AUGUST 2017

AUGUST  2017
FACING DOWN THE RULERS OF WALL STREET A HUNDRED YEARS AGO. THEY ARE BACK.

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

SATURDAY, MAY 16, 1863

At 6:30 in the morning cavalryman Wirt Adams reports to Pemberton that his pickets are already skirmishing with Federal troops near Raymond. During his report a telegram arrives from Johnston: “Our being compelled to leave Jackson makes your plan impractical. The only mode by which we can unite is by your moving directly to Clinton, informing me, that we may move directly to that point. I have no means of estimating the enemy’s force at Jackson.”
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It is a damning message. Johnston is hinting that it is possible Grant is shifting his weight from Jackson towards Vicksburg, but he offers Pemberton no evidence. Pemberton is already too far out on the limb, and he now has no choice but to support Johnston. He orders an immediate countermarch, back toward Edwards, so he can shift his axis of attack toward Clinton. Thus, at the very moment of contact with Grant, Pemberton is like a boxer, caught while shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
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On the Confederate left flank General Stevenson has just reversed his march when, at about 7 am he receives word of enemy skirmishers just beyond the Raymond road junction. Immediately he throws his own skirmish line across the Jackson/Clinton road, and hurries (as best he can) the supply wagons back across the still flooded Baker’s Creek. He also throws his men to work building a defensive position 3 miles long across the hilltop farm of Matilda and Sid Champion. At about 9:30 that morning McClernand’s cavalry captures the tiny village of Bolton, and continues to press forward.
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Pemberton also faces Federal troops on his right, in front of Loring’s division on the Raymond road. Still, most of the firing seems to be coming from his own left flank, at Champion Hill. And when Stevenson reports that he must be reinforced or lose the hill, Pemberton orders Bowen’s division to the left. But Bowen says he can not move unless Loring gets out of the way. And Loring says he cannot move because of the Federal troops to his front. Frustrated, Pemberton convinces Bowen to send at least one brigade to Stevenson’s assistance.
*
By 10 am Sherman’s men have finished their destruction in Jackson and are on the road to Clinton. Johnston’s troops do not follow the retreating Yankees, struggling instead to put out fires and resurrect the telegraph lines in Jackson. At about the same time Grant arrives on the field before Champion Hill and orders an immediate assault by McPherson’s men on the right and McClernand’s Corp on the left. By 1 pm McPherson’s men have carried the Confederate works and captured the hill.
*
Frustrated by the lack of co-operation on the parts of Loring and Bowen, General Pemberton has been reduced to feeding individual battalions into the fight for Champions Hill piecemeal. Now, in reaction to the Union success of 1 pm, Col. Cockrell, the same man who had so harassed McClernand on the Louisiana shore, now leads a charge that retakes the works for the Confederates. But Pemberton knows the hill cannot be held for long. He sends yet another order to Loring, instructing him to move to the left in support of Bowen and Stevenson. But Loring replies that the Federal troops to his front are moving to flank him. It is a reasonable argument. Except that Pemberton hears no firing coming from his left flank.
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What Pemberton cannot know is that the Federal troops in front of Loring are commanded by General McClernand, who is showing no more inclination to force a fight than Loring. But Grant has chosen not to press McClernand, even though his inaction is in violation of direct orders from Grant. Instead the Union commander reaches for Sherman’s men coming up from Bolton. He throws these men into a counter attack on Champion Hill, retaking the crucial position by about 4 pm. At last Stevenson’s division, which had been driven back but not broken, now breaks.
*

Confederate General Loyd Tilghman’s brigade fights the rearguard action until he is killed. Then, the Confederate forces retreat across Bakers Creek. Luckily the stream has now fallen enough to make the ford useful again, but this means it will also be useful for the Yankees as well. Pemberton makes the decision to retreat at once back to the Big Black River. All the way, Pemberton continues to expect General Loring to act as the rear guard. But Loring has used the excuse of distant fire from Union cannon to retreat South along Bakers Creek, wandering for several hours, as if a petulant child resisting a call home for dinner. Eventually Loring turns north and rejoins the Confederacy at Jackson. Johnston thus acquired yet another temperamental general, something he did not need. But to all effects and purposes one third of Pemberton’s defeated army has simply vanished.
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Champions Hill would prove to be the crucial battle of the entire campaign. The Union army (32,000 strong) have 410 dead, 1,844 wounded and 187 missing (total casualties 2,441), while the Confederates, weaker at the start of the battle (just 17,000), have suffered 3,840 dead, 1,018 wounded and 2,441 missing (total casualties, 7,299). Pemberton has lost 13% of his strength, (in addittion to the 1/3 under Loring who have declared independence), proving the point that in fulfilling his orders from Jefferson Davis while also trying to answer Johnston’s urgent requests, Pemberton has gambled more than he can afford to lose. But what choice did he have?
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To have stayed behind the Vicksburg lines, as Davis wanted him to, would have simply made Grant’s job that much easier. If Pemberton had brought his entire force out to defeat Grant, that would have meant Vicksburg could have been captured by a U.S. Naval landing force, as Grand Gulf had been. Yes, if Grant had been defeated and forced to retreat, the city on the bluffs could have been recaptured at Pemberton’s leisure. But the problem was that Pemberton had direct orders to hold the city. And Johnston’s use of such tactics at Jackson, had not brought success either.
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To quote Bruce Catton on the subject, “Vicksburg was one of the places which the Confederate nation had to possess if it was to win its independence…But if this bit of the river was lost…then the Confederacy would begin to die…(and) Unless help could be brought in from outside the department the game would be lost…But all the troops that could conceivably be brought in were urgently needed somewhere else…To accept this argument was in effect to admit that the Confederacy was being tried beyond its strength, an admission Mr. Davis would never make.”(Catton, “Never Call Retreat” pp 3-4.)
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It reminds me of the quote attributed to Jefferson Davis, that the epitath of the Confederacy should read, "...Died of a theory."
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In effect, the fall of Vicksburg was no more Pemberton’s fault because he could not find a solution to the problem of how he could defeat Grant while defending Vicksburg, than it was Johnston’s fault for not finding the same solution, or Jefferson Davis’s fault. You might as well blame Robert E. Lee for not giving up Lonstreet’s Corp to save Vicksburg. It could not be done, by anyone. And after Champion’s Hill, it was only a matter of playing out the cards that had already been dealt.
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