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Fort Pemberton

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

VAN DORN's raid and the battle of Chickasaw Bayou made of naught the December '62 — January '63 push against Vicksburg. Grant fell back to Memphis. McClernand, Sherman's superior, withdrew the thirty thousand column from before the Walnut Hills, to the Yazoo and down it, into the Mississippi and up that vast and turbid stream. His forces reunited, Grant, a stubborn, good soldier, studied in his quiet fashion, a cigar between his teeth, the map of the region. His instinct was always to strike out straight before him. The river, for all its windings, was the directest road to Vicksburg. Late in January he brought a great army down the Mississippi and landed it on the Louisiana side, some miles above the town that must be taken. Here, too, above the line of danger from the grey river batteries, he anchored his ships-of-war.

During the past summer the Federal General Williams had conceived the project of canalling the tongue of land opposite Vicksburg, the almost islanded sliver of Louisiana soil. Cut through this thumblike projection, fill your great ditch from the river, let your fleet enter at Tuscumbia Bend, and hey, presto! emerge again upon the bosom of the Mississippi below Vicksburg, the grey river batteries sweetly ignored; in a word all the grey defences of the Mississippi above Grand Gulf circumvented! The canal seemed worth digging, and so, in the summer, the blue had digged. But the summer was dry and the river low; it refused to enter the prepared by-path, and after a series of disappointments the digging had been discontinued. Now the season was wet, and the river brimming. With a large force of engineers and sappers, Grant began again upon the canal. But now there was too much moisture as before there had been too little. The water was so high that it ran into a hundred paths beside the one which the blue were digging. It turned the flat Louisiana shore into lake and quagmire. Impossible to trench with the liquid stuff flowing in as fast as it was thrown out! — impossible to keep an army encamped in a morass! Again there was a withdrawal.

From higher ground and reaches of the river far above Vicksburg, Grant, the cigar between his teeth, parallel lines showing across his forehead, studied flank movements. . . . The Yazoo again! — though it seemed a stream of ill omen. Not that Grant thought of omens. He was not superstitious. A plain, straightforward, not over-imaginative, introspective, or sophisticated person, he did not so much plan great campaigns as take, unswervingly, the next common-sense step. His merit was that, in the all-pervading fog of war, it was usually upon firm ground that he set his step. Not always, but usually. The Yazoo. . . It flowed southward from the Tennessee line. There it was called the Coldwater. Farther down, in north-ern Mississippi it became the Tallahatchie, into which flowed the Yallabusha. Lower yet it was named the Yazoo, and so flowed into the Mississippi. Throughout its course it drained a vast, flat, egg-shaped lowland, overshot by innumerable lesser streams, lakes, and bayous, rising into ridge and bluff at the southern end of the egg. Named the Valley of the Yazoo, it was reported to be enormously fertile and a storehouse from which Vicksburg and all the exaggerated grey armies in Tennessee and Mississippi were fed. Moreover, at Yazoo City, where the three-named stream became finally the Yazoo, there existed, said Secret Service, a big Confederate navy yard where gunboats were rapidly hatching. To get into that valley from the northern end, come down those rivers, surprise Yazoo City and spoil the nest of gunboats, then on like a swooping hawk and take Vicksburg in the rear! . . . Grant put out his hand for another cigar. But the Valley of the Yazoo was said to be in effect roadless, and though the Yazoo from Yazoo City downwards was navigable, the Tallahatchie and the Coldwater were not. Then came in Admitai Porter with a well-considered plan, though an audacious one and ticklishly dependent upon a thousand circumstances.

Some distance below Memphis there was a point where the Mississippi and the Coldwater came within calling distance of each other. Between was only the Yazoo Pass — and Yazoo Pass was a bayou which anciently had connected the two. Anciently, not now; for years before a levee had been built, shutting off bayou from river, and preventing untoward floods in the upper Yazoo Valley. Assemble a fleet over against Yazoo Pass, cut the levee, and so lift the water in the Coldwater and the Tallahatchie, then proceed down those streams with the vessels-of-war and as many transports as needed, take Yazoo City, enter the Yazoo, and so on triumphantly! Grant chewed the end of his cigar, then nodded acquiescence.

On the third of February, after much time spent in digging, they laid and exploded a mine. The levee broke in rout and ruin. Like a tiger from the jungle out leaped the Mississippi, roaring down to the bayou. Yazoo Pass became a furious yellow torrent, here spume and eddy, here torn arms of trees, an abatis in motion. The Cold-water received the flood and bore it on to the Tallahatchie. But so angry were the churning waters by the gate in the levee that days passed before the ironclads DeKalb and Chillicothe, the rams Fulton and Lioness, the tinclads Forest Rose, Marmora, Rattler, Romeo, Petrel, and Signal, and all the transports in the rear could attempt that new-made passage. At last they did enter the Yazoo Pass and made slow way to the Coldwater, only presently to find that the grey troops had felled the tall, tall trees on either bank and thrown them into the stream. There, arms interlocked, they made for miles an effective barrier, removed only after slow days and days of effort. The stream wound like a tortured serpent. There presented them-selves strange currents, pits, and shoals. The bed was unknown, save that it possessed a huge variety of snag, bar, and obstacle. The flood was narrow, and the thick overhanging forest obscured and fretted. Every turn presented a fresh difficulty. The fleet made three miles a day. Behind it crept, crept the transports, forty-five hundred men under Generals Ross and Quinby. There was much sickness and the fret, fret of utter delay. It was late February before the expedition entered the Coldwater, early March before it approached the Tallahatchie. Here it encountered afresh felled trees like endless bundles of jackstraws, thrown vigorously, crossed under water at every imaginable angle. A little later the blue scouts brought news of Fort Pemberton.

The Southern spring was at hand, a mist of young leaf and bloom, a sound of birds, a sapphire sky, a vapour, a warmth, a rhythm. Edward Cary loved it, and said that he did so, lying after supper, on the bank of the Tallahatchie, under the cotton-bale rampart of the cotton-bale fort that was to keep the enemy out of the Yazoo. The rest of the mess agreed — lovely spring, lovely evening! They lit corn-cob pipes and clay pipes and fig-stem pipes, and stretched themselves on a meagre bit of dry earth, beside a clump of Spanish bayonet. The sun dipped behind the woods across the river, Ieaving air and water an exquisite coral. There were seven men — five privates, a corporal, and a sergeant-major. All were tall and all were lean and none was over thirty. One bore an old Huguenot name and the forbear of one was a Highland chief. The others were mainly of English stock, names of Devon, Surrey, and Sussex. Two were university men, sons of great planters, born into a sunny and settled world that after their majority overclouded. Three had less of that kind of fortune and had left for the war a lawyer's office, a tobacco warehouse, and an experiment in mining. The sergeant-major was of the yeoman type, a quiet man with little book learning and a name in the regiment for courage and resource. The seventh man, very young, a grown-up-anyhow bit of mortality, who until he came to handle steel had worked in iron, stood next, perhaps, to Edward Cary in the affections of the mess. Dreadful as was this war, it had as a by-product the lessening of caste. Men came together and worked together as men, not as conventions.

"Yes, it is lovely," said the warehouse man. "I used to think a deal about beauty."

"Woman's beauty?"

"No. Just plain beauty. Cloud or sea or face or anywhere you found it. At the end of every furrow, as Jim might say."

Jim, who was the sergeant, shook out rings of smoke. "It ain't only at the end of the furrow. I've seen it in the middle."

The worker in iron stretched his thin body, hands under his young head. "I like fall better'n spring. Late fall when it's all red and still, and at night there are shooting stars. Spring makes me sad."

"What are you doing with sadness?" asked Edward. "You had as well talk of Jack-o'-Lantern being sad! — I like all seasons, each with its proper magnificence! Look at that pine, black as wrath —"

"Look at the pink water about the old Star of the West —
The charmed water burnt alway A still and awful red."

"I hated to see the Star sunken. After all her fighting — Sumter and all —"

"Well, we've put her where she'll fight again! It's a kind of Valhalla ending to lie there across Grant's path."

"You can see a bit of spar. And the rosy water all around — rosy as hope. Do you hear that bird over there in the swamp? Boom — boom — boom! Mournful as a whip-poor-will. . . . Heavens! if I could hear the whip-poor-wills in Virginia! -- Have you got any tobacco ?"

The soldier from the lawyer's office sat up. "Grand Rounds ? No. It's. the General by himself ! Heard him say once he had a taste for sunsets."

Loring, one-armed since Mexico, impatiently brave, with a gift for phrases, an air, and a bearing, came down the threadlike path through the palmetto scrub. With three guns and fifteen hundred men he held this absurd structure called Fort Pemberton, and from hour to hour glanced up the Tallahatchie with an experienced and careless eye. If he expected anything more than a play flotilla of cock-boats, his demeanour did not show it. In practice, however, he kept a very good drill and outlook, his pieces trained, his earthworks stout as they might be in the water-soaked bottom lands, and he had with discretion sunk the Star of the West where she lay, cross channel, above the fort. He was very well liked by his soldiers.

The seven on the river bank rose and saluted. He made the answering gesture, then after a moment of gazing up the Tallahatchie walked over to a great piece of driftwood and seated himself, drawing his cloak about him with his one hand.

" I want to study that water a bit. Go on with your pipes, men. — I thought I smelled coffee."

"It was made of sweet potato, sir," said the sergeant-major regretfully, "and I'm afraid we did n't leave a drop. We're mighty sorry, sir."

"Well," said Loring amicably, "I don't really like sweet potato coffee, though I'd drink brimstone coffee if there were no other kind of coffee around. That's one of the things I never could understand about General Jackson — he never drinks coffee. The time we could all have sold our souls for coffee was that damned Bath and Romney trip . . . Ugh!" He gazed a moment longer on the rosy, narrow stream and the violet woods across, then turned his eyes. "You're —th Virginia ? There is n't one of you a Cary by chance ?"

"I am Edward Cary, sir."

"Come across," said Loring; and when he came gave him a knotted arm of the driftwood. "I heard from Fauquier Cary not long ago, and he said you were down this way and to look out for you. He said he did n't know whether you were a survival or a prophecy, but that anyhow your family idolized you. He said that from all he had read and observed War had an especial spite against your kind —which, perhaps," said Loring, "is not a thing to tell you."

Edward laughed. "As to War, sir, the feeling is reciprocal. He's of those personalities who do not improve on acquaintance. — Dear Fauquier! The family idolizes him now, if you like!"

" Yes, he 's of the finest. I knew him in Mexico. Gallant as they make them! — He has lost an arm."

"Yes — at Sharpsburg."

"It's no little loss," said Loring. "By the way — you knew Maury Stafford ? "


"The word `Sharpsburg' brought him up. He was taken prisoner there — unfortunate fellow! There has been no exchange ?" "I have heard of none. They will not exchange."

"Infernal tactics! "

"It's all infernal. I have grown to see no sense in this war. North and South, we surely might have been wiser."

"That may be," said Loring. "But we are in it now and must act according to tradition. — Maury Stafford! — He was with me during that wretched, abortive, freezing, and starving Romney expedition. I was very fond of him. It aches me to think of him in prison."

Edward sighed. "Yes, I am sorry, too."

" Was he not," asked Loring, "was he not engaged to your sister?" "No."

"Indeed ? I thought some one told me so... He has a fine nature."

"In many ways - yes."

"Well, we may be talking of the dead. No one seems to have heard. It 's like a tomb — prison! North and South, they die like flies. . . . Damn it all, such is war!"

" Yes, sir. . . . I beg your pardon, but is n't there something moving on the river — very far up, beyond that line of purple ? "

Loring whipped out his field-glass, looked, and rose from the driftwood. "Gunboats!" A bugle blew from the earth-and-cottonbale fort, drums began to roll. "Get to your places, men! If Grant thinks I am going to let him get by here, he's just mistaken, that's all!"

With three guns and fifteen hundred men and cotton-bale walls and the sunken Star of the West, Loring made good his words — though it was not Grant in front of him, but Grant's lieutenants. Two ironclads, two rams, seven tinclads crept up that night, anchoring above the sunken Star. Behind them came slowly on the transports with the forty-five hundred infantry. Dawn broke, and the gunboats, feeling their way, found the Star. Vexation and delay! They undertook to blow her up, and while they sank torpedoes the transports nosed along the river bank trying to find firm landing in a bottom country flooded alike by the spring rains and the far-away broken levee. They could not find it, and on board there was restlessness and complaining. The Star of the West was hard to raise. She clung fast, fought stanchly still for the Stars and Bars. The third day the Chillicothe and DeKalb got by, steamed down to the fort, and began a raking fire. The rams, too, and several of the tin-clads came wriggling through the clearance in the channel. There followed a three days' bombardment of the crazy fort, all hastily heaped earth and cotton bales, rude trenches, rough platforms for the guns, all squat in the marshy land, wreathed with cannon smoke, musket smoke, topped by the red square with the blue and starry cross! Behind the screen of the gunboats the transports sought continuously for some terra firma where the troops might land. They could not find it. All was swamp, overflowing waters, half-submerged trees. Above waved Spanish moss, swung vines spangled with sweet-smelling, satiny yellow bloom.

The smoke from the river, the smoke from Loring's three guns and fifteen hundred muskets met and blended, and, spreading, roofed out the cerulean, tender sky. Looking up, his men saw Loring, mature, imposing, standing high on the cotton-bale parapet, his empty sleeve pinned to his coat, gesturing with the remaining arm, about him the grey battle breath, above him the flag.

"Give them blizzards, boys! Give them blizzards!" roared Loring.

The most daring of the transports put a party ashore. But what to do? They struck out toward the fort and plunged waist deep into a mocking slough of the forest. Out of this they crossed a bank like mud turtles, and came into the wide overflow of a bayou. Beyond was a tangle of cane and vine, and here they began to feel the bullets of hidden grey sharpshooters. Beyond the cane was a cypress swamp, impossible twisted roots, knees, and hummocks; between, deep threads of water and bottomless black mire. Miserable and useless fight with an earth like this ! The party turned, got back — torn, bemired, panting with fatigue — to the transports, ranged behind the gunboats and the cloud of smoke and the thunder of the iron men. Night came down, the smoke parted, stars shone out.

Dawn came, and the battle renewed itself. Red flashes tore the mist on the Tallahatchie and the roaring sound made the birds flee the woodland. The gunboats worked hard, all unsupported by the blue infantry. The officers of the last stamped upon the transports' decks. So near and yet so far! After weeks of tortoise crawling! Try again! Boats were lowered, filled, sent up bayous, along creeks spiralling like unwound thread, or brought alongside some bit of bank with an air of firmness. Vain! The bit of bank gave and gave under the cautious foot; the bayou spilled out upon plains of black mire in which you sank to the middle; the creeks corkscrewed away from Fort Pemberton. . . . In the afternoon the Chillicothe got a shell through her sides. The day went down in thunder and sulphurous cloud, the fleet belching broadsides, Fort Pemberton loudly replying, Loring on the ramparts shouting, "Give them blizzards, boys! Give them blizzards!"

In the morning the Rattler turned and went back to the Cold-water, Yazoo Pass, and the Mississippi, in her cabin Watson Smith commanding the expedition, ill for days and now like to die. His second took command and the third day's struggle began. But the Chillicothe again was roughly handled, and certain of the tinclads were in trouble. A ram, too, had lost her smokestack and carried a ragged hole just above her water line. And the infantry could not land, — gave up the attempt. All day the boats on the Tallahatchie and the courtesy fort crouched on her eastern bank roared and tugged. " Yaaih ! Yaaaii ! Yaaihh I" rose the grey shouting through the rolling smoke. Loring, slightly wounded, came out of a crazy tent at the back of the enclosure, crossed the encumbered space, and mounted again the cotton bales. The men cheered him loud and long. "Old Blizzard! Old Blizzard! Yes, sir! Yes, sir! We're going to give them snow, rain, hail, and sleet!"

The day weltered by, the rays of the sunset struck through powder-stained air. Then came silence, and a thinning of smoke, and at last the stars. On the DeKalb was held a council of war. The Chillicothe badly hurt, the commander of the expedition ill, sent back upon the Rattler, Quinby's men not yet up, Ross's quite unable to land, sickness, tedium, dissatisfaction, Heaven knew what going on in the Mississippi while they had been lost for endless weeks in a no-thoroughfare of half earth, half water, overhung by miasmas! The boats alone could not reduce this fort, and infantry that could not land was no better than infantry in the moon! Go back without anything gained ? Well, the knowledge was gained that Vicksburg could n't be taken this way — and the guns had probably blown out of existence some scores of rebels! That much was gained. Sick and sore, the talk pulled this way and that, but in the end it was deter-mined to put back. In the stillness before the dawn gunboats and rams and tinclads weighed anchor and steamed away, slowly, slowly up the difficult reaches of the Tallahatchie and Coldwater, back to Yazoo Pass and so out into the Mississippi. Behind them trailed the transports. At the mouth of Yazoo Pass they met with a scouting party and learned of a second expedition.

Porter, fertile in expedients, was conducting this in person. With five Eads gunboats he was winding southward by way of innumerable joined streams, — Steele's Bayou, Black Bayou, Deer Creek, Rolling Fork, finally the Sunflower which empties into the Yazoo, — while accompanying him on the land crept and mired from swamp to swamp troops of Sherman's. Infantry and Eads flotilla, they reached at last Rolling Fork, but here they met grey troops and a determined check. Infantry proved as helpless in the swamps of the Sunflower as infantry had proved in the swamps of the Tallahatchie. Moreover detached grey parties took to felling trees and crossing them in the stream behind the gunboats. Porter saw himself becoming the eel in the bottle, penned in grey toils. Nothing for it but to turn, figuratively to back out — the region being one of all the witches !

The Tallahatchie expedition, the Sunflower expedition, returned to the Father of Waters. Here, on the western bank, they found Grant, cigar in mouth, lines across brow, studying the map between Vicksburg and Port Hudson. Upon the grey side Loring waited at Fort Pemberton until his scouts brought news of the clearance of the Yazoo Valley, but he waited with only half his force, the other moiety being withdrawn to Vicksburg.

Edward Cary, marching with these troops, marched into Vicksburg on an April day, — Vicksburg indomitable; Vicksburg with a wretchedly inadequate number of picks and spades extending her lines of breastworks, forming salients, mounting batteries, digging trenches, incidentally excavating refuges — alias "rat-holes" — for her non-combatant citizens; Vicksburg extremely busy, with an air of gaiety not altogether forced! Life, nowadays, had always and everywhere a deep organ bass, but that was no reason the cymbals and castanets should not come in if they could.

That afternoon, in an encampment just below the town, he came into possession of an accumulation of mail, home letters, letters from comrades in various commands, other letters. It was a time of rest after arduous marching. All around him, on the warm spring earth, lay the men of his company. They, too, had letters and long-delayed newspapers. They read the letters first, mused over them a little, with faces wistful or happy or tragically anxious as the case might be, then turned with avidity to the papers, old though they were. A little man with a big, oratorical voice had got a Richmond Examiner of a none-too-recent date. Sitting cross-legged on a huge magnolia stump he read aloud to a ring of listeners, rolling out the items like a big bass drum.

"News from the Mississippi —"

"That's us!"

"`As we go to press it is reported that Grant has met at Fort Pemberton a worse repulse than did Sherman at Chickasaw Bayou, the gallant Loring and his devoted band inflicting upon the invaders a signal defeat. Thousands were slain —"'

"Hm! Old Blizzard's gallant all right, and we're devoted all right, and they're invaders all right, and we certainly made them clear out of the Yazoo Valley, but somehow I did n't see those thou-sands slain! Newspapers always do exaggerate."

"That's true. Nature and education both. North and South — especially North. That New York paper, for instance, that we got from the picket at Chickasaw —"

"The one that said we tortured prisoners ?"

"No. The one that said we mutilated the dead. They're all Ananiases. Go on, Borrow."

"`Farragut has succeeded in running the batteries at Fort Hudson. The mouth of the Red River —' "

"We know all that. What 're they doing in Virginia ? "

"Marse Robert and Stonewall seem to be holding south bank of Rappahannock. Fighting Joe Hooker on the other side's got some-thing up his sleeve. He and `the finest army on the planet' look like moving. The paper says Sedgwick 's tried a crossing below Fredericksburg, but that General Lee 's watching Ely and Germanna fords. Here's an account of Kelly's Ford and the death of Pelham —"

"Read that," said the men.

Edward left them reading, listening, and making murmured comment. At a little distance rose a copse overrun with yellow jessamine. Entering this, he sat down at the foot of a cedar and, laying by the home letters and the letters from comrades, opened one written on thin, greyish paper, in a hand slender yet bold: -

My Heart, —

I am glad that it was you who found him. O Louis, Louis, Louis I . . . I am not going to write about him. . . . I loved him, and he loved me. . . . Oh, we give, we give in this war!

I hear from my father, broken-hearted for his son, tender and loving as ever to his daughter. I hear, too, from your father — a letter to keep forever, praising you to me so nobly! And Judith Cary has written. I shall love her well, — oh, well!

Where are you this stormy night ? I sit before the fire, the gilt chair, and the magnolia strikes against the window pane, and I hear, far off, the thunder and shouting, and if I could I would stay the bullets with my hands.

The enemy is cutting the levees on this side, up and down the river. If they cut a certain one, it will be to our disaster at Cape Jessamine. The negroes grow frightened, and now every day they leave. I did not mean to tell you all this. It is nothing.

Where are you this night of rainy wind? I look into the fire which is low at this hour, and I see ranged cannon, and banners that rise and fall. And may the morning — and may the morning bring me a letter! Thine, all thine,


A week later, having been granted the furlough for which he asked, he found himself below Natchez, bargaining with two black ferrymen to take him across the river.

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