Thick clouds of black smoke poured forth from countless stacks, veiling the morning sun. The pounding rhythm of boat engines and churning of paddle wheels filled the air as scores of warships of various shapes and sizes rounded to at the Vicksburg, Mississippi, waterfront. Coupled with the shrill sounds of steam whistles, which blended in chorus, the noise was almost deafening. Colorful pennants snapped in the breeze as sailors in dress whites crowded the decks and cheered themselves hoarse in celebration of the Fourth of July 1863. Their jubilation on this day honored more than just the nation’s birth, for the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy” had just surrendered.
The Union victory at Vicksburg was the culmination of one of the longest and most complex campaigns of the Civil War. Indeed, a growing number of historians consider Vicksburg the most decisive campaign ever waged on American soil—and justly so. Among the fruits of victory, Northern forces captured a garrison of 29,500 men and tremendous quantities of war matériel. Included among the seized public stores were 38,000 artillery projectiles, 58,000 pounds of black powder, 50,000 shoulder weapons, and 600,000 rounds of ammunition. Over the course of the campaign, the Federals also captured 254 cannon, which represented more than 11 percent of the total number of guns the Confederacy cast during the war.
Of greater importance, with the 9 July surrender of Port Hudson, Louisiana, a major objective of the Union’s Anaconda Plan to subdue the rebellious South was achieved, as the Confederacy was cut in two along the line of the Mississippi River. Thus, the vast Trans-Mississippi (that portion of the Confederacy west of the river) was severed from the Cis-Mississippi (the heartland of the Southern nation east of the river). This cut major Confederate supply and communications lines that helped support Southern armies in other theaters as well as a civilian population in growing want of sustenance. Trapped in the coils of the giant anaconda, Confederate Colonel Josiah Gorgas, chief of the Ordnance Department, lamented that “The Confederacy totters to its destruction.”
Union victory had been complete, and Major General Ulysses S. Grant and the gallant soldiers of his Army of the Tennessee deserve all the credit they received for the triumph at Vicksburg. But that victory had been the result of combined operations—what are now known as joint operations—and the laurels must be shared equally with the valiant sailors of the U.S. Navy who participated in the campaign.
In magnanimous fashion, Grant was the first to acknowledge the Navy’s assistance. On 4 July, after having witnessed the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy lowered from the cupola of the Warren County Courthouse in Vicksburg and replaced by the Star and Stripes, the general rode to the city’s waterfront to exchange congratulations with and extend his heartfelt thanks to Acting Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter, whose powerful gunboats of the Mississippi Squadron had proved to be the decisive factor in the campaign.
The Commanders and the River
The story of the long Vicksburg campaign is about the struggle for control of the Mississippi River and the triumph of combined operations. Beginning in 1862, the campaign was waged by many of the North’s premier Army and Navy officers. Some were graduates of the nation’s military academies, while others developed their skills through a lifetime of service on land or at sea. Others were political appointees who would achieve varied levels of success. But each had a unique personality and set of skills and worked to achieve a common goal—preservation of the Union. The list includes such luminaries or controversial figures from the Army as Benjamin Butler, Nathaniel Banks, John Pope, John A. McClernand, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Ulysses S. Grant. Among those representing the Navy were Andrew Hull Foote, Charles Henry Davis, David Glasgow Farragut, and David Dixon Porter. These officers, in joining their services, demonstrated diverse degrees of cooperation with usually commensurate results.
No pairing had greater impact on the outcome of the war than did Grant and Porter. The story of the Vicksburg campaign is very much that of these two men and the remarkable relationship—both professional and personal—they forged in the crucible of war. They formed an extraordinary tandem and set a standard for cooperation between the services that has seldom been equaled and rarely excelled. Although their shared story begins in October 1862, we must first examine their objective and understand its significance to the war effort.
The importance of the inland waters, especially the Mississippi River, cannot be overstated. Lloyd Lewis, a newspaperman and biographer of Grant and Sherman, accurately portrayed the Mississippi in the mid-19th century as “the spinal column of America,” referring to it as “the symbol of geographic unity.” For more than 2,000 miles the river flows silently on its course to the sea, providing a natural artery of commerce. Gliding along the Mississippi’s muddy waters were steamers and flatboats of all descriptions laden with agricultural produce en route to world markets. Indeed, the majestic river and its navigable tributaries were—and remain—the single most-important economic feature of the continent. One contemporary wrote emphatically that “the Valley of the Mississippi is America.”
Underscoring the significance of the river, and of the “Hill City” in particular, President Abraham Lincoln referred to Vicksburg and control of the Mississippi as “the key” and said that “the war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.” His counterpart, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, long a resident of Warren County, expressed his belief that a determined defense of the Mississippi River would “conduce more than in any other way to the perpetuation of the Confederacy and the success of the cause.”
Building and Organizing for Victory
To wrest control of the great waterway from the Confederates, the administration in Washington, acting through Secretary of War Simon Cameron, created a brown-water navy. The idea had been advanced by Lincoln’s attorney general, Edward Bates of Missouri; famous river salvager and engineer James B. Eads; and others who understood the economic significance of the river and the vital role it could and would play militarily in bringing an end to the rebellion.
Long reliant on river transportation and commerce to fuel industrial development, the Northern states possessed the necessary facilities for construction of steamboats. The operations at these yards were quickly converted to manufacturing warships. River steamers were transformed seemingly overnight into Army transports and supply vessels, while others, armed with ordnance of various sizes, were converted into cottonclads, timberclads, or thinly armored tinclads. The contribution that these vessels would make to ultimate Union victory was significant. However, it was the construction of a revolutionary fleet of ironclad gunboats designed specifically for use on the inland waters that would give the North the military capability to seize and maintain control of the strategic waterways.
Before John Ericsson began construction of the more famous Monitor, Eads laid the keels for seven City-class gunboats. It was a historic moment when the Carondelet was launched on 12 October 1861, as she was the first ironclad built in the Western Hemisphere and ushered in the modern era of naval warfare. Her six sisters soon followed and, by the end of January 1862, all were commissioned. The vessels that slid down the ways at the shipyards in Carondelet, Missouri, and Mound City, Illinois, were named in honor of cities on the Mississippi and its major tributaries: Cairo, Carondelet, Cincinnati, Louisville, Mound City, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. Each manned by a crew of 175 officers and men, the City-class gunboats proved to be the backbone of Union naval operations on the Mississippi and its tributaries and were forerunners of modern battleships. Within a month all were steaming downriver to seize control of the inland waters.
Because early in the war the Army claimed authority over all operations on the Western rivers, the ironclads and other gunboats, while commanded by naval officers and largely crewed by Navy sailors, were under Army control. They were organized into the Western Flotilla, which in October 1862 would be transferred to the Navy.
Joining the flotilla for river operations would be fast-moving rams and hundreds of steamboats, barges, scowls, and other vessels of all descriptions. Meanwhile, the Union Army assembled tens of thousands of troops for operations along the Mississippi and its arteries. This combined land and naval might represented one of the largest and most powerful military forces in the world and was equipped with the most technologically advanced weapons of the era. But effective and cooperative leadership was essential to wield these combined forces and lead them to victory. Numerous successions of officers would make their contributions to this effort before the winning combination emerged.
First Steps Toward Vicksburg
The river operations began in earnest early in 1862 as Union land and naval forces launched a two-pronged assault. Moving up the Tennessee River from their base at Cairo, Illinois, the Western Flotilla, commanded by Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote, steamed into its first action at Fort Henry on 6 February and compelled its surrender. Within days the fleet cooperated with Union land forces, led by Grant, in the capture of Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River.
While Union troops moved farther south and gained victory at Shiloh (Pittsburg Landing), along the Tennessee, in April and at Corinth, Mississippi, in May, the flotilla steamed to the Mississippi and headed downriver. In cooperation with Brigadier General John Pope’s Army of the Mississippi, the gunboats helped secure triumphs at Island No. 10 and New Madrid, Missouri. But lingering effects of a wound Foote had received at Donelson, as well as exhaustion, forced him to relinquish his command on 6 May to Flag Officer Charles H. Davis. Continuing southward, the Western Flotilla, augmented by the semi-independent U.S. Ram Fleet, destroyed the Confederate River Defense Fleet at Memphis on 7 June in the war’s only fleet action. The gunboats then had open water to Vicksburg.
As Grant and other Union Army commanders worked in conjunction with forces afloat and battled their way southward, the ships of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, commanded by Flag Officer David Glasgow Farragut, moved upriver from the Gulf of Mexico. On 24 April, in an awe-inspiring display of firepower and courage, his blue-water ships bombarded and steamed past Confederate Forts Jackson and St. Philip and several days later secured the surrender of New Orleans—the South’s largest city.
The Union warships continued upstream. Baton Rouge fell to the Federals on 8 May; Natchez, Mississippi, four day later; and Farragut’s vessels reached Vicksburg on 18 May. Responding to a demand for the city’s surrender, the post commander wrote that “Mississippians don’t know and refuse to learn how to surrender to an enemy.” In order to chastise the Rebels, Northern gun crews opened fire and maintained an intermittent, yet ineffective bombardment from mid-May through June and into late July. Although the gunboats of Davis’ Western Flotilla arrived in late June and added their firepower to the effort, it was to no avail. Fortress Vicksburg stood defiant, and the Union fleets withdrew.
The General and the Admiral
Northern Army and Navy commanders realized that a massive, combined land and naval force was necessary to capture Vicksburg. That force came into being in October 1862, soon after Grant assumed command of the Department of the Tennessee, the operational sphere of which included Vicksburg. Also in October, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, who had just succeeded in getting the brown-water navy placed under his control, selected the indomitable David Dixon Porter to command the inland-water fleet.
Born on 8 June 1813, Porter was destined for a life on the water. His father, Commodore David Porter, was a War of 1812 naval hero. In 1819 the commodore took his family to witness the launching of the ship-of-the-line Columbus at the Washington Navy Yard. Thereafter, the yard became a second home to David Dixon, where he was captivated by tall ships and sailors’ tales. In 1824 he went to sea with his father for the first time, on board the 32-gun frigate John Adams, and developed a passion for naval life. At age 14, David Dixon became a midshipman in the Mexican Navy, which his father commanded at that time. The younger Porter served in it for three years and gained his first combat experience. On 2 February 1829, President Andrew Jackson signed the warrant that appointed Porter a midshipman in the U.S. Navy. Over the next 20 years, he served in the Mediterranean, South Atlantic, and the Gulf of Mexico and won renown in the Mexican War.
On the eve of the Civil War, David Dixon Porter commanded the side-wheel frigate Powhatan, which in early April 1861 was sent to relieve the Pensacola, Florida, Navy Yard and nearby Fort Pickens. After the outbreak of hostilities, she served on blockade duty off the mouth of the Mississippi River. Later placed in charge of a flotilla of 19 schooners that each mounted a single 13-inch mortar, Porter participated in the bombardment of Forts Jackson and St. Philip and followed Farragut upriver to Vicksburg. When promoted from commodore to acting rear admiral and given command of the Western Flotilla in October 1862, he renamed it the Mississippi Squadron. Working closely with Union land forces under Major Generals William T. Sherman and John A. McClernand, Porter led his squadron at Chickasaw Bayou in December and at Arkansas Post in January 1863. With the arrival of Grant at the front in mid-January, Porter was now paired with an officer he quickly came to deeply respect and admire.
Struggles in Bayou Country
Throughout the winter of 1862–63, Porter worked in harmony and cooperation with Grant in a series of bayou campaigns directed against Vicksburg. The most notable was the Yazoo Pass expedition, in which the general sought to flank Vicksburg’s northern defenses at Haynes’ and Snyder’s Bluffs on the Yazoo River. During these campaigns, as Grant’s foot soldiers operated on the inland waters and through the flooded countryside of Mississippi and Louisiana, the Navy played a prominent role in helping to transport and supply the troops, as well as providing them with the protection and firepower of its guns.
In mid-March, as Grant’s soldiers dug canals or pushed through Yazoo Pass far to the north of Vicksburg, Porter recommended an alternate approach to the city. While scouting Steele’s Bayou as a way to support the Yazoo Pass expedition, the admiral found that the waterways of the lower delta provided a much shorter and, perhaps, more promising route to the Yazoo River above Haynes’ Bluff, where the Vicksburg defensive line was anchored. Porter hosted a reconnaissance for Grant during which he impressed on the general the feasibility of this route. On his return to army headquarters, Grant detailed troops, commanded by Sherman, to support the Navy.
Pushing up Steele’s Bayou, sailors and soldiers worked to clear obstructions from the channel. The expedition’s five City-class ironclads—the Louisville, Carondelet, Cincinnati, Mound City, and Pittsburgh—were able to knock down trees and demolish bridges that got in their way. But low limbs wreaked havoc with the upper decks and smokestacks of the wooden Army transports, which followed the Navy vessels.
Slowly winding their way through Steele’s Bayou and Black Bayou, the gunboats continued through the murky water of Deer Creek. On 19 March, as they neared the Rolling Fork of the Sunflower River, the boats were stopped by trees Confederates had felled in the narrow channel. Southern infantry and artillery moved into position to prevent removal of the obstructions, while other Rebel units raced behind the flotilla and blocked the channel there with more downed trees, thus bottling up the gunboats. In the gathering darkness the Confederates moved into position, confident they would capture the vessels on the morrow.
Porter, who had outdistanced his infantry support, recognized his danger and scribbled a note to Sherman imploring his assistance. The message, written on tissue paper and rolled in a tobacco leaf, was entrusted to an escaped slave from a nearby plantation who disappeared into the night. While he waited for help to arrive, Porter ordered the sides and decks of his vessels smeared with slime from the creek bottom to make boarding difficult. He also issued preliminary instructions to blow up the boats if necessary to prevent capture.
Tense hours passed, but when day broke the Southerners failed to attack and lost the opportunity to capture or destroy the gunboats. The admiral later claimed that he had been on the verge of abandoning ship and destroying the flotilla when the first of Sherman’s infantrymen arrived late in the day and drove off the Confederates. After trees were cleared, the flotilla slowly backed down Deer Creek several miles until it reached a spot wide enough to enable the sailors to turn their boats around. Despite the near catastrophe, Grant leveled no criticism in order to spare injury or embarrassment to Porter, which endeared him to the admiral.
One-Way Downriver Run
Although the flotilla was saved, this “experiment,” as with the others, had been a dismal failure. Checked every way he turned, Grant was running out of time and options. After months of frustration and failure, the general looked south and requested that Porter steam some of his gunboats past the Vicksburg batteries. Porter was aghast at the mere suggestion and cautioned Grant that should the vessels make it below Vicksburg, they would not be able to steam back upstream until the city had fallen.
Moving downriver with the powerful current, the gunboats could make about six knots. But breasting that powerful current coming upriver, they could only make two knots and would thus be under the fire of Confederate shore batteries for a prolonged period. It was believed that not even the heavily armored ironclads could withstand such a shelling. So Porter cautioned Grant to think long and hard about it, which he did. A few days later Grant told Porter this was the only viable option left.
With the Navy’s buy-in, Grant issued orders for most of his army to begin the march south from its base camps at Milliken’s Bend and Young’s Point. As Grant’s infantrymen slogged their way south through Louisiana, eight of Porter’s gunboats—seven of which were ironclads—along with three Army transports and a tug, prepared to run by the batteries at Vicksburg. On the dark, moonless night of 16 April, their crews raised anchor and moved their vessels downriver toward the citadel with engines muffled and running lights extinguished. The pilots were instructed to hug the Louisiana shore as their boats rounded DeSoto Point, opposite Vicksburg. The dense stand of trees that lined the west bank would help conceal them from Confederate lookouts. Porter hoped to slip past the batteries undetected. Indeed, as the first vessel in line, the flagship Benton, passed Vicksburg’s powerful Water Battery—the first guns upstream—not a sound was heard nor a movement seen.
Suddenly the night sky was ablaze. Along both banks Confederates had set afire cotton bales soaked in turpentine and barrels of tar to illuminate the river and silhouette the flotilla as it passed the batteries. Soon the dull boom of heavy guns was heard as the Confederates opened fire. For two hours, passing boats would endure the punishing Rebel battery fire.
Porter paid close attention to where the shot and shell was striking his vessels and noticed that the projectiles hit smokestacks, pilothouses, wheelhouses, and hurricane decks. Some even damaged gun decks, but few hit any lower, where the vital parts of the boats—engines, boilers, steam-drums, and mud filters—were located. The admiral reasoned that the placement of the enemy guns did not allow them to be depressed for a more effective fire.
Porter quickly ordered his captains to move their boats across the channel and hug the Mississippi shore. As they did so, the shot and shell began to fly harmlessly overhead. The vessels came so close to Vicksburg that sailors reportedly heard Confederate gun captains giving commands. They also heard bricks tumbling into the city streets, the effect of their own gunfire. When the last boats passed the southernmost battery, Porter tallied his damage and recorded the loss of only one Army transport. A feat deemed impossible by many had been achieved. With a large portion of the Mississippi Squadron now below Vicksburg, Grant had the wherewithal to cross the mighty river.
Difficult Duty Below Vicksburg
The desired crossing point was at Grand Gulf, but the riverfront there was guarded by two forts, Cobun and Wade. At 0700 on 29 April, the Carondelet, Louisville, Mound City, Pittsburgh, and the three other ironclads that had passed Vicksburg pulled away from Hard Times Landing and steamed into action to silence the Confederate forts’ cannon and pave the way for a landing by Grant’s infantrymen. From the deck of a small tug, the Ivy, Grant watched as the battle opened. Thick clouds of white-blue smoke soon obscured his vision, yet the sheets of flame that pierced the smoke evidenced the magnitude of resistance.
The bombardment raged in unabated fury throughout the morning. The powerful ironclads pounded the earthen forts, sending solid shot and shell crashing among the Confederate defenders. Finally the guns of Fort Wade were silenced, but those at Cobun remained defiant. After five hours, Porter was compelled to disengage. The admiral told Grant that “Grand Gulf is the strongest place on the Mississippi,” and confessed he could not take it.
During the exchange with the shore batteries, the gunboats were hit repeatedly and sustained heavy damage. On board the Benton, 7 men were killed and 19 wounded, the Pittsburg reported the loss of 6 killed and 13 wounded, and the Tuscumbia, hit 81 times, suffered 5 killed and 24 wounded. Total casualties reported by Porter were 18 killed and 57 wounded.
Ever adaptive, Grant disembarked his invasion force from transports and marched it five miles farther down the Louisiana side of the river. That evening as the sun set, the transports and gunboats ran past the Grand Gulf batteries and rendezvoused with Grant at Disharoon plantation. The next day Grant’s army, shielded by Porter’s warships, landed unopposed on the Mississippi side of the mighty river at Bruinsburg. A band on board the Benton struck up the “Red, White, and Blue” as the infantrymen came ashore and launched the inland phase of the Vicksburg campaign.
Over the next 17 days, Grant pushed his army deep into Mississippi, met and overcame Confederate resistance in five actions, and drove the enemy into its fortifications at Vicksburg.
While the Union troops battled their way to the city, Porter’s gunboats moved downriver and ferried several divisions of Major General Nathaniel Banks’ Army of the Gulf across the Mississippi onto the east bank of the river above Port Hudson, the only other remaining Confederate bastion on the Mississippi. Although Banks requested that Porter remain or keep a portion of this squadron there, the naval commander opted to return to Vicksburg and cooperate with Grant—a man with whom he enjoyed working.
The Navy proved invaluable throughout the siege, as Porter’s gunboats and mortar boats hammered the Confederate river batteries, escorted to the front Army transports full of reinforcements, and maintained an open, secure line of supply and communications. This enabled Grant to conduct the lengthy siege operations that resulted in the fall of Vicksburg. Coupled with the Union capture of Port Hudson less than a week later, the Mississippi River, as Lincoln expressed it, “again flows unvexed to the sea.”
In recognition of the Navy’s role in the victory at Vicksburg, Congress authorized the placement of a monument at Vicksburg National Military Park. Dedicated in 1917, the U.S. Navy Monument is the tallest memorial in the park and towers 202 feet high. Around its base are statues of the four most prominent naval officers involved in the Vicksburg campaigns of 1862–63: Foote, Davis, Farragut, and Porter. The monument stands as a lasting tribute to the gallant service of the Navy in the campaign that determined the fate of the nation.
Edwin C. Bearss, Rebel Victory at Vicksburg (Little Rock: Pioneer Press, 1963).
Charles L. Dufour, The Night the War Was Lost (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990).
H. Allen Gosnell, Guns on the Western Waters: The Story of River Gunboats in the Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1949).
Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, (New York: Charles L. Webster & Company, 1885).
Chester G. Hearn, Admiral David Dixon Porter (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996).
Gary D. Joiner, Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).
Alfred T. Mahan, The Gulf and Inland Waters (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1883).
John D. Milligan, Gunboats Down the Mississippi (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1965).