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Sunday, May 04, 2014

VICKSBURG First Week of May

FRIDAY, MAY 1, 1863
In Northern Virginia, Union General Joseph Hooker crosses the Rapidan River and throws his army against 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 his troops against the now dug in Union army to his front. Lee does not oblige.
 Meanwhile, Col. Benjamin Grierson’s nine hundred and fifty Midwesterners 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 1944 invasion of  Normandy, begins. The  24th and 46th Indiana regiments of McClerand’s 13th Corp are the first to rush ashore at Bruinsburg, south of Port Gibson.
By evening 17,000 men have occupied the bluffs above the river and have begun to push down the road southward, toward the vital bridge crossing over Bayou Pierre. This road then turns north and heads for Grand Gulf,  and Vicksburg, 30 miles further north.
The heavily wooded country is divided by steep drainage's  up to 100’ deep, with the few roads running along the ridge crests.  At about 8:00 am on the first of May the Union forces had hit the Rebels. It is a strong position for a defense,  but General Bowen has barely a fraction of the troops he needs. If Grant gives him time, reinforcements can be sent down from Port Gibson, but Grant has no intention of giving Bowen any time at all.
Grant pushes McPherson's men forward as quickly as they can be issued ammo and rations. They join McClernand’s corps already engaged with the Rebels. General Bowen knows this is a good 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 general 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.
SATURDAY, MAY 2, 1863
At about 4:30 pm, at Chancellorsville Clearing, on Virginia's Rapidan River, 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. He takes 4,000 prisoners before the Federal soldiers 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 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 making final preparations for 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 southern Mississippi that 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 (above) 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 outside of Baton Rouge, and his raid has ended.
Over 16 crucial days Grierson’s 950 men have covered 600 miles of Rebel territory, destroyed an estimated 50 miles of railroad 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 River. 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 has allowed General Bowman’s men to be outflanked. And for that reason alone, the raid was an unqualified success. But Grierson  (above, with his staff) also learned a fundamental lesson in the raid, a lesson that Grant is about to learn as well - a lesson that will shape the course of the war over the next year and a half. As Grierson observed in his report upon reaching Union lines at Baton Rouge -  – “The Confederacy is hollow”.
Grant’s troops enter Port Gibson on the morning of May 2nd, and immediately begin rebuilding the Bayou Pierre Bridge, dismantling the town’s buildings for the wood. Now reinforced to almost two full corps, the troops cross the bridge and push ahead eight miles up the road, reaching the outskirts of Grand Gulf by nightfall.
SUNDAY, MAY 3, 1863
Rebel skirmishers take advantage of every twist and turn in the narrow road to delay Grant’s advance toward Grand Gulf.  There are brief, vicious and bloody skirmishes at Grindstone, Hankinson’s Ferry and the crossing of the Big Black River. But these fights are only covering General Bowen’s evacuation from  Grand Gulf.  When the Confederates set off the fort's powder magazines, Grant hears the explosion while on the road from Port Gibson. He instantly knows what it means.
That evening Marines from Admiral Porter’s river squadron occupy the town and fort of Grand Gulf. Grant arrives shortly thereafter via steamboat,  to get a bath and receive communications. It is here that he receives a letter from Sherman (above)  warning him not to attempt to supply his army down the single road on the west bank of the Mississippi.  Sherman’s men are now marching down that road to Grand Gulf. He warns his commander,  “…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 resistance, General Banks does not anticipate bringing siege against Port Hudson for another two weeks. There will be no support for Grant's army from Banks. Deep in rebel territory, on the "wrong" side of the Mississippi River, Grant is on his own. He can receive supplies from the river, but only after they have sailed past the Confederate guns at Vicksburg.
Grant’s (above) original plan had been to first capture Port Hudson and establish that as a 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 fly".  He now also has in hand Grierson’s report of his raid, containing the key phrase; “The Confederacy is hollow”. Grant decides to gamble. He will cut himself loose from any connection with the river - he can't spare the men to hold Grand Gulf anyway - and he will march every man he can lay hands on. Once Sherman's corps arrives he will be  facing Pemberton with a mere 2,000 man advantage. But Sherman is still on the west side of the river. Grant orders 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 - 60 miles toward Jackson or 30 miles toward Vicksburg. But he is confident enough to let Pemberton make that choice. Almost the last thing Grant does before leaving Grand Gulf is to send a message to Washington detailing his unclear intentions. And then, at 5:00 am the next morning, May 4, Grant leaves to rejoin his army at 14 mile Creek - cutting himself off from any communication with headquarters before Washington can argue with his decision.
At the same time General Pemberton (above), is feeling frustrated. He cannot be certain yet that the Union capture of Port Gibson is not just an elaborate feint. And Pemberton still has no idea where Sherman’s Corps is. Two days ago it was threatening Hayes Bluff. Tomorrow Sherman could return. A Union coup de main on Haynes Bluff would capture an abandoned Vicksburg in a matter of hours. Pemberton is convinced he must either stay in Vicksburg or at least close enough to get back quickly should Sherman re-appear suddenly. 
Pemberton’s orders from Confederate President Jefferson Davis were absolute.  He must hold Vicksburg at all costs. And since he does not have enough men to hold the city and maneuver against Grant at the same time, Pemberton seeks a third alternative. He leaves two divisions behind, to improve the defenses at Vicksburg. He then pushes his remaining three divisions 36 miles east, just over the Big Black River to Edwards, Mississippi.  He orders them to dig in there and wait to see which way Grant moves, toward Vicksburg or Jackson.
MONDAY, MAY 4, 1863
As the Union Army retreats once more from the Rapidan River crossings in Northern Virginia, the final cost  is added up; 17,000 Union and 13,000 Confederate dead, wounded and captured. 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, move 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 to move toward Vicksburg, 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. When Sherman's Corps crosses the Mississippi River and joins the main body, Grant will have 42,000 men in Mississippi. It is a razor thin majority over Pemberton's total force. But Grant never intends to face Pemberton's total force.
TUESDAY, MAY 5, 1863
Lt. General John C. Pemberton (above) now receives a telegram from his new immediate superior,  General Joe E. Johnston, advising him that his army is more valuable than the town of Vicksburg.  But Davis had appointed a man much like himself – a man without much imagination. And having such a man as the commander of an independent, distant and vital outpost, facing an active aggressive foe like Grant, is a recipe for disaster.
After misjudging Grant’s move downstream, Pemberton now compounds his mistake by underrating Grant’s audacity.  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 warehouses of the Vicksburg docks with the rest of the Confederacy across the river. A Federal army across the tracks of the Vicksburg - Jackson railroad cuts that supply line. And if that happens for an extended time, Vicksburg’s value to the Confederacy would be reduced by more than half.
As Lincoln observed the year before, cut that railroad and supplies from Arkansas, Texas and Western Missouri, carried to the Mississippi River's edge on the Vicksburg & Shreveport Railroad, then ferried across the river to Vicksburg, would then have to be loaded onto wagons and transported the painful, tortuous 44 miles to the state capital at Jackson, Mississippi, where it would then have to be 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. It required horses and men and, after two years of war, the Confederacy was running short of both. So it was vital not only that Vicksburg be held, but that the Vicksburg and Jackson Railroad be held. And the only way that could be done, now that Grant was on the eastern side of the river, was to defeat Grant’s army and force him to retreat.
Grant expected Pemberton to come out of Vicksburg for the fight, and to do so before Sherman could be ferried across the Mississippi to reinforce him. At the moment Grant has only two corps with him, perhaps 28,000 men. Pemberton had in Vicksburg perhaps 35,000 men, and the 3,000 who had defended Grand Gulf. At the moment, it is Pemberton who has the numerical advantage, but it is he who is acting like the prey. 
And because of the Union cavalry raid has destroyed so much track, all reinforcements hurrying to his aid from outside of Mississippi. must disembark their trains at Jackson and advance on foot 30 miles to the Big Black River, before they reload onto the Vicksburg rail line, to reach the beleaguered city. .
Even  a Confederate infantry brigade, ordered from Port Hudson to Jackson, (a total travel distance of 200 miles) has to cover 85 miles of that on foot. A one day trip by rail had been turned into a week long, exhausting odyssey. The first of these infantry reinforcements, an over-strength brigade of 3,000 men commanded by General Gregg,  will not arrive in Jackson until May 9. Two other brigades will not arrive until the issue has been decided.
Because of this delay, the only offensive force in Jackson responding to Pemberton's commands is a regiment of cavalry under Daniel Weisiger ("Wirt") Adams (above). A combative Kentucky lawyer, Adams takes his entire brigade on May 5, 1963, not to Raymond, as Pemberton has ordered, but all the way to the railroad watering station at Edmond's Station  – 2/3 of the way toward Vicksburg, just east of the Big Black River.  Perhaps he is attempting to protect the Vicksburg and Jackson Railroad. More likely Adams is just looking for a fight.  But because he makes this advance without notifying Pemberton (or anyone else), he is also fatally weakening the defense of Jackson, Mississippi, behind him..
 WEDNESDAY, MAY 6, 1863
General William Tecumseh Sherman (above) arrives at the head of his corps at Hard Times Landing and begins transporting his men across the Mississippi to Grand Gulf. When word of his arrival reaches Grant, he gives the go ahead to McPherson and McClernand to begin moving their men across the Bayou Pierre, to regain 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 South America, Sherman was shipwrecked twice, the last time just outside of San Francisco. Then, in the panic of 1857,  Sherman’s bank fails, leaving him broke and far from home. He then moved to Leavenworth, Kansas, where he failed as a lawyer.
And then, in 1859, he secured an appointment as the Superintendent of the Louisiana State Military Academy (above). 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 even more 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, he was saved when General Halleck offered Sherman the command of Grant’s army. Instead Sherman offered to serve under Grant.
At Shiloh (above), on April 6, 1862, Sherman was commanding a division when his unprepared men were overrun by Confederate troops. Sherman barely managed to prevent his men 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. From this night, he might disagree with Grant on approachs, but he would always “...co-operate with zeal”.
THURSDAY, MAY 7, 1863 
Over night on the 6/7 of May Sherman’s Corps is fully transported across the Mississippi. Grant now has 42,000 men in the state of Mississippi and is ready to begin offensive operations. McPherson pushes his corps toward Jackson, and, as always, Grant moves with McClernand’s 13th Corps, which advances to within 10 miles of Harkinson’s Ferry. The movements are designed to confuse Pemberton as to which target Grant is after, either Jackson or Vicksburg. But whichever way he turns, Grant's job would be far easier if he did not have to deal with Union General McClernand.
Major General John Alexander McClernand has been described by one biographer as “brash, energetic, assertive, confident, and patriotic”, but also as ”ever the politician.” As such he was given to frequent communications with his fellow politicians (in particular with the President), something which infuriated his fellow military officers who had to take orders from those same politicians. In a way John McClernand was Lincoln's dopplganger, and would end his life not far from where Lincoln himself would be laid to rest.
Raised in Illinois - like Lincoln - and a lawyer - like Lincoln -,  in 1835 McClernand founded the “Shawneetown Democrat Newspaper” and used it as a springboard to first the Illinois statehouse in Springfield - like Lincoln - and later the U.S. House of Representative - like Lincoln. But unlike Lincoln,  McClernand was a Stephen Douglas Democrat, a strong union man and, as such, politically valuable to Lincoln...if he could be controlled.
In 1860 McClernand resigned from congress and raised a brigade of men in Illinois to fight for the Union. He was commissioned a brigadier General of Volunteers in May of 1861. At Fort Donelson and at Shiloh (both times under Grant) he displayed at best modest skills in command, but extraordinary ambition, campaigning to replace Grant and even George McClellan, then commander of the Army of the Potomac.
In October 1862 he convinced Lincoln to let him raise troops for an independent command against Vicksburg, and in January of 1863 he managed to use not only his own 13th Corp but to also commandeer Sherman’s and McPherson’s corps and Admiral Andrew Footes’s River squadron for operations against Arkansas Post, an part of the Vicksburg defenses. The operation was a success, but all three officers warned Grant that they considered McClernand unfit for command.
The problem was that, thanks to Lincoln’s political need for McClernand, no one in the theater outranked McClernand – except Grant (above). Secretly, Grant carried in his pocket permission from his superior, General Hallack, to remove McClerand at any time. Grant was too politically savvy to fire the man until the  time was right. But, from this point forward Grant’s headquarters stayed as close to McClernand as possible.
Which is why McClernand's Corp was always in the lead, during this campaign. And Grant was always with it. Still, even a week into Grant's movement against Vicksburg, the letters continued to flow out of McClernand’s tent, spreading rumors of Grant’s drinking and criticizing his handling of the army. McClernand was just one more difficulty Grant would have to overcome if he was going to capture Vicksburg.
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