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December 12: The Battle for Yazoo, the First Landmark White House State Dinner, and Other Events of the Date
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December 12: The Battle for Yazoo, the First Landmark White House State Dinner, and Other Events of the Date

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The Civil War comes to Yazoo. December 12, 1862

Originally the name of the “Battle for Yazoo” was compiled many years ago from information provided by Glen Jones of the Mississippi Chemical Corporation, Edwin C. Bearss, a Research Historian at the Vicksburg National Park, and Sam Olden, the President of the Yazoo Historical Society. Later, the most important event in the light of the revolution was renamed the Civil War in Yazoo County, 1862-1864.

For Yazooans, the War Between the States at first seemed far away. For its first full year, though scores of Yazoo boys had already enlisted and many were fighting in distant Virginia, life at home went on quietly. And in those early, heady days of the conflict, most Yazooans expected things to remain that way.

By the spring of 1862, there were significant losses nearer to home in the Western Theater. Union victories at Pea Ridge in Arkansas and Shiloh in Tennessee made the way towards Mississippi's doorstep. Then it became clear that the battle could not be avoided.

The US Navy entered the Mississippi River on December 12 in force from both north and south, quickly capturing New Orleans and Baton Rouge, then Memphis. With Vicksburg as President Lincoln’s personally ordered next target, in early June a formidable fleet commanded by David Farragut, soon to be commissioned as the first rear admiral in American naval history, was steaming toward it. Thus Yazoo City and Yazoo County, in the space of a few weeks, found themselves almost in the center of the storm.

Yazoo City soon became a key naval base almost by accident, and it’s one great contribution to naval warfare was probably the most incredible vessel ever to engage an enemy fleet.

The ironclad ram CSS Arkansas was a child of misfortune from the beginning. It was one of several ships being built at Memphis when Union forces threatened that city. Of all the vessels in the yards, only the CSS Arkansas was saved. Its unfinished hull was towed down the Mississippi and up the Yazoo to near Greenwood where work on it stopped.

There was excitement among the workers as the big gray Arkansas was berthed. The ship, even at this stage, was an imposing sight. It stretched 110 feet long and at its bow was a massive ramming beak.

At least 200 men, according to unconfirmed reports, were working around the clock to get the ship ready. Crews of workmen systematically scavenged the countryside for metal and parts. After five weeks, the stern and some portions of the ship were still unprotected by armor, but the Yazoo River was falling.

Lieutenant Brown of the CSS Arkansas, recognizing his vessel’s weaknesses, explained to the crew that they would have to meet the enemy head-on. He said, "No ram, no run, just fight." And then fighters had to just fight.

When the battle ended the Carondelet was badly damaged and had run ashore, the Tyler limped off in bad shape, and the Queen of the West decided to retire and fight another day.

The CSS Arkansas had taken the fire of all three ships. Lieutenant Brown had been wounded and a part of the wheel had been blown away. The base of the smokestack had been hit and heat and smoke filled the engine room, making frequent changes of the crew necessary. The pride of Yazoo city had survived its first battle and there was no place to go except straight ahead -- or straight down.

When General U.S. Grant's final great siege of Vicksburg by both the Union Army and Navy began in May 1863, a Confederate fortification at Snyder's Bluff on the Yazoo River blocked passage to Yazoo city where the navy yard was still building ironclad vessels. Union Rear Admiral David D. Porter sent five ironclads to try to bypass the Snyder’s Bluff defenses and destroy the yard. And he almost succeeded in becoming one of the first admirals to have his naval fleet captured by land forces.

By May 17, the Confederate forces had abandoned Snyder’s Bluff and two days later, units from the Union army and navy occupied the fortifications without firing a shot. The first frontal attack upon Yazoo city itself came on May 21, 1863, and was a naval thrust. Admiral Porter ordered a task force consisting of the ironclads Baron DeKalb and Choctaw, supported by the tinclads Forest Rose, Linden, and Petrel, to proceed against the Yazoo city Naval works as soon as demolition teams could destroy the chain placed across the Yazoo River by Confederates.

With Lieutenant Commander John G. Walker in charge, the fleet met only token resistance on the river. But Captain Isaac Brown, recovered from the wounds he had received on Arkansas and in command at Yazoo city, ordered the navy yard burned.

A landing party from the Union ships found that Confederate demolition squads had destroyed everything of military value in the town. Three warships at the naval station were smoldering ruins, nothing more than charred hulks. They were the Mobile, the Republic, and an unnamed ironclad monster 310 feet long and with a beam of 70 feet. The latter vessel was scheduled to be plated with 1/5 inch iron and was to have had six engines, four side wheels, and two propellers.

After the destruction of the shipbuilding facilities at Yazoo city the river had little naval value to the Confederacy, but Union ships continued to use the waterway.

On May 24, Colonel Johnson and his bluecoats rode out of Snyder’s Bluff and the next day they rode right back in again. They had encountered Confederate Colonel W. Wirt Adams’ Mississippi Cavalry and after a brief skirmish had withdrawn.

The force moved out of Vicksburg on May 27 and even Colonel Johnson's far-ranging cavalry failed to flush any Confederates that day. On May 28 the two forces came together at Sulphur Springs, but Colonel Johnson brought General Blair a disturbing report. The cavalrymen had talked to a farmer, Richard A. Barkley, who told him that Lieutenant General Ambrose P. Hill had just reached Jackson with heavy reinforcements from the battle-hardened Army of North Virginia. Between them, General Johnston and General Hill were reported to have 45,000 men in central Mississippi.

General Blair, nevertheless, decided to push on. It was about 1 p.m. When the federal horsemen rode by the dozen or so houses that constituted Mechanicsburg and they turned into the road leading to Kibbey's Ferry. Two miles beyond the village, an Iowa Regiment sighted a number of grays clad. These were the same hell-for-leather troopers that had turned back Colonel Johnson’s blue-clad cavalry four days before.

Two miles southeast of Mechanicsburg, the Confederates made one more effort to hold the Federal advance. Guns of the Brookhaven Artillery charged up and started firing on General Blair's men.

In September 1863, the Federals landed two regiments of troops from river vessels which went on a rampage in the city. In October, another federal force, this time under General McArthur, occupied the town and were particularly ruthless.

Only once did the Confederates strike back, on March 5, 1864, during the third temporary occupation. And this time bloody fighting in the streets of downtown Yazoo city left 31 northerners dead, 121 wounded, 31 missing and brought a hasty return to Vicksburg by the rest. The Southerners lost only 6 with another 51 wounded.

That Union operation was part of a master plan by General William T. Sherman, then commanding from Vicksburg all Yankee troops in the area to tear up completely the railroad from Vicksburg to Meridian.

On May 19, 1864, federal troops for the last time came into Yazoo city and got out of hand. Despite the efforts of the provost guards, they burned the courthouse, the lawyer’s offices, and several dwellings.

By the last few months of the war, Yazoo County had been so overrun by the frequent raids of the enemy that there was little of value left and the county had practically no strategic value.

In addition to serving as a battleground, Yazoo city and County mightily contributed men to the Confederate cause. The Hamer Rifles was the first unit to be organized and mustered into service at Yazoo city on April 8, 1861. This unit was assigned to the Army of Virginia and served there as Company D of the 18th Mississippi Regiment.

By the end of the war all companies made up from Yazoo County had suffered extreme losses through death, wounds, prison confinement and disease. Only a small remnant of those who enlisted returned.

December 12: The Battle for Yazoo, the First Landmark White House State Dinner, and Other Events of the Date

In 1972, the US Congress enacted legislation authorizing the National Park Service to accept title to the Cairo and restore the gunboat for display in Vicksburg National Military Park. Delays in funding the project halted progress until June of 1977, when the vessel was transported to the park and partially reconstructed on a concrete foundation near the Vicksburg National Cemetery. The gunboat and its artifacts can now be seen along the tour road at the U.S.S. Cairo Museum.

The first White House state dinner for the king of Hawaii. December 12, 1874

Official meetings and evenings are held to this day every year and in all countries, and in the United States the first person to attend the Royal Dinner was not a British or a Russian, but the king of Hawaii.

David Kalakaua (full name David Laʻamea Kamananakapu Mahinulani Naloiaehuokalani Lumialani Kalakaua), the last king of Hawaii was reportedly the first sitting monarch to visit the United States when he made a cross-country trip from San Francisco to Washington aboard the still-new transcontinental railroad in 1874. He was seeking better trade between the United States and his Sandwich Islands, which is how mapmakers of the day labeled the Pacific archipelago that would become an American territory in 1898.

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At that time, the 18th US President, Ulysses S. Grant, was halfway into his second term and decided to show everyone his diplomatic path and officially invited the king of Hawaii. Earlier, they had an appointment at the White House. The president’s wife Julia amazed the city with a table set for more than 3,000,000 guests.

"Brilliant beyond all precedent," marveled the Washington Evening Star the following day.

Kalākaua, known as the Merrie Monarch for his well-documented love of ample food and flowing wine, was delighted. He went on to New York, caught a show (“The Gilded Age” at the Park Theater) with his old friend Mark Twain, and sailed home a sated sovereign.

And in Washington, a pattern was set that has held true from that fete to this one, which was the first state soiree hosted by the president and First Lady Melania Trump. The details have shifted with times and politics: An alcohol-hating First Lady reportedly kept wine off the menu during Rutherford B. Hayes’s tenure in the late 1870s; Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev inflicted a Cold War-snub on Eisenhower by refusing to don formal wear in 1959.

Since that time, the White House dining room had been remodeled in 1902 and expanded to make for an even grander geopolitical mess hall. Among those who would officially consume the consommé there: Charles de Gaulle, Leonid Brezhnev, Augusto Pinochet, Haile Selassie, Jawaharlal Nehru, Ferdinand Marcos, and Queen Elizabeth II, and six different presidents fed the Shah of Iran.

The US seizes the French liner Normandie. December 12, 1941

Shortly thereafter, the conversion for U.S. wartime use began.

The Normandie was unique in many ways. It was the first ship built, in 1931, in accordance with the guidelines laid down in the 1929 Convention for Safety of Life at Sea. It was also huge, measuring 1,029 feet long and 119 feet wide. It displaced 85,000 tons of water. It offered passengers seven accommodation classes and 1,975 berths. It required a crew of more than 1,300, but despite its size, it was also fast: capable of 32.1 knots. The liner was launched in 1932 and made its first transatlantic crossing in 1935. In 1937, it was reconfigured with four-bladed propellers, which meant it could now cross the Atlantic in less than four days.

When France surrendered to the Germans in June 1940, and the puppet Vichy regime was installed, the Normandie was in dock at New York City. It immediately became clear that the United States wouldn’t allow a ship of this size to fall into the hands of the Germans to become more vulnerable and stable.

In November 1941, Time Magazine ran an article stating that in the event of the United States' involvement in the war, the Navy would seize the liner altogether and turn it into an aircraft carrier. When the Navy did take control of the ship, shortly after Pearl Harbor, it began the conversion of the liner--but to a troopship, renamed the USS Lafayette.

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But the Lafayette never served its new purpose. On February 9, 1942, the ship caught fire. Although the ship was finally righted, the massive salvage operation cost $3,750,000 -- and the fire damage made any hope of employing the vessel impossible.

Author: USA Really