Mississippi River campaigns in the American Civil War

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The Mississippi River campaigns were a series of military actions by the Union Army during the American Civil War in which Union troops, helped by Union Navy gunboats and river ironclads, took control of the Cumberland River, the Tennessee River and the Mississippi River, main north-south avenues of transport. In July 1863, the Trans-Mississippi Department of the Confederate States of America was split from the Confederate States east of the river when the Union gained control of the entire Mississippi River. The Union then controlled a main artery of transportation for the South, depriving the rest of the Confederacy of men, food and other supplies from the Confederate States west of the river. While not commonly lumped together under this designation, the river campaigns were undertaken mainly for reasons found in Union General-in-Chief Brevet Lieutenant General Winfield Scott's 1861 Anaconda Plan. Scott proposed to defeat the Confederacy largely through blockade of ports and control of rivers leading to the economic 'strangulation' of the Confederacy, which he hoped would prevent a large number of bloody land battles.

The original Union Army expedition to control the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers was under the overall command Major General Henry W. Halleck although Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant commanded the forces in the field. Flag officer Andrew H. Foote commanded the Navy's squadrons. The Vicksburg and Port Hudson campaigns were commanded by Major Generals Grant and Nathaniel P. Banks, respectively while the Mississippi River Squadron was commanded by then Rear Admiral David Farragut from the south and Flag Officer David Dixon Porter from the north.

The campaign on and along the Mississippi River started in February 1862 with Union forces pushing down from Cairo, Illinois into disputed territory in Missouri and Kentucky and Confederate territory in Tennessee and ended with the surrender of the last Confederate strongholds on the Mississippi River, Vicksburg, Mississippi on July 4, 1863 and of Port Hudson, Louisiana on July 9, 1863. Flag Officer Foote initially commanded the Union naval forces, which were later led by Farragut and Porter.

Although an important role in the Mississippi River campaign was played by armored paddle steamers, the campaign was a Union Army undertaking, as the ships used were under Army command and were used as army transports and floating gun stations rather than independent battleships. Most of their boats were either converted paddle steamers or purpose-built gunboats that had never seen the sea. Because of this, the Mississippi River Squadron quickly became known as the Brown-water navy. This was a reference to the brown, muddy water of the Mississippi, as compared to the deep blue commonly associated with the sea. The only exception was at the Siege of Vicksburg where the army, marching downstream met up with the Union Navy under Rear Admiral David Farragut sailing upstream and the two combined their forces for an all-out land-and-sea shelling of the town.

The river campaigns saw the first practical use of river gunboats and river ironclads, in particular the City-class ironclads, ironclad paddle steamers built by James B. Eads in St. Louis and Cairo, Illinois. It also saw the use of sea mines, which at that time were called torpedoes, a term applied to self-propelled warheads only later, torpedo rams and a brief Confederate experiment in deploying a casemate ironclad, the CSS Arkansas, in a river defense role.

Important battles in the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers campaign were the capture of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, where the Union forces were under the direct command of Brigadier General U.S. Grant, who reported to Major General Halleck, and the naval forces of the Western Gunboat Flotilla, predecessor of the Mississippi River Squadron, were led by Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote. Key military actions along the Mississippi River included the Island No. 10, the Battle of Memphis, Siege of Vicksburg, and Siege of Port Hudson.