WHILE HOOKER WAS CROSSING THE RAPPAHANNOCK, unaware as yet that he would come to grief within a week, Grant, having caught what he believed was a gleam of victory through the haze of cigar smoke in the former ladies’ cabin of theMagnolia, was putting the final improvisatorial touches to a plan of campaign that would open, two days later, with a crossing of the greatest river of them all. He too might come to grief, as two of his three chief lieutenants feared and even predicted, but he was willing to risk it for the sake of the prize, which had grown in value with every sore frustration. As spring advanced and the roads emerged from the drowned lands adjacent to the Mississippi—although so far they were little more than trails of slime through the surrounding ooze, not quite firm enough for wagons nor quite wet enough for boats—the Illinois general, with seven failures behind him in the course of the three months he had spent attempting to take or bypass Vicksburg, reverted in early April to what he had told Halleck in mid-January, before he left Memphis to assume command in person of the expedition four hundred miles downriver: “[I] think our troops must get below the city to be used effectively.”
His plan, in essence, was to march his army down the Louisiana bank to a position well south of the fortified bluff, then cross the river and establish a bridgehead from which to assail the Confederate bastion from the rear. The Duckport canal, designed to give his transports access to Walnut and Roundaway bayous, and thus allow them to avoid exposure to the plunging fire of the batteries at Vicksburg and Warrenton, had failed; only one small steamer had got through before the water level fell too low for navigation; but exploration of the route had shown that, by bridging those slews that could not be avoided by following the crests of levees flanking the horseshoe curves of the several bayous, it might be practicable to march dry-shod all the way from Milliken’s Bend to New Carthage, a west-bank hamlet about midway between Warrenton and Grand Gulf, third of the rebel east-bank strongholds. In late March, by way of preparation, Grant had assigned McClernand the task of putting this route into shape for a march by his own corps as well as the two others, which would follow. This, if it worked, would get the army well south of its objective. Getting the troops across the river was quite another matter, however, depending as it did on the co-operation of the navy, which, as Grant said, “was absolutely essential to the success (even to the contemplation) of such an enterprise.” For the navy to get below, in position to ferry the men across and cover the east-bank landing, it would have to run the batteries, and this had been shown in the past to be an expensive proposition even for armored vessels, let alone the brittle-skinned transports which would be required for the ferrying operation. Moreover, Porter was no more under Grant’s command than Grant was under Porter’s. The most Grant could do was “request” that the run be made. But that was enough, as it turned out. The admiral—who had returned only the week before from the near-disastrous Steele Bayou expedition, considerably the worse for wear and with his boats still being hammered back into shape—expressed an instant willingness to give the thing a try, though not without first warning of what the consequences would be, not only in the event of initial failure but also in the event of initial success, so far at least as the navy was concerned. He could make a downstream run, he said, and in fact had proved it twice already with the ill-fated Queen of the West and the equally ill-fated lndianola, but his underpowered vessels could never attempt a slow-motion return trip, against the four-knot current, until Vicksburg had been reduced. “You must recollect that when these gunboats once go below we give up all hopes of ever getting them up again,” he replied, wanting it understood from the start that this would be an all-or-nothing venture. Moreover: “If I do send vessels below, it will be the best vessels I have, and there will be nothing left to attack Haines Bluff, in case it should be deemed necessary to try it.” Grant replied on April 2 that McClernand’s men were already at work on the circuitous thirty-mile road down to New Carthage; he had no intention of turning back, even if that had been possible; and in any case Haines Bluff had cost the army blood enough by now. “I would, Admiral, therefore renew my request to prepare for running the blockade at as early a day as possible.”
Two days later he wrote Halleck: “My expectation is for a portion of the naval fleet to run the batteries of Vicksburg, whilst the army moves through by this new route [to New Carthage]. Once there, I will move either to Warrenton or Grand Gulf; most probably the latter. From either of these points there are good roads to Vicksburg, and from Grand Gulf there is a good road to Jackson and the Black River Bridge without crossing the Black River.” Much could be said for making the landing at either place. Warrenton, for example, was some fifteen air-line miles closer to his objective. But he knew well enough that a straight line was not always the surest connection between two military points. A Grand Gulf landing, in addition to giving him access to Vicksburg’s main artery of supply, would also afford him a chance to supplement his own. By holding the newly established bridgehead with part of his army and sending the balance downstream to assist in the reduction of Port Hudson by Banks, who presumably was working his way upstream at the same time, he then would have an unbroken, all-weather connection with New Orleans and would no longer be exclusively and precariously dependent on what could be brought down from Memphis, first by steamboat, then by wagon over the new road skirting the west-bank complex of bayous across from the fortified bluff, and then again by steamboat in order to get the supplies over the river and into the east-bank bridgehead. Grant pondered the alternatives, and by April 11, a week after the dispatch giving Halleck a brief statement of the problem, he had made his choice: “Grand Gulf is the point at which I expect to strike, and send an army corps to Port Hudson to co-operate with General Banks.”
He did not know how Old Brains, whose timidity had been demonstrated in situations far less risky than this one, would react to a plan of campaign that involved 1) exposing the irreplaceable Union fleet to instantaneous destruction by batteries that had been sited on commanding and impregnable heights with just that end in mind, 2) crossing a mile-wide river in order to throw his troops into the immediate rear of a rebel force of unknown strength which, holding as it did the interior lines, presumably could be reinforced more quickly than his own, and 3) remaining dependent all the while, or at least until the problematical capture of Port Hudson, on a supply line that was not only tenuous to the point of inadequacy, but was also subject to being cut by enemy intervention or obliterated by some accident of nature, by no means unusual at this season, such as a week of unrelenting rain, a sudden rise of the river, and a resultant overflow that would re-drown the west-bank lowlands and the improvised road that wound its way around and across the curving bayous and treacherous morasses into which a wagon or a gun could disappear completely, leaving no more trace than a man or a mule whose bones had been picked clean by gars and crawfish. Whether Halleck would approve the taking of all these risks, Grant did not know, but he was left in no such doubt as to the reaction closer at hand. So far, of his three corps commanders, only his archrival McClernand had indicated anything resembling enthusiasm for the plan. Hard at work constructing makeshift bridges from materials found along the designated route to New Carthage, which he reached before mid-April, the former Illinois politician was in high spirits and predicted great results, for both the country and himself, because his corps had been assigned to lead the way. By contrast, though perhaps for the same reason—that is, because the nonprofessional McClernand had the lead—Sherman and McPherson, along with Dana and practically every member of Grant’s own staff, considered the proposed operation not only overrisky and unwise, but also downright unmilitary. Sherman in fact was so alarmed at the prospect that he sat down and wrote Grant a long letter, insisting that the proper course would be for the army to return at once to Memphis and resume from there the overland advance along the Mississippi Central, abandoned in December. When his friend and chief replied that he had no intention of canceling his plans, Sherman had no choice except to go along with them, although he still did not approve. “I confess I don’t like this roundabout project,” he told one of his division commanders, “but we must support Grant in whatever he undertakes.” He was loyal and he would remain so, but he also remained glum, writing home even as he ordered his men out of their camps at Milliken’s Bend to join the movement: “I feel in its success less confidence than in any similar undertaking of the war.”
Porter too had doubts as to the over-all wisdom of Grant’s plan, as well as fears in regard to the specific risk the plan required the navy to assume, but he took no counsel of them aside from the more or less normal precautions the prospect of such exposure always prompted, as in the case of a farmer sending eggs to market in a springless wagon over a bumpy road. Unlike Sherman, he wrote no Cassandran letters and made no protest after his initial warning that once the fleet had gone below it could not come back up again until the batteries had been silenced in its rear. Instead, he kept busy preparing his crews and vessels for the passage of bluffs that bristled with 40-odd pieces of artillery, light and heavy, manned by cannoneers whose skill had improved with every chance to show it. By April 16 he was ready. Seven armored gunboats, mounting a total of 79 guns, were assigned to make the run, accompanied by three army transports, loaded with commissary stores instead of troops, and a steam ram captured the year before at Memphis when the Confederate flotilla was abolished in a brief half-morning’s fight. At 9.30, two hours after dusk gave way to a starry but moonless night, the column cleared the mouth of the Yazoo, Porter leading aboard the flagship Benton.
The “run,” so called, was in fact more creep than sprint, however, at least in its early stages; stealth was the watchword up and down the line of eleven boats steaming southward in single file on the dark chocolate surface of what one observer called “the great calm river, more like a long winding lake than a stream.” Furnaces had been banked in advance, so as to show a minimum of smoke. All ports were covered and all deck lights doused, except for hooded lanterns visible only from dead astern for guidance. It was hoped that such precautions would hide the column from prying eyes. To reduce the likelihood of noise, which also might give the movement away, low speed was prescribed and exhaust pipes were diverted from the stacks to the paddle boxes, where the hiss of steam would be muffled. Pets and poultry were put ashore, moreover, lest a sudden mewing or cackling alert the rebel sentries. The admiral was leaving as little as possible to chance; but in the event of discovery he was prepared to shift at once from stealth to boldness. Coal-laden barges were lashed to the starboard flanks of the warships, leaving their port-side weapons free to take up any challenge from the high-sited batteries on the Mississippi shore, and water-soaked bales of hay were stacked around the otherwise unprotected boilers and pilothouses of the transports. Instructed to maintain a fifty-yard interval, each helmsman was also told to steer a little to one side of the boat he followed, so as not to have to slow engines or change course to avoid a collision in case of a breakdown up ahead. Thus, though he wanted no trouble he could avoid, Porter was prepared to give as well as receive it in the event that his carefully woven veil of secrecy was ripped away. Passing Young’s Point at about 10.30, the dark and silent column swung north as it approached the mouth of Sherman’s abandoned canal, then rounded the final turn at 11 sharp, altering course again from north to south, and headed down the straightaway eastern shank of the hairpin bend that led past Vicksburg’s dark and silent bluff. Ten minutes later all hell broke loose.
Grant was there to see the show, and he had his two families with him, one military and the other personal, the former consisting of his staff, the latter of his wife and their two sons, who had come downriver from Illinois to afford him a sort of furlough-in-reverse. Both were gathered tonight on the upper deck of the Magnolia, which was anchored three miles below Young’s Point, just beyond range of the heaviest enemy guns, so that they watched as if from a box in a darkened theater, awaiting the raising of the curtain. The general and Mrs Grant occupied deck chairs near the starboard rail—front row center, as it were—with twelve-year-old Fred beside them; Ulysses Junior, who was ten, sat nearby in young Colonel Wilson’s lap. Behind and on both sides of them stood twenty-odd men in uniform, staff officers and two high-ranking observers. One was Dana, who had been sent by Stanton to watch Grant, and the other was no less a personage than Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas, who had arrived five days ago, five days after Dana, to watch them both. Or so it was said at any rate, so deep was the supposed mistrust the War Department felt. Just now though, whatever truth there was to the rumored assignment, there was a good deal more to watch than the unimpressive-looking department commander. First there was the passage of the hooded and muffled warships, disappearing northward in the direction of the bend that swung them south toward the rebel batteries; then a long wait in the blackness; then, eastward—across the narrow tongue of land called Vicksburg Point, beyond which the dark loom of bluff reared up to blot out the low-hanging stars—a sudden burgeoning incandescence, exposed as if by a rapid lifting of the awaited curtain. The show was on. It began, so to speak, in mid-crescendo as the guns came alive on the bluff and were replied to by those down on the brightly lighted river, growling full-throated, jarring the earth and water for miles around, and adding their muzzle flashes to the vivid illumination of the scene. “Magnificent, but terrible,” Grant later called the sight. For the present, however, aside from ordering the younger boy to bed when he heard him whimper and saw him press his face against Wilson’s chest in terror at the holocaust of flame and thunder, he said nothing. He merely smoked and watched the fireworks, holding all the while to his wife’s hand. After ninety minutes of uproar, during which Dana tallied 525 shots fired by the Confederates, the bluff was once more dark and silent except for the reflection of fires still burning fitfully on the lower level where the boats had been. How much damage had been done and suffered, no one aboard the Magnolia could tell, although presently it was clear that some at least of the vessels had got past, for the Warrenton batteries came alive downstream, reproducing in miniature the earlier performance. Finally these too fell silent; which told the watchers exactly nothing, save that the final curtain had come down. Near and far, the fires burned out and the former blackness returned to the bluff and the river.
Unable to wait for word from below—news, perhaps, that the indispensable fleet had gone out of existence—Grant went ashore, got on his horse, and rode south under the paling stars, galloping along the crude and pot-holed road McClernand’s corps had spent the past three weeks constructing. This was quite unlike the old Grant, who had never seemed in a hurry about anything at all. Something had come over him, here lately. “None who had known him the previous years could recognize him as being the same man,” one officer observed. He had never seen the general ride at even a fast trot, let alone a gallop; but now, he said, “[Grant’s] energies seemed to burst forth with new life,” with the result that he rode at top speed practically all the time and “seemed wrought up to the last pitch of determination and energy.” Shiloh and the long hot unproductive summer of 1862, the ill-wind fiasco near Iuka and the fruitless victory at Corinth, the period of indecision in Memphis and the recent seven failures above Vicksburg, all were behind him now; he was launched at last on an all-or-nothing effort, a go-for-broke campaign, of which the passage of the batteries by the fleet was the first stage. If this failed, all failed; he would never get his troops across the mile-wide Mississippi. It was no wonder he rode fast.
Near New Carthage about midday he drew rein and breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of the fleet riding at anchor, apparently intact. Closer inspection showed that the boats had been knocked about considerably, however. All were damaged to various degrees, some in their hulls and others in their machinery. One was missing altogether: a transport, as it turned out, set afire by repeated hits and sunk to the accompaniment of cheers from the rebel batteries. But all the rest were seaworthy, or soon would be, after the completion of repairs already under way by bluejackets swarming over their ripped-up decks and pounded bulwarks. Porter and his captains were in excellent spirits, though they were frank to admit that last night’s experience had been little short of horrendous. For one thing, all their precautions involving stealth and secrecy had availed them nothing. As they proceeded, dark and silent, down the straightaway eastern shank of the hairpin bend, Confederate sentries posted in skiffs on the river spotted them quickly; whereupon some rowed eastward to give the alarm to the Vicksburg cannoneers, while others, risking capture, crossed to the opposite bank, where they set fire to prepared stacks of pitch-soaked wood, as well as to the abandoned De Soto railroad station midway up the point. Quick-leaping flames floodlighted the approaching Yankee gunboats and the alerted rebel gunners promptly took these well-defined targets under fire. Another difficulty was that the prescribed low speed left the vessels to the mercy of the eddying current, which caught them alternately on the bow and quarter, swinging them broadside to the stream and in some cases even spinning them halfway around, so that they were obliged to come full circle under the plunging fire, as if responding to cruel encores that held them on the brightly lighted stage for further pelting by an irate audience. Clear at last, they played a brief epilogue at Warrenton, then swept on south to anchor above New Carthage in the predawn darkness. Assessing damages, Porter was grateful to discover that, despite a total of 68 hits received, the transport Henry Clay was the flotilla’s only loss. Not a man had been killed, even aboard the missing boat, and only 13—in this case a decidedly lucky number—had been wounded. Give him a couple of days in which to complete repairs, he said, and he would be quite ready to co-operate with the army.
Grant returned to Milliken’s Bend, much pleased with the outcome, and prepared for another run within the week, this time by transports alone, in order to provide more ferries for the crossing. “If I do not underestimate the enemy,” he wrote Halleck on April 21, “my force is abundant, with a foothold once obtained, to do the work.” Next night six river steamers, loaded with rations, forage, and medical supplies, attempted the second run under instructions “to drop noiselessly down with the current … and not show steam until the enemy’s batteries began firing, when the boats were to use all their legs.” This was an all-army show, the steamers being army-owned and manned by army volunteers, since the civilian crews had balked at exposing their persons to what they had watched six nights ago from a safe distance. Now as then, Grant was there to see the show; an Illinois private later told how he “saw standing on the upper deck of his headquarters boat a man of iron, his wife by his side. He seemed to me the most immovable figure I ever saw.” Then came the fireworks across the way, the sudden illumination and the uproar of the guns on the fuming bluff. Grant took it calmly, the soldier recalled; “No word escaped his lips, no muscle of his earnest face moved.” Presently the batteries fell silent and word arrived from below that, now as before, only a single vessel had failed to survive the run—the steamer Tigress, McClernand’s former headquarters boat, which Grant had ridden to Shiloh a year ago. Loaded with medicines and surgical equipment, she was hulled a dozen times or more and broke in two and sank, her skeleton crew floating downstream to safety on bits of wreckage. Once more not a man had been killed and the wounded were only a handful. Half the steamers had their engines permanently smashed, but that was no real drawback, since they would hold as many troops as ever and could be pushed or towed across the river as barges. As Grant saw it, this second run had been quite as successful as the first, and he was twice as pleased.
Belittling the loss of the Tigress and her cargo, which he said amounted to nothing more than “little extras for the men,” he set off southward again on horseback to join Porter for a naval reconnaissance of Grand Gulf, designated as the point where the army would obtain a foothold once the navy had blasted its batteries out of existence. Porter was experiencing misgivings, and Grant, looking the place over from just beyond range of its guns on the 24th, saw that he had indeed given the navy a tough nut to crack. Its batteries were sited high, as at Donelson and Vicksburg, and what was more they seemed altogether ready for whatever came their way. “I foresee great difficulties in our present position,” he informed Sherman on his return from the exploratory boat ride, “but it will not do to let these retard any movements.” In this connection it seemed to him there might be a chance for an assault to succeed at last up the Yazoo, despite the previous fiasco. “It may possibly happen,” he wrote Sherman, “that the enemy may so weaken his forces about Vicksburg and Haines Bluff as to make the latter vulnerable, particularly with a fall of water to give you an extended landing.” However: “I leave the management of affairs at your end of the line to you,” he added by way of making it clear that he was not definitely ordering an assault.
Monday, April 27, was Grant’s forty-first birthday. It also marked the completion of his first-stage preparations for getting his troops across the river in order to come to grips with the rebels on dry ground, which was what he had been after from the start. By now all four divisions of McClernand’s corps, having extended their march southward around Bayou Vidal and Lake Saint Joseph, were at Hard Times, Louisiana, the designated point of embarkation for the landing at Grand Gulf, five miles downstream. One of McPherson’s divisions was also there and the other two were closing fast, while Sherman’s three remained at Young’s Point, on call to follow but held in place for the present so as to confuse the lookouts on the Vicksburg bluff. Seven warships and seven transports were available below, and though Porter was still troubled by misgivings—he thought his gunboats could suppress the Grand Gulf batteries, all right, but he warned that they might get so knocked about in the process that they would not be able to provide adequate cover for the crossing that would follow—Grant himself, as usual, expressed no doubt as to the outcome. He foresaw “great difficulties,” but he did not admit that they were any occasion for delay. All he asked of the navy was that the rebel guns be silenced, after which there would be no need for cover. Before the anniversary was over, he sent McClernand word to go ahead: “Commence immediately the embarkation of your corps, or so much of it as there is transportation for.”
The showdown was unquestionably at hand; but Grant was disclosing nothing he could avoid disclosing until the final moment. He had, in fact, devised three separate feints or demonstrations, two of them designed to mislead the enemy as to his chosen point of attack, well downstream, and a third whereby he hoped not only to distract his opponent by diverting his attention from front to rear, but also to add to his confusion, throughout this critical period, by disrupting the lines of supply and communication leading back into the interior of the state whose welfare and defense were the southern commander’s assigned concern.
Sherman was organically involved in two of these, one of which had already been accomplished during the first ten days of April. Lest Pemberton call in the troops disposed to guard against a penetration of the Delta, and thereby strengthen the Vicksburg garrison in time for the showdown fight now imminent, Fred Steele’s division was sent a hundred miles up the Mississippi to Greenville, where the men went ashore and thrashed about for a week in the interior, giving the impression that they were merely the advance contingent for another major drive on the Gibraltar of the West. Having done so—to the extreme alarm of the local planters, who bemoaned the attendant loss of cotton, cattle, and Negroes, and the home-guard commanders, who called loudly for reinforcements—they got back aboard their transports and rejoined Sherman at Young’s Point for a share in the second and more important feint, this time against Haines Bluff. Grant had suggested it in his letter of the 24th, after a look at the Grand Gulf defenses, but now on his birthday he returned to the matter in more persuasive terms. “The effect of a heavy demonstration in that direction would be good so far as the enemy are concerned,” he wrote Sherman from Hard Times, where McClernand’s men were preparing to embark, “but I am loth to order it, because it would be hard to make our own troops understand that only a demonstration was intended and our people at home would characterize it as a repulse. I therefore leave it to you whether to make such a demonstration.”
In referring thus to the probable adverse reaction by “our people at home,” who of course would get their information from the papers, many of which were hostile—particularly toward Sherman, who returned the hostility in full measure—Grant may or may not have intended to use psychology on his journalist-hating friend. But at any rate it worked. “Does General Grant think I care what the newspapers say?” Sherman exclaimed as soon as he read the letter. And despite his growing antipathy for the strategy his superior had evolved (“I tremble for the result,” he wrote his wife that week; “I look upon the whole thing as one of the most hazardous and desperate moves of this or any other war”) he replied at once with a pledge of full co-operation. “We will make as strong a demonstration as possible,” he declared. “The troops will all understand the purpose and not be hurt by the repulse. The people of the country must find out the truth as best they can; it is none of their business. You are engaged in a hazardous enterprise, and for good reason wish to divert attention; that is sufficient for me, and it shall be done.” Warming as he wrote, the red-haired general bristled with contempt for public opinion. “The men have sense, and will trust us. As to the reports in newspapers, we must scorn them, else they will ruin us and our country. They are as much enemies to good government as the secesh, and between the two I like the secesh best, because they are a brave, open enemy and not a set of sneaking, croaking scoundrels.”
Accordingly, he spent the next two days in preparation, and on the final day of April—previously designated by Lincoln, at the request of Congress, “as a day of national humiliation, fasting, and prayer” because, in the words of the proclamation, the people had “forgotten God” and become “too proud to pray”—set off up the Yazoo with ten regiments from Frank Blair’s division, escorted by the flotilla remnant Porter had left behind, three gunboats, four tinclads, and three mortars, under Lieutenant Commander K. R. Breese. Intent on making the greatest possible show of strength, Sherman spread his troops over the transport decks with orders for “every man [to] look as numerous as possible.” Short of Haines Bluff and near the scene of their December repulse, the bluecoats went ashore; marching and countermarching, banners flying and bands playing for all they were worth in the boggy woodland, they demonstrated in sight of the fortified line of hills, while the gunboats closed to within point-blank range of the bluff itself. For three hours the naval attack was pressed, as if in preparation for an infantry assault. However, the defenders clearly had their backs up; nor was there anything wrong with their marksmanship. The overaged Tyler, a veteran of all the fights since Henry, retired early with a shot below the water line, and the other two hauled off at 2 p.m. roughly handled, one having taken a total of forty-six hits. Sherman might have let it go at that, but he was determined to play out the game to full advantage. May Day morning he wrote Grant: “At 3 p.m. we will open another cannonade to prolong the diversion, and keep it up till after dark, when we shall drop down to Chickasaw and go on back to camp.” The other two divisions, waiting at Young’s Point under Steele and Brigadier General James M. Tuttle, were alerted for the long march to Hard Times, while Blair was told to keep up the pretense of attack until darkness afforded cover for withdrawal, at which time he would “let out for home,” meaning Milliken’s Bend, where he was to shield the rear of the two divisions moving southward to join Grant. Meanwhile, Sherman told him, “I will hammer away this p.m. because Major Rowley, [a staff observer] now here, says that our diversion has had perfect success, great activity being seen in Vicksburg, and troops pushing up this way. By prolonging the effort, we give Grant more chance.” The infantry continued to mass as if for attack, and the gunboats moved again within range of Haines Bluff, keeping up the action until 8 o’clock that evening. Then Blair’s men got back aboard their transports and withdrew, returning to the west bank of the Mississippi, followed by the somewhat battered but undaunted ten-boat flotilla, which dropped anchor off the mouth of the Yazoo. Steele and Tuttle took up the march for Hard Times at first light next morning, accompanied by Sherman himself, who sent a courier ahead with a full account of the two-day affair. Casualties had been negligible, he reported, afloat and ashore. Whether matters had gone as well for Grant, far downriver at Grand Gulf, he did not know; but he was satisfied that the feint from above had held a considerable portion of the Vicksburg garrison in position north of the city, away from the simultaneous main effort to the south. “We will be there as soon as possible,” he assured his friend and superior.
Such were the first two of the three diversions intended to confuse and distract the Confederate defenders in the course of this highly critical span of time during which Grant was preparing to launch, and indeed was launching, his main effort a good forty miles downriver from the bluff that was his goal. Though both appeared to have exceeded strategic expectations, the third, while altogether different in scope and composition, was even more successful, and in fact was referred to afterwards by Sherman, who had no direct connection with the venture, as nothing less than “the most brilliant expedition of the war.” Grant was as usual more restrained in judgment, qualifying his praise by calling the exploit “one of the most brilliant,” but he added that it would “be handed down in history as an example to be imitated.”
In point of fact, it was itself an imitation. For two years now, in the West as in the East, the Federal cavalry had suffered from a well-founded inferiority complex; Stuart and Morgan and Forrest had quite literally ridden rings around the awkward blue squadrons and the armies in their charge. Now, perhaps, the time had come for them to emulate the example set by the exuberant gray riders. Hooker thought so, in Virginia, and so did Grant in Mississippi. Back in February he had suggested to Hurlbut, commanding in Memphis, that a cavalry force, “with about 500 picked men, might succeed in making [its] way south and cut the railroad east of Jackson, Miss. The undertaking would be a hazardous one,” he added, “but would pay well if carried out. I do not direct that this shall be done, but leave it for a volunteer enterprise.” A month later, in mid-March, his instructions were more specific. The conception had been enlarged, tripling the strength of the force to be employed, and the volunteer provision had been removed. Hurlbut was to have all “the available cavalry put in as good condition as possible in the next few weeks for heavy service.… The date when the expedition should start will depend upon movements here. You will be informed of the exact time for them to start.” In early April the date was set and a leader chosen: Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson, of Grant’s home state of Illinois. Hurlbut saw to it that the raiders got away on schedule, April 17, riding south out of La Grange, forty miles east of Memphis, into the dawn that saw Porter’s battered gunboats drop anchor near New Carthage after their fiery run past the Vicksburg bluff. “God speed him,” Hurlbut said of Grierson, who led the 1700-man column in the direction of the Mississippi line, “for he has started gallantly on a long and perilous ride. I shall anxiously await intelligence of the result.”
The wait would necessarily be a long one. Before the raid was over, the blue riders would have covered more than six hundred miles of road and swamp, through hostile territory. At the outset, however, none of the troopers in the three regiments, two from Illinois and one from Iowa, nor of the cannoneers in the attached six-gun battery of 2-pounders, suspected that the warning order, “Oats in the nosebag and five days rations in haversacks, the rations to last ten days,” was prelude to so deep a penetration. “We are going on a big scout to Columbus, Mississippi, and play smash with the railroads,” one predicted. Only Grierson himself, riding at the head of the column, knew that the true objective was Pemberton’s main supply line, the Southern Railroad east of Jackson, connecting Vicksburg with Meridian and thence with Mobile and the arsenals in Georgia and the East. Pennsylvania-born and just short of thirty-seven years of age, with a spade beard and an acquired mistrust of horses dating back to a kick received from a pony in childhood, which smashed one of his cheekbones, split his forehead, and left him scarred for life—he had protested his assignment to the cavalry in the first place, though to no avail; Halleck, who made the appointment, insisted that he looked “active and wiry enough to make a good cavalryman”—Grierson eighteen months ago had been a music teacher and bandmaster at Jacksonville, Illinois, but all that was left to remind him or anyone else of that now was a jew’s-harp he carried inside his blouse, along with a pocket compass and a small-scale map of the region he and his men would be traversing in the course of their strike at the railroad some two hundred air-line miles away. Riding where no bluecoat had ever been before, he could expect to be surrounded en route by small bodies of home guardsmen, who would outnumber him badly if they were consolidated, as well as by sizable detachments of regulars, horse and foot, which Pemberton would certainly send to oppose him, front and rear, once his presence and intention became known. Even if he succeeded in his mission—that is, reached and wrecked an appreciable stretch of the railroad between Jackson and Meridian, temporarily severing the one connection by which reinforcements could reach Vicksburg swiftly from outside Mississippi—he would then be deep in the heart of a land where every man’s hand would be raised against him. One suggestion, included in his orders, was that he return to Tennessee by swinging east, then north through Alabama; another was that he plunge on south and west for a hookup with Grant in the vicinity of Grand Gulf, anticipating a successful crossing by McClernand and McPherson at that point, or else take sanctuary within Banks’s outpost lines at Baton Rouge, which would give him about as far to go from the railroad south as he would have come already in order to reach it. In any case, whatever escape plan he adopted as a result of the unfolding course of events, the tactical requisites were vigilance, speed, boldness, and deception. Without any one of these four, he and his troopers, in the cavalry slang of the time, would be “gone up.”
Across the Mississippi line by sunup, they made thirty miles the first day—a good average march for cavalry, though Grant himself covered nearly as great a distance before noon, galloping south from Milliken’s Bend to check on the condition of Porter’s gunboats at New Carthage—and called a halt that night just short of Ripley, which they passed through next morning, brushing aside the few startled gray militia they encountered, to camp beyond New Albany at sundown. On the third day, April 19, they continued due south through Pontotoc. Eighty miles from base, with rebel detachments no doubt alerted in his front and rear, Grierson began his fourth day with an inspection, culled out 175 victims of dysentery, chills and fever, and saddle galls—“the Quinine Brigade,” the rejected troopers promptly dubbed themselves—and sent them back, under a staff major, with one of the 2-pounders and instructions to “pass through Pontotoc in the night, marching by fours, obliterating our tracks, and producing the impression that we have all returned.” He himself continued south with the main body, to Houston and beyond. Deciding to throw a still larger tub to the Confederate whale, he detached Colonel Edward Hatch’s regiment of Iowans next morning, along with another of the guns, and gave its commander orders to strike eastward for the Mobile & Ohio, inflicting what damage he could to that vital supply line before heading north in the wake of the Quinine Brigade, thus spreading the scare and increasing the impression that all the raiders were returning. Hatch, a transplanted New Englander hungry for fame and advancement—tomorrow would be his thirty-second birthday—now began a five-day adventure on his own. Though he did not succeed in breaking the well-guarded railroad to the east, he fought two severe skirmishes—one at the outset, a delaying action which allowed Grierson to get away southward, the other near the finish, which allowed his own getaway northward—burned several cotton-stocked warehouses in Okolona, and succeeded handsomely in his primary mission of drawing most of the North Mississippi home guardsmen pell-mell after him and away from Grierson. At a cost of ten men lost en route, he reported that he had inflicted ten times as many casualties on the enemy and “accumulated 600 head of horses and mules, with about 200 able-bodied negroes to lead them.” Returning to La Grange on Sunday morning, April 26, he brought Hurlbut the first substantial news of the raiders’ progress since their departure, nine days back.
The unavailable news was a good deal better; Grierson by then had not only reached his objective, he was already forty hours beyond it, having formulated and put into execution his tactics for escape. Relieved of the threat to his rear on the 21st by Hatch’s decoy action south of Houston, he and his 1000 troopers—all Illinoisans now, including the fifty cannoneers with the four remaining guns—rode on past Starkville, where he detached one company for a strike at Macon, twenty-odd miles southeast on the M&O, then took up the march at dawn and cleared Louisville by sundown. Beyond Philadelphia on the 23d he called a halt at nightfall, and made an early start next morning in order to reach the Southern Railroad before noon. Preceded by scouts who seized the telegraph office and thus kept the alarm from being spread—“Butternut Guerillas,” these outriders called themselves, for they wore Confederate uniforms, risking hanging for the advantage gained—the raiders burst into Newton Station, a trackside hamlet twenty-five miles west of Meridian and about twice as far east of Jackson, where they at once got down to the work for which they had ridden all this way. Two locomotives were captured and wrecked, along with three dozen freight cars loaded with ordnance and commissary supplies, including artillery ammunition on consignment for Vicksburg, which afforded a rackety fireworks display when set aflame. Meantime other details were ripping up miles of track and crossties, burning trestles and bridges, tearing down telegraph wires all the way to the Chunky River, and setting fire to a government building stocked with 500 small arms and a quantity of new gray uniforms. By 2 o’clock the destruction was complete; Grierson had his bugler sound the rally to assemble the smoke-grimed raiders, some of whom were showing the effects of rebel whiskey they had “rescued” from the flames, then took his accustomed post at the head of the column and led them away from the charred and smoldering evidence of their efficiency as wreckers. Now as before, the march was south. They did not bivouac till near midnight, having covered a good fifty miles of road despite the arduous delay at Newton Station. Next day, April 25, was the easiest of the raid, however, since the blue raiders spent most of it on a plantation in the piny highlands just short of the Leaf River valley, resting their mounts, gorging themselves on smokehouse ham, and presumably nursing their hangovers. Sunday followed, and while Hatch was riding into La Grange at the end of his five-day excursion through North Mississippi, the raiders turned west. In time, according to Grierson’s calculations, this would bring them either to Grand Gulf, in case Grant had effected a crossing as planned, or to Natchez, which had been under intermittent Federal occupation for nearly a year.
Either place would afford refuge for his saddle-weary troopers if all went as he hoped and planned, but he knew well enough that the most dangerous part of the long ride lay before him. By now, doubtless, every grayback in the state would have learned of the presence of his two regiments at Newton Station two days ago, with the result that a considerable number of them must be hot on his trail or lying in wait for him in all directions. However, this had its compensations as well as its drawbacks. Scarcely less important than the temporary severing of Vicksburg’s main supply line was the disruption of its defenses, preventing the hasty concentration of its outlying forces against Grant in the early stages of his river crossing. In point of fact, Grierson was more successful in this regard than he had any way of knowing. Orders flew thick and fast from Pemberton’s headquarters in the Mississippi capital, directing all units within possible reach to concentrate on the capture of the ubiquitous blue column. An infantry brigade, en route from Alabama to reinforce Vicksburg, was halted at Meridian to protect that vital intersection of the Southern Railroad and the Mobile & Ohio, while another moved east from Jackson in the direction of the break at Newton Station. Forces at Panola and Canton, under James Chalmers and Lloyd Tilghman, were shifted to Okolona and Carthage to block the northern escape route. All of these troops, amounting to no less than a full division, not counting the various home-guard units caught up in the swirl, were thus effectively taken out of the play and removed from possible use at this critical time against either Grant or Grierson, who were off in the opposite corner of the map. Not that Pemberton was neglecting matters in that direction, at least so far as Grierson was concerned. Detachments of fast-riding cavalry were ordered eastward from Port Hudson and Port Gibson—the latter a scant half dozen miles from Grant’s intended point of landing at Grand Gulf—in case the marauders tried for a getaway to the south or the southwest. In short, Pemberton’s reaction to the widespread confusion in his rear and along his lines of supply and communication, while altogether commendable from a limited point of view, amounted to full co-operation with the raiders in the accomplishment of their secondary mission, which was to divert his attention, as well as his reserves, away from the point at which Grant was preparing to hurl two thirds of the blue army.
Grierson wasted no time. Monday, April 27—Grant’s birthday; Sherman prepared for his feint up the Yazoo, and McClernand was told to get his troops aboard the transports at Hard Times—the blue riders pushed westward across Pearl River, aided considerably by the capture of a ferryboat by scouts who masqueraded as Confederates. While the crossing was in progress the company detached five days ago near Starkville rejoined the main body, reporting that in addition to throwing a scare into the defenders of Macon, as instructed, it had also made a feint at Enterprise, twelve miles below Meridian, thus adding to the difficulties of the rebel high command’s attempt to pinpoint the location of the invaders. Safely across the Pearl, the reunited 1000-man column pressed on west to Hazlehurst, where a string of boxcars was set afire on a siding of the New Orleans, Jackson & Great Northern Railroad. Flames spreading to a nearby block of buildings, the erstwhile incendiaries turned firemen and worked side by side with the citizens in preventing the loss of the whole town. At dusk, in a driving rain which had helped to contain the fire, the colonel ordered his troopers to remount. The march was west; Grand Gulf was only forty miles away and he hoped to make it there tomorrow, in case Grant had crossed the Mississippi. However, morning brought no indication that any part of the Army of the Tennessee was on this side of the river, so Grierson veered a bit to the south for Natchez, his alternate sanctuary, which was only twenty miles farther away than Grand Gulf. But that too was not to be. Beyond Union Church that afternoon, the raiders were enjoying a rest halt when they were charged by what one of them called “a crowd of graylooking horsemen galloping and shooting in a cloud of dust and smoke.” The result at first was panic and the beginning of a rout, but presently they stiffened and repulsed the attackers, who turned out to be nothing more than a couple of understrength companies on the prowl. The colonel prepared to push on next day to Natchez, but was warned that night by one of the Butternut Guerillas, who had ridden ahead and struck up a conversation with a rebel outpost group, that seven companies of cavalry from Grand Gulf were planning to ambush him when he moved westward in the morning. So Grierson once more changed his plans, abandoning Natchez as his destination. Determined now to press on down to Baton Rouge, though this added another hundred miles to the distance his weary men would have to ride, he turned back east at dawn of April 29, avoiding the ambush laid so carefully in what was now his rear.
By early afternoon they were in Brookhaven, twenty-five miles east, astride the railroad they had crossed two days ago, twenty miles to the north, when the march was west. “There was much running and yelling” on the part of the startled citizens, Grierson later reported, “but it soon quieted into almost a welcome.” Here, as at Hazlehurst on Monday, sparks from the burning railroad station and another string of boxcars set a section of the town ablaze, and the troopers once more turned firemen to help the natives keep the flames from spreading. Meantime, however, a wrecking crew kept busy tearing up track and burning crossties, thus abolishing the possibility of a locomotive pursuit by troops from Jackson. Back in the saddle, the raiders moved south along the railroad and made camp that night, eight miles below Brookhaven and just over a hundred miles from Baton Rouge. At Summit before sundown of the last day of April, the colonel spared the depot lest his men have to turn firefighters again to save the town, but there was another unfortunate—or fortunate, depending on the point of view—encounter with rebel spirits when the troopers uncovered a cache of rum in fifty-gallon barrels. Grierson broke up the binge, got the revelers mounted at last, drunk or sober, and pressed on south another half dozen miles before stopping for the night. Dawn of May Day completed two full weeks the men had spent in the saddle, with only a half day’s rest aside from the minimal halts for sleep and food. Once more the march was west. “A straight line for Baton Rouge, and let speed be our safety,” Grierson told his officers as the column was put in motion.
Speed there was—the raiders covered no less than seventy-five miles of road in the following twenty-eight hours—but there was fighting, too, the first and only serious opposition the main body encountered in the course of the long raid. Even so, it was not much. At Wall’s Bridge, which spanned the Tickfaw River just north of the Louisiana line, three companies of Confederates from Port Hudson laid a noonday ambush that cost the leading Union company eight casualties. Grierson promptly brought his artillery to the front, shelled the opposite bank, and ordered a charge that not only cleared the bridge but threw the rebels into headlong flight. Riding south all night, with no time out for rest or food, the blue column reached and crossed the Amite River, the last unfordable stream this side of Baton Rouge, before the aroused graybacks could bar the way. Six miles short of the Louisiana capital next morning, his troopers reeling in their saddles from lack of sleep, Grierson called a halt at last. The men tumbled from their mounts and slept where they fell, along the roadside, but the colonel himself, as befitted a former music teacher with an ingrained mistrust of horses, was refreshing himself by playing the piano in the parlor of a nearby plantation house when a picket burst in with news that they were about to be overwhelmed and captured. A rebel force was approaching from the west, he said, with skirmishers out! Grierson, knowing better, rode out to meet the reported enemy, who turned out to be members of the garrison at Baton Rouge, sent to investigate an improbable-sounding rumor “that a brigade of cavalry from General Grant’s army had cut their way through the heart of the rebel country, and were then only five miles outside the city.” Somewhat restored by their naps, the men remounted and rode into the capital that afternoon. Cheered by spectators, civilians as well as soldiers, the two-mile-long procession of road-worn men and animals, so weathered and dust-caked that they could scarcely be distinguished from the prisoners and Negroes they had gathered along the way, wound slowly around the public square, then south out of town to a grove of magnolias two miles south, where they dismounted, unsaddled, and fell so soundly asleep that they could not be aroused to accept hot coffee.
They had cause for weariness, having covered more than six hundred miles in less than sixteen days, and for thankfulness as well: thankfulness that Pemberton had lost Van Dorn to Bragg three months before, along with nearly all his cavalry, and that it was Abel Streight and not themselves who had been made the prime concern of Bedford Forrest. Streight had left Fort Henry on the day they left La Grange, and was surrendering in East Alabama while Grierson’s men, having caught up on their sleep at last, were enjoying their first midday meal in the magnolia grove just south of the Louisiana capital. Different circumstances might well have led to different results, including perhaps a reversal of their current roles as prisoners on the one hand and heroes on the other, but the fact remained that the Illinois troopers had dealt with conditions as they found them. And having done so, they had cause for pride. At a total cost of barely two dozen casualties—“3 killed, 7 wounded, 5 left on the route sick … and 9 men missing, supposed to have straggled”—they had “killed and wounded about one hundred of the enemy, captured and paroled over 500 prisoners, many of them officers, destroyed between fifty and sixty miles of railroad and telegraph, captured and destroyed over 3000 stand of arms, and other army stores and government property to an immense amount.” So Grierson later reported, adding as if by afterthought, despite his continued mistrust of all equine creatures: “We also captured 1000 horses and mules.”
Within three days the colonel was on a steamboat for New Orleans, where he was feted and presented with a horse by the admiring citizenry. “My dear Alice,” he wrote his wife that night, “I like Byron have had to wake up one morning and find myself famous. Since I have been here it has been one continuous ovation.” In early June, with his picture on the covers of both Harper’s Weekly and Leslie’s Illustrated, he was promoted to brigadier general. But perhaps the finest tribute of all came from a man by no means given to using superlatives, on or off the record. Assessing the value of the raid in its relation to the over-all campaign for the taking of Vicksburg, of which it was very much a part, Grant said flatly: “It was Grierson who first set the example of what might be done in the interior of the enemy’s country without any base from which to draw supplies.”
For the present, however, Grant at Hard Times had no more knowledge of Grierson’s progress, across the way, than Grierson had had of Grant’s while riding west from Hazlehurst. All the cavalryman learned for certain as he pressed on toward the river was that the army had not crossed as planned, which meant that something must have gone awry. Something had indeed. When the raiders turned back east from Union Church at dawn of April 29, avoiding the ambush laid in what had been their front, they missed hearing the guns of the attackers and defenders at Grand Gulf, less than thirty air-line miles away. It was just as well, for otherwise they might have been lured into what would have been a trap. Except for the rather negative advantage of proving that this was no place to attempt an east-bank landing, the attack was an utter failure, and an expensive one at that.
Porter’s doubts had been increasing all week, ever since his April 22 reconnaissance of the stronghold on the bluff across the way. Though he had kept up a show of confidence in his talks with Grant, privately he was airing his misgivings in dispatches to his Washington superiors, not only by way of preparing them for bad news, but also by way of divesting himself in advance of any responsibility for the failure he saw looming. “I am quite depressed with this adventure,” he wrote Fox, “which as you know never met with my approval.” This last was something less than strictly true, though when he signaled the flotilla captains to move against Grand Gulf at 8 o’clock next morning, April 29, his forebodings soon turned out to have been well founded. The navy’s task was to silence the rebel batteries, then cover the crossing by the transports bringing the army over to take the place by storm; but when four of the seven ironclads closed to within pistol shot of the 75-foot bluff—so at least it seemed to Grant, who watched the contest from aboard a tug—they were severely mauled. The flagship Benton took 70 hits, the Tuscumbia 81; the Lafayette took 45, the Pittsburg 35. The other three boats, Carondelet, Mound City, and Louisville, all veterans of the river war from its beginning, did their fighting at long range, lobbing shells into the blufftop works, and consequently suffered little damage. Even so, when Porter hoisted the pennant for the flotilla to drop back out of action at 12.30—all but the Tuscumbia, which had been struck in her machinery and swept powerless downstream until she fetched up short against the Louisiana bank—a total of 75 casualties, including 18 dead, had been subtracted from its crews. By contrast, although time would disclose that they had lost 3 killed and 15 wounded, the defenders seemed unhurt behind their earthwork fortifications. Grand Gulf was as much a failure for the Union navy as Fort Donelson had been, just over a year ago. Porter frankly admitted as much. A crossing might be managed elsewhere, he told Grant, but not here, under the muzzles of those guns across the way.
Grant had not expected a repulse, but he was prepared for what he considered the outside chance of one. Now that a repulse had been encountered, an alternate plan was put into execution without delay. McClernand’s men would debark at Hard Times, march south across the point of land to De Shroon’s, a plantation landing some four miles downstream, and be ready before dawn to get back aboard the transports, which were to steal past Grand Gulf under cover of darkness, hugging the western bank while the gunboats re-engaged the batteries. All this went as planned, afloat and ashore. The navy lost only one man in its renewal of the duel with the blufftop cannoneers, and the army made its night march unobserved, to find the transports waiting unscathed in the predawn darkness at De Shroon’s. “By the time it was light,” Grant later wrote, “the enemy saw our whole fleet, ironclads, gunboats, river steamers, and barges, quietly moving down the river three miles below them, black, or rather blue, with National troops.”
Accomplishing this he showed the flexibility that would characterize his planning throughout the various stages of the campaign which now was under way in earnest. Other characteristics he also showed. An officer was to remember seeing the general sitting his horse beside the road at a point where a narrow bridge had been thrown across a bog. “Push right along, men,” he told the marchers, speaking in almost a conversational tone. “Close up fast and hurry over.” The soldiers recognized him and were obviously pleased to see their commander sharing their exertions, but the officer noted that their only reply was to do as he directed. They did not cheer him; they just “hurried over.” It was as if, in the course of the long winter of repeated failures, they had caught his quality of quiet confidence. Charles Dana, for one, had begun to think so. He had come down here three weeks ago to report on Grant’s alleged bad habits. So far, though, he not only had detected none of these; he had never even heard him curse or seen him lose his temper. Dana was puzzled. “His equanimity was becoming a curious spectacle to me,” the former journalist later recalled. Tonight, for example, riding beside the general along the dark road from Hard Times to De Shroon’s, he saw Grant’s horse stumble. “Now he will swear,” he thought, half expecting to see the rider go tumbling over the animal’s head; “For an instant his moral status was on trial.” But Grant lost neither his balance nor his temper. “Pulling up his horse, he rode on, and, to my utter amazement, without a word or sign of impatience.”
Nor did the night march across the point of land, from Hard Times to De Shroon’s, put an end to the need for sudden improvisation. Having bypassed Grand Gulf—which he could not allow to remain alive for long, so close in his rear—Grant still was faced with the problem of where to effect a landing on the Mississippi bank, in order to return for a strike at the fortified bluff from its vulnerable landward flank. A look at the map suggested Rodney, another twelve miles downstream. But that would not only give the troops a considerable distance to march, and the defenders time to improve their position and call in reinforcements, it would also place the bluecoats on the far side of Bayou Pierre, which would have to be crossed when they turned back north. Yet to make a landing short of the point where the bayou flowed westward into the river, five miles below, might be to founder the army in some unmapped and unsuspected swamp. What was needed was a guide, a sympathetic native of the region, and Grant sent a detachment of soldiers across the river in a skiff, with instructions to bring back what he wanted. They returned before midnight with an east-bank slave who filled the bill. At first he had been unwilling to come, and in fact had had to be taken by force, but now that he found himself in the lamp-lighted headquarters tent, facing the Union commander across an unrolled chart, he turned co-operative. “Look here,” Grant said. “Tell me where this road leads to—starting where you see my finger here on the map and running down that way.” The Negro studied the problem, then shook his head. “That road fetches up at Bayou Pierre,” he said. “But you can’t go that way, ’cause it’s plum full of backwater.” The thing to do, he replied to further questions, was to go ashore at Bruinsburg, six miles below De Shroon’s. This would still be south of Bayou Pierre, but at least it was only half as far as Rodney. Moreover, there was a good road leading from there to Grand Gulf by way of Port Gibson, which lay ten miles inland, well back from the trackless swamps and canebrakes of the river bottoms. At Bruinsburg, the captive slave explained, “you can leave the boats and the men can walk on high ground all the way. The best houses and plantations in all the country are there, sir, all along that road.”
So Bruinsburg it was. By midmorning of this last day of April—while Sherman was launching his demonstration against Haines Bluff, fifty air-line miles to the north, and Grierson was pressing southward along the railroad below Brookhaven, the same distance to the east—all four of McClernand’s divisions and one of McPherson’s, some 23,000 men in all, had completed their debarkation and were slogging inland toward Port Gibson. “When this was effected,” Grant declared years later, “I felt a degree of relief scarcely ever equaled since.” Then he told why. “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, labors, hardships, and exposures from the month of December previous to this time that had been made and endured were for the accomplishment of this one object.”
For all his northern birth and starchy manner, which some continued to find personally distasteful, Pemberton by now had either sustained or won the confidence not only of his military superiors but also of the people of Mississippi, who came within his charge. His four-month sequence of successes in the face of threats from all points of the compass far outweighed their original prejudice against him. On May Day, for example—unaware that Sherman was knocking at Vicksburg’s upper gate or that Grant, with half his army over the river, already was marching inland from below—an editor in the capital, where the department commander had his headquarters, was taking a sanguine view of the situation. “It would be idle to say that our state and country was not in a position of great peril,” he declared. “Yet, strange as it may seem to our readers, we have never felt more secure since the fall of Donelson. The enemy will never reach Jackson; we are satisfied of that.… General Pemberton, assisted by vigilant and accomplished officers, is watching the movements of the enemy, and at the proper time will pounce upon him. Let us give the authorities all the assistance we can, and trust their superior and more experienced judgment as to the management of the armies. We know we have a force sufficient, if properly handled, not only to defeat but to rout and annihilate Grant if he ventures far from his river base.” As for doubts as to the proper handling of this sufficient force: “Let any man who questions the ability of General Pemberton only think for a moment of the condition the department was in when he was first sent here. No general has evinced a more sleepless vigilance in the discharge of his duty, or accomplished more solid and gratifying results.” Nor was this merely the opinion of one uninformed civilian. With reservations, Joe Johnston shared his view. Despite the gloom into which his inspection of the Vicksburg defenses had thrown him, back in December, the Virginian since had warmed to the Pennsylvanian as a result of his apparent skill in fending off the combinations designed for his destruction. In mid-March, reviewing the situation from three hundred miles away in Tennessee, he congratulated him handsomely. “Your activity and vigor in the defense of Mississippi must have secured for you the confidence of the people of Mississippi,” he wrote, and added: “I have no apprehension for Port Hudson from Banks. The only fear is that the canal may enable Grant to unite their forces. I believe your arrangements at Vicksburg make it perfectly safe, unless that union should be effected.”
Applause was one thing, assistance quite another: as Pemberton soon found out. Despite the denial of help from the vast department across the river, and despite the January transfer of three quarters of his cavalry to Middle Tennessee, he was so encouraged by the flooding of Grant’s canal in March that he mistook the subsequent withdrawal of the diggers to Milliken’s Bend for an abandonment by the Federals of their entire campaign. On April 11 he notified Johnston that the canal was no longer a danger, that Grant appeared to be pulling back to Memphis, and that he was therefore sending, as requested, a brigade to reinforce Bragg at Tullahoma. Five days later, however, with the blue army still in evidence on the opposite bank and Porter’s gunboats preparing for their run past the batteries that night, he recalled the detached brigade, which by then was in northern Mississippi. “[Grant’s] movement up the river was a ruse,” he wired Johnston. “Certainly no more troops should leave this department.” In fact, he said, it was he who stood in gravest need of help. Nothing came of that. Then on April 20, with Porter’s ironclads riding at anchor near New Carthage, McClernand moving farther down the Louisiana bank, and Grierson on the rampage east of Grenada—“part and parcel of the formidable invasion preparing before my eyes”—Pemberton stepped up his plea for reinforcements: especially for the return of his 6000 troopers under Van Dorn, the loss of whom had left him three-fourths blind. “Heavy raids are making from Tennessee deep into this state,” he warned. “Cavalry is indispensable to meet these expeditions. The little I have is … totally inadequate. Could you not make a demonstration with a cavalry force on their rear?” He protested that he had “literally no cavalry from Grand Gulf to Yazoo City, while the enemy is threatening to [cross] the river between Vicksburg and Grand Gulf, having now twelve vessels below the former place.” Johnston, obliged as he presently was to send Forrest to Alabama after Streight, not only would not agree to make a demonstration against West Tennessee; he also declined to lessen the strength of Bragg’s mounted arm, which included Wheeler and Morgan as well as Forrest and Van Dorn, despite the fact that Van Dorn was nominally on loan from Pemberton. It turned out, moreover, that the Pennsylvania’s previous successes worked against him now. Matters had seemed as dark several times before, in the course of the past four months, and he had managed to survive without assistance; apparently Johnston believed he would do as well again. At any rate he was still of his former opinion: “Van Dorn’s cavalry is absolutely necessary to enable General Bragg to hold the best part of the country from which he draws supplies.”
In effect this amounted to signing Van Dorn’s death warrant, since it kept him within range of the Tennessee doctor’s wife and her husband’s pistol. Pemberton was inclined to think that in the end it might amount to much the same thing for Vicksburg, which Jefferson Davis referred to as “the nailhead that held the South’s two halves together.” For suddenly now the news grew more alarming. Two nights later, April 22, five unarmored steamboats ran the batteries, obviously to provide the means for a crossing, somewhere below, by the bluecoats slogging down the western bank. Throughout the week that followed, Pemberton sent what little cavalry he had in pursuit of Grierson, whose raiders were disrupting the interior of the state and playing havoc with his lines of supply and communication. Then on April 29 word came from Brigadier General John S. Bowen, commanding at Grand Gulf, that the place was under heavy attack by gunboats attempting to soften him up for an assault by infantry waiting in transports across the river at Hard Times. Scarcely had the news arrived next morning that the ironclads had retired, severely battered, than Pemberton was notified that Haines Bluff was under similar pressure to the north. By the time he learned that this too had been beaten off, a follow-up message from Bowen informed him that the Union fleet had slipped past Grand Gulf in the darkness, transports and all, and was unloading soldiers in large numbers at Bruinsburg, ten miles below. Then came word that the Federals had resumed their pounding of Haines Bluff. Deciding that the downriver threat was the graver of the two, Pemberton resolved to reinforce Bowen, whom he instructed to contest the blue advance on Port Gibson.
On May Day, with the issue still in doubt below—so he thought, though it could scarcely be in doubt for long; the enemy strength was reported at 20,000 men, while Bowen had considerably less than half that many—he appealed once more to Johnston for assistance, bolstering his plea with a wire directly to the President. Davis replied that, in addition to urging Johnston to send help from Tennessee, he was doing all he could to forward troops from southern Alabama. Secretary Seddon, alerted to the danger, informed Pemberton that “heavy reinforcements” would start at once by rail from Beauregard in Charleston. Both messages were gratifying, communicating assurance of assistance from above. But all the harassed Vicksburg commander got from Johnston was advice. “If Grant’s army lands on this side of the river,” the Virginian replied from Tullahoma, “the safety of Mississippi depends on beating it. For that object you should unite your whole force.”
A Georgia-born West Pointer, Bowen had left the old army after a single hitch as a lieutenant and had prospered as a St Louis architect before he was thirty, at which age he offered his sword to the newly formed Confederacy. Promoted to brigadier within ten months, he now was thirty-two and eager for further advancement, having spent more than a year in grade because of a long convalescence from a wound taken at Shiloh, where he led his brigade of Missourians with distinction. On the afternoon of April 30, marching his 5500 soldiers out of Grand Gulf and across Bayou Pierre to meet Grant’s 23,000 moving inland from Bruinsburg after their downriver creep past his blufftop guns in the darkness, he carried proudly in his pocket a dispatch received last night from Pemberton, congratulating him on the repulse of Porter’s ironclads: “In the name of the army, I desire to thank you and your troops for your gallant conduct today. Keep up the good work.… Yesterday I warmly recommended you for a major-generalcy. I shall renew it.” Bowen had it very much in mind to keep up the good work. Despite the looming four-to-one odds and the changed nature of his task now that he and the blue invaders were on the same bank of the river, he welcomed this opportunity to deal with them ashore today as he had dealt with them afloat the day before. Four miles west of Port Gibson before nightfall, he put his men in a good defensive position astride a wooded ridge just short of a fork in the road leading east from Bruinsburg. Presently the Federals came up and his pickets took them under fire in the moonlight. Artillery deepened the tone of the argument, North and South, but soon after midnight, as if by mutual consent, both sides quieted down to wait for daylight.
McClernand opened the May Day fight soon after sunrise, advancing all four of his divisions under Brigadier Generals Peter Osterhaus, A. J. Smith, Alvin Hovey, and Eugene Carr. The road fork just ahead placed him in something of a quandary, lacking as he did an adequate map, but this was soon resolved by a local Negro who informed him that the two roads came together again on the near side of Port Gibson, his objective. He sent Osterhaus to the left as a diversion in favor of the other three commanders, who were charged with launching the main effort on the right. Grant came up at midmorning to find the battle in full swing and McClernand in some confusion, his heavily engaged columns being out of touch with each other because the two roads that wound along parallel ridges—“This part of Mississippi stands on edge” was how Grant put it—were divided by a timber-choked ravine that made lateral communication impossible. The result was that McClernand’s right hand quite literally did not know what his left was doing, though the fact was neither was doing well at all. In his perplexity he called for help from McPherson, who supplied it by sending one brigade of Major General John A. Logan’s division to the left and another to the right. “Push right along. Close up fast,” the men heard Grant say as they went past the dust-covered general sitting a dust-covered horse beside the road fork. They did as he said, and arrived on the left in time to stall a rebel counterattack that had already thrown Osterhaus off balance, while on the right they added the weight needed for a resumption of the advance. Outflanked and heavily outnumbered on the road to the south, Bowen at last had to pull back to the outskirts of Port Gibson, where he rallied his men along a hastily improvised line and held off the blue attackers until nightfall ended the fighting.
Casualties were about equal on both sides; 832 Confederates and 875 Federals had fallen or were missing. Bowen had done well and he knew it, considering the disparity of numbers, but he also knew that to fight here tomorrow, against lengthened odds and without the advantage of this morning’s densely wooded terrain, would be to invite disaster. At sundown he notified Pemberton that he would “have to retire under cover of night to the other side of Bayou Pierre and await reinforcements.” Pemberton, who had arrived in Vicksburg from Jackson by now, had already sent word that he was “hurrying reinforcements; also ammunition. Endeavor to hold your own until they arrive, though it may be some time, as the distance is great.” At 7.30, having received Bowen’s sundown message, he rather wistfully inquired: “Is it not probable that the enemy will himself retire tonight? It is very important, as you know, to retain your present position, if possible.… You must, however, of course, be guided by your own judgment. You and your men have done nobly.” But Bowen by then had followed up his first dispatch with a second: “I am pulling back across Bayou Pierre. I will endeavor to hold that position until reinforcements arrive.” He withdrew skillfully by moonlight, unpursued and unobserved, destroying the three bridges over the bayou and its south fork, northwest and northeast of Port Gibson, and took up a strong position on the opposite bank, covering the wrecked crossing of the railroad to Grand Gulf, which he believed would be Grant’s next objective.
But Grant did not come that way, at least not yet. Finding Port Gibson empty at dawn, he pressed on through and gave James Wilson a brigade-sized detail with which to construct a bridge across the south fork of Bayou Pierre, just beyond the town. Wilson was experienced in such work, having built no less than seven such spans in the course of the march from Milliken’s Bend, and besides he had plenty of materials at hand, in the form of nearby houses which he tore down and cannibalized. By midafternoon the job was finished, “a continuous raft 166 feet long, 12 feet wide, with three rows of large mill-beams lying across the current, and the intervals between them closely filled with buoyant timber; the whole firmly tied together by a cross-floor or deck of 2-inch stuff.” So Wilson later described it, not without pride, adding that he had also provided side rails, corduroy approaches over quicksand, and abutments “formed by building a slight crib-work, and filling in with rails covered by sand.” Grant was impressed, but he did not linger to admire the young staff colonel’s handiwork. The second of McPherson’s three divisions having arrived that morning, he was given the lead today, with orders to march eight miles northeast to Grindstone Ford, which he reached soon after dark. He was prevented from crossing at once because the fine suspension bridge had been destroyed at that point, but Wilson was again at hand and had it repaired by daylight of May 3, when McPherson pressed on over. Near Willow Springs, two miles beyond the stream, he encountered and dislodged a small hostile force which retreated toward Hankinson’s Ferry, six miles north, where the main road to Vicksburg crossed the Big Black River. Instructing McPherson to keep up the march northward in pursuit, Grant detached a single brigade to accompany him westward in the direction of Grand Gulf.
McClernand, coming along behind McPherson, whom he was ordered to follow north, was alarmed to learn what Grant had done, striking off on his own like that, and sent a courier galloping after him with a warning: “Had you not better be careful lest you may personally fall in with the enemy on your way to Grand Gulf?” But Grant was not only anxious to reach that place as soon as possible, and thus reestablish contact with the navy and with Sherman, who was on the march down the Louisiana bank; he also believed that Bowen, chastened by yesterday’s encounter, would fall back beyond the Big Black as soon as he discovered that his position on Bayou Pierre had been turned upstream. And in this the northern commander was quite right. Reinforcements had reached Bowen from Jackson and Vicksburg by now, but they only increased his force to about 9000, whereas he reckoned the present enemy strength at 30,000, augmented as it was by a full division put ashore at Bruinsburg the night before. When he learned, moreover, that this host had bridged both forks of Bayou Pierre to the east of Port Gibson and was headed for the crossings of the Big Black, deep in his rear, he lost no time in reaching the decision Grant expected. At midnight, finding that his staff advisers “concurred in my belief that I was compelled to abandon the post at Grand Gulf,” he “then ordered the evacuation, the time for each command to move being so fixed as to avoid any delay or confusion.” The retrograde movement went smoothly despite the need for haste. Bringing off all their baggage—which Pemberton, when informed of their predicament, had authorized them to abandon lest it slow their march, but which Bowen declared he was “determined to and did save”—the weary veterans and the newly arrived reinforcements set off northward, leaving the blufftop intrenchments, which they had defended so ably against the ironclad assault four days ago, yawning empty behind them in the early morning sunlight.
Soon after they disappeared over the northern horizon Porter arrived with four gunboats, intending to launch a new attack. He approached with caution, remembering his previous woes and fearing a rebel trick, but when he found the Grand Gulf works abandoned he did not let that diminish his claim for credit for their reduction. “We had a hard fight for these forts,” he wrote Secretary Welles, “and it is with great pleasure that I report that the Navy holds the door to Vicksburg.” He announced that his fire had torn the place to pieces, leaving it so covered with earth and debris that no one could tell at a glance what had been there before the bombardment. “Had the enemy succeeded in finishing these fortifications no fleet could have taken them,” he declared, quite as if he had subdued the batteries in the nick of time, and added: “I hear nothing of our army as yet; was expecting to hear their guns as we advanced on the forts.”
He heard from “our army” presently with the arrival of its commander, who had got word of the evacuation while en route from Grindstone Ford and had ridden ahead of the infantry with an escort of twenty troopers. Grant was glad to see the admiral, but most of all—after seven days on a borrowed horse, with “no change of underclothing, no meal except such as I could pick up sometimes at other headquarters, and no tent to cover me”—he was glad to avail himself of the admiral’s facilities. After a hot bath, a change of underwear borrowed from one of the naval officers, and a square meal aboard the flagship, he got off a full report to Halleck on the events of the past four days. “Our victory has been most complete, and the enemy thoroughly demoralized,” he wrote. Bowen’s defense of Port Gibson had been “a very bold one and well carried out. My force, however, was too heavy for his, and composed of well-disciplined and hardy men who know no defeat and are not willing to learn what it is.” After this unaccustomed flourish he got down to the matter at hand. “This army is in the finest health and spirits,” he declared. “Since leaving Milliken’s Bend they have marched as much by night as by day, through mud and rain, without tents or much other baggage, and on irregular rations, without a complaint and with less straggling than I have ever before witnessed.… I shall not bring my troops into this place, but immediately follow the enemy, and, if all promises as favorable hereafter as it does now, not stop until Vicksburg is in our possession.”
He was on his own, however, in a way he had neither intended nor foreseen. His plan had been to use Grand Gulf as a base, accumulating a reserve of supplies and marking time with Sherman and McPherson, so to speak, while McClernand took his corps downriver to cooperate with Banks in the reduction of Port Hudson, after which the two would join him for a combined assault on Vicksburg. But he found waiting for him today at Grand Gulf a three-week-old letter from Banks, dated April 10 and headed Brashear City—75 miles west of New Orleans and equally far south of Port Hudson—informing him of a change in procedure made necessary, according to the Massachusetts general, by unexpected developments in western Louisiana which would threaten his flank and rear, including New Orleans itself, if he moved due north from the Crescent City as originally planned. Instead, he intended to abolish this danger with an advance up the Teche and the Atchafalaya, clearing out the rebels around Opelousas before returning east to Baton Rouge for the operation against Port Hudson with 15,000 men. He hoped to open this new phase of the campaign next day, he wrote, and if all went as planned he would return to the Mississippi within a month—that is, by May 10—at which time he would be ready to co-operate with Grant in their double venture.… Reading the letter, Grant experienced a considerable shock. He had expected Banks to have twice as many troops already in position for a quick slash at Port Hudson, to be followed by an equally rapid boat ride north to assist in giving Vicksburg the same treatment. Now all that went glimmering. Some 30,000 men poorer than he had counted on being, he was on his own: which on second thought had its advantages, since the Massachusetts general outranked him and by virtue of his seniority would get the credit, from the public as well as the government, for the reduction of both Confederate strongholds and the resultant clearing of the Mississippi all the way to the Gulf. Grant absorbed the shock and quickly made up his mind that he was better off without him. Banks having left him on his own, he would do the same for Banks. “To wait for his cooperation would have detained me at least a month,” he subsequently wrote in explanation of his decision. “The reinforcements would not have reached 10,000 men after deducting casualties and necessary river guards at all high points close to the river for over 300 miles. The enemy would have strengthened his position and been reinforced by more men than Banks could have brought. 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.”
So much he intended, though he had not yet decided exactly how he would go about it. One thing he knew, however, was that the change of plans called for an immediate speed-up of the accumulation of supplies, preliminary to launching his all-out drive on the rebel citadel two dozen air-line miles to the north. A look at the Central Mississippi interior, with its lush fields, its many grazing cattle, and its well-stocked plantation houses—“of a character equal to some of the finest villas on the Hudson,” a provincial New York journalist called these last—had convinced him that the problem was less acute than he had formerly supposed. “This country will supply all the forage required for anything like an active campaign, and the necessary fresh beef,” he informed Halleck. “Other supplies will have to be drawn from Milliken’s Bend. This is a long and precarious route, but I have every confidence in succeeding in doing it.” Accordingly, he ordered this supply line shortened, as soon as the river had fallen a bit, by the construction of a new road from Young’s Point to a west-bank landing just below Warrenton. “Everything depends upon the promptitude with which our supplies are forwarded,” he warned. He had already directed that two towboats make a third run past the Vicksburg guns with heavy-laden barges. “Do this with all expedition,” he told the quartermaster at Milliken’s Bend, “in 48 hours from receipt of orders if possible. Time is of immense importance.” Hurlbut was ordered to forward substantial reinforcements from Memphis without delay, as well as to lay in a sixty-day surplus of rations, to be kept on hand for shipment downriver at short notice. To Sherman, hurrying south across the way, went instructions to collect 120 wagons en route, load them with 100,000 pounds of bacon, then pile on all the coffee, sugar, salt, and crackers they would hold. “It is unnecessary for me to remind you of the overwhelming importance of celerity in your movements,” Grant told him, outlining the situation as he saw it now on this side of the river: “The enemy is badly beaten, greatly demoralized, and exhausted of ammunition. The road to Vicksburg is open. All we want now are men, ammunition, and hard bread. We can subsist our horses on the country, and obtain considerable supplies for our troops.”
With all this paper work behind him, he left Grand Gulf at midnight and rode eastward under a full moon to rejoin McPherson, who had reached Hankinson’s Ferry that afternoon and had already dispatched cavalry details to probe the opposite bank of the Big Black River. From his new headquarters Grant kept stressing the need for haste. “Every day’s delay is worth 2000 men to the enemy,” he warned a supply officer, and kept goading him with questions that called for specific answers: “How many teams have been loaded with rations and sent forward? I want to know as near as possible how we stand in every particular for supplies. How many wagons have you ferried over the river? How many are still to bring over? What teams have gone back for rations?” His impatience was such that he had no time for head-shaking or regrets. Learning on May 5 that one of the two towboats and all the barges had been lost the night before in attempting the moonlight run he had ordered, he dismissed the loss with the remark: “We will risk no more rations to run the Vicksburg batteries,” and turned his attention elsewhere. This touch of bad luck was more than offset the following day by news that Sherman had reached Hard Times, freeing McPherson’s third division from guard duty along the supply route, and was already in the process of crossing the river to Grand Gulf. The red-haired general was in excellent spirits, having learned that four newspaper reporters had been aboard the towboat that was lost. “They were so deeply laden with weighty matter that they must have sunk,” he remarked happily, and added: “In our affliction we can console ourselves with the pious reflection that there are plenty more of the same sort.”
One thing Grant did find time for, though, amid all his exertions at Hankinson’s Ferry. On the 7th he issued a general order congratulating his soldiers for their May Day victory near Port Gibson, which he said extended “the long list of those previously won by your valor and endurance.” He was proud of what they had accomplished so far in the campaign, he assured them, and proudest of all that they had endured their necessary privations without complaint. Then he closed on a note of exhortation. “A few days’ continuance of the same zeal and constancy will secure to this army the crowning victory over the rebellion. More difficulties and privations are before us. Let us endure them manfully. Other battles are to be fought. Let us fight them bravely. A grateful country will rejoice at our success, and history will record it with immortal honor.”
Pemberton at this stage was by no means “badly beaten.” Neither was he “greatly demoralized,” any more than Vicksburg’s defenders were “exhausted of ammunition.” Nor was the road to the city “open,” despite Grant’s suppositions in his May 3 note urging Sherman to hurry down to get in on the kill. It was true, on the other hand, that the southern commander had been acutely distressed by the news that the blue invaders were landing in force on the east bank of the river below Grand Gulf, for he saw only too clearly the dangers this involved. “Enemy movement threatens Jackson, and, if successful, cuts off Vicksburg and Port Hudson from the east,” he wired Davis on May Day, before he knew the outcome of the battle for Port Gibson, and he followed this up next morning, when he learned that Bowen had withdrawn across Bayou Pierre, with advice to Governor Pettus that the state archives be removed from the capital for safekeeping; Grant most likely would be coming this way soon. Another appeal to Johnston for “large reinforcements” to meet the “completely changed character of defense,” now that the Federals were established in strength on this side of the river, brought a repetition of yesterday’s advice: “If Grant crosses, unite all your troops to beat him. Success will give back what was abandoned to win it.”
If this proposed abandonment included Vicksburg, and presumably it did, Pemberton was not in agreement. He already had ordered all movable ordnance and ammunition sent to that place from all parts of the state, in preparation for a last-ditch fight if necessary, and he arrived in person the following day, about the same time Grant rode into Grand Gulf with a twenty-trooper escort. For all his original alarm, Pemberton felt considerably better now. Davis and Seddon had promised reinforcements from Alabama and South Carolina—5000 were coming from Charleston by rail at once, the Secretary wired, with another 4000 to follow—and Sherman had withdrawn from in front of Haines Bluff, reducing by half the problem of the city’s peripheral defense. Johnston moreover had agreed at last, now that Streight had been disposed of, to send some cavalry under Forrest to guard against future raids across the Tennessee line. Much encouraged, Pemberton telegraphed Davis: “With reinforcements and cavalry promised in North Mississippi, think we will be all right.”
His new confidence was based on a reappraisal of the situation confronting him now that Bowen, with his approval, had fallen back across the Big Black River, which curved across his entire right front and center. Not only did this withdrawal make a larger number of troops available for the protection of a much smaller area; it also afforded him the interior lines, so that a direct attack from beyond the arc could be met with maximum strength by defenders fighting from prepared positions. Presumably Grant would avoid that, but Pemberton saw an even greater advantage proceeding from the concentration behind the curved shield of the Big Black. It greatly facilitated what he later called “my great object,” which was “to prevent Grant from establishing a base on the Mississippi River, above Vicksburg.” Until the invaders accomplished this they would be dependent for supplies on what could be run directly past the gun-bristled bluff, a risky business at best, or freighted down the opposite bank, along a single jerry-built road that was subject to all the ravages of nature. As Pemberton saw it, his opponent’s logical course would be to extend his march up the left bank of the Big Black, avoiding the bloodshed that would be involved in attempting a crossing until he was well upstream, in position for an advance on Haines Bluff from the rear and the establishment there of a new base of supplies, assisted and protected by Porter’s upper flotilla, which would have returned up the Yazoo to meet him. But the southern commander did not intend to stand idly by, particularly while the latter stages of the movement were in progress. “The farther north [Grant] advanced, toward my left, from his then base below, the weaker he became; the more exposed became his rear and flanks; the more difficult it became to subsist his army and obtain reinforcements.” At the moment of greatest Union extension and exposure, the defenders—reinforced by then, their commander hoped, from all quarters of the Confederacy—would strike with all their strength at the enemy’s flanks and rear, administering a sudden and stunning defeat to a foe for whom, given the time and place, defeat would mean disaster, perhaps annihilation. Such was the plan. And though there were obvious drawbacks—the region beyond the Big Black, for example, would be exposed to unhindered depredations; critics would doubtless object, moreover, that Grant might adopt a different method of accomplishing his goal—Pemberton considered the possible consummation of his design well worth the risk. Having weighed the odds and assessed his opponent’s probable intentions from his actions in the past, he was content to let the outcome test the validity of his insight into the mind of his adversary. “I am a northern man; I know my people,” he was to say. Besides, he believed that the Federals, obliged to hold onto one base to the south while reaching out for another to the north, had little choice except to act as he predicted. It was true that in the interim they “might destroy Jackson and ravage the country,” he admitted, “but that was a comparatively small matter. To take Vicksburg, to control the valley of the Mississippi, to sever the Confederacy, to ruin our cause, a base upon the eastern bank immediately above was absolutely necessary.”
Whatever else was desirable in the conflict now about to be resumed, he knew he would need all the soldiers he could get for the close-up defense of the line on the Big Black. In this connection, at the same time he informed Richmond of the pending evacuation of Grand Gulf he requested permission to bring the so-far unthreatened garrison of Port Hudson north for a share in the coming struggle. “I think Port Hudson and Grand Gulf should be evacuated,” he wired Davis on May 2, “and the whole force concentrated for defense of Vicksburg and Jackson.” Accordingly, in conformity with Johnston’s advice to “unite all your troops,” he ordered Major General Franklin Gardner, commanding the lower fortress, to strip the garrison to an absolute minimum and move with all the rest of the men to Jackson; those remaining behind would follow as soon as Richmond confirmed his request for total evacuation. On May 7, however, Davis replied that he approved of the withdrawal from Grand Gulf, but that “to hold both Vicksburg and Port Hudson is necessary to a connection with the Trans-Mississippi.” So Pemberton countermanded the order to Gardner. He was to return at once to Port Hudson “and hold it to the last. President says both places must be held.”
Such discouragement as this occasioned had been offset in advance, at least in part, by the defeat three nights ago of Grant’s third attempt to run supplies downriver past the Vicksburg batteries. The sunken towboat and the flaming barges—not to mention the four Yankee journalists, who had not drowned, as Sherman had so fervently hoped, but had been fished out of the muddy water as prisoners of war—were evidence of improvement in the marksmanship of the gunners on the bluff, although it had to be conceded that the brilliant moonlight gave them an advantage they had lacked before. Another encouragement came soon afterwards from Johnston, who replied on May 8 to a report in which Pemberton explained his preparations for defense: “Disposition of troops, as far as understood, judicious; can be readily concentrated against Grant’s army.” If this was guarded, it was also approving, which was something altogether new from that direction. Then next day came the best news of all: Johnston himself would be coming soon to Vicksburg to inspirit the men and lend the weight of his genius to the defense of the Gibraltar of the West. Acting under instructions from Davis, Seddon ordered the general to proceed from Tullahoma “at once to Mississippi and take chief command of the forces, giving to those in the field, as far as practicable, the encouragement and benefit of your personal direction.” Johnston was suffering at the time from a flare-up of his Seven Pines wound, but he replied without apparent hesitation: “I shall go immediately, although unfit for service.” He left Tennessee next morning, May 10, having complied with the Secretary’s further instructions to have “3000 good troops” follow him from Bragg’s army as reinforcements for Pemberton.
Pemberton took new hope at the prospect of first-hand assistance from on high; now he could say, with a good deal more assurance than he had felt when he used the words the week before, “Think we will be all right.” But there were flaws in the logic of his approach to the central problem, or at any rate errors in the conclusion to which that logic had led him. His assessment of Grant’s intention was partly right, but it was also partly wrong: right, that is, in the conviction that what his opponent wanted and needed was a supply base above Vicksburg, but wrong as to how he would go about getting what he wanted. By now Grant had nine of his ten divisions across the Mississippi and had reached the final stage of his week-long build-up for an advance, though not in the direction Pemberton had supposed and planned for.
McPherson had been shifted eight miles east to Rocky Springs, leaving Hankinson’s Ferry to be occupied by Sherman, two of whose three divisions were with him, while McClernand was in position along the road between those two points. In connection with the problem of supply, Grant had been collecting all the transportation he could lay hands on, horses, mules, oxen, and whatever rolled on wheels, ever since the Bruinsburg crossing. The result was a weird conglomeration of vehicles, ranging from the finest plantation carriages to ramshackle farm wagons, with surreys and buckboards thrown in for good measure, all piled to the dashboards and tailgates with supplies—mainly crates of ammunition and hardtack, the two great necessities for an army on the move—constantly shuttling back and forth between the Grand Gulf steamboat landing and Rocky Springs, where Grant had established headquarters near McPherson. Sherman, being farthest in the rear, had a close-up view of vehicular confusion that seemed to him to be building up to the greatest traffic snarl in history, despite the fact that there was still not transportation enough to supply more than a fraction of the army’s needs. It was his conclusion that Grant’s headlong impatience to be up and off was plunging him toward a logistic disaster. By May 9 he could put up with it no longer. “Stop all troops till your army is partially supplied with wagons, and then act as quickly as possible,” he advised his chief, “for this road will be jammed as sure as life if you attempt to supply 50,000 men by one single road.” The prompt reply from Rocky Springs gave the redhead the shock of his military life. Previously he had known scarcely more of Grant’s future plans than Pemberton knew from beyond the Big Black River, but suddenly the veil of secrecy was lifted enough to give him considerably more than a glimmer of what he had never suspected until now. “I do not calculate upon the possibility of supplying the army with full rations from Grand Gulf,” Grant told him. “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.”
This clearly implied, if it did not actually state, that he intended to launch an invasion, much as Cortez and Scott had done in Mexico, without a base from which to draw supplies. And so he did. Back in December, returning through North Mississippi to Memphis after the destruction of his forward depot at Holly Springs, he had discovered that his troops could live quite easily off the country by the simple expedient of taking what they wanted from the farmers in their path. “This taught me a lesson,” he later remarked, and now the lesson was about to be applied. Moreover, the success of Grierson, whose troopers had lacked for nothing in the course of a 600-mile ride that had “knocked the heart out of the state”—so Grant himself declared in passing along to Washington the news of the raid—was a nearer and more recent example of what might be accomplished along those lines. For his own part, in the course of his march from Bruinsburg through Port Gibson to Rocky Springs, he had observed that “beef, mutton, poultry, and forage were found in abundance,” along with “quite a quantity of bacon and molasses.” What was more, every rural commissary “had a run of stone, propelled by mule power, to grind corn for the owners and their slaves. All these [could be] kept running … day and night … at all plantations covered by the troops.” He felt sure there would be enough food and forage of one sort or another for all his men and animals, leaving room in the makeshift train for ammunition and such hard-to-get items as salt and coffee, provided there were no long halts during which the local supplies would be exhausted. All that was required was that he keep his army moving, and that was precisely what he intended to do, from start to finish, for tactical as well as logistic reasons. His 45,000 effectives were roughly twice as many as Pemberton had behind the curved shield of the Big Black River; he was convinced that he could whip him in short order with a frontal attack. “If Blair were up now,” he told Sherman, who was still awaiting the arrival of the division that had feinted at Haines Bluff, “I believe we could be in Vicksburg in seven days.” But that would leave some 10,000 rebels alive in his rear at Jackson, which was connected by rail not only to Vicksburg but also to the rest of the Confederacy, so that reinforcements could be hurried there from Bragg and the East until they outnumbered him as severely as he had outnumbered Pemberton, thus turning the tables on him. His solution was to strike both north and east, severing the rail connection between Jackson and Vicksburg near the Big Black crossing, while simultaneously closing in on the capital. He would capture the inferior force at that place, if possible, but at any rate he would knock it out of commission as a transportation hub or a rallying point; after which he would be free to turn on Vicksburg unmolested, approaching it from the east and north, and thus either take the citadel by storm or else establish a base on the Yazoo from which to draw supplies while starving the cutoff defenders into surrender.
Sherman had much of this explained to him when he rode over to Rocky Springs that afternoon, in considerable perturbation, for what he called “a full conversation” with the army commander. But his doubts persisted, much as they had done after he had agreed to stage the Haines Bluff demonstration. “He is satisfied that he will succeed in his plan,” he said of Grant in a letter urging Blair to hasten his crossing from Hard Times, “and, of course, we must do our full share.” Though he would “of course” co-operate fully in carrying out his chief’s design, he wanted it understood from the start—and placed indelibly on the record—that he was doing so with something less than enthusiasm and against his better judgment. Grant by now was accustomed to his lieutenant’s mercurial ups and downs, and he did not let them discourage him or influence his thinking. The following day, May 10—the Sunday Joe Johnston left Tullahoma for Jackson—he heard again from Banks, who informed him, in a letter written four days ago at Opelousas, that he was making steady progress up the Teche, clearing out the rebels on his flank, and expected to turn east presently for Port Hudson. “By the 25th, probably, and by the 1st certainly, we will be there,” he promised. Convinced more than ever that he had done right not to wait for Banks, Grant replied that he was going ahead on his own. Previously he had told him nothing of his plans, not even that he would not be meeting him; but now he did, on the off-chance that Banks might be of assistance. “Many days cannot elapse before the battle will begin which is to decide the fate of Vicksburg,” he wrote, “but it is impossible to predict how long it may last. I would urgently request, therefore, that you join me or send all the force you can spare to co-operate in the great struggle for opening the Mississippi River.” Similarly, at this near-final moment, he got off a dispatch to the general-in-chief, announcing that he was leaving Banks to fend for himself against Port Hudson while the Army of the Tennessee cut loose from its base at Grand Gulf and plunged inland in order to come upon Vicksburg from the rear. “I knew well that Halleck’s caution would lead him to disapprove of this course,” he subsequently explained; “but it was the only one that gave any chance of success.” Besides, such messages were necessarily slow in transmission, having to be taken overland from Hard Times to Milliken’s Bend, then north by steamboat all the way to Cairo before they could be put on the wire, and Grant saw a certain advantage in this arrangement. “The time it would take to communicate with Washington and get a reply would be so great that I could not be interfered with until it was demonstrated whether my plan was practicable.”
This done, he turned to putting the final touches to the plan he had evolved. McClernand would move up the left bank of the Big Black, guarding the crossings as he went, and strike beyond Fourteen Mile Creek at Edwards Station, on the railroad sixteen miles east of Vicksburg. McPherson would move simultaneously against Jackson, and Sherman would be on call to assist either column, depending on which ran into the stiffest resistance. On the 11th, Grant advanced all three to their jump-off positions: McClernand on the left, as near Fourteen Mile Creek as possible “without bringing on a general engagement,” Sherman in the center, beyond Cayuga, and McPherson on the right, near Utica. “Move your command tonight to the next crossroads if there is water,” Grant told McPherson, “and tomorrow with all activity into Raymond.… We must fight the enemy before our rations fail, and we are equally bound to make our rations last as long as possible.”
Before dawn the following morning, May 12, they were off. The second phase of the campaign designed for the capture of Vicksburg was under way.
Advancing through a rugged and parched region, McClernand’s troops found that the only way they could quench their thirst, aggravated by the heat of the day and the dust of the country roads, was to drive the opposing cavalry beyond Fourteen Mile Creek, which was held by a rebel force covering Edwards Station, some four miles to the north. By midafternoon they had done just that. “Our men enjoyed both the skirmish and the water,” the commander of the lead division reported. Sherman, coming up on the right, accomplished this same purpose by throwing “a few quick rounds of cannister” at the gray vedettes, who promptly scampered out of range. Pioneers rebuilt a bridge the Confederates had burned as they fell back, and several regiments crossed the creek at dusk, establishing a bridgehead while the two corps went into bivouac on the south bank, prepared to advance on Edwards in the morning.
But that was not to be. McPherson, when within two miles of Raymond at 11 o’clock that morning, had encountered an enemy force of undetermined strength, “judiciously posted, with two batteries of artillery so placed as to sweep the road and a bridge over which it was necessary to pass.” This was in fact a single brigade of about 4000 men, recently arrived from Port Hudson under Brigadier General John Gregg, who had come out from Jackson the day before, under orders from Pemberton to cover the southwest approaches to the capital. Informed that the Federals were moving on Edwards, over near the Big Black River, he assumed that the blue column marching toward him from Utica was only “a brigade on a marauding excursion,” and he was determined not only to resist but also, if possible, to slaughter the marauders. The result was a sharp and—considering the odds—surprisingly hot contest, in which seven butternut regiments took on a whole Union corps. McPherson threw Logan’s division against the wooded enemy position, only to have it bloodily repulsed. While the other two were coming forward, Logan rallied in time to frustrate a determined counterattack and follow it up with one of his own. By now, however, having learned what it was he had challenged—and having suffered 514 casualties, as compared to McPherson’s 442—Gregg had managed to disengage and was withdrawing through Raymond. Five miles to the east, one third of the distance to Jackson, he met Brigadier General W. H. T. Walker, who had marched out to join him with a thousand men just arrived from South Carolina. Gregg halted and faced about, ready to try his hand again; but there was no further action that day. Entering Raymond at 5 o’clock, McPherson decided to stop for the night. “The rough and impracticable nature of the country, filled with ravines and dense undergrowth, prevented anything like an effective use of artillery or a very rapid pursuit,” he explained in a sundown dispatch to the army commander.
Grant was seven miles away, at the Dillon plantation on Fourteen Mile Creek with Sherman, and when he learned the outcome of the battle whose guns he had heard booming, five miles off at first, then fading eastward into silence, he revised his over-all plan completely. Edwards could wait. If Jackson was where the enemy was—and the determined resistance at Raymond seemed to indicate as much—he would go after him in strength; he would risk no halfway job in snuffing out a segment of the rebel army concentrated near a rail hub that gave it access to reinforcements from all quarters of the South. Accordingly, at 9.15 he sent orders assigning all three of his corps commanders new objectives for tomorrow and prescribing that each would begin his march “at daylight in the morning.” McPherson would move against Clinton, on the railroad nine miles north, then eastward that same distance along the right-of-way to Jackson. Sherman would turn due east from his present bivouac at Dillon, swinging through Raymond so as to come upon the objective from the south. McClernand, after detaching one division to serve as a rear guard in the event that the Confederates at Vicksburg attempted to interfere by crossing the Big Black, would come along behind Sherman and McPherson, prepared to move in support of either or both as they closed in on the Mississippi capital. Such were Grant’s instructions, and presently he had cause to believe that he had improvised aright. Two days ago McPherson had passed along a rumor that “some of the citizens in the vicinity of Utica say Beauregard is at or near Jackson.” If the Charleston hero was there it was practically certain he had not come alone. And now there arrived a second dispatch from McPherson, headed 11 p.m. and relaying another rumor that heavy Confederate reinforcements were moving against him out of Jackson, intending to fight again at Raymond soon after sunup. He did not know how much fact there was in this, he added, but he would “try to be prepared for them.” Grant had confidence in McPherson, especially when he was forewarned as he was now, and did not bother to reply. Besides, whether it was true or false that the rebels were marching in force to meet him west of their capital, he already had made provisions to counter such a threat by ordering all but one of his ten divisions, some 40,000 men in all, to move toward a convergence on that very objective “at daylight in the morning.”
All three columns moved on schedule. By early afternoon McPherson was in Clinton, nine miles from Jackson, and Sherman was six miles beyond Raymond, about the same distance from the Mississippi capital. A lack of determined resistance seemed to indicate that last night’s rumor of heavy reinforcements was in error, and this, plus reports from scouts that Pemberton had advanced in force to the vicinity of Edwards, caused Grant to modify his strategy again. McPherson was instructed to spend the rest of the day wrecking the railroad west of Clinton, then resume his eastward march at first light tomorrow, May 14, tearing up more track as he went. Sherman, half a dozen miles to the south, would regulate his progress so that both corps would approach the Jackson defenses simultaneously. McClernand, instead of following along to furnish unneeded support, would turn north at Raymond and march on Bolton Depot, eight miles west of Clinton, occupying a strong position in case Pemberton attempted a farther advance along the railroad toward his threatened capital. There was of course the possibility that the Confederate commander might lunge southward, across Fourteen Mile Creek, with the intention of attacking the Federal army’s rear and severing its connection with Grand Gulf: in which case he would be removing himself from the campaign entirely, at least for the period of time required for him to discover that he had plunged into a vacuum. For Grant not only had no supply line; he had no rear, either, in the sense that Pemberton might suppose. Such rear as Grant had he had brought with him, embodied in McClernand, who now had orders to take up a position at Bolton, astride the railroad about midway between Vicksburg and Jackson, facing west. Moreover, once the capital had fallen and the blue army turned its attention back to its prime objective, the bluff top citadel forty-five miles away, what was now its rear would automatically become its front; McClernand, already in position for an advance, once more would take the lead, with Sherman and McPherson in support. For all the improvisatorial nature of his tactics, Grant, like any good chess player, was keeping a move or two ahead of the game.
By midmorning of May 14, slogging eastward under a torrential rain that quickly turned the dusty roads into troughs of mud, Sherman was within three miles of Jackson. At 10 o’clock, while peering through the steely curtain of the downpour to examine the crude fortifications to his front, he heard the welcome boom of guns off to the north; McPherson was on schedule and in place. While Sherman reconnoitered toward Pearl River for an opening on the flank, McPherson deployed for a time-saving frontal attack, to be launched astride the railroad. He waited an hour in the rain, lest the cartridge boxes of his troops be filled with water, like buckets under a tap, when they lifted the flaps to remove their paper-wrapped ammunition, and then at 11 o’clock, the rain having slacked to a drizzle at last, ordered his lead division forward across fields of shin-deep mud. The rebel pickets faded back to the shelter of their intrenchments, laying down a heavy fire that stopped the bluecoats in their tracks and flung them on their faces in the mud. By now it was noon. McPherson impatiently reformed his staggered line, having lost an even 300 men, and sent the survivors forward again. This time they found the rebel infantry gone. Only a handful of cannoneers had remained behind to serve the seven guns left on line and be captured by McPherson’s jubilant soldiers. Sherman had the same experience, two miles to the south, except that he found ten guns in the abandoned works he had outflanked. Not only were his spoils thus greater than McPherson’s; his casualties were fewer, numbering only 32. The Confederates, under Gregg and Walker, who had fallen back from east of Raymond the night before, had lost just over 200 men before pulling out of their trenches to make a hairbreadth getaway to the north. The Battle of Jackson was over, such as it was, and Grant had taken the Mississippi capital at a bargain price of 48 killed, 273 wounded, and 11 missing.
He was there to enjoy in person the first fruits of today’s sudden and inexpensive victory. Sherman, riding in from the south—and noting with disapproval some “acts of pillage” already being committed by early arrived bluecoats under the influence “of some bad rum found concealed in the stores of the town”—was summoned by a courier to the Bowman House, Jackson’s best hotel, where he found Grant and McPherson celebrating the capture of Jeff Davis’s own home-state capital, the third the South had lost in the past two years. From the lobby they had a view, through a front window, of the State House where the rebel President had predicted, less than six months ago, that his fellow Mississippians would “meet and hurl back these worse than vandal hordes.” Quick as the two generals had been to reach the heart of town, riding in ahead of the main body, they were slower than the army commander’s young son Fred. His mother and brother had gone back North after the second running of the Vicksburg batteries, but Fred had stayed on to enjoy the fun that followed, wearing his father’s dress sword and sash—which the general himself had little use for, and almost never wore—as badges of rank. Grant, an indulgent parent, later explained that the boy “caused no trouble either to me or his mother, who was at home. He looked out for himself and was in every battle of the campaign. His age, then not quite thirteen, enabled him to take in all he saw, and then to retain a recollection of it that would not be possible in more mature years.” Fred’s recollection of the capture of Jackson was saddened, however, by his failure to get a souvenir he badly wanted. He and a friendly journalist had seen from the outskirts of town a large Confederate flag waving from its staff atop the golden dome of the capitol. Mounted, they hurried ahead of the leading infantry column, tethered their horses in front of the big stone building, and raced upstairs—only to meet, on his way down, “a ragged, muddy, begrimed cavalryman” descending with the rebel banner tucked beneath his arm. For Fred, a good measure of the glory of Jackson’s capture had departed, then and there.
Grant could sympathize with the boy’s disappointment, but he had just been handed something considerably more valuable to him than the lost flag or even the seventeen guns that had been taken in the engagement that served as prelude to the occupation of the capital. Charles Dana arrived in mid-celebration with a dispatch just delivered by a courier from Grand Gulf. Signed by the Secretary of War and dated May 5, it had been sent in response to a letter in which Dana had given him a summation of Grant’s plan “to lose no time in pushing his army toward the Big Black and Jackson, threatening both and striking at either, as is most convenient.… He will disregard his base and depend on the country for meat and even for bread.” Now Stanton replied:
General Grant has full and absolute authority to enforce his own commands, to remove any person who, by ignorance, inaction, or any cause, interferes with or delays his operations. He has the full confidence of the Government, is expected to enforce his authority, and will be firmly and heartily supported; but he will be responsible for any failure to exert his powers. You may communicate this to him.
There was more here than met the eye. Stanton of course had authority over Halleck, so that if—or rather, as Grant believed from past experience, when—the time came for the general-in-chief to protest that Grant had disobeyed orders by abandoning Banks and striking out on his own, he would find—if indeed he had not found already—that Stanton, and presumably Lincoln as well, had approved in advance the course Grant had adopted. Nor was that all. Dana, having long since taken a position alongside the army commander in his private war against McClernand, had been keeping the Secretary copiously posted on the former congressman’s military shortcomings, large and small, and feeling him out as to what the administration’s reaction would be when Grant decided the time had come for him to swing the ax. Now the answer was at hand. Grant not only had “full and absolute authority” to sit in judgment; he would in fact be held “responsible for any failure to exert his powers” in all matters pertaining to what he considered his army’s welfare and the progress of what Stanton called his “operations,” whether against the rebels or McClernand.
It was no wonder then—protected as he now was from the wrath of his immediate superior, as well as from the machinations of his ranking subordinate—that he was in good spirits during the hotel-lobby victory celebration. All around him, meanwhile, the town was in a turmoil. “Many citizens [had] fled at our approach,” one Federal witness later recalled, “abandoning houses, stores, and all their personal property, without so much as locking their doors. The Negroes, poor whites, and it must be admitted some stragglers and bummers from the ranks of the Union army, carried off thousands of dollars worth of property from houses, homes, shops and stores, until some excuse was given for the charge of ‘northern vandalism,’ which was afterwards made by the South. The streets were filled with people, white and black, who were carrying away all the stolen goods they could stagger under, without the slightest attempt at concealment and without let or hindrance from citizens or soldiers.… In addition … the convicts of the penitentiary, who had been released by their own authorities, set all the buildings connected with that prison on fire, and their lurid flames added to the holocaust elsewhere prevailing.” He observed that “many calls were made upon [Grant] by citizens asking for guards to protect their private property, some of which perhaps were granted, but by far the greater number [of these petitioners] were left to the tender mercies of their Confederate friends.”
After all, Grant had not brought his army here to protect the private property of men in revolution against the government that army represented; nor, for that matter, had it ever been his custom to deny his soldiers a chance at relaxation they had earned, even though that relaxation sometimes took a rather violent form. His purpose, rather, was to destroy all public property such as might be of possible comfort to the Confederacy. This applied especially to the railroads, the wrecking of which would abolish the Mississippi capital as a transportation hub, at least through the critical period just ahead. But that other facilities were not neglected was observed by a witness who testified that “foundries, machine shops, warehouses, factories, arsenals, and public stores were fired as fast as flames could be kindled.” Sherman was the man for this work, Grant decided, and he gave him instructions “to remain in Jackson until he destroyed that place as a railroad center and manufacturing city of military supplies.”
Meanwhile there was the campaign to get on with; Pemberton was hovering to the west, already on the near side of the Big Black, and beyond him there was Vicksburg, the true object of all this roundabout marching and such bloodshed as had so far been involved. McPherson was told to get his corps in hand and be prepared to set out for Bolton Depot at first light tomorrow to support McClernand, whose corps was no longer the army’s rear guard, but rather its advance. Having attended to this, Grant joined Sherman for a little relaxation of his own; namely, a tour of inspection to determine which of the local business establishments would be spared or burned. In the course of the tour they came upon a cloth factory which, as Grant said later, “had not ceased work on account of the battle nor for the entrance of Yankee troops.” Outside the building “an immense amount of cotton” was stacked in bales; inside, the looms were going full tilt, tended by girl operatives, weaving bolts of tent cloth plainly stamped C.S.A. No one seemed to notice the two generals, who watched for some time in amused admiration of such oblivious industry. “Finally,” Grant said afterwards, “I told Sherman I thought they had done work enough. The operatives were told they could leave and take with them what cloth they could carry. In a few minutes cotton and factory were in a blaze.”
This done, Grant returned to the Bowman House for his first night’s sleep on a mattress in two weeks. Joe Johnston, he was told, had occupied the same room the night before.
Johnston—not Beauregard, as rumor had had it earlier—had arrived at dusk the day before, at the end of a grueling three-day train ride from Tennessee by way of Atlanta, Montgomery, Mobile, and Meridian, only to find the Mississippi capital seething with reports of heavy Union columns advancing from the west. As night closed in, a hard rain began to fall, shrouding the city and deepening the Virginian’s gloom still further: as was shown in a wire he got off to Seddon after dark. “I arrived this evening finding the enemy’s force between this place and General Pemberton, cutting off communication. I am too late.” To Pemberton, still on the far side of the Big Black, he sent a message advising quick action on that general’s part. To insure delivery, three copies were forwarded by as many couriers. “I have lately arrived, and learn that Major General Sherman is between us, with four divisions, at Clinton,” Johnston wrote. “It is important to re-establish communications, that you may be reinforced. If practicable, come up in his rear at once. To beat such a detachment would be of immense value. The troops here could cooperate. All the strength you can quickly assemble should be brought. Time is all important.”
He had at Jackson, he presently discovered, only two brigades of about 6000 men with which to oppose the 25,000 Federals who were knocking at the western gates next morning. After a sharp, brief skirmish and the sacrifice of seventeen guns to cover a withdrawal, he retreated seven miles up the Canton road to Tugaloo, where he halted at nightfall, unpursued, and sent another message to Pemberton, from whom he had heard nothing since his arrival, informing him that the capital had been evacuated. He was expecting another “12,000 or 13,000” troops from the East, he said, and “as soon as [these] reinforcements are all up, they must be united to the rest of the army. I am anxious to see a force assembled that may be able to inflict a heavy blow upon the enemy.… If prisoners tell the truth, the force at Jackson must be half of Grant’s army. It would decide the campaign to beat it, which can only be done by concentrating, especially when the remainder of the eastern troops arrive.” He himself could do little or nothing until these men reached him, reducing the odds to something within reason, but he did not think that Pemberton should neglect any opportunity Grant afforded meanwhile, particularly in regard to his lines of supply and communication. “Can he supply himself from the Mississippi?” Johnston asked. “Can you not cut him off from it, and above all, should he be compelled to fall back for want of supplies, beat him?”
This last was in accord with Pemberton’s own decision, already arrived at before the second message was received. The first, delivered by one of the three couriers that morning at Bovina Station, nine miles east of Vicksburg, had taken him greatly by surprise. He had expected Johnston to come to his assistance in defense of the line along or just in front of the Big Black; yet here that general was, requesting him “if practicable” to come to his assistance by marching against the enemy’s rear at Clinton, some twenty miles away. Pemberton replied that he would “move at once with the whole available force,” explaining however that this included only 17,500 troops at best, since the remaining 9000 under his command were required to man the Warrenton-Vicksburg-Haines Bluff defenses, as well as the principal crossings of the Big Black, which otherwise would remain open in his rear, exposing the Gibraltar of the West to sudden capture by whatever roving segment of the rampant blue host happened to lunge in that direction. “In directing this move,” he felt obliged to add, by way of protest, “I do not think you fully comprehend the position Vicksburg will be left in; but I comply at once with your request.”
So he said. However, when he rode forward to Edwards, where his mobile force of three divisions under Loring, Stevenson, and Bowen was posted four miles east of the Big Black, he learned that a Union column, reportedly five divisions strong—it was in fact McClernand’s corps, with Blair attached as guard for the wagon train—was at Raymond, in position for a northward advance on Bolton. If Pemberton marched on Clinton, as Johnston suggested, ignoring this threat to his right flank as he moved eastward along the railroad, he would not only be leaving Vicksburg and the remaining two divisions under Major Generals M. L. Smith and John H. Forney in grave danger of being gobbled up while his back was turned; he would also be exposing his eastbound force to destruction at the hands of the other half of the Northern army. Perplexed by this dilemma, and mindful of some advice received two days ago from Richmond that he “add conciliation to the discharge of duty”—“Patience in listening to suggestions … is sometimes rewarded,” Davis had added—he decided the time had come for him to call a council of war, something he had never done before in all his thirty years of military service. Assembling the general officers of the three divisions at Edwards Station shortly after noon, he laid Johnston’s message before them and outlined the tactical problems it posed. Basically, what he had to deal with was a contradiction of orders from above. As he understood the President’s wishes, he was not to risk losing Vicksburg by getting too far from it, whereas Johnston was suggesting a junction of their forces near Jackson, forty miles away, in order to engage what he called a “detachment” of four—in fact, five—divisions, without reference to or apparent knowledge of the five-division column now at Raymond, both of which outnumbered the Confederates at Edwards. Pemberton, on the other hand, did not strictly agree with either of his two superiors, preferring to await attack in a prepared position near or behind the Big Black River, with a chance of following up a repulse with a counterattack designed to cut off and annihilate the foe. These three views could not be reconciled, but neither did he consider that any one of them could be ignored; so that, like the nation at large, this Northerner who sided with the South was torn and divided against himself. That was his particular nightmare in this nightmare interlude of his country’s history. According to an officer on his staff, the Pennsylvania’s trouble now and in the future was that he made “the capital mistake of trying to harmonize instructions from his superiors diametrically opposed to each other, and at the same time to bring them into accord with his own judgment, which was averse to the plans of both.”
Nor was the council of much assistance to him in finding a way around the impasse. Though a majority of the participants favored complying with Johnston’s suggestion that the two forces be united, they were obliged to admit that it could not be accomplished by a direct march on Clinton, which was plainly an invitation to disaster. Meanwhile Pemberton’s own views, as he told Johnston later, “were strongly expressed as unfavorable to any advance which would remove me from my base, which was and is Vicksburg.” Apparently he limited himself to this negative contention. But finally Loring—known as “Old Blizzards” since his and Tilghman’s spirited repulse of the Yankee gunboats above Greenwood—suggested an alternate movement, southeast nine miles to Dillon, which he believed would sever Grant’s connection with Grand Gulf and thus force him either to withdraw, for lack of supplies, or else to turn and fight at a disadvantage in a position of Pemberton’s choice. Stevenson agreed, along with others, and Pemberton, though he disliked the notion of moving even that much farther from Vicksburg, “did not, however, see fit to put my own judgment and opinions so far in opposition as to prevent a movement altogether.” He approved the suggestion, apparently for lack of having anything better to offer, and adjourned the council after giving the generals instructions to be ready to march at dawn. At 5.40, on the heels of the adjournment, he got off a message informing Johnston of his intentions. “I shall move as early tomorrow morning as practicable with a column of 17,000 men,” he wrote, explaining the exact location of Dillon so that Johnston would have no trouble finding it on a map which was enclosed. “The object is to cut the enemy’s communications and to force him to attack me, as I do not consider my force sufficient to justify an attack on the enemy in position or to attempt to cut my way to Jackson.”
Johnston received this at 8.30 next morning, May 15, by which time he had withdrawn another three miles up the Canton road, still farther from the intended point of concentration at Clinton. Though the message showed that Pemberton had anticipated the Virginian’s still unreceived suggestion that he attempt to “cut [Grant] off from [the Mississippi],” Johnston no longer favored such a movement. “Our being compelled to leave Jackson makes your plan impracticable,” he replied, and repeated—despite Pemberton’s objection to being drawn still farther from his base—his preference for an eastward march by the mobile force from Vicksburg: “The only mode by which we can unite is by your moving directly to Clinton, informing me, that [I] may move to that point with about 6000 troops. I have no means of estimating the enemy’s force at Jackson. The principal officers here differ very widely, and I fear he will fortify if time is left him. Let me hear from you immediately.”
Evidently Johnston believed that Grant was going to hole up in the Mississippi capital and thus allow him time to effect a junction between the Vicksburg troops and his own, including the “12,000 or 13,000” reinforcements expected any day now from the East. If so, he was presently disabused. A reply from Pemberton, written early the following morning but not delivered until after dark, informed him that the advance on Dillon—badly delayed anyhow by the need for building a bridge across a swollen creek—had been abandoned, in accordance with his wishes, and the direction of march reversed. It was Pemberton’s intention, as explained in the message, to move north of the railroad, swing wide through Brownsville to avoid the mass of Federals reported to be near Bolton, and converge on Clinton as instructed. “The order of countermarch has been issued,” he wrote, and followed a description of his proposed route with the words: “I am thus particular, so that you may be able to make a junction with this army.”
The Vicksburg commander at last had abandoned his objections to what Johnston had called “the only mode by which we can unite.” He was, or soon would be, moving east toward his appointed destination. But there was an ominous postscript to the message, written in evident haste and perhaps alarm: “Heavy skirmishing is now going on to my front.”
What that portended Johnston did not know; but Grant did. Before he retired to the hotel room his adversary had occupied the night before the fall of Jackson, he received from McPherson one of the three copies of Johnston’s message urging Pemberton to “come up in [Sherman’s] rear at once.” This windfall was the result of a ruse worked some months ago by Hurlbut, who banished from Memphis, with considerable fanfare, a citizen found guilty of “uttering disloyal and threatening sentiments,” though he was in secret, as Hurlbut knew, a thoroughly loyal Union man. The expulsion, along with his continued expression of secessionist views after his removal to the Mississippi capital, won him the sympathy and admiration of the people there: so much so, indeed, that he was one of the three couriers entrusted with copies of Johnston’s urgent message. He delivered it, however, not to Pemberton but to McPherson, who passed it promptly along to Grant. “Time is all important,” the Virginian had written. Grant agreed. By first light next morning, May 15, McPherson was marching west from the capital, leaving Sherman to accomplish its destruction while he himself moved toward a junction with McClernand, who had been instructed simultaneously by Grant: “Turn all your forces toward Bolton station, and make all dispatch in getting there. Move troops by the most direct road from wherever they may be on the receipt of this order.”
McPherson’s three divisions had seventeen miles to go, and McClernand’s four—five, including Blair—were variously scattered, from Raymond back to Fourteen Mile Creek. Each corps got one division to Bolton by late afternoon—Hovey and Logan, in that order—while the others camped along the roads at sundown. Carr and Osterhaus were three miles south, with A. J. Smith between them and Raymond, where Blair was. Brigadier Generals John McArthur and Marcellus Crocker, commanding McPherson’s other two divisions, were bivouacked beside the railroad leading back to Clinton. Riding out from Jackson to that point before nightfall, Grant ordered McClernand to move on Edwards in the morning, supported by McPherson, but warned him “to watch for the enemy and not bring on an engagement unless he felt very certain of success.” The fog of war, gathering again to obscure the Confederate purpose, had provoked this note of caution; but it was dispersed once more at 5 o’clock next morning, when two Union-sympathizing employes of the Vicksburg-Jackson Railroad were brought to Grant at Clinton. They had passed through Pemberton’s army in the night, they said, and could report that it was moving east of Edwards with a strength of about 25,000 men. Though this was in fact some 7500 high, it was still some 10,000 fewer than Grant had on hand. But he was taking no unavoidable chances. Deciding to ignore Johnston, who by now was a day’s march north of Jackson at Calhoun Station, he ordered Sherman to “put one division with an ammunition train on the road at once, with directions to its commander to march with all possible speed until he comes upon our rear.” The remaining division was to hurry its demolition work and follow along as soon as might be. The orders to McClernand and McPherson were unaltered; all that was changed by this second dispersal of the war fog was the weight of the blow about to be delivered. Now that he knew Pemberton’s strength and had him spotted, Grant intended to hit him with everything he had.
At about the time the railroad men were telling all they knew, McClernand started forward in high spirits. “My corps, again, led the advance,” he was to say proudly in a letter giving his friend Lincoln an account of the campaign. Such was indeed the case. Three roads led west from the vicinity of Bolton to a junction east of Edwards, and McClernand used all three: Hovey on the one to the north, Osterhaus and Carr on the one in the middle, and Smith on the one to the south. Blair followed Smith, and McPherson’s three divisions followed Hovey. Rebel cavalry was soon encountered, gray phantoms who fired and scampered out of range while the blue skirmishers flailed the woods with bullets. Then at 7.30, five miles short of Edwards, Smith came upon a screen of butternut pickets and dislodged them, exposing a four-gun battery, which he silenced. He wanted to plunge on, despite the signs that the high ground ahead was occupied in strength, but McClernand told him to hold what he had till Blair came up to keep his exposed left flank from being turned. Immediately on the heels of this, a rattle of gunfire from the north signified that Osterhaus and Hovey had also come upon johnnies to their front. McClernand inspected the rebel position as best he could from a distance and, finding it formidable, decided to hang on where he was until the situation could be developed. Having obeyed Grant’s instructions “to watch for the enemy,” he was also mindful of the injunction “not [to] bring on an engagement unless he felt very certain of success.” At this point, with his various columns a mile or two apart and facing a wooded ridge a-swarm with graybacks, he was not feeling very certain about anything at all. What he mainly felt was lonely.
Countermarching in obedience to the message received early that morning from Johnston, Pemberton had been warned by his outriders of the Union host advancing westward along the three roads from Bolton and Raymond. When this danger was emphasized by the “heavy skirmishing” mentioned in the postscript to his reply that he was moving north and east toward a junction at Clinton, he knew he had a fight on his hands, wanted or not, and to avoid the risk of being caught in motion, strung out on the road to Brownsville, he hastily put his troops in position for receiving the attack he knew was coming. Whether his choice of ground was “by accident or design,” as Grant ungenerously remarked, there could be no doubt that Pemberton chose well. Just south of the railroad and within a broad northward loop of rain-swollen Baker’s Creek, a seventy-foot eminence known as Champion Hill—so called because it was on a plantation belonging to a family of that name—caused the due-west road from Bolton to veer south around its flank, joining the middle road in order to cross a timbered ridge that extended southward for three miles, past the lower of the three roads along which the enemy was advancing. Pemberton placed Stevenson’s division on the hill itself, overlooking the direct approach from Bolton, and Bowen’s and Loring’s divisions along the ridge, blocking the other two approaches. Here, in an opportune position of great natural strength, he faced as best he could the consequences of his reluctant and belated compliance with his superior’s repeated suggestion that he abandon the security of his prepared lines, along and just in front of the Big Black, for an attack on the Federal “detachment” supposed to be at Clinton. Now, however, as the thing turned out, it was Pemberton who was about to be attacked, a dozen miles short of his assigned objective. And here, precisely midway between Vicksburg and Jackson, both of which were twenty-two miles away, was fought what at least one prominent western-minded historian was to call “the most decisive battle of the Civil War.”
Grant did not much like the look of things when he came riding out from Bolton and reached the front, where the road veered south beyond the Champion house, to find Hovey exchanging long-range shots with the enemy on the tall hill just ahead. It seemed to him, as he said later, that the rebels “commanded all the ground in range.” However, unlike McClernand on the two roads to the south, he was not content to hold his own while waiting for the situation to develop more or less of its own accord. Logan’s division having arrived, he sent it to the right, to prolong the line and feel for an opening in that direction. This was about 10 o’clock; he preferred to wait for Crocker to come up and lend the weight of McPherson’s second division to the attack. But Hovey by now was hotly engaged, taking punishment from the batteries on the height and protesting that he must either go forward or fall back. Grant unleashed him. A former Indiana lawyer, of whom it was said that he had taken to the army “just as if he expected to spend his life in it,” Hovey drove straight up the steep acclivity to his front, flinging back successive Confederate lines, until he reached and seized the eleven guns that had been pounding him from near the crest. His men were whooping with delight, proud but winded, when they were struck in turn by a powerful counterattack launched from a fringe of woods along the crest. “We ran, and ran manfully,” one among them declared, explaining how he and his fellows had been swept back from the captured guns and down the slope they had climbed. Reinforced by Crocker’s lead brigade, which had just arrived under Colonel George Boomer, they managed to hang on at the foot of the hill; but only by the hardest. One officer called the fighting there “unequal, terrible, and most sanguinary.” For half an hour, he said, the troops “on each side took their turn in driving and being driven.”
It was obvious that Hovey, who had left about one third of his division lying dead or wounded on the hillside, could not hold out much longer unassisted. Then one of the survivors looked over his shoulder and saw the army commander speaking to the colonel in charge of Crocker’s second brigade, which was coming forward along the road behind them. “I was close enough to see his features,” the man was to recall. “Earnest they were, but sign of inward movement there was none.” This was the Grant of Belmont, Donelson, and Shiloh, reacting to adversity here as he had reacted there. If the face was “cool and calculating,” the soldier observed, it was also “careful and half-cynical.” He could not catch the spoken words across the distance, but they were as characteristic as the calm, enigmatic mask or the habitual cigar stump that was wedged between its teeth. “Hovey’s division and Boomer’s brigade are good troops,” Grant was saying. “If the enemy has driven them he is not in good plight himself. If we can go in again here and make a little showing, I think he will give way.”
But it developed that a good deal more than this one additional brigade would have to join the melee at the base of Champion Hill if Grant was to make what he called “a little showing.” With McPherson’s third division still too far away to be of help in time, he had to call on Logan, who had been sent to probe the rebel left. And this, as Grant admitted later, was the salvation of Pemberton today. Logan had ridden around the north end of the hill, where the terrain was more open and gently rolling. He was sitting on horseback, surveying the scene, when a private who had wandered on his own came up to him and remarked laconically, gesturing off to the right: “General, I’ve been over the rise yonder, and it’s my idea that if you’ll put a regiment or two over there you’ll get on their flank and lick ’em easy.” Logan took a look for himself and saw that the man was right; Pemberton’s left was “in the air” and the way to his rear was practically unobstructed, including the single bridge over Baker’s Creek by which he could fall back. Just then, however, the order to return and support the hard-pressed Hovey was received; Logan had to defer pressing the advantage the amateur tactician had discovered. Learning of this when it was too late to take full advantage of the maneuver, Grant remarked with hindsight: “Had McClernand come up with reasonable promptness, or had I known the ground as I did afterwards, I cannot see how Pemberton could have escaped with any organized force.”
The reference to McClernand was something more, this time, than merely another point scored in the private war Grant waged on paper against the former congressman from his home state. Pemberton, observing the lack of enemy aggressiveness to the south, had reinforced his staggered left by shifting troops northward from his center, which was disposed along the ridge. Bowen brought them to Stevenson’s assistance on the run, arriving just in time to launch the savage counterattack that drove Hovey’s exultant soldiers back down the hill. Like Grant, however, Pemberton was finding that he would need more than this to keep up the pressure or even hold what he had won; so he sent for Loring. That general—referred to as “a scared turkey” by a member of Stonewall Jackson’s staff during the Romney controversy, two Christmases ago, which had almost resulted in Jackson’s retirement from the army and which had been settled only with Loring’s transfer to the West—was already in a state of agitation because Bowen’s departure had left him alone on the ridge, with four blue divisions in plain sight. When the summons came for him to follow Bowen he declined. It would be suicidal, he protested. All this time, the pressure against Stevenson was mounting, and when Logan added the weight of his division it became unsupportable. Old Blizzards moved at last, in response to repeated calls from Pemberton; but too late. He was scarcely in motion northward, about 4 o’clock, when the whole Confederate left flank gave way. Stevenson’s men fell back in a panic, and though Pemberton managed to rally them with a personal appeal, the damage was done. The eleven retaken guns were lost again, this time for good, and Bowen’s division—having, as one officer remarked, “sustained its reputation by making one of its grand old charges, in which it bored a hole through the Federal army”—now found itself unsupported and nearly surrounded; whereupon it “turned around and bored its way back again,” following Stevenson’s pell-mell flight down to Baker’s Creek, where it formed a rear-guard line in an attempt to hold off the bluecoats until Loring too had made his escape across the stream. Darkness fell and there was still no sign of Loring. Bowen waited another two hours, still maintaining his position, then gave it up and crossed in good order, burning the bridge when his last man was safe on the west bank.
Casualties here, after three hours of skirmishing and four of actual battle, had been much the heaviest of the campaign. Grant had lost 2441 men, Pemberton 3624, including prisoners cut off in the retreat—plus 11 guns and, as it turned out, all of Loring’s division. Finding his path along the ridge blocked by victorious Federals, he swung west, then back south, and after a brief skirmish in which Lloyd Tilghman was killed by a cannonball while covering the withdrawal, made a rapid getaway around McClernand’s open flank. By the following evening he was in Crystal Springs, twenty-five miles south of Jackson, and two days later he was with Johnston at Canton, an equal distance north of the capital. Except for the loss of Tilghman, whose courage and ability had been proved at Fort Henry and Fort Pemberton, Loring’s disappearance was more a source of mystery than regret for the army of which he had lately been a part, since he had contributed little to the battle except to assist in the show of strength that immobilized McClernand. Grant felt much the same way about McClernand, whose 15,000-man command—including Blair but not Hovey, who fought beyond McClernand’s control and suffered almost half the army’s casualties—had lost a total of 17 dead and 141 wounded in the course of what a brigade commander with McPherson called “one of the most obstinate and murderous conflicts of the war.” Despite the fact that not a single man had been killed in three of the four divisions to the south, elation over the victory scored by the three divisions to the north was tinged with sorrow at its cost. “I cannot think of this bloody hill without sadness and pride,” Hovey was to say, and an Illinois soldier, roaming the field when the fighting was over, was struck by the thought that no moral solution had been arrived at as a result of all the bloodshed. “There they lay,” he said of the dead and wounded all around him, “the blue and the gray intermingled; the same rich, young American blood flowing out in little rivulets of crimson; each thinking he was in the right.”
Grant was more interested just now in military solutions, and he believed he had reached one. “We were now assured of our position between Johnston and Pemberton,” he subsequently declared, “without a possibility of a junction of their forces.” Others in his army believed they saw an even more profitable outcome of the struggle on Champion Hill. “Vicksburg must fall now,” a participant wrote home that night; “I think a week may find us in possession. It may take longer,” he added on second thought, “but the end will be the same.”
While Pemberton’s depleted army fell back through the darkness to a position covering the Big Black crossing, eight miles to the west, Grant let his soldiers sleep till dawn, by which time Wilson’s engineers had the bridge over Baker’s Creek rebuilt, then took up the pursuit. McClernand once more had the lead, though Blair was detached to rejoin Sherman, who by now was close at hand with his other two divisions. “We have made good progress today in the work of destruction,” he had written Grant the day before, as he prepared to leave the Mississippi capital. “Jackson will no longer be a point of danger. The land is devastated for thirty miles around.” Next morning—Sunday, May 17—while Grant was crossing Baker’s Creek to come to grips with Pemberton again, Sherman passed through Bolton and encountered other signs of devastation. Seeing some soldiers drawing water from a well in front of “a small hewn-log house” beside the road, he turned his horse in at the gate to get a drink. The place had been rifled, its furnishings wrecked and strewn about the yard, and though such acts of vandalism were fairly common at this stage of the campaign—brought on, so to speak, by an excess of skylark energy and delight that things were going so well for the army of invasion—this one appeared to have been committed with an extra measure of glee and satisfaction. When Sherman had one of the men hand him a book he saw lying on the ground beside the well, he found out why. It was a copy of the United States Constitution, with the name Jefferson Davis written on the title page. This was the property the Confederate President’s brother had secured for him the year before, when Brierfield was occupied by Butler, and though in the course of his December visit Davis had expressed the hope that he would be spared further depredations, it had not turned out that way. For him, as for his septuagenarian brother, the blue pursuit had been unrelenting. “Joe Davis’s plantation was not far off,” Sherman later recalled. “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.”
Grant meanwhile was pushing west. About 7 o’clock he came upon Pemberton’s new position—and found it even stronger, in some respects, than the one the rebels had occupied “by accident or design” the day before. This time, however, it was clearly by design. Not only had the position been prepared overnight for just such an emergency as the Confederates now faced; it was here, in fact, that Pemberton had wanted to do his fighting in the first place. The railroad bridge, which had been floored to provide for passage of his artillery and wagons, was at the apex of a horseshoe bend of the Big Black, whose high west bank afforded the guns emplaced along it an excellent field of fire out over the low-lying eastern bank and the mile-long line of rifle pits already dug across the open end of the horseshoe. Parapeted with bales of cotton brought from surrounding plantations, the line was a strong one, even without the concentric support of the guns emplaced to its rear, its front being protected by a shallow bayou that abutted north on the river and south on an impenetrable cypress brake. Whatever came at the men in these pits would have to come straight up the narrow railroad embankment, a suicidal prospect in the face of all that massed artillery, or across the rain-swollen bayou, beyond which open fields stretched for nearly half a mile, allowing the attackers little or no cover except for a single copse of woods about three hundred yards in front of the far left, where guns were also grouped in expectation. Still unaware that Loring had skedaddled, Pemberton held this intrenched bridgehead in hopes that Old Blizzards would show up in time for a share in the impending fight at the gates of Vicksburg, which was less than a dozen miles back down the road.
What showed up instead was the Yankees. One look at the position his opponent had selected—Pemberton, after all, was a trained engineer, with a reputation for skill in the old army—told Grant that he stood an excellent chance of suffering the bloodiest of repulses if he attempted a frontal attack. Fortunately, though, he had instructed Sherman to swing north of Edwards for a crossing at Bridgeport, five miles upstream; so that all Grant had to do here, for the present, was keep up a show of strength to hold Pemberton in place while Sherman got his three divisions over the river above and came down on his flank. But McClernand had other ideas. Troubled perhaps by his poor showing yesterday—though he would not hesitate presently to claim a lion’s share of the credit for the Champion Hill success, on grounds that Hovey’s division was from his corps—he moved vigorously today, sending Carr and Osterhaus, the Pea Ridge companions, respectively north and south of the railroad to confront the rebels crouched behind their cotton parapets. An assault was a desperate thing to venture against the dug-in Confederates and all those high-sited batteries in their rear, he knew, but he was quite as determined as Grant to “make a little showing,” if not a big one. So was Brigadier General Michael Lawler, commanding Carr’s second brigade, which had worked its way into the copse on the far right. A big man, over 250 pounds in weight and so large of girth that he had to wear his sword belt looped over one shoulder, Lawler was Irish, forty-nine years old, and lately an Illinois farmer. His favorite Tipperary maxim, “If you see a head, hit it,” was much in his mind as he peered across the chocolate-colored bayou at the rebel intrenchments three hundred yards away. Many heads were visible there, inviting him to hit them, and at last he could bear it no longer. Stripped to his shirt sleeves because of the midday heat, he stood up, swinging his sword, and ordered his four regiments forward on the double. The bayou was shoulder-deep in places, but the Iowa and Wisconsin soldiers floundered straight across it in what a reporter called “the most perilous and ludicrous charge I witnessed during the war,” and came mud-plastered up to the enemy line with a whoop, having suffered 199 casualties in the three minutes that had elapsed since they left the copse. The loss was small compared to the gain, however, for the rebels broke rearward, avoiding contact, only to find that the bridge had been set afire in their rear to keep the close-following bluecoats from surging across in their wake. Lawler’s reward was 1200 prisoners—more men, he said, than he himself had brought into action—out of a final total of 1751 Confederates killed and captured, along with 18 guns, when the other brigades took fire from his example and rushed forward, breaking the gray line all down its length. Grant’s losses were 276 killed and wounded, plus 3 missing, presumably left at the bottom of the bayou now in his rear.
Across the way, Pemberton had watched the disintegration of his skillfully drawn line and the quick subtraction of a brigade from his dwindling army. Neither was truly catastrophic; he still held the high west bank of the river, and the bridge the Federals might have used for a crossing was burning fiercely in the noonday sunlight; but he was depressed by the failure of his men to hold a position of such strength. If they would not stand fast here, where would they stand fast? Years later, a member of his staff was to say: “The affair of Big Black bridge was one which an ex-Confederate participant naturally dislikes to record.” It was unpleasant to remember, and it had been even more unpleasant to observe. Presently, moreover, word came from upstream that Sherman had forced a crossing at Bridgeport, capturing the dozen pickets on duty at that point. There was nothing for it now but to continue the retreat or be outflanked. Pemberton gave the necessary orders and the westward march got under way, as it had done after yesterday’s bloodier action, except that this time there would be no halt until Vicksburg itself was reached. Then what? He did not know how well his troops would fight with their backs to the wall, but this most recent action was not an encouraging example of their mettle. Some thirty hours ago he had had 17,500 effectives in his mobile force, and now he was down to a good deal less than half that many. In fact it was nearer a third, 5375 having been killed, wounded, or captured, while as many more had wandered off with Loring. As he rode westward, accompanied by his chief engineer, young Major Samuel Lockett, Pemberton’s distress increased and his confidence touched bottom. “Just thirty years ago,” he said at last, breaking a long and painful silence, “I began my military career by receiving my appointment to a cadetship at the U.S. Military Academy, and today—that same date—that career is ended in disaster and disgrace.” Lockett tried to reassure the general by reminding him that two fresh divisions stood in the Vicksburg intrenchments, which had been designed to withstand repeated assaults by almost any number of men. Besides, he said, Joe Johnston would be reinforced at Canton in the event of a siege, and would come to the beleaguered city’s relief with all the skill for which he was famous, North and South. “To all of which,” the major recalled afterwards, “General Pemberton replied that my youth and hopes were the parents of my judgment; he himself did not believe our troops would stand the first shock of an attack.”
A dispatch had already gone to Johnston that morning, announcing the results of yesterday’s battle and warning that Haines Bluff would have to be abandoned if the Big Black position was outflanked or overrun. Accordingly, as the retreat got under way, orders were sent for the garrison on the Yazoo to fall back, all but two companies, who were to forward all stores possible and destroy the rest, “making a show of force until the approach of the enemy by land should compel them to retire.” Provisions were much on Pemberton’s mind, despite his dejection, and he issued instructions that, from Bovina on, “all cattle, sheep, and hogs belonging to private parties, and likely to fall into the hands of the enemy, should be driven within our lines.” Similarly, corn was pulled from the fields along the way, “and all disposable wagons applied to this end.” If it was to be a siege, food was likely to be as vital a factor as ammunition, and he did all he could in that respect. The march continued, accompanied by the lowing of cows, the bleating of sheep, and the squealing of pigs, steadily westward. For all the Confederates knew, Sherman might have moved fast around their flank and beaten them to the goal. Then up ahead, as Pemberton was to remember it years later, “the outlines of the hill city rose slowly through the heated dust—Vicksburg and security. Passing raddled fields turning colorless from the powdered earth that rose beneath their tramp, the gray soldiers slacked off the turnpikes along the high ground until they came inside the city’s breastworks. As word carried down the crooked line of march that the race to Vicksburg had been won, the footsore remnants in the rear flooded down the pike.”
Sunset made a red glory over the Louisiana bayous; “The sky faded to a cool green and it was dark.” Pemberton and his aides worked through the night, seeing to the comfort of the troops who had fought today and yesterday, bivouacked now in rear of the intrenchments, and inspecting the front-line defenses manned by the two divisions which had remained in the city all this time. Dawn gave light by which to check the overlapping fields of fire commanded by the 102 guns, light and heavy, emplaced along the semicircular landward fortifications. Mid-morning brought reports from scouts that the two companies left at Haines Bluff were on their way to Vicksburg, having complied with the order to hold out as long as possible. Heavy columns of Federals were close behind them, while other blue forces were hard on the march from Bovina. Before they arrived—as they presently did, to begin the investment—a messenger came riding in with a reply to yesterday’s dispatch to Johnston, who had moved southwest from Canton to a position northeast of Brownsville. Pemberton’s spirits had risen considerably since his confession of despair as he fell back from the Big Black the day before, but what his superior had to say was scarcely of a nature to raise them further. For one thing, the Virginian said nothing whatsoever about relief, either now or in the future. As he saw it, the choice had been narrowed to evacuation or surrender.
May 17, 1863.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL PEMBERTON:
Your dispatch of today … was received. If Haines Bluff is untenable, Vicksburg is of no value and cannot be held. If, therefore, you are invested at Vicksburg, you must ultimately surrender. Under such circumstances, instead of losing both troops and place, we must, if possible, save the troops. If it is not too late, evacuate Vicksburg and its dependencies, and march them to the northeast.
Most respectfully, your obedient servant,
J. E. JOHNSTON, General.
Even if Pemberton had wanted to follow this advice—which he did not, considering it in violation of orders from the Commander in Chief that the place be held at all costs—compliance was altogether beyond his means. Before he had time for more than brief speculation as to what effect these words might have on his chances of survival, Union guns were shelling his outer works. The siege had begun, and Grant was jockeying for positions from which to launch an all-out assault, intending to bring the three-week-old campaign, which had opened on his birthday, to the shortest possible end.
Yesterday’s rout on the Big Black had seemed to indicate what the result of one hard smash at the rebel lines would be, and Grant’s spirits had risen more or less in ratio to the droop of his opponent’s. If roads could be found, he said as he watched the enemy abandon the high western bank, he intended to advance in three columns of one corps each, “and have Vicksburg or Haines Bluff tomorrow night.” While Wilson and his engineers were collecting materials for replacing the burned railroad bridge, he rode up to Bridgeport and found Sherman hard at work laying India-rubber pontoons for a crossing in force. Soon after dark the first of his three divisions started over, their way lighted by pitch pine bonfires on both banks. Grant and his red-haired lieutenant sat on a log and watched the troops move westward over the Big Black, faces pale in the firelight and gun barrels catching glints from the flames as “the bridge swayed to and fro under the passing feet.” Sherman was to remember it so. A water-colorist of some skill back in the days when there had been time for such diversions, he thought the present scene “made a fine war picture.”
By daybreak all three divisions were across. Riding south to see whether McClernand and McPherson had done as well, Grant left instructions for Sherman to march northwest in order to interpose between Vicksburg and the forts on the Yazoo. By 10 o’clock this had been done. A detachment sent northward found Haines Bluff unoccupied, its big guns spiked, and made contact with the Union gunboats on the river below, signaling them to steam in close and tie up under the frowning bluff that had defied them for so long. Grant now had the supply base he wanted, north of the city. Presently he came riding up, to find his friend Sherman gazing down from the Walnut Hills at the Chickasaw Bayou region below, from which he had launched his bloody and fruitless assault against these heights five months ago. Up to now, the Ohioan had had his reservations about this eighth attempt to take or bypass Vicksburg, saying flatly, “I tremble for the result. I look upon the whole thing as one of the most hazardous and desperate moves of this or any other war.” But now his doubts were gone, replaced by enthusiasm: as was shown when he turned to Grant, standing quietly by, and abruptly broke the silence.
“Until this moment I never thought your expedition a success,” he said; “I never could see the end clearly until now. But this is a campaign. This is a success if we never take the town.”
Grant shared his friend’s enthusiasm, if not his verbal exuberance, with regard to a situation brought about by a combination of careful strategy, flawlessly improvised tactics, sudden marches, and hard blows delivered with such triphammer rapidity that the enemy had never been given a chance to recover the balance he lost when the blue army, feinting coincidentally at Haines Bluff, swarmed ashore at Bruinsburg, forty-five air-line miles away. At no time in the past three weeks, moreover, had the outlook been so bright as it was now. All three corps had crossed the Big Black, the final natural barrier between them and their goal, and were converging swiftly upon the hilltop citadel by three main roads so appropriate to their purpose that they might have been surveyed with this in mind. Sherman advanced from the northeast on the Benton road, McPherson from due east, along the railroad and the Jackson turnpike, and McClernand from the southeast on the Baldwin’s Ferry road. By nightfall, after a few brief skirmishes along the ill-organized line of rebel outposts—invariably abandoned at the first suggestion of real pressure—the lead elements of all three columns were in lateral contact with each other and in jump-off positions for tomorrow’s assault. Next morning, May 19, while they completed their dispositions, the men were in high spirits. They were in fact, like Sherman, “a little giddy with pride” at the realization of all they had accomplished up to now. In the twenty days since they crossed the Mississippi, they had marched 180 miles to fight and win five battles—Port Gibson, Raymond, Jackson, Champion Hill, Big Black River—occupy a Deep South capital, inflict over 7000 casualties at a cost of less than 4500 of their own, and seize no less than fifty pieces of field artillery, not to mention two dozen larger pieces they found spiked in fortifications they outflanked. In all this time, they had not lost a gun or a stand of colors, and they had never failed to take an assigned objective, usually much more quickly than their commanders expected them to do. And now, just ahead, lay the last and largest of their objectives: Vicksburg itself, the ultimate prize for which the capture of all those others had served as prelude. Their belief that they would carry the place by storm, here and now, was matched by Grant, who issued his final orders before noon. “Corps commanders will push forward carefully, and gain as close position as possible to the enemy’s works, until 2 p.m.; at [which] hour they will fire three volleys of artillery from all the pieces in position. This will be the signal for a general charge of all the army corps along the whole line.” A closing sentence, intended to forestall the lapse of discipline that would attend a too-informal vietory celebration, expressed the measure of his confidence that the assault would be successful, bringing the campaign to a triumphant close today: “When the works are carried, guards will be placed by all division commanders to prevent their men from straggling from their companies.”
At the appointed hour, the guns boomed and the blue clots of troops rushed forward, shoulder to shoulder, cheering as they vied for the honor of being first to scale the ridge: whereupon, as if in response to the same signal, a long low cloud of smoke, torn along its bottom edge by the pinkish yellow stabs of muzzle flashes, boiled up with a great clatter from the rebel works ahead. The racket was so tremendous that no man could hear his own shouts or the sudden yelps of the wounded alongside him. What was immediately apparent, however, amid a confusion of sound so uproarious that it was as if the whole mad scene were being played in pantomime, was that the assault had failed almost as soon as it got started. Sherman, watching from a point of vantage near the north end of the line, put it simplest in a letter he wrote home that night: “The heads of the columns have been swept away as chaff thrown from the hand on a windy day.” Others, closer up, had a more gritty sense of what had happened. Emerging into the open, an Illinois captain saw “the very sticks and chips, scattered over the ground, jumping under the hot shower of rebel bullets.” Startled, he and his company plunged forward, tumbled into a cane-choked ravine at the base of the enemy ridge, and hugged the earth for cover and concealment. All up and down the line it was much the same for those who had not scattered rearward at the first burst of fire; once within point-blank musket range, there was little the attackers could do but try to stay out of sight until darkness gave them a chance to pull back without inviting a bullet between the shoulder blades. As they lay prone the fire continued, cutting the stalks of cane, one by one, so that “they lopped gently upon us,” as if to assist in keeping them hidden. Through the remaining hours of daylight they stayed there, with bullets twittering just above the napes of their necks. Then they returned through the gathering dusk to the jump-off positions they had left five hours ago. Reaching safety after a hard run, the captain and other survivors of his company “stopped and took one long breath, bigger than a pound of wool.”
Pemberton was perhaps as surprised as the bluecoats were at their abrupt repulse. In reporting to the President—the message would have to be smuggled out, of course, before it could be put on the wire for Richmond—that his army was “occupying the trenches around Vicksburg,” he added proudly: “Our men have considerably recovered their morale.” Meanwhile he strengthened his defenses and improved the disposition of his 20,000 effectives. M. L. Smith’s division had the left, Forney’s the center, and Stevenson’s the right, while Bowen’s was held in immediate reserve, under orders to be prepared to rush at a moment’s notice to whatever point needed bolstering. There was a crippling shortage of intrenching tools, only about five hundred being on hand. “They were entirely inadequate,” an engineer officer later declared, but “the men soon improvised wooden shovels [and used] their bayonets as picks.” They had indeed “considerably recovered,” now that they had stopped running, and they were hungry for revenge for the humiliations they had been handed, particularly day before yesterday on the Big Black River. If the Yankees would keep coming at them the way they had come this afternoon, the Confederates hoped they would keep it up forever.
In point of fact, that was pretty much what Grant had in mind. He had suffered 942 casualties and inflicted less than 200, thus coming close to reversing the Big Black ratio, but he still thought the ridge could be carried by assault. Conferring next morning with his corps commanders he found them agreed that this first effort had failed, in Sherman’s words, “by reason of the natural strength of the position, and because we were forced by the nature of the ground to limit our attacks to the strongest part of the enemy line, viz., where the three principal roads entered the city.” Nothing could be done about the first of these two drawbacks, but the second could be corrected by careful reconnaissance. Better artillery preparations would also be of help, it was decided, in softening up the rebel works; moreover, the navy could add the weight of its metal from the opposite side of the ridge, Porter having returned from a two-week expedition up the Red River to Alexandria, where he had met Banks coming north from Opelousas on May 6. Grant told McClernand, Sherman, and McPherson to spend today and tomorrow preparing “for a renewed assault on the 22d, simultaneously, at 10 a.m.” Riding his line while the work was being pushed, he found the men undaunted by their repulse the day before, though they were prompt to let him know they were weary of the meat-and-vegetables diet on which they had been subsisting for the past three weeks. Turkey and sweet potatoes were fine as a special treat, it seemed, but such rich food had begun to pall as a regular thing. A private looked up from shoveling, recognized Grant riding by, and said in a pointed but conversational tone: “Hardtack.” Others took up the call, on down the line, raising their voices with every repetition of the word, until finally they were shouting with all their might. “Hardtack! Hardtack!” they yelled as the army commander went past. “Hardtack! Hardtack!” Finally he reined in his horse and informed all those within earshot that the engineers were building a road from the Yazoo steamboat landing, “over which to supply them with everything they needed.” At this, as he said later, “the cry was instantly changed to cheers.” That night there was hardtack for everyone, along with beans, and coffee to wash it down. The soldiers woke next morning strengthened for the work that was now at hand.
For the first time in history, a major assault was launched by commanders whose eyes were fixed on the hands of watches synchronized the night before. This was necessary in the present case because the usual signal guns would not have been heard above the din of the preliminary bombardment, which included the naval weapons on both flanks, upstream and down, and six mortar boats already engaged for the past two days in what one defender contemptuously called “the grand but nearly harmless sport of pitching big shells into Vicksburg.” All night the 13-inch mortars kept heaving their 200-pound projectiles into the checkerboard pattern of the city’s streets and houses, terrifying citizens huddled under their beds and dining-room tables. (“Vertical fire is never very destructive of life,” the same witness remarked. “Yet the howling and bursting shells had a very demoralizing effect on those not accustomed to them.”) Then at dawn the 200 guns on the landward side chimed in, raising geysers of dirt on the ridge where the Confederates were intrenched and waiting. At 9.30, in compliance with Grant’s request, Porter closed the range with four gunboats from below and took the lower water batteries under fire. He was supposed to keep this up until 10.30, half an hour past the scheduled time for the infantry assault to open, but since he could see no indication that the army had been successful in its storming attempt, he kept up the fire for an extra hour before dropping back downriver and out of range. One ironclad, the Tuscumbia, was severely battered and forced to retire before the others. Otherwise, though he reported that this was altogether the hottest fire his boats had yet endured, Porter suffered little damage in the bows-on fight, aside from a few men wounded. He could not see, however, that he had accomplished much in the way of punishing the defenders. Nor was there any evidence that the army had done any better.
As a matter of fact, the army had done a good deal worse, though not for lack of trying. At the appointed hour the men of all three corps rushed forward, the advance waves equipped with twentyfoot scaling ladders to be used against steep-walled strongpoints, of which there were many along the ridge ahead. “The rebel line, concealed by the parapet, showed no sign of unusual activity,” Sherman observed from his point of vantage to the north, “but as our troops came in fair view, the enemy rose behind their parapet and poured a furious fire upon our lines.… For about two hours we had a severe and bloody battle, but at every point we were repulsed.” It was much the same with McPherson and McClernand, to the south, who also lost heavily as a result of these whites-of-their-eyes tactics employed by the Confederates. At several points, left and right and center, individual groups managed to effect shallow penetrations, despite what an Illinois colonel called “the most murderous fire I ever saw,” but were quickly expelled or captured by superior forces the enemy promptly brought to bear from his mobile reserve. Those bluecoats who crouched in the ravines and ditches at the base of the ridge, taking shelter there as they had done three days ago, were dislodged by the explosion in their midst of 12-inch shells which the defenders rolled downhill after lighting the fuzes. On McClernand’s front a heavier lodgment was effected at one point, and the general, taking fire at the sight of his troops flaunting their banners on the rebel works, sent word to Grant that he had “part possession of two forts, and the stars and stripes are floating over them.” If the other two corps “would make a diversion in my favor,” he thought he could enlarge his gains and perhaps score an absolute breakthrough. At any rate, he earnestly declared, “a vigorous push ought to be made all along the line.”
Grant was with Sherman when the message reached him. “I don’t believe a word of it,” he said. Sherman protested that the note was official and must be credited. Though he had just called off his own attack, admitting failure, he offered to renew it at once in the light of this appeal from McClernand. Grant thought the matter over, then told the redhead he “might try it again” at 3 o’clock, if no contrary orders reached him before that time. Riding south, he detached one of McPherson’s divisions to support McClernand and authorized a resumption of the attack on the center as well. Promptly at 3, Sherman launched his promised second assault, but found it “a repetition of the first, equally unsuccessful and bloody.” McPherson had the same unpleasant experience. McClernand, still afire with hope, threw the borrowed division into the fray—though not in time to maintain, much less widen or deepen, the penetration of which he had been so proud. A whooping counterattack by Colonel T. N. Waul’s Texas Legion killed or captured all but a handful of Federals at that point. By sundown the firing had died to a sputter, and at nightfall the survivors crept back across the corpse-pocked fields to the safety of the lines they had left with such high hopes that morning. Some measure of their determination and valor was shown by a comparison of their losses today with those of three days ago. The previous assault had ended with two stands of colors left on the forward slope of the enemy ridge; this time there were five. Moreover, the casualties exceeded this five-two ratio. Less than a thousand men had fallen the time before, including 165 killed or missing, whereas this time the figures went above three thousand—3199, to be exact—with 649 in the killed-or-missing category. In other words, Grant had lost in the past three days almost as many soldiers as he had lost in the past three weeks of nearly continuous battle and maneuver which had brought him within sight of the ramparts of Vicksburg only to be repulsed.
He was furious. “This last attack only served to increase our casualties without giving any benefit whatever,” he wrote some twenty years later, still chagrined. Quick as ever to shift the blame for any setback or evidence of shortcoming—at Belmont it had been overexcited “higher officers”; at Donelson it had been McClernand; at Shiloh it had been Prentiss and Lew Wallace, although the former most likely had saved him from defeat; at Iuka it had been Rosecrans and the wind—he notified Halleck, two days after the second Vicksburg repulse: “The whole loss for the day will probably reach 1500 killed and wounded. General McClernand’s dispatches misled me as to the real state of facts, and caused much of this loss. He is entirely unfit for the position of corps commander, both on the march and on the battlefield. Looking after his corps gives me more labor and infinitely more uneasiness than all the remainder of my department.” And yet, on the day of battle itself, he included that general’s misleading claims in his own dispatch informing Halleck of the outcome. “Vicksburg is now completely invested,” he declared. “I have possession of Haines Bluff and the Yazoo; consequently have supplies. Today an attempt was made to carry the city by assault, but was not entirely successful. We hold possession, however, of two of the enemy’s forts, and have skirmishers close under all of them. Our loss was not severe.” As he wrote, his optimism grew; for that was the reverse of the coin. He would no more admit discouragement than he would entertain self-blame. “The nature of the ground about Vicksburg is such that it can only be taken by a siege,” he judged, but added: “It is entirely safe to us in time, I would say one week if the enemy do not send a large army upon my rear.”
He did not regret having made the assaults; he only regretted that they had failed. Besides, he subsequently explained, his high-spirited troops had approached the gates of Vicksburg with a three-week cluster of victories to their credit; they would never have settled down willingly to the tedium of siege operations unless they had first been given the chance to prove that the place could not be taken by storm. Now that this had been demonstrated, though at the rather excessive price of 4141 casualties, they took to spadework with a will, constructing their own complex system of intrenchments roughly parallel to those of the rebels, which in a few places were not much more than fifty yards away. As they delved in the sandy yellow clay of the hillsides or drew their beads on such heads as appeared above the enemy parapets, they were encouraged by news of tangential victories, particularly on the part of the navy, which was on a rampage now that the outlying Confederate defenses had been abandoned. An expedition made up of theDeKalb and three tinclads, all under Lieutenant Commander John Walker, had been sent up the Yazoo on May 20, the day after the first assault, and returned on the 23d, the day after the second, to report that the rebels had set their Yazoo City navy yard afire at the approach of the Union vessels, the flames consuming three warships under construction on the stocks, for an estimated loss of $3,000,000. This meant that there would be no successor to the Arkansas, which was welcome news indeed. But Porter was unsatisfied; he sent the expedition back upriver the next morning. This time Walker steamed to within a dozen miles of Fort Pemberton, destroying steamboats and sawmills as he went, then came back downstream to push 180 miles up the winding Sunflower River, where he caught and burned still more fugitive rebel steamboats. Returning this second time, he could report that these streams were no longer arteries of supply for the Confederates below the confluence of the Tallahatchie and the Yalobusha, nearly one hundred air-line miles from the beleaguered Vicksburg bluff.
Pemberton took the news of this without undue distress. After all, the Yazoo and the Sunflower were no longer of much interest to him; the Father of Waters was now his sole concern, and only about a dozen miles of that. “I have decided to hold Vicksburg as long as possible,” he had replied to Johnston’s last-minute dispatch urging evacuation, “with the firm hope that the Government may yet be able to assist me in keeping this obstruction to the enemy’s free navigation of the Mississippi River. I still conceive it to be the most important point in the Confederacy.” His outlook improved with the repulse of the first Federal assault, and on the eve of the second he was asking: “Am I to expect reinforcements? From what direction, and how soon? … The men credit and are encouraged by a report that you are near with a large force. They are fighting in good spirits, and the reorganization is complete.” After the second repulse, however, the defenders were faced with an unpleasant problem. For three days—six, in the case of those who had fallen in the first assault—Grant’s dead and injured lay in the fields and ditches at the base of the Confederate ridge, exposed to the fierce heat of the early Mississippi summer. The stench of the dead, whose bodies were swollen grotesquely, and the cries of the wounded, who suffered the added torment of thirst, were intolerable to the men who had shot them down; yet Grant would not ask for a truce for burial or treatment of these unfortunates, evidently thinking that such a request would be an admission of weakness on his part. Finally Pemberton could bear it no longer. On the morning of May 25 he sent a message through the lines to the Union commander: “Two days having elapsed since your dead and wounded have been lying in our front, and as yet no disposition on your part of a desire to remove them being exhibited, in the name of humanity I have the honor to propose a cessation of hostilities for two hours and a half, that you may be enabled to remove your dead and dying men.” To Pemberton’s relief, Grant at last “acceded” to this proposal. At 6 p.m. all firing was suspended while the Federals came forward to bury the dead where they lay and bring comfort to such few men as had survived the three-day torture. This done, they returned through the darkness to their lines and the firing was resumed with as much fury as before.
In nothing was Grant more “unpronounceable” than in this. He would berate, and in at least one case attack with his fists, any man he saw abusing a dumb animal; he had, it was said to his credit, no stomach for suffering; he disliked above all to ride over a field where there had been recent heavy fighting; he would not eat a piece of meat until it had been cooked to a char, past any sign of blood or even pinkness. Yet this he could do to his own men, this abomination perhaps beyond all others of the war, without expressed regret or apparent concern. However, this too was the reverse of a coin, the other side of which was his singleness of purpose, his quality of intense preoccupation with what he called “the business,” meaning combat. He took his losses as they came—they had, in fact, about been made up already with the arrival that week of a division of reinforcements from Memphis, and would be more than made up with the arrival, early the following week, of a second such division, while four more were being alerted even now for the trip downriver from Tennessee, Missouri, and Kentucky to bring his mid-June total to 71,000 effectives—for the sake of getting on with the job to which he had set his hand. Long ago in Mexico, during a lull in the war, he had written home to the girl he was to marry: “If we have to fight, I would like to do it all at once and then make friends.” He felt that way about it still, and now that he was calling the turn, he wanted no interludes or delays; he wanted it finished, and he believed the finish was in sight. “The enemy are now undoubtedly in our grasp,” he told Halleck the day before the burial truce. “The fall of Vicksburg and the capture of most of the garrison can only be a question of time.”
This was not to say there would be no more setbacks and frustrations. There would indeed, war being the chancy thing it was, and Grant knew it: which perhaps was why he had dropped his prediction, made two days before, that the fall of the city would be accomplished within “I would say one week.” And in fact there was one such mishap three days later, two days after the burial truce, this time involving the navy. In the course of drawing his lines for the siege, Sherman had begun to suspect, from the amount of artillery fire he drew, that the Confederates were shifting guns from their upper water batteries to cover the landward approaches, particularly on their far left. Requested by Grant to test the facts of the case, Porter on May 27 sent the Cincinnati to draw the fire of the guns “if still there,” covering her movements with four other ironclads at long range. She started downriver at 7 o’clock in the morning, commanded by Lieutenant G. M. Bache, and by 10 the matter had been settled beyond doubt. Not only were the guns still there, but they sank the Cincinnati. Rounding to in order to open fire, she took a pair of solids in her shell room and a third in her magazine. As she tried to make an upstream escape, a heavy shot drove through her pilot house and her starboard tiller was carried away, along with all three flagstaffs. Hulled repeatedly by plunging fire, she began filling rapidly. Bache, with five of his guns disabled in short order, tried to get beyond range and tie the vessel up to the east bank before she sank, but could not make it. She went down in three fathoms of water, still within range of the enemy guns, and what remained of her crew had to swim for their lives. The total loss, aside from the Cincinnati herself, was 5 killed, 14 wounded, and 15 missing, presumed drowned.
Convinced that Bache and his crew had done their best under disadvantageous circumstances, Porter accepted the loss of the ironclad—the third since his arrival in early December—as one of the accidents of war, and did not relax on that account his pressure against the rebels beleaguered on their bluff. He already had the approval of Grant for his conduct of naval affairs. Replying to a message in which the admiral informed him that Banks, although he had wound up his West Louisiana campaign at last, would “not [be] coming here with his men. He is going to occupy the attention of Port Hudson, and has landed at Bayou Sara, using your transports for the purpose,” Grant told Porter: “I am satisfied that you are doing all that can be done in aid of the reduction of Vicksburg. There is no doubt of the fall of the place ultimately, but how long it will be is a matter of doubt. I intend to lose no more men, but to force the enemy from one position to another without exposing my troops.”
Banks had done a good deal more by now than merely “occupy the attention of Port Hudson.” Crossing the Mississippi on the day after Grant’s second repulse at Vicksburg, he completed his investment of the Louisiana stronghold on May 26, and next morning—simultaneous with the sinking of the Cincinnati, 240 winding miles upriver—launched his own all-out assault, designed to bring to a sudden and victorious end a campaign even more circuitous than Grant’s. That general had covered some 180 miles by land and water before returning to his approximate starting point and placing his objective under siege, whereas Banks had marched or ridden about three times that far, as the thing turned out, to accomplish the same result. However, not only was the distance greater; the numerical odds had been tougher, at least at the start. Back in mid-March, when Farragut ran two ships past the fuming hundred-foot bluff, Banks had maneuvered on the landward side, only to discover that the defenders had more men inside the works than he had on the outside. This gave him pause, as well it might, and while he pondered the problem he learned that Grant, whom he had expected to join him in reducing Port Hudson as a prelude to their combined movement against Vicksburg, was stymied north of the latter place, involved in a series of canal and bayou experiments which seemed likely to delay him for some time. Thinking it over, Banks decided to accomplish his assignment on his own. If he could not take Port Hudson, he would do as Grant was trying to do upriver. He would go around it.
It was not only that he was disinclined to wait and share the glory, politically ambitious though he was. He also believed he could not, and with cause. Nearly half of the 35,000 troops in his department were nine-month volunteers whose enlistments would be expiring between May and August; they would have to be used before summer or not at all. However, there was about as much need for caution as there was for haste, since more than half of this total, long- and short-term men alike, were required to garrison Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and various other points along the Mississippi and the Gulf. As a result of these necessary smaller detachments, his five divisions were reduced to about 5000 men each. Three of the five were with him near Port Hudson, under Major General C. C. Augur and Brigadier Generals William Emory and Cuvier Grover, while the fourth was at New Orleans under Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman. Leaving Augur to hold Baton Rouge, Banks set out downriver with the other two on March 25 to join Godfrey Weitzel, commanding his fifth division at Brashear City, near Grand Lake and the junction of the Atchafalaya River and Bayou Teche. Back in January, Weitzel had ascended the former stream for a few miles, intending to establish an alternate route, well removed from the guns of Port Hudson, from the mouth of Red River to the Gulf. In this he had failed, not so much because of interference from Richard Taylor’s scratch command of swamp-bound rebels, which he had thrown into precipitate retreat, but mainly because he had found the Atchafalaya choked with brush at that season of the year. Banks believed that this time he would succeed, and he hoped to abolish Taylor as a continuing threat. He intended in fact to capture him, bag and baggage, having worked out his plans with that in mind.
Taylor had about 4000 troops between the Teche and the Atchafalaya, his flanks protected right and left by two captured Union warships, the gunboat Diana and the armed ram Queen of the West, the former having been ambushed and seized that week near Pattersonville, when she imprudently ventured up the bayou, and the latter having been brought down from the Red River the week before to prevent her destruction or recapture by Farragut after his run past Port Hudson. Banks had four Gulf Squadron gunboats with which he planned to neutralize these two turncoat vessels, and he intended to bag Taylor’s entire land force by sending one division from his 15,000-man command across Grand Lake to land in the rear of the rebels while he engaged them in front with his other two divisions. Hemmed in and outnumbered nearly four to one, Taylor would have to choose between surrender and annihilation. On April 11, in accordance with his design, Banks moved Emory and Weitzel from Brashear across the Atchafalaya to Berwick, and while they were advancing up the left bank of the Teche next day, skirmishing as they went, Grover put his troops aboard transports, escorted by the quartet of gunboats, and set out across the lake for a landing on the western shore within a mile of Irish Bend, an eastward loop of the Teche, control of which would place him squarely athwart the only Confederate line of retreat. Despite some irritating delays, the maneuver seemed to be going as planned; the skirmishing continued in front and Grover got his division ashore six miles in the enemy rear; Banks anticipated a Cannae. But Taylor got wind of what was up and reacted fast. Leaving a handful of men to put up a show of resistance to the two blue divisions in his front, he swung rearward with the rest to attack Grover and if possible drive him into the lake. On the 13th heavy fighting ensued. The shoestring force managed to delude and delay Emory and Weitzel while the main body fell on Grover. Though the latter was not driven into the lake, he was held in check while Taylor withdrew up the Teche in the darkness, foiling the plans so carefully laid for his destruction. In three days of intermittent action the Federals had lost 577 killed and wounded, the Confederates somewhat less, although there was considerable disagreement between the two commanders, then and later, as to the number of prisoners taken on each side, Taylor afterwards protesting that Banks had claimed the capture of more men than had actually opposed him.
Whatever the truth of his claims in this regard, and despite his failure to bring off the Cannae he intended, there could be no doubt that Banks, after a season of rather spectacular defeats in Virginia at the hands of Stonewall Jackson, had won his first clear-cut victory in the field. And next day, when he received word that the Diana and the Queen had been destroyed—the former burned by the rebels, who could not take her with them up the narrow Teche, and the latter sunk by the four Union gunboats, who blew her almost literally out of the water as soon as she entered Grand Lake and came within their range—his elation knew no bounds. Moreover, two of the gunboats steamed forthwith up the Atchafalaya and found it open to navigation all the way to the mouth of the Red, fifty miles above Port Hudson. This meant that Banks had the bypass he had been seeking, though of course it would be of small practical use until Vicksburg had likewise been bypassed or reduced. Since there was no news that Grant had succeeded in any of his experimental projects in that direction, the Massachusetts general decided to explore some vistas he saw opening before him as a result of Taylor’s defeat and withdrawal. Within two weeks New Orleans would have been returned to Federal control a solid year, and yet this principal seaport of the South had even less commerce with the outside world today than she had enjoyed in the days of the blockade runners, mainly because the rebel land forces had her cut off from those regions that normally supplied her with goods for shipment. One of the richest of these lay before him now: the Teche. Return of the Teche country to Union control, along with its vast supplies of cotton, salt, lumber, and foodstuffs, would restore New Orleans to her rightful place among the world’s great ports and would demonstrate effectively, as one observer pointed out, “that the conquests of the national armies instead of destroying trade were calculated to instill new life into it.” There was one drawback. Such a movement up the long riverlike bayou stretching north almost to Alexandria, even though unopposed, might throw him off his previously announced schedule, which called for a meeting with Grant at Baton Rouge on May 10 for a combined attack, first on Port Hudson and then on Vicksburg. But Banks decided the probable gains were worth the risk. Besides, May 10 was nearly a month away, and he hoped to have completed his conquest of the region before then. If not, then Grant could wait, just as he had kept Banks waiting all this time.
Eager for more victories now that he had caught the flavor, the former Bay State governor put his three divisions on the march up the right bank of the Teche without delay. Two days later—April 16: Porter’s bluejackets were steeling themselves for their run past the Vicksburg batteries that night, and Grierson’s troopers would ride out of La Grange the following morning—he entered New Iberia and pushed on next day to the Vermilion River, which branched southward from the Teche near Vermilionville. Finding Taylor’s rear guard drawn up on the opposite bank to contest a crossing, the bluecoats forced it with a brief skirmish, rebuilt the wrecked bridge, and on April 20 marched into Opelousas, evacuated two days earlier by the Louisiana government which had moved there a year ago when Farragut steamed upriver from New Orleans and trained his guns on Baton Rouge. Taylor did not challenge the occupation of this alternate capital, but continued to fall back toward Alexandria, having received from Kirby Smith at Shreveport, his Transmississippi headquarters, a message expressing “gratification at the conduct of the troops under your command” and congratulating Taylor for the skill he had shown “in extricating them from a position of great peril.” Banks called a halt in order to rest his men for a few days and consolidate his gains, which were considerable. Conquest of the Teche had brought within his grasp large quantities of lumber, 5000 bales of cotton, many hogsheads of sugar, an inexhaustible supply of salt, and an estimated 20,000 head of cattle, mules, and horses. He later calculated the value of these spoils to have been perhaps as high as $5,000,000 and pointed out that even this liberal figure should be doubled, since the goods it represented had not only come into Federal hands but had also been kept from the Confederates beyond the Mississippi, for whom they had been in a large part intended. Nor was that all. There were human spoils as well. Back in New Orleans the year before, Ben Butler had begun to enlist freedmen and fugitive slaves in what he called his Corps d’Afrique; now Banks continued this recruitment in the Teche. Two such regiments were organized at Opelousas, with about 500 men in each. Styled the 1st and 3d Louisiana Native Guards, the former was composed of “free Negroes of means and intelligence,” with colored line officers and a white lieutenant colonel in command, while the latter was made up largely of ex-slaves whose officers were all white. There was considerable speculation, in the army of which they were now a part, as to how they would behave in combat—when and if they were exposed to it, which many of their fellow soldiers thought inadvisable—but Banks was willing to abide the issue until it had been settled incontrovertibly under fire.
Taylor by now had reached the Red at Gordon’s Landing, where the Queen of the West had been blasted and captured back in February, thirty miles below Alexandria. Renamed Fort De Russy, the triple-casemated battery had held the low bluff against all comers, and on May 4 its staunchness was proved again when it was attacked by the two gunboats that had come up the Atchafalaya from Grand Lake after sinking the Queen. Leading the way, however, was the Albatross, which had got past Port Hudson with Farragut in mid-March. She closed the range to five hundred yards and kept up a forty-minute bombardment, supported by the other two ships at longer range, before dropping back with eleven holes punched in her hull and most of her spars and rigging shot away. Fifty miles downriver next morning, having given up hope of reducing the fort on their own, the three ships met Porter—who, after completing the ferrying of Grant’s two lead divisions across the Mississippi, had taken possession of Grand Gulf three days ago—coming up the Red with three of his ironclads, a steam ram, and a tug. This seemed quite enough for the task of reduction, but when he reached Fort De Russy late that afternoon, prepared to throw all he had at the place, he found it abandoned, its casemates yawning empty. Threatened from the rear by Banks, who had ended his Opelousas rest halt and resumed his northward march beyond the headwaters of the Teche, the garrison had retreated to avoid capture. Porter continued on to Alexandria next day, May 6, to find that Taylor had also fallen back from there. A couple of hours later, Banks marched in at the head of his three-division column. He was in fine spirits, still wearing his three-week-old aura of victory, and Porter was impressed—particularly by the outward contrast between this new general and the one he had been working alongside for the past four months around Vicksburg. “A handsome, soldierly-looking man,” the admiral called the former Speaker of the House, “though rather theatrical in his style of dress.” The impression was one of nattiness and sartorial elegance; Banks in fact was something of a military dude. “He wore yellow gauntlets high upon his wrists, looking as clean as if they had just come from the glove-maker; his hat was picturesque, his long boots and spurs were faultless, and his air was that of one used to command. In short, I never saw a more faultless-looking soldier.”
Banks was about as proud as he was dapper, and with cause. His Negro recruits more than made up—in numbers at any rate, though it was true their combat value was untested—for the casualties he had suffered in the course of his profitable campaign up the Teche, and his present position at Alexandria gave him access to the entire Red River Valley, a region quite as rich as the one he had just traversed, and far more extensive. With elements already on the march for Natchitoches, fifty air-line miles upriver, and Taylor still fading back from contact, he saw more vistas opening out before him. He also realized, however, that they were unattainable just yet. “The decisive battle of the West must soon be fought near Vicksburg,” Kirby Smith was telling a subordinate even now. “The fate of the Trans-Mississippi Department depends on it, and Banks, by operating here, is thrown out of the campaign on the Mississippi.” The Massachusetts general agreed, although unwillingly, that he must first turn back east to resume his collaboration with Grant for the reduction of Vicksburg and Port Hudson. Then perhaps, with the Mississippi unshackled throughout its length, he would return up the Red to explore those new vistas stretching all the way to Texas. Grant meanwhile, having won the Battle of Port Gibson, crossed Bayou Pierre, and put his three divisions into jump-off positions for the advance on Jackson, was calling urgently for Banks to join him at once in front of Vicksburg; “But I must say, without qualifications,” the latter replied on May 12, “that the means at my disposal do not leave me a shadow of a chance to accomplish it.” Though he was “dying with a kind of vanishing hope to see [our] two armies acting together against the strong places of the enemy,” he had “neither water nor land transportation to make the movement by the river or by land. The utmost I can accomplish,” he told Grant, “is to cross for the purpose of operating with you against Port Hudson.”
Once more having reached a decision he wasted no time. Two days later, ending a week’s occupation in the course of which he sent no less than 2000 spoils-laden wagons groaning south, he began his withdrawal from Alexandria. The march prescribed was via Simmesport for a crossing at Bayou Sara, a dozen miles above Port Hudson, but Banks himself did not accompany the three divisions on their overland trek; he went instead by boat, first down the Red, then down the Atchafalaya to Brashear City, where he caught a train for New Orleans. With him rode the fifty-two-year-old Emory, whose health had failed in the field and who had been succeeded by Brigadier General Halbert Paine, fifteen years his junior and the only non-West Pointer in Banks’s army with so much rank—aside from Banks himself, of course—though he could claim the distinction of having shared a law office with Lincoln’s friend Carl Schurz before the war. In New Orleans, Banks gave Emory the task of defending the city with a stripped-down garrison left behind by Thomas Sherman, who was instructed to put most of his men aboard transports bound for Baton Rouge to join Augur for an advance on Port Hudson. As Banks planned it, the two divisions marching north from Baton Rouge would converge on the objective at the same time as the three marching south from Bayou Sara. For all the omnivorous reading he had done since his days as a bobbin boy in his home-state spinning mills, he may or may not have known that in thus intending to unite two widely divided columns on the field of battle he was attempting what Napoleon had called the most difficult maneuver in the book. If so, nonprofessional though he was, he showed no qualms beyond those normally involved in getting some 20,000 troops from one place—or in this case two places—to another. What was more, he brought it off. Advancing simultaneously north and south, the two bodies converged on schedule, May 25. Next day they completed their investment, and the following morning they launched an all-out assault on the 7000 rebels penned up inside Port Hudson.
Like Pemberton, who was nine years his senior, Franklin Gardner was a northern-born professional who married South—his father-in-law was ex-Governor Alexander Mouton, who presided over the legislative body that voted Louisiana out of the Union—then went with his wife’s people when the national crisis forced a choice. New York born and Iowa raised, the son of a regular army colonel who had been Adjutant General during the War of 1812, he had graduated from West Point in the class of ’43, four places above Ulysses Grant and one below Christopher Augur, whose division was part of the blue cordon now drawn around the bastion Gardner was defending. A brigadier at Shiloh and with Bragg in Kentucky, he had been promoted to major general in December, shortly before his fortieth birthday, and sent to command the stronghold Breckinridge had established at Port Hudson after being repulsed at Baton Rouge in August. By early April his strength had risen beyond 15,000 men, but it had since been whittled down to less than half that as a result of levies by the department commander, reacting to upriver pressure from Grant while Banks was off in the Teche. On May 4, in response to what turned out to be Pemberton’s final call, Gardner set out for Jackson with all but a single brigade, only to receive on May 9 at Osyka, just north of the Mississippi line, a dispatch instructing him to return at once to Port Hudson and hold it “to the last,” this being Pemberton’s interpretation of the President’s warning that “both Vicksburg and Port Hudson [are] necessary to a connection with Trans-Mississippi.” Gardner did as he was told, and got back there barely ahead of Banks. His strength report of May 19—the date of Grant’s first assault on the Vicksburg intrenchments, 120 air-line miles upriver—showed an “aggregate present” of 5715 in his three brigades, plus about one thousand artillerists in the permanent garrison. That was also the date on a message Joe Johnston addressed to Gardner from north of the Mississippi capital, which had fallen on the day after his arrival the week before: “Evacuate Port Hudson forthwith, and move with your troops toward Jackson to join other troops which I am uniting. Bring all the fieldpieces that you have, with their ammunition and the means of transportation. Heavy guns and their ammunition had better be destroyed, as well as the other property you may be unable to remove.” By the time the courier got there, however, he found a ring of Federal steel drawn tightly around the blufftop fortress. He could only report back to Johnston that Port Hudson, like Vicksburg 240 roundabout miles upriver, was besieged.
The Union navy had reappeared ahead of the Union army. On May 4, meeting Porter at the mouth of the Red, Farragut gave over his blockade duties from that point north and steamed back down the Mississippi to Port Hudson. For three days, May 8-10, he bombarded the bluff from above and below, doing all he could to soften it up for Banks, who was still at Alexandria. Upstream were the Hartford and the Albatross, patched up since her recent misfortune at Fort De Russy, while the downstream batteries were engaged by the screw sloops Monongahela and Richmond, the gunboat Genesee, and the orphaned ironclad Essex, which had been downriver ever since her run past Vicksburg the summer before. Coming overland down the western bank, Farragut conferred with Banks on his arrival from New Orleans, May 22. The rebels had given him shell for shell, he said, and shown no sign of weakening under fire, but he assured the general that the navy would continue to do its share until the place had been reduced. Banks thanked him and proceeded to invest the bluff on its landward side, north and east and south, depending on the fleet to see that the beleaguered garrison made no westward escape across the river and received no reinforcements or supplies from that direction. Assisted meanwhile by Grierson’s well-rested troopers, who had ridden up from Baton Rouge with the column from the south, he drew his lines closer about the rebel fortifications. On May 26, with ninety guns in position opposing Gardner’s thirty-one, he issued orders for a full-scale assault designed to take the place by storm next morning. Weitzel, Grover, and Paine were north of the Clinton railroad, which entered the works about midway, Augur and Sherman to the south. The artillery preparation would begin at daybreak, he explained, augmented by high-angle fire from the navy, and the five division commanders would “dispose their troops so as to annoy the enemy as much as possible during the cannonade by advancing skirmishers to kill the enemy’s cannoneers and to cover the advance of the assaulting column.” This was somewhat hasty and Banks knew it, but he had reasons for not wanting to delay the attempt for the sake of more extensive preparations. First, like Grant eight days ago at Vicksburg, he believed the rebels were demoralized and unlikely to stand up under a determined blow if it were delivered before they had time to recover their balance. Second, and more important still, he was anxious to wind up the campaign and return to New Orleans; Emory was already complaining that he was in danger of being swamped by an attack from Mobile, where the Confederates had some 5000 men—twice as many as he himself had for the defense of the South’s first city—or from Brashear, to which Taylor was free to return now that Banks had left the Teche. This was indeed a two-pronged danger; in fact, despite the cited lack of transportation, it had been the real basis for the Massachusetts general’s refusal to join Grant in front of Vicksburg. However, for all his haste, the special orders he distributed on the 26th for the guidance of his subordinates in next day’s operation were meticulous and full. Attempting to forestall confusion by assigning particular duties, he included no less than eleven numbered paragraphs in the order, all of them fairly long except the last, which contained a scant half-dozen words: “Port Hudson must be taken tomorrow.”
At first it appeared that the order would be carried out, final paragraph and all; but around midmorning, when the thunder of the preliminary bombardment subsided and Weitzel went forward according to plan, driving the rebel skirmishers handsomely before him, he found that this unmasked their artillery, which opened point-blank on his troops with murderous effect. The bluecoats promptly hit the dirt and hugged it while their own batteries came up just behind them and unlimbered, returning the deluge of grape and canister at a range of two hundred and fifty yards. Crouched under all that hurtling iron and lead from front and rear, the men were badly confused and lost what little sense of direction they had retained during their advance through a maze of obstructions, both natural and man-made. “The whole fight took place in a dense forest of magnolias, mostly amid a thick undergrowth, and among ravines choked with felled and fallen timber, so that it was difficult not only to move but even to see,” a participant was to recall, adding that what he had been involved in was not so much a battle or a charge as it was “a gigantic bush-whack.” Paine and Grover, moving out in support of Weitzel, ran into the same maelstrom of resistance, with the same result. So did Augur, somewhat later, when his turn came to strike the Confederate center just south of the railroad. But all was strangely quiet all this while on the far left. At noon Banks rode over to look into the cause of this inaction, and found to his amazement that Tom Sherman had “failed utterly and criminally to bring his men into the field.” The fifty-two-year-old Rhode Islander was at lunch, surrounded by “staff officers all with their horses unsaddled.” As usual, despite the multiparagraphed directive, someone—in this case about 3500 someones, from the division commander down to the youngest drummer—had not got the word. Nettled by the dressing-down Banks gave him along with peremptory orders to “carry the works at all hazards,” Sherman got his two brigades aligned at last and took them forward shortly after 2 o’clock. He rode at their head, old army style; but not for long. A conspicuous target, he soon tumbled off his horse, and the surgeons had to remove what was left of the leg he had been shot in.
Command of the division passed to Brigadier General William Dwight, who had resigned as a West Point cadet ten years ago to go into manufacturing in his native Massachusetts at the age of twenty-one, but had returned to military life on the outbreak of the war. However, for all the youth and vigor which had enabled him to survive three wounds and a period of captivity after being left for dead on the field of Williamsburg a year ago next month, Dwight could do no more than Sherman had done already. His pinned-down men knew only too well that to attempt to rise, with all those guns and rifles trained on them from behind the red clay parapets ahead, would mean at best a trip back to the surgery where the doctors by now were sawing off their former commander’s leg. To attempt a farther advance, either here or on the east, was clearly hopeless; yet Banks was unwilling to call it a day until he had made at least one more effort. Weitzel’s division, which had opened the action that morning around to the north, had gained more ground than any of the other four, causing one observer to remark that if he had “continued to press his attack a few minutes longer he would probably have broken through the Confederate defense and taken their whole line in reverse.” Now that the defenders were alert and had the attackers zeroed in, that extra pressure would be a good deal harder to exert, but Banks at any rate thought it worth a try. Orders were sent to the far right for a resumption of the assault, and were passed along to the colonel commanding the two regiments lately recruited in the Teche, the 1st and 3d Louisiana Native Guards. Held in reserve till now, they were about to receive their baptism of fire: a baptism which, as it turned out, amounted to total immersion. A Union staff officer who watched them form for the attack described what happened. “They had hardly done so,” he said, “when the extreme left of the Confederate line opened on them, in an exposed position, with artillery and musketry and forced them to abandon the attempt with great loss.” However, that was only part of the story. Of the 1080 men in ranks, 271 were hit, or one out of every four. They had accomplished little except to prove, with a series of disjointed rushes and repulses over broken ground and through a tangle of obstructions, that the rebel position could not be carried in this fashion. And yet they had settled one other matter effectively: the question of whether Negroes would stand up under fire and take their losses as well as white men. “It gives me pleasure to report that they answered every expectation,” Banks wrote Halleck. “In many respects their conduct was heroic. No troops could be more determined or more daring.”
Yet this was but a fraction of the day-long butcher’s bill, which was especially high by contrast; 1995 Federals had fallen, and only 235 Confederates. In reaction, Banks told Farragut next day that Port Hudson was “the strongest position there is in the United States.” Though he frankly admitted, “No man on either side can show himself without being shot,” he was no less determined than he had been before the assault was launched. “We shall hold on today,” he said, “and make careful examinations with reference to future operations.” That morning—unlike Grant after his second repulse, five days earlier at Vicksburg—he had requested “a suspension of hostilities until 2 o’clock this afternoon, in order that the dead and wounded may be brought off the field.” Gardner consented, not only to this but also to a five-hour extension of the truce when it was found that the grisly harvest required a longer time for gleaning. Meanwhile Banks was writing to Grant, bringing him up to date on events and outlining the problem as he saw it now. “The garrison of the enemy is 5000 or 6000 men,” he wrote. “The works are what would ordinarily be styled ‘impregnable.’ They are surrounded by ravines, woods, valleys, and bayous of the most intricate and labyrinthic character, that make the works themselves almost inaccessible. It requires time even to understand the geography of the position. [The rebels] fight with determination, and our men, after a march of some 500 or 600 miles, have done all that could be expected or required of any similar force.” A postscript added an urgent request: “If it be possible, I beg you to send me at least one brigade of 4000 or 5000 men. This will be of vital importance to us. We may have to abandon these operations without it.” No such reinforcements would be coming either now or later from Grant, who had his hands quite full upriver; but Banks had no real intention of abandoning the siege. “We mean to harass the enemy night and day, and to give him no rest,” he declared in a message to Farragut that same day, and he followed this up with another next morning: “Everything looks well for us. The rebels attempted a sortie upon our right last evening upon the cessation of the armistice, but were smartly and quickly repulsed.” Two days later, May 31, when the admiral informed him that three Confederate deserters had stated that “unless reinforcements arrive they cannot hold out three days longer,” Banks replied: “Thanks for your note and the cheering report of the deserters. We are closing in upon the enemy, and will have him in a day or two.”
So he said. But presently a dispatch arrived from Halleck, dated June 3, which threatened to cut the ground from under the besieging army’s feet. Like Grant, and perhaps for the same reasons, Banks had kept the general-in-chief in the dark as to his intentions until it was too late for interference, and Old Brains expressed incredulity at the secondhand reports of what had happened. “The newspapers state that your forces are moving on Port Hudson instead of co-operating with General Grant, leaving the latter to fight both Johnston and Pemberton. As this is so contrary to all your instructions, and so opposed to military principles, I can hardly believe it true.” That it was true, however, was shown by a bundle of letters he received that same day from Banks, announcing his intention to move southeast from Alexandria. “These fully account for your movement on Port Hudson, which before seemed so unaccountable,” Halleck wrote next morning. But he still did not approve, and he said so in a message advising Banks to get his army back on what the general-in-chief considered the right track. “I hope that you have ere this given up your attempt on Port Hudson and sent all your spare forces to Grant.… If I have been over-urgent in this matter, it has arisen from my extreme anxiety lest the enemy should concentrate all his strength on one of your armies before you could unite, whereas if you act together you certainly will be able to defeat him.” Banks bristled at being thus lectured to. It irked him, moreover, that the authorities did not seem to take into account the fact that he was the senior general on the river. If any reproach for nonco-operation was called for, it seemed to him that it should have been aimed at Grant. “Since I have been in the army,” he replied in mid-June, when the second message reached him, “I have done all in my power to comply with my orders. It is so in the position I now occupy. I came here not only for the purpose of co-operating with General Grant, but by his own suggestion and appointment.” In time Halleck came round. “The reasons given by you for moving against Port Hudson are satisfactory,” he conceded in late June. “It was presumed that you had good and sufficient reasons for the course pursued, although at this distance it seemed contrary to principles and likely to prove unfortunate.” If this was not altogether gracious, Banks did not mind too much. He considered that he had already disposed of Halleck’s bookish June 4 argument with a logical rebuttal, written by coincidence on the same day: “If I defend New Orleans and its adjacent territory, the enemy will go against Grant. If I go with a force sufficient to aid him, [bypassing Port Hudson,] my rear will be seriously threatened. My force is not large enough to do both. Under these circumstances, my only course seems to be to carry this post as soon as possible, and then to join General Grant.… I have now my heavy artillery in position, and am confident of success in the course of a week.”
Here again he underestimated the rebel garrison’s powers of resistance; Port Hudson was not going to fall within a month, much less a week. Gardner had drawn his semicircular lines with care, anchoring both extremities to the lip of the hundred-foot bluff overlooking the river, and had posted his troops for maximum effect, whatever the odds. North of the railroad there were two main forts, one square, the other pentagonal, with a small redoubt between them, all three surrounded and tied together by a network of trenches, occupied by two brigades under Colonels I. G. W. Steedman and W. R. Miles. Brigadier General William Beall, a Kentucky-born West Pointer, had his brigade, which was as big as the other two combined, disposed to the south along a double line of bastions, the largest of which surmounted the crest of a ridge and was called the Citadel because it dominated all the ground in that direction. These various major works, together with their redans, parapets, ditches, and gun emplacements, were mutually supporting, so that an advance on one invited fire from those adjoining it. Banks had discovered this first, to his regret, while launching the May 27 assault. Since then, he had limited his activities mainly to long-range bombardments and the digging of lines of contravallation, designed to prevent a breakout and to protect his troops from sorties. After two weeks of this, in the course of which a considerable number of his men were dropped by snipers, he grew impatient and ordered a probing night action which he characterized as an endeavor “to get within attacking distance of the works in order to avoid the terrible losses incurred in moving over the ground in front.” Informed that the sudden lunge was to be preceded by a twenty-hour bombardment, Farragut, whose ships by now were getting low on ammunition, protested mildly that he did not think the constant shelling did much good. “After people have been harassed to a certain extent, they become indifferent to danger, I think,” he said. But he added: “We will do all in our power to aid you.” That power was not enough, as it turned out. At 3 o’clock in the morning, June 11, the blue infantry crept quietly forward under cover of darkness—and found the defenders very much on the alert. Though some men got through the abatis and up to the hostile lines, once the alarm was sounded they were quickly driven back, while those who chose not to run the gauntlet to regain their jump-off positions were taken captive. Except for lengthening the Federal casualty lists and increasing Confederate vigilance in the future, the action had no effect on anything whatsoever, so far as Banks and his shovel-weary, sniper-harassed men could discern: least of all on the siege, which continued as before.
His spirits were revived, however, by a message received two days later from Dwight, who reported that he had interrogated a quartet of Confederate deserters and had learned from them that the garrison, reduced by sickness to 3200 infantry and 800 artillerymen, was down to “about five days’ beef.” There were “plenty of peas, plenty of corn,” but “no more meal.” Starvation was staring the rebels in the face. In fact, a Mississippi regiment was said to be in such low spirits that it “drove about 50 head of cattle out of the works about a week ago,” intending thereby to hasten the inevitable end. In short, Dwight wrote, “The troops generally wish to surrender, and despair of relief.” Next morning, June 13, Banks decided to test the validity of this report. His plan, as he explained it to Farragut, whose co-operation was requested, was to “open a vigorous bombardment at exactly a quarter past eleven this morning, and continue it for exactly one hour.… The bombardment will be immediately followed by a summons to surrender. If that is not listened to, I shall probably attack tomorrow.” The guns roared on schedule, then stopped at the appointed time, and Banks sent forward under a white flag his demand for instant capitulation. “Respect for the usages of war, and a desire to avoid unnecessary sacrifice of life, impose on me the necessity of formally demanding the surrender of the garrison of Port Hudson.” That was the opening sentence of the page-long “summons,” and it was balanced by another very like it at the close: “I desire to avoid unnecessary slaughter, and I therefore demand the immediate surrender of the garrison, subject to such conditions only as are imposed by the usages of civilized warfare. I have the honor to be, sir, very respectfully, your most obedient servant, N. P. Banks, Major General, Commanding.” The Confederate reply was prompt and a good deal briefer. “Your note of this date has just been handed to me, and in reply I have to state that my duty requires me to defend this position, and therefore I decline to surrender. I have the honor to be, sir, very respectfully, your most obedient servant, Frank. Gardner, Major General, Commanding C. S. Forces.”
Banks had said that if his demands were not “listened to” he probably would launch a second full-scale assault next morning, all along the line. At daybreak, following a vigorous one-hour cannonade which apparently served little purpose except to warn the Confederates he was coming, he did just that. When the smoke cleared it was found that he had suffered the worst drubbing of the war, so far at least as a comparison of the casualties was concerned. On the far left, Dwight was misdirected by his guides, with the result that he was blasted into retreat before he even knew he was exposed. In the center, Augur and Paine attacked with vigor and were bloodily repulsed when they struck what turned out to be the strongest point of the enemy line, the priest-cap near the Jackson road; Paine himself fell, badly wounded, and was carried off the field. On the right, Grover and Weitzel were stopped in midcareer when it was demonstrated that no man could clear the fire-swept ridge along their front and live. “In examining the position afterward,” a Union officer declared, “I found [one] grass-covered knoll shaved bald, every blade cut down to the roots as by a hoe.” By noon it was apparent that the assault had failed in every sector. All that had been accomplished was a reduction of the range for the deadly snipers across the way, and the price exacted was far beyond the worth of a few yards of shell-torn earth. There was hollow mockery, too, in the respective losses, North and South. The Federals had 1792 killed, wounded, and missing subtracted from their ranks, while the Confederates had lost an over-all total of 47.
Four weeks of siege, highlighted by two full-scale assaults and one abortive night attack, had cost Banks more than 4000 casualties along his seven concave miles of front. His men, suspecting that they had inflicted scarcely more than one tenth as many casualties on the enemy, were so discouraged that the best he could say of them, in a note to Farragut that evening, was that they were “in tolerable good spirits.” Presently, though, even this was more than he could claim. “The heat, especially in the trenches, became almost insupportable, the stenches quite so,” a staff major later recalled. “The brooks dried up, the creek lost itself in the pestilential swamp, the springs gave out, and the river fell, exposing to the tropical sun a wide margin of festering ooze. The illness and mortality were enormous.” Counting noses four days after the second decisive repulse, Banks reported that he was down to 14,000 effectives, including the nine-month volunteers whose enlistments were expiring. This too was a source of discontent, which reached the stage of outright mutiny in at least one Bay State regiment, and the reaction was corrosive. Men whose time was nearly up did not “feel like desperate service,” Banks told Halleck, while those who had signed on for the duration did not “like to lead where the rest will not follow.” Old Brains had a prescription for that, however. “When a column of attack is formed of doubtful troops,” he answered, “the proper mode of curing their defection is to place artillery in their rear, loaded with grape and canister, in the hands of reliable men, with orders to fire at the first moment of disaffection. A knowledge of such orders will probably prevent any wavering, and, if not, one such punishment will prevent any repetition of it in your army.”
This was perhaps reassuring, though in an unpleasant sort of way, since it showed the general-in-chief to be considerably more savage where blue rebels were concerned than he had ever been when his opponents wore butternut or gray. However, Banks had even larger problems than mutiny on his hands by then. Emory was crying havoc in New Orleans, which he protested was in grave danger of being retaken by the rebels any day now. “The railroad track at Terre Bonne is torn up. Communication with Brashear cut off,” he notified Banks on June 20, adding: “I have but 400 men in the city, and I consider the city and the public property very unsafe. The secessionists here profess to have certain information that their forces are to make an attempt on the city.” Five days later—by which date Port Hudson had been under siege a month—he declared that the rebels bearing down on him were “known and ascertained to be at least 9000, and may be more.… The city is quiet on the surface, but the undercurrent is in a ferment.” “Something must be done for this city, and that quickly,” he insisted four days later. His anxiety continued to mount in ratio to his estimate of the number of graybacks moving against him, until finally he said flatly: “It is a choice between Port Hudson and New Orleans.… My information is as nearly positive as human testimony can make it that the enemy are 13,000 strong, and they are fortifying the whole country as they march from Brashear to this place, and are steadily advancing. I respectfully suggest that, unless Port Hudson is already taken, you can only save this city by sending me reinforcements immediately and at any cost.” What was more, he said, the danger was not only from outside New Orleans. “There are at least 10,000 fighting men in this city (citizens) and I do not doubt, from what I see, that these men will, at the first appearance of the enemy within view of the city, be against us to a man. I have the honor to be &c. W. H. Emory, Brigadier General, Commanding.”
But Banks had no intention of loosening his grip on the upriver fortress, which he believed—despite the nonfulfillment of all his earlier predictions—could not hold out much longer. Emory would have to take his chances. If it came to the worst and New Orleans fell, Farragut would steam down and retake it with the fleet that would be freed for action on the day Port Hudson ran up the white flag. Meanwhile the signs were good. On June 29, no less than thirty deserters stole out of the rebel intrenchments and into the Union lines, and though by now Banks knew better than to judge the temper of the garrison by that of such defectors, he was pleased to learn from those who arrived in the afternoon that their dinner had been meatless. In the future, they had been told, the only meat they would get would be that of mules. Judging by the adverse reaction of his own troops to a far more palatable diet, Banks did not think the johnnies would be likely to sustain their morale for long on that. However, one of the butternut scarecrows brought with him a copy of yesterday’s Port Hudson Herald, which featured a general order issued the day before by Gardner, “assuring the garrison that General Johnston will soon relieve Vicksburg, and then send reinforcements here.” The southern commander declared as well, Banks pointed out in passing the news along to Halleck, “his purpose to defend the place to the last extremity.”
Confident none the less “of a speedy and favorable result”—so at least he assured the general-in-chief—Banks kept his long-range batteries at work around the clock, determined to give the Confederates no rest. The fire at night was necessarily blind, but that by day was skillfully directed by an observer perched on a lofty yardarm of the Richmond, tied up across the river from the bluff. He communicated by wigwag with a battery ashore, which also had a signalman, and the two kept up a running colloquy, not only to improve the marksmanship, but also to relieve the tedium of the siege.
“Your fifth gun has hit the breastwork of the big rifle four times. Its fire is splendid. Can dismount it soon.”
“You say our fifth gun?”
“Yes, from the left.” But the next salvo brought a shift of attention. “Your sixth gun just made a glorious shot.… Let the sixth gun fire 10 feet more to the left.”
“How now about the fifth and sixth guns?”
“The sixth gun is the bully boy.”
“Can you give it any directions to make it more bully?”
“Last shot was little to the right.”
Just then, however, the cannoneers were forced to call a halt. “Fearfully hot here,” the battery signalman explained. “Several men sunstruck. Bullets whiz like fun. Have ceased firing for a while, the guns are so hot. Will profit by your directions afterward.” Presently they resumed firing, though with much less satisfactory results, according to the observer high in the rigging of the Richmond.
“Howitzer shell goes 6 feet over the guns every shot; last was too low, little too high again.” Exasperated, he added: “Can’t they, or won’t they, depress that gun?”
“Won’t, I guess.… Was that shot any better, and that?”
“Both and forever too high.”
“We will vamose now. Come again tomorrow.”
“Nine a.m. will do, will it not?”
“Yes; cease signaling.”
The forces threatening New Orleans were no such host as Emory envisioned, but they were under the determined and resourceful Richard Taylor, who earlier, though much against his will, had struck at Grant’s supposedly vital supply line opposite Vicksburg. “To break this would render a most important service,” Pemberton had told Kirby Smith in early May, in one of his several urgent appeals for help across the way. Returning to Alexandria as soon as Banks pulled out, Taylor prepared to move at once back down the Teche, threaten New Orleans, and thereby “raise such a storm as to bring General Banks from Port Hudson, the garrison of which could then unite with General Joseph Johnston in the rear of General Grant.” On May 20, however, before he could translate his plan into action, he received instructions from Smith directing him to march in the opposite direction. “Grant’s army is now supplied from Milliken’s Bend by Richmond, down the Roundaway and Bayou Vidal to New Carthage,” the department commander explained, and if Taylor could interrupt the flow of supplies along this route, the Federal drive on Vicksburg would be “checked, if not frustrated.” He sympathized with Taylor’s desire “to recover what you have lost in Lower Louisiana and to push on toward New Orleans,” Smith added, “but the stake contended for near Vicksburg is the Valley of the Mississippi and the Trans-Mississippi Department; the defeat of General Grant is the terminus ad quem of all operations in the West this summer; to its attainment all minor advantages should be sacrificed.” Taylor agreed as to the object, but not as to the method, much preferring his own. However, as he said later, “remonstrances were of no avail.” He turned his back on New Orleans, at least for the present, and set out up the Tensas, where he was joined by a division of about 4000 men under Major General John G. Walker, a Missourian lately returned from Virginia, where he had commanded a division in Lee’s army and was one of the many who could fairly be said to have saved the day at Sharpsburg.
Debarking June 5 on the east bank of the Tensas, some twenty-five miles west of Grant’s former Young’s Point headquarters, Taylor sent his unarmed transports back downstream to avoid losing them in his absence. Next day he surprised and captured a small party of Federals at Richmond, midway between the Tensas and the Mississippi, only to learn that Grant had established a new base up the Yazoo, well beyond the reach of any west-bank forces, and was no longer dependent on the one at Milliken’s Bend. “Our movement resulted, and could result, in nothing,” Taylor later admitted. All the same, he carried out his instructions by attacking, at dawn of the 7th, both Young’s Point and Milliken’s Bend, sending a full brigade against each. Like Banks, Grant had been recruiting Negroes, but since he intended to use them as laborers rather than as soldiers, he had given them little if any military training apart from the rudiments of drill. Surprised in their camps by the dawn attacks, they panicked and fled eastward over the levee to the protection of Porter’s upstream flotilla. The gunboats promptly took up the quarrel, blasting away at the exultant rebels, and Taylor, observing that the panic was now on the side of the pursuers, ordered Walker to retire on Monroe, terminus of the railroad west of Vicksburg, while he himself went back down the Tensas and up the Red to Alexandria. Once there, he returned his attention to Banks and New Orleans, glad to have done with what he called “these absurd movements” against a supposedly vital supply line which in fact had been abandoned for nearly a month before he struck it.
Though the losses had been unequal—652 Federals had fallen or were missing, as compared to 185 Confederates—Grant was not disposed to be critical of the outcome. Agreeing with Porter that the rebels had got “nothing but hard knocks,” he was more laconic than reproachful in his mid-June report of the affair: “In this battle most of the troops engaged were Africans, who had little experience in the use of firearms. Their conduct is said, however, to have been most gallant, and I doubt not but with good officers they will make good troops.” Anyhow, this was beyond the circle of his immediate attention, which was fixed on the close-up siege of Vicksburg itself. Six divisions had been added by now to his original ten, giving him a total of 71,000 effectives disposed along two lines, back to back, one snuggled up to the semicircular defenses and the other facing rearward in case Joe Johnston got up enough strength and nerve to risk an attack from the east. Three divisions arrived in late May and early June from Memphis, the first of which, commanded by Brigadier General Jacob Lauman, was used to extend the investment southward, while the other two, under Brigadier Generals Nathan Kimball and William Sooy Smith, made up a fourth corps under Washburn, now a major general, and were sent to join Osterhaus, who had been left behind to guard the Big Black crossings while the two assaults were being launched. Frank Herron, who at twenty-five had won his two stars at Prairie Grove to become the Union’s youngest major general, arrived from Missouri with his division on June 11 and extended the line still farther southward to the river, completing Grant’s nine-division bear hug on Pemberton’s beleaguered garrison. The final two were sent by Burnside from his Department of the Ohio. Commanded by Brigadier Generals Thomas Welsh and Robert Potter, they constituted a fifth corps under Major General John G. Parke and raised the strength of the rearward-facing force to seven divisions. “Our situation is for the first time in the entire western campaign what it should be,” Grant had written Banks in the course of the build-up. And now that it was complete, so was his confidence as to the outcome of the siege, which he expressed not only in official correspondence but also in informal talks with his officers and men. “Gen. Grant came along the line last night,” an Illinois private wrote home. “He had on his old clothes and was alone. He sat on the ground and talked with the boys with less reserve than many a little puppy of a lieutenant. He told us that he had got as good a thing as he wanted here.”
One item he would have liked more of was trained engineers. Only two such officers were serving in that capacity now in his whole army. However, as one of them afterwards declared, this problem was solved by the “native good sense and ingenuity” of the troops, Middle Western farm boys for the most part, who showed as much aptitude for such complicated work as they had shown for throwing bridges over creeks and bayous during the march that brought them here. According to the same officer, “Whether a battery was to be constructed by men who had never built one before, [or] a sap-roller made by those who had never heard the name … it was done, and after a few trials well done.” Before long, a later observer remarked, “those who had cut wood only for stoves would be speaking fluently of gabions and fascines; men who had patiently smoothed earth so that radishes might grow better would be talking affectionately of terrepleins for guns.” In all of this they were inspired by the same bustling energy and quick adaptability on the part of the generals who led them; for one thing that characterized Grant’s army was the youth of its commanders. McClernand, who was fifty-one, was the only general officer past fifty. Of the twenty-one corps and division commanders assigned to the Army of the Tennessee in the course of the campaign, the average age was under forty. And that promotion had been based on merit was indicated by the fact that the average age of the nine major generals was as low as that of the dozen brigadiers; indeed, excepting McClernand, it was better than one year lower. Moreover, nine of these twenty-one men were older than Grant himself, and this too was part of the reason for his confidence in himself and in the army which had come of age, so to speak, under his care and tutelage. He considered it more than a match for anything the Confederates could bring against him—even under Joe Johnston, whose abilities he respected highly. One day a staff officer expressed the fear that Johnston was planning to fight his way into Vicksburg in order to help Pemberton stage a breakout; but Grant did not agree. “No,” he said. “We are the only fellows who want to get in there. The rebels who are in now want to get out, and those who are out want to stay out. If Johnston tries to cut his way in we will let him do it, and then see that he don’t get out. You say he has 30,000 men with him? That will give us 30,000 more prisoners than we now have.”
This was not to say that the two repulsed assaults had taught him nothing. They had indeed, if only by way of confirming a first impression that the rebel works were formidable. One officer, riding west on the Jackson road, had found himself confronted by “a long line of high, rugged, irregular bluffs, clearly cut against the sky, crowned with cannon which peered ominously from embrasures to the right and left as far as the eye could see.” Beyond an almost impenetrable tangle of timber felled on the forward slopes, “lines of heavy rifle pits, surmounted with head-logs, ran along the bluffs, connecting fort with fort, and filled with veteran infantry.” The approaches, he said, “were frightful enough to appall the stoutest heart.” Sherman agreed, especially after the two assaults which had cost the army more than four thousand casualties. “I have since seen the position at Sevastopol,” he wrote years later, “and without hesitation I declare that at Vicksburg to have been the more difficult of the two.” Skillfully constructed, well sited, and prepared for a year against the day of investment, the fortifications extended for seven miles along commanding ridges and were anchored at both extremities to the lip of the sheer 200-foot bluff, north and south of the beleaguered city. Forts, redoubts, salients, redans, lunets, and bastions had been erected or dug at irregular intervals along the line, protected by overlapping fields of fire and connected by a complex of trenches, which in turn were mutually supporting. There simply was no easy way to get at the defenders. Moreover, Grant’s three-to-one numerical advantage was considerably offset, not only by the necessity for protecting his rear from possible attacks by the army Johnston was assembling to the east, but also by the fact that, because of the vagaries of the up-ended terrain, his line of contravallation had to be more than twice the length of the line he was attempting to confront. “There is only one way to account for the hills of Vicksburg,” a Confederate soldier had said a year ago, while helping to survey the present works. “After the Lord of Creation had made all the big mountains and ranges of hills, He had left on His hands a large lot of scraps. These were all dumped at Vicksburg in a waste heap.” One of Grant’s two professional engineers was altogether in agreement, pronouncing the Confederate position “rather an intrenched camp than a fortified place, owing much of its strength to the difficult ground, obstructed by fallen trees to its front, which rendered rapidity of movement and ensemble in an assault impossible.”
Yet even this ruggedness had its compensations. Although the hillsides, as one who climbed them said, “were often so steep that their ascent was difficult to a footman unless he aided himself with his hands,” the many ravines provided excellent cover for the besiegers, and Grant had specified in his investment order: “Every advantage will be taken of the natural inequalities of the ground to gain positions from which to start mines, trenches, or advance batteries.” With the memory of slaughter fresh in their minds as a result of their two repulses, the men dug with a will. Knowing little or nothing at the outset of the five formal stages of a siege—the investment, the artillery attack, the construction of parallels and approaches, the breaching by artillery or mines, and the final assault—they told one another that Grant, having failed to go over the rebel works, had decided to go under them instead. Fortunately the enemy used his artillery sparingly, apparently conserving ammunition for use in repelling major assaults, but snipers were quick to shoot at targets of opportunity: in which connection a Federal major was to recall that “a favorite amusement of the soldiers was to place a cap on the end of a ramrod and raise it just above the head-logs, betting on the number of bullets which would pass through it within a given time.” Few things on earth appealed to them more, as humor, than the notion of some butternut marksman flaunting his skill when the target was something less than flesh and blood. Mostly, though, they dug and took what rest they could, sweating in their wool uniforms and cursing the heat even more than they did the snipers. Soon they were old hands at siege warfare. “The excitement … has worn away,” a lieutenant wrote home from the trenches in early June, “and we have settled down to our work as quietly and as regularly as if we were hoeing corn or drawing bills in chancery.”
Life in the trenches across the way—though the occupants did not call them that; they called them “ditches”—was at once more sedentary and more active. With their own 102 guns mostly silent and Grant’s opposing 220 roaring practically all the time, they did nearly as much digging as the bluecoats, the difference being that they did it mainly in the same place, time after time, repairing damages inflicted by the steady rain of shells. Nor were they any less inventive. “Thunder barrels,” for example—powder-filled hogsheads, fuzed at the bung—were found to be quite effective when rolled downhill into the enemy parallels and approaches. Similarly, such large naval projectiles as failed to detonate, either in the air or on contact with the ground, could be dug up, re-fuzed, and used in the same fashion to discourage the blue diggers on the slopes. However, despite such violent distractions, after a couple of weeks of spadework the two lines were within clod-tossing distance of each other at several points, and this resulted in an edgy sort of existence for the soldiers of both sides, as if they were spending their days and nights at the wrong end of a shooting gallery or in a testing chamber for explosives. “Fighting by hand grenades was all that was possible at such close quarters,” a Confederate was to recall. “As the Federals had the hand grenades and we had none, we obtained our supply by using such of theirs as failed to explode, or by catching them as they came over the parapet and hurling them back.”
Resistance under these circumstances implied a high state of morale, and such was indeed the case. Grant’s heavy losses in his two assaults—inflicted at so little cost to the defenders that, until they looked out through the lifting smoke and saw the opposite hillsides strewn with the rag-doll shapes of the Union dead, they could scarcely believe a major effort had been made—convinced them that the Yankees could never take the place by storm. What was more, they had faith in “Old Joe” Johnston, believing that he would raise the siege as soon as he got his troops assembled off beyond the blue horizon, whereupon the two gray forces would combine and turn the tables on the besiegers. Until then, as they saw it, all that was needed was firmness against the odds, and they stood firm. Thanks to Pemberton’s foresight, which included pulling corn along the roadside and driving livestock ahead of the army during its march from the Big Black, food so far was more plentiful inside the Confederate lines than it was beyond them. The people there were the first to feel the pinch of hunger; for the Federals, coming along behind the retreating graybacks, had consumed what little remained while waiting for roads to be opened to their new base on the Yazoo. “The soldiers ate up everything the folks had for ten miles around,” a Union private wrote home. “They are now of necessity compelled to come here and ask for something to live upon, and they have discovered that they have the best success when the youngest and best-looking one in the family comes to plead their case, and they have some very handsome women here.” This humbling of their pride did not displease him; it seemed to him no more than they deserved. “They were well educated and rich before their niggers ran away,” he added, but adversity had brought them down in the world. “If I was to meet them in Illinois I should think they were born and brought up there.”
Whether this last was meant as a compliment, and if so to whom, he did not say. But at least these people beyond the city’s bristling limits were not being shot at; which was a great deal more than could be said of those within the gun-studded belt that girdled the bluff Vicksburg had been founded on, forty-odd years ago, by provision of the last will and testament of the pioneer farmer and Methodist parson Newitt Vick. In a sense, however, the bluff was returning to an earlier destiny. All that had been here when Vick arrived were the weed-choked ruins of a Spanish fort, around which the settlement had grown in less than two generations into a bustling town of some 4500 souls, mostly devoted to trade with planters in the lower Yazoo delta but also plagued by flatboat men on the way downriver from Memphis, who found it a convenient place for letting off what they called “a load of steam” that would not wait for New Orleans. As it turned out, though, the ham-fisted boatmen with knives in their boots and the gamblers with aces and derringers up their sleeves were mild indeed compared to what was visited upon them by the blue-clad host sent against them by what had lately been their government. Now the bluff was a fort again, on a scale beyond the most flamboyant dreams of the long-departed Spaniards, and the residents spent much of their time, as one of them said, watching the incoming shells “rising steadily and shiningly in great parabolic curves, descending with ever-increasing swiftness, and falling with deafening shrieks and explosions.” The “ponderous fragments” flew everywhere, he added, thickening the atmosphere of terror until “even the dogs seemed to share the general fear. On hearing the descent of a shell, they would dart aside [and] then, as it exploded, sit down and howl in a pitiful manner.” Children, on the other hand, observed the uproar with wide-eyed evident pleasure, accepting it as a natural phenomenon, like rain or lightning, unable to comprehend—as the dogs, for example, so obviously did—that men could do such things to one another and to them. “How is it possible you live here?” a woman who had arrived to visit her soldier husband just before the siege lines tightened asked a citizen, and was told: “After one is accustomed to the change, we do not mind it. But becoming accustomed: that is the trial.” Some took it better than others, in or out of uniform. There was for instance a Frenchman, “a gallant officer who had distinguished himself in several severe engagements,” who was “almost unmanned” whenever one of the huge mortar projectiles fell anywhere near him. Chided by friends for this reaction, he would reply: “I no like ze bomb: I cannot fight him back!” Neither could anyone else “fight him back,” least of all the civilians, many of whom took refuge in caves dug into the hillsides. Some of these were quite commodious, with several rooms, and the occupants brought in chairs and beds and even carpets to add to the comfort, sleeping soundly or taking dinner unperturbed while the world outside seemed turned to flame and thunder. “Prairie Dog Village,” the blue cannoneers renamed the city on the bluff, while from the decks of ironclads and mortar rafts on the great brown river, above and below, and from the semicircular curve of eighty-nine sand-bagged battery emplacements on the landward side, they continued to pump their steel-packaged explosives into the checkerboard pattern of its streets and houses.
Like the men in the trenches, civilians of both sexes and all ages were convinced that their tormentors could never take Vicksburg by storm, and whatever their fright they had no intention of knuckling under to what they called the bombs. For them, too, Johnston was the one bright hope of deliverance. Old Joe would be coming soon, they assured each other; all that was needed was to hold on till he completed his arrangements; then, with all the resources of the Confederacy at his command, he would come swooping over the eastern horizon and down on the Yankee rear. But presently, as time wore on and Johnston did not come, they were made aware of a new enemy. Hunger. By mid-June, though the garrison had been put first on half and then on quarter rations of meat, the livestock driven into the works ahead of the army back in May had been consumed, and Pemberton had his foragers impress all the cattle in the city. This struck nearer home than even the Union shells had done, for it was no easy thing for a family with milk-thirsty children to watch its one cow being led away to slaughter by a squad of ragged strangers. Moreover, the army’s supply of bread was running low by now, and the commissary was directed to issue instead equal portions of rice and flour, four ounces of each per man per day, supplementing a quarter-pound of meat that was generally stringy or rancid or both. When these grains ran low, as they soon did, the experiment was tried of baking bread from dough composed of equal parts of corn and dried peas, ground up together until they achieved a gritty consistency not unlike cannon powder. “It made a nauseous composition,” one who survived the diet was to recall with a shudder, “as the corn meal cooked in half the time the peas meal did, so the stuff was half raw.… It had the properties of india-rubber, and was worse than leather to digest.” Soon afterwards came the crowning indignity. With the last cow and hog gone lowing and squealing under the sledge and cleaver, still another experiment was tried: the substitution of mule meat for beef and bacon. Though it was issued, out of respect for religious and folk prejudices, “only to those who desired it,” Pemberton was gratified to report that both officers and men considered it “not only nutritious, but very palatable, and in every way preferable to poor beef.” So he said; but soldiers and civilians alike found something humiliating, not to say degrading, about the practice. “The rebels don’t starve with success,” a Federal infantryman observed jokingly from beyond the lines about this time. “I think that if I had nothing to eat I’d starve better than they do.” Vicksburg’s residents and defenders might well have agreed, especially when mule meat was concerned. Even if a man refused to eat such stuff himself, he found it disturbing to live among companions who did not. It was enough to diminish even their faith in Joe Johnston, who seemed in point of fact a long time coming.
Though at the outset the Virginian had sounded vigorous and purposeful in his assurance of assistance, Pemberton himself by now had begun to doubt the outcome of the race between starvation and delivery. “I am trying to gather a force which may attempt to relieve you. Hold out,” Johnston wrote on May 19, and six days later he made this more specific: “Bragg is sending a division. When it comes, I will move to you. Which do you think is the best route? How and where is the enemy encamped? What is your force?” Receiving this last on May 29—the delay was not extreme, considering that couriers to and from the city had to creep by darkness through the Federal lines, risking capture every foot of the way—the Vicksburg commander replied as best he could to his superior’s questions as to Grant’s dispositions and strength. “My men are in good spirits, awaiting your arrival,” he added. “You may depend on my holding the place as long as possible.” After waiting nine days and receiving no answer, he asked: “When may I expect you to move, and in what direction?” Three more days he waited, and still there was no reply. “I am waiting most anxiously to know your intentions,” he repeated. “I have heard nothing from you since [your dispatch of] May 25. I shall endeavor to hold out as long as we have anything to eat.” Three days more went by, and then on June 13—two weeks and a day since any word had reached him from the world outside—he received a message dated May 29. “I am too weak to save Vicksburg,” Johnston told him. “Can do no more than attempt to save you and your garrison. It will be impossible to extricate you unless you co-operate and we make mutually supporting movements. Communicate your plans and suggestions, if possible.” This was not only considerably less than had been expected in the way of help; it also seemed to indicate that Johnston did not realize how tightly the Union cordon was drawn about Vicksburg’s bluff. In effect, the meager trickle of dispatches left Pemberton in a position not unlike that of a man who calls on a friend to make a strangler turn loose of his throat, only to have the friend inquire as to the strangler’s strength, the position of his thumbs, the condition of the sufferer’s windpipe, and just what kind of help he had in mind. So instead of “plans and suggestions,” Vicksburg’s defender tried to communicate some measure of the desperation he and his soldiers were feeling. “The enemy has placed several heavy guns in position against our works,” he replied on June 15, “and is approaching them very nearly by sap. His fire is almost continuous. Our men have no relief; are becoming much fatigued, but are still in pretty good spirits. I think your movement should be made as soon as possible. The enemy is receiving reinforcements. We are living on greatly reduced rations, but I think sufficient for twenty days yet.”
Having thus placed the limit of Vicksburg’s endurance only one day beyond the Fourth of July—now strictly a Yankee holiday—Pemberton followed this up, lest Johnston fail to sense the desperation implied, with a more outspoken message four days later: “I hope you will advance with the least possible delay. My men have been thirty-four days and nights in the trenches, without relief, and the enemy within conversation distance. We are living on very reduced rations, and, as you know, are entirely isolated.” He closed by asking bluntly, “What aid am I to expect from you?” This time the answer, if vague, was prompt. On June 23 a courier arrived with a dispatch written only the day before. “Scouts report the enemy fortifying toward us and the roads blocked,” Johnston declared. “If I can do nothing to relieve you, rather than surrender the garrison, endeavor to cross the river at the last moment if you and General Taylor communicate.” To Pemberton this seemed little short of madness. Taylor had made his gesture against Young’s Point and Milliken’s Bend more than two weeks ago; by now he was all the way down the Teche, intent on menacing New Orleans. But that was by no means the worst of Johnston’s oversights, which was to ignore the presence of the Union navy. The bluejacket gun crews would have liked nothing better than a chance to try their marksmanship on a makeshift flotilla of skiffs, canoes, and rowboats manned by the half-starved tatterdemalions they had been probing for at long range all these weeks. Besides, even if the boats required had been available, which they were not, there was the question of whether the men in the trenches were in any condition for such a strenuous effort. They looked well enough to a casual eye, for all their rags and hollow-eyed gauntness, but it was observed that they tired easily under the mildest exertion and could serve only brief shifts when shovel work was called for. The meager diet was beginning to tell. A Texas colonel reported that many of his men had “swollen ankles and symptoms of incipient scurvy.” By late June, nearly half the garrison was on the sick list or in hospital. If Pemberton could not see what this meant, a letter he received at this time—June 28: exactly one week short of the date he had set, two weeks ago, as the limit of Vicksburg’s endurance—presumed to define it for him in unmistakable terms. Signed “Many Soldiers,” the letter called attention to the fact that the ration now had been reduced to “one biscuit and a small bit of bacon per day,” and continued:
The emergency of the case demands prompt and decided action on your part. If you can’t feed us, you had better surrender us, horrible as the idea is, than suffer this noble army to disgrace themselves by desertion. I tell you plainly, men are not going to lie here and perish, if they do love their country dearly. Self-preservation is the first law of nature, and hunger will compel a man to do almost anything.… This army is now ripe for mutiny, unless it can be fed. Just think of one small biscuit and one or two mouthfuls of bacon per day. General, please direct your inquiries in the proper channel, and see if I have not stated the stubborn facts, which had better be heeded before we are disgraced.
“Grant is now deservedly the hero,” Sherman wrote home in early June, adding characteristically—for his dislike of reporters was not tempered by any evidence of affection on their part, either for himself or for Grant, with whom, as he presently said, “I am a second self”—that his friend was being “belabored with praise by those who a month ago accused him of all the sins in the calendar, and who next will turn against him if so blows the popular breeze. Vox populi, vox hum-bug.”
In point of fact, however, once the encompassing lines had been drawn, the journalists could find little else to write about that had not been covered during the first week of the siege. And it was much the same for the soldiers, whose only diversion was firing some fifty to one hundred rounds of ammunition a day, as required by orders. Across the way—though the Confederates lacked even this distraction, being under instructions to burn no powder needlessly—the main problem, or at any rate the most constant one, was hunger; whereas for the Federals it was boredom. “The history of a single day was the history of all the others,” an officer was to recall. Different men had different ways of trying to hasten the slow drag of time. Sherman, for instance, took horseback rides and paid off-duty visits to points of interest roundabout, at least one of which resulted in a scene he found discomforting, even painful. Learning that the mother of one of his former Louisiana Academy cadets was refugeeing in the neighborhood—she had come all the way from Plaquemine Parish to escape the attentions of Butler and Banks, only to run spang into Grant and Sherman—he rode over to tender his respects and found her sitting on her gallery with about a dozen women visitors. He introduced himself, inquired politely after her son, and was told that the young man was besieged in Vicksburg, a lieutenant of artillery. When the general went on to ask for news of her husband, whom he had known in the days before the war, the woman suddenly burst into tears and cried out in anguish: “You killed him at Bull Run, where he was fighting for his country!” Sherman hastily denied that he had “killed anybody at Bull Run,” which was literally true, but by now all the other women had joined the chorus of abuse and lamentation. This, he said long afterwards, “made it most uncomfortable for me, and I rode away.”
Other men had other spare-time diversions. Grant’s, it was said, was whiskey. Some denied this vehemently, protesting that he was a teetotaler, while some asserted that this only appeared to be the case because of his low tolerance for the stuff; a single glass unsteadied him, and a second gave him the glassy-eyed look of a man with a heavy load on. He himself seemed to recognize the problem from the outset, if only by the appointment and retention of John A. Rawlins as his assistant adjutant general. A frail but vigorous young man, with a “marble pallor” to his face and “large, lustrous eyes of a deep black,” Rawlins at first had wanted to be a preacher, but had become instead a lawyer in Galena, where Grant first knew him. His wife had died of tuberculosis soon after the start of the war, and he himself would die of the same disease before he was forty, but the death that seemed to have affected him most had been that of his father, an improvident charcoal burner who had died at last of the alcoholism that had kept him and his large family in poverty all his life. Rawlins, a staff captain at thirty and now a lieutenant colonel at thirty-two, was rabid on the subject of drink. He was in fact blunt in most things, including his relationship with Grant. “He bossed everything at Grant’s headquarters,” Charles Dana later wrote, adding: “I have heard him curse at Grant when, according to his judgment, the general was doing something that he thought he had better not do.” Observing this, many wondered why Grant put up with it. Others believed they knew. “If you hit Rawlins on the head, you’ll knock out Grant’s brains,” they said. But they were wrong. Rawlins was not Grant’s brain; he was his conscience, and a rough one, too, especially where whiskey was concerned. “I say to you frankly, and I pledge you my word for it,” he had written eighteen months ago to Elihu Washburne, the general’s congressional guardian angel, “that should General Grant at any time become an intemperate man or an habitual drunkard, I will notify you immediately, will ask to be removed from duty on his staff (kind as he has been to me) or resign my commission. For while there are times when I would gladly throw the mantle of charity over the faults of my friends, at this time and from a man of his position I would rather tear the mantle off and expose the deformity.” Grant had cause to believe that Rawlins meant it. And yet, despite the danger to his career and despite what a fellow staffer called Rawlins’ “insubordination twenty times a day,” he kept him on, both for his own good and the army’s.
Since writing to Washburne, however, the adjutant had either changed his mind about disturbing the mantle or else he had been singularly forgetful. Despite periodic incidents thereafter, in which Grant was involved with whiskey, Rawlins limited his remarks to the general himself, apparently in the belief that he could handle him. And so he could, except for lapses. Anyhow, there was never any problem so long as Mrs Grant was around; “If she is with him all will be well and I can be spared,” he later confided to a friend. The trouble seemed in part sexual, as in California nine years ago, and it was intensified by periods of boredom, such as now. Three weeks of slam-bang fighting and rapid maneuver had given way to the tedium of a siege, and Mrs Grant had been six weeks off the scene. On June 5 Rawlins found a box of wine in front of the general’s tent and had it removed, ignoring Grant’s protest that he was saving it to toast the fall of Vicksburg. He learned, moreover, that the general had recently accepted a glass of wine from a convivial doctor. These were danger signs, and there were others that evening. Rawlins sat down after midnight and wrote Grant a letter. “The great solicitude I feel for the safety of this army leads me to mention, what I had hoped never again to do, the subject of your drinking.… Tonight when you should, because of the condition of your health if nothing else, have been in bed, I find you where the wine bottle has just been emptied, in company with those who drink and urge you to do likewise, and the lack of your usual promptness and decision, and clearness in expressing yourself in writing conduces to confirm my suspicion.” Rawlins himself had become rather incoherent by now, whether from anger or from sorrow; but the ending was clear enough. Unless Grant would pledge himself “[not] to touch a single drop of any kind of liquor, no matter by whom asked or under what circumstances,” Rawlins wanted to be relieved at once from duty in the department. Grant, however, left early next morning—apparently before the letter reached him—on a tour of inspection up the Yazoo River to Satartia, near which he had posted a division in case Johnston came that way. The two-day trip, beyond the sight and influence of Rawlins, became a two-day bender.
Dana went with him, and on the way upriver from Haines Bluff they met the steamboat Diligent coming down. Grant hailed the vessel, whose captain was a friend of his, transferred to her, and had her turned back upstream for Satartia. Aboard was Sylvanus Cadwallader, a Chicago Times correspondent on the prowl for news. It was he who had ridden into Jackson with Fred Grant in mid-May, when they lost the race for the souvenir flag atop the capitol, and it was he who was to leave the only detailed eyewitness account of Grant on a wartime bender—specifically the two-day one which already was under way up the Yazoo. In some ways, for Cadwallader at least, it was more like a two-day nightmare. “I was not long in perceiving that Grant had been drinking,” he wrote long afterwards, “and that he was still keeping it up. He made several trips to the bar room of the boat in a short time, and became stupid in speech and staggering in gait.” The reporter of course had heard rumors of Grant’s predilection, but this was the first time he had seen him show it to the extent of intoxication. Alarmed by the general’s “condition, which was fast becoming worse,” he tried to get the captain and a lieutenant aide to intervene. Neither would; so Cadwallader undertook to do it himself. He got Grant into his stateroom, locked the door, “and commenced throwing bottles of whiskey which stood on the table, through the windows, over the guards, into the river.” Grant protested, to no avail; the reporter “firmly, but good-naturedly declined to obey,” and finally got him quieted. “As it was a very hot day and the stateroom almost suffocating, I insisted on his taking off his coat, vest and boots, and lying down on one of the berths. After much resistance I succeeded, and soon fanned him to sleep.”
But that was only the beginning. Shortly before dark, when the Diligent neared Satartia, she met two gunboats steaming down, and a naval officer came aboard to warn that it was not safe for the unarmed vessel to proceed. Dana—who later reported tactfully in his Recollections that “Grant was ill and went to bed soon after we started”—knocked on the stateroom door to ask whether the boat should turn back. Grant, he said, was “too sick to decide,” and told him: “I will leave it to you.” Now that he was awake, however, though still not “recovered from his stupor,” Cadwallader said, the general took it into his head “to dress and go ashore,” despite the naval officer’s warning. Once more the reporter prevailed, and got him back to bed. While he slept, the Diligentreturned downstream in the darkness to Haines Bluff. Next morning, according to Dana, Grant was “fresh as a rose, clean shirt and all, quite himself,” when he came out to breakfast. “Well, Mr Dana,” he observed, “I suppose we are at Satartia.”
Cadwallader relaxed his guard, despite the 25-mile geographical error, presuming that “all necessity for extra vigilance on my part had passed,” and was profoundly shocked to discover, an hour later, “that Grant had procured another supply of whiskey from on shore and was quite as much intoxicated as the day before.” Again the reporter managed to separate the general from his bottle, only to have him insist on proceeding at once to Chickasaw Bayou. This would have brought them there “about the middle of the afternoon, when the landing would have been alive with officers, men, and trains from all parts of the army.” Conferring with the captain as to the best means by which to avoid exposing Grant to “utter disgrace and ruin,” Cadwallader managed to delay the departure so that they did not arrive until about sundown, when there was much less activity at the landing. As luck would have it, however, they tied up alongside a sutler boat whose owner “kept open house to all officers and dispensed free liquors and cigars generously.” Alarmed at the possibilities of disaster, the reporter slipped hastily over the rail, warned the sutler of what was afoot, and “received his promise that the general should not have a drop of anything intoxicating on his boat.” Back aboard the Diligent, Cadwallader helped the escort to unload the horses for the five-mile ride to army headquarters northeast of Vicksburg; but when this was done he looked around and could find no sign of Grant. Fearing the worst, he hurried aboard the sutler boat “and soon heard a general hum of conversation and laughter proceeding from a room opening out of the ladies’ cabin.” There he saw his worst fears realized. The sutler was seated at “a table covered with bottled whiskey and baskets of champagne,” and Grant was beside him, “in the act of swallowing a glass of whiskey.” Cadwallader once more intervened, insisting that “the escort was waiting, and it would be long after dark before we could reach headquarters.” Grant came along, though he plainly resented the interruption. His horse was a borrowed one called Kangaroo “from his habit of rearing on his hind feet and making a plunging start whenever mounted.” That was his reaction now; for “Grant gave him the spur the moment he was in the saddle, and the horse darted away at full speed before anyone was ready to follow.” The road was crooked, winding among the many slews and bayous, but the general more or less straightened it out, “heading only for the bridges, and literally tore through and over everything in his way. The air was full of dust, ashes, and embers from campfires, and shouts and curses from those he rode down in his race.” Cadwallader, whose horse was no match for Kangaroo, thought he had lost his charge for good. But he kept on anyhow, hoping against hope, and “after crossing the last bayou bridge three-fourths of a mile from the landing,” caught up with him riding sedately at a walk. Finding that Grant had become “unsteady in the saddle” as a result of the drink or drinks he had had from the sutler, and fearing “discovery of his rank and situation,” the reporter seized Kangaroo’s rein and led him off into a roadside thicket, where he helped the general to dismount and persuaded him to lie down on the grass and get some sleep. While Grant slept Cadwallader managed to hail a trooper from the escort, whom he instructed to go directly to headquarters “and report at once to Rawlins—and no one else—and say to him that I want an ambulance with a careful driver.”
Waking before the ambulance got there, Grant wanted to resume his ride at once, but the reporter “took him by the arm, walked him back and forth, and kept up a lively rather one-sided conversation, till the ambulance arrived.” Then there was the problem of getting the general into the curtained vehicle, which he refused to permit until, as Cadwallader said, “we compromised the question by my agreeing to ride in the ambulance also, and having our horses led by the orderly.” They reached headquarters about midnight to find the dark-eyed Rawlins and Colonel John Riggin, another staff officer, “waiting for us in the driveway.” The reporter got out first, “followed promptly by Grant,” who now gave him perhaps the greatest shock of the past two days. “He shrugged his shoulders, pulled down his vest, ‘shook himself together,’ as one just rising from a nap, and seeing Rawlins and Riggin, bid them good night in a natural tone and manner, and started to his tent as steadily as he ever walked in his life.” Cadwallader turned to Rawlins, who was pale with rage—“The whole appearance of the man indicated a fierceness that would have torn me into a thousand pieces had he considered me to blame”—and said he was afraid, from what they had just seen, that the adjutant would think it was he, not Grant, who had been drinking. “No, no,” Rawlins said through clenched teeth. “I know him, I know him. I want you to tell me the exact facts, and all of them, without any concealment. I have a right to know them, and I will know them.”
He heard them all, from start to finish, but he never reported the incident to Washburne, any more than Dana did to the War Department, not only out of loyalty and friendship, but also perhaps on reflecting that if anything brought about Grant’s removal, or even his suspension during an inquiry, command of the army would pass automatically to McClernand, whom they both despised. As for Cadwallader, despite assurances from Rawlins—“He will not send you out of the department while I remain in it,” the adjutant told him—he spent an anxious night, “somewhat in doubt as to the view of the matter Gen. Grant would take next day,” and “purposely kept out of his way for twenty-four hours to spare him the mortification I supposed he might feel.” As it turned out, he need not have worried. “The second day afterward I passed in and out of his presence as though nothing unusual had occurred. To my surprise he never made the most distant allusion to [the matter] then, or ever afterward.” From that time on, he said, it was “as if I had been regularly gazetted a member of his staff.” Passes from Grant enabled the reporter to go anywhere he wanted; he could requisition transportation and draw subsistence from quartermaster and commissary authorities; his tent was always pitched near Grant’s, and his dispatches often were sent in the official mail pouch; in short, he “constantly received flattering personal and professional favors and attentions shown to no one else in my position.” All this was in return for his respecting a confidence which he kept for more than thirty years. In 1896, a seventy-year-old sheep raiser out in California, he wrote his memoirs, including an account of Grant’s two-day trip up the Yazoo and back. For nearly sixty years they remained in manuscript, and when at last they were published, ninety years after the war was over, they were attacked and the writer vilified by some of the general’s long-range admirers, who claimed that what Cadwallader called “this Yazoo-Vicksburg adventure” never happened.
At any rate, no harm had resulted from the army commander’s two-day absence from headquarters, drunk or sober. The repulse of Taylor at Milliken’s Bend and Young’s Point by the gunboats, on the second day, increased Grant’s confidence rather than his fretfulness, which in fact seemed to be cured. “All is going on here now just right,” he wrote to a friend on June 15, and added: “My position is so strong that I feel myself abundantly able to leave it and go out twenty or thirty miles with force enough to whip two such garrisons.” He had small use for Pemberton, characterizing him as “a northern man [who] got into bad company.” Nor did he fear Joe Johnston. Though he respected his ability, he said he did not believe the Virginian could save Vicksburg without “a larger army than the Confederates now have at any one place.” Next day, moreover, the watchful eye of former congressman Frank Blair enabled Grant to dispose of his third opponent, John McClernand, and thus wind up the private war he had been waging all this time. Scanning the columns of the Memphis Evening Bulletin, Blair spotted a congratulatory order McClernand had issued to his corps, claiming the lion’s share of the credit for the victory he foresaw. Blair sent the clipping to Sherman, who forwarded it to Grant next day, calling it “a catalogue of nonsense” and “an effusion of vain-glory and hypocrisy … addressed not to an army, but to a constituency in Illinois.” He also cited a War Department order, issued the year before, “which actually forbids the publication of all official letters and reports, and requires the name of the writer to be laid before the President of the United States for dismissal.”
Grant had waited half a year for this, passing over various lesser offenses in hopes that one would come along which would justify charges that could not fail to stick. But now that he had it he still moved with deftness and precision, completing the adjustment of the noose. That same day, June 17, he forwarded the clipping to McClernand with a note: “Inclosed I send you what purports to be your congratulatory address to the Thirteenth Army Corps. I would respectfully ask if it is a true copy. If it is not a correct copy, furnish me one by bearer, as required both by regulations and existing orders of the Department.” Next day McClernand acknowledged the validity of the clipping. “I am prepared to maintain its statements,” he declared. “I regret that my adjutant did not send you a copy as he ought, and I thought he had.” With the noose now snug, Grant sprang the trap: “Major General John A. McClernand is hereby relieved from command of the Thirteenth Army Corps. He will proceed to any point he may select in the state of Illinois and report by letter to Headquarters of the Army for orders.” Grant signed the order after working hours, supposing that it would be delivered the following morning, but when James Wilson came in at midnight and heard what was afoot—there was bad blood between him and McClernand; the two had nearly come to blows a couple of weeks ago—he urged Rawlins to let him deliver the order in person, without delay, lest something come up—a rebel sortie at dawn, for example, which might enable McClernand to distinguish himself as he had done at Shiloh—to cause its suspension or cancellation. Rawlins agreed, and Wilson put on his dress uniform, summoned the provost marshal and a squad of soldiers, and set out through the darkness for McClernand’s headquarters. Arriving about 2 o’clock in the morning, he demanded that the general be roused. Presently he was admitted to McClernand’s tent, where he found the former congressman seated at a table on which two candles burned. Apparently he knew what to expect, for he too was in full uniform and his sword lay before him on the table. Wilson handed him the order, remarking that he had been instructed to see that it was read and understood. McClernand took it, adjusted his glasses, and perused it. “Well, sir, I am relieved,” he said. Then, looking up at Wilson, whose expression did not mask his satisfaction, he added: “By God, sir, we are both relieved!”
He did not intend to take this lying down, but he soon found that Grant had played the old army game with such skill that his opponent was left without a leg to stand on. “I have been relieved for an omission of my adjutant. Hear me,” McClernand wired Lincoln from Cairo on his way to Springfield, their common home. From there he protested likewise to Halleck, suggesting the possible disclosure of matters that were dark indeed: “How far General Grant is indebted to the forbearance of officers under his command for his retention in the public service, I will not undertake to state unless he should challenge it. None know better than himself how much he is indebted to that forbearance.” That might be, but it was no help to the general up in Illinois; Grant challenged nothing, except to state that he had “tolerat[ed] General McClernand long after I thought the good of the service demanded his removal.” In time, there came to Springfield a letter signed “Your friend as ever, A. Lincoln,” in which the unhappy warrior was told: “I doubt whether your present position is more painful to you than to myself. Grateful for the patriotic stand so early taken by you in this life-and-death struggle of the nation, I have done whatever has appeared practicable to advance you and the public interest together.” However: “For me to force you back upon Gen. Grant would be forcing him to resign. I cannot give you a new command, because we have no forces except such as already have commanders.” In short, the President had nothing to offer his fellow-townsman in the way of balm, save his conviction that a general was best judged by those “who have been with him in the field.… Relying on these,” Lincoln said in closing, “he who has the right needs not to fear.”
This was perhaps the unkindest cut of all, since McClernand knew only too well what was likely to happen to his reputation if judgment was left to Sherman and McPherson and their various subordinate commanders, including the army’s two remaining ex-congressmen Blair and Logan. Among all these, and on Grant’s staff, there was general rejoicing at his departure. Major General Edward O. C. Ord, who had fought under Grant at Iuka, had just arrived to take charge of a sixth corps intended to consist of the divisions under Herron and Lauman; instead, he replaced McClernand. Three days later, on June 22, Sherman was given command of the rearward line, which was strengthened by shifting more troops from in front of Vicksburg. “We want to whip Johnston at least 15 miles off, if possible,” Grant explained. Steele succeeded Sherman, temporarily, and the siege went on as before. No less than nine approaches were being run, all with appropriate parallels close up to the enemy trenches, so that the final assault could be launched with the lowest possible loss in lives. Mines were sunk under rebel strong-points, and on June 25 two of these were exploded on McPherson’s front, the largest just north of the Jackson road. It blew off the top of a hill there, leaving a big, dusty crater which the attackers occupied for a day and then abandoned, finding themselves under heavy plunging fire from both flanks and the rear. The mine accomplished little, but contributed greatly to the legend of the siege by somehow lofting a Negro cook, Abraham by name, all the way from the Confederate hilltop and into the Federal lines. He landed more or less unhurt, though terribly frightened. An Iowa outfit claimed him, put him in a tent, and got rich charging five cents a look. Asked how high he had been blown, Abraham always gave the same answer, coached perhaps by some would-be Iowa Barnum. “Donno, massa,” he would say, “but tink bout tree mile.”
Mostly, though, the weeks passed in boredom and increasing heat, under whose influence the Confederates appeared to succumb to a strange apathy during the final days of June. A Federal engineer remarked that their defense “was far from being vigorous.” It seemed to him that the rebel strategy was “to wait for another assault, losing in the meantime as few men as possible,” and he complained that this had a bad effect on his own men, since “without the stimulus of danger … troops of the line will not work efficiently, especially at night, after the novelty has worn off.” Another trouble was that they foresaw the end of the siege, and no man coveted the distinction of being the last to die. Not that all was invariably quiet. Occasionally there were flare-ups, particularly where the trenches approached conjunction, and the snipers continued to take their toll. Though the losses were small, the suffering was great. “It looked hard,” a Wisconsin soldier wrote, “to see six or eight poor fellows piled into an ambulance about the size of Jones’s meatwagon and hustled over the rough roads as fast as the mules could trot and to see the blood running out of the carts in streams almost.” Taunts were flung as handily as grenades, back and forth across the lines, the graybacks asking, “When are you folks going to come on into town?” and the bluecoats replying that they were in no hurry: “We are holding you fellows prisoner while you feed yourselves.” There was much fraternization between pickets, who arranged informal truces for the exchange of coffee and tobacco, and the same Federal engineer reported that the enemy’s “indifference to our approach became at some points almost ludicrous.” Once, for example, when the blue sappers found that as a result of miscalculation a pair of approach trenches would converge just inside the rebel picket line, the two sides called a cease-fire and held a consultation at which it was decided that the Confederates would pull back a short distance in order to avoid an unnecessary fire fight. At one stage of the discussion a Federal suggested that the approaches could be redesigned to keep from disturbing the butternut sentries, but the latter seemed to think that it would be a shame if all that digging went to waste. Besides, one said, “it don’t make any difference. You Yanks will soon have the place anyhow.”
Grant thought so, too. By now, in fact—though he kept his soldiers burrowing, intending to launch his final assault from close-up positions in early July—he was giving less attention to Pemberton than he was to Johnston, off in the opposite direction, where Sherman described him as “vibrating between Jackson and Canton” in apparent indecision. Blair had reported earlier, on returning from a scout, that “every man I picked up was going to Canton to join him. The negroes told me their masters had joined him there, and those who were too old to go, or who could escape on any other pretext, told me the same story.” This had a rather ominous sound, as if hosts were gathering to the east, but Grant was not disturbed. He had access, through the treacherous courier, to many of the messages that passed between his two opponents. He knew what they were thinking, what the men under them were thinking, and what the beleaguered citizens were thinking. He spoke of their expectations in a dispatch he sent Sherman on June 25, the day the slave Abraham came hurtling into the hands of the Iowans: “Strong faith is expressed by some in Johnston’s coming to their relief. [They] cannot believe they have been so wicked as for Providence to allow the loss of their stronghold of Vicksburg. Their principal faith seems to be in Providence and Joe Johnston.”
By then—the fortieth day of siege—it had been exactly a month since the man in whom Vicksburg’s garrison placed its “principal faith” assured Pemberton: “Bragg is sending a division. When it joins I will come to you.” The division reached him soon afterwards, under Breckinridge, and was combined with the three already at hand under Loring, French, and Walker; Johnston’s present-for-duty strength now totaled 31,226 men, two thirds of whom had joined him since his arrival in mid-May. But he found them quite deficient in equipment, especially wagons, and deferred action until such needs could be supplied. In the interim he got into a dispute with the Richmond authorities, protesting that he had only 23,000 troops, while Seddon insisted that the correct figure was 34,000. Finally the Secretary told him: “You must rely on what you have,” and urged him to move at once to Pemberton’s relief. But Johnston would not be prodded into action. “The odds against me are much greater than those you express,” he wired on June 15, and added flatly: “I consider saving Vicksburg hopeless.” Shocked by his fellow Virginian’s statement that he considered his assignment an impossible one, Seddon took this to mean that Johnston did not comprehend the gravity of the situation or the consequences of the fall of the Gibraltar of the West, which in Seddon’s eyes meant the probable fall of the Confederacy itself. It seemed to him, moreover, that the general—in line with his behavior a year ago, down the York-James peninsula—was moving toward a decision not to fight at all, and to the Secretary this was altogether unthinkable. “Your telegram grieves and alarms me,” he replied next day. “Vicksburg must not be lost without a desperate struggle. The interest and honor of the Confederacy forbid it. I rely on you still to avert the loss. If better resources do not offer, you must hazard attack. It may be made in concert with the garrison, if practicable, but otherwise without; by day or night, as you think best.” Still Johnston would not budge. “I think you do not appreciate the difficulties in the course you direct,” he wired back, “nor the probabilities or consequences of failure. Grant’s position, naturally very strong, is intrenched and protected by powerful artillery, and the roads obstructed.… The defeat of this little army would at once open Mississippi and Alabama to Grant. I will do all I can, without hope of doing more than aid to extricate the garrison.” Fairly frantic and near despair over this prediction that the Father of Waters was about to pass out of Confederate hands, severing all practical connection with the Transmississippi and its supplies of men and food and horses, Seddon urged the general “to follow the most desperate course the occasion may demand. Rely upon it,” he told him, “the eyes and hopes of the whole Confederacy are upon you, with the full confidence that you will act, and with the sentiment that it were better to fail nobly daring than, through prudence even, to be inactive.… I rely on you for all possible to save Vicksburg.”
But no matter what ringing tones the Secretary employed, Johnston would not be provoked into what he considered rashness. “There has been no voluntary inaction,” he protested; he simply had “not had the means of moving.” By then it was June 22. Two days later he received a message from Pemberton, suggesting that he get in touch with Grant and make “propositions to pass this army out, with all its arms and equipages,” in return for abandoning Vicksburg to him. Johnston declined, not only because he did not believe the proposal would be accepted, but also because “negotiations with Grant for the relief of the garrison, should they become necessary, must be made by you,” he replied on June 27. “It would be a confession of weakness on my part, which I ought not to make, to propose them. When it becomes necessary to make terms, they may be considered as made under my authority.” In other words, any time Pemberton wanted to throw in the sponge, it would be all right with Johnston. However, he prefaced this by saying that the Pennsylvanian’s “determined spirit” encouraged him “to hope that something may yet be done to save Vicksburg,” and two days later, June 29, “field transportation and other supplies having been obtained,” he put his four divisions on the march for the Big Black, preceded by a screen of cavalry.
He had never been one to tilt at windmills, nor was he now. The march—or “expedition,” as he preferred to call it—“was not undertaken in the wild spirit that dictated the dispatches from the War Department,” he later explained, and added scornfully: “I did not indulge in the sentiment that it was better for me to waste the lives and blood of brave soldiers ‘than, through prudence even,’ to spare them.” He never moved until he was ready, and then his movements were nearly always rearward. The one exception up to now had been Seven Pines, which turned out to be the exception that proved the rule, for it had cost him five months on the sidelines, command of the South’s first army, and two wounds that were still unhealed a year later. Moreover, it had resulted in his present assignment, which was by no means to his liking, though his resultant brusqueness was reserved for those above him on the ladder of command, never for those below. To subordinates he was invariably genial and considerate, and they repaid him with loyalty, affection, and admiration. “His mind was clear as a bell,” a staff officer had written from Jackson to a friend, two weeks ago, while the build-up for the present movement was still in progress. “I never saw a brain act with a quicker or more sustained movement, or one which exhibited a finer sweep or more striking power.… I cannot conceive surroundings more intensely depressing. Yet amidst them all, he preserved the elastic step and glowing brow of the genuine hero.”
Desperation never rattled him; indeed, it had rather the opposite effect of increasing his native caution. And such was the case now as he approached the Big Black, beyond which Grant had intrenched a rearward-facing line. On the evening of July 1, Johnston called a halt between Brownsville and the river, and spent the next two days reconnoitering. Convinced by this “that attack north of the railroad was impracticable,” he “determined, therefore, to make the examinations necessary for the attempt south of the railroad.” On July 3, near Birdsong’s Ferry, he wrote Pemberton that he intended “to create a diversion, and thus enable you to cut your way out if the time has arrived for you to do this. Of that time I cannot judge; you must, as it depends upon your condition. I hope to attack the enemy in your front [on] the 7th.… Our firing will show you where we are engaged. If Vicksburg cannot be saved, the garrison must.”
Next morning, however, before he took up the march southward he noticed a strange thing. Today was the Fourth—Independence Day—but the Yankees over toward Vicksburg did not seem to be celebrating it in the usual fashion. On this of all days, the forty-eighth of the siege, the guns were silent for the first time since May 18, when the bluecoats filed into positions from which to launch their first and second assaults before settling down to the digging and bombarding that had gone on ever since; at least till now. Johnston and his men listened attentively, cocking their heads toward the beleaguered city. But there was no rumble of guns at all. Everything was quiet in that direction.