General Ulysses Grant was a man with a lot of problems in the Spring of 1863. His objective was to capture Vicksburg and open the Mississippi … you know, just do it … just get it done! Easy words, especially for political figures far from the fields and waters of action! The 200-foot cliffs against the river made for a tactical impossibility. As well, much of the city was surrounded by swampy grounds of tangled bayous and jungle-like waterways. There was an effort to redirect the Mississippi by digging a canal, which is audacious thinking and as difficult and impossible as it sounds. The only approach on solid ground was from the east and southeast. Grant was headquartered to the northwest at Milliken’s Bend on the west side of the river.
But as if the logistical nightmare he faced was not enough, Grant was equally facing an impossible situation politically and personally within the ranks of army and national leadership. Hallack had written to him to say that, “the eyes and hopes of the whole country are now directed to your army … The opening of the Mississippi River will be to us of more advantage that the capture of forty Richmonds.” Lincoln stood by Grant ultimately, but not without withstanding considerable pressure from Republican congressmen. The old rumors of drunkenness persisted, being fueled by his subordinate – the Illinois political General John McClernand who kept up a correspondence with Lincoln, writing on 3/16 a report that “General Grant I am informed was gloriously drunk and in bed sick all next day.” The editor of the Cincinnati Commercial – Murat Halstead – wrote to Salmon Chase (who passed the letter on to Lincoln) that Grant was “a jackass in the original package.” Major General Cadwalader Washburne wrote of Grant that he “has no plan for taking Vicksburg and is frittering away time and strength to no purpose. The truth must be told even when it hurts. You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”
Grant was not about to march his army back to Memphis and launch an overland campaign against Vicksburg – an action previously attempted and failed. So he asked Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter to run gunboats past the batteries at Vicksburg with a view toward eventually spearheading a crossing of troops from the west bank to the east shore – protecting that location for supply vessels to sustain that location for a campaign against Vicksburg. Grant would march down beyond the west bank opposite Vicksburg, building roads as they went, to arrive at the crossing. Porter was skeptical of the entire operation, though eventually embraced it and prepared as best as possible.
The running of the Vicksburg Batteries happened 150 ago this evening of April 16-17. A total of 11 vessels latched loaded coal barges to the port sides, protecting exteriors with logs and wet bales of hay to snuff fuses and absorb shells that hit. At about 11:00, as the boats rounded De Soto Point, they were spotted by Confederate lookouts who spread the alarm. Bales of cotton soaked in turpentine and barrels of tar lining the shore were set on fire by the Confederates to light up the river. Although each vessel was hit repeatedly, Porter’s fleet successfully fought its way past the Southern batteries – losing only one transport. The mission was successful and headed downriver to the rendezvous with Grant on the Louisiana shore south of Vicksburg … where we will pick up the story on April 30.