The Siege Of Vicksburg

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Grant’s army was to pick its way through the swamps on the western side of the river to a point well below the city (with Sherman’s corps staying behind temporarily to demonstrate north of the city and confuse the enemy). Porter was to take the fleet directly past Vicksburg’s batteries in the night. The fleet would include three river steamers manned by army volunteers and carrying supplies—the supplies being vital, for Grant would be cutting himself off for a time from all connection with his northern depots. Once the army and the navy were reunited down the river, the army would be ferried across for a campaign around Vicksburg’s rear.

Grant explains:

Admiral Porter proceeded with the preparation of the steamers for their hazardous passage of the enemy’s batteries. The great essential was to protect the boilers from the enemy’s shot, and to conceal the fires under the boilers from view. This he accomplished by loading the steamers … with bales of hay and cotton … adding sacks of grain. … Before this I had been collecting, from St. Louis and Chicago, yawls and barges to be used as ferries when we got below. By the 16th of April Porter was ready to start on his perilous trip.

Confederate officer S. H. Lockett, chief engineer of Vicksburg’s defenses, was later to write: “Gunboats had frequently passed the batteries during the operations of the preceding ten months, but up to that time no one had dreamed that the ordinary river steamboats could do so.”

The evening of the sixteenth saw a clear and beautiful sunset and a bright emergence of the stars. Though a slight haze settled over the Mississippi, visibility remained good. Spectators from the Federal camps gathered in boats along the Louisiana side of the river, well below the fleet’s rendezvous area but safely out of range of the Vicksburg batteries. A correspondent for the New York Times described the scene:

There were in all perhaps thirty boats … each of which was black with spectators, of whom not a few were ladies. These, and the stars, were the witnesses. … I am bound to say that the stars were the more serious and quiet portion of the gathering. The balance passed the hours of waiting in jokes, laughter, choruses, and lovemaking—which, together with a running fusilade of champagne corks, indicated anything but an appreciation of the fact that the drama about to open was a tragedy instead of a roaring farce.

Lights twinkled busily from the Vicksburg hillsides until about ten o’clock, when they disappeared. And about the same moment song and laughter on our side were hushed, as a shapeless mass of what looked like a great fragment of darkness was discerned floating noiselessly down the river. It was the Benton [Admiral Porter’s flagship]. It passed and disappeared in the night, and was succeeded by another bank of darkness—the Lafayette [a second gunboat, with a small wooden naval steamer and a coal barge lashed, for their protection, to its side—the one away from the enemy]. … Ten … noiseless shapes [including the three river steamers serving as transports] revealed themselves and disappeared, and then we knew that all the actors in the play had given us the first scene of the first act.

According to Vicksburg engineer S. H. Lockett:

The movement of the boats was soon discovered by the Confederate pickets who nightly patrolled the river in small boats. They immediately crossed the river and fired several houses in the village of DeSoto, so as to illuminate the river.

A Confederate signal rocket had already alerted the batteries of Vicksburg and also of Warrenton, a few miles below. The upper batteries roared into action.

Albert Richardson, the New York Tribune reporter, wrote:

… the Mississippi bank was ablaze. Our ironclads promptly replied with their heaviest guns, while the transports, hugging the Louisiana shore, ran by as fast as possible. The … burned houses [made] the night as light as day. Again and again the transports were struck … but the men stood gallantly at their posts. …

“The sight,” said General Grant, “was magnificent but terrible. I witnessed it from the deck of a river transport run out into the middle of the river and as low down as it was prudent to go.”

Grant’s wife and children were with him on the transport. An aide to the general, James Harrison Wilson, wrote: “One of the Grant children sat on my knees with its arms around my neck, and as each crash came, it nervously clasped me closer, and finally became so frightened that it was put to bed.”

Frederick Dent Grant, twelve years old at the time, later recalled: “On board our boat, my father and I stood side by side on the hurricane deck. He was quietly smoking, but an intense light shone in his eyes.”