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Gunboat War At Vicksburg
A Union seaman’s nightmarish memories of shot, shell, and shoal waters in Grant’s Mississippi River campaign, 1862–63
August/September 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 5
When in April of 1861 he first learned that the Confederate States of America had forced Federal troops to evacuate Fort Sumter, seventeen-year-old Daniel F. Kemp of Buffalo, New York, immediately wanted to enlist; but not until late summer of the next year, sometime after his eighteenth birthday, did Kemp’s parents consent to his signing up for a one-year hitch in the United States Navy. That service at once sent him west to join the freshwater flotilla which in cooperation with the Army was working its way down the Mississippi River.
When he left the navy fifteen months later (his discharge papers were three months late in reaching him), Kemp was a seasoned sailor who had participated on the broad river itself in two expeditions against Vicksburg, taken part on the Arkansas River in the foray against Fort Hindman, seen action near the mouth of the Red River against Confederate guerrillas, and survived the war’s only instance of an ironclad vessel sunk solely by gunfire.
Back in Buffalo, Kemp, like many a veteran, meant to write his memoirs of those times in the service; but also in common with many others, he found himself too busy earning a living. Not until 1927 did he finally write down his recollections of the war.
A commonplace among historians, of course, holds that the longer the eyewitness to past events waits to record his or her impressions, the less faithful to those events they are apt to be. This dictum seems to be undergoing re-evaluation. Aged people may have sharper recollections of their youth than of their later years. Unusual events experienced during impressionable years can leave indelible memories. If the historian finds that the subject took care to check surviving records, and if fidelity of recall matches our established knowledge of the events in question, then it seems safe to conclude that the distance between the past and the recalling of the past was not after all an insuperable impediment to accuracy.
In any case, Daniel Kemp’s Civil War reminiscences pass the tests of both external and internal historical criticism. Just as important, the simple and completely unpretentious fashion in which he recorded his personal observations adds to the impression that this particular chronicler was at pains to tell his story as honestly as possible.
The original manuscript of Kemp’s memoirs is in possession of the Buffalo and Erie County (New York) Historical Society, and these edited portions are reproduced with the society’s permission.
On November 2,1862, Kemp was assigned to duty on the U.S.S. Cincinnati , one of seven gunboats known irreverently as Pook Turtles—they had been designed by naval constructor Samuel Pook, and with their squat outline and slanting sides they did look a bit like turtles. They were lightly armored and heavily armed, and they were essential to the Federal drive to reopen the Mississippi River. The campaign was under the overall command of General U. S. Grant, who correctly believed that success depended on reduction of the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg, Mississippi. The Navy’s part in it was directed by Flag Officer David Dixon Porter.
As 1863 began, Grant had his army west of the river, opposite Vicksburg, and he wanted to put his troops on the east side of the river above the fortified bluffs which protected the Confederate flank. The Yazoo River, entering the Mississippi a short distance above Vicksburg, led directly to the spot Grant had in mind, but was unusable because the fortified bluffs covered its mouth. Between them, Grant and Porter decided to get into the Yazoo from the other end, via a confusing network of interlaced streams and backwaters—Steele’s Bayou, Black Bayou, Deer Creek, Rolling Pork, Sunflower River, and finally the upper reaches of the Yazoo itself. If the Navy’s gunboats could use this route to lead a fleet of transports to the defenseless area beyond the fortified bluffs, Grant’s army could reach its goal and Vicksburg would fall.
So the campaign was launched. Remarking that it involved 120 miles of travel through a waterway so narrow that in many places growing trees blocked the way, young Kemp said that in his opinion this was “one of the great mistakes of the Civil War.” The whole expedition was a sailor’s nightmare, and in the end it accomplished nothing—except to persuade Grant that he needed to find a different approach. Kemp’s narrative picks up the story:
We left our place of anchor on M[ar]ch 15/63 at 4 O.C. A.M. and made very slow progress getting thro’, on account of the difficulties we encountered. The five gunboats which constituted our fleet were the Carondelet, Cincinnati, Mound City, Pittsburgh , and Louisville . [Four tugs, each towing a mortar boat, also went along.] The Carondelet was in the lead, mowing down trees as if they were so much grass, the Cincinnati next following. …