Engineers in Union blue and Confederate gray played a prominent role in the Vicksburg campaigns of 1862-1863. Although their contributions have largely gone unnoticed in published works on the campaign, the stories of these men and the fatigue parties that toiled under their supervision are worthy of note and will be detailed in this series of articles.
Part 15: The Forts of Grand Gulf
The Union gunboats of the Mississippi Squadron pulled away from Hard Times Landing and steamed into action at 7 a.m. April 29, 1863. These gunboats, under the command of R. Adm. David Dixon Porter, had run past the Vicksburg batteries on the night of April 16 in an awe-inspiring display of firepower. Although each vessel had been hit repeatedly, Union sailors were able to effect repairs and by the end of April the fleet had rendezvoused with Grant’s army at Hard Times.
It was Grant’s intention to force a crossing at Grand Gulf as there was a good landing site and from which point roads radiated into the interior of Mississippi. Grant requested that Porter send his gunboats into action once again to silence the Confederate batteries and pave the way for a landing by his infantrymen.
From the deck of the small tug Ivy, Grant watched as Porter’s vessels fought to silence the guns of Forts Cobun and Wade. The gunboats included “City Series” ironclads Carondelet, Louisville, Mound City, and Pittsburg, each mounting 13 guns. Porter divided his squadron to attack both forts simultaneously. Thick clouds of smoke soon obscured Grant’s vision, yet the sheets of flame that pierced the smoke evidenced the magnitude of resistance. Hours slowly passed and the chances of success dimmed. Yet Grant maintained his composure. With the ever-present stub of a cigar clenched in his teeth and field glasses in hand, he kept his eyes fixed on the bluffs that towered over the opposite shore.
The bombardment raged in unabated fury throughout the morning hours. The powerful ironclads hammered away at the earthen forts, sending solid shot and shell crashing among the Confederate defenders. Although his guns silenced Fort Wade (decapitating Col. William Wade in the process), Porter’s fleet failed to quiet the guns of Fort Cobun, which remained defiant, seemingly impervious.
In the exchange of fire with Bowen’s batteries the fleet sustained heavy damage. Aboard the flagship Benton seven men were killed and 19 wounded; Pittsburg reported the loss of six killed and 13 wounded; and Tuscumbia, which was hit 81 times, suffered the loss of five killed and 24 wounded. These losses were among the heaviest suffered by the United States Navy during the war. Bitterly disappointed, Porter was forced to disengage his vessels and declared that, “Grand Gulf is the strongest place on the Mississippi.”
Grant, too, was disappointed. Not wishing to send his transports, loaded to the gunwales with troops, to attempt a landing in the face of enemy resistance, the Union commander disembarked his troops and continued the march south along the Louisiana levee. He turned his eyes and hopes next to Rodney, which his maps showed was the next likely landing site in Mississippi. That evening, as the soldiers in blue continued the march southward, Porter’s gunboats again cast-off from Hard Times and moved downriver at forced draft. Screened by the gunboats which once more bombarded Grand Gulf, the empty transports and barges filled with supplies slipped past the Confederate batteries unscathed. By daybreak on April 30, the fleet rounded to the levee at Disharoon’s plantation where it again rendezvoused with Grant.
Although the Confederates had stood tall at Grand Gulf, thanks in large part to the fortifications erected by their engineers, their victory was short-lived as Grant was again poised to hurl his army across the mighty river and onto Mississippi soil.