- Historic Sites
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
The trees were mostly sycamore, willow and cypress and were covered with long moss hanging from their branches. As it was the middle of March the trees were j ust beginning to bud. The bayou was full of fish which we could see jumping out of the water as we pushed thro’. We heard the early morning birds of all kinds singing in the trees. Owls and bats disturbed by our coming flitted noiselessly past. For the first time in my life I saw a flock of parrots fly chattering over the tree tops as we were clearing … some brush that impeded us.
All our Marines and several of the officers went out on a foraging expedition to a plantation nearby and brought in about 150 chickens, 600 lbs. of bacon, a young bull, some geese and a couple of guinea hens, bed clothes, pictures, crockery, &c. The planter was plowing in the field [but when he] saw our Marines coming, he left his plow and made tracks for parts unknown. I did not know our men were permitted to plunder in this fashion but it was done just the same. There was a large amount of cotton at the plantation which was to be put on board our boats. I supposed cotton was legitimate plunder but didn’t think the bed clothes and other stuff was.
I thought until then the people of the South were in a starving condition but they seemed to have an abundance of everything. Every plantation we passed we saw plenty of cattle, horses, sheep, chickens, geese &c. At one plantation some distance off a large fire was burning showing us that the Rebels were burning their cotton to keep it from falling into our hands.
I wondered what the Rebels would think when they saw five gunboats crawling out of the woods for it was really like traveling thro’ a woods that had been flooded. They would probably say, “The Yankees will make gunboats that will sail on a wet sponge one of these days.” Sometimes our boats would be so tightly wedged between two trees that we’d have to get the trees up by the roots before we could proceed. I was hoping we would get thro’ before the Rebels heard of our coming for they could give us a great deal of trouble by cutting down trees and placing them across the stream. March 18,1863 still found us battling our way thro’ the woods knocking down trees, pulling down bridges and in fact everything else that came in our way.…
Whenever we passed a plantation a lot of Negroes—men, women and children—would congregate on the bank and gaze at us in wonder. Some of the men took off their hats to us. On every plantation there seemed to be a Planter’s House, a Cotton Gin and some times a Saw Mill and a long row of Negro cottages, not huts or cabins but cottages which any poor person North would be glad to live in. Therefore we must have passed thro’ a prosperous section of the South.
As we passed one plantation a group of Negro women stood on the bank gabbling away as fast as their tongues would let them. One of them sang out to one of our darkies, “When you all coming to take us? Hearn tell of ye a long time but now you are going on without us.”
“We’ll come and get you bye and bye,” said one of our darkies.
“Oh pshaw,” said she, “right now dots de word.” Then they all set up one of those Negro laughs which is indescribable and showed their teeth which glistened like so much ivory.
As we were passing a plantation this [particular] morning, one of our men threw a piece of plug tobacco to a little darky standing on the bank and in a short time a whole gang of little darkies were following us calling out, “Gimme a piece please.” It was laughable to see the little fellows wrestle and scramble after tobacco and hard tack that was thrown to them. Some of the pieces fell into the water and as the little fellows didn’t wear much clothes, off they stripped and into the water they jumped after the plunder. Some of the men brought eggs to us in exchange for tobacco. The Negroes we have taken on board seem to like their new life first rate.
After Lincoln had proclaimed emancipation, the Federal armed services began to recruit fugitive slaves in earnest. The Navy eventually took in thousands of black men and many black women. It put the men to work as seamen, stewards, and cooks and the women as seamstresses, laundresses, and maids.
We had now gotten thro’ the worst part of the bayou with nothing to disturb us except occasionally we came to a bridge which had to be knocked down or in going around a bend we might run against a tree which we had to clear away. One of our boys was badly hurt by a large bough from a tree falling upon him and carrying away part of our smoke stack.
[By this time] all the plantations we passed were burning their crops but this was not the doings of the planters, for six contrabands we took on board said that two cotton burners (supposed to be Rebel officers) passed along the night before and said they had orders to burn all cotton along this stream.…