By Morgan Gates
Before U.S. Grant made plans to capture Vicksburg he first made plans to simply by-pass it! This was an old and valid plan of action. Since time immemorial military bastions, be they walled cities in ancient times, Medieval castles, or Civil War river fortifications, were only as effective as the choke points they controlled. If they could be by-passed, they were rendered useless.
In the winter of 1863 there were three separate projects on going to by-pass Fortress Vicksburg. The most well known was Grant’s Canal. It had been begun the summer before by Brigadier General Thomas Williams. Between June 27- and July 24 his brigade of men from, Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Michigan tried to dig a ditch across the base of DeSoto Point just west of the city -- OMG what was he thinking! The Confederates didn’t have to lift a finger, Col. Summer handled that campaign all by himself. Disease and heat exhaustion took care of the Northern soldiers, and they impressed slaves to continue the work but to no avail. Work was abandoned ad the soldiers pulled out with Farragut’s naval withdrawal.
Grant’s men took up the task again in January. In Grants opinion it at least kept the men busy and in shape. This time it was Old Man River himself who took a dim view of the work. A sudden river rise flooded and nearly backfilled the canal, until two steam dredges were brought in, but Confederate artillery drove them off, and work was abandoned once more. Thirteen years later when the Mississippi decided it was read to change its course it did so a mile north of Grant’s Canal. A small segment of Grant’s canal still exists under the I-20 bridge today.
The second attempt was the Duckport Canal. In the 19th century the land immediately west of Vicksburg was mostly swamp interspersed with cotton fields, the land was crisscrossed with a number of small waterways know as bayous - small sluggish rivers typically found in marshy areas. The idea was to dig a canal of about two miles length that would connect the Mississippi (several miles NW of Vicksburg) with the headwaters of Walnut Bayou, which emptied into the Mississippi about 15 miles south of the city. This was a long shot and even Grant admitted it, but he gave the OK to begin work on it anyway. The Bayou was shallow and clogged with trees, but by mid April they were able to get four steam dredges into the canal but in early May the Mississippi began to drop, and two dredges and 20 barges were marooned, work on the canal stopped.
The most audacious attempt was the Lake Providence Canal. Lake Providence is an oxbow lake about 45 airline miles above Vicksburg. a canal was dug to connect Lake Providence to the levee that separated it from the Mississippi. The levee would then be blown allowing flood water from the Mississippi to enter the lake flooding it to a depth sufficient that it would allow riverboat passage from the lake to Bayou Macon, then through various connecting waterways all the way to the Red River, over 200 miles of torturous tree clogged waterway that would have required extensive tree removal and dredging to be and effective by-pass. The levee was blown, and Lake Providence flooded but it was not until March 23 that the waters were high enough for work to begin. By this time Grant had decided to move his troops overland and cross the Mississippi and engage Vicksburg and he ordered work stopped.
Unintended consequences: The work at Lake Providence stopped, but the levee breech and canal to the lake caused extensive flooding in eastern Louisiana, this actually helped shield Grant’s movements along the west bank, not that he had much to worry about from that sector as Kilby Smith the CSA commander on the west bank had his hands full elsewhere. Unmentioned in the annals of history is the catastrophic flooding of countless small farms and plantations in this area. But there was another unintended consequence that did not happen, only by the Grace of God! Vicksburg is home today to the Mississippi River Commission a cooperative effort of Government/Civilian assets that has spent decades studying the flow of the Mississippi and all its related waterways in order to control the damaging potential of floods and enhance navigation. In a recent presentation to our Vicksburg Civil War Roundtable a retired engineer dropped a real bomb of information into our laps. If the river flood levels had been just a little bit higher that fateful spring of 1863, the levee breech at Lake Providence might have done much more that flood eastern Louisiana, it might have permanently changed the course of the Mississippi River leaving not only Vicksburg bypassed but every river city south of Lake Providence as well! Maybe U.S. Grant himself said it best in the opening of his Memoir “Man proposed but God disposes”!