July 21, 2012, 9:30 PM
In the dead of night on July 22, 1862, the Union transport Ceres navigated the swift currents around a sharp bend of the lower Mississippi River. Its lights flickered in the darkness as it rounded the curve and steamed downriver. Crowded on the wide decks of the converted steamboat were several hundred slaves and a detail of soldiers commanded by Capt. Lorenzo D. Brooks. A Vermonter with piercing blue-eyes and magnificent side-whiskers, Brooks treated everyone with courtesy and kindness. He was tasked with getting the slaves to a landing place downriver. None of these men, slave or soldier, could have anticipated the chain of events that had brought them together on the Ceres.
This was definitely not the war Brooks and his comrades thought that they were getting into after they joined the Seventh Vermont Infantry back in 1861. They had expected to fight rebels in Virginia. Instead, they were shipped to Louisiana in early 1862 and posted in the defenses of Union-occupied Baton Rouge, La.
While Brooks and his boys sweated out monotonous guard duties beneath the torrid Southern sun, a federal navy squadron led by Flag Officer David Farragut moved up the Mississippi to capture Vicksburg, Miss. But an initial bombardment failed to dislodge its Confederate garrison. Farragut made another attempt in June 1862; this time, the expedition included a 3,200-man infantry brigade, including Brooks and 800 men from the Seventh.
The brigade participated in one of the most novel projects of the war — the construction of a canal below Vicksburg to bypass the city and its guns, mounted on a bluff that commanded the entire river. If successful, the river water diverted through the man-made channel would cut off the horseshoe bend of the river on which the city was located. Through this audacious feat of geo-engineering, Vicksburg would be left high and dry several miles inland.
On June 6, Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, who commanded Union forces in the region, ordered his brigadier in charge at Baton Rouge, Gen. Thomas R. Williams, to take his troops and “cut off the neck of land beyond Vicksburg by means of a trench across.” Butler suggested the trench be four feet deep and five feet wide. He added with confidence, “The river itself will do the rest for us.”
Williams loaded his men on to transports, including the Ceres, and promptly set out to fulfill his orders. He filed an optimistic progress report on the Fourth of July. “The 25th we arrived here off Vicksburg, and commenced running and leveling the line of the cut-off canal, and on the morning of the 27th broke ground. Between 1,100 and 1,200 negroes, gathered from the neighboring plantations by armed parties, are now engaged in the work of excavating, cutting down trees, and grubbing up the roots.” He added, “The project is a great one and worthy of success.”
Two days later Williams provided another upbeat assessment. “To-day’s work of the negro force on the cut-off, duly organized into squads of 20, with an intelligent non-commissioned officer or private to each, superintended by officers, is highly satisfactory. The flag-officer with his fleet is most sanguine and even enthusiastic.”
Meanwhile, Brooks and the rest of the soldiers suffered from exposure to the elements. “The health of the troops has been much impaired by the absence of proper shelter,” Williams explained. “The quarters on board the transports are hot and crowded and those on shore are no protection against rain. Tents or boards are indispensable for shelter for the well and the sick — a rapidly increasing list.” The slave force, which by now had expanded to 1,500 laborers, suffered as well.
Progress soon came to a standstill. A series of engineering setbacks prompted Williams to ask for more equipment and slaves. He also reset expectations: the canal would need to be dug out to a depth of 35 to 40 feet and require three months to accomplish.
The project was abandoned a few days later. Plenty of blame would be assigned for its failure. William Holbrook, the colonel of the Seventh and its regimental historian, singled out Butler: “To those who had to do with the practical part of it, and who imperiled their lives in the hopeless task of trying to make it a success, the undertaking from the start was regarded as an utterly chimerical one, and for that reason it was denominated ‘Folly Creek’ or ‘Butler’s Ditch.’”
Most of the slaves were left behind to fend for themselves. Provisions were made for 300 to 400 slaves to be returned to their masters, with Williams likely giving the order. The slaves climbed aboard the Ceres about nightfall on July 22, destined for a point about a dozen miles downriver.
Holbrook reported that Brooks and his detachment were not the only soldiers who made the trip with the slaves. “Quite a number of our sick, including several disabled officers, were on board and preferred to remain rather than incur the risk of passing the night on shore in our pestilential encampment.” One of the soldiers on the Ceres that night was Brooks’ younger brother, 16-year-old Delos, a drummer in the regiment.
The slaves were safely landed at the agreed site at midnight, and the Ceres departed for the return journey to complete the withdrawal from the incomplete canal.
Unbeknownst to the crew, alert Confederates from Vicksburg had observed them. This time, a battery of rebel artillery would greet it with a fiery reception. “We were within about five miles of our camp,” one officer recalled, “when the rebels opened fire upon us from a light battery placed where the river made a sharp bend.”
The lights of the Ceres were quickly extinguished, but not before the gray gunners had found their range. The artillerymen sent shot and shell roaring from the mouths of three cannons with devastating effect — 23 of 32 projectiles ripped into the Ceres. One shot struck the starboard engine, and the vessel drifted aimlessly until a mechanic was able to repair a displaced rod. Five more projectiles tore into the wooden hull below the waterline. Soldiers scrambled to plug the leaks with clothing or torn sections of a mattress.
Of all the shots fired that night, it was the second one that was most remembered — and regretted — by the men and officers of the Seventh. It struck the rail of the cabin deck and glanced upward, killing Capt. Brooks instantly. Delos was standing three feet away from his big brother at the moment of impact, but was not hurt.
The older Brooks’s death, the regimental historian noted, “greatly enhanced the general gloom and sorrow” that settled over the men as they struggled to understand why valuable lives had been sacrificed on a mission that many felt should not have been undertaken.
Brooks was buried in Baton Rouge. He was 28 and unmarried.
In January 1863, a few months after the remains of Capt. Brooks had been disinterred and reburied in Vermont, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant ordered work on the canal to resume. Many men lost their lives before the project was abandoned forever.