Prelude to the Battle
At the onset of the American Civil War, the State of Tennessee comprised most of the northern border of the Confederate States of America in the West. Defending that border was difficult for the Confederacy because three major rivers (the Mississippi, which flows south to the Gulf of Mexico, and the Tennessee and Cumberland, which flow north to the Ohio River) provided relatively easy access to the South.
Grant Captures Fort Henry and Fort Donelson
By late 1861, President Abraham Lincoln was pressuring Union commanders in the west to invade the South. On January 30, 1862, the Western Theater commander, General Henry Halleck, reluctantly approved Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant’s request to attack Fort Henry on the Tennessee River. Within six weeks, Grant captured Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, on the Cumberland River, establishing federal control of both waterways.
Federals Capture New Orleans and Memphis
After the Union successes at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, the Federals turned their attention to the Mississippi River. If the Union could gain control of the Mississippi, the Confederacy would lose easy access to supplies from the Gulf of Mexico and territories in the American West. Admiral David Farragut captured the port city of New Orleans on May 18, 1862, closing down Confederate access to the Gulf. In June, the Union tightened its grip on the Mississippi when Federal forces captured the river city of Memphis, Tennessee. Still, the Confederacy controlled traffic on much of the river because of its strong fortifications at Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Vicksburg sits on a high bluff on the eastern side of the Mississippi River, south of the mouth of the Yazoo River. Known as “The Gibraltar of the Confederacy,” the city seemed to be impregnable. The height of the cliff on which it sat protected it from amphibious assaults. To the north, nearly impenetrable swamps and bayous protected Vicksburg. To the east, a ring of forts, mounting 172 guns, shielded the city from overland assaults. The land on the Louisiana side of the river, opposite Vicksburg, was rough, etched with poor roads and many streams.
Battle of Chickasaw Bayou
In July 1862, President Abraham Lincoln summoned Major General Henry W. Halleck to Washington to serve as chief of all Union armies. Halleck’s departure left Major General Ulysses S. Grant in charge of operations in the Western Theater.
In December, Grant launched his first attempt to capture Vicksburg. He sent three divisions, commanded by his most trusted subordinate, General William T. Sherman, down the river from Memphis to attack Vicksburg from the north. Meanwhile, Grant approached the city with the bulk of his army from the east, but Rebel cavalry cut his supply lines, forcing him to retreat before launching an assault. Unaware that Grant had pulled back, Sherman attacked and Reel forces defeated him at the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou (December 26–29, 1862).
Down the Mississippi
During the winter, Grant made several unsuccessful attempts to approach Vicksburg from other directions. When spring arrived, Grant set a new plan into motion. On March 29, 1863, he put part of his army to work constructing bridges, draining bayous, and constructing a road past Vicksburg on the west side of the Mississippi. By mid-April, his men had carved a path through the Louisiana wilderness that enabled Grant to march the Army of the Tennessee past Vicksburg, cross the river, and attack the city from the south.
Porter Runs the Gauntlet
To complete the river crossing, Grant needed help from his naval forces. On the night of April 16, seven gunboats and three supply ships under the command of Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter ran the gauntlet of Confederate batteries along the river. Despite heavy Rebel fire, Porter passed the Vicksburg, losing only one ship. On April 22, six more boats made it through, bringing Grant the supplies he needed to launch his assault on Vicksburg.
Sherman Feigns an Attack on Snyder’s Bluff
To divert attention from his main operations, Grant ordered Sherman to feign an attack against Confederate forces stationed at Snyder’s Bluff, upriver from Vicksburg, from April 29 through May 1. Grant also ordered Colonel Benjamin Garrison to stage a daring cavalry raid through central Mississippi, which forced Confederate Commander of the Army of Mississippi, John C. Pemberton, to divert troops away from Vicksburg.
On April 29, 1863, Grant put his scheme into action. With the aid of Admiral Porter’s gunboats, Grant attempted to move Major General John A. McClernand’s 13th Army Corps down the Mississippi River on transport barges and execute a landing on the east bank at Grand Gulf.
Located at the juncture of the Mississippi and the Big Black River roughly thirty miles below Vicksburg, Grand Gulf featured two Confederate fortifications manned by a division of Rebel troops commanded Brigadier General John S. Bowen. Cut into a hillside 170 feet above the water level, Fort Cobun was the stronger of the two forts. Less than a mile downstream, Fort Wade sat only twenty feet above the river. Bowen’s troops also occupied a line of rifle pits connecting the two strongholds,
Porter’s squadron of seven gunboats included the Benton, Lafayette, Tuscumbia, Carondelet, Louisville, Mound City, and Pittsburgh. Besides the naval crews, soldiers from the 58th Ohio and 29th Illinois infantry regiments reinforced Porter’s flotilla.
As McClernand’s troops watched from their barges at a safe distance, Porter’s squadron approached the Confederate forts and opened fire at about 8 a.m. on April 29. The Rebels quickly responded, generating an artillery engagement that lasted roughly five and one-half hours.
During the barrage, Porter’s gunboats silenced Fort Wade and killed its commanding artillery officer, Colonel William Wade. The more strategically elevated Fort Cobun, however, proved unassailable. Shortly after 1 p.m., Porter consulted with Grant, and the two leaders ended the assault and returned upriver.
Aftermath of the Battle
During the Battle of Grand Gulf, the Union suffered seventy-five casualties (eighteen killed and fifty-seven wounded). Bowen’s artillerists put the Tuscumbia out of action and temporarily disabled the Benton. The Confederacy lost twenty-two men (three killed and nineteen wounded).
The Confederate victory proved inconsequential. Later that night, Grant ordered McClernand’s troops to march down the Louisiana side of the Mississippi past Grand Gulf. Meanwhile, his troop barges ran past Fort Cobun under the protection of Porter’s gunboats, at the cost of one fatality aboard the Mound City. McClernand and Porter rendezvoused at Bruinsburg, fewer than ten miles downriver from Grand Gulf. The Federals clambered aboard the barges at Disharoon’s plantation on the Louisiana side of the river, crossed over, and disembarked at Bruinsburg, on the Mississippi side. From there they began their drive north to occupy Vicksburg.