The Yazoo Pass is a small and winding stream that connects Moon Lake to the Coldwater River. After the Mississippi Delta was opened to settlement in the late 1830s, thousands of families moved in to start a new life farming. Because Tunica and Coahoma counties were located in the northern section of the delta, many of these early settlers established their homes first. Small towns were formed along the river and other streams where boats could be used for transportation. The already established town of Helena just across the Mississippi River in Arkansas was also another incentive for the land hungry men and women. By 1860, there was a landing established directly across from Helena on the Tunica and Coahoma county line where steamboats could dock in order to deliver supplies or pick up cotton. There was a small town called Delta located just down river in Coahoma County. Several large plantations had been started as well near Moon Lake and along the pass. Mound Place was the name of a large plantation owned by James Lusk Alcorn who had established a post office by 1860. It was near Mound Place that a number of families settled including the Barbees, Hunts, Gillocks and Browns. One of the Browns was a man named Issac, who was an accomplished member of the U.S. Navy when his family decided to settle in Coahoma County. After Mississippi seceded he chose to side with his adopted state. Issac Newton Brown would rise to fame during the American Civil War as commander of the C.S.S. Arkansas which caused havoc along the Mississippi River during the summer of 1862. After it was destroyed, he continued to advise General Pemberton who headed the Confederate forces defending Vicksburg.
Because the Yazoo Pass was near his home, Commander Brown was asked his advice on what to do for defense.
Yazoo City, Mississippi., November 24, 1862
Sir: I beg leave respectfully to represent the commanding general that if the Yazoo Pass remains unobstructed it may at high water, afford the enemy a passage for their gunboats into the Coldwater River, thence to this place. I am not sure that permanent obstructions can at this time be placed in the pass, but if the trees along its banks were felled from both sides across the channel, which is seldom 100 feet wide, they would offer serious impediments to its navigation. Many of these trees would remain under water at sufficient depth to stop the passage of gunboats, and they would from the strength of the current and from the muddy waters rendering them invisible, be very difficult to remove. Lieutenant Shepperd, C.S. Navy, the bearer of this letter, will place himself under your orders to have this work executed, having instructions from me to do so. There are three companies of partisan rangers who are sufficient to protect the working party under Lieutenant Shepperd. To avoid attracting the attention of the enemy, who are encamped on the east side of the Mississippi River near where the pass makes out of Moon Lake, I think that the work should commence at Hunt’s Mill, and from there be continued to the Coldwater River, a distance of 6 miles by the windings of the pass. Fifty negroes with axes ought to execute this work in three days. I would leave it with Lieutenant Shepperd, who is an active and an intelligent officer to determine whether it would be practicable to obstruct the navigation of the Coldwater River in the same way at any point below where the Yazoo Pass joins that stream.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully, I.N. Brown. Commander C.S. Navy
Map of the Yazoo Pass Expedition that began in February 1863. Note the location of Hunt’s Mill.
The three partisan ranger companies that Commander Brown mentioned were loosely under the control of Captain Aaron Forrest, who was the brother of General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Only few years before the Civil War Nathan Forrest had purchased a plantation in Coahoma County. The largest of these companies was formed in Carroll County under the command of Captain W. Berry Prince. These companies, when joined, would be named the 6th Battalion Mississippi Cavalry. By January 1863, they are actively working to block the Yazoo Pass. As this is happening, the Union Army at Helena is expanding and getting ready to attempt a new try at Vicksburg. This newest try would be through the pass to the Coldwater River and down eventually to the Yazoo and come up behind Vicksburg. On the first of February, union solders blew a levee that separated Moon Lake form the Mississippi River. Within days, a Federal fleet was in Moon Lake and crews were working to clear the Yazoo Pass. As this was happening, Captain Forrest and the other rebels were firing at the gunboats and harassing the work parties.
In order to stop these Confederate attacks, the First Indiana Cavalry under the command of Lieutenant Colonel William F. Wood were ordered to start from Dowd’s Plantation on Moon Lake and follow along the pass and drive these partisan companies away.
Document 1 dealing with the fight at Hunt’s Mill, February 19, 1863.
February 16, 1863: Report of General Cadwallader Washburn to General Prentiss on the clash with Confederate cavalry and request for more Union cavalry. O.R. Series I, Volume XXIV, pt. 1, p. 401 – 402.
General: I shall send a steamer up in the morning with three wounded men who were shot today by rebel cavalry. They are still hanging around, watching our movements and embarrassing us a little. I report good progress today. Have taken out a good many large trees, and I believe in four days I can reach the Coldwater, and if the water does not fall anymore I will have a channel cut that will take through a boat two hundred feet wide. I am satisfied that they cannot establish a timber blockade that I cannot remove.
The rebel cavalry that is hovering around I am anxious to run out of the country or capture, and to that end I wish you would send me tomorrow 200 more cavalry. Send them to Moon Lake and land them half a mile east of Dr. Dowd’s Plantation on the north side of the lake, with instructions to proceed to Hunt’s Mill, on the Yazoo Pass, where I hope to be by the time they can get there. Have them take two days rations of all but meat, with their blankets and plenty of ammunition.
P.S. – In sending me cavalry I wish you would see that an officer of rank not less than major is sent. I should like to have either Lieutenant Colonel Wood, First Indiana Cavalry, or Major Walker, Fifth Kansas. If you can hasten this matter so that this cavalry shall reach Hunt’s Mill tomorrow night.
The battle was quick, decisive and an utter defeat for the southerners. In a matter of minutes the First Indiana Cavalry almost destroyed the Confederate forces east of Hunt’s Mill on February 19th. Colonel Wood surprised about 200 Confederates camped along the Yazoo Pass. Six were killed, 3 wounded and at least fifteen were captured. Several of the Indiana Cavalry were also wounded but not seriously. Captain Forrest and his remaining men fell back and the Union fleet continued on its way. Records are very incomplete for the Confederate forces, but John E. McCune was one of the men captured on the Yazoo Pass February 19th. He had enlisted in Carroll County on July 26, 1862 and was sent to a Union prison camp at Alton, Illinois in March. McCune was exchanged April 11th and died of pneumonia on April 18, 1863 at Liberty, Virginia.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the Civil War