The Civil War in the Delta

The Lower Mississippi River Valley was the most critical theater of the Civil War. The Mississippi River served as the major interstate highway of 19th-century America. The river enabled people to transport goods from St. Louis and Pittsburgh through New Orleans to the world. Rivers were extremely valuable as transportation networks, but beginning in the 1 840s, railroad construction linked major cities that were unconnected by water. Both sides realized the significance of these transportation networks and knew they must control them to win the war.

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    Tags: Civil War
    Union General Winfield Scott
    Union General Winfield Scott

    Early in the war, Union General Winfield Scott envisioned a broad sweeping plan to crush the rebellion. His strategy known as the "Anaconda Plan" reflected the importance of the Mississippi River in the overall strategy of the war. Scott’s plan called for blockading the Southern coast and a drive down the Mississippi River to cut the South in two.

    Regional diversity of the economy controlled national politics. Over the years, compromises maintained a delicate balance in Congress between Free and Slave states. With the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, which allowed territories to decide for themselves whether to become Free or Slave states, the spirit of compromise was lost. Southerners feared this change would forever rob them of their way of life.

    Agriculture was the foundation of the economy of America, but its practice varied between the North and the South. The South was dependent on a plantation economy for its livelihood, hut it also relied on Northern factories for everything it needed to grow, refine, and market its crops. Northerners forged the plows that broke Southern earth, Northerners built the steamboats that shipped Southern crops, and Northerners purchased the final product.

    The election of Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860 changed the lives of all Americans almost overnight and the nation itself forever. Lincoln’s belief that "a house divided against itself cannot stand," created a sense of crisis in the South and brought the issues that divided the nation into sharp focus.

    South Carolina seceded from the Union soon after the election and was joined by other states to form the Confederate States of America before Lincoln took office.

    War erupted when Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861. Following these opening shots, both the North and South quickly raised troops, organized armies, and began to develop strategies for victory.

    The Mississippi River became the focal point in the war plans of both sides. "The Father of Waters" had moved lumber, wheat, corn, and meat from the Midwest, cotton and tobacco from the Upper South to New Orleans, and European goods upriver. Control of the Mississippi and the rivers that flow into it would allow the North to move troops and supplies into the South while crippling the South’s ability to survive. The South needed to protect itself, especially the rich farmland of the Mississippi River Valley, from Northern invasion. The Mississippi, carrier of commerce, became the bearer of dreams as a divided nation struggled with itself over its future.

    With Missouri securely under Union control, both sides massed troops — the North along the Ohio River and the South across Tennessee. Newly commissioned Union General Ulysses S. Grant was stationed in Cairo, Illinois, to watch Southern troops in Tennessee. Each side waited and watched, careful not to tip the balance in Kentucky toward the other. On September 1, 1861, Confederate General Leonidas Polk seized the Kentucky river-towns of Hickman and Columbus. He began erecting fortifications at Columbus to defend the river as part of a Confederate defense line that stretched across southern Kentucky from Columbus to Cumberland Gap. Grant quickly countered by occupying Paducah and Smithland. The watching and waiting was over. Late in 1861, Union land and naval forces launched a key element of the "Anaconda Plan" by simultaneously heading south from Paducah, Kentucky, and north from the Gulf of Mexico to wrestle control of the Lower Mississippi River Valley from the Confederates. The initial engagement at Belmont, Missouri, provided valuable experience for Grant who became the most important Union general of the war.

    View of the Tennessee River from the lower battery at Fort Donelson
    View of the Cumberland River from the lower battery at Fort Donelson

    Moving along the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, Union forces seized Forts Henry and Donelson, opening the pathway for invasion of the Deep South. Continuing their advance, the Federals gained victory in the bloody battle at Shiloh in April, at Corinth in May, and having forced the surrender of Island No. 10 in the Mississippi River, seized Memphis by early June.

    Entering the mouth of the Mississippi River, the ships of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, commanded by Union Flag Officer David Glasgow Farragut, fought past Confederate Forts Jackson and St. Philip. Left defenseless, New Orleans, the largest city in the Confederacy, surrendered in late April. Moving steadily upriver, Farragut captured Baton Rouge and Natchez and steamed on to Vicksburg.

    Responding to Farragut’s demand for surrender, Confederate Lt. Col. James L. Autrey, the post commander at Vicksburg, answered, "Mississippians don’t know, and refuse to learn, how to surrender to an enemy." Shelling the city until late July, Union ships and gunboats were unable to force surrender of Vicksburg. Sickness and rapidly falling waters forced the Federals to withdraw to deeper water below Baton Rouge.

    Upriver, Federal inactivity in and around Memphis during the summer enabled Confederate forces to counterattack to regain lost portions of the Lower Mississippi River Valley. These efforts ended in failure at Iuka and Corinth, Mississippi, and Baton Rouge. General Ulysses S. Grant then directed his forces in a two-pronged advance on Vicksburg. One wing marched south from LaGrange and Grand Junction, Tennessee into north Mississippi, while the other wing, under General William T. Sherman, pushed rapidly downriver from Memphis to seize Vicksburg. Cavalry under Confederate General Earl Van Dorn sacked Grant’s supply base at Holly Springs, Mississippi, and troopers under General Nathan Bedford Forrest cut Union supply lines in Tennessee forcing the Northerners back to Memphis.

    On Christmas Eve, the flotilla carrying Sherman’s troops arrived near Vickshurg. A warning of his approach interrupted a festive gathering at he Balfour House. Declaring, "This ball is at an end. The enemy is coming down river," Confederate General Martin Luther Smith, the garrison commander, ordered his troops to man their batteries. Landing north of the city near the mouth of Chickasaw Bayou, Sherman ordered his troops forward saying, "We will lose 5,000 men before we take Vicksburg, and may as well lose them here as anywhere else." As his soldiers were hurled back with bloody loss, his words proved prophetic.

    Remains of the USS Cairo at Vicksburg National Military Park
    Remains of the USS Cairo at Vicksburg National Military Park

    Unable to take Vicksburg, Union forces began 1863 by moving up the Arkansas River and capturing the Confederate garrison at Arkansas Post. After a series of ill-fated bayou expeditions during the winter months, Grant boldly launched his army on a march through the northeastern corner of Louisiana from Milliken’s Bend in search of a favorable point to cross the Mississippi River below Vicksburg. Union gunboats and transports battled their way past Confederate shore batteries at Vicksburg and rendezvoused with Grant. In the largest amphibious landing in American military history up to that time, the Union commander hurled his army across the river at Bruinsburg and pushed inland.

    Overcoming Confederate resistance at Port Gibson, Raymond, Jackson, Champion Hill, and Big Black River Bridge, Federal troops captured the capital of Mississippi and reached Vicksburg. Failing to take the city by storm, Grant’s forces encircled the city and laid siege. Cut off from the outside world, the citizens and soldiers of Vicksburg, many of whom sought refuge in caves, withstood the constant bombardment of Union guns for 47 days. On July 4, 1863, the city surrendered to Grant. Ironically, a Confederate attack on Helena, Arkansas, intended to ease the pressure on Vicksburg, was bloodily repulsed on the same day. When Port Hudson, Louisiana, the last remaining Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River, fell five days later, the Confederacy was split in two and President Abraham Lincoln declared, "The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea."

    To strengthen their hold on the Mississippi River, Union troops moved quickly from Vicksburg to drive Confederate forces that had assembled near Jackson from the state. Strategic points along the river were garrisoned by black troops, most of whom had been slaves just weeks before joining the Union army. With the Mississippi River secured, Northern armies advanced deep into the interiors of Mississippi and Louisiana in 1864. In Mississippi Sherman advanced across the state from Vicksburg to Meridian, first demonstrating his concept of total war, which he later used more effectively in Georgia and the Carolinas. West of the Mississippi River, Union General Nathaniel P. Banks advanced up the Red River of Louisiana along with naval forces under Union Admiral David Dixon Porter and was defeated at Mansfield by Confederate General Richard Taylor and forced to withdraw. A Union army from Little Rock, moving to join Banks, was also soundly defeated near Camden, Arkansas, and forced to retreat. The Lower Mississippi River Valley was the scene of no major military operations for the remainder of the war.

    A key element of this Union success was the use of a powerful new weapon: black soldiers. In September 1862, President Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation which would free slaves in those areas still in active rebellion against the government on January 1, 1863. The decree expanded the war aims from preservation of the Union to include the abolition of slavery.

    The proclamation paved the way for blacks to formally enlist in the Union forces. The first major action of blacks in uniform was at Port Hudson, Louisiana, on May 23, 1863, when the First and Third Native Guards stormed the Confederate defenses, suffering severe losses. Two weeks later, black troops successfully defended Grant’s supply base at Millikens Bend, Louisiana, against a determined attack by Confederate infantry. These engagements firmly answered the question of whether the freedmen would fight. For the remainder of the war black soldiers fought on fields of battle across the land and garrisoned strategic posts along the Mississippi River. More than 300,000 blacks served in the army and navy of the United States during the Civil War, 16 of whom were awarded the Medal of Honor.

    The fall of the Mississippi River into Union hands was disastrous for the Confederacy. A permanent Southern nation would never exist. Divided in two and cut off from vital supplies, the confederacy was doomed in the coils of the Anaconda.

    Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman’s effort in the West made Union victory inevitable. The United States now had military leaders whose experience in the Western Theater had given them the vision to lead them to ultimate victory.

    The military effort along the Thousand Mile Front now shifted east to concentrate on a hundred-mile front from the Wilderness past Richmond to Petersburg and finally to Appomattox.

    The Civil War changed not only the South but the nation. War ravaged the South, destroying railroads, factories, and homes. The end of the Civil War brought and uneasy peace, but was followed by one of the most traumatic periods in American history — Reconstruction.

    ILLINOIS

    Background Stories

    Although no major conflicts were fought on its soil, Illinois contributed mightily to a nation divided. It funneled more troups than any other state into distant Southern, Eastern, and Western battlefields. Cairo, the state’s southernmost city, was especially significant as a staging area for manpower and materials flowing into the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys.

    Leadership was Illinois’ major contribution. Chief among those meriting special distinction were abolitionist journalist Elijah Lovejoy; Generals Ulysses S. Grant, and John A. Logan. Most noteworthy was President Abraham Lincoln.

    Places of Interest

    At Springfield visitors can see the Old State House where Lincoln’s "House Divided" speech was delivered; his law office; the only home he ever owned; the family church pew, the depot where he departed to lead a troubled nation; and the tomb where his remains rest.

    Associated sites of interest in the central and southcentral portion of the state are the Lincoln Trail Memorial in Lawrenceville; Lincoln’s log cabin site in Charleston; Vandalia’s Old Statehouse; and the courthouse of Lincoln (formerly Postville), Mt. Pulaski, and Metamora. Another site is the David Davis mansion in Bloomington.

    Along the Mississippi River, visitors can view the Lovejoy and Confederate monuments and the ruins of the horrendous Confederate prison in Altoti. Farther south are the General John A. Logan Museum in Murphysboro and the Thebes Courthouse in Ulin. Also the site of the Lincoln-Douglas debate is in Jonesboro and a Civil War Memorial in Vienna.

    As the great rivers narrow toward their meeting point in Cairo, visitors can walk among the fallen at Mound City National Cemetery. Cairo’s historic district was the place where soldiers and materials were assembled, waiting their ultimate assignments. On Washington Avenue, Saffort Library houses a treasure of Civil War documents. The Customs House museum houses the desk of General Grant among its memorabilia. Finally, visitors can watch the rivers meet at Fort Defiance Park.

    Illinois gave its most courageous sons and daughters to this war that split the nation.

    KENTUCKY

    Background Stories

    The Bluegrass State claims as native sons and daughters many of the leading figures of the Civil War era — Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. There is much to learn about the Lincolns and their native state Kentucky. The Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Sties and Lincoln Museum are near Hodgenville. Other Lincoln sites in Kentucky are the Lincoln Boyhood Home at Knob Creek; Washington County Courthouse; Lincoln Homestead State Park and adjacent Mordecai Lincoln House; and the Mary Todd Lincoln House in Lexington. There is an impressive bronze statue of Lincoln in the state capitol, as well as one of his adversary, Jefferson Davis, who was also born in Kentucky at Fairview, now a state historic site.

    Kentucky was a state of divided loyalties and families were torn apart when sending 90,000 troops to the Union and 35,000 to the Confederacy.

    Nowhere was this division more evident than in the "First Family." Several members of Mary Todd Lincoln’s family fought for the South. Another family similarly divided was that of U.S. Senator John Crittenden whose two sons were generals on opposite sides. Some historians even say that the ensuing family feuds, such as the Hatfields and the McCoys, carried on the war in Kentucky long after its official end.

    Places of Interest

    Antebellum life is also depicted at Riverside, the Farnsley-Moreman Landing, Bardstown’ Federal Hill (better known as the legendary "My Old Kentucky Home"), and Waveland in Lexington. Also in Lexington is Ashland, the home of Henry Clay, another of Kentucky’s influential sons, who helped forge the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850 that delayed the Civil War.

    LOUISIANA

    Background Studies

    The gentlewomen of New Orleans reacted violently to the military occupation of their city by Union troops. Many of them displayed their defiance by wearing emblems on their clothing showing support for the Confederacy. Some verbally abused and hurled objects at Union soldiers. Finally, when the contents of a chamber pot were dumped from a balcony and onto the head of Admiral Farragut. Union General Ben Butler issued "Order Number 28," which promised to treat the women "as a woman of the town plying her avocation."

    The order greatly insulted the citizens of New Orleans, and, in fact, drew a worldwide reaction — mostly condemning Butler’s bold action. But, after the order was issued, most all of the insults and displays of hatred and contempt were halted.

    Places of Interest

    Once the largest and wealthiest city in the Confederacy, New Orleans offers visitors the opportunity to walk in the paths of the Union and Confederate soldiers and the citizens of yesteryear. A short distance south of New Orleans, visitors can see Fort Jackson, a restored, brick fort with earthworks still visible today. Several other Civil War sites in New Orleans are open to the public, such as the United States Customs House, Butler’s first headquarters; the Old U.S. Mint and the Cabildo, part of the Louisiana State Museum, and many homes in an around the French Quarter.

    Confederate Memorial Hall houses one of the largest collections of Confederate artifacts. Another significant New Orleans site is Metairie Cemetery, the final resting place for three Confederate generals — P.G.T. Beauregard, Richard Taylor, and John Bell Hood. Christ Church Cathedral on tree-shaded St. Charles Avenue holds the remains of General Leonidas Polk, commonly referred to as "the Fighting Bishop."

    Outside of New Orleans, Louisiana has more than 100 Civil War related sites, ranging from the Red River campaign throughout southcentral Louisiana to Grant’s March in the northeastern corner of the state, to numerous skiimishes and raids across the state, to antebellum homes, museums, and trails of historic markers.

    One of the more significant Civil War sites in Louisiana is Port Hudson, which surrendered on July 9, 1863, severing the last link between the eastern part of the Confederacy and the Trans-Mississippi. From May 23 to July 9, 1863, Confederate soldiers held off a Union force twice its strength during the longest siege in American military history.

    The Battle of Port Hudson was one of the first battles in which freed blacks served as soldiers engaged in combat on the side of the Union. During the Civil War, more than 24,000 blacks from Louisiana joined the Union army, the largest black contingent from any state. The 1St Regiment Louisiana Native Guard, organized in September 1862, was the first black regiment in the U.S. Army. Louisiana’s black soldiers distinguished themselves in several battles, particularly at Port Hudson and Milliden’s Bend. Seven Medals of Honor were awarded to white and black Louisianians who fought for the Union.

    MISSOURI

    Background Stories

    In 1820 Missouri gained national attention as the focus of the Missouri Compromise. It was the northernmost slave state in the Mississippi River valley, and when its neighbor Kansas wanted to enter the Union in 1854 as a free state, trouble erupted along the border. As Missourians tried to influence internal politics in Kansas, random violence became common place. Missouri guerrillas and Kansas jayhawkers raided and killed at will. The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 would legitimize the killing that had plagued Missouri for years.

    Union General Nathaniel Lyon, an ardent abolitionist, commanded all Union troops in the state. Union General Nathaniel Lyon, an ardent abolitionist, commanded all Union troops in the state. Former Governor Sterling "Pap" Pierce became the commander of the pro secession Missouri State Guard. The two sides met at Wilson’s Creek in August of 1861. Lyon boldly attacked the Missouri State Guard that had been joined by a larger Confederate force, and even though he lost the battle and his life, he succeeded in keeping the state under Union control.

    Although Missouri remained under Union control for the rest of the war, it provided troops to both sides, pitting neighbor against neighbor, brother against brother, and father against son. Guerrilla warfare reigned over the state for the remainder o the war during which time William Quantrill, Bloody Bill Anderson, and Frank and Jesse James began their infamous careers. A unified Confederate force was not seen in Missouri again until late 1864 when Sterling Price failed in a desperate attempt to regain control of the state.

    Places of Interest

    Fort Davidson State Historic Site in Pilot Knob hosts a visitor center and contains remains of Union fortifications. At the park visitors can get a real sense of the battle on September 27, 1864. Civil War markers at Belmont and the Cape Girardeau Battlefield offer other opportunities for tourists to appreciate the important role Missouri played during the Civil War.

    TENNESSEE

    Background Stories

    At first reluctant to secede, Tennessee became one of the bloodiest killing grounds of the Civil War. Proud of their identity as volunteers who had fought for the United States in every American war, many Tennesseans did not desire to leave the Union. Divided into three distinct geographic regions by the Tennessee River, the citizens of the state were not united on the issues of slavery, secession, or Civil War. Following the surrender of Ft. Sumter and President Lincoln’s call for troops, Tennesseans endorsed secession.

    The second most populated state in the South, Tennessee was the geographical heart of the Confederacy and held immense strategic military importance. Located in the state was a large percentage of the South’s ironworks, munitions factories, gunpowder mills, and copper mines, making the region the largest concentrated area for the production of war materials in the Confederacy. Tennessee provided more mules and horses, corn, and wheat, than any other Confederate state east of the Mississippi. Through Tennessee ran the South’s main east-west rail lines, the western Confederacy’s major north-south lines, and the key rail links between Virginia, the South Atlantic, and the West. Passing through or bordering on Tennessee, three important western rivers, the Mississippi, Tennessee, and Cumberland, were available to traffic commerce, war materials, and armed forces. Linked by this network of rivers and railroads, the communities of Memphis, Nashville, and Chattanooga served as important centers of manufacturing, communications, and trade within the region. If not effectively defended, the three western rivers and the Louisville & Nashville Railroad provided avenues of military invasion of the Deep South for the combined forces of the Union army and navy.

    As both sides grappled to control the Confederate heartland, each was attracted by Tennessee’s valuable transportation corridors and strategic location. Over 1,460 military actions occurred within the state during four long years of war, a number second only to Virginia. The last Confederate state to secede, Tennessee became the first Southern state to be readmitted to the Union after the war.

    Places of Interest

    Visitors to Tennessee can follow the path of invading armies to the bloody battlefields at Fort Donelson National Battlefield and Shiloh National Military Park; or ride with Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest on his cavalry raids in West Tennessee; and walk the corridors of the capitol where the Ordinance of Secession was passed.

    Last updated: November 8, 2017