The Papers of the Blue and Gray

Education Society

Number 4



The Winter of 1863:

Grant’s Louisiana Canal Expeditions




A Scholarly Monograph


Carolyn Pace Davis

24 February 1997






Box 129

Danville, Virginia 24543-0129





Published in the United States

by MacNaughton and Gunn, Saline, Michigan


The Blue and Gray Education Society, 1997



Carolyn Pace Davis


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced.

stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any

means without the permission of the author and BCES. Exceptions

are allowed for the purposes of research or private study, criticism.

or scholarly review, inquiries concerning reproduction outside

these terms should be sent to:

BGES Box 129 Danville, Virginia 24543-0129


First published March 1997 by MacNaugton and Gunn for the

Blue and Gray Education Society

208 Linden Drive, Danville, Virginia 24541


Executive Director: Leonard W. Riedel Jr.


Board of Directors


Vice President: Lt. Col. Keith Gibson, Virginia Military Institute

Treasurer: Colonel Steve Lecholop, USAF

Dr. Terry Jones, Northeast Louisiana University

Dr. Pamela Buckner Riedel, Averett College

Mr. Scott White, Atlanta, Georgia

Mr. Bill Riedel, Norfolk, Virginia

Mr. Louis Junod, Williamsburg, Virginia




Carolyn Pace Davis is a professional educator. She has devoted nearly two years to teaching. She currently teaches eighth grade English and Louisiana history at Calhoun Middle School in Calhoun, Louisiana. Mrs. Davis is an accomplished scholar. She completed her baccalaureate degree in Secondary Education. Her major field of study was Social Studies with a minor in English. She subsequently completed a Master of Arts in History at Northeast Louisiana University. She has completed thirty hours beyond that degree. She is a member of Phi Alpha Theta, the National Honor Society historians. Mrs. Jones is a protégé of the award winning author, Terry Jones.


Davis is the proud wife of Mr. Dale Davis and mother of children Dale Christopher and Kimberly. Mrs. Davis has just become a first time grandmother.


Author’s Acknowledgment


The author completed this monograph after finishing work on her master’s degree. She gratefully acknowledges the support of the following individuals: Dr. Terry Jones, Dr. Scott Legan, Dr. Perry Jones, Dr. Bobs M. Tusa, Gordon Cotton, Ms. Betty Reed, John Brooks, Terry Winschel, and others too numerous to mention.


The author wishes to make special note of the support of her parents Donna and Oscar Pace. They were welcome traveling companions and research assistants. In fact the learning hasn’t stopped--they are still traveling together and doing historical research.



About the Illustrations


The reader will notice the generous use of woodcut illustrations in this work. While the War between the States was the first photo documentary war, the use of woodcuts provides a contemporary and useful view of the progress of this military effort.


You should correlate the dating of many of the cuts to articles and editorial commentary about Grant’s progress. The point is Grant was under a microscope during the entire period of the operations. Regardless, he was certain of his vision and willing to risk his career to ensure the achievement of his objective. The engravings are a significant, if silent, story behind the story.








President Abraham Lincoln once remarked:


See what a lot of land these fellows hold, of which Vicksburg is the key. Here is the Red River, which will supply the Confederacy with cattle and corn to feed their armies. There are the Arkansas and White Rivers which can supply cattle and hogs by the thousand. From Vicksburg these supplies can be distributed by rail all over the Confederacy. Then there is that great depot of supplies on the Yazoo. Let us get Vicksburg and all that country is ours. The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pockets. I am acquainted with that region and know what I am talking about, and valuable as New Orleans will be to us, Vicksburg will be more so. We may take all northern ports of the Confederacy, and they can still defy us from Vicksburg. It means hog and hominy without limit, fresh troops from all the states of the far South and a cotton country where they can raise the staple without interference.’


The War between the States began on April 12, 1861, at Charleston, South Carolina. By May 1862 the mighty Mississippi River had become the scene of major action between the Confederate and Union armies. Fifty-seven navigable bodies of water flowed into the Mississippi, and it bordered ten states.2   Recognizing the importance of the river, Lincoln urged the Union military leaders to control the navigation as soon as possible. New Orleans, Natchez, Baton Rouge, and other river ports fell in the spring of 1862. Thus, seizing the Mississippi River became a major goal of the North’s war strategy known as the Anaconda Plan.3





                   1                     David Dixon Porter, Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War (New

York:   D. Appleton and Company, 1885), 95-96. To avoid the excessive use of [sic], all quotes in this paper retain their original spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

2 Adam Badeau, A Military Ilistory of Ulysses S. Grant, vol. 1 (New

York:   D. Appleton and Company, 1885), 123.

Porter, incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War, 96.



The rebel leaders also recognized the important strategic position of the “Hill City.”4 The railhead at Vicksburg meant they could continue to receive and distribute supplies from Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana to the eastern Confederacy. Materials traded through Gulf of Mexico ports moved up and down the Atchafalaya and Red Rivers.5 If the South failed to maintain some control of the lower Mississippi River the Confederacy would be divided. After early Union successes the segment from Vicksburg to Port Hudson was the last point of free navigation and communication with the Trans-Mississippi Confederacy!


Several Union attempts were made to capture Vicksburg before Major General Ulysses S. Grant finally succeeded in July 1863. The first was made by Admiral David G. Farragut and Brigadier General Thomas Williams in June 1862. Williams began digging a canal across the DeSoto Peninsula, a long fiat, narrow strip of land on the Louisiana side of the river formed by a looping bend in the Mississippi River.6 If they had succeeded the Union fleet could have bypassed Vicksburg rendering it insignificant. Port Hudson would then have easily fallen (as it did once Vicksburg fell in July 1863). Although Williams failed to complete the canal, the idea remained popular with some Federal officers and Lincoln.


In December 1862 Grant launched a two-prong assault on Vicksburg. While he marched through central Mississippi towards the city, Major General William T. Sherman attacked it from the river. Confederate cavalry turned back Grant’s column by destroying his supply base at Holly Springs, while Sherman suffered a devastating defeat at Chickasaw Bluffs.7


By January 1863 Grant began assembling his Army of the Tennessee along the Mississippi River from Lake Providence to Young’s Point, but his attempts to capture Vicksburg were hampered by the geography and strong rebel defenses which capitalized on the navigable but challenging loops and bends of central Mississippi. The approaches to the city were protected from both the north and south for almost twenty miles, along a line running from Haines Bluff to Warrenton. Flood water


Harper’s Weekly, August 2, 1862, p. 482.

Richard S. West, Jr., The Second Admiral: A Life of David Dixon Porter. 1813-1891 (New York: Coward, McCann, Inc., 1937), l(~8. 6 Bruce CatIon, This Hallowed Ground: The Story of the Union Sii the Civil War (Garden City: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1956), 213.

Rachel Sherman Thorndike, ed., The Sherman Letters (New York:

DaCapo Press, 1969), 180.


plains made it impossible to land troops north of Vicksburg and try to march around these defenses. There were twenty-eight guns of heavy caliber mounted on the river front bluffs well above the maximum elevation of the guns of the Union fleet. It seemed suicidal to try and run ships past the bluffs to land troops below the city. Even if a landing was achieved near the bluffs, rebel rifle pits defended the land between the river and the high ground. An approach via the Yazoo River, north of Vicksburg, was blocked with rafts, chains, and torpedoes stretched across its mouth. Even if the city could be bypassed, an approach from the rear was difficult because of rugged hills, steep ravines, thick forests, and numerous swamps and bayous. It was a disheartening problem for Federal planners.8


Grant refused to try a direct assault because Vicksburg’s defenses were considered “impregnable from above and from the front.”9 Even staging his forces for such an attack was risky. The New York Times reported, “The struggle will be no small one--the determination of the rebels to defend this, their last hold upon the Valley of the Mississippi, is only equaled by the determination to wrest it from their possession.”1°


However, failure to take Vicksburg was not an option. So Grant resolved to move his soldiers south of Vicksburg down the Louisiana side of the river, cross the Mississippi, and attack Vicksburg from the south. Although this meant the Union fleet would have to force a passage of Vicksburg’s Mississippi River batteries to get in position below the city to ferry the army across the river, it seemed to be Grant’s best option.”


Grant was not insensitive to the possible destruction of his supporting fleet and in an effort to minimize the risk he decided to reopen the old canal begun by General Williams in June 1862.12 By beginning the work in the winter months, Grant hoped to complete the canal before the river began falling and before the onset of the hot malarial summer.’3



                8                   Badeau, Military Ilistory of Ulysses S. Grant, 159.

                              Vicksburg Daily Whig, February 18, 1863.

               10                   New York Ti~~e~ February 9, 1863.

 Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant, vol. 1 (New York:

The Century Co., 1917), 371.

12 William 1. Sherman, Memoirs of William T. Sherman (Bloomington:

 Indiana University Press, 1957), 305.

Gary B. Mills, Of Men and Rivers: The Story of the Vicksburg

District (Vicksburg: Vicksburg Corps of Engineers, 1978), 29.

                             The Papers of the BGES                      7

Unfortunately once he decided upon this effort, the inclement weather convinced Grant that he would not be able to move his army south over the flooded Louisiana delta before March. Still, he also would not let it remain idle and have morale suffer.’4 Work on the canal across the DeSoto Peninsula, as well as other canal experiments at Lake Providence and Walnut Bayou, would help to distract the rebels in the vicinity, pacify the public, and keep his men occupied. Grant did not expect much from these projects, but if they worked, he would take advantage of them. 15


New York Times, February 9, 1863.

Ibid., 372.





In January 1863 General Order Number 13 was issued, placing Grant in charge of the Department of Tennessee and the Mississippi River expedition against Vicksburg.’6 He was warned by General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck not to expect much help from Major General Nathanial P. Banks, who was planning operations against Port Hudson, Louisiana.’7 If Banks had been able to reduce Port Hudson, the struggle for control of the Mississippi River would have been much


On January 1, 1863, General Grant advised Flag Officer David Dixon Porter that he had sent an engineer, Colonel Josiah Bissell, to Young’s Point. Bissell was to survey the area and determine the feasibility of opening the old Williams’s canal on the DeSoto Peninsula.’8 Before departing Memphis, Grant wrote to General Halleck concerning the Peninsula canal:


I propose running a canal through starting far enough above the old one, commenced last summer, to receive the stream where it impinges against the shore with the greatest velocity. The old canal left the river in an eddy and in a line perpendicular to the stream and also to the crest of the hills opposite, with a batters and directed against the outlet. This new canal will debauch below the bluffs on the opposite side of the river, and give our gunboats a fair chance against any fortifications that may be placed to oppose them.’9


On January 20 General Grant ordered Major Generals John A.  McClernand and William T. Sherman to move with their commands to Young’s Point, where they were to begin work reopening William’s Canal.  Grant later recalled:





16                                    U. S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Com~11~


the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vols (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), series 1, vol pt. 1, p. 11. Hereinafter referred to as the O.R. Unless otherwise indicated. references are to series 1

                           17                   Ibid., 9

                           18                   Ibid., vol. 17, pt. 2, p. 551

                                          Ibid., vol. 24, pt. 1, p. 8; John Y. Simon, ed., The Papers of Uiy

Grant. December 9, 1862 - March 31, 1863, vol. 7 (Carbondale: ~

Illinois University Press, 1979), 233-34.

The Papers of the BGES


The real work of the campaign and siege of Vicksburg now began. The problem was to secure a footing on dry ground on the east side to the river from which the troops could operate against Vicksburg.2°


The excessive rain in the southern area along the Mississippi

made the living and working conditions for the Thirteenth and Fifteenth

Corps very uncomfortable. They were forced to camp on the levees and land behind them.  The Union forces stretched for miles along the Mississippi’s west bank from the DeSoto Peninsula to Milliken’s Bend.21


Grant wrote to McClernand on January 22 advising him that he sending ammunition and mining tools. He also suggested that gunny s be saved for future use as sandbags.22 In a January 22 report to Grant, McClernand wrote:


Before nightfall I reconnoitered the country within three-quarters of a mile of the canal, and by nine o’clock this morning quite to beyond it. The water of the Mississippi River, which is rising rapidly, is in the upper end of the canal and  must run through in a few hours, if the rise continues.... The line of the canal is now occupied by forces deemed sufficient to hold it.... I will immediately commence enlarging the present, or cutting a new canal.... Additional implements, however, will be required...23



In order to protect his troops while they worked on the canal, McClernand set up a battery of twenty-pound Parrots on the bank of the




Grant, Personal Memoirs. vol. 1. n. 370.

kT~... ~ ~

n, ed., The Pacers of Ulyssc, . ur~i.., ..... ~, p.-.-.’,, -...~.,

~t. ~, p.

Vicksburg Daily Whig, February 21, -.



In his report on January 24, McClernand write, “The waters of the Mississippi are now running through the anal a foot deep.”25  Two days later he reported:



I have only to add… the Mississippi River is still rising... three crevasses occur within twenty miles of the lower end of the canal…The water flows three feet deep in the canal but gives no evidence of diverting the channel of the river…26



Sherman too was active. A working party of 1,000 men was to begin cutting a new channel 300-500 yards further upstream from the original canal in an effort to intercept the main current of the river.  If he was successful the river would do the rest, cutting a new path far from the menacing bluffs of Vicksburg.


Unfortunately, the work was risky and Sherman was admonished and keep the roads in good repair” in case rising water forced him to move the troops and artillery back aboard the transports.27 When Sherman and his staff rode over to look at the canal, he was not impressed and remarked, It’s no bigger than a plantation ditch.”28   This “ditch,” however, kept his corps occupied throughout January and February.


Sherman’s work was designed to accomplish three goals. First, he would widen the canal nine feet to increase the volume and power of the

current.  Second, he would use the earth as a parapet, which would enable a small number  of men to guard it. Third, batteries would be erected to control the river below Vicksburg.29 In a January 24 letter to General McClernand he noted his progress:



I have just ridden my line. General David Stuart’s division

occupies the line of the canal, and is at work widening the canal  9 feet and throwing up the earth on this side, to make a parapet and to prevent an overflow.  About 2 feet of water is in the canal now, and moving at a current about the same as the main river.  With our tools, we cannot attempt much more…”30





The rising water of the Mississippi caused Sherman much concern. The water seemed to be everywhere. He exclaimed, “Rain, rain--water above, below and all around. I have been soused under w~ by my horse falling in a hole and got a good ducking yesterday where horse could not go. No doubt they are chuckling over our helpless situation in Vicksburg.”3’ In the above letter to McClernand he stated. the river rises 8 feet, as I feel assured it will very soon, water will overflow this plain, and we will all be in the levee.”32 The only safe his troops had was either on the levee or aboard the steamboats anchored nearby. As a precaution, Sherman issued General Order Number 8 on January 26, assigning certain sections of the levee to a part of his command, while sending the rest to the steamboats.33 McClernand was also threatened and his troops were eventually moved to Milliken’s


During this episode, Sherman’s headquarters were at a Grove’s house, which was surrounded by water and could only be by a plank walk built on posts extending from the levee to the house Neither Mrs. Groves nor Sherman were satisfied with this situation Sherman strongly suggested that either she or the Union army was ~, to have to move. He wrote, “Cannot we prevail on her to move? S/w no substantial cause for complaint other than the burning of rails, the noise, tumult, and confusion of the mass of men. . . .(emphasis added)”35


                    Surprisingly, the Confederates had made no attempt to fill in canal on the DeSoto Peninsula after it was abandoned by General Williams. Officials apparently did not feel it could be of any help to Union army. Even had the canal been filled, the Union forces simply would have dug another one. As one reporter wrote:


Labor is nothing with our enemies, as every one can test who seen that portion of the Yazoo swamp occupied by them for a days some weeks since. If they had continued there one w~1’ longer, the whole swamp would have been intersected with corduroy roads. The building of bridges, the digging of canals





31                     Terry L. Jones, “Grant’s Canals in Northeast Louisiana,” North


Louisiana Historical Association Journal 9 (Winter 1979): II.

                           32                   O.R., vol. 24, pt. 3, p. 10.


Sherman, Memoirs of William T. Sherman, 305.


Q~, vol. 24, pt. 3, p. 10.

The Papers of the BGES 14













 and the construction of roads, are but matters of recreation with the abolitionists.36


By the time the Union troops began work in January 1863, the canal varied in depth from seven to eight feet and in width from nine to twelve feet.37  One soldier from the Fifty-fifth Illinoisgot a close-up look at the canal when his regiment camped nearby.  He starcastically wrote on January 22:


This noted canal, from which wonderful results were anticipated and confidently foretold by those who, hundreds of miles distant, managed the war upon maps, greatly disappointed the soldiers encamped in the swamp beside it.  In appearance it was little more conspicuous than a farm ditch, being generally not over ten feet broad and six feet deep where completed.38





David F. Bastion, “hydraulic Analysis of Grant’s Canal,” l’he Militar)

meer (July-August 1974): 229, in Vicksburg National Military Park


Capt. Lucian B. Crooker and others, The Story of the Fifty~fifth

rient Illinois Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War, 186 1-1865 (Clinton,

is: W. J. Coulter, 1887), 211.


The Fifteenth Corps was provided with spades and began to widen the canal to fifty or sixty feet. The engineers divided the canal into 160-foot sections with one regiment in charge of digging each section.  Many of the laboring soldiers must have realized that the eddy at the ca entrance would prevent success. Others may have noticed that the rebel batteries at Vicksburg appeared to be in range of the canal’s southern outlet, a fact which could make passage difficult even if the canal was completed. Perhaps those who seriously considered the situation realized that they were merely killing time, waiting for better weather.


R. W. Grose, whose insight proved better than his writing, probably voiced the popular opinion of many of the troops when he



We are encamp about four miles from Vicksburg on the Louisiana side the entention was to dig a cannal across a bend the Missippi River but I think that it will be a failure for they have dug it only about twenty five feet wide and left the trees standing in it thinking that God Almity would send great floods water through and tare trees and stumps right out but he failed ii doing it so they let the water in it just like some little boys would to see the water run in it Now the cannal is of no account and it takes our men all the time to throw up a levy on this side to keen the water from over flooring us yesterday we had a small brake it we did not know what minute we would have to move out of this place and the is no dry spot handy here either I woulden care if it would over flow the hole Southern Confederacy and drive us back in Ohio for we might as well be there as here for all we make by being here I have come to conclusion that this Rebellion will never be put down by fighting the south can fight us as lone as what we can fight them until the first of April our Army will as small by sicknesh and deaths and desertions as what it was before the Draft then they will either have to make another big draft or give up the strugel the Soldier are getting very tired of fighting and would be very glad to hear of peace being made between North and South. .. .~


The living conditions of the soldiers on the peninsula were awful. A member of the Fifty-fifth Illinois, graphically described the horrid conditions:


The period of its stay at Young’s Point was on many accounts one of the gloomiest in the career of the regiment. At the time of its arrival the river was rapidly rising, and the turbid waters gradually crept up the slope of the high levee several feet above the level of the encampments. It was a winter of excessive rains and unusual floods. The swamps became lakes, and camps and roads were sloughs of black mire. If one put his foot squarely down anywhere, it was questionable when he raised it again, if the shoe would not stay behind; and if it yielded reluctant allegiance where it belonged, it brought with it a pound or two of unctuous earth. The nights were so damp and chill that, when attainable, log fires were kept before the tents, while the days were sometimes oppressively sultry. The men, although now hardened campaigners, working day after day midleg deep in mud and water, in a malarious climate, under various discouragements, grumbled audibly, and began to fail in health.4°


The bogs, lakes, and bayous were the home of alligators and other reptiles, and mosquitoes filled the air with their monotonous buzzing. One soldier referred to the mosquito as “the vilest of earth’s tormentors.”4’ A reporter from the New York Tribune was even more descriptive. In an article, he wrote:


Mosquitoes out here are much larger than our Eastern species, and their bills are of corresponding length; but they have not much good voices for music. They descend upon you like a hawk on a June bug, without warning of any kind, except you feel the wind from their broad wings, as if some bird of prey were swooping down.42


Thoughts of desertion were encouraged by discouraging articles

printed in some of the Northern newspapers. One reporter claimed,

             40                    Crooker, The Story of the Fifty-fifth Regiment Illinois Volunteer


Infantry, 2 12.

Otto F. Bond ed., Under the Flag of the Nation: Diaries and Letters of

a Yankee Volunteer in the Civil War (Columbus: Ohio State University Press,

1961), 50.

            42                    New York Times, April 16, 1863.




“There is worse demoralization in Gen. Grant’s command than has be exhibited anywhere else in the army since the beginning of the war.”4~ Still another wrote:


The army is as stagnant and inactive as the swamps and bad water around us. This inaction is not that of easy and sluggish repose. It is a long suspense --a painful expectation. The an anxious and weary of nothing to do. . . .‘~


One of Grant’s harshest critics was Murat Halstead, editor o~ Cincinnati Gazette. An article taken from the Cincinnati Gazette was even published in the Vicksburg Daily Whig. The article’s author

criticized Grant for not having a point of operations on land and for apparently not having any plans to establish one. He also stated that strategies Grant had been using so far had only led to the destruction his own vessels.45 Some of Halstead’s criticisms were sent directly ta government officials. In a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase on February 19, 1863, Halstead wrote:


I write you this morning to send you a copy of a private letter have from our army in front of Vicksburg. It is from a close observer who endeavors to tell the truth: “There never was a more thoroughly disgusted, disheartened, demoralized army t this is, and all because it is under such men as Grant and Sherman

                                       …while hundreds of poor fellows are dying of smallpox am every other conceivable malady, the medical department is

afflicted with delirium tremens.... How is it that Grant, who was behind at Fort Henry, drunk at Donelson, surprised and whipped at Shiloh, and driven back from Oxford Miss., is still command?46


Other critics declared that Grant was “simply wandering around, baffled and outwitted, wasting men, time and patience.”47 Still others criticized Grant for choosing Sherman as second in command. After


Vicksburg Daily Whig, March 28, 1863.

New York Times, March 1, 1863.

Vicksburg Daily Whig, April 15, 1863.

W.  E. Woodward, Meet General Grant (New York: Liveright. Publishing Corp., 1928), 292.

Earl Schenck Miers, The General Who Marched to Hell! William

Tecumseh Sherman and His March to Fame and Infamy (New York: Alfr

Knopf, 1951), 26.



Shiloh, was widely rumored that Sherman had gone insane. Critics that this proved “that ‘crazy’ birds of a feather flocked together.”48


Perhaps the most frequent complaint against Grant concerned his drinking. Halstead, in addition to his other criticisms of Grant, claimed,

“He is a poor drunken imbecile. . . a poor stick sober, and he is most of the time more than half-drunk, and much of the time idiotically.




Lincoln received so many complaints about Grant that Charles was sent to visit the army in early 1863 and investigate them. s report, however, was very positive. He became one of Grant’s strongest supporters, and described him as being modest, honest, tempered, sincere, thoughtful, and courageous.5° Reassured, Lincoln thereafter supported Grant against his critics. As Lincoln pointed out, the

i could not survive without Grant because Grant at least would fight.


Frequent twelve hour shifts of duty made leisure time scarce for working in the canal, but the men usually found ways to entertain elves. They read letters from family and books they had stolen from Southern homes while marching across the countryside. Food and gifts sent home also helped to brighten otherwise dreary days. Another of amusement for the soldiers was fishing. One soldier wrote:


This morning the employees of the hospital are having fine times over a fish of a new kind they caught last night in the shape of an alligator. A number of them went out last night with guns and a dog for bait to the lake a couple of hundred yards from our quarters. They say it is full of alligators. Coming to the lake they tied the dog to a sapling and then gave it a whipping, making the poor dog howl at a great rate. After a while a noise was heard near the bay when an alligator, seven feet long, wishing for a dainty morsel, approached the dog. Those lying in wait fired away with success, for his alligatorship lies on the bank this morning.



Robert Leckie, None Died in Vain (New York: Harper Collins

iiers, 1990), 547.

CharlesA. Dana, Recollections of the Civil War (New York: D.

ton and Company, 1898), 61.

Frank Ross McGregor, Dearest Susie: A Civil War Infantryman’s

s to His Sweetheart (New York: Exposition Press. 1971 ~ 50


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