The Civil War – Yazoo Pass Expedition

Submitted by C.J. Johnson

This week in 1863, the weather had taken a turn for the worse, slowing down operations to a winter’s pace. Associated Press reports documented a tremendous snow storm hitting the Virginia coastline, around the area of Fort Monroe, manned by Union forces at the time.

“The amount of snow is greater than has fallen at this point in any one time for some years. Four schooners went ashore on the beach near here during the storm,” reports read. Weather like this slowed troop and equipment movements to a crawl as roads became impassable. Battles were nearly impossible in the blinding snow and associated weather conditions.

About the same time, much further south, the Federal gunboat Queen of the West sailed past the fortified city of Vicksburg in “broad daylight” according to AP reports, trying to disrupt activity on the River. Although the Union ram was struck many times, there was no major damage to the vessel. The following day, the Queen captured three Rebel vessels south of Vicksburg, destroying the valuable cargo, including “pork, hogs, molasses, sugar, flour, and cotton” and “a number of prisoners were taken, including several females.” Queen of the West continued down river to another assignment.

Elsewhere, skirmishes continued in Arkansas, Missouri, Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. And up north, trouble brewed as well. Union military leaders ordered the Chicago Times newspaper to cease circulation due to “disloyal statements.” AP stated that the Chicago Times incident was one of many going on in the northern states.

U. S. Secretary of State Seward refused the offer of the French government to mediate a peace between the Union and Confederacy. England’s Queen Victoria told the British Parliament that England would not assist in reaching peace in the American conflict because of the low chance of success.

Heavily fortified Vicksburg continued to be a hot spot of activity, again and again. Union General U. S. Grant had failed in an earlier attempt to take the city. Now he was ready to try again.

Lt. Col. James H. Wilson of the Engineers at Helena, Arkansas received orders to move men and equipment into place in late January. The Yazoo Pass Expedition began in the first week in February, with both army and navy components involved.

The Yazoo Pass was an inland water passage, that once breached, would connect the Mississippi, Moon Lake and the Coldwater River, allowing Union vessels to travel by way of the Tallahatchie and Yazoo Rivers to the northern side of Vicksburg. The levee breach was opened on February 3rd and the natural water flow enlarged the breach enough to allow gunboats through.

In advance of this operation, Confederate General John Pemberton was aware of the possibility of using the Pass and had troops sabotage the area, by felling huge trees at the Pass and devising other obstacles along the way.

According to the Navy Department Library, the purpose of this effort was “to reach the rear of Vicksburg by a surprise move. An opening was to be made in the [Mississippi River] levee at Yazoo Pass through which the Union gunboats and troop carriers could enter and work up the Yazoo River above Haines Bluff.

Delay followed delay so that the surprise element was lost. Not until 25 February were obstructions sufficiently removed from the Pass to allow Lieutenant Commander Watson Smith’s light-draft gunboats, transports, and coal barges to enter. The navigational dangers were incredible—tree stumps and floating logs stove in housings and fouled wheels; overhanging willows and vines snared and held on smokestacks. Best speed was a mile and a half in 1 hour. There was also the ever present threat of having retreat cut off by guerrillas.”