64 Parishes

Trying to Pocket the Key

Grant’s Canals and the assault on Vicksburg

Published: May 31, 2022
Last Updated: June 1, 2023

Trying to Pocket the Key

Photo by Carol Highsmith, Library of Congress

Elephant ears choke one of Grant’s Canals near Lake Providence.

During the American Civil War, Union forces attempted three ill-fated canal projects in Louisiana in efforts to subdue Confederates who were entrenched at Vicksburg and controlling the critical Mississippi River transportation corridor. In addition to its role in commerce and northern military operations, Vicksburg was a vital link in the Confederacy’s supply route that funneled men, munitions, and food to the eastern troops. President Abraham Lincoln recognized the significance of Vicksburg early in the war. In a strategy meeting with his counselors he pointed to the bluff city on a map and said, “See what a lot of land these fellows hold of which Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.” The canal projects were attempts to bypass Vicksburg by water and obtain that key. Two of the schemes were in Madison Parish, Louisiana, opposite Vicksburg, and a third was forty miles north at Lake Providence in Carroll Parish. (Carroll Parish was not split into East Carroll and West Carroll by the Louisiana legislature until after the war, in 1877.) Major General Ulysses S. Grant, yet to be a proven leader, commanded Union forces in the campaign.

At the beginning of the war, the east half of Carroll Parish was an archetype of southern plantation culture. Extravagant mansions bordered scenic Lake Providence, and cotton fields stretched to the horizon. Deep, fertile soils produced cotton yields second only to Tensas Parish in the state. More than 11,000 of the 18,000 Carroll Parish residents were enslaved laborers who facilitated the great wealth of their owners. Into this exotic arena of huge cypress trees and Spanish moss, Union soldiers from Illinois, Ohio, and other Midwestern states arrived to construct the most audacious of the canal projects. Known as the Lake Providence expedition or Lake Providence Canal, a mile-long ditch was dug from the Mississippi River levee to the beautiful oxbow lake of Lake Providence, the outlet of which, Baxter Bayou, flows into Bayou Macon. The waters of Bayou Macon pour into the downstream rivers of Tensas, Ouachita, Black, and Red before emptying into the Mississippi below Natchez, a tortuous route of more than four hundred miles.

Except for Baxter Bayou, the other streams in the course were generally navigable during parts of the year. The bayou, though, was a meandering labyrinth choked with giant fallen trees and submerged logs that disappeared into a cypress swamp as it approached Bayou Macon. Beginning in early February 1863, gangs of soldiers and forcibly mustered enslaved people with axes waded into the quagmire to begin clearing a channel for several miles. When the ditch from the Mississippi River levee to Lake Providence was completed, preparations were made to cut the levee so that river water could flow into the lake. A steamboat with winches could then enter and remove large obstacles in Baxter Bayou. On March 16, Black laborers breached the levee. Roiling waters rushed through the ditch with unexpected fury, flooding the town and routing the workers. Union General James McPherson, the local commander, was forced to evacuate his troops to higher ground. Work resumed after the flood waters receded, but by then General Grant had other plans and the project was soon abandoned.

Extreme heat; rampant malaria, dysentery, and smallpox among the soldiers and enslaved workers; and a rapidly falling river drove Williams back to Baton Rouge.

The first Madison Parish canal project, intended to create a route that would bypass the deadly Vicksburg batteries, began the year before the Lake Providence endeavor and is often called Grant’s Canal or Williams’s Canal. It involved cutting a trench across De Soto Point, a prominent peninsula that forced the Mississippi River hard against the Vicksburg bluffs. The idea was to excavate a mile-and-a-quarter-long ditch through the point that would be scoured to a navigable depth of 13 feet and width of 50 feet when the river’s currents were allowed to enter the upper end. Union Brigadier General Thomas Williams with 1,500 infantrymen began the work in June 1862. A first order of business was to relieve his men of the brunt of the hard, physical labor. Williams reported, “Between 1,100 and 1,200 blacks, gathered from neighboring plantations by armed parties, are now engaged in the work of excavating, cutting down trees, and grubbing up roots.” But by the end of July the plan was abandoned, if only temporarily. Extreme heat; rampant malaria, dysentery, and smallpox among the soldiers and enslaved workers; and a rapidly falling river drove Williams back to Baton Rouge. In January 1863 General Grant resumed the canal work after deciding that a direct land assault on the fortress was impractical. He had little faith in the project but considered it a means to keep his men busy until prospects improved, and President Lincoln was a proponent of the idea. The river, however, intervened once again with a rapid rise that flooded the canal and filled it with sediment. In March Grant said, “We are going through a campaign here such as has not been heard of on this continent before.” He decided to go in another direction.

Soon afterwards, Grant began a second Madison Parish project known as the Duckport Canal, about ten miles above Vicksburg. A more complicated venture, a short canal was to be dug from the river village of Duckport to Big Bayou, then passing into log-choked Willow Bayou, Roundaway Bayou, and finally Bayou Vidal, which flowed into the Mississippi below Vicksburg, a total distance of thirty-seven miles. The grueling work was more successful this time as at least one small steamer and several barges ran the maze before the capricious river played its hand. A sudden drop in water levels left only a foot of water in some of the bayous, and the plot was abandoned.

Frustrated by the unsuccessful canal projects, Grant was forced into a risky plan that involved running Union Admiral David Porter’s fleet of gunboats downstream past the Vicksburg batteries under cover of night and marching his own forces south down the Louisiana side where they would rendezvous below Vicksburg. The strategy worked, and Grant’s army was ferried across the Mississippi at New Carthage to begin operations that led to the siege of Vicksburg and its eventual surrender on July 4, 1863. When President Lincoln received the news, he is reported to have stated, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.”

Although the canal projects were military failures, the Union was not defeated in these efforts by an opposing army. Their nemesis was environmental—in the form of a mighty and fickle river, a formidable landscape of virgin swamps, subtropical weather, and debilitating diseases.

Kelby Ouchley is a biologist and writer and managed National Wildlife Refuges for the US Fish & Wildlife Service for thirty years.  Since 1995 he has written and narrated Bayou-Diversity, an award-winning weekly conservation program for public radio. His six published books include a historical novel, natural histories of Louisiana, a comprehensive book on alligators, and a dictionary for naturalists. LSU Press will release his latest book, Bayou D’Arbonne Swamp – A Naturalist’s Memoir of Place, later this year.