Federal Fleet Passes Port Hudson; Mosby Captures a General; Battle of Kelly’s Ford: March 1863

As the winter of 1863 drew to a close, most of the significant action in the month of March occurred in Mississippi and Louisiana as Federal forces continued to try and gain control of the Mississippi River. Confederate defenders at Vicksburg, Mississippi and Port Hudson, Louisiana were just as determined to hold on to it.

The Red River empties into the Mississippi between Port Hudson and Vicksburg, and was an important supply route from the west for the garrisons on the river as well as for the eastern Confederate states. Admiral David Farragut, who was operating below Port Hudson with his ocean going navy ships, decided to act and gain control of the river and cut off the supply route.

On the night of March 14th, Farragut sent a fleet of eight vessels up river to try and run past the Port Hudson batteries. Two ships–Farragut’s flagship the USS Hartford, and the Albatross, a smaller gunboat, made it through.  Five others were damaged and had to turn around, and one ship, the side wheel frigate USS Mississippi, was sunk. Although Farragut couldn’t get his entire fleet past the batteries, the navy now had some firepower between Vicksburg and Port Hudson to attack Confederate shipping  and shore installations on that part of the river.

Meanwhile, north of Vicksburg, Major General Ulysses S. Grant had two attempts at getting troops around to the back of Vicksburg via water routes thwarted. In February, Grant’s forces blew a hole in the levee at Yazoo Pass on the Mississippi about 325 miles north of Vicksburg. From there, river gunboats and transports could travel from the Mississippi through various interconnected rivers and reach the north side of Vicksburg. But the Confederates countered this move by quickly constructing Fort Pemberton near the confluence of the Yalobusha and Tallahatchie Rivers  about 90 miles north of Vicksburg. The Union gunboats attacked several times beginning on March 11th, but were unable to reduce Fort Pemberton and the Yazoo Pass Expedition ended in failure.

A second water route involved sending gunboats up Steele’s Bayou, just north of Vicksburg, in another attempt to get behind the city. The gunboats were followed by army troops on transport vessels. Things got underway on March 14th.  But it was very slow going with several natural obstacles in the narrow water passages. Rebel soldiers added more obstacles by cutting down trees on the shorelines and dumping them in the water.  Eventually, the fleet could go nowhere and had to be rescued by the army.  The Steele’s Bayou Expedition ended in failure less than two weeks after it had begun.

In Washington, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law an act creating the first Federal military draft. The law allowed for the hiring of a substitute to serve, as well as a $300 buyout provision. These measures proved controversial and were unpopular with many average citizens who could not afford to pay $300 to get out of the draft. Major General Ambrose Burnside, who lost disastrously at Fredericksburg in December and had been awaiting orders after being relieved of command of the Army of the Potomac in late January, received a new assignment.  Burnside was given command of the Department of the Ohio on March 25th. Some Confederate command assignments were made as well. Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith was given overall command of Confederate forces in the Trans Mississippi region on March 7th and on March 18th Lieutenant General Theophilus Holmes took over as head of the Division of Arkansas.

Although the main armies remained quiet during the month with the exception of those around Vicksburg, there were plenty of raids, skirmishes, and smaller scale actions all month. Fighting occurred at Jacksonville and St. Augustine, Florida;  in Kentucky, Tennessee, and at Plymouth, New Berne, and Washington, North Carolina. 

At a crossing of the Rappahannock River called Kelly’s Ford, 2100 Federal cavalrymen under Brigadier General William Averell clashed with 800 Confederate cavalrymen under Brigadier General Fitzhugh Lee on March 17th. Although Averell elected to fight cautiously and defensively despite his advantage in manpower, his division nearly won the day after one of his brigade commanders, Colonel Alfred Duffie, acted against orders and attacked the Confederate right, causing Lee to withdraw and reform.  Lee then attacked but was repulsed. At 5:30 p.m. Averell  felt his troops and horses were exhausted and withdrew his division from the field. Though Lee won the Battle of Kelly’s Ford by virtue of Averell’s withdrawal, Union cavalry had made a much better showing against Confederate cavalry than they had typically done earlier in the war. 

Also in Virginia, Captain John S. Mosby pulled off one of his more daring raids on the night of March 8th. Union Brigadier General Edwin H. Stoughton commanded a brigade of Vermont regiments in the 22nd Corps in the defenses of Washington DC.  Stoughton had his headquarters at Fairfax Court House (now called Fairfax) Virginia.  On the night of the 8th, Mosby and 29 of his Partisan Rangers snuck through Union lines and entered Fairfax Court House. Mosby found Stoughton asleep in his quarters and captured him along with several other prisoners and 58 horses. The raiding party successfully made it back through the Union defenses with their prisoners and horses. Stoughton was exchanged in May, but the embarrassment of being captured in such a manner ended his military career and he never returned to active duty.

As March drew to a close, the armies in the east waited for the roads to dry out so they could start the spring campaigns. In the west, Grant had failed to take Vicksburg, but in April he would begin a new campaign that would finally lead to the capture of the city. The relatively quiet winter was coming to an end and significant fighting lay ahead in the upcoming spring.

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