Naval Attack on Charleston; Fleet Passes Vicksburg; Cavalry Raids: April 1863

150 Years Ago in the Civil War

With the arrival of Spring, the actions and movements of the opposing forces increased, both on land and afloat.  The Union Navy was in action at Charleston, South Carolina in the first significant fighting of April .

On the 7th of the month, a fleet of nine ironclads under the command of Rear Admiral Samuel Du Pont attacked the Confederate defenses in Charleston harbor onshore and at Fort Sumter. Charleston, site of the first shots of the Civil War, was as much a symbolic target as it was a strategic one for the Union. The ironclads were outgunned in the heavily defended harbor, and several ships were hit dozens of times before the attack was broken off. The U.S.S. Keokuk, the most seriously damaged vessel, sank the next day.

Du Pont believed that Charleston could not be captured by naval action alone and that ground forces would also be needed; nonetheless, he carried out his orders.  Du Pont’s failure to take the city was not received well in Washington, particularly by Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. Du Pont was relieved of command at his own request in July, and spent the rest of the war at a desk, effectively ending his otherwise distinguished career. It turned out he was right about the need for ground troops to capture Charleston;  the city did not fall until William T. Sherman’s army marched through the area in February 1865.

Union Fleet Passes Vicksburg Batteries

With the failure of the Yazoo Pass and Steele’s Bayou expeditions in March, Major General Ulysses S. Grant decided to take a new approach in his campaign to take Vicksburg, Mississippi. Grant had his army march south  down the west, or Louisiana side of the Mississippi River past Vicksburg, and from there, the troops would be ferried across the river.  On the night of April 16th, Admiral David Porter sent a fleet of gunboats and supply filled transports down the river and past Vicksburg. The shoreline was lit up with fires from turpentine soaked cotton bales and barrels of tar and the Confederate batteries opened fire. The cannons pounded the Union vessels but the flotilla made it through with the loss of just one transport.  On the 22nd, additional transports and barges loaded with supplies ran the Vicksburg batteries.

On the 29th, Porter’s gunboats attacked the Confederate garrison at Grand Gulf, Mississippi to clear the way for the deployment of ground troops, who were waiting aboard transport vessels. The gunboats could not destroy all of Grand Gulfs’ batteries, so Grant had the troops disembark  on the Louisiana side and bypass Grand Gulf while the flotilla fought its way past the garrison. The troops again embarked on the transports, and were taken to Bruinsburg, Mississippi. There, the first regiments of Union infantrymen went ashore on the Mississippi side of the river on April 30th. After several failures, Grant now began his ultimately successful land campaign against Vicksburg.

Union Cavalry Raids

On April 17th, Colonel Benjamin Grierson headed south out of La Grange, Tennessee leading  a 1,700 man brigade of Illinois and Iowa cavalrymen. Grierson’s orders were to conduct a raid into Mississippi to divert some attention away from Grant’s movements, cut supply lines to Vicksburg, and then somehow make it back to Union lines. 

Grierson’s raid was a spectacular success. Often splitting into smaller groups to confuse the enemy as to their whereabouts, Grierson’s men destroyed supplies, cut telegraph lines, destroyed freight cars and locomotives, and tore up 50 miles of railroad tracks while suffering  only about two dozen total casualties. The raid lasted two weeks and ran the length of Mississippi.  It ended when the raiders reached  Union held Baton Rouge, Louisiana on May 2nd.

Another much less successful Union cavalry raid began on April 19th when Colonel Abel D. Streight led 2000 men mounted on mules across northern Alabama. Streight’s orders were to cut the Western & Atlantic Railroad that ran from Atlanta to Tennessee. Streight’s raiders were captured by General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry near the Alabama and Georgia state line on May 3rd after Forrest convinced Streight he was vastly outnumbered when in fact the opposite was true.

Army of the Potomac On the Move

In Virginia, Major General Joseph Hooker began to move his vast Army of the Potomac west from Falmouth in order to get on General Robert E. Lee’s left flank. The Federals swung around beyond Lee’s left and headed back towards the east, concentrating at Chancellorsville, at the intersection of the Orange Turnpike and Orange Plank Roads on April 30th.  Lee was at Fredericksburg when Hooker got underway and was initially unsure where his Union counterpart was heading before he took action to meet the threat, getting his army on the march early on May 1st.

As April ended, Lee and Hooker prepared to clash in Virginia, while Grant began to march across Mississippi and on to Vicksburg. The spring 1863 campaigns were underway, and May would see a great deal of significant fighting.

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