Following an abortive attempt to capture Vicksburg in late 1862, Ulysses S. Grant cast about for alternative methods to reduce the Confederate stronghold. One intriguing possibility involved sending Union troops on transports down a series of waterways into the Yazoo River, which would allow them to land on high ground north of the city. Such an expedition would begin on the east side of the Mississippi River a few miles below Helena, Arkansas. It involved cutting through a levee built by the State of Mississippi in the 1850s to shut off access to the river from Moon Lake. Moon Lake led to Yazoo Pass, a small bayou, which in turn fed into the Coldwater River. The Coldwater flowed into the Tallahatchie River, which combined with the Yalobusha River to form the Yazoo, which empted into the Mississippi above Vicksburg.
Engineering officer Lt. Col. James H. Wilson reported that cutting the levee would allow Union vessels access to the Delta and raise the water level in the region sufficiently for joint army-navy operations. With Grant’s approval, Wilson had four hundred men begin cutting the levee in early February 1863. The explosion of a small mine completed the process, and water from the Mississippi rushed through the gap into the old bed. Wilson next supervised the arduous labor of clearing the Yazoo Pass of trees previously felled by Confederates to obstruct the passage, a task that occupied entire regiments for twelve days. On 24 February 1863 a flotilla under Lt. Cmdr. Watson Smith entered Yazoo Pass from Moon Lake. The ironclads Chillicothe and Baron DeKalb led the way, while five thousand Federal infantry under the command of Brig. Gen. Leonard F. Ross occupied transports. Lighter combat vessels offered additional protection.
Maneuvering through the labyrinthine waters of the Upper Delta proved enormously challenging. The narrow, winding channel of the Coldwater made progress laboriously slow. Overhanging tree limbs battered the boats and sent all sorts of wildlife cascading onto the decks. Army officers, including both Ross and Wilson, chafed at the delay and later berated Smith for not pressing forward more speedily. As the flotilla slowly advanced, many Delta residents along the rivers fled as water inundated their crops and homes; others watched helplessly as Union troops carted off slaves, cotton, corn, and other property. Shots fired at the flotilla invited retaliation as Federal troops alighted from the transports and torched plantation buildings. Some planters began burning cotton to prevent it from falling into enemy hands.
Apprised of the Union expedition, Confederates under Maj. Gen. William W. Loring built a fort of dirt and sand protected by cotton bales on a five-hundred-yard strip between the Tallahatchie and the Yazoo near Greenwood. A line of earthworks protected Fort Pemberton, as did the swampy terrain surrounding the area. Loring had several cannons mounted within the fort, including a thirty-two-pounder that commanded the approach up the Tallahatchie. In addition, Loring ordered that the steamer Star of the West be sunk in the channel to impede the Union advance.
The Confederates within Fort Pemberton first made contact with the flotilla on 11 March 1863, when a brief exchange of gunfire between the fort and the Chillicothe took place. Union troops disembarked and sniped at the fort’s defenders. Wilson supervised the placement of a battery with several cannons obtained from naval vessels but later acknowledged that the distance from Fort Pemberton precluded any reasonable hope of dismounting the enemy guns. Union infantry probed for a land approach, but the flooded ground prevented them from storming the works. As a result, the expedition’s success hinged largely on the ironclads. This proved a forlorn hope. The gunboats attacked on both 13 and 16 March, with the Chillicothe severely battered on both occasions. It was disabled on the latter day when a Confederate shell sealed its gun ports. Ross recognized the futility of further attempts and steamed back up the Tallahatchie, where he encountered a relief expedition under Brig. Gen. Isaac F. Quinby. The reinforced command returned to Fort Pemberton, but attacks on 1 and 3 April were similarly repulsed, and Grant ordered the expedition to return. Within a week most of the ships had reached the Mississippi and steamed across to Helena.
While the Yazoo Pass expedition failed to achieve its desired objective, it and the Steele’s Bayou expedition in March 1863 demonstrated Grant’s willingness to try a variety of expedients to conquer Vicksburg. Both expeditions also laid waste to rich areas within the Delta and brought the war home forcefully to its residents.
- Michael B. Ballard, Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi (2004)
- Patricia L. Faust, ed., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (1986)
- David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, eds., Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History (2000)
- Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, vol. 24 (1911)
- War of the Rebellion: The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, vol. 24 (1889)