Before launching his final, successful campaign to capture Vicksburg, Mississippi, Major General Ulysses S. Grant made several other unsuccessful attempts to take the city. Situated on a high bluff on a sharp bend in the Mississippi River, the city’s artillery and fortified infantry defenses were a formidable barrier to Union attacks by land or water.
In June of 1862, a Union 19th Corps infantry brigade commanded by Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman was sent by Major General Benjamin Butler to the Vicksburg from further south in Louisiana to construct a canal across De Soto Point, a plot of land in between the ends of the bend in the river in front of Vicksburg. At that time, navy ships under Admiral David Farragut were bombarding the city’s defenses, and it was thought that a navigable canal cut through De Soto point would allow the ships to bypass the Vicksburg artillery. Some Union engineers also thought that the main flow of the river might even follow the channel, cutting it deep enough and wide enough so that the entire course of the river would change, moving away from the city, leaving Vicksburg militarily irrelevant.
William’s brigade, along with some 1200 slaves taken from plantations in nearby areas of Louisiana, began work on June 28th. Working in hot, humid conditions, the work force was quickly reduced by diseases like malaria and dysentery, plus heatstroke. On July 24th, work on the project was stopped as Farragut withdrew his ships south, taking the infantrymen with him.
In January 1863, Grant resumed work on the canal with portions of the 13th and 17th Corps, plus slaves confiscated in the area. The low lying area received steady rain, making the soldiers disease ridden camps constantly wet and miserable. Disease again took its toll, sickening and killing many of the men. Despite the horrible conditions, progress on the project was made. Grant brought in two steam powered dredges to help with the work, but these also drew the interest of the Confederates, who shelled the dredges whenever they were seen.
By late March, the Confederate artillery fire had forced the withdrawal of the dredges. Exhaustion and disease had exerted a heavy toll on the men working on the canal. It was questionable if the completed canal would even be adequate for movement of barges, ships, and troop transports. Grant had also decided to change tactics, and work on the canal ended.
Today a small part of Grant’s Canal is preserved as part of the Vicksburg National Military Park. It’s located across the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Cross the river on I-20, exit the freeway at Exit 186 to U.S. 80 and follow the signs.
History of the 19th Army Corps of the Union Army During the American Civil War
by Richard B. Irwin
The Guide to the Vicksburg Campaign (U.S. Army War College Guides to Civil War Battles)
edited by Leonard Fullencamp, Stephen Bowman, and Jay Luvaas.
The Vicksburg Campaign Volume I: Vicksburg is the Key by Edwin C. Bearrs