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Saturday, May 03, 2008

WEDNESDAY MAY 6, 1863

General William Tecumseh Sherman arrives at the head of his Corp at Hard Times Landing and begins the process of transporting his men across the Mississippi to Grand Gulf. When word of his arrival on the Eastern shore reaches Grant he gives the go ahead to McPherson and McClernand to begin moving their men across the Bayou Pierre, to regaind contact with the rebel army. Grant has now decided what his initial target will be, but to keep Pemberton in the dark for as long as possible.

Sherman’s road to Vicksburg really began ten years earlier when he floated into San Francisco Bay on the overturned hulk of a sinking lumber schooner. It was the beginning of a decade of failure. Sherman’s father had died when he was nine, and the boy known as Tecumseh had been adopted by Thomas Ewing, a powerful Whig senator from Ohio. Sherman had graduated from West Point in 1840 and attained the rank of Captain, but he resigned from the army in 1853 when he was offered the presidency of a San Francisco bank. On his way around the horn Sherman was shipwrecked twice, and that voyage proved to be an omen. In the panic if 1857 Sherman’s bank failed, leaving him broke and far from home. He then moved to Leavenworth, Kansas and failed as a lawyer. And then, in 1859, he secured the appointment as the Superintendent of the Louisiana State Military Academy. Just a year later, as secession spread, Sherman famously wrote a Southern friend, “You are rushing to war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on earth – right at your doors. You are bound to fail.” On resigning his post he told the governor, “On no account will I do any act or think any thought hostile…to the…United States.”

The coming of war seemed to offer Sherman opportunities. But they all seemed to lead to failure. He served as a colonel at First Bull Run where he was wounded in the knee and shoulder. In May of 1861 he was promoted to Brigadier General of Volunteers and placed in command of the Department of the Cumberland. But all he could see were shadows of threats and in the fall of 1861 Sherman was relieved of duty, suffering a nervous collapse. While contemplating suicide at home in Ohio, General Halleck offered Sherman the command of Grant’s army. Instead Sherman offered to serve under Grant.

At Shiloh, on April 6, 1862, Sherman was commanding a division when his unprepared men were overrun by Confederate troops. Sherman managed to just prevent his divison from being driven into the Tennessee River. It seemed yet another confirmation of his failure. But that night, when he reported to Grant’s command post, half expecting to be relieved, and confessed “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we”, Grant calmly replied, “Yes. Lick ‘em tomorrow, though.” And with that stoic exchange Sherman’s luck had changed, and he knew it. He might disagree with Grant on some specific approach, but he would always “...co-operate with zeal”.

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Friday, May 02, 2008

TUESDAY MAY 5, 1863

Lt. General John C. Pemberton has been ordered by Jefferson Davis to defend Vicksburg, Mississippi “at all costs”. His immediate superior, General Joe E.Johnston, has reminded Pemberton that his army is more valuable than the town. But Pemberton has learned his lesson from South Carolina too well. In the end, Davis had appointed a man much like himself – a man without much imagination. And in the commander of an independent, distant and vital outpost, that is a recipe for disaster.


After misjudging Grant’s move downstream, Pemberton now compounds his failure by underrating Grant’s audacity and tendency to strike for the jugular. The jugular of Vicksburg, its reason de arte as a military objective, is the Vicksburg, Jackson & Brandon Railroad that runs west to Jackson, Mississippi. There it crosses the Central Mississippi Railroad, which connects the wharehouse of the Vicksburg docks with the rest of the Confederacy. A Federal army across the tracks of the Vicksburg, Jackson line, even for a few days, could cut that supply line permanently. And if that happened Vicksburg’s value to the Confederacy would be reduced by half: cut that railroad and supplies from Arkansas and Texas and Western Missouri, carried to the Western banks of the Mississippi River on the Vicksburg & Shreveport Railroad, and ferried across the river to Vicksburg, would then have to be loaded onto wagons and transported the painful, tortuous 44 miles by road to the state capital at Jackson, Mississippi and reloaded on the Central Mississippi Railroad. What can be traversed today by automobile in less than an hour, in 1863 required five long exhausting days to cover; it required horses and men and, after two years of war, the Confederacy was running short of both. So it was vital not that Vicksburg be held, but that the Vicksburg, Jackson & Brandon Railroad be held. And the only way that can be done, now that Grant is on the East shore of the River, is to defeat Grant’s army and force it to retreat.

Grant understands that and expects Pemberton to come out of Vicksburg for the fight, and to do so before Sherman can make the long march from Milliken’s Bend to Hard Times Landings, be ferried across the Mississippi, and then march up to the Bayou Pierre line to reinforce him. And before Grant's perilously long supply line could be cut. At the moment Grant has only two corps with him, perhaps 28,000 men. Pemberton has, in Vicksburg, 5 divisions – perhaps 35,000 men. In effect Grant has gambled everything on one big battle somewhere along the Big Black Creek or Bayou Pierre, (and soon!) where his experienced and confident veterans of Shiloh and Fort Donaldson can defeat Pemberton’s men in a one-on-one fight.


But Pemberton will not come out to fight Grant. Instead Pemberton sends three of his five divisions forward to guard the line of the Big Black Creek, about half way between Vicksburg and Grant’s position behind Bayou Pierre, as if daring Grant to attack him . And he instructs all reinforcements (which had finally begun hurrying to his aid) to disembark at Jackson and advance to Raymond, Mississippi, about 20 miles West of Jackson – just under half way between the two cities.

But it was here that the April Federal cavalry raid by Col. Grierson re-enters the story. Late in his raid, Grierson's troopers had cut the Central Mississippi Railroad at several places around Brookhaven. Because of that the Confederate infantry moving from Port Hudson to Jackson, (a total travel distance of 200 miles) have to march 85 miles of that. A one or two day trip by rail has been turned into a week long, exhausting odyessy. One overstrength brigade of 3,000 men (Gregg’s ) from Port Hudson would not arrive in Jackson on until May 9. Two others would not arrive in time.

In the mean time the only offensive force that Pemberton commands in Jackson is a regiment of cavalry under Daniel Weisiger ("Wirt") Adams, a combative Kentucky lawyer. Adams now takes his entire brigade, not to Raymond as Pemberton has ordered, but all the way to the watering station at Edwards –almost 2/3 of the way to Vicksburg. Perhaps he is attempting to cover the Vicksburg & Jackson Railroad, but more likely Adams is just looking for a fight. But because "Wirt" Adams makes this advance without notifying Pemberton (or anyone else) he is also fatally wounding the defense of Jackson, Mississippi.

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

MONDAY MAY 4, 1863

As the Union Army retreats once more from the Rapidan River crossings in Northern Virginia the final death toll is counted; 17,000 Union and 13,000 Confederate causalities. And this day the last brigades of John Longstreet’s corps, which Lee had been forced to disperse to the tidewater areas of Southern Virginia and North Carolina to forage during the winter, cross the Blackwater River to rejoin the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee is gathering his strength for an invasion of Pennsylvania.

In Mississippi Grant orders a reconnaissance in force toward Vicksburg, intending to convince Pemberton that the “Gibraltar of the South” is his immediate target. In truth he is still not certain which way he will turn. Sherman, meanwhile, is guiding his men down the tortuous road to Hard Times, opposite Grand Gulf. Grant orders him to hold one of his divisions back to defend the road from Milliken’s Bend to Hard Times Landing. Now, when Sherman finally rejoins the main body with his two remaining divisions, Grant will have 42,000 men in Mississippi; still not a clear majority over Pemberton's total force, but enough of an advantage to make Grant confident he can outmaneuver the rigid Pemberton.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

SUNDAY MAY 3, 1863

Rebel skirmishers are taking advantage of every twist and turn in the narrow road to delay Grant’s advance; at Grindstone, Hankinson’s ferry and the crossing of the Big Black River. But they are only covering Bowen’s evacuation from Grand Gulf. When they set off the fort's powder magazines Grant hears the explosion while on the road from Port Gibson and knows what it means.


That evening Marines from Admiral Porter’s river squadron occupy the town. Grant arrives shortly thereafter to get a bath and receive communications. It is here that he receives a letter from Sherman warning him not to attempt to supply his army down the single road Sherman’s men are now following to Grand Gulf. “…stop all troops till your army is…supplied with wagons, and then act as quick as possible; for this road will be Jammed, as sure as life." It is also here that Grant learns that because of Confederate activity General Banks does not anticipate bringing siege against Port Hudson for another two weeks.

Grant’s original plan was to capture Port Hudson and establish that as his new supply base, and perhaps Grant could then borrow a corps of men from Bank’s command to assist in his attack on Vicksburg. But with Bank’s delay Grant decides he must come up with a new plan on the run. But now he also has in hand Grierson’s initial report of his Mississippi raid, containing the key phrase; “The Confederacy is hollow”. Grand decides to gamble. He will cut himself loose from any base and risk taking on Pemberton with only his own troops. He tells Sherman to hurry forward, and writes him “…What I do expect is to get up what rations of hard bread, coffee, and salt we can and make the country furnish the balance.” Grant has still not decided which way to turn - toward Jackson or toward Vicksburg. But he is confident enough, now that he is securly on the Eastern shore, to let Pamberton make that choice. Almost the last thing Grant does before leaving Grand Gulf is to send telegram to Washington detailing his intentions and then, at 5AM the next morning, he leaves Port Gibson to rejoin his army at 14 mile Creek - before Washington can argue with his decision.

General Pemberton, meanwhile, feels he cannot afford to move against Grant. First, he is still not convinced the Union movement at Port Gibson is not an elaborate feint. And even if it is the main axis of Grant’s attack he dare not weaken the vital Haynes Bluff position to meet it. A Union coup de main on Haynes Bluff would lead to the fall of Vicksburg in a matter of hours. And Pemberton still has no reports as to the location of Sherman’s Corps. These were the very units that threatened Haynes Bluff three times before, and might be about to do so again. Pemberton’s original orders from Jefferson Davis were quite clear and have not been superseded. He must hold Vicksburg at all costs. And as he does not have enough men to firmly defend Haynes Bluff and maneuver against Grant at the same time, Pemberton feels he has no choice. He uses two divisions to improve the defenses at Vicksburg, and pushes his remaining three forward to the Big Black River crossing at Edwards, Mississippi to dig in and keep a wary eye on Grant.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

SATURDAY MAY 2, 1863

At Chancellorsville Clearing, on Virginia's Rapidan River, after a day of tentative fighting, Lee, with just 12,000 men, manages to hold off Hooker’s 70,000 man army. Then, at about 4:30PM Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, leading 28,000 men on a long sweeping march, falls on the left flank and rear of the Union Army like a sledgehammer, taking 4,000 prisoners before they even have time to form a line of battle. Jackson's men drive the Union troops back two miles before darkness finally brings the fight to a close. It is an overwhelming Confederate victory, confirmed even to the confused General Hooker after two more days of indecisive fighting. But the triumph is darkened by tragedy for the South even before the assault begins. As the 18th North Carolina Infantry Reg. prepares to advance they spot what might be Federal Cavalry to their front and challenge them. The reply is unclear and the regiment fires a volley. But it is not Union cavalry to their front but General Jackson and his staff planning his masterstroke. Many of the staff members and their horses are killed, and Jackson is wounded three times. He is carried from the field on a stretcher.

In Mississippi, in the morning, Col. Grierson’s men cross Sandy Creek, where they surprise and capture a small detachment of Rebel Cavalry. Further on they surprise and capture 40 more Confederate cavalrymen. Six miles out side of Baton Rouge Grierson calls a halt for his weary men – and himself. He relaxes by playing the organ in a local church (he was a music teacher before the war), until he is informed of approaching cavalry. It is Union troopers. Grierson has reached the Union lines, and his raid has ended. Over 16 crucial days Grierson’s two regiments have covered 600 miles of Rebel territory, destroyed an estimated 50 miles of RR track, and distracted all of Pemberton’s cavalry and almost a third of his infantry, all at the exact moment Grant is moving to gain the Eastern bank of the Mississippi. And all of this was achieved for a cost to Grieson's men of three dead, seven wounded and nine men missing. The lack of Confederate Cavalry at the battle of Port Gibson allowed General Bowman’s men to be outflanked, and for that reason alone, the raid is an unqualified success. But Grierson also learned a fundamental lesson in the raid, a lesson that Grant was about to learn as well, a lesson that would shape the course of the war over the next year and a half; as Grierson observed upon his return – “The Confederacy is hollow”.


Grant’s troops enter Port Gibson in the morning and immediately begin rebuilding the Bayou Pierre Bridge, dismantling the town’s buildings for wood. Now reinforced to almost two full corps, the troops push ahead eight miles up the road to Grand Gulf by nightfall.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

FRIDAY, MAY 1, 1863

In Northern Virginia Union General Joseph Hooker crosses the Rapidan River and is brought to battle by Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. But after splitting the Rebels between the town of Fredericksburg and the tiny crossroads of Chancellorsville Clearing Hooker halts his advance, hoping Lee will take the opportunity to throw themselves at the dug in Union troops.
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Col. Benjamin Grierson’s men are just West of Magnolia, Mississippi when they stumble into Rebel Cavalry under Major James De Baun. After a brief skirmish both sides withdraw.

As dawn breaks over the Mississippi River valley the largest amphibious operation in American history prior to the Normandy Invasion on June 6, 1944 begins as the 24th and 46th Indiana regiments of McClerand’s 13th Corp rush ashore at Bruinsburg. By evening 17,000 men have occupied the bluffs above the River and begun to push down the road Southward, leading to Port Gibson the vital bridge crosses over the Bayou Pierre before turning North for Grand Gulf and Vicksburg beyond. The heavily wooded country is divided by steep drainages (100’ nigh), with the few roads running along the crests of ridgelines. It is a strong position for a defense but General Bowen has barely a fraction of the troops he needs. If Grant gives him the time, reinforcements can be sent down from Vicksburg, but Grant has no intention of giving Bowen any time at all.

Grant pushes McPherson Corp as quickly as they can be issued ammo and rations to join McClernand’s corps already in engaged with the Rebels on the road to Port Gibson. At about 1AM on May First the Union forces hit the Rebels. General Bowen knows this is the best place to stop the Union forces, and he insists that his men refuse to give ground. At one point Col. Cockrell even leads a fierce counter attack that sets McClerand’s men back on their heels. But on the opposite flank McPherson’s men outflank the Confederates and force Bowen to order a retreat. He burns the Bayou Pierre Bridge before abandoning Port Gibson. Union losses are 131 dead and 719 wounded, with 25 missing. Confederate losses are unknown.

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