What If. . .Vicksburg Had Fallen in July ’62?

David G. Farragut on the deck of USS Hartford

In his memoirs, Admiral David D. Porter recollected a November 1861 meeting with President Lincoln and navy secretary Gideon Welles in which—he says—he suggested the plan to seize New Orleans from the sea.

Lincoln liked the idea and added: “while we are about it, we can push on to Vicksburg and open the river all the way along.” Porter’s foster brother, Captain David G. Farragut, would command the expedition while then-Commander Porter led the assisting mortar-boat squadron.[1]

January 20, 1862: Secretary Welles promoted Farragut to flag officer and command of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron. His first order was to “take possession of [New Orleans] under the guns of your squadron, and hoist the American flag thereon.” But that was not the only objective: “If the Mississippi expedition from Cairo shall not have descended the river, you will take advantage of the panic to push a strong force up the river to take all their defenses in the rear.”[2]

From the base at Cairo, Illinois, the navy was assisting the army to assemble a squadron of ironclad and wooden river gunboats with supply and transport vessels to descend the Mississippi and split the Confederacy. In early February, under Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote, the Western Gunboat Flotilla facilitated Brig. Gen. U. S. Grant’s conquest of Forts Henry and Donelson, Tennessee. Foote then proceeded downriver to take Island No. 10 near New Madrid, Missouri, April 7, the second day of the battle of Shiloh.

April 24: Farragut blasted his big warships past Forts Jackson and St. Philip, brushed aside Rebel river forces, and secured the city; Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler and 5,000 troops took possession on May 1.

After a few days repairing battle damage, the Gulf Squadron surged northward. Baton Rouge and Natchez—nearly defenseless—surrendered but powerful Vicksburg batteries absorbed concentrated bombardment and returned blistering fire. The flag officer assessed the fortress as unassailable from the river while water levels were falling, threatening to strand his deep-draft vessels.

May 16, Fox to Farragut: Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Gustavus V. Fox, read in New York papers that the squadron had retreated south rather than continuing upriver past Vicksburg to Memphis. He dispatched a letter in triplicate by the fastest three ships he could find: “This information may not be true,” the letter said, “but the probability of it has distressed the President.” But first, he telegraphed Farragut at New Orleans: “Carry out your instructions of January 20 about ascending the Mississippi River, as it is of the utmost importance.”

After the bloodbath and near disaster at Shiloh, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck sidelined General Grant and was conducting a month-long, tedious siege of Corinth, Mississippi, where Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard holed up with his army.

Fox’s letter to Farragut continued: “So soon as we heard of the fall of New Orleans, we notified Foote and Halleck that you would be in Beauregard’s rear at once.” They had learned “with great pleasure” of his progress toward Vicksburg. But now, “this retreat may be a fatal step as regards our western movements.”

The Gulf Squadron’s presence at Memphis would flank Corinth, blockade the river, and force Beauregard to fight or retreat, besides capturing the enemy’s gunboats, “which have already made one attack upon our Western Flotilla, and are preparing for another.”

USS Cincinnati-river ironclad sunk briefly at Plum Point. She would be sunk again by Vicksburg batteries in May 1863 and once more raised for additional service.

Meanwhile, Flag Officer Charles H. Davis had relived Foote and led the Western Gunboat Flotilla on downriver. At Plum Point above Memphis on May 10, Rebel gunboats rammed and sank two of his ironclads, although they were quickly raised and returned to service.

The Gulf Squadron’s initial ascent had caught Confederates by surprise, Fox continued, but now they were rapidly fortifying the river. “Still it is of paramount importance that you go up and clear the river with the utmost expedition. Mobile, Pensacola, and, in fact, the whole coast sinks into insignificance compared with this.”

Farragut’s complete execution of his orders would be, “the most glorious consummation in history.” Fox had hardly slept, he wrote, “especially as three weeks have passed and nothing except a return [to New Orleans] is rumored. . . . At any rate there is not a moment to be lost in the Mississippi.” [3]

May 19, Welles to Farragut: “SIR: The President of the United States requires you to use your utmost exertions (without a moment’s delay, and before any other naval operations shall be permitted to interfere) to open the river Mississippi and effect a junction with Flag-Officer Davis.”[4]

Farragut struggled back upriver where Porter joined him with the mortar boats while Davis, on June 6, destroyed what was left of the Confederate river defense fleet at Memphis and continued toward Vicksburg with his gunboats, now redesignated the Mississippi River Squadron.  Confederates abandoned Corinth on May 29.

Steam sloop-of-war USS Hartford. Farragut’s flagship from New Orleans through Vicksburg and Mobile Bay. She was 225′ by 44′ by 17′ draft, mounting 24 guns. These vessels were not designed for rivers.

June 28, Farragut to Davis: “We have been shelling [the city] with the mortar fleet two days and made the attack with the fleet proper this morning at 4 o’clock.” Vicksburg lay in the outside curve of a tight horseshoe bend with fortifications mounting 30 or 40 guns. As the warships steamed up channel straight at Rebel muzzles—not yet within the arc of fire of their own broadside guns—the enemy blasted away at unprotected bows, but took cover while the ships rounded the corner with sailors returning their best shots on the way by, and then opened up again on fragile sterns after the vessels passed.

Despite heavy fire in both directions, neither side inflicted much damage, one firing up at the bluffs while steaming and the other shooting down at moving targets on the river below with many rounds passing harmlessly over. Farragut’s flagship, USS Hartford, took several 50-pound rifle rounds and 8-inch solid shots to the hull; the nine ships lost four killed and thirteen wounded.

Farragut explained to Davis: the 3,000 soldiers with the Gulf Squadron could not land on the east bank against Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn’s division of some eight or ten thousand men ensconced there. And he would need to get back below the city soon to reconnect with their river supply line.

“I think, therefore, that so long as [Confederates] have the military force to hold the back country it will be impossible for me to reduce the place without your assistance and that of the army. . . . My orders are so peremptory that I must do all in my power to free the river of all impediments; that I must attack them, although I know it is useless, the river will soon be so low that we will not be able to get our ships down, so you see my position.”[5]

June 28, Farragut to Welles: “SIR: I passed up the river this morning, but to no purpose. . . . I am satisfied that it is not possible for us to take Vicksburg without an army force of twelve or fifteen thousand men. . . .  The water is too low for me to go over 12 or 15 miles above Vicksburg.”[6]

June 28, Farragut to Halleck at Corinth: “SIR: I have the honor to inform you that I have passed the batteries and am now above Vicksburg with the greater part of my fleet. . . . My orders, general, are to clear the river. This I find impossible without your assistance. Can you aid me in this matter to carry out the peremptory order of the President? I am satisfied that you will act for the best advantage of our Government in this matter, and shall therefore await with great anxiety your reply.”

Flag Officer Davis and the River Squadron joined the Gulf Squadron on July 2. The largest U.S. Navy armada ever assembled on a river continued bombarding the city.[7]

July 3, Halleck to Farragut from Corinth: “The scattered and weakened condition of my forces renders it impossible for me at the present to detach any troops to cooperate with you on Vicksburg. Probably I shall be able to do so as soon as I can get my troops more concentrated. This may delay the clearing of the river, but its accomplishment will be certain in a few weeks. Allow me to congratulate you on your great success.”[8]

The general would explain to Secretary of War Stanton: “I can not at present give Commodore Farragut any aid against Vicksburg. I am sending reinforcements to General Curtis in Arkansas and to General Buell in Tennessee and Kentucky.”[9]

July 10, Farragut to Welles: “SIR: It is not perhaps my province to take the liberty to say to the Department where my services may be most needed, but . . . under existing circumstances the services of my squadron would be much more essential to the interests of the country on the coast than in this river. Why?”

Because, he continued, the River Squadron had destroyed waterborne resistance and possesses sufficient naval force to keep the river clear. “I can do nothing here but blockade the port until the army arrives, which can be done as well by Flag-Officer Davis as by [us] both.” The city must be reduced by “the army getting in the rear” and holding it. “My services are required outside to look after my squadron from Pensacola to Brazos.”[10]

July 14, Welles to Farragut: “SIR: The evacuation of Corinth has much lessened the importance of your continuing your operations on the Mississippi. The Army has failed to furnish the necessary troops for the capture of Vicksburg, and has not at present, it is represented, an available force to send there to cooperate with you in its capture.” He should return to the Gulf and operate, “at such point or points on the Southern coast as you may deem advisable, leaving Flag-Officer Davis in possession and control of the Mississippi as far down as may be expedient.”[11]

“It was a fatal mistake,” recalled William T. Sherman in his memoirs, “that halted General Halleck at Corinth, and led him to disperse and scatter the best materials for a fighting army that, up to that date, had been assembled in the West.”[12]

Secretary Welles groused to his diary in January 1863: “Had the army seconded Farragut and the Navy months ago, Vicksburg would have been in our possession. Halleck was good for nothing then, nor is he now.”[13] Porter, Grant, and Sherman, would return to finish the job in July 1863.

What if?

Admiral David D. Porter’s river gunboats running Vicksburg batteries, April 16th, 1863, to transfer Grant’s army across and begin the final, victorious campaign.

[1] Admiral Porter, Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1885), 69.

[2] Welles to Farragut, January 20, 1862, in Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, 2 series, 29 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1894-1922), series 1, vol. 18, 7. Hereafter cited as ORN. All references are to Series 1, vol. 18.

[3] Fox to Farragut, May 16, 1862, ORN, 498-499.

[4] Welles to Farragut, May 19, 1862, ORN, 502.

[5] Farragut to Davis, June 28, 1862, ORN, 589.

[6] Farragut to Welles, June 28, 1862, ORN, 588.

[7] Farragut to Halleck, June 28, 1862, ORN, 590.

[8] Halleck to Farragut, July 3, 1862, ORN, 593.

[9] Halleck to Stanton, July 16, 1862, ORN, 636.

[10] Farragut to Welles, July 10, 1862, ORN , 675.

[11] Welles to Farragut, July 14, 1862, ORN, 595.

[12] William T. Sherman, Memoirs of Gen. William T. Sherman — Volume 1 (Kindle Edition) 179.

[13] Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy under Lincoln and Johnson, Howard K. Beale, ed., 3 vols. (New York, 1960), vol. 1, 218.

15 Responses to What If. . .Vicksburg Had Fallen in July ’62?

  1. Something to ponder: The 1862 capture of Fort Twiggs on Ship Island (Better known today as Fort Massachusetts) which opened the door to the capture of New Orleans. Once New Orleans was captured the CSA could not use the Mississippi River causing economic ruin. Maybe Ship Island was the key?

    1. The position at Ship Island was critical for the entire Gulf Coast blockade. I have an article coming out next January (I think) in Civil War Navy that is called “Ship Island: Versatile Key to the Gulf” which will explore the position’s wartime importance in detail.

  2. shipmate, great post … the best “what if” of the series so … very plausible and had Halleck moved, Vicksburg might have fallen given an energetic Union commander and the dearth of CSA forces in the neighborhood … i have so many more questions … and what a great nugget from Sherman’s memoirs. thanks.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Mark. If one can’t drive ships anymore, love to write about them. I bet Grant and Sherman would have jumped at the chance to do what they did a year later.

  3. Without any system for joint operations there’s no way to pull this off, except if exceptional personalities were available from both sides.

    1. Scott S.
      I concur. Arguably the best Civil War example of coordination during Joint OPS is the successful Campaign for Island No.10 which took place March- April 1862. The Army’s John Pope marched his men 40 miles across a marsh, dug an 8-mile long canal (and then pushed empty transports through it), and occupied New Madrid. The Navy’s Andrew Foote employed mortar boats in bombardment; engaged in a Marine-style expedition performed by Robert’s Raiders; sent two ironclads past the blazing Rebel artillery defending the S-bend north of New Madrid; defended the transports ferrying Pope’s Army across the Mississippi River to the rear of Island No.10 …and all this activity was coordinated/ overseen by a gate-keeper sitting behind a desk in St. Louis: Major General Henry Halleck.
      “The Army will hold what I take.” This single sentence, attributed to David G. Farragut, sums up the lack of coordination; the misuse of available resources; the lack of innovative thinking… that come to mind when reflecting upon the brilliant campaign that almost was, begun by Farragut dragging his ships across the bar into the Mississippi; battering the Rebel Lower Forts; breaking a stout barrier chain; steaming past the Lower Forts (and defeating the Rebel “Navy” in the process) …but, inexplicably, coming to a stop at New Orleans, from 24 April until 6 May 1862. [See ECW “Question of the Week for 4/25 – 5/1 2022: New Orleans” and “New Orleans Gone, and with it the Confederacy:” comment of 19 June 2022 (BGen Martin L. Smith revelation) for further explanation WHY it became impossible to capture Vicksburg in 1862 AFTER May 22nd.]
      Mike Maxwell

      1. Thank you to Dwight Hughes for proving a framework for the study of this important period in American Civil War History; and for facilitating the exchange of ideas regarding “Why the Mississippi River was not opened to Union use until July 1863” and “How an earlier opening of that Mighty River could have been brought about” …all of which demonstrates the value of “What if…?”

    2. Roger on the exceptional personalities point — always a plus … but Grant and the Navy were engaged in joint operations Forts Henry and Donelson in 1862 and absolutely the following year at Vicksburg … granted, without a Joint Staff and reams of joint doctrine, like we have today, they were winging it … but they were definitely conducting joint ops in Tennessee and Mississippi

    3. Mark Harnitchek
      I take your point about U.S. Grant and his steep learning curve in conducting Joint OPS with the Navy: Belmont could be considered the initiation, and on the whole was not badly done; at Fort Henry, Grant “messed up his timing” and had powerful gunboats and soldiers “struggling through mud” commence approach to the Rebel fort at the same time… and Foote got the win; and McClernand was awarded blame for “lack of effective pursuit.” At Fort Donelson, F/O Foote requested a short delay in order that his 13-inch mortars (ideal against a position atop a high hill) could arrive and be put to use, but he was overruled (by Halleck.) On 14 FEB 1862 Foote’s gunboats took a severe beating; Grant got the win on 16 FEB; and Foote’s mortars arrived on 19 FEB. Andrew Foote was able to put all this experience to great use at Island No.10 and U.S. Grant put his comfortable, confident relations with the Navy to use at Vicksburg (which is a close second to the Joint OPS performed at Island No.10 …except at Island No.10 F/O Foote also made good use of a balloon as “gunfire support platform.”)
      Mike Maxwell

      1. The mortars certainly were impressive and the subject of high hopes, but not sure they were ever decisive or even very effective against fortifications. Dismounted a few guns with direct hits but the crews just took cover in bombproofs, remounted the guns, and opened up again. At New Orleans, Island 10, and Vicksburg, it always came down to blasting past Rebel batteries and getting the army into the rear.

  4. Roger …. no style point for these early joint ops … but they got much better at them as the war progressed.

  5. In June 1864 the Transcript of the Court of Inquiry into the Loss of New Orleans was presented by Confederate President Jefferson Davis to the CSA House of Representatives in Richmond. This Court had been convened at Jackson Mississippi in APR 1863; and subsequently met at Vicksburg and Jackson before relocating to Charleston SC, and completing its work at Richmond in July 1863. Issues of particular interest raised by the Court of Inquiry include:
    – [OR Ser.1 Vol.6 p.627] Lists names and locations of major Southern war material manufacturers. More names and locations are included throughout this report.
    – [OR6 p.640] The Lower Mississippi River Flood of Winter/ Spring 1862 is described by some as “Severe; but not quite as bad as the Flood of 1861” and here, in this report, as “the worst flood in 25 years, with water reaching a depth of 12 to 18 inches inside the Forts Jackson and St. Philip, making active operations inside those forts very uncomfortable.” [The flood waters would not begin to subside in vicinity of Vicksburg until after 23 July 1862.]
    – [OR6 p.639] “An immense raft was constructed/ sited between the Lower Forts DEC 1861. That raft was swept away by rising [flood] water and drifting debris in late FEB 1862.”
    – [OR6 p.513] The raft swept away in FEB was replaced with a less robust, barely adequate barrier of floating hulks connected by chains in March 1862.
    – [OR6 p.603] “There were no torpedoes available for use at New Orleans and there were none deployed in the Mississippi River below New Orleans.”
    – [OR6 p.611]: Captain George Hollins stated: “If I could have taken my vessels to the pass, prevented the enemy from crossing the bar, I could have blocked his access to the Mississippi River; and saved New Orleans… but SecNav [Mallory] would not allow me.” Commander Warley [p.603]: “If we could have sent a vessel or two to the [SW Pass] the enemy could not have managed the lightening required [under our fire] to get their vessels across the bar.”
    – [OR6 p.629] SecNav Mallory shielded himself from “unwanted interference in the defense of New Orleans” by claiming, “An Army Court (such as this current Court of Inquiry) can not raise Navy issues, without the consent of the Navy Department.”
    But most important…
    When General PGT Beauregard was asked his assessment of the “Sad Loss, and overall implications of the Loss of New Orleans to the Confederacy,” this was his response: “The Mississippi River being extremely high, the streets of New Orleans could have been swept from one extremity to the other by the heavy guns of the enemy fleet; or had Commodore Farragut preferred reducing the place without using his guns, it would have been only necessary to have cut the levee above and below the city and the whole population would have been utterly defenseless and in a starving condition in a matter of days. Without the command of the Mississippi River, New Orleans is not worth holding as a military or strategic position” [OR6 p.601 Statement delivered 18 May 1863].
    Mike Maxwell

  6. I vote for the 1863 Vicksburg campaign as the best example of joint operations: Chickasaw Bayou, Yazoo Pass, Steel’s Bayou (all tactical failures but significant amphibious operations), Porter’s run of the batteries, and finally Grand Gulf. Grant: “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. It could not have been made at all, in the way it was, with any number of men without such assistance. The most perfect harmony reigned between the two arms of the service.” All due to the excellent relationships between Porter, Grant, and Sherman. See my essay, “The Soldier and the Sailor at Vicksburg: Grant and Porter” in The Summer of ’63: Vicksburg &Tullahoma, Favorite Stories and Fresh Perspectives from the Historians at Emerging Civil War.

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