Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Failed Vicksburg Canal

One of the primary goals of the Union was to deprive the Confederacy of the use of the Mississippi River. Whomever controlled the vital water source and her myriad of tributaries would control the heartland of America. Union victories at Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, Island No. 10 and elsewhere quickly brought the upper waters under Union control. Only one, very stubborn obstacle stood in the way — Vicksburg.

An early attempt to circumvent the Vicksburg defenses was to build a canal across a sharp bend, DeSoto Point, bypassing the city. Gunboats of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron under David Farragut bombarded the city while 3,000 Union troops began construction on the canal. Begun on June 27, 1862, the canal was built to a depth of 13 ft. and width of 18 ft. The oppressive summer heat took a heavy toll on the workers and over 1,000 "contraband" African-Americans were brought in to assist. It became apparent that the river would not cooperate by changing course and it was temporarily abandoned. 

Despite having little faith in the enterprise, Union General Ulysses S. Grant reinitiated work in January 1863 to keep his troops busy. Efforts were abandoned soon after one of the end dams broke, flooding the canal with water and sediment. Grant laid siege to the city in May and accepted its surrender on July 4th.

Ironically, the Mississippi River, which would not cooperate during the war, eventually did change course — in 1876, limiting Vicksburg's access to the river. A short portion of the  canal still exists and can be visited as a unit of Vicksburg National Military Park.

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