This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Feb. 10: Yazoo Pass Expedition.
Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, intent on keeping up the pressure on the enemy in the winter of 1863, dispatched a combined Army-Navy expedition to cross swampy, difficult terrain along the Yazoo River to flank Confederates defending Vicksburg, Miss., a city on bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. Grant's aim was to get behind the rebel defenders holding heavily fortified Vicksburg, a bastion that so far had repelled all Union attempts to be captured. The expeditionary force, which would begin moving after a levee breach on the Mississippi River on Feb. 3, 1863, would struggle and slog for weeks across watery terrain behind enemy lines and ultimately fail in March. The flood plain where the rivers meet contained inhospitable swamps, marshes and areas of dense brush. The passage of a flotilla of Navy gunships also was slowed by trees and other obstacles felled across waterways by Confederate foes. Ultimately the expedition would prove inconclusive and Grant would have to devise other means of attacking and overpowering Vicksburg, then an indomitable Confederate bastion commanding a key stretch of the Mississippi River — the main waterway for trade through the nation's midsection. The Associated Press reports this month 150 years ago during the Civil War that steamers attempting to ply the Mississippi River near Vicksburg have to risk attacks by Confederate guerrillas and occasional shelling while plying the river.
This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Feb. 17: Union ironclad Indianola threatens lower Mississippi.
This week 150 years ago in the Civil War saw Union and Confederate gunboats vying for control of the lower Mississippi River and its tributaries. The winter of 1863 brings a formidable, new player to the fray: a powerful ironclad riverboat called The USS Indianola. The fortified city of Vicksburg, Miss., atop bluffs lining the Mississippi River, remained in Confederate hands at this stage of the war. But Union forces have eventual hopes of wresting Vicksburg and other points downriver from the Confederacy to control the entire river. If the entire waterway could be seized by the Union, it would effectively split the Confederacy in two. To that end, the Union in mid-February 1863 sent the Cincinnati-built Indianola down the Mississippi. On Feb. 13, the Indianola rushed passed Confederate guns firing from Vicksburg. None of the rebel shots struck the Indianola. But Confederate gunboats and rebel rams still plied the river nearby and posed a danger that would doom the Indianola within days. Elsewhere, winter has prevented major fighting. Both sides await better weather and passable roads. Soldiers trade letters with loved ones back home, where many worry about those missing or lost to combat or disease. One commanding officer wrote in a note from Tennessee — published Feb. 23, 1863, in the Daily Illinois state Journal in Springfield, Ill. — that loved ones could rest assured that soldiers who died were buried with proper tombstones near Memphis. "Each grave is marked with a head and foot board, on which is inscribed the name, age and place of residence — so that the last resting place of each one may be readily identified," wrote col. N. Niles.
This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Feb. 24: Ramming, surrender of Union ironclad Indianola.
The USS Indianola, an ironclad that joined the Union's Mississippi River squadron in early 1863, had run the gauntlet of Confederate artillery at Vicksburg, Miss., on Feb. 13, 1863. But the recently built gunboat with armored plating and 11-inch Dahlgren guns would soon meet an early demise. While patrolling the Mississippi near the mouth of the Red River, the Indianola came under attack Feb. 24, 1863, by two enemy rams. Pursued and rammed several times, the Union ironclad lost power and ran aground. Its crew had no choice but to surrender. The loss of the Indianola struck a major blow to the Union Navy in its struggle to gain supremacy over the lower Mississippi. Days afterward, The Mobile Advertiser & Register in Alabama reported on the Indianola's surrender in a dispatch from Port Gibson, Miss. The report quoted Confederate Lt. Col. Fred B. Brand as saying vessels under his control pursued the U.S. ironclad and "engaged her for an hour." Some of the fighting was at close quarters before it was quickly over. "We went alongside, when Commander Lieut. Brown, U.S.N., surrendered to me. As all credit is due to (Confederate) Major Brent, I have turned over to him, in a sinking condition, the prize which we hope to save. Only five were hurt." Confederate forces, hoping to claim the partially sunk river gunboat as their own, did try to salvage the Indianola but detonated the ship's magazine when another Union vessel approached. Badly damaged by the blast, the Indianola would never be restored to service even after the Union took Vicksburg in July 1863. Elsewhere this week 150 years ago in the war, Confederate fighters seized and destroyed Union supplies being carried by mule train through Tennessee.
This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, March 3: Lincoln signs Enrollment Act to draft new troops.
When the Civil War erupted in April 1861, many on both sides of the conflict had expected it to be a short-lived war. But nearly two years later, after several big battles and horrific numbers of casualties, President Abraham Lincoln was compelled to sign the first Enrollment Act — instituting the first wartime draft in American history on March 3, 1863. The move 150 years ago during the Civil War was a controversial step. But the conflict was dragging on far longer than any had expected and the Union wasn't raising enough troops for combat by other means. Thus, Lincoln needed more manpower for the fight, much as the Confederacy did in resorting to a draft months earlier. The act required enrollment of every male citizen ages 20-45, with certain exemptions, and male immigrants of that age who had signed intent of becoming U.S. citizens. Nonetheless, exemptions from the draft could be bought for $300 each draft period, or by finding a substitute draftee. Those exemptions would lead to violent riots for days in July 1863 in New York City, when the first inductees were called. Fueling the draft riots was widespread outrage that such exemptions could only be afforded by the wealthy, making the conflict a "poor man's fight." Months later, the $300 "commutation fee" would be repealed by Congress. The Associated Press reports more fighting, near Franklin, Tenn., as 2,000 rebels are repelled by Union forces and compelled to retreat. AP reporters 70 prisoners have been seized by Union forces in Tennessee and some were being kept under heavy guard in shackles on suspicion of "murder" in the death of Union soldiers elsewhere.