During the first months of the Civil War, the only river on most Northerners' minds was the Potomac. One strong thrust across it, so the general thinking went, and the war would be won. Union General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, however, realized that the conflict would be long and bloody, and to win, the North would have to capture and control the Mississippi River. His Anaconda Plan envisioned seizing the Mississippi, blockading the Southern coastline, and holding the line of the Ohio River. Although Scott"s plan was never officially adopted, Union riverine operations in the West proved a key to victory.
While the strategically important rivers in eastern Virginia mainly ran west to east and were usually impediments to Union advances, in the immense Western theater the largest rivers generally ran north and south and were avenues of invasion into the Confederate heartland. The South's weak rail infrastructure increased the strategic importance of the waterways as routes for transporting supplies and soldiers. Capturing the waterways, however, required operating deep in enemy territory, in regions where heat and disease could be as much a danger to advancing Federals as Confederate gunfire. The U.S. Navy and Army ultimately succeeded in doing so through a combination of industrial might, engineering and construction skill, ingenuity, and hard fighting.
There were, however, bumps along the way. Union operations on Western waters were not always smoothly run. The high command never developed a joint planning mechanism, nor was there a settled means to resolve interservice differences. If a conflict arose, a commander's recourse was to appeal to the appropriate service secretary and, barring resolution at that level, to take the matter to President Abraham Lincoln.
Success in joint Army-Navy operations depended largely on the relationship between the service commanders involved. When they got along well and coordinated their activities, much was achieved. For example, Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant and Commodore Andrew H. Foote seized Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland in a relatively short campaign, and Grant and Rear Admiral David D. Porter overcame formidable obstacles to capture Vicksburg. However, when commanders failed to cooperate effectively, such as Porter and Major General Nathaniel Banks during the Red River Expedition, the result was often defeat.
Warships for the Western Rivers
A near constant in Army-Navy operations in the West was the superiority of Union warships. Thanks to the North's manufacturing resources, it won the race to convert river craft into gunboats. Throughout the conflict the Confederacy was severely handicapped not only by its paucity of shipbuilding facilities but also by an inability to build the steam engines required to power the ships. Most of the engines used in Confederate naval vessels were in fact requisitioned from civilian boats and ships, and as a result, the vast majority of Rebel steam-powered vessels were underpowered.
The first Union warships on the Western rivers actually belonged to the Army. In May 1861, the Navy sent Commander John Rodgers and naval constructor Samuel Pook to the West, where they reported to the Army and oversaw conversions of river craft into warships that were then commanded by naval officers. The first of these Western-theater Union gunboats were the side-wheel river steamers Conestoga, Lexington, and Tyler, purchased in June 1861. Converted for military use in only several months, they were known as "timberclads" for the addition of 5-inch-thick oak planks as protection. All provided highly effective service. Other converted river ships received iron protection. These included the Benton-with 16 guns the most powerful of the early river ironclads-the six-gun Essex, and the four-gun Choctaw.1
The Army also ordered construction of ironclad warships for Western river service. The first of these were the highly effective Cairo, or City, -class ships, named for towns along the Western waters: Cairo, Carondelet, Cincinnati, Louisville, Mound City, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. Built by James Eads and Pook, they featured relatively shallow drafts, rectangular casemates, and sloped sides that gave them a turtle-like appearance. Although underpowered, the vessels were heavily armed, mounting 13 guns each, and were the backbone of the Army's Western Flotilla. Eads also designed highly effective river monitors for Western service: the 180-foot single-turret Neosho, Osage, and Ozark, and then the double-turret, 229-foot Chickasaw, Kickapoo, Milwaukee, and Winnebago.2
The 23 Unadilla-class screw gunboats were among the most effective ships designed for riverine operations and built during the war. (See "The Great Navy Cattle Drive of '62," page 24.) The basic armament of the 158-foot vessels was one XI-inch Dahlgren smoothbore, two 24-pounder smoothbores, and one 20-pounder Parrott rifle. Commissioned in September 1861, the namesake ship was completed in only 93 days, leading to their appellation of "90-day gunboats." Ten of these ships participated in Western operations, while most of the rest fought on Eastern rivers, sounds, and coastal waters.3
The ships of the Mississippi Ram Fleet were even more specialized. Civil engineer Charles Ellet Jr. suggested using rams to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, who initially rejected the project as impractical but changed his mind following the 8 March 1862 ramming and sinking of the Union sloop-of-war Cumberland by the ironclad Virginia in Hampton Roads, Virginia. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton secured an Army colonelcy of engineers for Ellet, who took charge of the conversions of Ohio River stern- and side-wheelers purchased by the Army Quartermaster Department. The colonel strengthened the steamers' bows, hulls, and bulkheads with heavy timbers so they could better withstand the shock of ramming. Conceived as single-mission warships, the 98- to 406-ton vessels initially carried no ordnance, although sharpshooters were assigned to each one.4
Mortar boats were also single-mission vessels that saw action on the Western rivers. Unpowered, they carried only one 13-inch mortar. Deeper-draft mortar schooners also carried a 13-inch mortar, as well as more conventional armament.5
The most interesting riverine warships were the side-wheel "double-ender" gunboats. The light-draft vessels featured a rudder at both the bow and stern and could operate in either direction, a great advantage in narrow rivers. The first of this type commissioned, USS Miami shelled Vicksburg as well as battled the Confederate ironclad Albemarle on North Carolina's Roanoke River. (See "Thunder on the Roanoke," page 32). Miami, however, was one of the few double-enders to see action on a Western river, as nearly all of the others served on Eastern rivers or coastal waters.6
In a precursor of the fleet train idea of World War II, the Navy used a vast array of support ships in its Civil War riverine operations. These included transports as well as specialized support vessels, such as floating machine shops. Among innovative vessels were hospital ships. The Navy's first such ship was the converted former-Confederate steamer Red Rover, which the Mississippi Squadron received in December 1862. She featured operating rooms, flush toilets, and an elevator to shift patients between decks, and, in another first for a U.S. Navy ship, females (volunteer nurses) served on board the floating hospital.7
Early Riverine Operations
The first great Confederate obstacle to Union control of the Mississippi River was the bastion of Columbus, Kentucky. The stronghold was far too powerful for Grant, commander of the District of Southeast Missouri, to assault. Instead, on 7 November 1861 he landed 2,500 men across the Mississippi to attack the 2,700 Confederates at Belmont, Missouri. The Union troops went ashore three miles above Belmont, and then marched against it as the timberclads Lexington and Tyler circled and exchanged fire with the heavy Confederate guns of Columbus' upper batteries. Grant's force defeated the Confederates ashore, but the Union troops stopped to loot the Southern camp, allowing their adversaries to regroup. Meanwhile, protected by the lower batteries at Columbus, Confederate reinforcements crossed the river in an effort to cut off the Union soldiers from their transports. Grant's then-outnumbered force managed to cut its way through the Rebels, and as the last Federals hurriedly re-embarked, the Confederates struck in strength, only to be stopped by grape and canister fire from the timberclads.
The Battle of Belmont, which claimed 610 Union and 642 Confederate casualties, was not an action in which Grant could take great pride, but President Lincoln was pleased to have a general willing to fight. The battle also spread fear in the South over possible future Union amphibious operations. Although the Confederate commander at Columbus, Major General Leonidas Polk, trumpeted a great victory, he also demanded additional men and artillery and was thereafter reluctant to heed the calls of Western Military Department commander General Albert Sidney Johnston to send reinforcements to more threatened areas. In that sense, Belmont played a key role in later Union operations against Forts Henry and Donelson.8
In January 1862, Grant and Commodore Foote, who had been appointed commander of the Western Flotilla, persistently lobbied for an advance against the two strongpoints, which anchored the center of Johnston's defensive line. The forts were located where the Tennessee and Cumberland-which flow from deep in the Confederate heartland to the Ohio River-are only 12 miles apart. The Union commanders' efforts paid off, and at the end of the month Major General Henry Halleck, head of the Department of the Missouri, gave permission for them to begin combined operations against the forts.
The first Union objective, Fort Henry, fell to an assault by Foote's timberclads and Cairo-class ironclads on 6 February before Grant's troops arrived. The fort was poorly sited, and the fight's lopsided outcome gave a false sense of the likely result of battle involving gunboats and shore installations. Foote immediately sent his timberclads up the Tennessee as far as Muscle Shoals, Alabama; during the five-day raid they captured three Confederate steamers and destroyed six others.9
As Grant moved overland toward Fort Donelson, Foote steamed his ironclad gunboats back down the Tennessee and up the Cumberland to the fort in hope of replicating his success at Fort Henry. It was not to be. The Donelson shore batteries were sited high on bluffs, and their fire could strike the sloping armor of Foote's gunboats at right angles. In the subsequent 14 February engagement, the Union warships were driven back, most of them damaged, while the shore batteries were little affected. Foote himself was among the Union wounded.
The naval assault did provide a diversion for Grant, and the Confederates were slow to react to the steadily increasing Union troop strength, made possible by naval transports. Soon it was no longer possible for the Southerners to break out, and Donelson surrendered on 16 February. In addition to collapsing Johnston's defensive line, the twin victories enabled Union troops to quickly occupy much of central Tennessee by advancing along the rivers. Moreover, the capture of the forts helped dispel gloom in the North over reverses in the East. For the Confederates, the men surrendered at Donelson might have turned the tide of the 6-7 April Battle of Shiloh. There, the timberclads Lexington and Tyler on the Tennessee River provided key logistical support, and, moreover, their gunfire may well have induced Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard to halt the Rebels' attack late on the battle's first day.
Most of Foote's gunboats, meanwhile, were about 100 miles to the northwest. After the surrender of Donelson, Halleck had dispatched the commodore and the vessels against Confederate forts on the Mississippi. The Rebels abandoned Columbus in early March, and Island No. 10, located at the upriver bend of a steep inverted-S turn, became the Union's next Mississippi River objective. Foote, however, was now more cautious, both as a consequence of the rebuff at Donelson and because-unlike at Henry or Donelson-any disabled Union vessel on the Mississippi would drift downriver into Confederate-controlled territory. Finally arriving near Island No. 10 on 15 March, the Western Flotilla, which then included mortar boats, began shelling the Confederate batteries on the island and the nearby Tennessee bank, but with little success.
Union troops under Major General John Pope had meanwhile captured New Madrid, Missouri, seven miles downriver from Island No. 10, at the S-turn's second bend, but could not get across the Mississippi to cut the Confederate lines of communication and supply to the island. Pope begged for gunboats, but Foote refused to risk his ships in a run past Island No. 10. Summing up the situation, Halleck reported that "Commodore Foote will not attempt to run past the batteries and he can not reduce them."10
On 23 March, however, the Army and Navy began work on one of the most innovative engineering achievements of the war. During a three-week period, hundreds of Union soldiers and sailors, supported by four shallow-draft steamers and six coal barges, used a variety of tools to cut a 50-foot-wide canal across the peninsula formed by the S-turn's first bend, to New Madrid. Three-fourths of a mile of the canal was dug through solid earth, while another six miles was cleared through swampy timber. Trees were cut below water using ingeniously designed saws and then hauled out of the way.
Although not deep enough for Foote's gunboats, the canal could accommodate light steamers, tugs, and transports that could ferry Pope's troops across the river. The Union general, however, continued to plea for gunboats to engage Confederate shore batteries on the Tennessee side of the Mississippi. Finally, Foote authorized an attempt to run past Island No. 10, and on two stormy nights, two of his warships reached New Madrid. They provided the firepower Pope needed to cross the Mississippi and cut off the island, which surrendered on 8 April.
The Western Flotilla and Pope's troops then moved downriver to Fort Pillow, north of Memphis. There, the Union commanders were on the verge of attempting to cut another canal when Halleck withdrew the bulk of Pope's men for his Corinth campaign. The flotilla continued a naval bombardment of the fort, but with little effect. On 9 May, Captain Charles Davis replaced Foote, who was suffering lingering effects of his Donelson wound, and the next day a Confederate flotilla sortied from below Pillow. In the resulting Battle of Plum Point Bend, Confederate rams put two much more powerful Union gunboats out of action before being forced to retreat in the face of superior Union numbers. Halleck's Corinth campaign, however, compelled the Confederates to abandon Fort Pillow, which Union troops occupied on 5 June.
By that time, the Western Flotilla had a counter to the Confederate rams. Several weeks before the capture of Fort Pillow, seven steamers of the War Department's new Mississippi Ram Fleet had joined Davis' vessels. The river rams were under Army command, in the person of Colonel Ellet, but for the most part operated under Navy orders-an arrangement that pleased neither party.
The 6 June 1862 naval Battle of Memphis ended in a Confederate rout, the Union gunboats and rams destroying all but one of the Rebel vessels engaged. Later that month, Davis moved the Western Flotilla downriver to the mouth of the Yazoo River above Vicksburg. There it joined Union Rear Admiral David G. Farragut's fleet, which had worked its way up the Mississippi after capturing New Orleans.
Conquering the Lower Mississippi
Commander David Dixon Porter, Farragut's foster brother, had conceived the plan to capture the "Crescent City" in 1861, when he was on blockade duty along the Gulf coast. The main obstacles for the admiral's fleet of 24 wooden warships and 19 mortar schooners were Forts Jackson and St. Philip, situatuated on opposite banks of the Mississippi 90 miles downriver from New Orleans. In the early hours of 24 April 1862, following nearly a week of around-the-clock ineffectual shelling and after Bluejackets had cut a passage through Confederate river obstructions, the Northern warships attempted a run past the forts. The Confederate river defense was fragmented and largely ineffective, and the vessels succeeded in passing the strongpoints without a ship being sunk. The Union ships then decimated the small Confederate river fleet. The next day, the Navy captured New Orleans, the Confederacy's largest city.
Pursuant to orders, Farragut sent his forces upriver, capturing undefended Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Natchez, Mississippi. Union warships then steamed to Vicksburg, but, lacking sufficient troops to take and hold the defended town, they soon withdrew downriver. Four weeks later, as the Confederates feverishly strengthened the Vicksburg defenses, Farragut returned. His ships ran past the Vicksburg batteries, and on 1 July Captain Davis' warships joined them upriver of the town.
After two weeks of shelling Vicksburg, Union forces received a shock on 15 July, when the Confederate ironclad ram Arkansas steamed down the Yazoo, boldly battled past the Union warships, and docked at Vicksburg. That evening, Farragut led his fleet back downriver to just below Vicksburg in an unsuccessful attempt to destroy the Rebel vessel. A week later, the Federals tried again; however, the Union ironclad Essex and one of Ellet's rams, Queen of the West, failed to seriously damage Arkansas. The Mississippi's falling water level and disease among his crews then prompted Farragut to return with his deep-draft vessels to New Orleans.11
In October, the ships of the Western Flotilla were turned over to the Navy Department and renamed the Mississippi Squadron, command of which was given to David Porter, who was promoted to rear admiral. One of the squadron's early operations was helping capture Fort Hindman, located 50 miles up the Arkansas River at Arkansas Post. Union gunboats pounded the Confederate fort, and its outnumbered garrison surrendered on 11 January 1863. The Mississippi Squadron then played a key role in Grant's Vicksburg campaign, transporting Union forces and supplies and running past the Confederate strongpoint to ferry Union troops across the river.12
Throughout the six-week siege of Vicksburg, Porter's squadron lent valuable assistance to the Army by transporting supplies, providing gunfire support, and carrying out diversionary raids. Vicksburg finally surrendered on 4 July, followed five days later by the Mississippi River citadel of Port Hudson, Louisiana. The capture of these two bastions left the Union in control of the Mississippi and cut the Confederacy in half. While critical supplies from Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas could no longer reach Confederates in the Southeast, the North's most valuable trade route was reopened, which helped cement the Northwest to the Union cause.
The Red River Campaign
Following the capture of Vicksburg, Grant favored operations to seize Mobile, Alabama, but his idea ran up against plans already put in motion by President Lincoln and General Halleck, who by then was the Union general-in-chief. What ensued in March 1864 was the last major riverine campaign of the war-the Red River Expedition. The largest combined operation to that point in U.S. military history, the expedition also was one of the war's major military fiascos.
The Union plan called for an advancce up the Red River and the capture of Shreveport, Louisiana, as a prelude to operations against the Confederate Trans-Mississippi. The chief Federal motives were economic and political, not military. A shortage of cotton had forced thousands of New England textile workers from their jobs. The Red River Valley was the largest cotton production area in the Confederacy, and Union leaders hoped the campaign would yield large captured stocks of that commodity, restore New England jobs, and help Lincoln win re-election in November. Supporters of the plan also hoped that success in Arkansas and Texas would help end Confederate resistance in Louisiana and dissuade French Emperor Napoleon III, whose forces were then occupying Mexico, from any designs on Texas.13
Major General Nathaniel Banks headed the ground portion of the campaign, while Rear Admiral David Porter commanded the naval portion-the Mississippi Squadron. A political appointee, Banks proved hopelessly inept and chose to move inland, removing any chance of Porter's ships on the Red River providing gunfire support. Banks met rebuff in several land battles. As the Union troops withdrew, Porter not only had to fight his way out against Confederate shore batteries but also had to contend with shallow water resulting in part from successful Rebel efforts to divert the flow of the river. Returning to Alexandria, Louisiana, Porter reported on 28 April 1864 that water in the channel through the nearby falls was only 3 feet 4 inches deep; his ships needed at least seven feet to make it downriver. Porter was faced with having to destroy the flotilla's ships to prevent their capture by advancing Confederates. One of the most spectacular engineering feats of the river war, however, saved the vessels.14
Army engineer Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bailey proposed raising the channel's water level by constructing wing dams. The plan seemed like madness, and a number of other engineers ridiculed it. Porter noted that "perhaps not one in fifty believed in the success of the undertaking." Certain it would work, however, Bailey convinced Porter, who then requested and received from Banks some 3,500 troops and 200 to 300 wagons for the project.
Work began on 30 April, with Bailey overseeing the construction. Troops felled trees and razed nearby mills for materials. From the north bank at the lower end of the falls, soldiers and sailors built a wing dam from trees and rocks; a shorter dam was constructed from the opposite bank by filling wooden cribs with rocks and machinery. Several large coal barges were sunk in place to further constrict the channel between the two wings and raise the water level. Two of the barges gave way on 9 May, and Porter quickly ordered some of his lighter vessels through the gap. After three additional days of repair work and construction of additional wing dams at the upper end of the falls, the heavier vessels escaped on 12 and 13 May. Porter claimed that Bailey had saved "a valuable fleet, worth nearly $2,000,000; more, he has deprived the enemy of a triumph that would have emboldened them to carry on this war a year or two longer."15
As on land, superior Union resources and innovation and generally effective leadership overcame Confederate improvisation and determination to decide the struggle for control of the Western rivers. And under Union control, they facilitated operations deep in the Confederate heartland, from Chattanooga, in southeastern Tennessee, to near Shreveport, in northwestern Louisiana. It is difficult to imagine a Union victory in the war without the assistance provided by the Navy in the Western theater. President Lincoln characterized the role of the Navy in this regard as "Uncle Sam's Web-feet," sailors who made their tracks "wherever the ground was a little damp."16
1. Donald C. Canney, The Old Steam Navy, vol. 2, The Ironclads, 1842-1885 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1993), 47, 38-45; Paul H. Silverstone, Warships of the Civil War Navies (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989), 157-59.
2. Silverstone, Warships of the Civil War Navies, 151-153, 149; Canney, The Old Steam Navy, vol. 2, The Ironclads, 53, 107.
3. Canney, The Old Steam Navy, vol 2, The Ironclads, 1842-1885, 91-92; Silverstone, Warships of the Civil War Navies, 49-54.
4. Ibid., 161-62; Canney, The Old Steam Navy, vol. 2, The Ironclads, 1842-1885, 37-38.
5. Silverstone, Warships of the Civil War Navies, 135-38.
6. Ibid., 58-66; Canney, The Old Steam Navy, vol. 2, The Ironclads, 1842-1885, 109-20.
7. Naval History Division, Department of the Navy, Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, vol. 6 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976), 51-52.
8. For naval aspects of the battle, see U.S. Navy Dept., Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1908) (hereinafter cited as ORN), Ser. I, 22: 402-28; the definitive account of the battle is Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes, Jr., The Battle of Belmont: Grant Strikes South (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1991); Ulysses S. Grant, Memoirs and Selected Letters (New York: Library of America, 1990), 178-186.
9. Lt Seth Phelps to Commodore Andrew Foote, 10 Feb 1862, ORN, Ser. I, 22: 571-4; Jay Slagle, Ironclad Captain: Seth Ledyard Phelps and the U.S. Navy, 1841-1864 (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1996), 162-73.
10. Larry J. Daniel and Lynn N. Bock, Island No. 10: Struggle for the Mississippi Valley (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1996), 86-87; MGen Henry Halleck to MGen John Pope, 24 Mar 1862, ORN, Ser. I, 22: 698.
11. Virgil Carrington Jones, The Civil War at Sea, vol. 2, The River War (New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston: 1961), 194-205, 214-18; Silverstone, Warships of the Civil War Navies, 155, 161.
12. Col Thomas L. Snead, "The Conquest of Arkansas," Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (reprint of 1883 ed., Secaucus, NJ: Castle, nd) (hereinafter cited as B&L), vol. 3, 452-53.
13. Ulysses S. Grant, Memoirs and Selected Letters (New York: Library of America, 1990), 484.
14. RAdm David D. Porter to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, 28 Apr 1864, ORN, Ser. I, 26: 92-5; BGen. T. K. Smith to Porter, 25 Apr 1864, Ibid., 92-3.
15. Porter to Welles, 16 May 1864, Ibid., 130-2; LCol Richard B. Irwin, "The Red River Campaign," B&L, vol. 4, 358-60; Gary Dillard Joiner, One Damn Blunder from Beginning to End: The Red River Campaign of 1864 (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2003), 137-51, 159-68.
16. David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (London: Jonathan Cape, 1995), 457.