Grant, everywhere in touch with Admiral D. D. Porter's fleet and plentifully supplied with water transport of all kinds, thus commanded the peninsula or tongue of low land-round which the mighty river took its course in the form of an elongated U right opposite Vicksburg. His farthest north base was still at Cairo; and the whole line of the Mississippi above him was effectively held by Union forces afloat and ashore. Four hundred miles south lay Farragut and Banks, preparing for an attack on Port Hudson and intent on making junction with the Union forces above.
Two bad generals stood very much in Grant's way, one on either side of him in rank--McClernand, his own second-in-command, and Banks, his only senior in the Mississippi area. McClernand presently found rope enough to hang himself. Our old friend Banks, who had not yet learnt the elements of war, though schooled by Stonewall Jackson, never got beyond Port Hudson, and so could not spoil Grant's command in addition to his own. Fortunately, besides Sherman and other professional soldiers of quite exceptional ability, Grant had three of the best generals who ever came from civil life: Logan, Blair, and Crocker. Logan shed all the vices, while keeping all the virtues, of the lawyer when he took up arms. Blair knew how to be one man as an ambitious politician and another as a general in the field. Crocker was in consumption, but determined to die in his boots and do his military best for the Union service first. The personnel of the army was mostly excellent all through. The men were both hardy and handy as a rule, being to a large extent farmers, teamsters, railroad and steamboat men, well fitted to meet the emergencies of the severe and intricate Vicksburg campaign.
Throughout this campaign the army and navy of the Union worked together as a single amphibious force. Grant's own words are no mere compliment, but the sober statement of a fact. "The navy, under Porter, was all it could be during the entire campaign. Without its assistance the campaign could not have been successfully made with twice the number of men engaged. It could not have been made at all, in the way it was, with any number of men, without such assistance. The most perfect harmony reigned between the two arms of the Service. There never was a request made, that I am aware of, either of the Flag-Officer or any of his subordinates, that was not promptly complied with." And what is true of Porter is at least as true of Farragut, who was the greater man and the senior of every one afloat.
Grant could take Vicksburg only by reaching good ground, and the only good ground was below and in rear of the fortress. There was no foothold for his army on the east bank of the Mississippi anywhere between Memphis and Vicksburg. This meant that he must either start afresh from Memphis and try again to push overland by rail or cross the swampy peninsula in front of him and circle round his enemy. A retirement on Memphis, no matter how wise, would look like another great Union defeat and consequently lower a public morale which, depressed enough by Fredericksburg, was being kept down by the constant naval reverses that opened '63. Circling the front was therefore very much to be preferred from the political point of view. On the other hand, it was beset by many alarming difficulties; for it meant starting from the flooded Mississippi and working through the waterlogged lowlands, across the peninsula, till a foothold could be seized on the eastern bank below Vicksburg. Moreover, this circling attack, though feasible, might depress the morale of the troops by the way. Burnside's disastrous "Mud March" through the January sloughs of Virginia, made in the vain hope of outflanking Lee, had lowered the morale of the army almost as much as Fredericksburg itself had lowered the morale of the people.
Through the depth of winter the army toiled "in ineffectual efforts," says Grant, "to reach high land above Vicksburg from which we could operate against that stronghold, and in making artificial waterways through which a fleet might pass, avoiding the batteries to the south of the town, in case the other efforts should fail." A wetter winter had never been known. The whole complicated network of bends and bayous, of creeks, streams, runs, and tributary rivers, was overflowing the few slimy trails through the spongy forest and threatening the neglected levees which still held back the encroaching waters. There was nothing to do, however, but to keep the men busy and the enemy confused by trying first one line and then another for two weary months. By April, writes Grant, "the waters of the Mississippi having receded sufficiently to make it possible to march an army across the peninsula opposite Vicksburg, I determined to adopt this course, and moved my advance to a point below the town."
Meanwhile, far below, Farragut and Banks were at work round Port Hudson: Farragut to good effect; Banks as usual. On the fourteenth of March Farragut started up the river with seven men-of-war and wanted the troops to make a demonstration against Port Hudson from the rear while the fleet worked its way past the front. But, just as Farragut was weighing anchor, Banks, who had had ample time for preparation, sent word to say he was still five miles from Port Hudson. "He'd as well beat New Orleans," muttered Farragut, "for all the good he's doing us."
Six of the vessels were lashed together in pairs, the heavier ones next the enemy, the lighter ones secured well aft so as to mask the fewest guns. This arrangement also gave each pair the advantage of having twin screws. Farragut's flagship, the Hartford, leading the line-ahead, suffered least from the dense smoke on that damp, calm, moonless night. But the others were soon groping blindly up the tortuous channel. The Hartford herself took the ground for a critical moment. But, with her own screw going ahead and that of the Albatross going astern, she drew clear and won through. Not so, however, the other five ships. Only the Hartford and Albatross reached the Red River. Yet even this was of great importance, as it completely cut off Port Hudson from all chance of relief. Farragut went on up the Mississippi to see Grant, destroying all riverside stores on the way. Grant was delighted, and, in the absence of Porter, who was up the Yazoo, sent Farragut an Ellet ram and some sorely needed coal.
Grant's seventh (and frst successful) effort to get a foothold (from which to carry out one of the boldest and most brilliant operations recorded in the history of war) began with a naval operation on the sixteenth of April, when Porter ran past the Vicksburg batteries by night. Though Porter had the four-knot current in his favor he needed all his skill and moral courage to take a regular flotilla round the elongated U made by the Mississippi at Vicksburg, with such a bend as to keep vessels under more or less distant fire for five miles, aid under much closer fire for nearly nine. At the bend the vessels could be caught end-on. For nearly five miles after that they were subject to a plunging fire. Porter led the way on board the flagship Benton. He had seven ironclads, of which three were larger vessels and four were gunboats built by Eads, a naval constructor with orignal ideas and great executive ability. One ram and three transports followed. Coal barges were lashed alongside or taken in tow. Some of these were lost and one transport was sunk. But the rest got through, though not unscathed. It seemed like a miracle to the tense spectators that any flotilla should survive this dash down a river of death flowing through a furnace. But the ironclads, magnificently handled, stood up to their work unflinchingly, fired back with regulated vigor, and took their terrific pounding without one vital wound.