In the summer of 1862, as ships of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron under Flag Officer David Glasgow Farragut bombarded the Vicksburg river defenses, a 3,000-man infantry brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Thomas Williams, began work on this canal. The purpose was to create a navigation channel that would bypass the Confederate batteries at Vicksburg, and would be kept open by the scouring effect of the Mississippi River's current. It was even believed by some that the man-made channel would possibly catch enough of the current's force to cause the river to change course, leaving the city high and dry, making Vicksburg militarily worthless without firing a shot.
Work on the canal commenced on June 27, 1862, as soldiers from Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Michigan, began felling trees and turning dirt. Disease, however, soon began to spread like wildfire through the ranks.
Dysentery, diarrhea, malaria, and various fevers took a heavy toll on human life. Men also fell victim to heat exhaustion and sun stroke. "The labor of making this cut is far greater than estimated by anybody," confessed Williams, who also complained bitterly, "The health of the troops has been much impaired by the absence of proper shelter. The quarters on board the transports are hot and crowded and those on shore are no protection against rain." To augment his fast-dwindling workforce, Williams reported that "Between 1,100 and 1,200 blacks, gathered from neighboring plantations by armed parties, are now engaged in the work of excavating, cutting down trees, and grubbing up roots." In spite of the heat, the canal was excavated to a depth of 13 feet, and
a width of 18 feet — unfortunately, impractical for navigation.
By July 24, work on the canal stopped, and Williams's weary soldiers accompanied the West Gulf Blockading Squadron as Farragut withdrew to safer water. Williams was killed two weeks later in the Battle of Baton Rouge. In January 1863, work on the canal was resumed by troops under the command of Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, and although he placed little confidence in the success of this project, Grant approved of the idea as it would keep his soldiers in good physical condition for the spring campaign and, more importantly, keep the spirit of the offensive alive. President Abraham Lincoln, however, was enthralled with the scheme, and almost daily walked across the lawn of the White House to the War Department to inquire of Grant, "How's work on the canal coming along?"
In spite of Grant's somewhat optimistic replies, Sherman
noted with candor, "The canal don't amount to much."
As the soldiers and black workers dug lower, there was an sudden rise in the river which broke through the dam at the head of the canal and flooded the area. The canal began to fill up with backwater and sediment. In a desperate effort to rescue the project, two huge steam-driven dipper dredges, Hercules and Sampson, were put to work clearing the channel. The dredges, however, were exposed to Confederate artillery fire from the bluffs at Vicksburg and soon driven away. By late March, Grant decided to make a bold change in his military operations, and work on the canal was abandoned.
Over the years, most of the canal has been obliterated through agricultural operations. This remnant is the only segment that retains its original width and much of its depth. The small tract was donated to the National Park Service by local land owners working in conjunction with The Conservation Fund, and the site became part of Vicksburg National Military Park in 1990.
The Grant's Canal Unit has also become the site of commemoration for the Black Troops who participated in the campaign and siege of Vicksburg during the Battle of Milliken's Bend, LA, and Goodrich's Landing, LA. These battles were proving grounds for the African-American Union soldiers, demonstrating their willingness and ability to fight, and earning them praise from all quarters.
In 2008, Grant's Canal became the site of the 28th state monument erected in Vicksburg National Military Park, with the dedication of the Connecticut State Memorial on October 14, 2008. The monument represents the contributions of the Ninth Connecticut Volunteer Regiment whose soldiers were part of the brigade of Brig. General Thomas Williams' attempt to bypass the Vicksburg batteries.