soldier in Egypt in 1884.


Photo and Image Sources:


Chickasaw Bayou:



Union vessel:

Friar’s Point:


Fort Pemberton:


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