Grant tried to make canals to isolate Vicksburg

By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Special to The Journal

Grant's Canal at DeSoto Point (Frank Leslie's Magazine)

By 1863, the Confederates had lost control of the Mississippi River except for two strongholds at Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Port Hudson, Louisiana. If the Union could capture those places, the Confederacy would be split in two and the Mississippi River opened once again to Northern trade.

Gen. U.S. Grant was ordered to capture Vicksburg, and in January 1863 he put his Army of the Tennessee aboard transports and moved downriver from Memphis. Floodwaters prevented Grant from marching overland from the river against Vicksburg, and Confederate cannons on Vicksburg's bluffs made it impossible to move the army by boat past the city to attack from below.

There seemed no practical way to approach Vicksburg, but Grant had an ingenious solution to the dilemma-he would use canals to bypass the city altogether. A year earlier, Union forces began digging a three-mile-long canal across DeSoto Point directly across the river from Vicksburg. The Yankees planned on using the canal to bypass the city but it was never completed. Grant decided to complete the canal and then cut the upstream levee to let water roar through the ditch and scour out a new channel. Within days the river would shift approximately two miles west of Vicksburg. If Grant could not capture the city he would simply make Vicksburg irrelevant by moving the river away.

William T. Sherman's corps, with the aid of an unknown number of confiscated slaves from Madison Parish, was put to work completing the canal. By February, they were fully committed to the project. But continuous rains plagued the workers and caused the water to rise even higher. Digging in the sticky gumbo mud, living in the water-soaked camps, and suffering from myriad diseases quickly exhausted the men. One member of the 55th Illinois remembered, "[This period] was on many accounts one of the gloomiest in the career of the regiment. At the time of its arrival the river was rapidly rising....The swamps became lakes, and camps and roads were sloughs of black mire. If one put his foot squarely down anywhere, it was questionable when he raised it again, if the shoe would not stay behind."

Steam powered dredges were brought in to help finish the canal, but work was slow and arduous. Pneumonia and other diseases ravaged the laborers, and Confederate artillery frequently fired at them. Hundreds of soldiers and slaves died and were buried in the same levee on which the survivors lived. Fluctuating water levels washed out the shallow graves, and decomposed arms and legs began jutting from the soggy, putrid soil. Often the dead had to be reburied higher up on the levee, which prompted one soldier to write, "The troops were thus hemmed in by the burial-places of their comrades."

Grant eventually came to the conclusion that the canal at DeSoto Point would not work. Flood water constantly filled it in, and the engineers could not get enough current into the canal to scour out a new channel. But DeSoto Point was not the only place the Yankees were digging. Another canal at Lake Providence was undertaken to connect the Mississippi River with inland bayous. Grant hoped this canal would allow him to use transports to take the army from the river and through various Louisiana streams to connect with the Red River and reenter the Mississippi and attack Vicksburg from below.

At Lake Providence, two of Grant's engineers proposed digging a mile-long canal from the river into the lake and then follow various waterways from the lake to the Red. They discovered that cutting the levee to fill the canal with water would flood the town of Lake Providence, but one of the officers admitted they did not think "this matter of sufficient importance to interfere with the accomplishments of the object in view." Lake Providence was sacrificed, but the canal there failed, as well.

Grant's canals were a fiasco; all that was accomplished was the flooding of even more of Northeast Louisiana. Union engineers estimated that nearly 1,000 square miles of land (and scores of homes) were inundated that winter as they deliberately cut the levees along the Mississippi. Grant was roundly criticized for his canal projects, particularly the one at DeSoto Point, but the engineering logic behind them was sound. Although too late to help the Union army, the Mississippi River did change course during the flood of 1876 and cut a new channel across DeSoto Point. Today, a small portion of the Grant's Canal can be seen near the base of the I-20 bridge.

Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and has published a number of books on the American Civil War.