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 December 2020 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
Picking up where we left off at the end of November’s history brief, during April of 1863 Union General U. S. Grant’s troops had marched south along the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River to rendezvous with Union Admiral Porter’s fleet and cross to the eastern shore in the vicinity of Grand Gulf. Specifically, McClernand’s corps of about 10,000 troops would board the transports after Porter’s river ironclads destroyed the Confederate batteries atop the cliffs defending the town. Mr. Ed Bearss, former Chief Historian of the National Park Service and renowned expert on the Vicksburg Campaign, characterized it as follows in his book Fields of Honor, “By April 28, Grant’s troops and Porter’s fleet are ready to undertake what, for that time and place, is a formidable amphibious operation.”
In that “formidable” operation, Porter’s gunboats attacked the batteries on the morning of April 29, but were unsuccessful in knocking out a sufficient number of the rebel guns and indeed suffered damage from Confederate return fire. Porter’s losses numbered about 20 killed and 60 wounded after fighting through the morning and into the early afternoon.
As a result, it was decided to attempt to cross further downstream, and that evening under cover of darkness, Porter’s entire fleet safely bypassed Grand Gulf and met McClernand’s troops a few miles further south on the west bank of the Mississippi. Fortuitously, Grant, who had only unreliable maps of what he might encounter south of Grand Gulf, was assisted by discussion with a former slave who under questioning was determined to be a reliable source of information with motivation to help. To wit, Grant was advised that a good road ran east of the ungarrisoned town of Bruinsburg to Port Gibson which, despite its name, was an inland town about five miles east of Grand Gulf. From there, they would be able to assault the Confederate positions at Grand Gulf from behind.
To raise the best possible confusion in the mind of Confederate General Pemberton, commanding Confederate troops at Vicksburg, Grant asked one of his corps commanders and friend, General Sherman, to create a diversion to the north of the bastion. Sherman recorded in his Memoirs, “I received a letter from General Grant, written at Carthage, saying that he proposed to cross over and attack Grand Gulf, about the end of April, and he thought I could put in my time usefully by making a ‘feint’ on Haines’s Bluff, but he did not like to order me to do it, because it might be reported at the North that I had again been ‘repulsed, etc.’ Thus we had to fight a senseless clamor at the North, as well as a determined foe and the obstacles of Nature. Of course, I answered him that I would make the ‘feint’, regardless of public clamor at a distance, and I did make it most effectually using all the old boats I could get about Milliken’s Bend and the mouth of the Yazoo, but taking only ten small regiments, selected out of Blair’s division, to make a show of force.”
At the crack of dawn on April 30, McClernand’s whole corps plus a couple of extra brigades boarded the transports and moved downstream to Bruinsburg, where they disembarked to the elation of General Grant who logged the following in his Memoirs, “When this was effected I felt a degree of relief scarcely ever equaled since. Vicksburg was not yet taken it is true, nor were its defenders demoralized by any of our previous moves. I was now in the enemy’s country, with a vast river and the stronghold of Vicksburg between me and my base of supplies. But I was on dry ground on the same side of the river with the enemy. All the campaigns, labours, hardships and exposure from the month of December prior to this time that had been made and endured, were for the accomplishment of this one object.” Indeed, Grant was now in the full throes of all he had sought during past numerous failed attempts including direct assaults, canal digging, and chaotic maneuvers down the Mississippi Central Railroad as he endeavored to overcome fortress Vicksburg. At last, Grant’s troops were threatening Vicksburg from its south on dry land on the east bank of the mighty river.
Good road at Bruinsburg or not, this part of Mississippi was still difficult terrain. Grant stated in his Memoirs, “The country in this part of Mississippi stands on edge, the roads running along the ridges except where they occasionally pass from one ridge to another. Where there are no clearings and the sides of the hills are covered with a very heavy growth of timber and with undergrowth and the ravines are filled with vines and canebrake almost impenetrable.”
In Port Gibson there were about 6,000 Confederate troops under the command of Brigadier General J.S. Bowen, who had requested reinforcements. Pemberton declined. Accordingly, Bowen was vastly outnumbered by Grant’s troops, who rapidly marched to meet their outposts by May 1. Nevertheless, Bowen resisted with enough resolve that Grant, himself, went forward to organize the assault. But by the evening, Bowen retreated and Grant allowed his men to rest two miles outside of town. He wrote to his superior General Halleck in Washington, D.C. that his soldiers were “well disciplined and hardy men who know no defeat and are not willing to learn what it is.” The following morning, they advanced northeastward, threatening to cut off Grand Gulf. The garrison there, realizing the threat, pulled out and scurried toward Vicksburg. This left Grand Gulf and its river landing facilities to Porter’s fleet, who promptly occupied it. Henceforth, Grant’s corps under McClernand immediately continued northeastward.
Meanwhile, Grant established headquarters in Grand Gulf and began to secure it as a base. General Halleck in Washington had been expecting Union General Banks, who was now campaigning with a sizable force further southwest in the region of the Red River and its tributaries, to link up with Grant and together assault Vicksburg from due south. However, Grant, understanding the geography, knew that under these circumstances Banks was essentially out of the Vicksburg theater and would be long delayed. Grant, exuberant from his recent successes, would not be delayed and wrote in hindsight, “I therefore determined to move independently of Banks, cut loose from my base, destroy the rebel force in rear of Vicksburg and invest or capture the city.”
Grant knew that Halleck would not agree with this unconventional strategy, but also knew that by the time letters could travel back and forth to Washington he would be well in motion. Grant’s only other potential Union human obstacle would be his friend, General Sherman, who was now on the way from Milliken’s Bend and who indeed omnisciently wrote Grant: “Stop all troops till your army is partially supplied with wagons, and then act as quickly as possible, for this road will be jammed as sure as life if you attempt to support 50,000 men by one single road.” Grant retorted: “I do not calculate upon the possibility of supplying the army with full rations from Grand Gulf. I know it will be impossible without constructing additional roads. What I do expect, however, is to get up what rations of hard bread, coffee and salt we can and make the country furnish the balance.” As history shows, by the time of Sherman’s March to the Sea from Atlanta to Savannah, he would in fact become an ardent convert of Grant’s “live off the land” approach.
On the Confederate side, General Joseph Johnston, who had been put in command of the Western theater by President Davis in November of 1862, confronted a difficult situation. He had two main armies, the one in Vicksburg under Pemberston and the other in Tennessee. They were too far apart to offer mutual support. Additionally, bedlam and chaos had been sown by Union General Grierson’s cavalry raid in central Mississippi. His horsemen disrupted logistics, supplies, railroads, and communications and put what troops could have been sent efficiently to help Pemberton out of position while responding to the rampage.
Grant would soon have closer to 40,000 troops to work with. But for the time being he was outnumbered by Pemberton, 32,000 to 20,000. On May 3 Grant was in need of Sherman to move rapidly to Grand Gulf with his corps and cross the Mississippi via Porter’s fleet to strengthen Grant’s offensive. He wrote Sherman, “It is unnecessary for me to remind you of the overwhelming importance of celerity in your movements…there must be no delay on account of either energy or formality.”
While waiting for Sherman, Grant sent substantial reconnaissance parties to cross the Big Black River to fool Pemberton into thinking that he would soon move directly on Vicksburg. Being outnumbered for the moment, Grant’s novel idea was to pin Pemberton to Vicksburg and instead take a more circuitous route to the center of the state and the capital of Jackson, where resistance would be light, and sever the rail connection between Johnston’s other army in Tennessee and Vicksburg. Sayeth Mr. Bearss in Fields of Honor, “Grant however, decides on a daring move – a hook to the northeast, where he can threaten the state capital at Jackson and defeat and disperse the Confederate forces assembling there…When Sherman arrives at Grand Gulf, Grant orders the army to move out. He now has his army of maneuver: McClernand and his four divisions, Sherman with two divisions, and McPherson with two divisions…The confederates are dug in on bluffs looking south; they expect an attack against Vicksburg, coming north from Grant’s Hankinson Ferry bridgehead on the Big Black.”
Between the 6th and the 12th of May, Grant put his troops in motion northeast on the road to Jackson via Utica and Raymond. On May 9 his spearhead was a few miles east of Utica. The well-organized advance was met with little opposition, while Pemberton held his soldiers closer to Vicksburg in expectation of a direct assault from Grant. The whole Union army progressed rapidly but in a controlled way, while each corps rested in turn within close proximity of each other to maintain contact if help were needed. At one point Grant pushed two of the three corps northward to keep the Confederate command guessing; would he be rounding toward Vicksburg for an assault or proceeding to cut the railroad between Vicksburg?
On May 12 McPherson’s lead division, pushing for Raymond, came under fire from a Confederate brigade with about 10 pieces of artillery. The Union’s lead brigade was under the command of former politician, Major General John Logan. He proved adept on the battlefield, turning out his men in a neat line of battle and attacking with full vigor. Soon the rebels were in flight with about 400 casualties and approximately the same number taken prisoner to Logan’s 70 killed and 340 wounded.
Learning this, Grant made another decision. Again from his Memoirs, “I decided at once to turn the whole column toward Jackson and capture that place without delay. Pemberton was now on my left, with, as I supposed, about 18,000 men; in fact, as I learned afterwards, with nearly 50,000. A force was also collecting on my right at Jackson, the point where all the railroads communicating with Vicksburg connect. All the enemy’s supplies on men and stores would come by that point. 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. But by moving against Jackson, I uncovered my own communication. So I finally decided to have none – to cut loose altogether from my base and move my whole force eastward. I then had no fears for my communications, and if I moved quickly enough could turn upon Pemberton before he could attack me in the rear.”
Next month we will learn whether Confederate Generals Pemberton and Johnston can decipher Grant’s intentions from his maneuvers and pull their divided forces together to parry the thrust!
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