By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2019-2020, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the December 2019 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
The “war was won in the West” – or so they say – and has been our monthly focus of these history briefs paralleling the same months in 1862. And so we come to December of 1862, which is widely known as the start of Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign.
However, we pick up where we left off in November 1862 in the wake of the “Second Battle of Corinth” which secured that major and important rail junction for the North and for Grant’s thrust toward central Mississippi, his ultimate target being the Confederate bastion of Vicksburg on a 200-foot bluff overlooking a fish hook-like bend in the Mississippi River. To capture it would fulfill the Western Theater’s role in the North’s strategic “Anaconda Plan” essentially cutting the South in two- and coupled with the seaboard blockade – strangling the heart of the Confederacy.
As mentioned last month, Vicksburg was the largest city in Mississippi by the time of the Civil War and a major port for cotton and other goods flowing north and south on the mighty river.
Grant’s initial strategy was somewhat obvious (see top map) and the most direct geographically. He would send his trusted friend General Tecumseh Sherman with several divisions south from Memphis in transports along the Mississippi River, disembark them on the marshy terrain, but very close to Vicksburg in the vicinity of the Yazoo River tributary and pressure Confederate commander Pemberton in Vicksburg, effectively pinning him in position. Meanwhile, Grant himself would lead two divisions south from the vicinity of Corinth (see map) along the Central Mississippi railroad and put Pemberston’s smaller force on the horns of a dilemma. That is: should Pemberton emerge from Vicksburg in the direction of Grant to stop him while leaving only a small garrison to hopefully keep Sherman out – or stay put and defend the fortress which would then submit Pemberton to a siege? This would put the North’s numerical and naval superiority to its optimal employment in December of 1862.
In mid December, Grant indeed headed south with two divisions along the railroad as planned using it as a line of supply; and at about the same time Sherman boarded vessels with his troops, using the Mississippi River and Union naval dominance as his line of supply.
However, on December 20th, while Grant penetrated to Oxford and beyond, Confederate General Earl Van Dorn with a mere 3,500 cavalry circled behind Grant’s advance and raided his second largest supply depot at Holly Springs (see map) destroying much of the food, horse forage and ammunition that Grant relied on to sustain his force. Not to be outdone, that Devil Nathan Bedford Forrest and his cavalry had been ranging widely in north Mississippi and further destroyed rail and telegraph communications in that vicinity. His supply lines disrupted, Grant now begrudgingly withdrew. However, the cut telegraph lines proved critical since when Grant decided to fall back from Oxford, Sherman failed to timely learn of Grant’s retreat.
Thus, Pemberton was now off of the horns of the dilemma and could turn his full attention to Sherman’s impending assault. On December 26th, Sherman’s troops landed at “Johnson’s Plantation” (see lower map) on the banks of the Yazoo River only about a half dozen miles north of Vicksburg. With Grant in retreat, Pemberton adroitly repositioned troops he had previously sent toward Grenada to bolster the Vicksburg garrison. They rapidly occupied prepared positions along the top slopes of a long line of cliffs and ridges known as Chickasaw Bluffs, which dominated the ground that Sherman’s four divisions would have to cross.
Sherman would have to push through a tangle of lakes, swamps and bayous inundated from recent rains and move uphill before he would reach the Confederate lines. The attack began on the morning of the 29th, with Sherman’s numbers only slightly greater than Pemberton’s and violating the three to one maxim for an attacking force to carry a prepared position. The result was a Union slaughter with a loss of about 2,000 killed, wounded or missing. In stark contrast, Confederate losses in killed, wounded or missing were only about 210. Sherman accepted the defeat in his memoirs, but despite the daunting odds, pointed to the cowardice of one of his divisional commanders, George W. Morgan, for the tactical failure, asserting that Morgan did not accompany his troops to the point of advance which he told Sherman he would do. Morgan hotly disputed this, saying that Sherman rashly attacked the strongest position of the Confederate line.
Grant said of the battle in his memoirs: “The waters were high so that the bottoms were generally overflowed, leaving only narrow causeways of dry land between points of debarkation and the high bluffs. These were fortified and defended at all points. The rebel position was impregnable against any force that could be brought against its front.” And he shortly later wrote “the real work of the campaign and siege of Vicksburg now began.”
From the South’s perspective, President Davis’ controversial decision to put Confederate General Pemberton, a northern native from Philadelphia, in charge of Vicksburg now looked smartly done. Further, the North’s cavalry had shown it was still inferior to their Southern counterparts led by the likes of Nathan Bedford Forrest.
That said, U.S. Grant indicated that he learned important lessons from the defeat – such as to seek dry ground from which to stage further assaults on the fortress Vicksburg.
This history brief is the third in a series of three.
The first in this series is: “The Civil War Was Won in the West” – or so they say.
The second in this series is: The Second Battle of Corinth and the Start of the Vicksburg Campaign.