Unvexed Waters: Mississippi River Squadron, Part 2

Island No. 10 and New Madrid, Missouri

Part I of this post introduced the unprecedented U.S. Army Western Gunboat Flotilla—soon to be reorganized as the U.S. Navy Mississippi River Squadron—and carried it through the victorious battles of Forts Henry and Donelson, Tennessee, in February 1862.

The next Union objective was the northern stopper in Rebel defenses of the mighty Mississippi: Island No. 10 near New Madrid, Missouri.

This enlarged sandbar at the bottom of a tight river U-turn mounted five batteries and 24 guns backed up with 7,000 Confederates. Navy Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote supported Major General John Pope against the obstacle in March and April.

Three weeks of furious bombardment by Foote’s gunboats along with rafts mounting 13-inch mortars achieved no results. Foote was hesitant to expose his ironclads to heavy shore guns again after suffering severe damage at Forts Henry and Donelson. Going downriver with the swift current was a whole lot easier than coming back up. The cumbersome vessels could be disabled and captured, and possibly turned against friendly river cities.

But Captain Henry Walke of the USS Carondelet insisted he could make it. The ironclad was covered with rope, chain, and whatever loose material lay at hand. A barge filled with coal and hay was lashed to her side. Her steam exhaust was diverted from the smokestacks out the side of the casemate to muffle sound.

USS Carondelet running the batteries at Island No. 10

On a moonless night under a thunderstorm, Carondelet slithered downstream unscathed and almost undetected. Another ironclad gunboat followed. The dramatic passage introduced a new, and previously unthinkable, naval tactic: driving vulnerable warships through narrow channels past heavily armed fixed emplacements.

Once past the batteries, the gunboats ferried Union forces across the river below the island, isolated and captured the outnumbered garrison from behind. This process would be repeated on a larger scale three weeks later at New Orleans, and subsequently at Vicksburg, Port Hudson, and Mobile.

Charles H. Davis

Flag Officer Charles H. Davis relieved Foote as flotilla commander in May 1862 and headed on downriver for Memphis with six ironclads, accompanied Colonel Charles Ellet and his nine unarmed wooden rams.

Confederates had seized a motley collection of passenger, cargo, and tow boats to defend the river, converting them to rams armed with one or two guns—the Confederate River Defense Fleet. Like the Ellet rams, these were captained and crewed by civilian rivermen, nominally under army command, but operating independently and with little coordination.

Five of the swift Rebel steamers surprised and rammed the lumbering Union ironclads Cincinnati and Mound City at Plum Point Bend above Memphis on May 10. Both vessels were grounded and sunk in shallow water but were soon raised and placed back in service.

On June 6, eight of the Confederate converted paddlewheelers steamed out to defend Memphis cheered on from the bluffs by hundreds of citizens. After an inconclusive, long-range gunnery duel, the impatient Colonel Ellet, on his own initiative, charged through the ironclad line in his Queen of the West and struck the first Rebel vessel encountered, sinking it immediately, only to be rammed himself by another. The ram Monarch followed, while the ironclads closed to deadly range.

Battle of Memphis. Note the city and its cheering inhabitants in background.

A raging melee erupted with no command coordination on either side. The Rebel squadron, unarmored and outgunned, was destroyed, marking the near eradication of Confederate naval presence on the river.

This was the only “fleet action” of the war, the last in which ramming was a primary tactic, and the last time civilians with no military experience such as Charles Ellet commanded ships in combat. Ellet’s ram fleet would become the Mississippi Marine Brigade under navy direction, employed primarily for amphibious raiding and support tasks.

The loss of Memphis, the Confederacy’s fifth-largest city and key industrial center, opened the Mississippi all the way to Vicksburg and opened West Tennessee to Union occupation.

But strategic opportunity was lost as attempts to reduce Vicksburg from the river that summer of 1862 failed for lack of army support when the indecisive Major General Henry W. Halleck became bogged down in the siege of Corinth, Mississippi.

Rear-Admiral David D. Porter

Then a major reorganization transferred the Western Gunboat Flotilla to command of the navy and re-designated it the Mississippi River Squadron with a new and aggressive rear admiral, David D. Porter, in command.

Halleck was called to Washington and Major General U. S. Grant took over the Army of Tennessee.

Porter and Grant made a winning ream, melding the strategic flexibility of maritime power—within its limitations—with hard and smart fighting on land. But it was a learning process. In late December, Grant sent W. T. Sherman downriver with a major amphibious force for a landing at Chickasaw Bayou northwest of Vicksburg, only to be repulsed with heavy casualties.

Grant’s Yazoo Pass Expedition

That winter and spring, Grant conducted a series of fruitless operations to outflank the city by cutting canals, blowing up levees, flooding the Mississippi Delta, and pushing ironclads, gunboats, and troop transports through tiny, choked channels that must have resembled the upper Mekong in “Apocalypse Now.”

The general wrote in his memoirs that these efforts were intended primarily to keep his troops busy during the flooded and disease-ridden winter and that he had no expectation of success. This claim appears to be contradicted by his contemporary correspondence.

Grant’s final option was to march the army through the swamps down the west bank of the Mississippi, cross south of and get behind Vicksburg. Porter would have to sneak his gunboats and transports downriver past powerful Rebel batteries on the bluffs to accomplish the army crossing. This would be a one-way run. If the squadron survived the transit, it would be suicidal to steam back up against the swift current.

Mississippi River Squadron running Vicksburg batteries (Currier and Ives)

On April 16, 1863, a clear night with no moon, seven gunboats and three empty troop transports loaded with stores ran the gauntlet. Despite efforts to minimize lights and noise, the bluffs exploded with massive artillery fire. Confederates set bonfires along the banks to illuminate the scene. Union gunboats fired back.

The Union column hugged the east bank–so close they could hear rebel gunners shouting orders–to get under the line of fire with shells zinging overhead. On April 22, six more boats loaded with supplies made the run. The squadron incurred little damage with two transports lost, thirteen men wounded, and none killed.

Grant ferried his army across, laid siege to and captured the “Gibraltar of the West.” It was arguably the most brilliant campaign of the war, at least as important as the simultaneous victory at Gettysburg. The Mississippi River Squadron backstopped the army, closed the river, and provided continuous heavy artillery support. The fall of Port Hudson, Louisiana, the last Confederate stronghold on the river, followed quickly.

“The father of waters again goes unvexed to the sea,” wrote Abraham Lincoln. Other than the abortive Red River campaign in spring 1864, there would be no more major river engagements. But the Mississippi River Squadron would be busy for two additional years fighting Rebel guerrillas, suppressing enemy trade, and protecting friendly commerce.

(Extracted from a paper presented at the North American Society for Oceanic History (NASOH) Annual Conference, St. Charles, Missouri, May 22, 2018. This presentation with PowerPoint is available for interested groups. See www.CivilWarNavyHistory.com.)

Sea Power at Port Royal Sound: A Missed Opportunity?

Port Royal bombardment

Bombardment of Port Royal Sound, South Carolina, November 7, 1861

On November 5, 1861, the Confederate Secretary of War established the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and East Florida as a military department, assigning one of his most senior and experienced officers, General R. E. Lee, to command it.

No Federal armies were marching anywhere near that far south. The threat was from the sea, from the dangerous flexibility overwhelming command of the sea provided their adversaries. The general was to consolidate scarce resources and improve defenses along that vital coast.

Lee warned from Savannah in January 1862: “The forces of the enemy are accumulating, and apparently increase faster than ours.” He feared, given maritime capabilities of speedy transportation and concentration, “it would be impossible to gather troops necessarily posted over a long line in sufficient strength, to oppose sudden movements. Wherever his fleet can be brought no opposition to his landing can be made except within range of our fixed batteries. We have nothing to oppose to its heavy guns, which sweep over the low banks of this country with irresistible force.”[1] He could not mount a cordon defense.

President Lincoln and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles had every intention of employing that sea power. However, in hindsight, their strategic vision was limited, and opportunities were lost for potentially decisive joint army/navy campaigns into the Southern heartland.[2]

A central component of Union strategy was to interdict trade with seceded states, starving them of funds, war materials, and necessities. On April 19, 1861, ten days after Fort Sumter, Lincoln issued a “Proclamation of Blockade Against Southern Ports.”

It was the most extensive naval blockade ever attempted, covering over 3,500 miles of low lying sand and swamp from Cape Hatteras to Matamoros. The blockade eventually would employ more than five hundred vessels manned by a hundred thousand sailors. But it required secure local bases from which to repair, resupply, and refuel blockaders, and to rest crews without long, wearying retreats to secure Norther harbors.

The Civil War demanded operations new to the U.S. Navy, employing innovative tactics and technology. These included: joint and amphibious operations; reduction of powerful shore fortifications; capture and control of heavily defended harbors, inland waterways, and contiguous coastal areas; interdiction of enemy trade, communications, and transportation—all while sustaining and protecting friendly forces. The navy, heretofore an exclusively deep-water force, had never thought very much about any of these power projection challenges.

There were no protocols and no mechanisms for directing joint operations between land and sea services. The sole joint commander was the commander-in-chief; he was still learning the ropes in the winter of 1861-62. The command environment was muddled by George McClellan’s machinations to supersede Winfield Scott as commanding general. Army and navy secretaries managed separate fiefdoms. Officers of one service, however senior, could issue no orders to any officer of the other service, however junior.

army navy joint operations

Coordination depended entirely on the willingness and abilities of service secretaries to cooperate strategically, and of respective field commanders to mutually plan and execute operationally. Much depended on personalities. The Union was not ready to fully exploit weak Confederate coastal defenses.

After months of discussion, Port Royal Sound, South Carolina, was selected as the target of an expeditionary force consisting of 17 warships and 60 transports under the command of Flag Officer Samuel F. DuPont ferrying 13,000 troops commanded by Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman (no relation to W. T. Sherman).Port Royal 1861Port Royal—one of the finest natural harbors on the east coast, situated inland from Hilton head between Savannah and Charleston—would be a wonderful base for blockading and for denying the Confederacy a major blockade-running port. Two major sand forts, Walker and Beauregard, with 3,000 Rebels and mounting about twenty guns each guarded the entrance.

The forts were incomplete and poorly designed; a shortage of heavy 10” Columbiads was partially offset by a larger number of smaller caliber guns. The fledgling Confederate Navy contributed one small converted coaster and three former tugs, each mounting two guns—the “mosquito fleet.”

DuPont and Sherman demonstrated excellent cooperation in planning and executing. As it turned out, however, Sherman’s troops were not needed; it was an all-navy show.

battle of port royal 3On November 7, 1861, DuPont steamed his squadron onto Port Royal in line ahead and ran a race-track course up and down the harbor blasting in succession the fort on one side and then on the other with all his broadsides.

Some ships found they could stop and enfilade the water battery at Fort Morgan in a position safe from return fire.

The mosquito fleet withdrew after lobbing a few shells toward the Yankees. Fort Morgan defenders had difficulty hitting moving targets while losing their guns to enemy fire and running out of ammunition. They abandoned their positions.

Fearing isolation from retreat, those at Fort Beauregard followed. DuPont’s sailors rowed ashore, occupied the forts, and then turned them over to the army. Port Royal would be a Federal bastion for the remainder of the war.

“Both Sherman and Du Pont, to their credit, saw that Port Royal’s fall had potential that went far beyond serving as a logistical base for the navy’s blockading operations,” noted one historian.[3] A few months later Du Pont wrote that “the occupation of this wonderful sheet of water, with its tributary rivers, inlets, outlets, entrances and sounds, running in all directions, cutting off effectually all water communications between Savannah and Charleston, has been like driving a wedge into the flanks of the rebels between these two important cities.”[4]

The Confederate high command agreed, which is why President Davis dispatched Lee to take charge of coastal defenses. In the report cited above, Lee considered the aftermath of the Union victory at Port Royal: “I have thought [the enemy’s] purpose would be to seize upon the Charleston and Savannah Railroad near the head of Broad River [flowing into Port Royal Sound], sever the line of communication between those cities with one of his columns of land troops, and with his other two and his fleet by water envelop alternately each of those cities. This would be a difficult combination for us successfully to resist.”[5]

Lee improved fortifications and built up a defense in depth around Savannah with what forces he could muster. The Rebels blocked Federal land advances in the area for two and a half years. But the attention of Washington leaders was elsewhere; they did not try to exploit the potential for further joint operations at Port Royal.

USS Wabash

USS Wabash, flagship for Flag Officer DuPont at Port Royal

Two factors contributed to DuPont’s success there. The first was technology. For centuries, the sailing warship—subject to vagaries of wind—had little chance against shore batteries firing bigger guns from stable and usually higher platforms protected by stone ramparts and capable of employing heated shot.

But the navy had come a long way, demonstrating technical innovation and excellence in warship production. It was advancing rapidly in steam and propeller propulsion and was leading the ordnance revolution of the era. Larger steam men-of-war armed with heavier and longer range guns firing explosive shells were evening the odds.

9 Dahlgren gun

9″ Dahlgren cast-iron shot and shell gun

Like DuPont at Port Royal, Admiral David G. Farragut would blow past powerful fortifications below New Orleans (April 1862) and again in Mobile Bay (August 1864) with greater but manageable casualties, isolating the forts into surrender.

Sea power did not always work alone, however. Farragut (in July 1862) and Admiral David D. Porter (in April 1863) could sneak their squadrons past massed batteries on Vicksburg heights with manageable damage but could not take the city on their own. Charleston Harbor became a cul-de-sac of fire and destruction for another Union squadron (April 1863)—including presumably impregnable ironclad monitors—defying all attempts at capture from the sea.

Given lack of institutionalized coordination and an incomplete appreciation of sea power or power projection, victory at Port Royal and elsewhere also depended on close and personal partnerships between senior commanders. U. S. Grant would agree that much of his success was due his relationships with salty compatriots like Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote (Forts Henry and Donelson, February 1862), Farragut and Porter.

From Grant’s first engagement at Belmont, MO (November 1861), through Henry and Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and finally on to Richmond, the navy provided heavy artillery support and pushed aside all Rebel water forces while transporting, supplying, and feeding Federal armies along all rivers and coasts.

Grant’s and Porter’s Vicksburg campaign culminating in its surrender on July 4, 1863, would become the most prominent example of joint operations. Under the leadership of Admiral Porter and Major General Alfred Terry, the bloody capture of Fort Fisher, North Carolina (January 1865) was the ultimate Civil War amphibious operation.

Savannah and Charleston finally fell to the encircling hosts of General Sherman (December 1864, February 1865), but he rushed from Atlanta to Savannah for the express purpose of reestablishing logistic support from the sea and depended upon it from then on. What if these cities had been taken by joint operations in the spring of 1862?

[1] R. E. Lee to General S. Cooper, January 8, 1862, OR, Ser. 1, vol. 6, p. 367.

[2] Williamson Murray and Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh, A Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War (Princeton & Oxford, 2016), Chapter 5, Stillborn between Earth and Water: The Unfulfilled Promise of Joint Operations.

[3] Murray and Wei-siang, A Savage War, 128.

[4] John D. Hayes, ed., Samuel Francis Du Pont: A Selection from His Civil War Letters, vol. 1, The Mission: 1860– 1862 (Ithaca, NY, 1969), p. 285.

[5] R. E. Lee to General S. Cooper, January 8, 1862, OR, Ser. 1, vol. 6, p. 367.

Review: On to Petersburg by Gordon Rhea

Rhea - On to PetersburgBack in September, I mentioned how excited I was about the arrival of Gordon Rhea’s book On to Petersburg: Grant and Lee, June 4-15, 1864. In October, my colleague Edward Alexander posted his thoughts about the book, situating it the larger historiography of the Overland Campaign. By the time I finished reading the book and prepared to comment on it, Civil War News Book Review Editor (and ECW colleague) Steve Davis asked me to review it for CWN. I’ve deferred commenting here until that review appeared in print—which it finally has! I invite you to check out the May 2018 issue Civil War News for my complete thoughts.

Except that I have more to say . . . !

On to Petersburg serves as a crucial bridge between the Overland Campaign and the Siege of Petersburg. “[T]he operation of flanking had come to an end, and the choice now lay between a direct attack and a new plan,” Rhea writes.

Confederate earthworks had already demonstrated over and over the costliness of mounting direct attacks against them, so Grant finally switched tacks. If he couldn’t crush Lee’s army in open-field combat, he would strangle Lee’s army by choking off its supplies. To do so, he targeted the rail hub of Petersburg, the second-largest city in Virginia. To get there, Federals first had to cross the swampy Chickahominy and then the wide, tidal James River. “For the gambit to succeed . . . “ Rhea writes, “the Army of the Potomac had to move with clocklike efficiency, a feat that it had rarely achieved.”

The story of the crossing of the James is a story of maneuver, including the logistical preparations and military actions necessary to make the move. Confederate artillerists and later memoirist A.P. Alexander called the move to the James “the most brilliant stroke in all the Federal campaigns of the whole war.” Rhea’s detailed attention to the maneuver reminds us of what a truly stunning military and engineering feat it was, standing among Grant’s most noteworthy achievements of the entire campaign.

From a narrative point of view, we tend to like our stories to build toward a climax. Rhea’s choice of the opening assault against Petersburg fulfills this basic storytelling function, ending the book with an engagement that then sets the table for the siege. Personality conflicts come to a head and new ones emerge, and communication issues continue to blunt Grant’s ambitious plans. “Coordination from the top—Grant’s responsibility—was . . . severely lacking,” Rhea reveals.

“[Grant’s] detachment on June 15, compounded by his failure to designate someone to oversee the offensive on the ground, stands as his most significant lapse during the entire campaign from the Rapidan to Petersburg,” he explains. “And it was a lapse that came at the campaign’s culmination, literally denying Union arms the objective they had fought so mightily to achieve during the previous forty-five days.”

Buffs tend to like to categorize Civil War actions, and a book that blurs the lines between the Overland Campaign and the Siege of Petersburg the way this one does can challenge those assumptions. However, if you’ve paid close attention to Rhea’s overall narrative, the Overland Campaign was one of maneuver, innovation, and improvisation, as well as battle. On to Petersburg situates the events of June 4-15 squarely in that context.

As a writer, I love Rhea’s ability to find the perfect phrase, and as a researcher, I love his ability to find surprising details. For instance, “soldiers routinely shot themselves in the second finger of their right hand in the hopes of being sent back to Washington,” Rhea wrote. While doctors customarily used chloroform on patients when tending such wounds, “as a punishment to the cowards the surgeons . . . perform the amputation of wounded fingers without any anesthetic.” Ouch! But those sorts of small episodes and details fill Rhea’s narrative and make it rich.

If I have any criticism of the book, it’s that the cover design doesn’t match up with the first four volumes in the series. That’s minor, of course, and it didn’t stop me from cracking the cover and diving into the book itself.

For more of my thoughts, please check out the most recent Civil War News. Out of respect for the paper and for our readers, I don’t want to repeat myself here. But do pick up On to Petersburg if you haven’t already. It’s a worthy culmination of twenty years of outstandingly thorough research by THE expert on the Overland Campaign.

Paying My Respects to Pap Thomas

Thomas GravesiteAs a Virginian who stayed loyal to the Union, perhaps it makes sense that George Thomas was laid to rest somewhere in the north. In that grand scheme of things, Troy, NY, seems as likely a place as anywhere. Troy was the hometown of his wife, Frances Lucretia Kellogg. The “Rock of Chickamauga” preceded his wife in death by nearly twenty years (he on March 28, 1870; she on December 26, 1889), so she had him interred in Troy’s Oakwood Cemetery where she, herself, planned to be laid to rest.

I’ve been through Troy dozens of times on my way back and forth to New England, but for most of that time, I never knew “Pap” Thomas was buried there. The town proudly proclaims its connection to “Uncle Sam” Wilson—the real-life prototype of Uncle Sam—but the Rock of Chickamauga has gone untouted. 

For fans of Thomas, that probably comes as no surprise. Today, he’s kind of like the Rodney Dangerfield of Union generals: he gets no respect. In life, he never got along with Ulysses S. Grant, which proved to be more and more problematic for his career as Grant advanced farther and farther. Grant didn’t outright harpoon Thomas’s career the way he did, say, William Rosecrans’s, but he didn’t give Pap a whole lot of love—or credit—either.

Even in death, even today, Thomas withers under the shadow of Grant. After all, just 40 minutes to the north, atop Mt. McGregor, the pageant of Grant’s final days played out. He passed away on July 23, 1885—fifteen years after Frances laid her husband to rest in Troy—and to this day, Grant Cottage remains a source of pilgrimage for thousands of people each year. I’ve been fortunate to make it up there annually for the past five years or so.

Thomas Bust @ Grants TombThomas does, appropriately enough, make a cameo of his own in Grant’s NYC tomb. The sarcophagi of Ulysses S. and Julia Dent Grant are surrounded by the busts of Grant’s top lieutenants from war, including Thomas. (If you think Thomas gets no love, try being George Gordon Meade, who was left out of the “top lieutenants” assemblage entirely.)

While Grant’s funeral was one of the largest events ever in New York, Thomas’s was a much different affair. Not a single one of Thomas’s blood relatives attended, bitter over his loyalty to the Union over Virginia. His wife’s family generously gave him a place to rest among them, instead, in a land far away from his own—and yet not. After all, Thomas believed we were all one country. New York, he had declared through his service, was his home turf as much as anywhere.

In fact, the Hudson Valley probably had a stronger claim on Thomas than most places. He’d attended West Point, downriver from Troy, from 1836-40—a formative period in the life of a man who became a professional soldier. He served until his death, in 1870, while stationed in San Francisco, California.

Thomas Gravesite MarkerLast week, I had the opportunity to speak to the Capital District Civil War Roundtable in Watervilet, NY—a suburb of Albany. Troy was literally right across the Hudson River, so I made a point to finally seek out old Pap. At Oakwood Cemetery, a series of small metal markers erected by the Col. G. L. Willard Camp of the Sons of Union Veterans pointed the way. The camp adopted Thomas’ grave and the graves of the entire Kellogg family, among whom Thomas and his wife were buried, and the pride of their work showed.

The Rock of Chickamauga stands tall atop a knoll at one of the highest points in the cemetery. The grave—a marble sarcophagus topped with an eagle—stands with dignity inside a small fenced-in area. An in-ground plaque provides details about Thomas’s military career. There’s no flash—just clean-white marble scrubbed bright by the conscientious attention of respectful admirers.

I have to think Pap would be pleased.

Thomas Gravesite Plaque

The Mississippi River Squadron and the “Great Artery of America” (Part 2)

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Kristen M. Pawlak

Part 1 can be found here.

As the first of the major naval battles to secure the Mississippi River from 1862 until 1863, Fort Henry also marked a turning point in the strategic use of the Western Gunboat Flotilla. It was now a respected and powerful force the Union Army was able to use in the destruction of Confederate fortifications and strongholds along major rivers in the West. At Fort Donelson, just a week following the surrender of Fort Henry, Foote’s gunboats pounded the Confederate fortifications, but after holding their fire until the gunboats were in range, the Rebel guns opened up and forced the fleet to retreat. Though Foote’s attack against Fort Donelson failed, Grant’s Army of the Tennessee surrounded the garrison and forced the Confederates to surrender. In addition, the Confederate garrison at New Madrid, Missouri and Island No. 10 fell within weeks after Foote’s Flotilla bombarded them and transported thousands of Federal infantrymen past the Rebel defenses. On April 25, New Orleans surrendered to the West Gulf Blockading Squadron under the command of David Farragut, and later to Major General Benjamin Butler, which then opened the Mississippi River from the south.

Less than two months after the fall of Island No. 10, the Flotilla now under the command of Charles H. Davis – which included the Ram Fleet and Mississippi Marine Brigade — took Fort Pillow and Memphis within two hours on June 6, 1862, after delivering a crushing blow to the Confederate River Defense Fleet. Created and commanded by Col. Charles Ellet, the Ram Fleet consisted of specialized steam-powered towboats with reinforced hulls used to ram enemy ships. Ellet’s son Charles Rivers Ellet transferred from the Army as an assistant surgeon to join his father’s naval unit. He would later command the Ram Fleet’s USS Queen of the West after Col. Ellet’s mortal wounding during the Battle of Memphis. As a part of the Ram Fleet, the 350-man Mississippi Marine Brigade, commanded by Col. Ellet’s younger brother Alfred Ellet, consisted of soldiers that served as marines, artillery, and cavalry.

An artist’s rendition of the “Total Annihilation of the Rebel Fleet” during the battle of Memphis. (Photo courtesy of the United States Navy)

On June 6, 1862, the Union naval force approached Memphis, where the Confederate River Defense Fleet protected the forts there. Just days before, the Union Armies of the Tennessee, the Ohio, and the Mississippi forced the withdrawal of the Confederates from the town; this, in turn, effectively cut Confederate-occupied Memphis off from the east. The Rebel garrison fled to Vicksburg and other vulnerable Confederate strongholds. However, the River Defense Fleet was unable to acquire the necessary coal to flee before the Mississippi River Squadron arrived. Nonetheless, the River Defense Fleet chose to fight the Federal fleet. According to Western Gunboat Flotilla commander Charles Henry Davis, the fight began when “the rebels . . . opened fire.” A combination of gunfire and ramming, “compelled the remaining [Rebel] vessels to resort to their superiority in speed as the only means of safety.”[1] Ultimately, the fleeing River Defense Fleet traveled between 5 and 10 miles downstream, “until all of the rebel fleet were either sunk or captured,” with the exception of the General Van Dorn that escaped.[2] In less than two hours, the city of Memphis fell into Union hands as one of the victories of the Mississippi River Squadron. The Commander of the USS Carondelet Henry Walke believed that the “chief of all results of the work of the flotilla was the opening of the Mississippi River once and for all from Cairo to Memphis, and the complete possession of Western Tennessee by Union forces.”[3]

Rear-Admiral David D. Porter, commander of the U.S. Navy’s Mississippi River Squadron. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

The victory at Memphis also solidified the decision by the army to transfer command of the Western Gunboat Flotilla to the navy. On October 1, 1862, the navy renamed it “the Mississippi River Squadron,” and Admiral David D. Porter assumed command. In the official War Department orders, the navy credited the “brilliant and important service of the gunboats” as the main reason for the transfer. They also considered the flotilla’s success on the Mississippi River as “one of the brightest pages in the history of the war for the preservation of the integrity of the country and the suppression of a causeless and wicked rebellion.”[4] In October 1862, the only two Rebel garrisons left on the Mississippi River were positioned at Vicksburg and Port Hudson, Mississippi. To secure both of these bastions, “will be a severe blow [to the enemy], and, if done effectually, will be of great advantage to us, and probably the most decisive act of the war.”[5]

From December 1862 until March 1863, Grant and the Army of the Tennessee made several failed attempts to take Vicksburg. These included Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s frontal assault at Chickasaw Bayou and Grant’s expeditions to construct artificial waterways through the bayous bypassing Confederate batteries defending the city. To finally achieve success and force the surrender of Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton’s garrison there, Grant devised a combined-operational strategy between his ground troops and the gunboats. Using intelligence gathered by Porter’s Mississippi River Squadron, Grant finalized a plan to take Vicksburg: “I will go below Vicksburg and cross over if I can depend on you for a sufficient naval force. I will prepare some transports … and we’ll start as soon as you are ready.”[6]

The Army of the Tennessee would advance south from Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana along the western side of the Mississippi to New Carthage, where the army would cross into Mississippi south of Vicksburg. In the meantime, on April 16, the Mississippi River Squadron was ordered to run the batteries at Vicksburg to bring vital supplies and transport vessels to Grant’s army positioned near Grand Gulf. In the cover of the late-night darkness, the squadron embarked with engines muffled, lights off, and protected with cotton bales, “to prevent the enemy from becoming aware of our design.”[7]

Admiral Porter described the scene after the war in his Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War, “as I looked back at the long line I could compare them only to so many phantom vessels. Not a light was to be seen nor a sound heard throughout the fleet.”[8] As the fleet approached Vicksburg, large fires around the Confederate defenses illuminated the river to spot approaching Federal gunboats. Rebel batteries opened up on the now-visible fleet. Confederate infantry lined the levees along the river and fired their muskets just twenty yards away. Fortunately for the Mississippi River Squadron, only two transport ships were lost and several sailors wounded or killed. “The Vicksburgers must have been disappointed when they saw us get by their batteries with so little damage,” Porter later boasted.[9] The squadron’s incredible feat to bypass Vicksburg opened the door to victory: “General Grant had turned the enemy’s flank with his army, I had turned it with the gun-boats; now Grant had to cross the river and trust to his brave soldiers.”[10]

An etching of the Mississippi River Squadron’s fabled run past the defenses of Vicksburg on April 16, 1863. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

The army was to cross at Grand Gulf, guarded by Rebel Fort Wade and Fort Coburn.. To establish a beachhead, Porter’s fleet was again called to bombard and neutralize the enemy fortifications. In the morning of April 29, 1863, seven of Porter’s ironclads opened fire on both forts.[11] After “five hours and thirty-five minutes,” they silenced the guns of Fort Wade, but not Fort Coburn, which was out of the range of fire for the ironclads’ guns.[12] Additionally, Porter cited the “strong current . . . and strong eddies” as “the most difficult portion of the river in which to manage an ironclad.”[13] The failure to take Coburn forced Grant to slightly change his plans for the crossing. The army was to cross just south of Grand Gulf at Bruinsburg.

The next morning, the first part of Grant’s army boarded Porter’s transports at Disharoon’s Plantation and embarked across the river to Bruinsburg. With Confederate troops alert at Grand Gulf, the main challenge was to cross the river unseen by the enemy. Covered by darknesslike the first run past Vicksburg’s defenses, “the navy and transports ran the batteries successfully . . . by the time it was light the enemy saw our whole fleet, iron-clads, gunboats, river steamers and barges, quietly moving down the river three miles below them.”[14] On May 1, thanks to the Mississippi River Squadron, Grant’s force crossed the mighty Mississippi. Without the Mississippi River Squadron, the army’s crossing of the Mississippi would have been tremendously difficult, if not, impossible.

From May 1 through May 17, Grant pushed deeper into Mississippi, inflicting heavy casualties on Rebel defenders at Port Gibson, Raymond, Jackson, Champion Hill, Big Black River Bridge, and in the defenses at Vicksburg. On May 19 and 22, Grant launched several frontal assaults to dismantle the Confederates and seize their strongholds, but ultimately failed. According to Grant, “the experience of the 22d convinced officers and men that [a siege of Vicksburg] was best.”[15] The Federal lines outside Vicksburg were built with entrenchments, rifle pits, batteries, and parapets reinforced with logs. Grant had no siege guns, but instead relied upon Porter’s naval guns from his fleet to blast the Confederate fortifications. “Our men are much used up, but we will bombard all we can,” Porter wrote to Grant from the USS Black Hawk.[16] Until July 3, the Mississippi River Squadron continued the bombardment with unrelenting ferocity. Recalling the siege in a poem entitled, “The Siege of Vicksburg,” Porter wrote, “And the fleet lends its cannon to add to the din . . . but the fires burned down, leaving Vicksburg in gloom, And the phantom-ships floated on — sealing her doom.”[17]

On July 4, 1863, Pemberton finally surrendered his approximately 30,000-man Army of Mississippi after two months of siege, starvation, death, and destruction. In the days prior, the Rebel commander had discussed terms of surrender for his defeated army with Grant, who insisted upon an unconditional surrender and the parole of all Confederate forces at Vicksburg. Pemberton finally agreed on the evening of July 3 and formally surrendered the next day. On July 9, 1863, less than one week after the fall of the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy,” the final Confederate fortification on the Mississippi River at Port Hudson fell to Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks. The decisive victories for the North on the Mississippi caused a relieved President Abraham Lincoln to declare, “the Father of Waters goes unvexed to the sea.” The Mississippi River was finally back in Union hands.

The historiography of the Vicksburg Campaign tends to focus on Ulysses Grant’s leadership and his strategic brilliance in seizing the garrison at Vicksburg. Over the course of time unfortunately, the history books  have not thoroughly discussed or analyzed the naval contribution to securing the Mississippi River and capturing Vicksburg.

For Grant, the hero of Vicksburg, the Mississippi River Squadron won the campaign for the North. Immediately after the surrender, Grant rode from his headquarters to the river to personally thank and congratulate Porter and his sailors for their invaluable service during the campaign.[18] “The navy under Porter was all it could be, during the entire campaign. Without its assistance, the campaign could not have been successfully made with twice the number of men engaged . . . The most perfect harmony reigned between the two arms of the service,” Grant later wrote in his Memoirs.[19] Additionally, this same navy was vital in defending and protecting Union interests on Western waters, especially in controlling waterways and suppressing enemy smuggling and irregular warfare. It can be said, the Mississippi River Squadron not only saved the rivers, it saved the West and, therefore, the United States.

Kristen M. Pawlak is the Development Associate for Stewardship at the Civil War Trust. She also sits on the Board of Directors at the Missouri Civil War Museum, and actively volunteers with the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation. She graduated from Gettysburg College in 2014 with a BA in History and Civil War Era Studies, and is currently pursuing her MA in Nonprofit Leadership and Management at Webster University. From St. Louis, Kristen has a fond interest in the Civil War in Missouri, Civil War medicine, and the war experiences of soldiers.


[1] Charles Henry Davis, “Detailed Report of Flag-Officer Davis,” June 6, 1862, in Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, series1, vol. 23, 119, 120.

[2] “Report of Commander Walke,” June 6, 1862, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, series1, vol. 23, 122.

[3] Henry Walke, “The Western Flotilla at Fort Donelson, Island Number Ten, Fort Pillow and Memphis,” in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, v. 1: 452.

[4] “General Orders No. 150,” October 2, 1862, in Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, series1, vol. 23, 389.

[5] W.T. Sherman to F. Steele, George W. Morgan, A.J. Smith, and M.L. Smith, December 23, 1862, in William T. Sherman, Memoirs of General William T. Sherman (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957), 287.

[6] Porter, Incidents and Anecdotes, 174.

[7] Ibid., 175.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 177.

[10] Ibid., 178.

[11] David D. Porter, “Detailed Report of Acting Rear-Admiral Porter, U.S. Navy,” April 29, 1863, in Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, series 1, vol. 24, 611.

[12]Ibid., 610.

[13] Ibid., 611.

[14] Grant, Memoirs, 477.

[15] Ibid., 532.

[16] David D. Porter, “Letter from Acting Rear-Admiral Porter to Major-General Grant,” May 22, 1863, in Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, series 1, vol. 25, 30.

[17] Porter, Incidents and Anecdotes, 198.

[18] “Vicksburg Campaign: Unvexing the Father of Waters,” Civil War Trust, accessed December 18, 2017, https://www.civilwar.org/learn/articles/vicksburg-campaign-unvexing-father-waters.

[19] Grant, Memoirs, 574.

Symposium Spotlight: Christopher Kolakowski

Welcome back to another installment of our 2018 Emerging Civil War Symposium Spotlight. Our final speaker on Saturday, August 4, will be Christopher Kolakowski. He will bridge the divide between battlefield and political turning points of the war as he examines Ulysses S. Grant, his rise to ultimate command, and how this one man became a turning point in Federal war effort. Chris has researched and written extensively on the topic. He sent along a preview of his presentation for this year’s symposium below.

On March 9, 1864, Ulysses S. Grant received promotion to Lieutenant General and designation as Commanding General of the U.S. Army. Often discussed in passing as regards the 1864 campaigns, to contemporary eyes this was a major event in the war. His leadership made a key difference in the next 13 months, and proved the wisdom of Lincoln’s choice. Kolakowski’s talk will review the reasons behind this appointment, and its effects on U.S. strategy and conduct of the war in 1864.

Christopher L. Kolakowski was born and raised in Fredericksburg, Va. He received his BA in History and Mass Communications from Emory & Henry College, and his MA in Public History from the State University of New York at Albany.

Chris Kolakowski

Chris has spent his career interpreting and preserving American military history with the National Park Service, New York State government, the Rensselaer County (NY) Historical Society, the Civil War Preservation Trust, Kentucky State Parks, and the U.S. Army. He has written and spoken on various aspects of military history and leadership from 1775 to the present. He has published two books with the History Press: The Civil War at Perryville: Battling For the Bluegrass and The Stones River and Tullahoma Campaign: This Army Does Not Retreat. Chris is a contributor to the Emerging Civil War Blog, and his study of the 1941-42 Philippine Campaign titled Last Stand on Bataan was released by McFarland in late February 2016. In September 2016 the U.S. Army published his volume on the 1862 Virginia Campaigns as part of its sesquicentennial series on the Civil War.

If you still have not purchased your tickets for this year’s Symposium, Aug. 3-5, 2018, they are available to order here. They include Friday night’s reception, speakers, keynote address, and historians’ roundtable; Saturday’s line-up of talks; coffee service and lunch on Saturday; and Sunday’s tour of Stonewall Jackson’s final days.