When Halleck went east to take command of the entire United States Army, Grant inherited a situation in which Halleck had, as Sherman put it, “scattered” eighty thousand men into small garrisons all over northern Mississippi and western Tennessee. This was a time when the aggressive Grant and newly confident Sherman should have been able to take the experienced divisions that had fought at Shiloh and use them to seek out and attack the enemy. Instead, they found themselves inheriting a situation in which Halleck had tasked his forces with the duty of occupying cities and towns and guarding railroad lines, rather than engaging the Confederate generals they had recently defeated.
Sherman, newly promoted to major general of Volunteers, became the military governor of Memphis, then a city of twenty-three thousand, while his superior Grant made his headquarters at Corinth, a hundred miles to the east. Grant now commanded a military department that was geographically composed of northern Mississippi and the western parts of Tennessee and Kentucky; his spread-out field command consisted of the Army of the Tennessee, which he had commanded at Shiloh, and the army now under the command of Major General William Rosecrans that had been known as the Army of the Mississippi. In this period of flux, Grant was trying to rebuild a central striking force while dealing with Confederate guerrilla raids supported by the population of a large territory loyal to the Confederacy. He encouraged Sherman to send him not only military reports but also to “write freely and fully on all matters of public interest.”
Memphis, initially paralyzed by the Union victory at Shiloh and the sight of long federal columns marching into the city, quickly provided Sherman with many such “matters of public interest.” Soon after arriving at the city on the Mississippi in late July, he and his staff attended Sunday services at Calvary Episcopal Church. The intention was to appear quietly, in a neutral, peaceful setting. However, Sherman noticed that the clergyman omitted the prayer always said in prewar times for the president of the United States. Instantly, Sherman rose in the midst of the congregation and said the prayer in a loud, authoritative voice. The following day he decreed that the prayer would be offered at the next service, or the church would be closed. The prayer was duly said, and the church remained open.
That set the tone for Sherman’s conduct of the Union occupation of Memphis and the city’s response. Telling the mayor that “the Military for the time being must be superior to the Civil authority but does not therefore destroy it,” he reorganized the police force, established order, reopened everything from schools to theaters and saloons, and encouraged the resumption of all commercial activity including local riverboat trade in nonmilitary items. The former California banker even organized a real estate department in which his quartermasters opened up buildings vacated due to the war, rented out the space, and held the profits to be paid out later to owners willing to declare their loyalty to the federal government. Even though, as one of his officers wrote home to his mother, “Sherman never utters a word to bring the blush to the cheek of a maiden,” he let the city’s famous bordellos, known as “parlor houses,” continue their activities. Perhaps he learned of the attitudes of the many black prostitutes, who until then had only Southern white men as clients: a Union cavalryman said those women “felt loving towards us because they thought we were bringing them freedom, and they wouldn’t charge us a cent.”
During this time, Sherman and Grant had to develop ways to implement the evolving federal policies on the treatment of slaves. When the war began, the issue of secession, rather than the abolition of slavery, dominated the minds of most Northerners. Now, with Union armies controlling Southern communities, farms, and plantations, tens of thousands of slaves sought federal protection.
This reality—masses of slaves, many of them fugitives and all of them desperate for help and needing a new civil status—forced Abraham Lincoln to reconsider the issue. Although he wanted to free the slaves, he saw as his highest duty the preservation of the United States as one nation. At the war’s outset, trying to keep the border states out of the Confederacy, he had skirted the slavery issue to avoid antagonizing the many slaveholding families in those states. As the war progressed, Lincoln still had hopes of negotiating an early end, and he hesitated to put the abolition of slavery foremost—the position of the Radical faction of the Republicans in Congress—while he explored the possibilities of reaching peace at a table with Confederate leaders. Now, however, there were slaves to be cared for, a negotiated peace seemed beyond reach, and yet there was no law protecting the freed slaves. Their status was in such a legal limbo that earlier in the year, in March, Congress had enacted an article of war expressly forbidding the Union Army to return fugitive slaves to their masters.
Apart from the ideal of ending slavery, the North began to see that freeing the slaves, hitherto considered to be their owners’ legal property in the way that a horse or a house was, could be an economic weapon that also produced military advantages. Unpaid labor of slaves was an integral, vital part of the Southern economy, and to take slaves away from their owners would undermine the Confederacy’s infrastructure in ways that would also reduce its ability to continue the fight. On July 17, four days before Sherman arrived to rule Memphis, Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act. Motivated by a combination of idealism and practicality, this law freed the slaves of “persons engaged in or assisting the rebellion” and also provided for the seizure and sale of other property belonging to those actively supporting the Southern cause. On September 22, while Sherman still governed Memphis, Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. This statement declared that unless the Confederate states ceased their rebellion by the end of the year, as of January 1, 1863, all slaves in those states, not just those belonging to Confederate supporters, would be freed. In a continuing effort to keep the border states on the Union side, it did not declare that slaves outside of the seceded states would automatically be freed, but pledged a form of compensation for border states that adopted either immediate or gradual emancipation. (When the Emancipation Proclamation became operative, it also provided for the enlistment of black men in the army.)
The point came home to the entire white South: the war was now being waged not only on the military front; it would reach right into every part of the Confederacy’s economic life. In addition to their many other duties and concerns, Grant and Sherman started turning law into reality. On August 17, Sherman wrote Grant, concerning the Southern whites’ reaction, “Your orders about property and mine about niggers make them feel they can be hurt,” and in a letter of October 16 he added this thought: “We cannot change the hearts of the people of the South but we can make war so terrible that they will realize the fact that however brave and gallant and devoted to their country, still they are mortal and should exhaust all peaceful remedies before they fly to war.”
On the one hand, Sherman continued to see things as he had while living in prewar Louisiana. He thought that blacks were inferior beings, and, while regretting that slavery as an institution existed, he had no personal desire to force its abolition. Nonetheless, he was a soldier who intended to carry out his government’s policy: the Southern civilian population must cooperate with federal rule, as most of the people of Memphis were doing. As for Grant, whose wife and Missouri in-laws still owned slaves, he had recently written his strongly antislavery father that “I have no hobby of my own with regard to the negro, either to effect his freedom or continue his bondage. If Congress pass any law and the President approves, I am willing to execute it.” Echoing Sherman’s view that the South was beginning to “hurt” in ways besides suffering militarily, he wrote this to his sister Mary: “Their institution [the slaves] are beginning to have ideas of their own and every time an expedition goes out more or less of them follow in the wake of the army and come into camp. I am using them as teamsters, Hospital attendants &c. thus saving soldiers to carry the musket. I don’t know what is to become of these poor people in the end but it is weakning [sic] the enemy to take them from them.”
By November of 1862, following the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Grant began issuing specific orders concerning the treatment of “contrabands,” as fugitive slaves were known. They were to be cared for and the men put to work except for “such men as are not fit for active field duty.” For the first time in their lives, they would be paid. Grant set forth those conditions: “It will be the duty of the Superintendent of Contrabands to organize them into working parties in saving cotton, as pioneers [laborers assisting engineer troops] on railroads and steamboats, and in any way where their service can be made available … The negroes will be clothed, and in every way provided for, out of their earnings as far as practicable … In no case will negroes be forced into the service of the Government, or be enticed away from their homes except when it becomes a military necessity.”
In addition to implementing federal policies concerning slaves, Sherman had a variety of experiences with white citizens of Memphis who tested Union vigilance. Smuggling became pervasive: military supplies for Confederate forces left the city in coffins and in the carcasses of slaughtered cattle and hogs. Salt, badly needed to preserve and flavor Confederate rations, went out in barrels labeled as being something else. Sherman classified the sending of salt, chloroform, and medicines to the enemy as a treasonable activity punishable by penalties including death, but he used discretion in these cases. When two women, one aged and the other pregnant, tried to sneak out of Memphis together, carrying banned goods as well as a trunk of their clothes and two dresses, Sherman ruled that “the commanding General directs that the goods except the trunk and two dresses be confiscated. The ladies will go home and not attempt this again.”
Sherman and most of the citizens of Memphis continued on good terms, but outside the city, guerrillas wearing nothing that would identify them as Confederate soldiers fired on the Mississippi riverboats that Sherman allowed to move up and down the river. In late September, one of these vessels, not a Union gunboat or transport but a regular packet boat carrying nonmilitary goods and civilian passengers of both sides, was shot at near the rebellious small town of Randolph, Tennessee. Everyone in and near there got a taste of what Sherman was capable of doing. He had two infantry companies go into the town and burn it down. To make the scene of wreckage more dramatic, Sherman ordered that it be done “leaving one house,” and reported to Grant’s chief of staff John A. Rawlins that “the regiment has returned and Randolph is gone.” (In a letter to Ellen, he disposed of the matter in twenty words: “The Boats coming down are occasionally fired on. I have just sent a party to destroy the town of Randolph.”) Then he decreed that ten families would be expelled from Memphis every time such an attack occurred.
When a Confederate general sent him a letter under a flag of truce criticizing these actions, Sherman, never at a loss for words, replied that the general’s protest “excites a smile” because he knew full well that the general himself would not countenance men “without uniform, without organization except on paper, wandering about the country pillaging friend and foe, firing on unarmed boats filled with women and children … always from ambush or where they have every advantage.” The Confederate general persisted in the exchange, threatening to hang a captured Union officer. Sherman responded that when the guerrillas “fire on any boat, they are firing on their [own] Southern people, for such travel on every boat” and added that if a Union officer were hanged, “You initiate the game, and my word for it your people will regret it long after you pass from the earth.” To Grant, Sherman wrote, “They cannot be made to love us, but may be made to fear us.”
Other Northerners also were seeing the conflict in a harsher light. Senator John Sherman concurred with his brother, stating that “it is about time the North understood the truth, that the entire South, man woman & child is against us, armed and determined.” Ellen’s anger at the South took her even further than that. Two of her four brothers, Hugh and Charles, were now in the Union Army, with Charles serving as a lieutenant in one of Sherman’s infantry regiments and Hugh a colonel of an infantry regiment in the Eastern theater of war. Worried about her husband and two brothers, she apparently began to see Southern whites as doing the work of the devil. Ellen wrote Sherman that “I hope this may be not only a war of emancipation but of extermination & that all under the influence of the foul fiend may be driven like the Swine into the Sea. May we carry fire & sword into their states till not one habitation is left standing.”
While Sherman spent these months dealing with the complicated situation in and near Memphis, Grant remained at his headquarters in Corinth. Still without sufficient force to take the offensive while he tried to consolidate his units that had been “scattered” by Halleck, he was fortifying that railroad hub against an expected Confederate attack. None came, for the time being, and he sent for Julia and their four children to join him. She wrote of their arrival by train, at dusk.
We found the General’s ambulance awaiting us at the depot. The General and two or three of his staff officers accompanied us on horseback to headquarters. The General was so glad to see us and rode close beside the ambulance, stooping near and asking me if I was as glad to see him as he was to see me. He reached out and took my hand and gave it another and another warm pressure …
As we entered the encampment, which extended from near the depot to beyond the headquarters, the campfires were lighted, and I do not think I exaggerate when I say they numbered thousands. So it seemed to me. The men were singing “John Brown.” It seemed as though a hundred or so sang the words and the whole army joined in the chorus [“Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!”]. Oh, how grand it was! And now when I hear “John Brown” sung, that weird night with its campfires and glorious anthem and my escort all come back to me.
For six weeks, Ulysses and Julia Grant and their children had an idyllic reunion. They all lived at his headquarters, which Julia described as being “in a handsome and very comfortable country house, situated in a magnificent oak grove of great extent. The house was a frame one, surrounded by wide piazzas, sheltered by some sweet odor-giving vine —Madeira vine, I think. On the grounds were plantain, mimosa, and magnolia trees.”
A wide dirt walk surrounded the house and was kept neatly raked and sprinkled with water twice a day. The two youngest children, Nellie, seven, and Jess, four, loved to “make footprints with their little rosy feet in this freshly-raked earth.” This led to an evening ritual.
Each day, as they were being bathed and dressed for the evening, the same petition came.
“Mamma, please let us make footprints. It is so cool and pleasant. Do, Mamma; it is such clean dirt. Let us, please.” The General would answer, “Yes, you can. Why do you not ask me? I would always let you. It will not hurt you at all.” The staff officers joined in the petition, so the little ones made the footprints and enjoyed it too.
Grant had much paperwork to attend to every day and worried about the amount of time the Confederate armies were being given to reorganize, but he thrived on Julia’s attentions. Gaunt after Shiloh, he gained fifteen pounds during the weeks she was with him. She knew his tastes: Grant liked to eat small portions of plain food, unadorned by sauces or dressings. He enjoyed nibbling on fruit, and liked corn, pork, beans, and buckwheat cakes. Grant had a taste for oysters and clams; for breakfast he sometimes ate cucumbers with his coffee. (Once, when Julia remonstrated with him for mixing several of these different foods, a pickle among them, at one sitting, he said, “Let ’em fight it out down there,” and continued to eat.)
Julia was at this time thirty-six, becoming stout but still with the lively personality and outgoing conversational manners of a Southern belle, a general’s wife who was happy to sew on buttons for the officers working at headquarters, a woman who walked with a businesslike stride to visit officers and enlisted men in the hospital. Grant’s staff, most of them younger than she, enjoyed her company and were devoted to her. Not only did Julia and the children bring with them a taste of the family life they missed, but she accomplished something far more important: when she was with her husband, he never drank.
Grant’s susceptibility to alcohol was the subject of many different stories, during the war and ever after. They ranged from statements by those close to him that he drank not a drop during the war years, to accounts that had him crawling on his hands and knees, vomiting, and being carried to bed unconscious. His staff threw a nearly impenetrable mantle over the subject. There are internal headquarters letters on this subject to Grant from John A. Rawlins, the roughhewn lawyer from Galena who was the chief of Grant’s headquarters staff and a man Grant particularly trusted. A visitor characterized Rawlins as having “very little respect for persons and a rough style of conversation,” even cursing at Grant on occasion, but Rawlins used a respectful, even solemn, tone in his letters reproaching Grant for drinking incidents and warning him of the dangers of repeating them. Many years later, Sherman wrote, “We all knew at the time that Genl Grant would occasionally drink too much—he always encouraged me to talk freely of this & other things and I always noticed that he could with an hour’s sleep wake up perfectly sober & bright—and when any thing was pending, he was invariably abstinent of drink.” (According to a famous story, when Lincoln received a complaint about Grant’s drinking, he told the person making the complaint to find out the brand of liquor Grant drank, so that he could send barrels of it to his other generals. When asked about this, Lincoln, who loved a good story, replied that he wished he’d said it, but hadn’t.)
In other matters, unusual things happened to Julia at Corinth. A day or two before her visit ended, she was sitting near Grant, writing a letter, when she looked up and saw a young man in civilian clothes whom she did not know near the door and peering into the room. When he seemed startled to see her, Julia calmly penned this on the margin of the letter she was writing, and handed it to her husband: “Who is this strange young man? He is much interested in what is going on here. I am sure he must be a spy.” Without a word, Grant wrote his answer on the same piece of paper and handed it back to her. “You are right. He is in our employ.” (It was later discovered that this spy, free to come and go, was in fact a double agent, working at different times for both sides.)
During this same autumn of 1862, Sherman was joined in Memphis by Ellen and their six-year-old son Tommy. She wrote that at the age of forty-two, her husband looked “thin & worn being more wrinkled than most men of sixty,” but found him “cheerful & well.” Tommy had a wonderful time. Occasionally he was allowed to take a blanket and sleep with some of Sherman’s soldiers in their tents. The men liked him, and a company tailor made him a uniform that had corporal’s stripes on its sleeves. Writing a letter that began “My Dear Children,” after Ellen and Tommy left for home with Tommy proudly wearing his uniform, Sherman told them that Tommy “thinks he is a Real soldier with a leave of absence for 7 years until he becomes fourteen when he must join his Company. No body can tell what may happen in the next seven years and therefore Tommy was very prudent in getting a seven years absence.”
Soon after Julia and their children left Grant at Corinth, the relatively quiet and indecisive nature of the post-Shiloh military situation changed. Halleck had given Grant two of the three Union armies operating in the Western theater of war—the names and structure of the Western forces were changed several times—and the third was under the separate command of Don Carlos Buell. With Grant and Sherman’s forces still heavily committed to occupation duty in the Mississippi River area, the same Southern generals whom Grant and Sherman defeated at Shiloh decided to attack Buell. Moving slowly as usual, Buell was well east of the Mississippi, marching his army toward Confederate-held Chattanooga. Braxton Bragg came up with the plan: link up with Edward Kirby Smith’s army of eighteen thousand men who were in eastern Tennessee, smash Buell, recapture Nashville, get back into Kentucky, take Louisville, and move up the Ohio River to Cincinnati. (Beauregard loved the idea, citing the words of the French revolutionary leader Danton’s slogan that translate as, “Audacity, more audacity, always audacity.”)
Bragg completely outmaneuvered Buell, retaking central Tennessee without fighting a battle, and Halleck was forced to strip Grant of nearly half his men and have their commanders rush them north. Grant had no choice but to remain on the defensive, far south of the new and very real Confederate threat to territory that had come under Union control many months before. It seemed entirely possible that, five months after Shiloh, the Confederate Army might take the war right back to, and in some cases beyond, its original boundaries. Buell was falling back toward Louisville, with Bragg marching to the same destination on a parallel route. Kirby Smith rode into Lexington, Kentucky, just 80 miles south of Cincinnati and the Ohio River. In the East, Robert E. Lee won decisively at Second Manassas and crossed the Potomac heading north into Maryland. Days after that, Stonewall Jackson occupied Frederick, Maryland, and went on to take the United States Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, capturing twelve thousand men and vast stores of weapons and equipment. The North found itself in the worst situation since the war began.
Grant’s contribution to turning the tide came when the Confederate high command underestimated what he could do with the reduced Union forces he still had with him. At the time when Bragg was writing his subordinate Sterling Price that he was sure that Price and Confederate general Earl Van Dorn could “dispose of” Sherman and Union general William Rosecrans, after which they should move north “and we shall confidently meet you on the Ohio,” Grant once again decided to attack first. The result was the battle on September 19 at luka, twenty-five miles east of Corinth. An indecisive engagement in itself, it stopped Price’s move north to reinforce Bragg. At that point Price and Van Dorn threw their twenty-two thousand soldiers at Corinth, where Rosecrans had twenty thousand men waiting for them in the entrenchments Grant had built. In fierce fighting, the Confederates were repulsed. Tears coming down his cheeks, Price watched his torn-to-pieces divisions march away from Corinth: of the twenty-two thousand men who attacked in the morning, by late afternoon five thousand were dead, wounded, or missing.
The Confederate Army’s position also deteriorated in the East, and then in Kentucky. In a tremendous clash at Antietam Creek in Maryland on September 17, Lee, with forty thousand men, outmaneuvered and initially held his own against McClellan’s field army of seventy-five thousand—a force nearly twice that of the Confederates. Although Lee had to withdraw, it was the clearest possible demonstration of his skill as well as the ability and determination of his Army of Northern Virginia, and McClellan’s failure to pursue Lee brought about the end of his military career, but the losses on both sides, totaling 23,500, exceeded those at Shiloh. Despite his performance at Antietam, Lee’s effort to carry the war into the North had failed, with casualties the Confederacy could not afford, and he withdrew his divisions south across the Potomac. (Lincoln had been waiting for some good news to strengthen the Union’s political position and war aims, and, although Lee’s failed offensive was short of the kind of victory he hoped for, he issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation five days later.) At Perryville, Kentucky, an outnumbered Braxton Bragg nearly prevailed over Don Carlos Buell, but Bragg’s momentum and strength were spent, and he had to retreat to Tennessee. (A result of the Battle of Antietam was that Ellen Sherman’s brother Hugh, after distinguishing himself there, was promoted to brigadier general and sent west to serve under Sherman.)
Ever since the Confederates’ costly failure at Corinth, Grant had been planning to take the offensive, with Sherman ceasing his role as military governor of Memphis to lead Union forces in battle. It would require many weeks to get the massive and complicated movement organized and under way, but Grant intended to take the immensely strong Southern bastion of Vicksburg, Mississippi, 200 miles down the Mississippi River from Memphis. Across the river from this stronghold was the bayou country of Louisiana. Known as the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy,” Vicksburg was a small city, but it was surrounded by a lethal defensive network that would make the whole complex singularly hard to capture. One Union observer described its combination of natural defenses and fortifications filled with artillery as being part of “an ugly place, with its line of bluffs commanding the channel for fully seven miles, and battery piled above battery all the way.” (Some of those bluffs rose two hundred feet above the river.)
Before making any attack, points near the city would have to be approached through a cleverly defended maze of waterways, many miles of which looped through the flat marshland of the bayous. Grant saw that it would require an entire campaign, fighting a number of battles, simply to reach the places from which to launch a final offensive: as he put it in a letter to Julia, “Heretofore I have had nothing to do but fight the enemy. This time I have to overcome obsticles [sic] to reach him.”
Even more than before, Grant needed the men and ships of the United States Navy to work with him, as they had at Belmont, Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, and Shiloh. The senior Union naval officer in the area, Acting Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter, had recently taken command of the Mississippi Squadron. Once again, Grant had an exceptionally able naval officer ready to support him, a man eager to play his part in amphibious operations. The forty-nine-year-old Porter was the son of a United States Navy commander who had been a hero in the War of 1812; the elder Porter had also adopted a boy named David Farragut. In 1826, Porter’s father resigned from the United States Navy to become commander in chief of the Mexican Navy. At the age of fourteen, young Porter went to sea aboard his father’s flagship; after training he was transferred to other vessels, and before his fifteenth birthday was captured in a battle with a Spanish warship and spent six months as a prisoner of war in a prison ship in Havana Harbor. Making his way back to the United States when he was sixteen, he became a midshipman aboard the famous American man-o’-war Constellation, and in the next twenty years he rose to command his own ship, the USS Spitfire, during the Mexican War.
Now, in the Civil War, Porter was coming into his own. In the capture of New Orleans, which took place in the weeks just after Shiloh, he had served with distinction under his foster brother David Farragut, but it was Porter who conceived of the amphibious operation that seized the city. (Farragut would become immortal with his “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” uttered at Mobile Bay, but Porter endeared himself to many with his remark, “A ship without Marines is like a garment without buttons.”) Five feet six inches in height, Porter was an outspoken, ambitious officer with a considerable ego. He lived well. A man who loved to ride when he was ashore, Porter maintained two fine horses aboard his side-wheeler flag boat Blackhawk, along with cows to supply milk and butter for his highly regarded officer’s mess.
Porter described in his diary his awkward first meeting with Grant. On an evening in early December of 1862, the nattily uniformed Porter was at a dinner party aboard an army quartermaster’s riverboat at Cairo, Illinois, feasting on roast duck and champagne. His army host was called away from the table and returned with an unexpected guest, a travel-stained man wearing a wrinkled brown civilian coat and gray trousers. “Admiral Porter,” the army quartermaster said, “meet General Grant.”
Possessing a measure of the mistrust that often existed between the navy and army, and worried that Grant might think of him more as a bon vivant than the fighting sailor he was, Porter soon found that the plainspoken Grant had only one thing on his mind: Vicksburg, and how to take it. As if the roast duck and champagne did not exist, for twenty minutes Grant spoke earnestly with Porter, indicating his need for all the help Porter and his ships could give him in the forthcoming campaign and telling him something of his plans. Impressed by Grant’s “determination” and “calm, imperturbable face,” Porter pledged him his fullest cooperation, and Grant walked off the ship.
In his journal, Porter also recorded the details of his first meeting with Sherman, some days later in Memphis. He first described Sherman’s headquarters in the Gayoso House, the best hotel in town. Struck by the sparse furnishings and the intense concentration displayed by the men at every desk, he noted that the officers were “bronzed and weather-beaten,” and dressed in the simplest of uniforms. Despite the air of efficiency, this naval officer on whom much depended had to wait an hour before Sherman appeared from an inner room. “He seemed surprised to see me, when I introduced myself, and informed me that he did not know I was there.” Having said that, Sherman began conferring with one of his quartermasters as if Porter were not present. “I was not, I must confess, much impressed with Gen’l Sherman’s courtesy.” Then Sherman finished his conversation. “He turned to me in the most pleasant way, poked up the fire, and talked as if he had known me all his life … He told me all he had done, what he was doing, and what he intended to do, jumping up every three minutes to send a message to someone.” Porter walked out of the Gayoso House liking Sherman and feeling confident that they would work well together. (They remained friends for the rest of their lives and died in the same month in 1891.)
As 1862 ended, Grant continued preparing for the Vicksburg campaign. More than ever, he came to rely on Sherman, and the tone of his letters differed from those he sent his other generals. Writing Sherman at a time when their headquarters were only ten miles apart, he enclosed a letter from Halleck, in which the general in chief, mistakenly informed that Grenada, Mississippi, had been captured by Union forces, told Grant that this “may change our plans in regard to Vicksburg.” Grant, thinking that the report was accurate, said to Sherman, “I wish you would come over this evening and stay to-night, or come over in the morning. I would like to talk with you about this matter.” Grant described two courses of action and added, “Of the two plans I look most favorably on the former.” He closed with, “Come over and we will talk this matter over.”
At a time when Grant needed to concentrate on military plans, more problems with “matters of public interest” arose. The first involved illegal trading in cotton, the South’s great export crop and the one so widely grown in the area of Grant’s and Sherman’s responsibility. Before the war, Southern cotton had flowed in constant great quantities to Northern textile mills and to those in England. Now, a year and a half into the war, that trade was disrupted. Not only did the Union naval blockade of the Southern ports and the seizure of New Orleans the past April deprive the English mills of virtually all of the commodity on which their production depended, but the war produced a similar crisis on the American scene. With armies fighting in the areas between the Northern mills and their source of supply, Northern textile operators were themselves desperate for cotton. The North needed cotton, and the South needed Northern-manufactured goods, as well as cash that was not in the form of the already depreciated Confederate dollar. Some patriotic Southern planters burnt their cotton to deny it to the North, but others stored hundreds of thousands of bales and waited to see what would happen.
A lot did. For months, speculators had been coming south, offering the highest prices for cotton that the South had seen in sixty years. In Washington, the Treasury Department thought that restoring the cotton trade would in effect bribe many Southerners back into loyalty to the Union, and indeed the case could be made that the Union Army itself needed shirts, bandages, tents, and other items made from cotton. The War Department, however, felt that these Northern dollars would end up financing the Confederate Army and took a negative view of this trade between enemies. A compromise reached within the federal government produced instructions to Grant. He was to permit the activities of these Northern traders, as long as they held permits, did not go into enemy territory, and did not offer gold to the cotton sellers. This became meaningless: the speculators attached themselves to Union army regiments, avoided any kind of regulation, and handsomely bribed federal officers and men to look the other way while they dealt with anyone they chose, in any way that suited them.
Both Grant and Sherman found the situation infuriating: as they saw it, while brave Northern boys died, profiteers poured into the South to trade with the enemy, ruining discipline in Union Army camps and creating bad feeling among the men, some of whom were making little fortunes working with the speculators, while others were not. (In Memphis, Sherman believed there was even some treasonous barter in which cotton was traded for Northern pistols and chemicals that were used for explosives.) Sherman tried to have Northern cotton buyers pay in such a way that the profits would be held by his quartermasters until the rebellion was over, thus guaranteeing that no Northern money could aid the Confederate military, but Halleck sent on to him a federal government order to desist. Sherman grudgingly obeyed, but he wrote: “Commerce must follow the flag, but in truth commerce supplies our enemy with the means to follow the [enemy] flag and the Government whose emblem it is.”
Grant wanted the speculators banned from his army’s camps and decided that the only way to accomplish that was to ban them from the entire area of his military department. Most of the speculators were not Jews, but a good number were, and both Grant and Sherman began to characterize them all as being Jewish. Sherman’s position on the “cotton order” was that he had tried to regulate the Memphis economy by forcing all Southerners to trade with one another in Confederate dollars, but this speculation in cotton with freelance Northern brokers was a different matter. He had already written Ellen that Memphis was “full of Jews & speculators buying cotton for gold & [federal] treasury notes, the very things the Confederates wanted, money. I am satisfied the [Confederate] army got enough money & supplies from this Quarter to last a year.” He also wrote an angry letter to the army’s adjutant general Lorenzo Thomas, who a year before had characterized Sherman’s attitude while in Louisville as being “insane” but now treated carefully the man who had done so much at Shiloh and been promoted to major general. In it, Sherman said: “If the policy of this government demands cotton, order us to seize it … This cotton order is worse to us than a defeat. The [surrounding] country will swarm with dishonest Jews who will smuggle powder, pistols, percussion caps, etc. in spite of all the guards and precautions we can give.”
Grant soon had a personally embittering experience involving Jews, in which he felt that his father betrayed him. A year before, when his father had asked him to use his influence in getting an army contract for the manufacture of harnesses, Grant told him firmly in a letter that “I cannot take an active part in securing contracts” and tried to explain to his dyed-in-the-wool businessman father the concept of conflict of interest. Now his father arrived at his headquarters at Holly Springs, Mississippi, to visit him, accompanied by three of his business acquaintances, brothers from Cincinnati named Henry, Harmon, and Simon Mack. The Macks, who were Jewish, had a trading enterprise known as Mack and Brothers, and had entered into some form of partnership with Jesse Grant.
Grant was happy to see his father, with whom he had always had a difficult relationship, and thought that he had come on a purely personal visit. He soon saw how wrong he was: his father and the Macks wanted him to use his influence to get them one of the prized permits to buy cotton and ship it north. Grant had the three Macks put on the next train going north, and Jesse Grant also left.
Just how much this confrontation influenced Grant cannot be said, but on December 17, 1862, Grant had published for the guidance of his entire military department his General Orders No. 11.
The Jews, as a class, violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department, and also [War] Department orders, are hereby expelled from the Department.
Within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order by Post Commanders, they will see that all of this class of people are furnished with passes and required to leave, and anyone remaining after such notification, will be arrested and held in confinement until an opportunity occurs of sending them out as prisoners unless furnished with permits from these headquarters.
It took a while for the contents of this order to reach the North, but apparently the first person to act was Cesar J. Kaskel, of Paducah, who led a delegation of Jews to Washington and met with President Lincoln. Hearing what his visitors had to say, Lincoln commented, “And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?” Kaskel replied, “Yes, and that is why we have come to Father Abraham’s bosom, asking protection.” Lincoln said, “And this protection they shall have at once.”
Halleck had the duty of informing Grant that the order must be “immediately revoked” and later explained to him that “the President has no objection to your expelling traders and Jew pedlars, which I suppose was the object of your order, but [because] it prescribed an entire class, some of whom are fighting in our ranks, the President deemed it necessary to revoke it.” Grant grudgingly complied, but the story reached the press: The New York Times, which previously had praised Grant, now condemned him for issuing an order in “the spirit of the medieval age.” Congress voted along party lines on a measure to censure Grant. The Democrats nearly prevailed in the House, losing by three votes, fifty-three to fifty-six, but the Republican-controlled Senate defeated it thirty to seven.
This controversy faded; now Grant became involved in a new chapter of the old story of political appointments of military officers. Readying his army for the campaign down the Mississippi toward Vicksburg, with Sherman slated for a vital role in that, Grant learned of the recent activities of Major General John McClernand. It was McClernand’s division that had collapsed and run at Fort Donelson, requiring Grant to restore order in its ranks, and at Shiloh, while McClernand stood his ground, Grant formed an opinion he later expressed that McClernand was “incompetent.”
As was the case with so many political appointments, McClernand was entirely unqualified to be a general. An influential lawyer and politician from Illinois, he had served three terms in the Illinois legislature and had represented Abraham Lincoln’s congressional district in the House of Representatives. His sole military experience prior to being commissioned as a brigadier general of Illinois Volunteers at the outset of the Civil War had been three months’ service, thirty years before, as a private during the campaign against the Sac and Fox Indians in northern Illinois known as the Black Hawk War. During that conflict, he had displayed courage and resourcefulness in taking a dispatch through a hundred miles of territory held by hostile warriors, but he had never commanded even a squad of soldiers. Although a Democrat, McClernand had been a good friend to Lincoln, who always took care of those from the state in which he rose politically. Second in seniority within Grant’s military department because of his date of rank, in September McClernand had taken a long leave, which Grant was happy to approve. Now Grant learned that McClernand had gone to Washington and talked his friends Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton into letting him go to Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana, to recruit a large and entirely separate force of Volunteers, which he would then command, taking over the expedition to capture Vicksburg. McClernand was now successfully raising those many regiments. Grant and Sherman, who were emerging as the two ablest officers in the Western theater and were presumably the leaders who might be able to take Vicksburg if it could be done at all, had been told none of this.
It had been a stunning lapse on the part of Abraham Lincoln, whose military judgment was frequently better than that of his generals. In this case, politics completely dominated the president’s thinking. Lincoln had needed the support of McClernand and other prominent “War Democrats” to support his Republican administration’s decision to enter the war. In the recent midterm congressional elections, the Republicans had fared badly. As the casualty lists lengthened, the war was becoming increasingly unpopular in just those Democrat-leaning states in which McClernand proposed to enlist many thousands of needed soldiers. The vision that McClernand had presented to Lincoln and Stanton was of himself, a well-known Democrat from Lincoln’s home state, giving a bipartisan flavor to a new Western army that he would lead to an enormously significant victory that would strengthen Lincoln’s position as well as his own.
Halleck had the most serious reservations about McClernand and the entire scheme, and shared Grant and Sherman’s dismay about it. For a change, Halleck moved swiftly. He saw the thorniest part of the problem: incompetent or not, McClernand was senior to Sherman, and McClernand’s letter from the president authorizing his actions could give him the power to override Grant. If McClernand got down to Memphis with what was in effect a newly raised private army, it would be hard to stop him from wrecking Grant’s plans. He might be able to proceed to Vicksburg and lose every man of his untrained force. The stage was set for a spectacular disaster.
Having demonstrated after Shiloh that he could hogtie Grant, Halleck now used his bureaucratic skills to stop McClernand. First, he told Grant to set up his headquarters in Memphis, where he was reunited with Sherman. Then, as McClernand’s newly recruited regiments came into being, Halleck ordered each new unit to report to Grant in Memphis. Grant asked Halleck if these troops, and Sherman, were under his command or “reserved for some special service.” The moment that Halleck replied that every soldier now within the boundaries of Grant’s department was his to command, Grant understood the unspoken part of the message: start yourself, Sherman, and all the troops down the river heading for Vicksburg, before McClernand comes down and starts trying to take over.
Pleased, Grant, then in La Grange, Tennessee, wrote Sherman, “The mysterious rumors of McClernand’s command left me in doubt as to what I should do … I therefore telegraphed Halleck … He replied that all troops sent into the Department would be under my controll [sic]. Fight the enemy in my own way … I think it advisable to move on the enemy as soon as you can leave Memphis.”
When McClernand eventually did show up along the Mississippi and began using Lincoln’s letter of authorization in an effort to take command of the four divisions under Sherman, Halleck gave Grant the backing he had so often and so conspicuously withheld: “You are hereby authorized to relieve McClernand from command of the expedition against Vicksburg, giving it to the next in rank [Sherman] or taking it yourself.”
Grant decided to take command himself, working closely with Sherman as he had always planned to do. When McClernand insisted that the matter receive Lincoln’s personal review, Grant agreed. Someone, surely Halleck and perhaps others, must have been talking to Lincoln and Stanton: the president quickly told McClernand to obey the orders given him by his military superiors and to be satisfied with the command of the army corps Grant assigned to him for the expedition.
During the closing months of 1862, Grant and Sherman had worked their way through a political and administrative labyrinth. Grant had emerged as the undisputed leader in the Western theater and had consolidated the units of his command that Halleck had, as Sherman put it, “scattered” across a wide area. As for Sherman, he had come to Memphis as its military governor, found the city in a chaotic condition, and in four months had brought it to a state of law-abiding prosperity. Placed back in command of troops by Grant, he was relieved of his role as military governor.
Now, in December, Grant and Sherman began to face the realities of the most formidable military challenge any Union generals had thus far confronted. This was the attempt to capture Vicksburg, the immensely strong bastion located deep in the Confederacy, which was defended by an army of brave and determined men. Sherman was to describe it as the strongest defensive position he ever saw. Grant offered his appraisal of the fortified riverfront city that had a peacetime population of forty-five hundred, the second largest city in Mississippi after Natchez: “Admirable for defense. On the north it is about two hundred feet above the Mississippi River at the highest point and very much cut up with cane and underbrush by the washing rains; the ravines were grown up with cane and underbrush while the sides and tops were covered with a dense forest.”
It would be suicide to come across the river from the Louisiana side and land directly under the cliffs of this fortress on the east bank of the Mississippi, but simply getting near enough to attack from any other direction presented enormous problems. The approach on land from the north led through marshes, and to approach from the east would extend supply lines already being successfully raided by Nathan Bedford Forrest.
The approach from the south, which was Vicksburg’s least defensible area, presented great advantages, coupled with a possibly insurmountable problem. If an army could get into place on dry land below Vicksburg on the eastern side of the river, it could move north up to the city and begin extending itself around its defenses, to the point where it might be possible to have it encircled on three sides, with the other side being the river. Then there would be no escape for the besieged defenders. The problem was how to get such a large force there. For many more weeks, the entire low-lying Louisiana side of the river opposite Vicksburg would be so inundated with winter and spring rains that Sherman could not march his forces south along that bank. Men on foot and on horseback might possibly struggle through the bayous, but it was impassable for artillery pieces and wagonloads of supplies. That left only the extraordinarily hazardous choice of moving down the river itself. If Grant tried to use ships to move his troops, heavy equipment, and supplies, they would have to pass within range of the Confederate cannon placed on the bluffs above the water.
In the months to come, Grant would make seven different efforts to reach Vicksburg and surround it. In the first move, Grant led forty thousand men south toward Jackson, Mississippi, east of Vicksburg, in a diversionary maneuver intended to pull Confederate forces out of that stronghold while Sherman brought thirty-two thousand men down the river aboard ships in an amphibious operation and landed them at Chickasaw Bluffs, just north of the city. Grant’s overland approach was thwarted by the movements of thirty-five hundred Confederate cavalrymen under Major General Earl Van Dorn. Sherman’s four divisions were decisively repulsed when enormous rains, at places raising the Mississippi twelve feet above its usual level, literally washed them out of their attacking positions as the defenders inflicted on them casualties of 208 killed, 1,005 wounded, and 563 missing. (Sherman wrote Ellen, “Well we have been to Vicksburg and it was too much for us and we have backed out.”)
Immediately after his withdrawal, Sherman told Grant that “I assume responsibility and attach fault to no one.” Then he saw an article written by Thomas W. Knox, the leading war correspondent of The New York Herald. Ignoring Sherman’s order that no journalists could accompany the recent failed expedition, Knox had been aboard a transport. Relying on interviews he conducted more or less at random with some of the participants immediately after the retreat, Knox wrote that Sherman had bungled the attack and failed to take adequate care of his wounded. He termed Sherman’s behavior “unaccountable”—a word that echoed the reports by journalists a year before that Sherman was insane.
Learning of Sherman’s anger about his article and the way the information was obtained, Knox wrote a conciliatory note to Sherman, telling him that he had since learned from the battle reports many mitigating facts about the recent failure at Chickasaw and offering to retract his story. In no way mollified, Sherman had him arrested and held for trial by a court-martial. When they met face-to-face, Knox managed to worsen the situation. Clearly referring to the manner in which Sherman had banned reporters from his camps as long ago as his time in Kentucky, he said, “Of course, General Sherman, I have no feeling against you personally, but you are regarded as the enemy of our set [the press] and we must in self-defense write you down.” Sherman had Knox charged with violating his order excluding nonmilitary personnel from the recent expedition and of breaking a War Department rule that no information concerning military activities could be printed without permission from the commanding officer of the area in which they took place.
The matter quickly became a cause célèbre, It was the first time in American history that a journalist had faced a military court. While Sherman went on to win an engagement at Arkansas Post, up the river from Vicksburg, and then to save Admiral Porter’s fleet from destruction when it was surrounded by enemy forces in the swamps at Steele’s Bayou, much of the press concentrated on condemning him both as a commander and as an enemy of free speech. Sherman remained resolute, informing the court-martial judges that he considered Knox to be in effect a spy who gave the enemy information about Union movements and losses that Knox had broken a specific ban to acquire. As the trial continued for several weeks, Sherman gathered statements from officers who had been at Chickasaw, including Porter: the naval leader observed that two of Sherman’s generals had handled their divisions in a deficient manner but said of Sherman’s leadership of the force as a whole, “Sherman managed his men most beautifully … He did nobly until the rain drowned his army out of the swamps.” Sherman had all this copied and sent to his senator brother in Washington, to his wife and her lawyer brother Philemon, and to Grant. He wrote Ellen that if the press was running the war, he might as well resign from the army.
Grant, who was trying to conduct an extraordinarily complex military campaign, had through his own experience come to dislike and mistrust the press, although his overall handling of journalists was far better than Sherman’s. When the verdict came down, ordering that Knox be banished from Grant’s military department and would be arrested if he returned, Grant knew that President Lincoln was under intense pressure to use his discretionary power to overturn the decision. Knox went to Washington and saw the president, who needed the goodwill of the Northern press. Lincoln told him that he would revoke the sentence if the commanding general of the department, Grant, would agree to that.
Grant had no doubt as to what his commander in chief wanted him to do. He made his decision in the form of a letter to Knox. Grant told the reporter that he had in fact violated Sherman’s order against traveling with the amphibious force, that he had attacked Sherman’s reputation and had suggested that Sherman was insane. He went on to say that “General Sherman is one of the ablest soldiers and purest men in this country … Whilst I would conform to the slightest wish of the President where it is formed upon a fair representation of both sides of any question, my respect for General Sherman is such that in this case I must decline, unless General Sherman first gives his consent to your remaining.”
Sherman had the last word. He wrote Knox, “Come with a sword or musket in your hand, prepared to share with us our fate in sunshine and storm, in prosperity and adversity, in plenty and scarcity, and I will welcome you as a brother and associate; but come as you do now, expecting me to ally the reputation and honor of my country and my fellow-soldiers with you as the representative of the press which you yourself say makes so slight a difference between truth and falsehood and my answer is Never!”
Grant had risked his standing in Washington for Sherman; later in the campaign, Sherman would demonstrate his willingness to sacrifice his military reputation for Grant. When Grant considered having Sherman distract the enemy’s attention by making a large and deceptive thrust toward Hayne’s Bluff, up the river from Vicksburg, he wrote Sherman that he thought the feint would be “good,” but added that he was “loth” to order it, in effect because the public might consider it to be another defeat such as Sherman had suffered at Chickasaw Bluffs. Sherman stoutly replied that Grant had “good reason to divert attention … That is sufficient for me and it shall be done.” Recognizing that there were journalists who were after both of them (as the unsuccessful efforts to approach Vicksburg dragged on, one editor characterized Grant as a “foolish, drunken, stupid … ass”), Sherman added, “As to the Reports in newspapers we must scorn them, else they will ruin us and the country. They are as much enemies to Good Government as the sesech [secessionists] and between the two I like the sesech best, because they are a brave open enemy & not a set of sneaking croaking scoundrels. I believe a diversion at Haines [sic] Bluff is proper right and will make it, let whatever reports of Repulse be made.”
When Sherman’s troops were landed at Hayne’s Bluff and then withdrawn, the amphibious maneuver proved to be not particularly useful in distracting Confederate attention from Union movements farther south, but the significance of the correspondence about the operation between Grant and Sherman was that it underscored the way they were supporting each other. As for their problems with the press, Grant needed no encouragement from Sherman regarding what both believed to be their right to conduct their operations free from newspaper reports that might assist the enemy. From Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana, twenty miles above Vicksburg on the Mississippi, Grant fired off a message to Major General Stephen Hurlbut, who had replaced Sherman as military governor of Memphis: “Suppress the entire press of Memphis for giving aid and comfort to the enemy by publishing in their columns every move made here by troops and every [engineering] work commenced. Arrest the Editor of the Bulliten [sic] and send him here a prisoner, under guard, for his publication of present plans.”
Although they saw the press in the same light, there were times when Sherman disagreed with Grant’s strategy, and said so. At one point, when nothing seemed to be working, he strongly recommended that Grant take most of his army back to Memphis and move south again by an untried route. After advocating his plan in a conversation with Grant, he set it forth in a seven-point memorandum to Grant’s chief of staff John Rawlins, but closed with this: “I make these suggestions, with the request that General Grant will read them and give them, as I know he will, a share of his thoughts. I should prefer that he should not answer this letter, but merely give it as much or as little weight as it deserves. Whatever plan of action he may adopt will receive from me the same zealous cooperation and energetic support as though conceived by myself.”
Grant had a plan entirely different from Sherman’s, possibly the boldest idea of the war. He had already tried approaching Vicksburg by digging canals through the bayous and blowing the levee at Yazoo Pass to create a flood, and had been defeated by combinations of weather and terrain, long, vulnerable supply lines, and Confederates moving within their home territory to counter him at every point. Now he decided to do what the enemy, and everyone else, considered to be impossible. Placing his faith in his naval colleague Porter, he would run some gunboats and transports down the river under the murderous rows of artillery batteries placed on the miles of bluffs at Vicksburg, but do it at night.
The plan had enormous risks: not only would the ships have to run the gauntlet of enemy cannon, but in the darkness they could easily collide or run aground. If they got through, however, passing the swamps to their west, Grant’s men could go ashore on solid ground on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi below Vicksburg. This could then be used as a staging area for both the soldiers on the transports and the many thousands of Sherman’s troops who would soon be able march down the west bank in drier weather to join them there. If all this worked, Grant could ferry his army across the river to the east bank, below Vicksburg, and attack from the side of the city the enemy was least prepared to defend.
The news of what Grant intended to do reached the authorities in Washington. For a change, the secret was kept, but many who knew of it thought that Grant was about to lose Porter’s ships and a good part of his army. Stanton disapproved; Halleck was worried. But months had passed, the press and the public wanted action, Grant had tried so many strategies, and nothing else had worked. No one told Grant to stop, but the stage was set for a shocked disavowal of Grant’s actions if news of a disaster came north.
Before embarking on this dramatic move, Grant wanted to make a reconnaissance up the Yazoo River, a tributary of the Mississippi above Vicksburg. At just this point a journalist of a different sort arrived at Grant’s headquarters, a man with far more power than the officers there at first realized he had. He was Charles A. Dana, the former managing editor of Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. At forty-three, he still had decades ahead of him in one of the great American journalistic careers of the nineteenth century. He came now not as a reporter but as a “special commissioner” appointed by Secretary of War Stanton to investigate the practices of paymasters in the Mississippi theater of war.
Dana was a brilliant, mercurial man, a descendant of a galaxy of New England figures that included Abigail Adams. He had studied at Harvard until his eyes failed him; he had combined physical labor with intellectual activity living at the Brook Farm experiment started by Ralph Waldo Emerson and other Transcendentalists; he had covered the revolutions of 1848 in Paris as a foreign correspondent. Going to Germany later that year, he met Karl Marx, who a few months earlier had published the Communist Manifesto. Three years later, Dana arranged for Marx to write letters on European affairs for the Tribune, and when Dana and the Tribune’s literary editor George Ripley began what became the sixteen-volume American Cyclopaedia, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels started contributing what became a total of eighty-one articles on politics and military affairs. Four years before the war began, while continuing all his journalistic activities, Dana founded and edited the widely read and profitable Household Book of Poetry, which broadened the readership of such writers as Edgar Allan Poe. One of Lincoln’s strong journalistic supporters, he knew both Lincoln and Stanton. Dana had met Grant in Memphis the previous year and recalled “the pleasant impression Grant made—that of a man of simple manners, straightforward, cordial, and unpretending.” A combination of intellectual and outdoorsman, the athletic Dana had been unable to join the military because of his bad eyes and wanted to help the Union cause.
“Special Commissioner” Dana was in fact a spy of sorts, sent by Lincoln and Stanton to stay at Grant’s headquarters and make his own estimate of Grant’s behavior and ability. Tales continued to reach Washington of Grant’s occasionally being drunk, and General McClernand, while outwardly reconciled to his position subordinate to Grant, had been sending his allies in the capital incessant criticism of Grant’s performance as a general. The campaign intended to capture Vicksburg had been under way for four months; Lincoln wanted to continue to believe in Grant, but at the moment found it hard to do. The War Department had set up a special cipher for Dana to use in sending his reports to Stanton, a code known only by those close to Stanton, who would take the messages to Lincoln. If Dana sent back negative reports, Grant might well be relieved of command.
Before Dana arrived, two officers close to Grant met to talk about handling this man who was clearly going to be more than a visitor. Grant’s rough-tongued chief of staff Rawlins sat down with Grant’s inspector general, Lieutenant Colonel James Harrison Wilson. When Wilson first reported in at Grant’s headquarters, two months before, Rawlins had come right to the point. According to Wilson, Rawlins said, “I’m glad you’ve come, you’re an Illinois man and so am I. I need you here. Now I want you to know what kind of man we are serving. He’s a goddamned drunkard, and he’s surrounded by a set of Goddamned scalawags who pander to his weakness. Now for all that, he is a good man, and a nice man, and I want you to help me in an offensive alliance against the Goddamned sons-of bitches.”
Now, with Dana about to start living in their midst, Rawlins. and Wilson came to an agreement. Describing their talk, Wilson said that “it was finally decided that he was to have access to everything, favorable and unfavorable, official or personal … With plenty of enemies about to bring him both truth and exaggerations, the worst tactics would be to arouse his suspicions by attempted concealment. A wise decision and fully endorsed by Grant.”
A situation arose that tested Dana’s loyalty and judgment. Included on a reconnaissance trip Grant made up the Yazoo River aboard Admiral Porter’s flag boat Blackhawk, he later described the General’s but the next day he came out fresh as a rose, without any trace of the spree he had just passed through. So it was on two or three occasions of the sort and when it was all over, no outsider would have suspected such things had been.”
So there it was. If Dana did what he had been sent to do, a telegram in secret code intended for President Lincoln would be on its way as soon as the Blackhawk landed, and Grant’s career might be finished.
Dana did nothing. A professional journalist who had witnessed a sensational story, the thing he wanted most was for the North to win the war, and he had decided to invest his faith in this man Grant. (While Dana had recorded of their first meeting that Grant had “simple manners” and was “straightforward, cordial, and unpretending,” he expanded his estimate to “Grant was an uncommon fellow—the most modest, most disinterested, and the most honest man I ever knew, with a temper that nothing could disturb, and a judgment that was judicial in its comprehensiveness and wisdom.”) Dana was to be present at another time Grant drank, with equally bad results, but he waited for this campaign to end before he wrote Stanton that, when necessary, Rawlins could control Grant’s drinking.
Perhaps as a result of the episode on the Yazoo, Julia Grant appeared, accompanied by their children. It was unusual for Julia to be allowed to come this close to the actual fighting, but she soon witnessed one of the most spectacular scenes of the war. On the evening of April 16, she and two other ladies went aboard the riverboat Henry von Phul. Julia said that “we dined on board with many officers”—Grant, Sherman, and Admiral Porter were not among them—“and when quite dark we silently dropped down the river.”
Grant was about to send selected ships of the fleet past Vicksburg’s miles of cannon. Aboard his warship Benton, Admiral Porter would be leading six other gunboats, including one named the Henry Clay, followed by three transports loaded with thousands of men. The transports were towing a total of ten barges loaded with coal that would be needed for the future operations down the river if they got through. Far astern of the others, by herself to minimize damage if she were hit and exploded, was a barge loaded with ammunition that would also be needed if this fleet survived.
Grant and Porter had worked hard, trying to anticipate everything as they prepared for this gamble. As Grant put it:
The great essential was to protect the boilers from the enemy’s shot, and to conceal the fires under the boilers from view. This he [Porter] accomplished by loading the steamers, between the guards and boilers on the boiler deck up to the deck above, with bales of hay and cotton, and the deck in front of the boilers in the same way, adding sacks of grain. The hay and grain would be wanted below [down the river], and could not be supported in sufficient quantity by the muddy roads over which we expected to march.
Before this I had been collecting, from St. Louis and Chicago, yawls and barges to be used as ferries when we got below … Men were stationed in the holds of the transports to partially stop with cotton shot-holes that might be made in the hulls.
Ready to observe what he called this “perilous trip,” Grant was accompanied by Dana and his staff aboard a vessel in the middle of the river upstream of the enemy’s gun emplacements. On the river below the city, Sherman was well out from the shore on one of the yawls Grant had acquired. On Sherman’s orders, his men had hauled four of these sailing craft across the swamps and placed them in the Mississippi below Vicksburg: ready for a disaster, Sherman had “manned them with soldiers, ready to pick up any of the disabled wrecks as they passed by.”
Everyone was ready. Watching from the deck of the Henry von Phul, Julia noticed that it was so quiet that she could hear the frogs and katydids along the dark riverbank singing “their summer songs.” Standing near Grant on the river transport, Dana saw it begin.
Just before ten o’clock … the squadron cut loose its moorings. It was a strange scene. First a mass of black things detached itself from the shore, and we saw it float out towards the middle of the stream. There was nothing to be seen except this big black mass, which dropped slowly down the river. Soon another black mass detached itself, and another, then another … They floated down the Mississippi darkly and silently, showing neither steam nor light, save occasionally a signal astern, where the enemy could not see it.
Julia, Dana, and Sherman saw what happened next from their different places on the river. Julia said, “All was going well when a red flare flashed up from the Vicksburg shore and the flotilla of gunboats and transports and our own boats were made visible.” Dana recalled that the gunboats “were immediately under the guns of nearly all the Confederate batteries, when there was a flash from the upper forts.” Down the river, Sherman had the best view:
As soon as the rebel gunners detected the Benton, which was in the lead, they opened on her, and on the others, in quick succession, with shot and shell; houses on the Vicksburg side and the opposite shore were set on fire [something in fact done by Confederates who crossed over] which lighted up the whole river; and the roar of cannon, the bursting of shells, and finally the burning of the Henry Clay, drifting with the current, made a picture of the terrible not often seen. Each gunboat returned the fire as she passed the town, while the transports hugged the opposite shore.
The sound of the cannon was heard sixty miles away, and the firing lit up the sky for more than three hours; Julia said that, even at her vantage point upstream, “The air was full of sulphurous smoke.”
As the ships came down the river, Sherman was everywhere. He managed to pull alongside the Benton and “had a few words with” Admiral Porter, checked on the gunboat Tuscumbia as she towed the “transport Forest Queen into the bank out of the range of fire,” and reported that “the Henry Clay was set on fire by bursting shells and burned up; one of my yawls picked up her pilot floating on a piece of wreck, and the bulk of her crew escaped in their own yawl-boat to the shore.”
Grant’s idea had worked. One ship had been lost and any number of shells had hit the gunboats, but to everyone’s amazement, not a single soldier or sailor was killed. Grant had ships and men and supplies below Vicksburg, ready to cross the river and approach the city from its most vulnerable side. (Union soldiers later learned that on this night, many citizens of Vicksburg began the evening by dancing at a “gala ball” to celebrate the invincibility of their “Gibraltar”—a confidence shaken when the sudden sound and physical thud of cannon fire interrupted the music.)
Grant was always a man to follow up on an opportunity. When Dana was with him the next day, he decided to send massive loads of supplies down the river on ships, running the same gauntlet while his columns of soldiers started making their way down the bank of the river to a point below Vicksburg where they could be ferried across. Dana said that Grant “ordered that six transport steamers, each loaded with one hundred thousand rations and forty days’ coal, should be made ready to run the Vicksburg batteries … The transports were manned throughout, officers, pilots, and deck hands, by volunteers from the army … This dangerous service was sought with great eagerness, and experienced men found for every post. If ten thousand men had been wanted instead of one hundred and fifty, they would have engaged with zeal in the venture.”
This second effort to pass down the river went off on the night of April 26. The transports got through, but Grant’s headquarters steamer Tigress was hit and sunk, although Grant was not aboard. Sherman, who was right there in a yawl, helping those aboard the Tigress get to shore, explained what these two night operations had accomplished: “Thus General Grant’s army had below Vicksburg an abundance of stores, and boats with which to cross the river.”
Grant had done it. His army still had to make its way down the east side of the river to be ferried across, but the willingness of his soldiers to volunteer for hazardous duty such as manning the ships during the second run past Vicksburg’s batteries showed that his men believed in him as never before. There were sighs of relief in the White House and the War Department. Against all odds, with Sherman’s help Grant was placing his army where he wanted it to be, but the great fortress still had to be taken.