Civil War in the Loess Hills

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Ideal Ground for War

"Vicksburg was on an uneven plateau, and the ground all around the town was hilly and rolling, seamed by an infinite number of ravines and gullies that ran in all directions and tended to have very steep walls. It made ideal defensive ground... "

This way, in his book This Hallowed Ground, Pulitzer Prize winning historical writer Bruce Catton describes a fundamental connection between the loess-topped ridges along the lower Mississippi River's eastern shore, and the Civil War: Rough loess-zone topography, accentuated by the fact that loess erodes very steep faces, worked to the defender's advantage.

This was not a minor point. In the war's early months, this plain detail of topography counted dearly in calculations of strategy made in Washington and Richmond, and the destinies of thousands rested upon the quaint fact that our bluffs were made higher by loess, and that loess, when it erodes, makes very steep walls in the region's deep bayous, or ravines, and thus served as "ideal defensive ground." Warren E. Grabau's fine book Ninety-eight Days: A Geographer's View of the Vicksburg Campaign (see Bibliography) has an entire chapter called "The Geographic Setting," which goes into these matters in detail.

In the war's early days, President Lincoln and his generals were thrashing about for strategies for whipping the South, and at first no one seemed to have good any. However, Winfield Scott, an old general complaining of dropsy and with such a vain and ponderous air that his men affectionately called him "Old Fuss and Feathers," did eventually come up with an idea, which ultimately took root as the North's long-term battle plan. It became known as the Anaconda Plan, for it proposed a means by which the North could wrap its forces around the South, isolate the South from outside help, and then devour its victim piece by piece.

The North would coil itself around the South by blockading the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts to cut off ship-borne help from the east and south, and it would take control of the Mississippi River so that no help from the western states would be forthcoming. Also, control of the Mississippi River was needed so that farmers in the area we now call the Midwest could sell their grain down the river.

As it turned out, the North began devouring the South from the west. The first stage of the long-term strategy would be to take the Lower Mississippi Valley, and then Northern forces would move eastward.

Since in matters of war, the unpopulated swampland along the river amounted to little, another way of saying this was that the North's first goal was to capture the Lower Mississippi Valley's Loess Hills...

thus, before Shiloh, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Spotsylvania Court House, and Appomattox Court House, certain loess-bluff-perched positions overlooking the Mississippi River, or lying just inland, but still on loess, had to be taken care of. The curious features of loess now would prove to be of profound importance in one of the most pivotal events in the history of what would become the Earth's most powerful and influential nation.

What follows are some of the most important stories. They are listed from north to south, more or less in the sequence by which the Southern bastions fell to their Northern enemy. It will be seen that the first conflicts had little to do with loess, other than that loess helped elevate the Southern canon, which were not even used during the conflicts. However, later, as the situation grows more critical, loess becomes much more important.

At Columbus, Kentucky

At the war's onset, Ulysses S. Grant came from no where to seal the fate of the Confederate stronghold at Columbus. Grant had served as a junior officer in the Mexican War, but then had been pressured into resigning from the army. He failed at farming, selling real estate, and clerking in a customhouse. When war broke out, he was working in the family leather store at Galena, Illinois.

Returning to the army as a general, he soon began making a name for himself. On February 6, 1862, ships under his command attacked and took Fort Henry, on the Tennessee River in Tennessee near the Kentucky border. Ten days later, his army captured a 13,000-man garrison at Fort Donelson, a few miles west, on the Cumberland River. It was at the end of this latter battle that Grant inaugurated the term "unconditional surrender."

In strategic terms, the loss of these fortifications caused the Confederate stronghold at Columbus, Kentucky, to be outflanked by the North, and thus indefensible, and so it was hurriedly abandoned. This gave the Union a little of the lower Mississippi River, but hundreds of river miles to the south still lay in Rebel hands.

At Fort Pillow, Tennessee

As with the loss of Rebel fortifications at Columbus, the story of Fort Pillow's fall begins far to the east, in this case in northeastern Mississippi, at the town of Corinth. On May 29, 1862, an immense Northern force was massed in preparation for an attack on the Rebel stronghold at Corinth, commanded by Beauregard. Beauregard's army had withdrawn here after the terrible battle of Shiloh, of April 6th. Now vastly outnumbered, during the night of April 7th, the entire Southern force abandoned Corinth; when the Yankees advanced the next morning, they encountered only empty trenches.

As had been the case at Columbus, now Rebel garrisons at Fort Pillow found their position outflanked and too exposed to Yankee attack. On June 4, 1862, under the cover of darkness once again, the Southerners pulled out of Fort Pillow. The fort was taken into Northern hands the next day, with catastrophic consequences for Memphis...

At Memphis, Tennessee

Because Beauregard had been obliged to withdraw from Corinth, Fort Pillow was lost. Because Fort Pillow was lost, now Yankee Ironclads (metal-armored gunboats) and rams could sail downstream from Northern waters.

Loess-bluff-situated Memphis had considered itself well protected, for the river below it was patrolled by the Confederate River Defense Fleet. However, despite its impressive name, the Rebels' plank-sided vessels couldn't make a stand against the Yankees' modern navy. On June 6th, just one day after Fort Pillow fell and the Ironclads and rams steamed south, while thousands watched from Memphis's loess-mantled bluffs, the Union vessels smashed the Confederacy's River Defense Fleet. On June 10th, 1862, Sherman occupied Memphis, and now the Mississippi River was not seriously defended by Southern forces all the way to Vicksburg...

At Chickasaw Bayou

... Dec. 29, 1862 Battle of Chickasaw Bayou: Sherman attacks Confederate position on bluffs overlooking the Yazoo River NE of Vicksburg, a position covering the approach to Vicksburg; Feds defeated

... Jan 2-3, 1863; skirmishing near Chickasaw Bayou, & Sherman withdraws to Milliken's Bend, LA


At Vicksburg, Mississippi

Vicksburg was profoundly important in strategic terms. Its loess-bluff cannons enabled the South to control the Mississippi River at this point. Its location caused it to be a node of material communication between the Southern heartland and the Western states also in secession, Texas and Arkansas. In January, 1862, even before New Orleans and Memphis had fallen, President Abraham Lincoln saw Vicksburg's importance: "Vicksburg is the key... " he said. "... let us get Vicksburg, and all that country is ours. The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket."

Vicksburg was destined to put up a good fight. A railroad linked it with military supplies and reinforcements in Jackson and beyond, and the swampy Delta region just north of town shielded the city from attack from the north. Finally, there was the loess. Loess not only increased the bluffs' elevation, but also engendered the deep, steep-walled gullies around town that so affected the two armies' dispositions during the later stages of conflict. And we shall see that a great deal of digging took place during those last days, and loess always expresses its special nature when it is dug into...

It's confusing to read about the various campaigns at Vicksburg while trying to see where events took place by consulting a modern map of the area. That's because the Mississippi River in the Vicksburg vicinity has profoundly changed its configuration since the war.

Modern roadmaps show a horseshoe-shaped lake on Vickburg's northwest side, called Centennial Lake. During the war, this was a narrow-necked loop of the Mississippi River itself. The river flowed northward up Centennial Lake's western arm, and southward through the eastern arm, right below Vicksburg's bluffs. When Grant's army attempted to cut a canal enabling his ships to bypass Vicksburg's guns, the canal crossed this narrow meander. Today the Mississippi flows in the canal's former general vicinity.

On May 18th, 1862, six gunboats fresh from attacking New Orleans and scaring Baton Rouge and Natchez into surrendering without firing a shot, moved menacingly into position in the muddy waters just downstream from Vicksburg. They were commanded by David G. Farragut, who was a brave but practical man. Farragut reconnoitered Vicksburg's defenses, judged that the loess-capped bluffs couldn't be stormed, and promptly returned to New Orleans.

A month later, he was ordered to return and capture Vicksburg, a feat that would give the Union control of the entire Mississippi River.(what about Grand Gulf?) First an effort to dig the before-mentioned canal was made, but this proved too much of an undertaking. Then in mid July the South managed to launch an ocean-going, metal-plated gunship called the Arkansas. The monster-ship reached Vicksburg, brushed off Farrigut's navy, anchored itself defiantly below Vicksburg, and after seven days of the North pounding the Arkansas with 218-pound projectiles, the North gave up. The first Union attack on Vicksburg had failed. In fact, at this stage in the war, the North's war efforts across the board seemed to be faltering.

The North returned to the Vicksburg area five months later, in December. This time Sherman's army made the effort, but bad timing caused them to arrive just after Vicksburg's defenses had been reinforced. Across what was called the Chickasaw Bayou causeway, Sherman sent two brigades into the Rebels' sights. Here 191 Union soldiers were killed, 982 wounded, and 756 went missing; the Confederates took 187 casualties. The "Battle of Chickasaw Bayou" is recorded as the second Union failure to capture Vicksburg.

In the next stage of fighting U.S. Grant established his headquarters 20 river-miles above Vicksburg, at Milliken's Bend. Grant sent Sherman's corps to work some more on the canal bypassing Vicksburg, but that still didn't turn out right. An effort to open a way through the Delta's tricky waterways, to land troops north of town also failed. At this point Grant decided that he had to somehow land his troops south of Vicksburg, then have them attack Vicksburg from the rear, from the east.

Grant sent his army southward, overland through Louisiana's swamps, far beyond the reach of Vicksburg's cannon. At the same time, in the darkness of two nights in April, 1863, he sent eight gunboats and seven transports running past the Vicksburg gauntlet. Though the town's cannoneers spotted the ships and blazed away, only two transports were sunk. The transports were later used to ferry Grant's army across the river, from Louisiana into Mississippi.

On April 30, 1863, in what would remain the mightiest amphibious operation in U.S. history until the landing in North Africa in World War II, Grant landed 24,000 men and sixty cannon at Bruinsburg, some thirty-five air-miles southwest of Vicksburg. Beginning his march to reach Vicksburg from the east, on May 1, Port Gibson is occupied. On May 14, Jackson falls. On May 19, the first Union assault from the east is made on Vicksburg.

Largely because of loess's deep, steep-walled gullies and its excellence for trench-digging, the Union finds Vicksburg well defended from the east, too. Two attempts at storming the fortification failed. During the second attack, consisting of an artillery barrage followed by an infantry attack, resulted in over 3,000 Union casualties and 500 for the Confederates. Seeing the futility in attacking, Grant ordered trenches dug, and laid siege to the fort.

Now the North showed that it could accommodate loess's eminent trenchability as well as the South. Day after day Northern trenches were extended closer to the Rebels. Some miners from Pennsylvania came up with the idea of digging tunnels through the loess, to beneath Southern positions, placing charges there, and detonating them. This was done, causing great damage, but not enough to break the South's defenses. In the meantime, Northern artillery bombarded the town. Now the civilians took their turn at appreciating loess, for they escaped the artillery by digging caves.

After six weeks of resistance, which even the Yankees praised as gallant, Vicksburg surrendered.

At Grand Gulf, Mississippi

...May 16, 1862, shelled by Union naval task force of six gunboats under S. Phillips Lee.

...April 29, 1863, Fed fleet fails to silence Confederate battery & passes to south to land on LA shore. At this time 10,000 men on transports and invasion barges. Confederates outnumbered. After Grant sees cannot silence Fort cobun, calls off assault landing. Troops land at Harat Times and march to Disharoon's Plantation on MS several miles below Grand Gulf. at dark, the fleet passes Grand Gulf's batteries. On April 30, 1863, mightiest amphibious operation in US history until North Africa in World War II, Grant puts 24,000 men and 60 cannon ashore at Bruinsburg, landing unopposed. McClernand ordered to push eastward and secure the high ground. Bowen at Grand Gulf on the 27th calls for support but Pemberton too preoccupied with Grierson. On May 2, Grant's columns occupy Port Gibson. "Evacuating Grand Gulf, the Confederates retired across the Big Black River."

At Port Hudson, Louisiana

While Port Hudson, upriver from Baton Rouge, remained in Rebel hands, Northern forces could not prevent war material from being shipped from Texas and Arkansas down the Red River, then up the Mississippi to whatever ports remained in Confederate hands.

The battle for Port Hudson turned out to be a small-scale version of the battle for Vicksburg. Northern attackers could not crack the defenses; the defenders could not escape their fortification if they wanted to. The North raised a siege, seeing 7,000 Confederate defenders against 14,000 Union soldiers outside. As in the case of Vicksburg, there was no one to come to the defenders' aid, so Port Hudson also fell.

Aug 1-5 ca., 1862; Confederates fail to recapture Baton Rouge, then occupy and fortify Port Hudson


...July 2-3, 1964, Union expeditions led by Slocum & Ellet, from Vicksburg to Pearl River and from Rodney to Gallman are begun, to draw Confederate troops away from Forrest's corps in support of Operation Killer (launched July 2, '64, to destroy Forrest's command)

... July 4, '64 sharply fought engagement at Coleman's Crossing near Lorman (near Alcorn) turns Ellet's troops back to Rodney

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