In late 1862, Union General Ulysses S. Grant had set his sights on capturing Vicksburg, Mississippi. The city was a key Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River, located about 200 miles by land or 250 miles via the river south of Memphis and about 150 miles by land or 180 via the river north of Baton Rouge. Taking Vicksburg would give Grant strategic access to attack a number of Confederate targets.
For six months Grant had been unsuccessful in his attempts to take Vicksburg. He sent General William T. Sherman to take Vicksburg, but the attempt failed. In early 1863, Grant devised a plan to sail his army down the Mississippi River along the bank opposite of Vicksburg. Once south of Vicksburg, the Union forces were then to cross back over the river and launch their attack on Vicksburg from the east. Grant turned to Union Admiral David Dixon Porter to help ferry some of his troops and important supplies south past Vicksburg.
Porter, the son of Commodore David Porter of War of 1812 fame and brother of David Glasgow Farragut, adopted by Porter’s parents and who became a famed Admiral in his own right, began his sailing career at age 13 when he joined the Mexican Navy as a midshipman. At 16 he joined the US Navy serving in the Gulf of Mexico, South Atlantic and the Mediterranean during the Mexican War.
Shortly after the Civil War began, Porter was given command of the USS Powhatan and given a secret mission to reinforce Fort Pickens at Pensacola, Florida. The success of his mission led to Porter’s promotion to Commander and assigned to blockade the Gulf entrance to the Mississippi River. Porter pushed for an attack on New Orleans. The plan was set in motion and Porter was assigned to his brother, Flag Officer David Farragut. In April 1862, Farragut captured New Orleans with Porter’s help by capturing Fort Jackson and St. Phillip.
Porter was then given the command of Mississippi River Squadron which takes us back General Grant and Vicksburg.
On this day, April 16, 1863, under cover of darkness, Porter led a flotilla of 12 ships with barges down the Mississippi River past Vicksburg and its battery of guns. Using steam powered paddle wheelers, Porter knew the troops at Vicksburg would easily hear them approaching. To help muffle the sound, he had the exhausts of the steam engines re-routed into the paddle wheel housing. He then stacked bales of cotton on the decks facing the Vicksburg guns in hopes of them adding some extra protection. Lastly, he had the ships lined up off center from each in case one got hit and sunk, the others could still pass by.
However, the Confederates spotted Porter’s fleet. Some of them rowed to the western side of the Mississippi River where they set fire to trees in order to provide a backlight for the Confederate guns. The Confederates opened fire on Porter’s fleet which took over two hours to pass the fortifications. In the end, Porter lost 1 ship and 2 barges, but the rest of the fleet successfully passed on south of Vicksburg. Those same troops played a major role in the siege of Vicksburg which ended on July 4, 1863 when the Confederates at Vicksburg surrendered to Grant’s forces.
Had it not been for Porter’s successful mission, the siege of Vicksburg would have lasted much longer and may not have ended with a Union victory.