Outside Vicksburg

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Early in 1863 Grant came down to take personal charge of the operations against Vicksburg. Various expedients were tried. Upstream from the fortress there was a network of bayous and backwaters leading into the Yazoo River, which flows into the Mississippi just above Vicksburg, and two separate amphibious expeditions were sent into that tangled area in an effort to come down on Vicksburg from the north. Both of these failed; the area proved to be too swampy, roadless and generally favorable to the defense to permit successful offensive operations. Grant also busied himself with a project for cutting a canal across the neck of land opposite Vicksburg, in the hope that the Mississippi could be diverted and leave the city and its fortifications high and dry. He sent Captain F. E. Prime and Lieutenant James H. Wilson, engineers on his staff, down to look into this project to see whether it offered a feasible method of getting south of Vicksburg without braving the fire of its heavy batteries.

 

I accompanied these two officers on the little steamer Catahoula and arrived there Jan. 28 (I think) and proceeded in their company to the upper end of the canal and followed it clear through to its mouth, a few miles below the fortifications on the opposite shore. The river at that time was moderately full, barely high enough to fill the shallow ditch, but not high enough to decide positively upon the practicability of its use. It was standing full of still water, without any current whatever and quite as much inclined to empty itself into the river above Vicksburg as below it. My first feeling was one of great disappointment. The canal was shallow and narrow, and not one-tenth part of the work had been expended on it which I foresaw would be necessary for heavy transports, to say nothing of [Admiral David] Porter’s ironclads. The valuable part of the work consisted in clearing its course through the timber and underbrush. This was well done for a considerable distance on each side of the actual excavation and rendered the after task of widening it, if need be, a comparatively easy one.

Its radical defect was that it left the river at its upper end nearly at a right angle with the current which ran close to the shore at that place, and very little force of the current swept into the canal. Another defect, perhaps even more important, was that unless it was doubled in depth, any subsequent rise of the river would overflow the whole country before water sufficient to float the transports would enter the canal.

Gen. Grant’s inspection of the canal on the day of his arrival must have satisfied him that its plan was defective, for orders were immediately given to the troops arriving daily to commence some important alterations of it. One of these was to commence from a half mile to a mile above its head, and take it into the river at an acute angle with the current, and also to widen and deepen it throughout. This work was pressed forward with all the force that could work at it, until the rise of the river, which came soon after, did actually overflow about all of Young’s Point and rendered its further prosecution impossible. It had been so nearly completed that one or two light draft vessels had traversed nearly its entire length. Our delay in completing the work had been so great that the Confederates had planted batteries on the opposite shore exactly opposite its mouth by which an enfilading fire could destroy vessels in the lower two-thirds of its length. As a matter of historical interest it may be stated that very little water ever ran through it, and the theory that a small stream once diverted into it would soon widen and deepen it, until it became the main channel of the river, was completely exploded.

The overflow of the Mississippi that winter and spring was extraordinary in volume and extent. The troops in front of Vicksburg were soon driven from their camps to the levee which became the only ground above water for many miles. The army was compelled to retire to Milliken’s Bend, twelve miles up stream. Military operations were necessarily suspended except in attempts to secure new lines of approach to Vicksburg through the numerous bayous and waterways which this phenomenal overflow seemed to make practicable.

It does not appear from any of Gen. Grant’s orders, communications to Washington, or from his private or public utterances then or afterward, that he ever placed much reliance upon any of these inland transportation schemes; but he foresaw that the stage of high water would last for months, and that the army would be in better condition by reason of such temporary work and occupation than by laying idle in camp. The public sentiment at the north gave outbursts of impatience at the delay; and intrigues were at work to remove Grant, and place McClernand or someone else in his place. It was apparent that continued activity was the only condition on which he could hold his position.