In mid April 1863, the gunboats, troop transports, and supply barges of Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s command successfully steamed past the batteries at Vicksburg, Mississippi. With the vessels now on the Mississippi River below Vicksburg, Grant looked for a suitable place for a base of operations on the Mississippi side of the river where he could assemble his troops and launch his land campaign against Vicksburg.
Grant decided that Grand Gulf would be an ideal location. Grand Gulf, located about 40 miles downriver from Vicksburg where the Big Black River empties into the Mississippi, was well fortified by the Confederates with two forts, Fort Cobun on the north and Fort Wade to the south. A division of mostly Missouri and Arkansas troops under the command of the very capable Brigadier General John S. Bowen manned the defenses and presented a formidable obstacle to Grant’s plans.
To reduce the forts’ defenses, Admiral David Porter planned an attack on the fortifications using seven ironclad gunboats of the Mississippi Squadron. These included the City Class gunboats Pittsburg, Louisville, Carondelet, and Mound City, plus the Lafayette, Benton, and Tuscumbia. Besides the ships’ officers and men, some army troops from the 58th Ohio and 29th Illinois infantry regiments were on detached service on board the vessels. Porter’s plan called for the City Class gunboats to go in single file and fire on Fort Cobun, then proceed downriver and attack Fort Wade. After steaming past Fort Wade, the gunboats were to turn around and continue t0 attack that fort. Behind the City Class gunboats , the remaining three vessels would also go in single file and attack Fort Cobun and circle back to continue the engagement with that stronghold.
On the morning of April 29th, the flotilla steamed into Grand Gulf and opened fire at 7:50 a.m. The ironclads closed in on Confederate batteries as both sides blasted away at each other. At 10:00 a.m. Lafayette was ordered to assist the City Class ironclads firing on Fort Wade. The gunboats had some success against Fort Wade, dismounting two of the four artillery pieces. This reduced the fire from the southern anchor in the Grand Gulf defenses.
The northern anchor at Fort Coburn was another story. This fort was located about 40 feet above the river, with a 40 foot thick parapet protecting it, and the union gunboats could not inflict serious damage. Benton took a shot through the pilothouse, which damaged it’s wheel and rendered the vessel uncontrollable. It drifted downstream until it stopped against the riverbank. The guns on Fort Coburn could not be depressed downward enough to finish Benton off, and it returned to action after a quick repair.
Shortly before 1 p.m., Porter and Grant agreed that a land assault would be needed to take the position, and the attack was broken off. The fleet had lost 18 men killed and 57 wounded and included casualties to the navy crewmen as well as the army troops on board. The most seriously damaged ship was Tuscumbia, which had to be taken out of action. Confederate losses were three killed and 19 wounded.
Grant deemed an assault made upon the Grand Gulf defenses to be too costly, but he had another plan in mind. A runaway slave told him that there was a landing site at Bruinsburg, a few miles downriver, and that a road from there went inland. Grant had his infantry march across Coffee’s Point, on the Louisiana side of the river opposite Grand Gulf. That night, he had the transports and barges run past the Confederate batteries under the protection of the gunboats. All the vessels made it through, at a cost of one man killed aboard the Mound City. The transports then picked up the troops and ferried them over to Bruinsburg. From there, Grant’s forces moved inland towards the northeast. With the Union Army now off his southern flank, Bowen was forced to evacuate the Grand Gulf defenses.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 24. U.S. War Department
The Campaign for Vicksburg: Grant Strikes the Fatal Blow (volume 2)
by Edwin C. Bearss