As soon as the capture of Memphis was known at the North, there was an eager scramble to secure the trade of the long-blockaded port. Several boat-loads of goods were shipped from St. Louis and Cincinnati, and Memphis was so rapidly filled that the supply was far greater than the demand.
Army and Treasury regulations were soon established, and many restrictions placed upon traffic. The restrictions did not materially diminish the quantity of goods, but they served to throw the trade into a few hands, and thus open the way for much favoritism. Those who obtained permits, thought the system an excellent one. Those who were kept “out in the cold,” viewed the matter in a different light. A thousand stories of dishonesty, official and unofficial, were in constant circulation, and I fear that many of them came very near the truth.
In our occupation of cities along the Mississippi, the Rebels found a ready supply from our markets. This was especially the case at Memphis. Boots and shoes passed through the lines in great numbers, either by stealth or by open permit, and were taken at once to the Rebel army. Cloth, clothing, percussion-caps, and similar articles went in the same direction. General Grant and other prominent officers made a strong opposition to our policy, and advised the suppression of the Rebellion prior to the opening of trade, but their protestations were of no avail. We chastised the Rebels with one hand, while we fed and clothed them with the other.
After the capture of Memphis, Colonel Charles R. Ellet, with two boats of the ram fleet, proceeded to explore the river between Memphis and Vicksburg. It was not known what defenses the Rebels might have constructed along this distance of four hundred miles. Colonel Ellet found no hinderance to his progress, except a small field battery near Napoleon, Arkansas. When a few miles above Vicksburg, he ascertained that a portion of Admiral Farragut’s fleet was below that point, preparing to attack the city. He at once determined to open communication with the lower fleet.
Opposite Vicksburg there is a long and narrow peninsula, around which the Mississippi makes a bend. It is a mile and a quarter across the neck of this peninsula, while it is sixteen miles around by the course of the river. It was impossible to pass around by the Mississippi, on account of the batteries at Vicksburg. The Rebels were holding the peninsula with a small force of infantry and cavalry, to prevent our effecting a landing. By careful management it was possible to elude the sentinels, and cross from one side of the peninsula to the other.
Colonel Ellet armed himself to make the attempt. He took only a few documents to prove his identity as soon as he reached Admiral Farragut. A little before daylight, one morning, he started on his perilous journey. He waded through swamps, toiled among the thick undergrowth in a portion of the forest, was fired upon by a Rebel picket, and narrowly escaped drowning in crossing a bayou. He was compelled to make a wide detour, to avoid capture, and thus extended his journey to nearly a half-dozen miles.