Victory at Vicksburg

Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s Flag Ship, Mississippi Squadron. Photo-types by Gutekunst of water color paintings by A.C. Stewart, an Engineer in the U.S. Navy during the War of the Rebellion, compliments of the William Cramp and Sons Ship and Engine Building Company to Colonel W.B. Remey, USMC, Judge Advocate General, circa 1880s.

The fall of Vicksburg ensured the fall of Port Hudson and the opening of the Mississippi River, which I am happy to say can be traversed from its source to its mouth without apparent impediment, the first time during the war.

—David Dixon Porter

Farther up the Mississippi River, Grant’s troops continued to besiege the rebel stronghold at Vicksburg, supported by Porter’s ironclads and gunboats. “From early June, 1863, Vicksburg was besieged day and night,” Lieutenant Colonel George Currie wrote. “Our army was thoroughly and effectively investing the city, the right resting on the river above, thence in a crescent encircling it reaching the Mississippi again, below the city. Our Navy patrolled the river above, the peninsula opposite was in our possession, completely cutting off every avenue of supply and communication to the rebel garrison so hemmed in.” Currie observed, “I see some northern newspapers are afraid that Grant will get in a tight place, but if they knew the man or the situation, their fears on that score would vanish.” The colonel had confidence in “that quiet, unassuming man who is coolly walking along the line, with that cigar always in his mouth, and seeing everything that has been done or is to be done. . . . In him every soldier of this army has full confidence, and think ‘the taking of Vicksburg has settled down to a mere question of time.’”

In addition to time, the lack of food and provisions was a factor. As Sherman wrote to his wife on June 11, “The truth is we must trust to starvation.” The siege progressed, but the rebels seemed determined to hold out.

Porter, however, remained optimistic about the eventual fall of Vicksburg. His fleet kept bombarding the city, and he mounted a 10-inch gun on a scow to fire on the upper battery. Daniel Kemp remembered it well: “After we came down the river, we found the scow on which had been mounted a 10-inch Dahlgren gun in readiness for us to take down to some point near Vicksburg.” Porter assigned Ramsay, the Choctaw’s commanding officer, to manage the three heavy guns placed on scows. “We first went down two or three hundred feet below our mortar boats,” Kemp recalled, “which were used in throwing shells into Vicksburg, and remained there two days. Then we thought we would try to get a little closer, under cover of night, nearly opposite the Cincinnati’s wreck. There we laid under cover of darkness, within a few hundred yards of Vicksburg, for several days.” Protected by the bend of the river, they kept up a constant fire at a battery on the Vicksburg side of the ravine that separated the two armies. “We did good execution, for we struck their breastworks a number of times, and it was said we dismounted one of their guns. Our shells struck among their tents many times, causing great commotion among the occupants.” The rebels gave back, too, their pickets firing at Union pickets across the narrow river. They were getting their location, Kemp recalled, and one day sent over a shell “which burst directly over us, and you ought to have seen our officer in charge dive for the bank. The Rebels generally know about where to shoot, and waste no ammunition.”

In the meantime, the Lafayette continued its monotonous vigil. The boredom was broken only by the arrival of contrabands, which had become an almost daily event by June 1863. On June 22 Lyons noted that they picked up two small contrabands, “one of them being driven to Texas. He was sent back to get provisions and carry a letter. Instead of returning where he was sent he came down opposite the gunboats, tied his saddle to a tree and let the mule go at large. Then making the ‘Contraband Signal’—he was brought on board—letter and all.” Lyons added, “He is apparently fourteen years old and very cute.” The following day ten contrabands arrived, three of them females, and were assigned to the barge. “The women are dressed in their former mistresses cast-off clothing of gay colors.” The next day seven more former slaves boarded the gunboat, including three women and three children. Lyons explained that “fiddleing and dancing is the order of exercise on the Barge among the Free Africans of American or European descent.” Local whites occasionally attempted to reclaim their runaway slaves. One of them known as “Old Ferris (a rebel) came on board of our Ship after his negroes—Capt. Walke told him that he was a prisoner, and could not go on shore anymore. Afterward, he let him go but kept his negroes.”

By June 22, the Lafayette’s sick list had grown to forty-two, among them clerk Lyons. “Capt. Walke came on deck from his breakfast and ‘disrated’ me without giving any reason or making any complaint about anything. I was taken sick, with bilious colic, and completely prostrated.” According to Lyons, Walke replaced the clerk with a nonrated “white contraband” named Benjamin Holmes. That afternoon the doctor gave Lyons an emetic.

A week later, Porter received word from General Dennis, commanding the post at Young’s Point, that black troops at Goodrich’s Landing, Louisiana, had been attacked, and “the rebels were getting the upper hand of them.” Two African American regiments, the 1st Arkansas and 10th Louisiana, garrisoned Goodrich’s Landing, on the west bank of the Mississippi River, at the time. They guarded a military supply depot and surrounding government-run plantations on which freedmen had been put to work growing cotton and other crops. They had also erected two forts on an old Indian mound. Porter had already dispatched a gunboat, but he quickly sent another and directed Brigadier General Alfred Ellet to proceed there with the Marine Brigade and remain “until everything was quiet.”

Ellet went immediately to Goodrich’s Landing with his entire command, arriving at 2:00 in the morning. The side-wheel steamer John Raine approached the scene first, just as the rebels were setting fire to the government plantations. When Ellet arrived a few hours later, he “could plainly see the evidence of the enemy’s operation in burning mansions, cotton gins, and negro quarters as far as the eye could reach.” As Ellet later learned, the previous day, Colonel William H. Parson’s rebels had attacked two black companies that had retreated into the smaller of the two forts. The rebels surrounded the fort and captured the soldiers “after a spirited resistance and considerable loss to the enemy,” Ellet wrote. Sources claim that on June 29, Brigadier General James Tappan’s brigade demanded that the black soldiers surrender. The regiment’s three white officers agreed to this demand, provided they would be treated as prisoners of war, but the rebels would not guarantee the same treatment for the black soldiers. The rebels then took 116 men prisoner. Rather than seize the larger fort as well, the Confederate marauders plundered and burned cotton gins, plantations, and slave quarters. They also engaged Parson’s mounted infantry near Lake Providence the following day.

Assuming that the Raine was an ordinary, unarmed transport, the rebels opened fire with fieldpieces, and the Raine’s captain ordered his two 12-pounder brass guns to pour shrapnel into the enemy ranks. The rebels fled, and many of the African Americans they had captured broke free as well. The Raine then sent a landing party ashore; it gathered up twenty-three stands of small arms and rescued hundreds of captured blacks.

About this time, alerted by the sound of gunfire, Lieutenant John Vincent Johnston brought his wooden gunboat Romeo up the river. When he observed rebels setting fire to plantations, he ordered the ship’s gunners to shell them. Chased along the riverbank by the gunfire, the rebel marauders set fire to everything as they went along, resulting in almost total destruction of houses and property along the riverfront.

In the predawn hours, Ellet’s brigade arrived and disembarked. At daylight, eager to get going, Ellet sent his men off without breakfast to search for the enemy. When they reached the federal outposts, Ellet allowed the hungry infantrymen to rest and munch on blackberries while he sent the cavalry ahead to “push” the retreating rebels. His horsemen overtook the rebels, engaged them, and held them in check until Ellet came up with his main body. Because the rebels had crossed the bayou and burned the bridge behind them, Ellet’s men could not pursue them, so they returned to the river. The brigade suffered only three casualties—two black soldiers slightly wounded, and Captain W. H. Wright of Company D mortally wounded. Although the Confederates had nearly twice as many troops, Ellet observed that “they were evidently not inclined to make a standing fight, their main object being to secure the negroes stolen from the plantations along the river, some hundreds of whom they had captured.”

During this engagement at Goodrich’s Landing, the ram Lafayette had remained on station near the mouth of the Red River. But plantations in that vicinity were not immune to rebel raids. “On the 29th of June, the rebels made a raid upon Colonel Acklen’s and the neighboring plantation,” Walke recalled. “At about three o’clock in the morning, twenty five or thirty of their cavalry rode in haste and captured two of our sick men in a temporary hospital near the bank of the river where the gunboat ‘Pittsburg’ was anchored.” The rebel cavalry also succeeded “in carrying off a negro patient.”

More than a week prior to this incident, Walke had informed Porter that the Lafayette needed to be “docked as soon as possible.” Unless he heard from Porter or could get up the river soon, Walke explained, he would have to send the Pittsburg up to Vicksburg and make his way down to New Orleans to dock and repair his vessel. “I am very sorry to hear of your mishap. You can come up here whenever you like,” Porter replied on June 29, 1863. The admiral assured Walke that he was trying to get provisions and coal to him and would send the Switzerland down with a barge as soon as he could get one filled. Porter urged Walke, “Hold on for a few days til Switzerland arrives if you can.” He also explained, “We will have Vicksburg on the 5th of July certain, the rebels being determined to hold out until then.”

Grant had been pressing the siege of Vicksburg for weeks, and on June 20 he ordered a general bombardment. At 4:00 a.m. all the federal shore batteries, Porter’s gunboats, mortars, and armed scows had opened fire on Vicksburg. “There was no response whatever, the batteries were all deserted,” the admiral reported to Welles. “The only demonstration made by the rebels from the water front was a brisk fire of heavy guns from the upper batteries on two 12 pounder rifled howitzers that were planted on the Louisiana side by General Ellet’s Marine Brigade.”

Grant had informed Porter that he expected the Confederates under Joe Johnston to attack within forty-eight hours. He had ordered Sherman to meet the rebels and advised Porter to keep a gunboat at Milliken’s Bend in case the enemy attacked there as well. On June 23 Porter ordered his gunboats and the Switzerland to move up to the canal if the enemy attempted to cross over and “push in amongst the boats and destroy them and all in them.”

Three days later, Porter sent Welles a report: “I was in hopes ere this to have announced the fall of Vicksburg, but the rebels hold out persistently, and will no doubt do so while there is a thing left to eat.” The rebels were hoping for relief from Johnston—“a vain hope,” in Porter’s opinion, “for even if he succeeded in getting the better of General Sherman (one of the best soldiers in our Army), his forces would be so cut up that he could take no advantage of any victory he might gain.” Sherman, the admiral explained, had only to fall back on federal entrenchments at Vicksburg. The gunboats and a few men at Young’s Point have held the enemy in check, Porter assured Welles, and “although they annoy the transports a little, the gunboats are so vigilant and give them so little rest that they have done no damage worth mentioning.” He had landed ten heavy naval guns from the gunboats in the rear of Vicksburg, some manned by sailors, “and they have kept up a heavy fire for days, doing great execution.” Deserters had reported that the rebels had just six days of provisions left but would “not yield until that is gone.” Porter also updated Welles on operations against Port Hudson, saying that Banks had been repulsed twice “but will likely succeed in his next attempt.”

As June drew to a close, federal authorities off Vicksburg expected the rebels to evacuate the city and defensive works any day by boat. On June 29 Shirk had written to Woodworth, informing him that they had recently intercepted a letter from Confederate general A. J. Smith to his wife. “He says everything looks like taking a trip North. All seem to think that Saturday or Sunday will tell of the fall of Vicksburg.”

To keep pressure on the rebels, Porter’s gunboats and mortars kept up their bombardment on the enemy stronghold. The constant firing had, however, taken a toll on the mortars. “I am as busy as I can be keeping the mortar boats in repair,” William A. Minard, serving on the Black Hawk, explained in a letter to a friend. Vicksburg “isn’t taken yet. I don’t know when it will be either. The damn Rebs are in it and may hold it for six weeks to come. It can’t be taken by storm. The only way is to just set right down and stare them out.” Minard remained optimistic, however. “Vicksburg is played out. We are bound to have it.”

Only a few days later, on July 3, 1863, white flags appeared on part of the rebel works, and Major General James Bowen, a Confederate division commander, and Colonel Montgomery, aide-de-camp to General Pemberton, came to Union lines to propose an armistice and arrange terms of surrender. Grant wired Porter: “The enemy have asked armistice to arrange terms of capitulation. Will you please cease firing until notified or hear our batteries open? I shall fire a national salute into the city at daylight if they do not surrender.”

Grant refused Pemberton’s proposal to arrange terms of surrender through appointed commissioners, telling him, “The effusion of blood you propose stopping by this source can be ended at anytime you may choose, by an unconditional surrender of the garrison.” He assured the general that his men would be treated as prisoners of war. Grant told Bowen to inform Pemberton that he would meet with him that day at 3:00, which he did. The two men met on a hillside by a stunted oak tree. “Pemberton and I had served in the same division during a part of the Mexican war. I knew him very well, therefore, and greeted him as an old acquaintance,” Grant recalled. However, Grant again refused to accept any terms of surrender other than those he had proposed. Anxious negotiations followed, and the general wired Porter, “I have given the rebels a few hours to consider the proposition of surrendering; all to be paroled here, the officers to take only side arms.”

Grant’s new terms stated that, upon their acceptance, he would send in one federal division as a guard, and once rolls were made and paroles were signed, the Confederate officers and men would be allowed to march out, the officers taking their sidearms with them. Pemberton accepted these terms, and on July 4, “at the appointed time, the garrison of Vicksburg marched out of their works, and formed line in front, stacked arms, and marched back in good order. Our whole army present witnessed this scene without cheering,” Grant wrote. At 5:30 a.m. on July 4, Grant wired Porter that the enemy had accepted his terms and would surrender the city, works, and garrison at 10 a.m. That morning, as promised, Grant rode into Vicksburg with the troops “and went to the river,” he stated later, “to exchange congratulations with the navy upon our joint victory.”

In his letter of congratulations to Porter, Sherman wrote, “I can appreciate the intense satisfaction you must feel at lying before the very monster that has defied us with such deep and malignant hate and seeing your once disunited fleet again a unit; and, better still, the chain that made an enclosed sea of a link in the great river broken forever.”

Fourth of July proved to be a memorable day for Walke and the men of the Lafayette as well. “I have received a letter from the admiral for me to proceed to Vicksburg. The ram Switzerland will be sent to your assistance in keeping the blockade at Red River, and the Sachem will remain with you until she arrives,” Walke wrote to William Hoel. The ram must have gotten under way for Vicksburg that same day, for off Grand Gulf, Lieutenant Commander E. K. Owen of the Louisville wrote, “The Lafayette is in sight, coming up.”

When the Vicksburg campaign ended, Admiral Porter summarized the navy’s role in the long struggle to open the Mississippi River. “When I took command of this squadron, this river was virtually closed against our steamers from Helena to Vicksburg,” Porter wrote. All that he had to do, the admiral told Welles, was to impress upon the officers and men of the squadron the importance of opening communication with New Orleans, and “every one, with few exceptions, have embarked in the enterprise with a zeal that is highly creditable to them, and with a determination that the river should be opened if their aid could effect it.” Admitting that opening the Mississippi took longer than originally expected, Porter first praised Captain Pennock, the fleet captain and commandant at Cairo, for keeping the squadron supplied and for managing the Tennessee and Cumberland Squadrons, which had able officers in Lieutenant Commanders Phelps and Fitch. Porter then went on to commend Captain Walke; Commander Woodworth; Lieutenant Commanders Breese, Greer, Shirk, Owen, Wilson, Walker, Bache, Murphy, Selfridge, Prichett, and Ramsay; and Acting Volunteer Lieutenant Hoel for their “active and energetic attention to all his orders and ready cooperation with the army corps commanders.” After mentioning specific actions involving the gunboats and the light drafts, Porter also praised the mortar boat commander, gunner Eugene Mack, “who for thirty days stood at his post, the firing continuing night and day,” and Ensign Miller, who took charge when Mack fell ill. “We know that nothing conduced more to the end of the siege than the mortar firing, which demoralized the rebels, killed and wounded a number of persons, killed the cattle, destroyed property of all kinds, and set the city on fire.” The admiral also lauded the work of Selfridge, who had commanded the naval battery on the right wing of Sherman’s corps, firing 1,000 shells into the enemy’s works, and he praised Walker, who had relieved him a few days before the surrender. In addition, Porter commended Acting Master Charles B. Dahlgren, who had managed the two 9-inch guns, and Acting Master J. Frank Reed of the Benton, who had charge of the four gun batteries at Fort Benton.

Thanking the army for the capture of Vicksburg, Porter wrote, “This has been no small undertaking; the late investment and capture of Vicksburg will be characterized as one of the greatest military achievements ever known.” He gave due credit to General Grant for his role in planning and carrying out the operation. “The work was hard, the fighting severe, but the blows struck were constant. In forty-five days after our army was landed, a rebel army of 60,000 men had been captured, killed, and wounded, or scattered to their homes, perfectly demoralized, while our loss has been only about 5,000 killed, wounded, and prisoners, and the temporary loss of one gunboat.”

Concluding his report to Welles, Porter summed up the main achievement of the Vicksburg campaign thusly: “The fall of Vicksburg ensured the fall of Port Hudson and the opening of the Mississippi River, which I am happy to say can be traversed from its source to its mouth without apparent impediment, the first time during the war.”

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