Throughout the American Civil War, both sides understood the importance of railroads and rivers, the two primary means of moving goods and people across vast distances. In A Blaze of Glory, the first volume in Jeff Shaara’s Civil War fiction trilogy, the issue, primarily, is railroads, specifically the Union’s effort to capture a critical rail junction at Corinth, Mississippi. In his newly released second volume, A Chain of Thunder, from which the following excerpt is taken, the Federal armies, under the command of Ulysses S. Grant, seek to further divide and weaken the Confederacy by seizing the last major Southern obstacle to control of the Mississippi River, the city of Vicksburg. But the Federals’ siege has failed: The well-fortified Vicksburg sits on insurmountable river bluffs, and the inhospitable terrain to its north has thwarted several assaults. Union commanders ask help from the navy. Fleets of transports and barges under Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter are to sail downriver from the north and brave Vicksburg’s batteries. Once outside the range of Rebel guns, they are to meet the Union troops on the river’s west bank and transfer them across to land south of the city that’s more favorable for an attack.
For months now, the citizens of Vicksburg, Mississippi, had endured shellfire from Federal gunboats with the audacity to throw their projectiles into the city itself. Most of those boats were anchored far up- river, and the officers in the town boasted of that, that Federal sailors knew they could not match the enormous power of the guns dug into the hillsides across the riverfront. Still the shells came, and many of the civilians, heeding the advice of the Confederate army’s senior commanders, had begun to move out of their homes and into caves and caverns, most dug by the labor of Negroes.
But to defy the siege and keep up their morale, the town’s citizens went about their daily business and socializing. On the night of April 16, 1863, the army arranged for a gift to the town, driven by the kindness of one major who seemed to understand that the civilians would be buoyed by a party. It was a glorious affair, the officers in their finest gray, adorned with plumed hats and sashes at their waists. There was dancing and a feast of every kind of local fare, even the wine flowing with no one’s disapproval.
Nineteen-year-old Lucy Spence had enjoyed the revels, dancing once with a handsome Louisiana lieutenant. Near 10 o’clock, just as the music began to slow and the atmosphere in the grand room was growing heavy with shared sleepiness, came a large thump of thunder, a jolt in the floor beneath her feet, the chandelier quivering, the entire room suddenly motionless. Lucy noticed her lieutenant was staring toward the river, where the army had anchored its largest guns. To one side, a door burst open, an older officer moving in quickly, searching, finding Major Watt, the officer in charge, a quick word between them. Watt turned to them all, had their attention, and said, “I regret to inform you that this ball has concluded. The Yankee boats are coming downriver, and you must retire to your shelters. Do not hesitate. Officers, report immediately to your posts.”
Lucy joined a cluster of women moving uphill, not toward their homes but toward a magnificent vantage point they all called Sky Parlor Hill.
She reached the top, breathing heavily, tugging at the hoops, adjusting her dress in the darkness, realized it wasn’t truly dark at all. All around her were curious faces reflected in the glow of what she saw now were a dozen great fires, great fat torch lights on both sides of the river. She knew something of that, the soldiers openly talking for weeks about their preparations if the Yankees dared to bring their boats within range of the big guns. The fires came from enormous mounds of oil-soaked cotton, barrels of tar, wiping away the darkness that would hide any craft that tried to pass on the river. And now, she could see them, silhouetted, a parade of vessels spaced far apart, coming downstream in single file. The guns began again, startling bursts of fire down below her, some out to the north, upriver.
Close beside her, a small man stopped, gestured with his cane, shouted, “They’s hidin’ from us! Bah! Go ahead with your tricks. We’ll find ya!”
She wanted to ask, Hiding? But the man kept up the chatter.
“They’s throwin’ out smoke so’s we won’t see ’em. Mighty dang stupid. Gunners know the range. Too many of us. Give it to ’em boys!”
She stared at the river, saw breaks in the smoke, glimpses of the boats again, still the single line, some coming closer, one turning sideways, as though out of control. She saw flames now, on the boat, and the old man said, “Got one! Sink that devil! Hee! Send her to the bottom!”
There was another burst of fire midriver, and the old man’s joy was infectious, more cheering for the raw destruction, the success of the gunners. She had a sudden urge to go down there, to be closer to them, to watch the deadly work, different now, the targets genuine, the enemy, the guns doing what so many had hoped for. Killing Yankees.
She tried to see the Federal gunboats that were easing closer to the near bank, but the lay of the land and the rows of buildings below the hill hid them from view. She caught a glimpse of one, slipping into the firelight, the reflection revealing the immense ironclad, and she moved closer to the old man, shouted above the din, “Are they coming? Will they land?”
“Missy, I served in the navy for 30-odd years, learned somethin’ about artillery. Hard to shoot pointin’ down. Some damn Yankee captain figgered that out too. Got hisself all shot to pieces and figgered that movin’ closer to this side might protect him. Not gonna work though.”
Union general William T. Sherman, downriver from Vicksburg at midnight, had watched the same spectacle with furious impatience. Nothing for him to do but sit perched on the small yawl boat, staring into the sea of flames that lined both sides of the river. He knew that the first of the big boats he saw would be the Benton, Admiral Porter’s flagship, leading the way. Sherman understood the plan, what the passage of the town and its batteries meant to the entire campaign. An army this size demanded an enormous mountain of supplies, far more than could easily be transported by wagon train. The possibility of raids from Rebel forces west of the river was very real; just as daunting were the logistics of hauling those supplies across the river. The plan for delivering by water so much of what the army needed had come from Porter himself, the navy extending a helping hand to the army. Admiral David Farragut was reluctant to make another foray upriver after running the batteries at Port Hudson, Louisiana, and most Federal supplies were now coming through Memphis, so the navy would have to come from the north. On this night, Porter was fulfilling that mission. The fleet he was leading past Vicksburg consisted of 7 of Porter’s ironclad gunboats, providing escort to 3 transport boats and 10 barges, all hauling supplies that were essential to Grant’s plans to assault Vicksburg directly. Whether they would make the passing without enormous loss was a calculated risk Porter had worked out mostly on his own.
Sherman’s troops were camped far to the north, where Porter’s boats had begun their journey. Sherman himself had ridden downriver on the western shore, moving through the camps of the men who watched the action as he did, stunned by the amazing show of fire and smoke and thunderous artillery. But Sherman had not come merely to sightsee. He had ordered four yawl-boats, small single-sailed vessels that could be carried by hand or mule team across the swampy ground west of the river. Their purpose was rescue, and Sherman knew they were too small to be targets and could maneuver effectively around and past the larger boats and barges, offering aid to anyone from Porter’s fleet who might be in trouble. The yawls were unarmed of course, manned by no more than three or four crew, men Sherman had chosen for their skills with the sail. At least, if sailors went into the water, or any of the boats was badly crippled, Sherman could offer assistance.
The larger ironclad drifted closer, a hulking shadow, no lights but for a flicker of fire high on one of her stacks. Sherman motioned to the helmsman behind him, pointed, the yawl easing closer, and shouted, “Ho there! Benton!”
A voice came back, very young, from the larger boat. “Who calls?”
“General Sherman. I presume Porter is undamaged?”
Another voice came now, older, grim, and formal. “Sherman. Why in God’s name are you on this river? Are you mad?”
Sherman hesitated, had been asked that question too many times already. “Perhaps. But I’m here to offer aid. Do you have casualties?”
“One man injured, not badly. Much of the fleet is still taking punishment. Something of a heart-pounder, I have to say. Come aboard!”
There was a stiffness to Porter’s words, and Sherman realized Porter had far more concerns than the condition of his own crew and little time to be hospitable. He felt suddenly out of place, the small boat rocking unsteadily as the Benton drew closer, his small crew struggling to lower the sail, oars pushing her through black choppy water. Dammit, what were you thinking? This man knows his job. I’m just in the way. The two boats came together, ropes tossed, and Sherman saw a figure bending low, one arm extended. He grabbed the hand, was pulled harshly up, landed clumsily on the deck of the ironclad. Men were moving away from him, their own jobs to do, and Sherman felt more uneasy now, as though blundering into the urgency of someone else’s private matter. The voice came again, less formal now, a shadowy shape calling to him.
“Get down here, Sherman. They’ve got sharpshooters all along that bank. Wouldn’t do for me to tell Grant you were lost at sea.”
Sherman followed into an opening, one hand touching the steel planking on the ship’s bulkhead. Behind him, the single staff officer remained on the yawl, with Sherman’s instructions to stay out of the way. Sherman stepped down into a wave of heat, caught the sharp stink of men and smoke and powder. To one side, the row of big guns erupted, a blast of fire through their portholes that punched Sherman against a bulkhead. He fought to right himself, pain in his shoulder, his eyes trying to blink away the blindness. On the far side of the deck, he could hear the gunners heaving and wrestling with their pieces, reloading with manic efficiency, and farther away, a steady chorus of artillery, the glow from the fires.
Porter shouted, “Hold fire, Lieutenant! We’re far past the worst of it, and I don’t want them tossing a lucky one this way! Nothing much we can do now but wait here! We get a bit farther down, we’ll anchor, wait for daylight!”
“Aye, sir! We’ll drop anchor on your command.”
Sherman could see the officer now, the man moving away, one part of this immense machine of boilers and pulleys and smoke. God, he thought, there’s a reason I’m not in the navy. Too much damned work. And these boys stink a lot worse than anybody I’ve got.
There was the glow of a lantern now, deep in the bowels of the boat, and Sherman blinked through the smoke, fought the smells, saw Porter waiting for him, a sharp wave, bringing Sherman down into a small office.
Porter looked back, past Sherman, barked out again, “Prepare to fire the boilers!”
“Sir! We’ve lost our stacks!”
“So, we’ll breathe smoke for a while. Better than drifting in the current. Once the transports are clear of the town, we’ll put them on the west shore. There’s a gap in the Rebel guns up ahead.” He looked at Sherman. “I assume we can count on your sharpshooters and artillery to keep any pesky Rebs on their side of things. We still have the batteries at Grand Gulf to deal with, and I want everyone gathered up and ready for another fight!” He turned to the officer again. “See that the general’s yawl is secured alongside. He’s sure as hell not going to want to bunk with you wharf rats.”
Sherman could see his face clearly in the lamplight, extreme weariness, the tension, a face blackened with soot and sweat. “Not sure why you’re here, Cump,” Porter said. “When I heard what you were planning, I thought Grant might grab you by the collar and keep you upriver.”
Sherman put one hand against the bulkhead, steadied himself. “He agreed this might be a good idea. Couldn’t just sit up there and watch all of this like some damn Fourth of July fireworks show. Just thought we might be of assistance. Any of your people end up on the east side, not much I can do to help. But if they come over here, I can pick them out of the water.” He felt suddenly foolish, thought, Can’t sailors swim? Well, maybe not if they’re wounded.
Porter surprised him, nodded, a smile cracking the grime on the man’s face. “Good. We’ll probably need the help. Not too bad so far. We took a storm of shot, but it was mostly high up. Stacks gone, caught a few right against the bulkheads. Thank God for iron. I think the Rebel guns might be set at a high angle, almost everything went overhead. When it got really hot, we eased closer to them, hugged the east shore as close as I dared. No way they could get their bigger guns pointed that low. Helped. They had infantry out there, sharpshooters, but they didn’t hit anything, even with some of the crew exposed on deck.”
Sherman could see the tension returning to Porter’s face, felt the impatience, knew the man was thinking more about what was still happening on the river.
But Sherman couldn’t help being curious, had so little experience on any gunship, certainly not under fire. “I’m surprised…well, impressed. You made it through. That’s a good sign. Grant’s up there chewing his fingers off waiting for a report.”
“We drifted mostly, kept ’em quiet,” Porter explained. “The barges might still be a problem, but I haven’t heard about any disasters yet. Look, Cump, I need to get topside…”
Sherman backed away, and Porter moved past, and once more the orders came. Sherman felt a rumble beneath his feet, engines coming to life, but the boat was still drifting, swinging slowly to one side.
Sherman moved through the darkness, tried to avoid the crew, climbed up to the open deck, the vast glow of fire still to the north. He could see the other boats clearly, some as far down as the Benton, others still running the hottest part of the gantlet, abreast of the town. But they came on, steady, some drifting sideways, no control but their rudders and the current. Behind him, there was a metallic splat, and he suddenly realized it was a musket ball, hitting the steel plate. Sharpshooters. The word burst in his brain. All right, Sherman, being out on this river might be the first stupid thing you did today, so don’t get yourself shot. He eased past a quickly moving deckhand, slipped around away from the firelight. A hand touched his shoulder, startling him. Porter.
“Hell of a show, Cump. But by damn, it’s working. Most of the gunboats are past the worst of it, and the barges too. Can’t wait to gather up those damn cowards we left behind. A few nooses might tighten up their damn morale.” Sherman didn’t know what he meant, and Porter seemed to read him, slapped him on the back. “Most of the crews of the damn transport boats wouldn’t make the trip down. Too damn scared. Said they didn’t sign up to be shot at. Wouldn’t do to put them to work at gunpoint, so I called for volunteers from the troops you had camped nearby. Bunch of Illinois fellows, mostly. Not sure who they belong to, but their officers were obliging. I guess some of ’em know a good deal about riverboats. They manned the transports and several of the barges.”
Sherman knew nothing of this, thought, Damn good job. Grant will hear of that, for certain.
“Oh, God. Direct hit.”
The words came from farther along the deck, and Porter responded, moved toward the bow, a clear field of vision toward the worst of the chaos. Sherman followed, saw a burst of flames on one of the larger boats. He wanted to ask if it was a transport, but Porter moved away, disappeared down inside, shouting orders. Sherman stared out to the flames, remembered his binoculars, focused, could see men leaping into the water, small splashes, flailing arms.
He felt helpless, the job he came here for, now so necessary…and he was watching like some damn schoolboy. The Benton swung about, slow and ponderous, and Sherman saw a smaller boat, moving closer to the burning wreck, perfect silhouette, one of his yawls, thought, I’ll be damned. We’re not sightseers after all. He watched for agonizing minutes, saw the burning hulk drifting closer, men scampering over a blazing deck, what he had to believe were the last on board, the captain, certainly, a desperate effort to steer the boat away from the Rebel shore.
“Ho there! Is General Sherman there?” The voice came off to one side, and Sherman saw another of the yawls.
“Here! What’s wrong?” Sherman called.
“Sir! One of the gunboats took a hit! We’ve pulled some people out of the water! They’re mostly unhurt.”
“Good! Get ’em to shore!”
Sherman felt a wave of satisfaction. By damn, we did the job. I knew this was the right thing to do.
Porter was there again, another slap on Sherman’s back. “Fine work! Fine work indeed! The Henry Clay got hit pretty badly. She’s done for, most likely. Hope to hell we didn’t lose too many people. Good crew.”
Sherman was curious now, saw more of the larger boats drifting past, the fires upriver beginning to die down, the thunder from the artillery duels more piecemeal now.
“How’d they do? How many got through?”
“Best I can tell right now, the Clay is the only loss. We’ll know more by daylight. I imagine you’ll see Grant before I do. Or send him a courier. Not much I can do from down here. Tell him that Rear Admiral Porter reports the mission has been a success. At least most of those supplies will be waiting right where he wanted them. The next job is yours.”
Jeff Shaara is the author of many best-selling novels about the Civil War. This excerpt from A Chain of Thunder (copyright © 2013 by Jeff M. Shaara) is published by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of the Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.
Originally published in the Summer 2013 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.