The Mississippi River Squadron and the “Great Artery of America” (Part 2)

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Kristen M. Pawlak

Part 1 can be found here.

As the first of the major naval battles to secure the Mississippi River from 1862 until 1863, Fort Henry also marked a turning point in the strategic use of the Western Gunboat Flotilla. It was now a respected and powerful force the Union Army was able to use in the destruction of Confederate fortifications and strongholds along major rivers in the West. At Fort Donelson, just a week following the surrender of Fort Henry, Foote’s gunboats pounded the Confederate fortifications, but after holding their fire until the gunboats were in range, the Rebel guns opened up and forced the fleet to retreat. Though Foote’s attack against Fort Donelson failed, Grant’s Army of the Tennessee surrounded the garrison and forced the Confederates to surrender. In addition, the Confederate garrison at New Madrid, Missouri and Island No. 10 fell within weeks after Foote’s Flotilla bombarded them and transported thousands of Federal infantrymen past the Rebel defenses. On April 25, New Orleans surrendered to the West Gulf Blockading Squadron under the command of David Farragut, and later to Major General Benjamin Butler, which then opened the Mississippi River from the south.

Less than two months after the fall of Island No. 10, the Flotilla now under the command of Charles H. Davis – which included the Ram Fleet and Mississippi Marine Brigade — took Fort Pillow and Memphis within two hours on June 6, 1862, after delivering a crushing blow to the Confederate River Defense Fleet. Created and commanded by Col. Charles Ellet, the Ram Fleet consisted of specialized steam-powered towboats with reinforced hulls used to ram enemy ships. Ellet’s son Charles Rivers Ellet transferred from the Army as an assistant surgeon to join his father’s naval unit. He would later command the Ram Fleet’s USS Queen of the West after Col. Ellet’s mortal wounding during the Battle of Memphis. As a part of the Ram Fleet, the 350-man Mississippi Marine Brigade, commanded by Col. Ellet’s younger brother Alfred Ellet, consisted of soldiers that served as marines, artillery, and cavalry.

An artist’s rendition of the “Total Annihilation of the Rebel Fleet” during the battle of Memphis. (Photo courtesy of the United States Navy)

On June 6, 1862, the Union naval force approached Memphis, where the Confederate River Defense Fleet protected the forts there. Just days before, the Union Armies of the Tennessee, the Ohio, and the Mississippi forced the withdrawal of the Confederates from the town; this, in turn, effectively cut Confederate-occupied Memphis off from the east. The Rebel garrison fled to Vicksburg and other vulnerable Confederate strongholds. However, the River Defense Fleet was unable to acquire the necessary coal to flee before the Mississippi River Squadron arrived. Nonetheless, the River Defense Fleet chose to fight the Federal fleet. According to Western Gunboat Flotilla commander Charles Henry Davis, the fight began when “the rebels . . . opened fire.” A combination of gunfire and ramming, “compelled the remaining [Rebel] vessels to resort to their superiority in speed as the only means of safety.”[1] Ultimately, the fleeing River Defense Fleet traveled between 5 and 10 miles downstream, “until all of the rebel fleet were either sunk or captured,” with the exception of the General Van Dorn that escaped.[2] In less than two hours, the city of Memphis fell into Union hands as one of the victories of the Mississippi River Squadron. The Commander of the USS Carondelet Henry Walke believed that the “chief of all results of the work of the flotilla was the opening of the Mississippi River once and for all from Cairo to Memphis, and the complete possession of Western Tennessee by Union forces.”[3]

Rear-Admiral David D. Porter, commander of the U.S. Navy’s Mississippi River Squadron. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

The victory at Memphis also solidified the decision by the army to transfer command of the Western Gunboat Flotilla to the navy. On October 1, 1862, the navy renamed it “the Mississippi River Squadron,” and Admiral David D. Porter assumed command. In the official War Department orders, the navy credited the “brilliant and important service of the gunboats” as the main reason for the transfer. They also considered the flotilla’s success on the Mississippi River as “one of the brightest pages in the history of the war for the preservation of the integrity of the country and the suppression of a causeless and wicked rebellion.”[4] In October 1862, the only two Rebel garrisons left on the Mississippi River were positioned at Vicksburg and Port Hudson, Mississippi. To secure both of these bastions, “will be a severe blow [to the enemy], and, if done effectually, will be of great advantage to us, and probably the most decisive act of the war.”[5]

From December 1862 until March 1863, Grant and the Army of the Tennessee made several failed attempts to take Vicksburg. These included Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s frontal assault at Chickasaw Bayou and Grant’s expeditions to construct artificial waterways through the bayous bypassing Confederate batteries defending the city. To finally achieve success and force the surrender of Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton’s garrison there, Grant devised a combined-operational strategy between his ground troops and the gunboats. Using intelligence gathered by Porter’s Mississippi River Squadron, Grant finalized a plan to take Vicksburg: “I will go below Vicksburg and cross over if I can depend on you for a sufficient naval force. I will prepare some transports … and we’ll start as soon as you are ready.”[6]

The Army of the Tennessee would advance south from Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana along the western side of the Mississippi to New Carthage, where the army would cross into Mississippi south of Vicksburg. In the meantime, on April 16, the Mississippi River Squadron was ordered to run the batteries at Vicksburg to bring vital supplies and transport vessels to Grant’s army positioned near Grand Gulf. In the cover of the late-night darkness, the squadron embarked with engines muffled, lights off, and protected with cotton bales, “to prevent the enemy from becoming aware of our design.”[7]

Admiral Porter described the scene after the war in his Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War, “as I looked back at the long line I could compare them only to so many phantom vessels. Not a light was to be seen nor a sound heard throughout the fleet.”[8] As the fleet approached Vicksburg, large fires around the Confederate defenses illuminated the river to spot approaching Federal gunboats. Rebel batteries opened up on the now-visible fleet. Confederate infantry lined the levees along the river and fired their muskets just twenty yards away. Fortunately for the Mississippi River Squadron, only two transport ships were lost and several sailors wounded or killed. “The Vicksburgers must have been disappointed when they saw us get by their batteries with so little damage,” Porter later boasted.[9] The squadron’s incredible feat to bypass Vicksburg opened the door to victory: “General Grant had turned the enemy’s flank with his army, I had turned it with the gun-boats; now Grant had to cross the river and trust to his brave soldiers.”[10]

An etching of the Mississippi River Squadron’s fabled run past the defenses of Vicksburg on April 16, 1863. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

The army was to cross at Grand Gulf, guarded by Rebel Fort Wade and Fort Coburn.. To establish a beachhead, Porter’s fleet was again called to bombard and neutralize the enemy fortifications. In the morning of April 29, 1863, seven of Porter’s ironclads opened fire on both forts.[11] After “five hours and thirty-five minutes,” they silenced the guns of Fort Wade, but not Fort Coburn, which was out of the range of fire for the ironclads’ guns.[12] Additionally, Porter cited the “strong current . . . and strong eddies” as “the most difficult portion of the river in which to manage an ironclad.”[13] The failure to take Coburn forced Grant to slightly change his plans for the crossing. The army was to cross just south of Grand Gulf at Bruinsburg.

The next morning, the first part of Grant’s army boarded Porter’s transports at Disharoon’s Plantation and embarked across the river to Bruinsburg. With Confederate troops alert at Grand Gulf, the main challenge was to cross the river unseen by the enemy. Covered by darknesslike the first run past Vicksburg’s defenses, “the navy and transports ran the batteries successfully . . . by the time it was light the enemy saw our whole fleet, iron-clads, gunboats, river steamers and barges, quietly moving down the river three miles below them.”[14] On May 1, thanks to the Mississippi River Squadron, Grant’s force crossed the mighty Mississippi. Without the Mississippi River Squadron, the army’s crossing of the Mississippi would have been tremendously difficult, if not, impossible.

From May 1 through May 17, Grant pushed deeper into Mississippi, inflicting heavy casualties on Rebel defenders at Port Gibson, Raymond, Jackson, Champion Hill, Big Black River Bridge, and in the defenses at Vicksburg. On May 19 and 22, Grant launched several frontal assaults to dismantle the Confederates and seize their strongholds, but ultimately failed. According to Grant, “the experience of the 22d convinced officers and men that [a siege of Vicksburg] was best.”[15] The Federal lines outside Vicksburg were built with entrenchments, rifle pits, batteries, and parapets reinforced with logs. Grant had no siege guns, but instead relied upon Porter’s naval guns from his fleet to blast the Confederate fortifications. “Our men are much used up, but we will bombard all we can,” Porter wrote to Grant from the USS Black Hawk.[16] Until July 3, the Mississippi River Squadron continued the bombardment with unrelenting ferocity. Recalling the siege in a poem entitled, “The Siege of Vicksburg,” Porter wrote, “And the fleet lends its cannon to add to the din . . . but the fires burned down, leaving Vicksburg in gloom, And the phantom-ships floated on — sealing her doom.”[17]

On July 4, 1863, Pemberton finally surrendered his approximately 30,000-man Army of Mississippi after two months of siege, starvation, death, and destruction. In the days prior, the Rebel commander had discussed terms of surrender for his defeated army with Grant, who insisted upon an unconditional surrender and the parole of all Confederate forces at Vicksburg. Pemberton finally agreed on the evening of July 3 and formally surrendered the next day. On July 9, 1863, less than one week after the fall of the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy,” the final Confederate fortification on the Mississippi River at Port Hudson fell to Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks. The decisive victories for the North on the Mississippi caused a relieved President Abraham Lincoln to declare, “the Father of Waters goes unvexed to the sea.” The Mississippi River was finally back in Union hands.

The historiography of the Vicksburg Campaign tends to focus on Ulysses Grant’s leadership and his strategic brilliance in seizing the garrison at Vicksburg. Over the course of time unfortunately, the history books  have not thoroughly discussed or analyzed the naval contribution to securing the Mississippi River and capturing Vicksburg.

For Grant, the hero of Vicksburg, the Mississippi River Squadron won the campaign for the North. Immediately after the surrender, Grant rode from his headquarters to the river to personally thank and congratulate Porter and his sailors for their invaluable service during the campaign.[18] “The navy under Porter was all it could be, during the entire campaign. Without its assistance, the campaign could not have been successfully made with twice the number of men engaged . . . The most perfect harmony reigned between the two arms of the service,” Grant later wrote in his Memoirs.[19] Additionally, this same navy was vital in defending and protecting Union interests on Western waters, especially in controlling waterways and suppressing enemy smuggling and irregular warfare. It can be said, the Mississippi River Squadron not only saved the rivers, it saved the West and, therefore, the United States.

Kristen M. Pawlak is the Development Associate for Stewardship at the Civil War Trust. She also sits on the Board of Directors at the Missouri Civil War Museum, and actively volunteers with the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation. She graduated from Gettysburg College in 2014 with a BA in History and Civil War Era Studies, and is currently pursuing her MA in Nonprofit Leadership and Management at Webster University. From St. Louis, Kristen has a fond interest in the Civil War in Missouri, Civil War medicine, and the war experiences of soldiers.


[1] Charles Henry Davis, “Detailed Report of Flag-Officer Davis,” June 6, 1862, in Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, series1, vol. 23, 119, 120.

[2] “Report of Commander Walke,” June 6, 1862, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, series1, vol. 23, 122.

[3] Henry Walke, “The Western Flotilla at Fort Donelson, Island Number Ten, Fort Pillow and Memphis,” in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, v. 1: 452.

[4] “General Orders No. 150,” October 2, 1862, in Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, series1, vol. 23, 389.

[5] W.T. Sherman to F. Steele, George W. Morgan, A.J. Smith, and M.L. Smith, December 23, 1862, in William T. Sherman, Memoirs of General William T. Sherman (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957), 287.

[6] Porter, Incidents and Anecdotes, 174.

[7] Ibid., 175.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 177.

[10] Ibid., 178.

[11] David D. Porter, “Detailed Report of Acting Rear-Admiral Porter, U.S. Navy,” April 29, 1863, in Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, series 1, vol. 24, 611.

[12]Ibid., 610.

[13] Ibid., 611.

[14] Grant, Memoirs, 477.

[15] Ibid., 532.

[16] David D. Porter, “Letter from Acting Rear-Admiral Porter to Major-General Grant,” May 22, 1863, in Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, series 1, vol. 25, 30.

[17] Porter, Incidents and Anecdotes, 198.

[18] “Vicksburg Campaign: Unvexing the Father of Waters,” Civil War Trust, accessed December 18, 2017,

[19] Grant, Memoirs, 574.

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