The Battle of Fort Pemberton near Greenwood was a significant engagement of the Union’s Yazoo Pass Expedition, an attempt by Major General Ulysses S. Grant to bypass Vicksburg’s river defenses to take the city. The Expedition began on February 3, 1863, when Union troops broke a Mississippi River levee to allow ships enter the Yazoo Pass at Moon Lake and steam into the Coldwater and Tallahatchie rivers.
When word of the Union invasion reached Vicksburg, Confederate Lieutenant General John Pemberton ordered Major General William Loring to halt the federal advance. After considering several options, they decided that Greenwood was the best location to do so. Pemberton proposed to build fortifications on a narrow strip of land where the Tallahatchie and Yalobusha rivers merge to form the Yazoo River. Loring visited the site in February 1863, approving defenses already being built. Loring also saw that the high ground on the south bank of the Tallahatchie was a perfect site for artillery to fire at enemy ships.
The position, named Fort Pemberton, was garrisoned by a unit of Texans and a Mississippi brigade under Lloyd Tilghman. By March 1863, there were 2,000 soldiers and eight cannon present. Local steamboats padded with cotton bales became “cottonclads,” and trenches were dug to bolster the fort’s defenses. Loring also sank the ex-Union steamship Star of the West in the Tallahatchie River to block the channel.
The Union ships, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Watson Smith, had a hard journey down the Coldwater and Tallahatchie rivers. The bulky ironclad warships and troopships (called “tinclads”) fought natural obstacles such as tight river bends and heavy, low-lying branches. Plantation owners hampered the federals by burning cotton fields that lined the rivers to produce clouds of smoke. Foraging Union troops heard rumors that defenses were being built, and on March 10th, just 30 miles from Greenwood, local African-Americans confirmed the existence of Fort Pemberton. They also told Smith and infantry Brigadier General Leonard Ross that the former Union steamship Star of the West (target of the war’s first shots) had been sunk. Fort Pemberton’s defenses were completed just before Union ships arrived.
On March 11th, when the Union ironclad Chillicothe came into view, Fort Pemberton’s gunners opened fire, damaging the ship’s bridge and forcing it back. The Chillicothe reversed course and returned fire without result, a hint of more Union problems still to come. Ross sent two regiments of Indiana troops to probe the defenses, but flooded land around the fort made an infantry assault impractical. When the Union ironclads returned to re-engage, the Chillicothe was heavily damaged from cannon fire when a shot hit a gun being loaded on the ship, damaging two gun ports and setting fire to cotton bales on deck.
On March 13th, the repaired Chillicothe joined the ironclad De Kalb and two troop carriers behind the warships, in a new assault, supported by a newly-formed Union land artillery battery and mortar boat. It met with the same results as before, with the Chillicothe taking the brunt of the Confederate shelling. Fort Pemberton’s defenders, despite taking heavy artillery fire, suffered light casualties. A Union mortar hit a box of rifle cartridges that badly burned sixteen defenders, and three other men killed or wounded.
Loring reinforced the fort, and all present were heartened on the evening of March 13th by the arrival of a resupply ship. Union forces continued to probe the area to find an approach to the fort besides using the Tallahatchie, causing Union infantrymen to grumble about the Union navy’s failure to break through. A plan by Union engineer Colonel James Wilson to widen the levee breach to flood the fort was a failure. On March 16th, the Chillicothe and De Kalb, with the mortar boat lashed between them and troop-laden tinclads at the rear retuned to attack the fort and try to make a landing. This third attempt also failed: the fort’s gunners repeatedly hit the Chillicothe, damaging several gun ports which rendered their guns useless. The chastened Federals retreated, disappointing soldiers sent out from the fort to harass them.
On March 21st, the retreating Union flotilla met up with troops under Brigadier General Isaac Quinby, who decided to use the combined armada to renew the assault on Fort Pemberton. Two days later, they halted just north of the fort and sent out patrols to scout the area. But by then, Loring had been reinforced, and Grant decided to abandon the expedition. On April 5th, Union forces began a retreat. Five days later, they reached the Mississippi River, happy the ill-fated Yazoo Pass Expedition was over. Grant shrugged off the setback at Fort Pemberton, while the Confederates considered it a minor victory.
There were two effects of the Yazoo Pass Expedition (and Battle of Fort Pemberton) on the Vicksburg Campaign. First, it diverted Pemberton’s attention, troops, and supplies from Vicksburg, which Grant took on July 4, 1863. Second, it brought the war directly to the Delta and its citizens, who up until then were relatively safe. The invasion wrecked the area’s economy, flooded its land, and created refugees.