Grant resolved to move his soldiers south of Vicksburg down the Louisiana side of the river, cross the Mississippi, and attack Vicksburg from the south. Although this meant the Union fleet would risk passing downstream beneath Vicksburg’s Mississippi River batteries to get in position south of the city to ferry the army across the river, it seemed to be Grant’s best option.
Admiral Porter made the dramatic run down the Mississippi past the Vicksburg batteries on the night of April 16, 1863, under heavy fire, but with the loss of only one boat.
“At half past ten P.M. the boats left their moorings and steamed down the river, the BENTON, Admiral Porter, taking the lead ~ as they approached the point opposite the town, a terrible concentrated fire of the centre, upper and lower batteries, both water and bluff, was directed upon the channel, which here ran within one hundred yards of the shore. At the same moment innumerable floats of turpentine and other combustible materials were set ablaze. In the face of all this fire, the boats made their way with but little loss except the transport HENRY CLAY which was set on fire and sunk.”
After much bloody fighting east of Vicksburg, in May 1863 Grant’s army reached the Vicksburg fortifications. After two unsuccessful direct assaults on the Rebels, Grant decided the best tactic was to lay siege:
“I now determined upon a regular siege ~ to ‘outcamp the enemy,’ as it were and to incur no more losses. The experience of the 22d convinced officers and men that this was best, and they went to work on the defenses and approaches with a will. With the navy holding the river, the investment of Vicksburg was complete. As long as we could hold our position the enemy was limited in supplies of food, men and munitions of war to what they had on hand. These could not last always.”
The siege of Vicksburg lasted from May 18 to July 4, 1863. Admiral Porter bombarded the city with his naval cannons, while Grant had his men dug a series of thirteen trenches to the very face of the Confederate fortifications, isolating Vicksburg and sealing its doom. Over sixty thousand feet of excavations, manned by Union troops, were completed. By July, Vicksburg’s Confederate General Pemberton and his soldiers were hungry, sick and despaired of rescue. On July 3, General Pemberton asked Grant for surrender terms; Grant’s answer was “unconditional surrender.” Grant rejected Pemberton’s proposed surrender terms and promised to send amended terms of surrender that night to Pemberton that he accepted early on July 4. Grant immediately sent food to the hungry Confederate soldiers.
Beginning later but lasting longer, the siege of Port Hudson began on May 23, 1863, continuing until July 9. Roughly 30,000 Union troops were pitted against 6,800 Confederates under the command of Major General Franklin Gardner.
On the morning of May 27 and again on June 14, the Union Army under the command of Major General Nathaniel P. Banks launched ferocious assaults against the four-and-one-half-mile long string of fortifications protecting the river batteries near Port Hudson.
These actions constituted some of the most severe and bloodiest fighting of the entire Civil War, and places such as Fort Desperate, the Priest Cap, Slaughter’s Field and the Citadel became names forever etched in the pages of American Civil War history.
As the siege continued into July, the Confederates had nearly exhausted their ammunition and were reduced to eating mules, horses and rats. When word reached Confederate General Franklin Gardner that Vicksburg had surrendered, he realized that his situation was hopeless and nothing could be gained by continuing the defense of Port Hudson.
Surrender terms were negotiated, and on July 9, 1863, after forty-eight-days and thousands of casualties, the Union army entered Port Hudson.
The surrender of the garrison was the final blow in a week of catastrophe for the Confederacy. On July 3, General Robert E. Lee’s second invasion of the North was turned back at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The following day Vicksburg surrendered, and the Confederate drive through Arkansas was halted at Helena. Five days later came the surrender of Port Hudson. It was a week of crushing defeat, one from which the Confederacy would never recover.
One week after the July 9th surrender of Port Hudson, the merchant steamboat IMPERIAL tied up at the wharf at New Orleans, completing the 1,200-mile passage from St. Louis undisturbed by hostile guns. After two years of land and naval warfare, the grip of the South had been broken ~ the Mississippi River was open, and merchant and military traffic now enjoyed unrestricted passage to its mouth. In the words of Lincoln, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.”
The Union now controlled the Mississippi River and re-focused on the Confederate supply lines to the west. Shreveport, on the Red River, Louisiana, was the main supply depot for the Confederate army west of the Mississippi. In March, 1864, General Nathaniel P. Banks, with 25,000 troops, in connection with Admiral Porter, began a Red River campaign toward Shreveport, having waited for the river to rise. Progress was slow, impeded by endless obstructions placed in the river by the retreating Rebels, and constant skirmishes.
At a place called Mansfield, only 40 miles from the Texas line, Confederate Generals Kirby Smith and Dick Taylor rallied their forces, numbering 11,000, and made a stand that repulsed and disorganized General Banks. He fell back to Pleasant Hill, was again defeated and forced to retreat to Grand Encore on the Red River, re-joining Admiral Porter’s fleet. Grand Encore is just above Natchitoches, and derives its name from the great bluff on which it stands. During his occupancy of the point General Banks constructed extensive fortifications made of logs and sandbags.
Admiral Porter, too, found his position perilous. The waters of the Red River had fallen suddenly, preventing navigation downriver over the falls at Alexandria, leaving his fleet cut-off. General Banks’ army built a dam below the rapids to get the fleet over, and spent the next couple of months assisting Porter’s retreat as the depth of the river diminished in an unseasonal drought, while Confederate units continued to harass them from the riverbanks.
The ultimate outcome of the Red River campaign was a victory for General Taylor and his Confederates. They had lost 1,621 men, compared to 1,369 Union casualties, and the exhausted survivors were in wretched condition. Their sacrificial stand had defeated an overwhelmingly superior adversary and effectively ended the war west of the Mississippi. Events east of the Mississippi River would now dominate the final stages of the Civil War.
In April, 1865, with the Civil War officially ending on April 9, thousands of Union prisoners of war were scheduled for transport north, many aboard steamboats from Vicksburg. The SULTANA docked at Vicksburg on an up-bound trip from New Orleans early on the evening of April 23. Steam had been discovered escaping from a crack in one of her four boilers about ten miles south of Vicksburg, forcing her to continue up the Mississippi at a greatly reduced speed. Fearing that the crack posed a significant threat to the safety of the steamboat, her chief engineer declared that he would not proceed beyond Vicksburg until necessary repairs were made. A boilermaker advised that extensive repairs were needed, but Captain J. Cass Mason, wary of losing a profitable shipment of soldiers, insisted on a temporary repair.
Captain Frederic Speed, assistant adjutant general for the Department of the Mississippi, assembled the rolls and arranged the transportation, but when time was short his attempt to complete the rolls was overruled by Captain George Augustus Williams. As a result, no accurate count was made and the total was grossly underestimated. Since the SULTANA had a legal carrying capacity of 376 passengers, even Speeds estimate of 1,300 to 1,400 would have been far too many for the steamer to hold. In reality, however, in excess of two thousand war-weary prisoners would be loaded. Observing the overcrowding, Captain William F. Kerns, the quartermaster in charge of river transportation, tried in vain to convince Captain Speed, and later General Smith to place some of the men on other available steamboats then docked at Vicksburg.
Dr. George S. Kemble, the medical director of the Department of the Mississippi, also noting the cramped conditions, sought and received permission from General Dana to remove 23 men from the SULTANA who were confined to cots, and a column of 278 soldiers who came from the hospital.
At 9.00 p.m. on April 24, the SULTANA slowly backed away from the wharf at Vicksburg and headed north on the flood-swollen Mississippi River. The enormous weight of the passengers and cargo on the decks of the steamer worried her crew, aware that too many men crowding to one side of the deck could result in the boat capsizing. This almost occured when the boat stopped briefly at Helena, Arkansas, where the men suddenly learned that a photographer was setting up his camera on the west bank. This photograph became the last record of the SULTANA. At about 2.00 a.m. on April 27, an enormous explosion tore the steamboat apart, and within twenty minutes the entire boat was in flames.
Most of those who survived the blast jumped into the river, and were carried down the river with the burning wreck. At about 3.00 a.m. the steamboat Bostonia 2 came upon the scene and immediately began hauling survivors from the water. At 3.20 a.m. gunboats at Memphis also began sweeping the river as cries for help drifted downriver in the darkness.
Since no accurate count of the number of passengers had been made, it was impossible to calculate the exact number of dead. Both the military’s estimate of 1,238 and the Customs Department’s figure of 1,547 were based on Captain Williams’s tally of prisoners placed on the SULTANA at Vicksburg and were, therefore, too low. Most historians estimate the death toll at up to 1,700. It is estimated that there were 700-800 survivors. News of the tragedy was overshadowed by the assassination of President Lincoln on April 14. A subsequent enquiry into the SULTANA disaster, although critical of some of those involved, held no one person responsible.
The true cause of this tragedy was greed, prompting the hasty departure of the SULTANA without adequate boiler repairs. The owners would have received five dollars for each enlisted man carried and ten dollars for each officer.