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This webpage reproduces an article in
Military Affairs
Vol. 18 No. 1 (Spring, 1954), pp29‑32

The text is in the public domain.

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 p29  River Navies in the Civil War​*

Control of navigable rivers was of primary importance during the Civil War because they were major arteries of the operation in that era. This was true in both the economic and military spheres. Closing the lower Mississippi by the Confederates, for example, prevented the normal export of grain and other products by States in the upper valley and greatly upset their economy. As for the movement and supply of large Armies, water transport was all but indispensable throughout the great region of the Mississippi and its tributaries, and very necessary along the eastern seaboard.

For these reasons the Civil War was among the greatest amphibious wars in history. In both the west and the east, the navies of North and South constantly operated in support of their armies. Troops were transported and supplied, and often given a direct combat aid. The naval factor was a decisive one in some of the largest military campaigns. This applied to coastal as well as river operations, but to the latter especially.

At the beginning the Confederate States had no Navy, but were diligent in creating one from the scanty means available. They were compelled to rely principally upon the conversion of merchant ships for warfare, but in time managed to construct formidable men-of‑war notwithstanding poor materials and facilities, and to devise new types of ships and weapons. Their inventiveness and accomplishment under adverse circumstances were remarkable. A great windfall to the Confederacy was the early capture of the Navy Yard at Norfolk together with the ships there. The Frigate Merrimack was converted into the powerful ironclad ram Virginia and the great number of captured cannons permitted distribution to fortifications and ships at many distant places.

Early in the war Confederates established control of the lower Potomac with batteries erected on the Virginia shore, forcing the Union Army subsequently to embark from Annapolis for the Peninsular Campaign. Confederate naval forces also drove a Federal Squadron to sea (October 1861) from the Mississippi River's mouth, giving the South complete command of the Father of Waters nearly to Cairo, Illinois. Acting jointly a Federal Squadron and Army captured Forts Henry and Donelson, opening two great waterways — the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers — to Federal use.

The classic first duel between armored vessels — Monitor vs. Virginia (ex-Merrimack) — was fought (9 March 1862) where the Elizabeth River joins the James at Hampton Roads. On the previous day Virginia had destroyed the old Frigates Cumberland and Congress off Newport News. The two ironclads fought intermittently for many hours without sustaining great damage when Virginia returned to Norfolk.

Depending upon the Navy to protect against the menace from the Virginia (Merrimack), Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.McClellan landed his Army at Fortress Monroe in April 1862 and began his ill-fated Peninsular Campaign. Naval Squadrons supported his slow advance by land on both flanks, on the York and James Rivers. Finally McClellan was forced to retreat to Malvern Hill on the James where  p30 support from gunboats contributed to the saving of his Army. His evacuation of the Peninsula by water was covered by the naval squadrons.

Mississippi Valley Struggle

Meanwhile, Federal military-naval forces had begun the tremendous task of gaining control of the lower Mississippi River, attacking from both north and south. This would split the Confederacy apart and at the same time restore the commercial outlet for States in the upper valley. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Grant's advance (south) up the Tennessee River, aimed at outflanking Vicksburg, met with severe resistance at Pittsburg Landing (Shiloh) where gunboats were a large influence in saving the day. Ultimately Grant was forced to abandon this strategy in favor of a direct approach down the Mississippi.

The most northerly great obstacle was the strong fort at "Island Number Ten," near the junction of Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri. On a dark and stormy night Federal ironclad gunboats under Flag Officer Foote, bombarded the fort while one of them (Carondelet, Commander Walke) ran past. The next night the Pittsburgh followed and the two gunboats below the fort then covered the Mississippi crossing of General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pope's Army from Missouri, which then advanced by land to capture formidable "Island Number Ten."

In this affair Confederate naval resistance had been lacking because their gunboats were far away assisting in the defense of New Orleans against Farragut's fleet, coming up from the Gulf of Mexico. Forcing a passage past Forts Jackson and St. Philip, Farragut defeated the Confederate Squadron under Flag Officer Mitchell and proceeded up-river to New Orleans, which, now defenseless, had no choice but to surrender (April 1862).

Soon Farragut pressed northward against little resistance to Vicksburg, where he joined gunboats under Flag Officer Davis (Foote's successor) who had cleared the upper section of the river by defeating off Memphis (10 May) a hastily assembled force of Confederate rams under Captain Montgomery. This early opening of the Mississippi was but temporary. Without land forces in support the naval squadrons could not hold their gains, and had to withdraw, north and south. Confederates then hastily strengthened weak defenses along the river, so that the later Federal return met very stiff opposition.

Vicksburg soon became a formidable point of unique importance. Strong batteries on high bluffs controlled the river passage. Railroads ran westward to Texas and eastward to the heart of the Confederacy forming a major transport artery to sustain the war. The Federals rightly regarded the capture of this bastion as of primary consequence. A large amphibious expedition under Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Sherman landed (December 1862) at Haynes Bluff, just above Vicksburg, expecting a junction with Grant, marching from inland. But Grant could not get through, so both Armies withdrew for a fresh joint attempt down the river.

This new great plan which ultimately succeeded involved landing the Army on the river bank opposite Vicksburg; then marching south well past that city and crossing the river to the Vicksburg (east) side. The final phase was to strike swiftly northward across the city's eastward land communications and besiege it. Thus the Army's march would trace an enormous letter "U" with its bottom at the river crossing. All this was to be done, despite the two critical difficulties of the hazardous river crossing and keeping the Army supplied. Naval support was indispensable to overcome both of these severe handicaps.

When in January 1863, Grant's Army  p31 began this campaign by landing across the river from Vicksburg, supplies to that city by rail from the west were automatically cut off. But there remained a route by water down the Red River to the Mississippi below Vicksburg, that was then immune from attack by the Naval Squadron above the city, now under Porter. Farragut essayed to stop this river traffic by bringing up a squadron from New Orleans. Three of his four large ships, however, were badly damaged at Port Hudson and only Farragut himself in the Hartford got through. Alone, she had a long and anxious time blockading the Red River's mouth.

Awaiting the coming of Spring, Grant attempted cutting a navigable canal across a neck of land so that supply craft could bypass Vicksburg and reach the lower river. This failed. Meanwhile thorough investigation was made of the possibility of attacking Vicksburg from the north on the eastern river bank. This involved extensive minor naval operations in Yazoo River Delta. Impracticability was proved. However, Haynes Bluff, on the east bank, was again occupied and a strongly held base of supplies established, which was stocked and constantly replenished from up the "Father of Waters" under naval protection. This was a key move; because the base would serve to supply the Army after it had crossed the Mississippi to the South and then moved north into a position to besiege Vicksburg on its land side. For that, no other line of supply was possible.

In April 1863 the Union Army started marching southward along the river's west bank. Acting in concert, with a view to protecting the troop crossing, Porter ran past Vicksburg with seven ironclads during darkness of 16 April, leaving the rest of his large fleet above the city to guard Army communications. The "run-past" was among the most spectacular events of the war. The Confederates lit large bonfires and opened a heavy bombardment, the ships replying vigorously. With heavy coal barges alongside for protection the ships made little speed, while strong eddies in the swift current swung them through large angles. Some were pivoted completely around when directly under the batteries, yet all ironclads got through without serious injury.

On the 29th at Grand Gulf, Porter pounded shore batteries at close quarters for four hours, with a view to putting the Army across at that point. But the fortifications were too strong, so the Union forces proceeded down-river to Bruinsburg where Grant crossed without opposition.

At last on the Vicksburg side, the Union Army, with but scanty supplies, made forced marches northward to gain contact with the well-stocked base at Haynes Bluff. This took them across Vicksburg's land communications and the long siege of that place was begun. Thereafter, until the surrender naval forces gave vigorous combat support to the Federal Army.

During the Vicksburg siege, the only other Confederate stronghold on the great river, Port Hudson, was taken in May by Union troops and gunboats acting jointly. Thus when Vicksburg fell in July 1863 the Mississippi was finally open to Federal, military and commercial use throughout its length, although desultory fighting along its banks in Confederate hands continued for many months.

The last operation of magnitude on western rivers was the ill-fated Red River Expedition in the Spring of 1864. Its origin was defensive — a precaution against the suspected designs on Texas by Napoleon III, who had landed large forces in Mexico. Admiral Porter's strong fleet of gunboats supported General Banks's Army in an up-river advance from Alexandria toward Shreveport. The defeat and hasty retreat of  p32 the Union Army confronted many gunboats with the urgent necessity of speedily returning down 200 miles of shallow and falling river whose banks were now strongly held by the Confederate Army. It was a hot two weeks for the Navy with many personnel casualties.

Upon again reaching the refuge of Alexandria the river level had fallen so low that the larger gunboats could not get past the "falls" at that place. Here the Federal Army saved its Navy from falling into Confederate hands. The local water level was raised sufficiently through the ingenious construction of partial dams of trees and timber cribs filled with rock, projected from each bank, under the direction of Colonel Joseph Bailey, Wisconsin Volunteers.


Grant's final campaign in Virginia received support of great value from the Federal Navy. His ability to repeatedly outflank Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Lee was based largely upon shifting his main base successively from Aquia Creek to Rappahannock River, York River and, finally James River. Without naval control of Chesapeake Bay and tributaries, such main bases could not have been established or used.

Grant's final position south of Petersburg would have been suicidal without firm and permanent control of the lower James River by Union naval forces. The Confederates had for long maintained control of the river above their strong works at Drewry's Bluff. From here, to the last they operated a gunboat squadron against Federal forces below. Prior to Grant's arrival Butler's Union Army from Norfolk had reached City Point with strong naval support by Admiral S. P. Lee, USN, who was vigorously opposed by the Confederate Squadron under Commodore Mitchell, and later the redoubtable Commodore Raphael Semmes of high-seas raiding fame.

Marching from the Cold Harbor repulse Grant crossed the James on pontoons in June 1864. He sank obstructions in the river as an added protection against the Confederate Squadron. However, the latter repeatedly bombarded the crossing and the Federal Squadron until January 1865. With the evacuation of Richmond in April the war was virtually ended, and Semmes blew up his ironclads and abandoned the James River.

The Editor's Note:

* This is an outline of operations prepared to supplement an exhibition of the Naval Historical Foundation at the Truxton-Decatur Naval Museum, Washington, D. C. Courtesy of Commodore Dudley W. Knox.

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