Rather than attack Vicksburg directly, the Federals at first tried to engineer their way around the Confederate stronghold.
In June 1862, Union troops started digging a canal across the foot of DeSoto Point. The theory: the river would adopt the new channel, and Union shipping would be able to bypass Vicksburg. The "Gibraltar of the South" would become just another inland town.
Work on the 1.5 mile canal began on June 27. To speed the digging, the Federals pressed more than 1,200 blacks from area plantations into service alongside the soldiers. For a month the laborers and soldiers toiled, reduced by sickness and hampered by falling water levels. On July 24, with more than half the work force incapacitated, Williams abandoned the project.
Most of the canal lay just beyond the effective range of the Confederate batteries at Vicksburg. The Confederates, however, constructed new batteries to fire on the mouth of the canal below Vicksburg. Even if the canal had been finished, Confederate artillery fire would have made its use extremely hazardous.
Brig. Gen. Thomas Williams, architect of the first Union effort to bypass Vicksburg with a canal. Williams would die at the battle of Baton Rouge (August 5, 1862) just weeks after he abandoned the canal project.
Black laborers working on "Williams' Canal." Laborers and soldiers suffered alike from sun stroke, diarrhea, and malaria. Hundreds died.