Grant Defeats Johnston at Jackson, Mississippi and Turns toward Pemberton

By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2020-2021, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the January 2021 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

We left off last December with General Grant having advanced from his Mississippi River Bruinsburg landing south of Vicksburg. From there, he went on to win a small but sharp battle in front of Raymond, just west of the Mississippi capital, Jackson. However, before we progress I would like to pause and thank our president, Steve Pettyjohn, for providing modern photos from his extensive collection of some of the places mentioned in these history briefs last month and going forward.

Recall that although they often clashed, Confederate President Jeff Davis put General Joe Johnston in charge of the Confederate Western Theater of war, which had principally two main armies: one commanded by General Pemberton in Vicksburg and the other in Tennessee. Johnston, who was ill, nevertheless headed west and arrived in Jackson, Mississippi on May 13, 1863, where he set up headquarters at the Bowman House, reputed to be the finest hotel in Jackson. He found to his dismay that Grant’s efficient field movements had already cut the important railroad link between Jackson and Vicksburg. In a state of despair, he telegraphed the Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia, “I am too late,” with a realization that he had a total of only about 6,000 soldiers (either on hand or soon arriving) against about 30,000 in Grant’s three corps. Forever the premier expert on the Vicksburg Campaign, former Chief Historian of the National Park Service, Mr. Edwin C. Bearss, described Grant’s next move in his book Fields of Honor, “On the 13th, Union columns move out in accordance with Grant’s new operational plan. Demonstrating flexibility – one of his strong points – Grant changes direction 90 degrees. He turns toward Jackson…McClernand’s corps concentrating in and around Raymond to guard Grant’s rear. McPherson advances with two divisions down the Clinton-Jackson Road. Sherman bears in on the Raymond Road.”

The now hapless Pemberton, who had received orders from Johnston to advance his troops toward Jackson for the ensuing fight for the capital, was caught in a conundrum. If he sent his army toward Jackson, then Vicksburg would be open to the unpredictable Grant and could be easily occupied by Union forces. Once lost, Pemberton understood that he would not have the military strength to recapture the prize city. On the other hand, without his help, Johnston’s small force would be overrun if engaged. So as not to be insubordinate to Johnston, he decided to split his army – for those students of Napoleonic warfare, which dominated the thinking of West Point graduates during the Civil War, one recognizes this to be at odds with the well-known axiom to never divide one’s force in the face of the enemy. Pemberton maneuvered about 20,000 soldiers toward Jackson on the northern side of the Big Black River, but remained too far away to have any influence on the battle that would unfold at the capital. Pemberton also left about 10,000 troops to garrison Vicksburg. Pemberton was now committed. Grant wrote in his Memoirs, “As I hoped in the end to besiege Vicksburg I must first destroy all possibility of aid. I therefore determined to move swiftly towards Jackson, destroy or drive any force in that direction and then turn upon Pemberton.”

On the morning of May 14, after a night of heavy rain, McPherson and Sherman sent their corps on muddy, rain-soaked roads toward Jackson. The rain persisted until 11 a.m., but both corps slogged forward and were soon in position to strike the Mississippi capital’s defenses. Aided by the weather, the grossly outnumbered Southern troops initially held. General Sherman, with his corps approaching from the southwest, suggested a move to the east of Jackson to flank Johnston’s defense. Grant stated in his Memoirs, “Sherman was confronting a rebel battery which enfiladed the road on which he was marching – the Mississippi Springs road – and commanded a bridge spanning a stream over which he had to pass. By detaching right and left, the stream was forced and the enemy flanked and speedily driven within the main line.”

Johnston, realizing that his left flank had been turned and with a reputation as one of the more cautious-minded generals of the war, ordered a rapid retreat northward to preserve his force to fight another day. In hindsight, with no meaningful help from Pemberton, it was arguably the correct decision. He momentarily stopped his retreat north of Jackson – past Tougaloo near Calhoun – where he sent more orders to Pemberton. Johnston commanded Pemberton to unite with his troops for a decisive strike on the Federals. Sadly for Southern hopes, being further north instead of west of Jackson, Johnston was now in a less likely position to unite with Pemberton.

A drawing of he Battle of Jackson

So it was that a second secessionist state capital was now at least temporarily in Union hands. Nashville, Tennessee was the first, and its capture was also made possible by Grant through his earlier victories at Forts Henry and Donelson, at the latter of which he famously earned the nickname “Unconditional Surrender” Grant and would evermore be showered with cigars from multitudes of newly found Northern admirers. Literally following in Johnston’s footsteps, Grant also took lodging at the Bowman House hotel and mentioned in his Memoirs that he stayed in the same room in which Johnston had stayed the night before, thus confirming his taste in quarters if not his generalship!

Bowman House, circa 1860

Perhaps not unexpectedly, chaos ensued for a while at Jackson. Confederate stragglers and deserters were roaming the streets, joined by escaped convicts from the municipal jail, runaway slaves jubilantly rejoicing at their new-found liberty, and Federal soldiers who were adamant to celebrate their victory by looting. Observing this, Grant quickly took steps to rein in the chaos by organizing patrols to restore order. Further noted in his Memoirs, Grant gave orders to Sherman to create chaos of a different type, commanding him to “remain in Jackson until he destroyed that place as a railroad centre, and manufacturing city of military supplies. He did the work most effectually.” Sherman set fire to so many buildings that the city afterwards was referred to as “Chimneyville.”

Union troops burning Jackson, Mississippi, May 15, 1863 (from (Harper’s Weekly, June 20, 1863)

Later on, while heading back toward the Union front, Sherman recorded an unexpected discovery in his Memoirs, “Just beyond Bolton there was a small hewn-log house, standing back in a yard, in which was a well; at this some of our soldiers were drawing water. I rode in to get a drink, and, seeing a book on the ground, asked some soldier to hand it to me. It was a volume of the Constitution of the United States, and on the title-page was written the name of Jefferson Davis. On inquiry of a Negro, I learned that the place belonged to the then President of the Southern Confederation. His brother Joe Davis’s plantation was not far off; one of my staff officers went there, with a few soldiers, and took a pair of Carriage-horses, without my knowledge at the time. He found Joe Davis at home, an old man, attended by a young and affectionate niece; but they were overwhelmed with grief to see their country overrun and swarming with Federal troops.”

Part of “Chimneyville”: the ruins of Bowman House with the Mississippi capitol in the background

Swarming they were. Upon capturing Jackson, Grant wasted no time in planning for two of his three corps to turn in the direction of Pemberton, who was now about halfway between Vicksburg and Jackson. Grant had achieved his near-term goal of destroying or defeating whatever additional troops or supplies might be hoped for by Pemberton. Additionally, Grant had positioned his army between Johnston and Pemberton, who at the time of the capture of Jackson was near Edward’s Station.

Grant then had a stroke of good luck. A Union spy dressed as a Confederate soldier brought Grant a copy of the recent order that was sent by Johnston from Calhoun to Pemberton, commanding him to travel further east and rendezvous along the rail line between Vicksburg and Jackson at Bolton Station. Sayeth Grant to two of his corps commanders as per his Memoirs, “Receiving this dispatch on the 14th I ordered McPherson to move promptly in the morning back to Bolton, the nearest point where Johnston could reach the road…I also informed McClernand of the capture of Jackson and sent him the following order: It is evidently the design of the enemy to get north of us and cross the Big Black, and beat us into Vicksburg. We must not allow them to do this. Turn all your forces towards Bolton Station.”

General Pemberton now met with his subordinate generals to discuss his next decision. On the one hand, orders from President Jefferson Davis had long ago commanded him to hold both Vicksburg and Port Hudson as the vital connection to the trans-Mississippi, which included a substantial portion of the Confederacy in the states of Texas, Arkansas, and most of Louisiana. Mr. Bearss in Fields of Honor states, “Pemberton wants to take position behind the Big Black with a bridgehead on the east side, and let the enemy assail him. We will repulse them, and then counterattack out of the bridgehead, he argues. His two senior generals – William W. Loring and Carter L. Stevenson – are unimpressed, and recommend that the army take the field in the morning, march southeast, and attack Union supply trains and reinforcements known to be en route to the enemy from Grand Gulf. Pemberton, despite misgivings, buys into his generals’ proposal.”

John C. Pemberton

Unfortunately for Pemberton, there was a five-hour delay on the morning of May 15, while his troops awaited provisions and ammunition being sent from Vicksburg. Further, creeks in the area had been flooded from the downpour of the previous day. The beloved Mr. Bearss, in prose uniquely his own, described what happened at the attempted crucial C.S.A. crossing of Baker’s Creek in Fields of Honor, “No one had checked the crossing to see if it was passable for infantry and artillery. Wirt Adam’s cavalry crosses on their horses, but when the infantry seeks to follow, the water is up to a tall man’s crotch and to a short man’s belly button. Pemberton is compelled to make a seven-mile detour by way of the Jackson and Ratliff roads.” By nightfall, instead of being south of 14 Mile Creek as planned and as urged by his subordinate generals, Pemberton was now in the vicinity southwest of Champion Hill. Thereby, the stage is set for a meeting engagement between the Union and Confederate armies somewhere between Bolton Depot and the Big Black River.

Next month we shall see if the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-born Southern General Pemberton is able to finesse a victory against his Ohio-born opponent, General U.S. Grant, who is now and forever marching squarely on the path to being the indispensable Northern general that President Lincoln so badly needs to beat the South!

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