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 Ten: Flotilla on the Delta
As Capt. Fred Prime directed work on Grant’s Canal, opposite Vicksburg, the Union commander investigated other routes by which to reach the “Hill City.” At Lake Providence, Louisiana, 75 river miles above Vicksburg, Bissell’s Engineer Regiment of the West (one of only two formal pioneer units serving in Grant’s army), worked to excavate a canal to connect Lake Providence and the Mississippi River. This unit, organized in the summer and fall of 1861 by Col. Josiah Bissell, had extensive experience in bridge building, road construction, and the mechanics of fortifications. They eventually blasted an opening in the levee through which flood water from the great river (then 15 feet higher than lake level) raced through the canal and into Lake Providence. The rush of water also raised the level of connected streams that led back to the Mississippi below Vicksburg. Many of the bayous, however, were choked with ancient cedar and cypress trees that had to be removed to permit passage of boats. The time and labor required for the task caused this “experiment” to be abandoned.
At the same time, farther upriver, opposite Helena, Arkansas, Union topographical engineer James H. Wilson directed efforts to gain access from the Mississippi River into the upper reaches of The Delta via Yazoo Pass. The pass led from Moon Lake to the Coldwater River, which flowed into the Tallahatchie River that converged with the Yalobusha near Greenwood, Mississippi, to form the Yazoo River. Once in the Yazoo, Union forces planned to outflank the Confederate position at Haynes’ and Snyder’s Bluffs north of Vicksburg and compel the evacuation or surrender of the fortress city.
Wilson was an Illinois native who graduated sixth in the West Point class of 1860 and within five years rose to the rank of major general. The “boy wonder,” as he was known throughout the army, was a favorite of Grant who considered this “experiment” the most promising. On February 3, 1863, Wilson blasted an opening in the levee through which the water poured “like nothing else I ever saw except Niagara Falls.” The engineer recalled, “Logs, trees, and great masses of earth were torn away with the greatest of ease.” With pride and satisfaction Wilson reported, “The work is a perfect success.”
The gunboats Baron De Kalb and Chillicothe led a flotilla of vessels crowded to the gunwales with soldiers in blue through the Pass and into the Coldwater River. As this force slowly snaked its way toward the Tallahatchie, Confederate troops were rushed into The Delta to block its way. Fatigue parties led by Capt. Powhatan Robinson of the Confederate engineers worked feverishly to construct strong defenses across the narrow neck separating the Tallahatchie and Yazoo Rivers just west of Greenwood. (The streams are only about 500 yards apart.) Dubbed Fort Pemberton, in honor of the department commander, the bastion constructed under Robinson’s direction consisted of cotton bales covered in dirt and mounted eight guns. The right flank was anchored on the Tallahatchie while the left flank rested on the Yazoo River. The steamer Star of the West was sunk athwart the channel to further block the Tallahatchie. (The remains of Fort Pemberton can still be seen today adjacent to the Corps of Engineers flood control structure.)
The Federal flotilla finally came within range of Fort Pemberton on March 11 and the Union ironclads exchanged fire with Confederate cannoneers. Two days later a more determined attack was made by the ironclads, but again repulsed. In responding to the Federal fire, Confederate General William Loring urged his men to “Give them blizzards, boys.”
Despite repeated efforts by Union land and naval forces to silence or outflank the Confederate stronghold, the gallant defenders of Fort Pemberton remained defiant and in early April the expedition withdrew. Yet another “experiment” had failed, and Grant was running out of time and options.