- Historic Sites
The Siege Of Vicksburg
June 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 4
The people of Vicksburg, both soldiers and civilians, had swarmed out into the streets. In the firelight they could be seen running about, some of them shouting and gesticulating. Among the civilians were ladies in their most fashionable evening attire, for a grand spring ball had been interrupted. Shrieks rang out when sections of masonry crumbled under the impact of Federal shells. Galloping horses pulled fieldpieces into position alongside the heavy guns already lining the river’s bank, and bodies of infantry ran down to the wharves to harry the fleet with small-arms fire.
In the words of an unnamed officer of the Federal gunboat Lafayette:
… a perfect tornado of shot and shell continued to shriek over our deck and among all the vessels of the fleet … but not more than one in ten struck or did any damage. … They mostly went over. On running out [our] guns, a good view could be had, through the ports, of the rebel batteries, which now flashed like a thunderstorm along the river as far as the eye could see.
But the incessant spatter of rifle balls, the spray from falling shot, the thunder of steel-pointed projectiles upon our sides, did not incline one to take a very protracted view of the scenery.
A few discharges of grape, shrapnel, and percussion shell was all we could afford at the time to bestow upon our rebel friends in exchange for their compliments. At each round the Confederate artillerymen gave a shout, which seemed surprisingly near. At one time we could not have been one hundred yards from the Vicksburg wharves.
Our vessel, with the steamer and barge lashed to our starboard side, became almost unmanageable, drifted in the eddy and turned her head square round, looking the batteries in the face. At this time we seemed to be receiving their concentrated fire at less than a hundred yards from the shore. The smoke from our own and the rebel guns, with the glare of the burning buildings from the opposite shore, rendered it difficult for the pilots to make out the direction we were going.
The enemy, supposing we were disabled, set up a fiendish yell of triumph. We soon, however, backed round and once more presented our broadside to them, and slowly drifted past, as if in contempt of their impotent efforts. Shells burst all around the pilot house, and at one time John Denning, our pilot, was literally baptized with fire. He thought himself killed, but he brushed the fire from his head and found he was unhurt.
A third newspaper correspondent who was among the Federal spectators wrote:
After an interval of maddest rage, the upper guns of the enemy almost cease their fire. It is evident our boats have passed the first-reached batteries. … That no large portion of them is missing is evident from the activity of the forts at Warrenton and the answering thunders of our own guns. …
Just as the … longer and longer intervals of silence gave intimation that the exciting scene was nearly over … a new glow of light … climbed gently toward the sky.
“They are lighting another beacon!” shouted many voices.
But … the speakers were mistaken. The light … with slow and equal pace, was moving onward, passing down the stream! There was no disguising the truth—one of our own boats was on fire!
… The boat that burned was the transport Henry Clay . Her crew got safely to shore. She was set on fire by a shell exploding among the cotton with which her engines were protected. She was loaded principally with commissary stores and forage, including a large amount of soldiers’ rations and oats for the cavalry.
About two and a half hours after the action began, the last Federal vessel passed out of range down the river. All gunfire ceased, the excitement in Vicksburg diminished, darkness returned to the river as the beacon fires died to embers, and the frogs in the marshes resumed their spring trillings.
The Union gamble had paid off. Correspondent A lhert Richardson could hardly believe it:
On the gunboats not a man was killed, and only eight were wounded. On the steamers and barges nobody was even hit. Before daylight the entire fleet, save the ill-fated Henry Clay , was received at New Carthage by Grant’s infantry with shouts of delight.
To the soldiers who had run the steamers on this daring race, the general promptly gave furloughs for forty days and transportation to and from home.
A second midnight expedition of six transports and twelve barges passed the batteries six days later, with the loss of one steamer and six barges sunk, one man killed and half a dozen wounded.
The Confederates, according to S. H. Lockett, now turned an anxious watch on New Carthage:
Here there was a fleet of formidable gunboats, and transports and barges enough to ferry a large force across the river. This gave a serious and threatening aspect to the movement.