“Grant moves to open the ‘Father of Waters’ ”
Written by Ned Lodwick, U.S. Grant Homestead Association
“Grant’s Canal” tries to change the direction of the “Mighty Mississippi”.
Following the great victory at Shiloh, General Grant received great honors then just as suddenly the public, press, many politicians, and even his army superiors began to turn against him. The newspapers printed articles that he was drunk during to battle. The public and politicians were shocked by the length of the casualty lists. And the army brass were afraid he would take their jobs.
The front page reports of his drunkenness were completely untrue but the rebuttals were buried deep inside the papers. No one, even the military, expected a battle with the ferocity of Shiloh and the numbers of men that could die in just two days of fighting. The reports and complaints reached the White House and President Lincoln replied simply, “I can’t spare the man. He fights.”
The Mississippi River had been closed for over a year and the Midwest was having a hard time getting its crops to market without this great waterway. New Orleans had been captured and Memphis had fallen but the fortress city of Vicksburg, Mississippi still flew the Confederate flag and stopped any flow of goods down the river. This city on the bluffs above the Mississippi River also allowed the Confederacy to ship food and other supplies from her western states across to river to the east. The capture of Vicksburg was the most important assignment that any officer could receive in the fall of 1862 and it was given to one man, Major General Ulysses S. Grant.
The first attempt to capture Vicksburg began in December of 1862. The plan was two pronged. Ulysses would lead one force down to Central Mississippi Railroad and assault Vicksburg from the East while Sherman sailed down the Mississippi and assaulted Chickasaw Bayou just north of the city with another force. Confederate cavalry swept behind Union lines and destroyed the supplies for Grant’s men forcing a retreat. Sherman’s force was soundly defeated at Chickasaw Bijou and he returned north also to lick his wounds.
For many officers this would have been the end of it but not for Ulysses Grant. He quickly developed another plan and put it into action. He was not a man that would give up after one setback, or two, or three, or even five. Defending Vicksburg was as important to the Confederacy, probably more, as its fall was to the Union. Its capture was not going to be easy.
A large bend in the river above Vicksburg looked like a perfect place to cut a canal that would cut a new path for the Mississippi and simply bypass the “Fortress City” and her guns. The canal was dug but the river would not take the new route so that plan was abandoned.
In early March of 1863 General Grant began a plan to take his troops across Lake Providence and though a group of rivers paralleling the Mississippi River in Arkansas. Those rivers were clogged with cypress trees and after a short time that plan was abandoned.
Next a path along the eastern side of the Mississippi was chosen and the Yazoo Pass Expedition was begun. This was also was blocked by cypress but the engineers and pioneers came up with an underwater saw that allowed them to clear the waterways for the steamboats. The problem was that they could only clear a few miles a day and even then the path was so narrow the gunboats could not turn around or even maneuver. The Confederates stopped the expedition by cutting trees into the streams both ahead and behind the gunboats while attacking the ironclads from every side.
Before the gunboats had time to back out of the Yazoo another flotilla was on its way into Steele’s Bijou in another attempt to capture Vicksburg. In a few weeks these ships fell upon the same problems. By March 26th the fleet returned to its starting pointed and the fifth attempt to open the Mississippi was a failure.
General Grant still had his mind set on the objective and he would take Vicksburg one way or another. He studied the maps night after night and finally devised a campaign that he thought would work. The only problem was that none of his officers and none of his superiors, including the President, agreed with him. His plan was outrageous; he would convince the navy to do the impossible and run their ships past the Vicksburg batteries. He would then cross the Mississippi with his army and attack the city from the solid ground on the eastern side of the river.