This Whole World Is Underwater: Federals Before Vicksburg, January-April, 1863

alan polk

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Jun 11, 2012
(Since it is 158 years ago this year that Grant struggled to come to terms with Vicksburg, I’ve written a rough draft of his experiences in the early months. It is a broad brush and some things are obviously left out, but I thought some might enjoy it. Due to length, I’ve divided it into several parts - W. Alan Polk)

I.

Winter of Discontent

By January 1863, Grant’s luster had begun to fade. His Mississippi Central Campaign, launched in November of 1862, had ended in retreat, while Sherman, his most trusted general, had been badly mauled at Chickasaw Bayou. These failures left Grant’s army separated, with a portion stationed around Memphis, and the other stalled hundreds of miles down the Mississippi River — setbacks which would eventually open the doors to accusations of incompetency.

Not surprising, the whispering campaign began to make its rounds about Grant’s drinking, undoubtedly initiated by rivals eager to see his command wings clipped. These rumors wiggled up the grapevine into political circles where officials in Washington began to take notice. But, as it turned out, the carpeting did not end there. Even on the bottom rungs of the ladder, where reputation often counts most, Grant’s stock was slipping. Many of his own soldiers were describing him in less than desirable terms, questioning whether he was capable of leading them to success.

The timing could not have been worse for the Ohio general, as the political atmosphere was primed for scapegoating. The Republican Party had made a less than splendid showing in the November midterm elections, allowing Democrats to gain ground in both state and national races. Then came the colossal defeat at Fredericksburg and the indecisive slaughter at Stones River, further strengthening the opposition to Lincoln’s war machine. Union casualties from the month of December alone were horrific, prompting citizens all over the North to scrutinize the balance sheet of war.

Although Grant’s distance from Washington may have shielded him from some of the attention, his withdrawal from North Mississippi, coupled with Sherman’s disaster at Chickasaw Bayou, did not go unnoticed, and certainly played a part in stoking anti-war sentiments. It was only natural, then, that heads were about to be sacrificed on the altar of politics, and there was no reason to think Grant was not on that short list.

General Grant, however, was politically savvy, and he rightly suspected that any movement by Sherman’s force back up the river to Memphis, though perhaps militarily sound, would be perceived by the press and war-weary populace as another defeat. Eager to keep his head off the political chopping block, Grant ordered Sherman’s force (now commanded by McClernand) to occupy the swamps on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River. It was not the most hospitable place to position an army — it was more suited for alligators than humans — but it could not be deemed a retreat by the press or by any of Grant’s rivals. More importantly, it was directly opposite one of the main objectives of the Lincoln Administration: the hilltop citadel of Vicksburg.
 
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alan polk

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Jun 11, 2012
II.

This Whole Country Is Underwater

For the first weeks after his arrival from Memphis, Grant stayed holed up in his steamboat anchored off Young’s Point on the Mississippi River. There, he spent hours bent over a desk studying maps and even scanning Southern newspapers to determine his best course of action.

His immediate problem was the one sitting just outside his boat; a difficulty he summed up rather succinctly in a letter to his father: “This whole country is underwater.” Indeed, in this portion of the Lower River Valley, the Mississippi was downright pretentious, especially during the winter and spring. Flooding was a constant threat, and whatever was not underwater was perfect mud — a type described by Sherman as a “sticky, slimy clay” that would suck a man’s shoes clear off his feet once he was ankle-deep in it. In fact, Sherman, ever the pessimist, was warning Grant that the rains upriver “may drown us out.”

Labor Lost

It is no stretch to say that Sherman was unhappy. He had little confidence in Grant’s mission, believing instead that the army ought to go back to Memphis and restart the Mississippi Central Campaign. But what really got under Sherman’s craw was his men’s involvement in President Lincoln’s harebrained notion that Vicksburg could be bypassed altogether by the completion of an unfinished canal across De Soto Point. It was a massive undertaking and few who laid eyes on the project thought it could work.

Even Grant had little faith in it, but he had gotten the word from up high: “Direct your attention particularly to the canal,” Halleck had written to Grant in late January, adding the subtle warning that “The President attaches much importance to this.”

Grant took the hint.

But the work was tedious, partly because the river was higher than the Louisiana shore, making it the equivalent of working in the bottom of a fishbowl. Even General McClernand was complaining to Grant that Sherman’s men “needed as many shovels to keep out the floodwater as used to build the canal.”

Despite the misgivings of his subordinates, Grant knew better than to balk at an idea coming from the man who could fire him with the stroke of a pen. Lincoln, then, would have his ditch. So, when it came to discussing the canal, Grant made reticence a virtue, or, at least, was careful with whom and how he discussed the undertaking publicly.

Not so with Sherman. To him, it was pure brimstone torment to have to carry out such things, especially when prompted by politicians, and he didn’t care who knew it. “Our canal here don’t amount to much,” he quipped to General Curtis in St. Louis. To General Grant, he was simply blunt: “This little affair of ours here on Vicksburg Point is labor lost.”


3CDB7098-133F-43F1-96FB-BF30455F077B.jpeg

Wartime Sketch Showing Work on Canal. Photo: VNMP
 
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alan polk

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Jun 11, 2012
III.

Those Interminable Bluffs

Sherman’s complaint was not unfounded, at least on tactical grounds. The Eastern Valley Wall, known as the Chickasaw Bluffs, stretches from Kentucky to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And though the line of bluffs touched the Mississippi River from the east in only two places upriver in 1863 (at Columbus, Kentucky and Memphis, Tennessee), in this part of the Mississippi River, the story was much different.

Yes, the Valley Wall frowns down upon the muddy river at Vicksburg, but it also towers over it in multiple places below the city: at Warrenton, Grand Gulf, Rodney, Natchez, Port Hudson, and Baton Rouge – a virtual gauntlet of defensive positions. Sherman rightly understood that, even if the canal succeeded, the Confederates would simply place anti-ship batteries on any one of these other locations just down river from Vicksburg. In fact, the Rebels were already constructing casemated batteries near Warrenton, practically across the river from the mouth of the proposed canal and preparing to emplace powerful guns at Grand Gulf.

At any rate, while Sherman’s men worried along in a ditch, Grant returned his focus to Vicksburg. Years later, he would admit to being perplexed. Unable to operate below the city because of the batteries located on the waterfront, his options were severely limited. He had to get his infantry and artillery across the river, then, somehow, get atop the Valley Wall before ever getting at Fortress Vicksburg.

The only practical ground from which to deploy infantry was lying between a series of bayous, just north of the city, beneath the mouths of enemy artillery and entrenched infantry posted atop those 200 to 300-foot bluffs. It might have been the only logical approach, but Grant was hesitant to re-bloody the same ground twice – at least in the early going. The eerie reminder of what awaited him if he launched a direct assault lay in those very bayous east of the river, where Sherman’s dead from December were still rotting in freshly dug graves.

50CFD752-A414-4E87-9D26-A0C3D727C2ED.jpeg

Wartime Map of Area (War Dpt). The Valley Wall is depicted, but noted as Walnut Hills.
 
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alan polk

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Jun 11, 2012
IV.

Prediction of Spies

Although intelligence from Grant’s sector was slow and unreliable, he did receive indications from other sources that a direct assault might not be necessary. General Hurlbut, in Memphis, had an active spy network and was receiving regular reports that the Confederates were, as one operative noted, “moving everything to the eastward, and the talk is that all are going to re-enforce the army opposed to Rosecrans.” Other reports indicated that the Confederates were determined not to be surrounded at Vicksburg and would evacuate the city once they could no longer maintain connection with the Trans-Mississippi.

General McPherson had his own spy and was so convinced of his abilities that he made sure that his findings were forwarded to Grant. According to McPherson’s operative, the Confederates in Vicksburg “are determined not to be surrounded, and are holding themselves in readiness to evacuate should such a danger become imminent.” Interestingly, it appears many of these spies had contacts within Bragg’s army, not Pemberton’s, and, if true, seemed to reflect Joe Johnston’s ideas rather than that of Pemberton’s or Davis’s.

To what extent this influenced Grant is uncertain, but in a February letter to Hurlbut, he admitted that, for all he knew, the Rebels were indeed leaving Vicksburg. Accordingly, it is because of these reports that Grant adjusted his plan for scheduled reinforcements from Tennessee. “It will be well to hold the division previously ordered in readiness to be moved,” Grant wrote to Hurlbult, further explaining that “if the report should prove true that the enemy are evacuating Vicksburg, they could readily be sent by steamer to Nashville.” So, Grant was not ignoring the reports.

Yet, the idea that the Secessionists might evacuate Vicksburg if they were pushed on their flanks, or no longer able to maintain connection with the Trans-Mississippi, must have made some sort of an impression, however small. Whatever the case, the images of those bluffs, and what had happened to Sherman there in December, was paying rent in Grant’s head, so he waved off a direct attack for the time being.
 

alan polk

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Jun 11, 2012
V.

Turning the Enemy’s Right

Another option was to give the navy a shot at taking Vicksburg. Above Hayne’s Bluffs, the Valley Wall turns to the northeast and the floodplain follows it, creating a huge gap eastward into the State’s interior. This region is known as the Mississippi Delta, a world of swamps, bayous and rivers, a terrain suitable for Porter’s brown water navy — at least theoretically. If so, it could provide Porter with access into the rear of Vicksburg via the Yazoo River, thus flanking the Rebels out of the city.

But the plan would change the character of Grant’s army drastically, essentially making it an armed security force protecting army transports and navy gunboats plying the complex waterways of the Delta. Accordingly, throughout February and much of March Grant would rely upon the cooperation of the navy to turn Pemberton’s right or to find ways to bypass the city by means other than Lincoln’s canal.

It was a disaster. He attempted to get boats into the Delta region through Yazoo Pass, but met stiff resistance at Fort Pemberton. To get into the rear of Fort Pemberton, he attempted to move gunboats up Steele’s Bayou, where Admiral Porter nearly lost his squadron in the process. In addition to the canal across De Soto Point, he attempted to bypass Vicksburg with projects at Lake Providence, Louisiana, 60 miles above the city, where he hoped to connect boat traffic to the Red River via Tensas Bayou, Ouachita and Black Rivers, thereby cutting off “the enemy’s commerce with the west bank of the river.” It, too, proved a failure.
 

alan polk

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Jun 11, 2012
VI.

Red Tape and Disease

If there was a time for Grant to take up drinking again it was probably now. All his schemes to either bypass the city or get in its rear turned out to be logistical nightmares. Moreover, throughout February, the river continued to rise, and with it, the complexities of managing an army hopelessly stalled in the swamps.

Grant had difficulty getting his soldiers paid; the navy was complaining that the army was stealing its coal; and his camps, already filled to capacity, were becoming overflowed with escaped slaves from surrounding plantations.

In response, Grant sent missives chewing out paymasters in Memphis; lectured his subordinates about how the army and navy are supplied out of different appropriations; and ordered that blacks not be brought into his lines. (This last raised serious concerns in Washington, something he would learn about sooner than later). Then came a familiar enemy that finally descended upon the camps: disease; and it made a rich harvest of his men.

Grant’s army had been forced to live on narrow levees that snaked along the river for miles. As one Iowa soldier noted, the levee was “10 feet high and 20 feet wide at base, and top of it all the dry ground we can find.” Packed together like sardines, the levee camps had a denser population than most cities, and the back swamps abutting them, already swarming with mosquitoes, likely became contaminated with human waste. It was not long before the thudding rhythm of fever swept through the men.

They died in droves then were unceremoniously buried in the levees beneath the feet of the living. It was disturbing. The levee camps also became graveyards. Even those able to make roll call each morning took on the appearance of gaunt faced refugees in need of rescue. “Hard place for sick men here,” wrote Sergeant Boyd of the 15th Iowa, adding that a man “Must have grit here or you die.” When family members up North got wind of the disaster — undoubtedly through letters written home by the soldiers as much as through Northern newspapers — they caught fire, prompting Washington to send officials down to investigate.

Sherman, for one, was not thrilled with the nosing around by government do-gooders and pencil-pushers, nor was he moved by the sappy concerns of citizens back home. “In war we must expect sickness and death,” he snapped back at the Assistant Surgeon General. After all — or so Sherman, and even Grant, believed — these were isolated events exaggerated by a press corps intent on demoralizing the Northern people. “Our soldiers need far more the respect and confidence of their fellow-countrymen at home,” Sherman told the Surgeon General, “than they do increased supplies of medicine and hospital stores.”

It was harsh words from a harsh man.

Nevertheless, civic organizations helped alleviate the suffering by delivering needed supplies, but the disaster was largely swept under the rug while the dead continued to be quietly interred into levee systems all along the river.
 
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alan polk

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Jun 11, 2012
VII.

What News Have You? What of Vicksburg?

By the end of March, all Grant’s schemes had failed, and there appeared to be few other options left. Even worse, Washington was growing increasingly impatient with the lack of progress. Being cut off from telegraphic communications with Memphis, and thus from Washington, Halleck had warned Grant that it was “very desirable that you keep us advised of your operations.” For whatever reason, Grant had fallen out of the habit of sending regular updates by mail, causing Lincoln to grow anxious about his far-removed commander.

Frustrated at not hearing from Grant, nor being able to reach him in the Louisiana swamps, Lincoln began communicating directly with Hurlbut in Memphis – never a good sign. It was left to Hurlbut to deal with the incoming wrath from the President of the United States: “What news have you? What from Vicksburg? What from Yazoo Pass? What from Lake Providence? What Generally?” Such was the tone and tenor of Lincoln’s dispatch, reflecting an obviously impatient Commander in Chief.

Without official contact, imaginations in Washington wandered, and the old rumors began to take on the weight of reality. Not surprising, Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, was ready to send someone down to spy on Grant’s operation. Stanton chose Charles Dana for the job, complete with a cover story: “The ostensible function I shall give you,” Stanton told Dana, “will be that of special commissioner of the War Department to investigate the pay service of the Western armies, but your real duty will be to report to me everyday what you see.” It was no secret that the true concern was over Grant’s alleged drinking.

Grant, of course, caught wind of all this. If he had, in fact, been on a binder – and where there is smoke, there is usually fire – it was time to hide the bottles and get his house in order. At any rate, with pressure from Washington mounting, Grant began to consider the one thing that he’d been hand-waving off since his arrival: the dreaded direct assault.

On March 22, he confessed to Banks that “there is nothing left for me but to collect all my strength and attack Haynes’ Bluff.” To Sherman the same day, he implied that he had put too much hope in Yazoo Pass and Steele’s Bayou, and then prepared him for what was coming: “As soon as the admiral can get his gunboats back for service, I will concentrate all my force and make a strike.” It would mean a return to the scene of the crime, a replay of Chickasaw Bayou, but only this time conducted on a much larger scale.
 
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alan polk

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Jun 11, 2012
VIII.

Turning the Enemy’s Left

Contemplation of a direct assault, however, was spine chilling. And the more Grant thought about it the more he would once again shrink from it. There was, after all, one last option on the table -- an option he could only now seriously entertain. Since January, he had kept a watchful eye to his right, particularly to bayous flowing south along the west bank of the river to New Carthage, a small village on the Mississippi some 30 miles below his camps at Milliken’s Bend, and well below the Vicksburg batteries.

The timing was near good enough. The Louisiana floodplain back of the levees was finally shaking loose its wintry doldrums. The sun, once slanting low in the winter sky, was now giving way to spring, climbing ever higher with each passing day. In combination with a falling river, plantation roads would slowly emerge from their watery graves and begin to dry.

Now, with April around the corner, those factors were finally coming into play. Accordingly, Grant investigated the idea of getting flats and steamboats into these bayous to haul supplies to New Carthage, while a part of his army marched alongside them on the newly exposed roads. He hinted as much to Farragut, suggesting that New Carthage could be used as a base from which to prevent Vicksburg from drawing supplies west of the river.

A few days later, though, he had expanded on his idea. Instead of merely occupying the place, he would use the army flats and steamboats, not only to ferry supplies, but to use them to cross his army over the river from New Carthage to attack either Warrenton or Grand Gulf. What Grant’s plan really needed was Porter’s gunboats, but he had no authority over the navy.

So, he outlined his plan in a letter to Porter, asking for the Admiral’s help: “Without the aid of gunboats,” Grant told him, “it will hardly be worth while to send troops to New Carthage, or to open the passage from here to there.” Porter, of course, realized it would mean running the Vicksburg batteries, so he replied with the often-quoted disclaimer: “I am ready to co-operate with you in this matter,” Porter said, “but you must recollect that, when these gunboats once go below, we give up all hopes of ever getting them up again.”

There was a simple reason for this. Going with the river’s current meant Porter’s gunboats would be exposed to the Vicksburg batteries for about 20 minutes. But going back up stream was a whole different animal. Against the muddy current and foam-lipped eddies, the boats would be exposed to a grueling 90 minutes of heavy, nonstop bombardment. Not even his best gunboats could withstand that sort of punishment.

In other words, what Porter was going on record as saying to Grant is that he better make **** sure he was willing to write off a direct assault against the city before embarking on such a risky operation down river. It would be the height of mismanagement if Grant’s movement to New Carthage proved a failure, forcing his army back to Milliken’s Bend and Young’s Point without the navy in tow. If that happened, the political pressure would be so great he would then be forced, whether he wanted it or not, to make a direct assault, only this time without the full support of Porter’s gunboats.

Grant agreed with Porter’s assessment, and he decided to take one last look at Haynes’ Bluff, this time in person. Traveling with Porter on one of the gunboats, Grant steamed up the Yazoo and laid eyes on the massive bluffs for the first time. There, he saw the dreaded beast Sherman had faced earlier, and it only confirmed his prior misgivings and suspicions: “An attack on Haynes’ Bluff,” he wrote, “would be attempted with immense sacrifice of life, if not defeat.”

His decision was final. There would be no return to the scene of the December crime. Grant and Porter would move south and essentially risk everything. It would be south by land for the army, and directly through the gut of the Vicksburg batteries by the navy.

On March 29, then, Grant gave the order. Long lines of Union soldiers would shoulder muskets and began moving south toward New Carthage, while Porter would ready his gunboats to run the gauntlet of Vicksburg’s vaunted river batteries.
With that, history was about to be made.

Regards,

W. Alan Polk

Sources:

War of the Rebellion: The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 Vols (Washington, D.C., 1890-1901), Series 1, Vol. 24, Parts I, II, and III

Bearss, Edwin. The Vicksburg Campaign. Vol II. Dayton: Morningside House, Inc., 1985

Chernow, Ron. Grant. New York: Penguin Press, 2017

Grabau, Warren. Ninety-Eight Days: A Geographer’s View of the Vicksburg Campaign. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2000.

Grant, Ulysses S. The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. 2 vols. New York: Charles L. Webster and Co., 1885-1886

Miller, Donald L. Vicksburg: Grant’s Campaign That Broke the Confederacy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019.

Thiel, Phillip L. Seven Story Mountain: The Union Campaign at Vicksburg. London: McFarland & Co., 1998
 

jackt62

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Grant's overall wartime reputation was based on his activities from the fall of Vicksburg in July 1863 until the end of the war. But overlooked by that reputation is the undeniable fact that Grant was on the verge of being relegated to history's "might-have-beens" between his near defeat at Shiloh in April 1862 and the transport of the AotT across the Mississippi River below Vicksburg in April 1863. During that year, Grant's futile attempts to take Vicksburg led many to the conclusion that he was not the capable commander that he did become. But to his credit, (and Lincoln's backing despite his own skepticism), Grant persevered, which was probably his most important characteristic.
 

jackt62

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I have read that most of Grant's attempts at finding a waterborne route to Vicksburg between January and April 1863 were mostly undertaken to strengthen morale and keep the troops busy. In the back of his mind, Grant might have known that the most feasible approach to Vicksburg was the one that ultimately succeeded, by marching the AotP down the west bank of the Mississippi, crossing below the citadel, and approaching Vicksburg from the south and east. But the watery nature of the terrain and road network made it almost impossible to contemplate such a move during those wet winter months.
 

NedBaldwin

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California
So, he outlined his plan in a letter to Porter, asking for the Admiral’s help: “Without the aid of gunboats,” Grant told him, “it will hardly be worth while to send troops to New Carthage, or to open the passage from here to there.” Porter, of course, realized it would mean running the Vicksburg batteries, so he replied with the often-quoted disclaimer: “I am ready to co-operate with you in this matter,” Porter said, “but you must recollect that, when these gunboats once go below, we give up all hopes of ever getting them up again.”
...

Adding to Porter's unease was that fact that earlier in the year the Queen of the West, De Soto and Indianola had gone down river and were all lost -- the Queen of the West captured, De Soto scuttled, and later the Indianola was sunk by a Confederate squadron (4 boats including the CSS Queen).

The arrival of Farragut below Vicksburg in late March helped make Grant and Porter feel better that the river was clear lower down, the remains of the Confederate naval force having gone west into the Red/Atchafalaya.
 

wausaubob

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Denver, CO
Adding to Porter's unease was that fact that earlier in the year the Queen of the West, De Soto and Indianola had gone down river and were all lost -- the Queen of the West captured, De Soto scuttled, and later the Indianola was sunk by a Confederate squadron (4 boats including the CSS Queen).

The arrival of Farragut below Vicksburg in late March helped make Grant and Porter feel better that the river was clear lower down, the remains of the Confederate naval force having gone west into the Red/Atchafalaya.
When Farragut got the Hartford into the mouth of the Red River, and McClernand's force was moving down the west bank of the Mississippi that did in the main separate Vicksburg from Louisiana. The other problem was that Farragut ranked Porter and Porter did not want to be in another operation in which Farragut was in command. Porter's ego was immense. I believe Farragut traveled over land to below Port Hudson and then he returned to the Gulf of Mexico.
Banks also was more active and they may have helped the US isolate Mississippi from Louisiana.
 
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alan polk

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Jun 11, 2012
Adding to Porter's unease was that fact that earlier in the year the Queen of the West, De Soto and Indianola had gone down river and were all lost -- the Queen of the West captured, De Soto scuttled, and later the Indianola was sunk by a Confederate squadron (4 boats including the CSS Queen).

The arrival of Farragut below Vicksburg in late March helped make Grant and Porter feel better that the river was clear lower down, the remains of the Confederate naval forces it having gone west into the Red/Atchafalaya.

Very good point! Thanks.

I’ll need to look deeper into it, but it would not surprise me if Farragut did not come up to Vicksburg in late March precisely because of the loss of those boats you referenced. Porter’s handling of things may not have looked too well to him and Banks.

Needless to say, when Farragut arrived and began communicating with Grant, he learned that Porter was absent up Steele’s Bayou in process of nearly losing his gunboats.

It surely did not help matters when Farragut had to get another naval officer to send the Ram Switzerland down to him. Instead of sending the ram during the night, the officer sent it during daylight hours!! The Vicksburg batteries had a field day!!

Farragut could not believe that someone would be so stupid!!! I’m sure it didn’t bode well for how Grant and Porter’s whole operation was being perceived!!!
 
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alan polk

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Jun 11, 2012
I have read that most of Grant's attempts at finding a waterborne route to Vicksburg between January and April 1863 were mostly undertaken to strengthen morale and keep the troops busy. In the back of his mind, Grant might have known that the most feasible approach to Vicksburg was the one that ultimately succeeded, by marching the AotP down the west bank of the Mississippi, crossing below the citadel, and approaching Vicksburg from the south and east. But the watery nature of the terrain and road network made it almost impossible to contemplate such a move during those wet winter months.

I agree.
 

wausaubob

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Location
Denver, CO
I’ll need to look deeper into it, but it would not surprise me if Farragut did not come up to Vicksburg in late March precisely because of the loss of those boats you referenced. Porter’s handling of things may not have looked too well to him and Banks.

Needless to say, when Farragut arrived and began communicating with Grant, he learned that Porter was absent up Steele’s Bayou in process of nearly losing his gunboats.

It surely did not help matters when Farragut had to get another naval officer to send the Ram Switzerland down to him. Instead of sending the ram during the night, the officer sent it during daylight hours!! The Vicksburg batteries had a field day!!

Farragut could not believe that someone would be so stupid!!! I’m sure it didn’t bode well for how Grant and Porter’s whole operation was being perceived!!!
Its not justifiable. Because I think the advantages of a night run had already been demonstrated at Island No. 10 and Farragut already knew the minutes of surprise gained by steaming at night were critical.
 
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