In the summer of 1862 Vicksburg, Mississippi, became the focal point of Union and Confederate efforts in the western theater. Union naval forces converged on Vicksburg from the north and south. Flag officer David Farragut’s flotilla captured New Orleans on 25 April and ascended the river to capture Baton Rouge on 9 May and Natchez on 12 May. Simultaneously, a Union fleet under the command of flag officer Charles H. Davis descended the river and captured the Confederate stronghold at Island No. 10 on 8 April and Memphis on 6 June. This series of events made Vicksburg and Port Hudson, Louisiana, the last remaining Confederate strongholds on the Mississippi River.
On 18 May 1862 the vanguard of Union naval forces under Cmdr. S. Phillips Lee arrived outside of Vicksburg as part of Farragut’s fleet coming from the south. Lee demanded the surrender of the town and received a curt rebuff from both civil and military authorities. Although indignant over the Confederate response, Lee could only await Farragut’s arrival with the rest of the fleet.
Farragut arrived on 21 May, but his forces faced significant obstacles. Vicksburg’s natural bluffs were high, all of his vessels were composed of wood, and several of his vessels possessed deep drafts for ocean sailing. If the Mississippi River’s water level fell, many of his ships would be trapped. Furthermore, only fourteen hundred troops under Gen. Thomas Williams had accompanied the fleet. Farragut called a council of war and, after much debate, ordered his larger sloops of war to return downriver on 26 May. A small flotilla of six gunboats remained to keep watch at Vicksburg.
Farragut was not gone long. The Navy Department ordered him immediately to return to Vicksburg and attempt to capture the city. Farragut reluctantly reassembled his fleet, including sixteen mortar scows to lob high-trajectory shots into the city. The flotilla arrived at Vicksburg on 25 June.
On 28 June Farragut attacked the Hill City in an attempt to silence the Confederate guns. Thick clouds of smoke from the discharge of cannons blanketed the river and limited both sides’ visibility. Union cannoneers found that their guns could not elevate high enough to fire on most of the Confederate battery positions atop the bluffs. The fight, which lasted more than two and a half hours, inflicted little damage on either side. Seven vessels proceeded north past the city and anchored on the opposite side of De Soto Point. On 1 July, Davis arrived with his fleet from Memphis and rendezvoused with Farragut.
At the same time, Gen. Williams pressed fifteen hundred recently freed slaves into service to dig a canal across the peninsula opposite Vicksburg. By July the canal measured eighteen feet wide and thirteen feet deep, but the falling river level and mosquito-related diseases forced the end of the project.
To counter the Federal river menace, Confederates had begun construction of an ironclad in 1861 at Memphis. The city’s fall necessitated the movement of the vessel to a safer location near Greenwood. Construction slowed to a near standstill until Capt. Isaac N. Brown of the Confederate Navy took command in May 1862. Brown moved the unfinished hull to Yazoo City and within five weeks finished armoring, arming, and equipping the vessel. The CSS Arkansas measured 165 feet in length and 35 feet abeam and drew 14 feet. The vessel carried a complement of ten guns and a crew of around 160 officers and men. Its armor consisted of railroad iron fitted to the vertical sides.
On 15 July the Arkansas emerged for a fight. Steaming down the Yazoo River, it encountered three boats guarding the entrance to the Mississippi River. The Arkansas ran one boat aground and chased the other two vessels toward Vicksburg. Emerging into the main river, the Confederate ironclad confronted the combined Union fleets. Fortunately for Brown, most of the Union vessels did not have adequate steam pressure to make way, and his boat ran the gauntlet to dock at Vicksburg. Farragut twice failed to sink the Arkansas at its mooring, but the boat was scuttled in August when its engines failed outside Baton Rouge.
By the end of July the falling water level on the Mississippi forced the Union vessels to retreat from Vicksburg, leaving a portion of the Mississippi River under Confederate control. Despite the US Navy’s most energetic efforts, the Confederate forces at Vicksburg remained defiant.
- Edwin C. Bearss, Rebel Victory at Vicksburg (1963)
- Isaac N. Brown, in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, vol. 3., ed. C. C. Buell and R. U. Johnson (1884)
- Tom Z. Parrish, The Saga of the Confederate Ram Arkansas (1987)