Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ironclads, Cotton and Corn: The Civil War in the Mississippi Delta (Part II)

At the same time the Yazoo Pass Expedition was ending in failure for Union generals Leonard Ross, Isaac Quinby and the Union navy, Admiral David Dixon Porter and the Union river fleet attempted to get into the Yazoo River from the south. In essence, Porter believed that transports and gunboats could enter the Yazoo and thence move into Steele’s Bayou, Black Bayou and Deer Creek to get to the Big Sunflower River. This adventure, known as the Steele’s Bayou Expedition, began on March 14, 1863, with five “City Class” gunboats – the Carondelet, Mound City, Cincinnati, Louisville and Pittsburgh. Navigating through bayous no larger than creeks, the gunboats, assisted by pioneers from Sherman’s corps, slowly made their way upriver. At Hill’s Plantation – near where Teddy Roosevelt would later make famous the “Teddy Bear” – Sherman’s main infantry caught up with Porter’s gunboats. Porter (right), however, enthusiastic with his progress thus far, decided to push on up Deer Creek to Rolling Fork. Here, unfortunately, his gunboats got stuck in the reed-choked streambed. Unable to move forward and with no room to turn the behemoths around in the narrow channel, Porter’s only option to back up. His way was blocked, however, by Confederate troops who began felling trees behind the fleet. Porter, it seems, was in a real pickle.  

On March 20, Confederate infantry under the command of Samuel W. Ferguson arrived near Rolling Fork with the 12th Arkansas Sharpshooter Battalion and a three-gun battery. Ferguson (below left) was a West Point graduate and a native of South Carolina. After the war, he settled in Greenville, Mississippi, where he was an attorney and would serve on the Mississippi River Commission. At Rolling Fork, Ferguson deployed his artillery and the Arkansans and moved toward the trapped gunboats. Porter, meanwhile, had placed two boat howitzers atop an Indian Mound. These were soon outgunned by the Confederate cannons and forced back onboard, after which the gunboats opened fire on the advancing Confederate infantry with their big guns, preventing any further advance by Ferguson. At 3:00 pm, reinforcements arrived under Brigadier General Winfield Scott Featherston. Known as “Old Swet,” Featherston was a resident of Holly Springs, Mississippi, and had served with the Army of Northern Virginia in 1862 before being promoted to brigadier general and being transferred to Mississippi. After conferring with the Ferguson, Featherston deployed additional artillery support and added two more regiments to the mix, the 22nd and 23rd Mississippi Infantry, with plans to resume the attack against Porter’s gunboats. Anticipating an attack any moment, Porter ordered his sailors to smear mud and slime from the bottom of Deer Creek on the sides of the gunboats to make it more difficult to board and was prepared to scuttle his boats rather than allow them to fall into the hands of the enemy. Fortunately for Porter, however, the attack never came.

For some reason, the two Mississippi regiments did not advance as planned, much to the dismay of Ferguson. The failure was probably the result of bickering between the two Confederate commanders on the field (and Ferguson was known for being a “trouble maker”). Both officers claimed they were waiting for the other to begin the attack, but it was also clear that Featherston (right) had serious doubts about the plan to begin with. In his report on April 3, he went so far as to dismiss the very notion that his command of roughly 2,000 men could have ever captured the gunboats by land and was critical of the “visionary absurdity of the over-sanguine expectations… entertained by some military men” – no doubt speaking of Ferguson.*
Whatever the cause, the Confederates lost a golden opportunity at Rolling Fork to strike a potentially crippling blow to the Union war effort by capturing and/or disabling the cream of the Mississippi River fleet. Because of the Confederates’ failure to act, Porter was able – with the help of the army – to slowly back down the narrow creek to safety. While Porter claimed the expedition was a success – he reported that his men captured a large amount of corn and a large number of mules, horses, and cattle and had taken enough cotton “on our decks and on the mortar boats…to pay for the building of a good boat” – he had narrowly escaped a disaster for both the service and his own reputation.

Quickly following the failed Steele’s Bayou Expedition was a Union infantry raid out of Greenville. Often confused with the Steele’s Bayou affair (because of the name), Steele’s Greenville Expedition (named for Union Gen. Frederick Steele) took place in April 1863. A decorated veteran of the Mexican War, Steele suffered a somewhat ignominious death in 1868 after falling out of a buggy while on vacation in California. In the spring of 1863, though, Steele (left) was ordered by Grant to “move down Deer Creek” from Greenville and “clear the country as you go of guerrillas and Confederate soldiers. Grant’s instructions were clear about how Steele should treat the inhabitants of the region. “If planters remain at home, and behave themselves,” he wrote, “molest them as little as possible, but if the planters abandon their plantations you may infer they are hostile, and can take their cattle, hogs, corn, or anything you need.” As a result, destruction and desolation of the countryside would become the guiding principle of the raid. Steele disembarked his men one mile north of Greenville on April 2, moving east across Fish Lake Bridge toward Judge Ruck’s Plantation (modern day Leland). Making “sad havoc” with the hogs, sheep and corn along the way, Steele’s column turned south along the west side of Deer Creek. Almost from the moment the Federals landed, the Confederates knew about the raid. This was partly because Samuel W. Ferguson, whose exhausted troops had just battled Porter’s sailors and Sherman’s infantry in the Steele’s Bayou Expedition, had spies operating in the area. Incredibly, one of his spies, who was somehow mistaken as a “contraband,” was able to personally interview Steele about his intentions. Armed with this information, Ferguson boldly advanced his much smaller force north from Rolling Fork, and met Steele’s men near the Willis Plantation (south of Arcola). Ferguson had more bluff than anything else, but in a series of retrograde movements was able to stall long enough for Confederate reinforcements to come up from the Snyder’s Bluff area.

Not wanting to bring on a major engagement so far away from the Mississippi River, Steele started back toward Greenville, burning cotton gins, corncribs and bridges along the way. Jacob Ritner (left), a soldier in the 25th Iowa, wrote that “We nearly laid the country waste along the road  - burned most of the cotton gins, and a large amount of cotton, corn, bacon, etc., intended for the rebels army at Vicksburg. We brought in a large drove of fat cattle, besides what we got all the chickens, geese, ducks and turkeys we could eat…and we got more Negroes and mules than you could shake a stick at.” In fact, so many blacks joined the column that General Steele pleaded with Sherman to tell him what should “be done with these poor creatures.” Meanwhile, Ferguson, bolstered by the arrival of reinforcements under Stephen D. Lee, harassed Steele’s column all the way back to Greenville. Establishing a fortified camp, Steele’s men occupied Greenville for almost two weeks, frequently making forays into the countryside to skirmish with Ferguson’s cavalry. 

Significantly, it was at Greenville, for the first time, that Steele was instructed to enlist blacks for the Union army. Here was a dramatic change in policy and a shift in the Union war effort. Enlisting and training some 500 former slaves, many of these men were, no doubt, involved in the fighting at Milliken’s Bend in June. Reflecting on the addition of black soldiers into the war effort, Private Ritner wrote that “The soldiers have all got to be in favor of setting the Negroes free and arming them too. They see that this is the quickest way to end the war…although this is the universal sentiment as far as I know, yet there is as much prejudice against them as there ever was.” There was certainly no such approval of the arming of slaves in the Confederate ranks. Without question, the enlistment of blacks angered the Confederates. Equally disconcerting, however, was the destruction of the countryside. Stephen D. Lee correctly understood that it was the Federals’ object to destroy the provisions in the area, not necessarily to defeat an army. Lee, in a letter on April 9, stated flatly that “corn would now be scarce” for the Confederates.

There were certainly other raids and expeditions in the Delta region during the final two years of the war. None of these, however, involved the amount of naval power exhibited by the Federals in the spring of 1863. Perhaps the most significant action during this period was a movement up the Yazoo River in February and March 1864, as part of Sherman’s Meridian Campaign. On the night of February 14, the same day Sherman’s army marched into Meridian, a small Union flotilla arrived at Greenwood, where they were greeted by none other than Greenwood Leflore, who was waving a small U.S. flag. They didn’t stay long before dropping back downriver to Yazoo City, but before leaving the Federals officers toured the site of Fort Pemberton, the same place that had given them such trouble during the Yazoo Pass Expedition. For those interested in viewing this little-known Civil War site today, the earthworks are still there (on Hwy. 82 west of Greenwood). A small park (above) marks the site of a portion of the fort on the north side of the highway.

The Civil War in the Delta is often viewed as a sideshow to the big show, a forgotten drama against the backdrop of the campaign and siege of Vicksburg. It should be noted, however, that these expeditions, despite their apparent lack of success, accomplished several goals for the Union war effort. First, in each of the expeditions and raids, large amounts of cotton, corn and other staples of life and livelihood were destroyed or captured, thereby depriving the Confederates of their use. Second, Confederate attention was drawn away from other critical points – while Grant toiled in Louisiana and eventually succeeded in finding a path south to cross the Mississippi at Bruinsburg on May 1, 1863, the Confederates were kept busy trying to protect the fertile Delta from the almost constant Federal activity. Finally, the recruitment of black soldiers into the Union army, which began in the Mississippi Delta as early as April 1863, would have a dramatic on the outcome of the war in Mississippi and throughout the region.

* Despite Featherston's doubts about the ability of infantry to capture a boat, that's exactly what happened a year later, when Col. John Griffith, with two Arkansas mounted infantry regiments, captured the USS Petrel on the Yazoo River.


(1) Boats:
(2) Porter:

(3) Ferguson:

(4) Featherston:

(5) Fighting in the bayous:

(6) Steele:
(7) Ritner:

(8) USCT soldier:

(9) Fort Pemberton:

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Ironclads, Cotton and Corn: The Civil War in the Mississippi Delta

Today, most people associate the Mississippi Delta with agriculture (and especially cotton) and as the birthplace of the Blues. Tourists from across the globe visit the Delta each year, as one travel writer put it, “to soak up the raw authenticity -- in rollicking juke joints, plate-lunch cafes and boarded-up towns with markers revealing the stories of blues legends, civil rights heroes and history-making moments that changed the nation.” All of this is true, but there is another legacy of the Mississippi Delta which is often overlooked, and that is the important role the region played in the Civil War. Seen by many historians as a sideshow to more significant campaigns, the reality is that the Delta was vital to Confederate interests and was the target of repeated Union attempts to utilize the region’s waterways as an avenue of invasion. 

By the spring of 1863, Union efforts to capture the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg had bogged down, both literally and figuratively. The bulk of the Union army, under the command of Major General Ulysses S. Grant, had, during the winter months of 1862, slowly pushed its way down the Mississippi Central Railroad in north Mississippi. Waiting behind the Tallahatchie River were Confederate forces under the command of Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton (left), the commander of the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana. In December, Grant planned a combined attack – one of many such cooperative efforts between the Union Army and Navy in the coming months – by making a push on land against Pemberton’s line and also by sending William Tecumseh Sherman down the Mississippi on transports to assault the bluffs north of Vicksburg at Chickasaw Bayou. By dividing Pemberton’s forces and holding his attention to the north, Grant hoped that Sherman would be able to overwhelm Vicksburg’s defenders and avoid a costly and lengthy campaign.

The Vicksburg nut was not as easy to crack has Grant had hoped, however. Near Christmas day, a strong Confederate cavalry column under Earl Van Dorn struck the town of Holly Springs, then a major supply depot for Grant’s army. Forced back to protect his vital supply line, Grant could no longer hold Pemberton’s attention at Grenada and the Confederates were able to begin shifting troops to Vicksburg to supplement the troops sent to protect the Walnut Hills overlooking Chickasaw Bayou, which easily repulsed Sherman’s subsequent assault. Sherman was defeated by the weather and the terrain as much as by the Confederates, however, as Chickasaw Bayou was inundated with flood waters in December, 1862, and was a jigsaw puzzle of vine-choked ravines and unfordable bayous even in the best of weather. After his repulse, Sherman’s army headed back upriver. Despite a successful reduction of Arkansas Post (under the command of John A. McClernand), the Union efforts at capturing Vicksburg had fizzled for the time being.

Vicksburg’s strength was only due in part to the towering bluffs upon which Confederate cannon frowned down on the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers above and below the city. The city was also protected by the Mississippi Delta, which ran some two hundred miles to Memphis and extended approximately fifty miles inland. Unlike the Delta today, the region at the time of the Civil War was mostly underwater. With few roads and few towns, the planters who were able to take advantage of the rich soil were perched here and there along natural levees and along the creek banks, which twisted and turned through the Delta like a medusa. Cutting through the region were larger rivers and bayous, navigable to steamboats and possibly gunboats – but difficult in either case to negotiate. An army marching through this country on foot would be hopelessly lost in the muck and mire of the terrain, just as Sherman was mired at Chickasaw Bayou. In short, the Delta was, as Greenville native Shelby Foote wrote “the exclusive domain of moccasins bears alligators and panthers” – not where any army should go. But that’s exactly where Grant decided to go in the spring of 1863.

The result was three primary military operations in the Mississippi Delta, including the Yazoo Pass Expedition, the Steele’s Bayou Expedition and Steele’s Greenville Expedition. All three were combined efforts of the army and navy, a cooperation which in many ways was an extension of the mutual admiration, one to the other, between Grant and Admiral David Dixon Porter. All three operations were successful in some ways and failures in others. This was not the first time the Federals had operated in the region. Beginning in July 1862, the Union Navy made several forays up the Yazoo River in an effort to get around the defenses north of Vicksburg at Snyder’s, Haynes’ and Drumgould’s Bluffs. In addition, numerous raids were launched along the Mississippi River, striking at military targets along the railroad or in “neutralizing” towns along the river with the torch. Typical of these raids by Union infantry and cavalry along the Mississippi was one launched by Brig. Gen. Cadwallader C. Washburn (right) in late November, 1862. Landing at the small village of Delta, Washburn’s 1,900 Union cavalry was given the task of striking the Mississippi Central Railroad at Grenada. At this time, Pemberton’s Confederates were still awaiting Grant’s army behind the Tallahatchie. Thus, Washburn’s raid would be threatening Pemberton’s left flank and endanger Grenada, a vital railroad hub. 

Opposing the Union troopers – and another 7,000 man force of infantry and artillery under Alvin P. Hovey trailing the fast-moving cavalry – was a Confederate cavalry brigade under Col. John Griffith (left). At Oakland, this undersized brigade of about 1,200 men stalled Washburn’s advance, and the Union raiders made their way back to the safety of the Mississippi River and the protection of the Union fleet. Washburn’s raid, though failing to cut the railroad or capture Grenada, was significant because it forced Pemberton to fall back to the line of the Yalobusha and into the defenses at Grenada. Thus, using the soft underbelly of the Mississippi Delta, the Federals were able to outflank the Confederates from a strong position. As with other raids in the Delta, Washburn’s and Hovey’s troops returned with the spoils of war: cotton, corn and slaves. Blacks by the hundreds, of their own accord, left the plantations as the Federals moved through the fertile Delta region. By the summer of 1863, some of these men would begin to be incorporated into the Union war effort as United States Colored Troops.

A number of towns along the Mississippi were burned by Union raiders during the Civil War period, among them Austin, Greenville and Friar’s Point. Many times, houses and plantation buildings were burned for no other reason than spite; other times, it was in retaliation for the firing on Union vessels by Confederate guerrillas. Indeed, on December 18, 1862, General Sherman issued an order specifying the rules of engagement along the river – namely, any vessel receiving small arms fire from either shore should land and disembark enough troops to take care of the opposition. If fired on by artillery, a brigade would be landed and all public and private property confiscated and all houses and public buildings burned. In the case of Friar’s Point, the end came on December 21, 1862. As Sherman’s expedition to Chickasaw Bayou made its way down the river to the mouth of the Yazoo north of Vicksburg, the fleet, including numerous gunboats and transport vessels, tied up at the Frair’s Point landing. According to a soldier in the 83rd Ohio Infantry, a rumor circulated that a Union sympathizer was put in a barrel by the citizens of Friar’s Point and rolled into the river. Angered over this insult, the Ohioans scrambled ashore and looted the town. By the next morning, most of the buildings in Friar’s Point had been burned to the ground.

The first of the three major military operations undertaken by Grant and Porter in the spring of 1863 was the Yazoo Pass Expedition. After the unsuccessful attack at Chickasaw Bayou and Grant’s forced retreat from the Tallahatchie because of Van Dorn’s sacking of Holly Springs, the Union army toiled in the swamps of Louisiana looking for a way around, or past, Vicksburg’s batteries. Using the twisting bayous of the Louisiana delta, Grant and Porter searched for a navigable route to the south on the west bank of the Mississippi. They also attempted, unsuccessfully in the end, to cut a canal across the DeSoto Point opposite Vicksburg, by which it was hoped Union gunboats could pass Vicksburg’s guns. While all these attempts, particularly the canal work, was frustrating, difficult and ultimately fruitless, it did do two things for Grant: it kept his men occupied and in good physical condition (despite a terrible disease rate) and it kept at bay the voting public in the north who demanded action. While all this going on across the river in Louisiana, Grant also kept his eye on the Mississippi Delta. Still looking for some way to get into the Coldwater, Tallahatchie and Yazoo Rivers with gunboats and transports, thereby bypassing the strong defenses on the bluffs north of Vicksburg, Grant used the navy to explore a variety of waterborne passages into the Delta. In January, 1863, Lt. Col. James H. Wilson was ordered to open a levee at Yazoo Pass near Moon Lake to allow the navy to get into the interior. The levee had been built by the State of Mississippi in the 1850s to lower the level of water and provide more land for agriculture. By blowing the levee, the Union navy believed the water level would be raised to such an extent that the vessels would be able to easily enter Moon Lake and the Coldwater. 

The levee was cut on February 2-3. By March 7, Union vessels were able to enter Moon Lake. Alerted to this threat, however, Pemberton had ordered the Confederates in the region to block the channel with obstructions of felled trees. For the Union navy personnel, the work clearing these obstructions in the twisting waterways connecting Moon Lake and the Tallahatchie was extremely difficult. On March 10, the flotilla, with 5,000 infantry under Gen. Leonard Ross and two ironclads – the Chillicothe (right) and the Baron De Kalb – entered the Tallahatchie River. From there, they moved down the Tallahatchie to the confluence of the Yalobusha River. Here the two rivers met to form the Yazoo, and here the Confederates had constructed ‘Fort Pemberton’ along a narrow neck of land. Made of cotton bales and earth, Fort Pemberton was garrisoned by troops under William W. Loring. With only ten artillery pieces, the defenders of Fort Pemberton successfully turned back the Union fleet, who had difficulty maneuvering in the narrow channel. Because of the flooded terrain, the infantry under Ross’ command were unable to land. On March 16, the Chillicothe was disabled by a Confederate shell which entered a gun port, and by the 20th, the fleet turned around and made its way back to Moon Lake. The next day, the fleet met reinforcements under Brig. Gen. Isaac Quinby, a former professor of physics. Quincy persuaded Ross to head back to Fort Pemberton, where another round of artillery duels were fought on April 2-3. Just as hopeless as before, the Federals finally gave up for good and headed back to the Mississippi.

William Wing Loring, the Confederate defender of Fort Pemberton, was an interesting character. A Mexican War veteran, Loring lost an arm at the battle of Chapultepec. After his arm was shattered, it was said that Loring “laid aside a cigar, sat quietly in a chair without opiates to relieve the pain, and allowed the arm to be cut off without a murmur or a groan. The arm was buried on the heights by his men, with the hand pointing towards the City of Mexico.”  While at times exhibiting flashes of military genius during the Civil War, Loring nonetheless had real trouble getting along with his superiors. He had a well-publicized spat with Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley in 1862; when Jackson threatened to resign, Loring was sent West and promoted. At the time, Jedediah Hotchkiss, Jackson’s famed mapmaker, noted that Loring struck him as “lacking in nearly all the qualities necessary for command of an army designed to carry on an offensive campaign…[that] he was always hesitating ]in] what to do, was always suggesting difficulties in the way of active operations, and worse than all in my mind, he was always filling himself with brandy…” Certainly, Loring’s ability to get along with his superiors did not improve when he came west, and his performance during the Vicksburg Campaign can best be described as inadequate and perhaps insubordinate. At Fort Pemberton, however, he was decisive and effective. Indeed, Loring got the nickname “Old Blizzards” at Fort Pemberton because he paced the cotton bale works shouting “Give them blizzards, boys! Give them blizzards!” Loring (right) survived the war and in 1869, at the recommendation of William T. Sherman, of all things, accepted a post with the Khedive of Egypt, where he spent the better part of ten years and attained the rank of Fareek Pasha (or Major General) in the Egyptian Army. He also managed to visit at least eighteen countries on an extended tour of Europe and the Middle East. After his return to the U.S. in 1879, he published a book called A Confederate Soldier in Egypt in 1884.


Photo and Image Sources:


Chickasaw Bayou:



Union vessel:

Friar’s Point:


Fort Pemberton: