The Civil War Comes to Yazoo 1862-1864
Originally titled “The Battle for Yazoo,” THIS PAMPHLET (out of print but available for download) was compiled many years ago from information supplied by Glen Jones, Mississippi Chemical Corporation; Edwin C. Bearss, Research Historian, Vicksburg National Park, and Sam Olden, President, Yazoo Historical Society. It was first produced by the Yazoo County Chamber of Commerce.
In 2015, the Yazoo County Convention & Visitors Bureau took on the task of updating this information based on a large collection in the Ricks Memorial Library, assembled by John E. Ellzey, of articles by Sam Olden which were published over the years by The Yazoo Herald. The following information includes updates and additions to the original pamphlet along with the information from the article by Mr. Olden. Yazoo owes a debt of gratitude to Mr. Olden and to Mr. Ellzey for their love of Yazoo and their dedication to helping get this information to the public.
This page contains the full text and updates to the original pamphlet. The additional articles by Mr. Olden are available on the More Yazoo County Civil War History page. Printed copies can be requested by Contacting Us OR our PDF version can also be downloaded and saved or printed. Click Here to download the full text.
Yazoo County Civil War History, 1862-1864
For Yazooans, the War Between the States at first seemed far away. For its first full year, though scores of Yazoo boys had already enlisted and many were fighting in distant Virginia, life at home went on quietly. And in those early, heady days of the conflict, most Yazooans expected things to remain that way.
Then in the spring of 1862, in rapid succession, came stunning, sobering Confederate losses nearer home in the Western Theater. Union victories at Pea Ridge in Arkansas and Shiloh in Tennessee brought the way to Mississippi’s doorstep. The U.S. Navy entered the Mississippi River in force from both north and south, quickly capturing New Orleans and Baton Rouge, then Memphis. With Vicksburg as President Lincoln’s personally ordered next target, in early June a formidable fleet commanded by David Farragut, soon to be commissioned the first rear admiral in American naval history, was steaming toward it. Thus Yazoo City and Yazoo County, in the space of a few weeks, found themselves almost in the center of the storm.
Successive Union efforts to take Vicksburg would continue until it finally fell on July 4, 1863, and Farragut’s first attempt to capture it in 1862 by a purely naval action was fruitless. But in the months before that first siege was abandoned, Yazoo City was spurred into action. A string of earthwork fortifications manned with cannon was built on the bluffs above the town and the Yazoo River. A barricade of submerged rafts, old boats and chains were placed across the river at Liverpool Landing some 15 miles downstream. Hurriedly the Confederate Navy Department, with the help of local artisans and plantation owners, created a rudimentary navy yard a half-mile south of town on the eastern bank of the Yazoo River.
Yazoo City soon became a key naval base almost by accident, and its one great contribution to naval warfare was probably the most incredible vessel ever to engage an enemy fleet.
The ironclad ram CSS Arkansas was a child of misfortune from the beginning. She was one of several ships being built at Memphis when Union forces threatened that city. Of all the vessels in the yards, only the CSS Arkansas was saved. Her unfinished hull was towed down the Mississippi and up the Yazoo to near Greenwood where work on her stopped.
On the morning of May 28, 1862, Lieutenant Isaac N. Brown, a native of Grenada and a 27-year veteran of the United States Navy, who had commanded the Confederate navy yards at Memphis and Nashville, received a telegram from Stephen Mallory, Secretary of the Confederate Navy, instructing him to “finish and equip that vessel (the CSS Arkansas) without regard to expenditure of men or money.”
At Greenwood, where the vessel was supposed to be, Lt. Brown was told the Arkansas was up river “nigh to four miles from dry land, but we will try to row you to her.” Upon reaching the hulk, Brown found that she had no engines, no armor, and no deckhouse. She was loaded down with ten enormous guns, but there were no carriages on which to mount them. Her armor plate lay on the river bottom in a sunken barge.
With the help of soldiers from a nearby army camp, the barge was raised, the armor retrieved, and two old mismatched engines were salvaged from wrecks.
Greenwood offered comparative safety for completing the vessel, but there was no skilled help and no necessary materials available. In Yazoo City, both men and materials were in readiness, but the whole Union fleet was practically on top of Vicksburg – less than 50 miles away. Because of the plight of Vicksburg, Lieutenant Brown had the river steamer Capitol tow the hull downstream to the shipyard at Yazoo City.
There was excitement among the worker as the big gray shape was berthed. The Arkansas, even at this stage, was an imposing sight. She stretched 110 feet long and at her bow was a massive ramming beak. Her sides, soon to be covered with four inches of iron, sloped inward 45 degrees to help deflect cannon balls and there were gun ports all around. When fully armored, she would draw 14 feet of water. Her pilot house which stuck up 12 inches from the armored gun housing would be only six feet above the water line.
Soon 200 men were working around the clock to get the ship ready. Crews of workmen systematically scavenged the countryside for metal and parts. Any likely item, and some that were not so likely, wound up in the makeup of the ship that – after her destruction – the enemy dubbed “a floating junkyard.”
After five weeks the stern and some portions of the shop were still unprotected by armor, but the Yazoo River was falling. Pilots warned that if the Arkansas did not get into the deeper Mississippi River soon, the great ironclad would be land-bound for the summer.
So, on July 2, 1862, the Arkansas steamed away on her first self-powered voyage. Never a more unlikely vessel headed for combat. Her armor was skimpy in spots and boilerplate had been “tacked” over the unprotected stern to hide its weakness. Her mismatched engines were totally inadequate for a ship of her size and would push her along at only eight knots – far too slow for any ramming. Her crew of two hundred men was composed principally of landsmen with no experience in either operating of fighting a shop. One notable exception was young Confederate Navy Lieutenant Charles “Savez” Read, a native of Yazoo County born in Satartia. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and a U.S. Naval officer up until the war, he manned the stern guns of the Arkansas. Serving on the ram as long as she stayed afloat, Read went on later to a swashbuckling and heroic career, first in Confederate raiders on the high seas, then to exploits on the James and Red Rivers.
Lieutenant Brown of the CSS Arkansas, recognizing his vessel’s weaknesses, explained to the crew that they would have to meet the enemy head on. Said he, “No ram, no run, just fight.”
And fight they did, but not before one more piece of bad luck plagued the ship. Some 25 miles below Yazoo City a steam pipe broke and soaked all the gunpowder. Luckily it was a hot, dry day and the powder soon dried on tarpaulins spread over warm beds of sawdust at a sawmill where the broken steam pipe was repaired.
On July 13, the CSS Arkansas rounded a bend about a mile and a half upstream from the Mississippi River. Ahead were the Union gunboats O.S. Tyler, Carondelet, and Queen of the West. Although this was a formidable fleet, the Arkansas – which had already been affectionately named “the ramming bucket of bolts” by its crew – must have looked to the enemy like the world’ best fighting ship in perfect shape. The Union fleet reversed engines and tried to back away into the broader Mississippi.
The Confederate ironclad continued to forge straight for the enemy. There were two reasons for this: (1) because despite her weaknesses she was a first class fighting ship and (2) because she couldn’t expose her weakly armored stern to Federal fire. Each of the enemy let the Arkansas have a broadside, but most of the shot bounces off the armor like hailstones. In her turn, the Arkansas gave the Union ships a severe mauling.
When the battle ended the Carondelet was badly damaged and had run ashore, the Tyler limped off in bad shape, and the Queen of the West decided to retire and fight another day.
The CSS Arkansas had taken the fire of all three ships. Lieutenant Brown had been wounded and a part of the wheel had been blown away. The base of the smokestack had been hit and heat and smoke filled the engine room, making frequent changes of the crew necessary. Bit the pride of Yazoo city had survived her first battle and there was no place to except straight ahead – or straight down.
Straight ahead could only mean to Vicksburg where the entire Union armada lay in wait. As the Arkansas stormed toward the beleaguered city, there was consternation in the Federal fleet. The guns were manned, but he fires had been banked to preserve precious coal. The Arkansas drove at the middle of the fleet and took broadsides from the Hartford and Richmond without serious damage. Anywhere the Confederate ironclad might fire, it was almost certain to hit a Union ship. But the Union fleet did more damage to itself than the Arkansas could ever have inflicted. Many of the shots fired at the Arkansas passed over her low gun house and landed on a Union target.
The Arkansas docked at Vicksburg under the protection of the shore batteries. The Union battleship Essex charged in for a ramming attempt and both vessels loosed a short-range broadside. The Essex missed the ramming and dug its bow into the river bank where shore batteries gave it a tough time until it could back off and steam away at full speed. Next, the Queen of the West, which had followed the Arkansas down-river, tried to ram, but a well-placed broadside from the Arkansas disabled her and she was towed away after drifting out of range.
Presence of the CSS Arkansas at Vicksburg made the Union position precarious. It was always necessary for the Federal fleet to keep upstream for fear of a surprise attack, and coal was scarce. Commodore Farragut’s deep-water vessels were in danger of being stranded as the low-water season approached, so he ordered his fleet back to New Orleans. The “bucket of bolts” had almost single-handedly lifted the siege of Vicksburg.
The Federals did not know the damage they had inflicted on the brave vessel. One point-blank shell from the Essex had penetrated Arkansas’ armor, killing eight men. Many of the crew had to be transferred to the hospital, including the able engineer who seemed the only man capable of keeping the ancient engines operating. Lieutenant Brown had been ordered home to Grenada to recuperate from his wounds and Executive Officer Stevens, a fine officer, was in command.
Although the Arkansas had been in heavy battle and was not in shape to go without extensive repairs, General Earl Van Dorn ordered her to support him on a drive he planned against Union forces at Baton Rouge. Lieutenant Stevens told Van Dorn that Lieutenant Brown had left orders for the ship to stay at Vicksburg. General Van Dorn appealed all the way to Richmond to have these orders overruled.
CSS Arkansas had steamed only a short distance before her creaking engines played out. After being patched up, she headed for Baton Rouge, but on the way met the Essex. Charging full steam ahead and bow guns firing, the Arkansas headed straight for her old enemy, but just before the expected collision, the Arkansas’ port engine quit. With each engine connected separately to a propeller, this pulled the ship square-around into a terrific broadside from the Essex.
As the CSS Arkansas drifted helplessly toward shore, her weak stern a perfect target for enemy fire, Lieutenant Stevens ordered the crew to destroy the ship and try to reach Confederate lines. Men of the Arkansas put powder on deck, set her afire, and scurried for the woods. Then an unpredictable current swung the Arkansas into the river where, face to face with the Essex, she blew up.
Thus, in just 24 full days, the CSS Arkansas dealt the Union severe blows and then died honorably.
The CSS Arkansas was not the only surprising weapon unleashed on the harried Union navy on the Yazoo River. The first warship to be sunk by an electrically detonated mine was the USS Cairo, sent to the bottom in the autumn of 1862 near the mouth of the Yazoo River.
Eight months after the sinking of the Cairo, the USS Baron DeKalb was sunk by torpedoes at Yazoo city. But descendants of the men who touched off those torpedoes are still living in Yazoo city, and they say that this ship was sunk by jugs filled with explosives and pulled against the ships by strong cord.
When General U.S. Grant’s final great siege of Vicksburg by both the Union Army and Navy began in May 1863, a Confederate fortification at Snyder’s Bluff on the Yazoo River blocked passage to Yazoo City where the navy yard was still building ironclad vessels. Union Rear Admiral David D. Porter sent five ironclads to try to bypass the Snyder’s Bluff defenses and destroy the yard. And he almost succeeded in becoming one of the first admirals to have his naval fleet captured by land forces.
The vessels ascended Steele’s Bayou, passed through Black Bayou and entered Deer Creek. If the Yankee warships gained Rolling Fork, they would have clear sailing down the Big Sunflower and up to Yazoo City. Confederate Colonel Samuel W. Ferguson moved his combat team to Rolling Fork. While snipers lined the creek banks and peppered the ships with small arms, other soldiers cut trees to fall across the stream ahead of and behind the vessels. With the fleet blocked in by trees, the crews unable to come into the open, and Confederate forces ready to drive in and take the ships, General Grant had to send a land force to rescue Admiral Porter’s fleet.
By May 17, the Confederate forces had abandoned Snyder’s Bluff and two days later units from the Union army and navy occupied the fortifications without firing a shot. The first frontal attack upon Yazoo city itself came on May 21, 1863, and was a naval thrust. Admiral Porter ordered a task force consisting of the ironclads Baron DeKalb and Choctaw, supported by the tinclads Forest Rose, Linden, and Petrel, to proceed against the Yazoo city Naval works as soon as demolition teams could destroy the chain placed across the Yazoo River by Confederates.
With Lieutenant Commander John g. Walker in charge, the fleet met only token resistance on the river. But Captain Isaac Brown, recovered from the wounds he had received on the Arkansas and in command at Yazoo City, ordered the navy yard burned.
A landing party from the Union ships found that Confederate demolition squads had destroyed everything of military value in the town. Three warships at the naval station were smoldering ruins, nothing more than charred hulks. They were the Mobile, the Republic, and an unnamed ironclad monster 310 feet long and with a beam of 70 feet. The latter vessel was scheduled to be plated with 1/5 inch iron and was to have had six engines, four side wheels, and two propellers.
All that remained of the navy yard, which had contained five saw and planning mills, extensive machinery, carpenter and blacksmith shops, were fire-blackened ruins. Shore partied reported that except for a large sawmill and lumberyard north of town, Confederate forces had also either removed or burned all the public property in Yazoo City of potential value to the enemy. By the morning of May 23, the sawmill and lumberyard had been put to the torch by the Federals. After patrolling the 115 military patients in the city hospital, the Union squadron was ready to return to the fleet anchorage at the mouth of the Yazoo.
After the destruction of the shipbuilding facilities at Yazoo city the river had little naval value to the Confederacy, but Union ships continued to use the waterway.
Immediately after General Grant failed to crack the Vicksburg defenses by a massive assault on May 22, 1863, he received word of a Confederate build-up at Yazoo City and Commander Walker’s squadron again steamed upriver. There was no build-up of Southern forces and the expedition met little resistance. Lieutenant Brown had planted torpedoes in the Yazoo River, but the Federal fleet inadvertently avoided them when the ships cut through Tchula Lake – an old channel of the Yazoo – instead of staying on the mainstream.
After passing Yazoo City uneventfully, the Union fleet was stopped below Greenwood by a barrier of vessels which Lieutenant Brown had ordered sunk across the channel. While sailors tried to remove the scuttled steamboats, Confederate Captain John H. Morgan’s Arkansas sharpshooters peppered them with rifle fire. The Union fleet sprayed the area with canister and shell, then cut the cables and withdrew downstream.
The expedition stopped again at Yazoo City where a landing party gathered a number of iron bars missed on the first raid of the navy yard. In the eight-day raid up the Yazoo, the Union fleet destroyed seven Confederate steamboats.
At the time he ordered Commander Walker’s fleet up the Yazoo (May 22, 1863), General Grant received word that Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston was massing a large force to move in relief of Vicksburg. He feared that his army would move toward him down the “Mechanicsburg Corridor,” the ridge in Yazoo County that separated the watersheds of the Big Black and Yazoo rivers. Accordingly, he detailed Colonel Amory J. Johnson to take 1,000 men and reconnoiter that area. Secondary objectives were the destruction of the Mississippi Central Railroad bridge across the Big Black at Way’s Bluff, near Vaughan in Yazoo County, and destruction of all forage and corn stored in the region between the Big Black and Yazoo rivers.
On May 24, Colonel Johnson and his blue coats rode out of Snyder’s Bluff and the next day they rode right back in again. They had encountered Confederate Colonel W. Wirt Adams’ Mississippi Cavalry and after a brief skirmish had withdrawn.
Upon his return to his base, Colonel Johnson made the wildly exaggerated report that General Joe Johnston, with a force of between 6,000 and 10,000 men, was camped near the Yazoo County village of Mechanicsburg. Actually, at this time the only Rebel force operating between the Big Black and Yazoo were scattered units belonging to Brigadier General John Adams’ mounted command.
General Grant dispatched 12,000 of the troops which he has assembled at Vicksburg to meet the threat of General Joe Johnston’s overestimated forces. General Grant places these troops under command of aggressive Major General Francis P. Blair, who in turn split them into two divisions under Brigadier Generals Joseph A. Mower and John McArthur.
General Blair planned a two-pronged thrust toward Mechanicsburg with General Mower’s division marching up the Ridge Road and General McArthur’s division moving up the Benton road to a rendezvous at Sulphur Springs. Colonel Johnson’s cavalry was to screen the advance of the “Expeditionary Corps.”
The force moved out of Vicksburg on May 27 and even Colonel Johnson’s far-raging cavalry failed to flush any Confederates that day. On May 28 the two forces came together at Sulphur Springs, but Colonel Johnson brought General Blair a disturbing report. The cavalrymen had talked to a farmer, Richard A. Barkley, who told him that Lieutenant General Ambrose P. Hill had just reached Jackson with heavy reinforcements from the battle-hardened Army of North Virginia. Between them, General Johnston and General Hill were reported to have 45,000 men in Central Mississippi.
General Blair, nevertheless, decided to push on. It was about 1 p.m. When the Federal horsemen rode by the dozen or so houses that constituted Mechanicsburg and they turned into the road leading to Kibbey’s Ferry. Two miles beyond the village, an Iowa Regiment sighted a number of gray clads. These were the same hell-for-leather troopers that had turned back Colonel Johnson’s blue clad cavalry four days before.
As soon as General John Adams saw the bluecoats he sent his cavalrymen charging at the enemy. The startled Federal troops fell back toward Mechanicsburg, fighting a bitter delaying action. General McArthur sent his advance brigade to the rescue and the thin line of gray clads, vastly outnumbered, fell back toward the Big Black River.
Two miles southeast of Mechanicsburg the Confederates made one more effort to hold the Federal advance. Guns of the Brookhaven Artillery charged up and started firing on General Blair’s men. This threat was quickly met by the arrival of additional Union artillery, armed with 12-inch howitzers. After a brief duel, the outgunned Mississippians broke off the engagement.
What Confederate forces had failed to do, General Grant did for them. Troubled by reports of General Joe Johnston’s huge army and fearing that General Blair might be moving into a trap, he ordered the northern army back to Snyder’s Bluff.
The Union forces made their return trip down the fertile Yazoo Valley. Here General Blair estimated there was sufficient subsistence and forage to supply General Joe Johnston’s army for at least a month.
The soldiers destroyed an immense quantity of bacon, approximately 500,000 bushels of corn and seized about 1,000 head of cattle and 200 horses and mules.
Meanwhile, Confederate communications being very slow, General Johnston did not receive work at his Jackson headquarters that a force of Federals was advancing up the “Mechanicsburg Corridor” until May 30, the same day General Blair was evacuating Mechanicsburg to fall back toward Snyder’s Bluff.
To effect a concentration against General Blair, General Johnston sent Major General Samuel G. Maxey’s brigade to Canton by the tail. At the same time, he ordered Major General William H.T. Walker’s “Right Wing” to march from Canton to Yazoo City. Colonel Samuel W. Ferguson’s hard-hitting combat team joined General Walker and by June 1 the “Army of Relief” was in Yazoo City.
Immediately after the surrender of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, Admiral Porter prepared to follow up this Confederate disaster with a series of raids into the surrounding countryside.
General Johnston, occupied with defending the capital, Jackson, against Major-General William T. Sherman’s forces, had called the “Army of Relief” and all the troops he could take from other Central Mississippi locations.
At Yazoo City, Commander Isaac Brown was in charge of a naval unit, while Colonel William B. Creasman commanded the soldiers. They were desperately trying to throw up fortifications against an inevitable Union attack.
On July 12, Admiral Porter sent seven transports carrying Major General Francis J. Herron’s division to Yazoo City. The transports were convoyed by the ironclad Baron DeKalb and the tinclads Signal and New Republic. The 5,000 men of General Herron’s army disembarked below the city and the ships moved upstream where there was a short duel between Confederate artillery in the bluffs above the town and the vessels on the river. The troops, during the artillery engagement, outflanked the town and made the Confederate position untenable.
Both Commander Brown and Colonel Creasman withdrew. Commander Brown moved on to the Confederate Arsenal at Selma, Alabama, and his sailors joined ships at Mobile. Colonel Creasman’s small force made contact with General Johnston’s Rebels at Morton, Mississippi.
The only bright spot in all of this from the Southern viewpoint was the sinking of the DeKalb by two planters, Mr. J.J.B. White and Dr. Washburn, who had devised the mine-like device described earlier that they could discharge under the vessel.
From September 1863 to December 1864, northern gunboats ranged the Yazoo River at will, and Yazoo City was raided and/or temporarily occupied four more times without significant resistance from the small number of Confederate units operating in the interior of Mississippi. The main objective of these raids was to commandeer cotton and food supplies, livestock, horses and miles for the Yankee stronghold in Vicksburg.
In September 1863 the Federals landed two regiments of troops from river vessels which went on a rampage in the city. In October, another Federal force, this time under General McArthur, occupied the town and were particularly ruthless.
Only once did the Confederates strike back, on March 5, 1864, during the third temporary occupation. And this time bloody fighting in the streets of downtown Yazoo City left 31 northerners dead, 121 wounded, 31 missing and brought a hasty return to Vicksburg by the rest. The southerners lost only 6 with another 51 wounded.
That Union operation was part of a master plan by General William T. Sherman, then commanding from Vicksburg all Yankee troops in the area to tear up completely the railroad from Vicksburg to Meridian. There his forces would destroy the Confederate rail center and supply depot, thus paralyzing all rail transportation left within Mississippi. He would then try to drive all remaining Confederate forces from the state, and destroy as much public and private property as possible.
As a bluff, and to keep the Confederates guessing about his next moves, he planned other diversions. One was to send an amphibious force of about 1,600 men to occupy Yazoo City, and from there to raid on up the Yazoo River as far as possible, seizing cotton, mules, and food to be brought down to warehouses in Yazoo City for further shipment to his Vicksburg stronghold. Two tinclad gunboats would protect the warehouses.
The raiding in Central Mississippi would keep Rebel troops there too busy to hinder his Meridian expedition.
To stop the raiding, and to retrieve as much of the loot as possible, a strong contingent of 1,300 Tennessee and Texas cavalry was assembled at Benton, just east of Yazoo City. With some artillery support, they were led by Generals R.V. Richardson of Tennessee and Sul Ross of Texas. Early in the day they first surrounded and silences with cannon-fire the main Union redoubt on the Benton Toad protecting the occupying force. Then the southerners swept from the bluffs into the north of town and on down toward the river landing. Fiercely resisting house by house, the Federals were pushed during the day toward the protection of their tinclads which were also lobbing shells into the fray. At one point a howitzer was landed from one of the boats to the foot of Main Street and surrounded by cotton bales to make a small fort. Firing up Main Street, it was soon taken by the southerners but then was recaptured by the Yankees.
By mid-afternoon, the southerners had found and burned much of the looted cotton and had retaken most of the miles and supplies not inside the warehouses. Considering their objectives largely gained they began an orderly withdrawal. Rushing out of the warehouses to fire and the departing enemy, the Yankees were quick to claim a Southern route that is, until their true losses were realized the next day. *
*See additional articles included in this booklet for more details on this bloodiest day of the way in Yazoo County.
The following month, on April 22, 1864, another surprising and most uncommon event occurred on the Yazoo River two miles upstream from Yazoo City. A Federal gunboat, the tinclad USS Petrel, tied up to the riverbank near the mouth of the Tokeba Bayou, was attacked and captured by a combat patrol from the 11th and 17th Arkansas Consolidated Mounted Infantry. Accurate fire from the opposite bank by two 10-pound Parrot rifles partially disabled the vessel, causing part of its crew to flee. Then Arkansas boys swimming across the swift-flowing muddy waters took their prize.*
* See additional articles included in this booklet for a more detailed account of the USS Petrel’s capture.
On May 19, 1864, Federal troops for the last time came into Yazoo City and got out of hand. Despite the efforts of the provost guards, they burned the courthouse, the lawyer’s offices, and several dwellings.
By the last few months of the war, Yazoo County had been so overrun by the frequent raids of the enemy that there was little of value left and the County had practically no strategic value.
In addition to serving as a battleground, Yazoo City and County contributed mightily of men to the Confederate cause. The Hamer Rifles was the first unit to be organized and mustered into service at Yazoo City on April 8, 1861. This unit was assigned to the Army of Virginia and served there as Company D of the 18th Mississippi Regiment.
By the end of the war all companies made up from Yazoo County had suffered extreme losses through death, wounds, prison confinement and disease. Only a small remnant of those who enlisted returned.
It was these survivors who, when they returned to their denuded homeland, were faces wit the heartbreaking task of rebuilding under the rigors of Reconstruction days. It was several years before the county began to take on a health economic complexion and the battle against great odds was turned in favor of the residents.