The Fight for the Mississippi River in 1862: Summary & History

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  • 0:01 How to Defeat the Confederacy
  • 0:52 Rivers in the Confederacy
  • 2:34 Fight for the Mississippi
  • 5:14 Fight for New Orleans
  • 6:17 Vicksburg and the Mississippi
  • 7:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
The Mississippi River was key to defeating the Confederacy in the Civil War. Union forces made great strides at controlling the river in 1862, achieving success at places such as Island Number Ten, Memphis, and New Orleans. Learn about the fight for the Mississippi River in this lesson.

How to Defeat the Confederacy

The year is 1862, and you are a general in the Union army. Eleven southern states have just seceded and joined the Confederacy and are now preparing for war against the United States government. How can you best subdue this territory? How can you send armies into the vast Confederacy to defeat armies and retake crucial cities? The question sounds difficult, to be sure.

Yet, there was one way for Union forces to move into Confederate territory that ended up being a crucial part of the Civil War. The key was rivers, which served as avenues of invasion into the South. And, of course, what was the biggest and most important river for subduing the Confederacy? The Mississippi. Let's learn more about the Union effort to take the Mississippi River in 1862.

Rivers in the Confederacy

As the biggest river in the United States and one of the largest in the world, the Mississippi River has long dominated American history. Those expanding the country westward had to cross its waters, and its large number of tributaries made it a central collecting point for many important river cities and towns in the United States. Running directly through the center of the country, the Mississippi was the primary waterway for the Western Confederacy, bringing goods, commerce, and transportation to Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

In 1861, at the start of the American Civil War, Union General-in-Chief Winfield Scott proposed a plan intent on strangling the Confederacy, gaining the nickname of 'The Anaconda Plan.' Scott called for a blockade of Southern ports as well as for Union forces to seize the Mississippi River, strangling the Western Confederacy and cutting the South in two. While the Union blockade began in 1861, it was not until 1862 that a separate effort was made to seize the Mississippi River.

In early February, Union forces began pushing into the Western Confederacy by using the large network of rivers. Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant moved on Forts Henry and Donelson on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, capturing both and delivering huge victories for the Union cause. These battles were fought with ground forces and ironclad river boats, which were powered by steam, and threatened Confederate river defenses and fortifications, bringing an element of innovation to the fight.

Fight for the Mississippi

The same type of joint land and naval operations that succeeded at Forts Henry and Donelson would be the key for Union success on the Mississippi River as well. Sixty miles south of Columbus, Kentucky, Confederates held Island Number Ten. The island was located on a bend in the river, meaning that whoever controlled it could control who moved south on the Mississippi. It was near the southern edge of Missouri, where Kentucky's southern boundary met Tennessee's northern border. This was in many ways the Confederacy's main defense of the river on the northern end of their territory. For Union forces to move south on the Mississippi, they first had to deal with Island Number Ten.

Moving against the island was Union Brigadier General John Pope and his Union Army of the Mississippi. Pope intended to push the Confederates out of the way to open up the northern end of the Mississippi to Union gunboats. Pope first tried to pry Confederates from the town of New Madrid, just west of Island Number Ten. By mid-March, Confederates abandoned the town and moved to the fortifications on Island Number Ten. Soon, with the help of gunboats commanded by Andrew Hull Foote, Union forces laid siege to the island and its defenders.

In early April, two Union gunboats snuck past the island fortifications, enabling Union infantry to cross to the Tennessee side of the river, further strengthening their position and threatening the island. Soon, Confederate Brigadier General William Mackall, who was then the commander of the island, was forced to surrender Island Number Ten and its garrison in early April, giving Union forces a huge victory and opening a large portion of the Tennessee River to Union gunboats.

With the fall of Island Number Ten, Union boats could continue south along the Mississippi, threatening Confederates over large portions of the waterway. In June, Union gunboats engaged Confederate boats at the Battle of Memphis. The Confederate army had left Memphis after the fall of Corinth, Mississippi, in May, leaving only a fleet of gunboats to defend the city.

On June 6, Union boats won a lopsided victory over these Confederate defenders, delivering Memphis to Union forces. The victory was so complete for Federals that the fighting at Memphis signaled the end of Confederate riverboats fighting on the Mississippi River. The river was now open as far south as Vicksburg, a strategic town in Mississippi that controlled passage of the river.

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