There was less than an hour left in the old year of 1862, when disaster struck the weary engine and it's meager 4 car train. The crew were running at just 10 miles an hour, 3 miles west of Edward's Depot, bound for Vicksburg, when the rails sank into the rain soaked soil and splayed apart, sending the engine and tender careening off the ridge line, dragging the 40 foot long passenger cars behind. The wooden carriages shattered on impact, each spilling 60 plus troopers of the 28th Mississippi cavalry like so many broken eggs from a basket. One passenger, 29 year old Private Charles Cone, managed to jump to safety, but he remembered with horror the "shrieks, cries and groans of the dying, mangled and crushed...". The toll of 7 dead and dozens injured would have been higher if the engineer had been running at the antebellum speed of 25 miles an hour. The "Vicksburg Wig" newspaper would rationalize the disaster, "The railroad was built with light iron twenty-odd years ago... with light engines carrying light trains....(The war had forced) the company....(to put) on it five times as much as it could safely bear." But the truth was the rebellion's entire railroad system was nearing collapse.
In 1860 the south had produced 26,000 tons of new rails to replace the worn out sections of their 9,000 miles of track. In 1861 and 1862 that number was zero, as all iron production was diverted to cannon and iron cladding for warships.
The railroad owners warned the rebel congress that after 1862 they could no longer guarantee reliable service, and by 1863 one in four southern locomotives were in need of maintenance. Proof of all of this, if needed, was available during the fall of 1862, when the new commander of the Western Theater was delayed reaching his post because of 4 separate train wrecks.
Early on in his career the 56 year old General Joseph Eggleston Johnston (above) realized that a general's job is not to win battles but to win wars. His men loved him for not wasting their lives, although, as one said later, "I fought more continuously while under his command than in all my previous life." Despite this, critics called him "The great retreat-er" and complained "his reputation had grown with every backward step."
But the real problem was that "Retreatin' Joe" was a magnet for drama, When he couldn't attract a crises - he was wounded eight or nine times - he invented one. In 1854 the persnickety "Little Game Cock" picked a fight with Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (above) over some promotion regulation minutia, and continued to nurse that argument after they both joined the Confederacy six years later. Five months after his latest wound at the battle of Seven Pines in May of 1862, Johnston's career was again in the hands of the President of the Confederacy - his old enemy, Jeff Davis. And Davis created just the spot for the annoying burr under his blanket - Commander of the Western Theater in far off Tennessee.
When he finally arrived in Chattanooga in November, Johnston protested that the two armies - the Army of the Cumberland under 46 year old porcupine Braxton Bragg (above), a "vain, petty, conniving man", and perhaps the most hated man by his own officers in either army...
...And northerner turned southerner, the suspicious John Pemberton commanding the Army of Mississippi - were too widely separated to share any meaningful strategy. Johnston wrote the President, 'I cannot direct both parts of my command at once”. "Ol' Joe" was right, as usual, but as usual, Davis ignored him. And when "Ol' Joe" realized that both Bragg and Pemberton were still communicating directly with Davis, it was clear he had been sidelined. After that, as diarist Mary Chestnut observed, Johnston's hatred of Davis "amounts to a religion." And Davis, she made clear, returned the bile in kind.
Still, Johnston followed orders, trailing Davis on a tour of the new Western Theater. On 20 December they reached Vicksburg. Johnston's observations here were accurate and grim, describing the Gibraltar of the Confederacy as "An immense entrenched camp, requiring an army to hold it...instead of a fort requiring only a small garrison. In like manner the water-batteries had been planned to prevent the bombardment of the town, instead of to close the navigation of the river...consequently the small number of heavy guns had been distributed along a front of two miles, instead of being so placed that their fire might be concentrated on a single vessel...."
"...a garrison of twelve thousand men was necessary to hold the place," Johnston continued, adding that Pemberton, "...then had about half the number. From a map of Port Hudson....that place seemed to require a force almost as great to defend it".
Davis refused Johnston's request to transfer troops from the Trans-Mississippi - requiring in some cases merely a mile long boat ride - to reach Vicksburg. Instead, Davis ordered Johnston to order Bragg to send Major General Carter Littlepage Stevenson's 7,500 men from distant Tennessee. The first of those reinforcements would be the unlucky members of the 28th Mississippi Cavalry. Having been humiliated, and forced to put his name to what he believed was a disastrous policy, Johnston returned to Chattanooga as quickly as he could.
Johnston knew that the newly appointed 43 year old Federal Major General William Starke Rosecrans (above) had been prodded to finally march to engage Braxton Bragg's Army of the Cumberland along Stones River. Bragg told his men "he wold win in that battle or die in the field."
He did neither. On the same night the troopers were being thrown from the train outside of Edward's s Depot, Mississippi, 76,000 other men were colliding near the little central Tennessee town of Murfreesboro.
Over three days of see-saw fighting - Wednesday 31 December 1862 to Friday 2 January 1863 - the armies of "Rosie" and Bragg attacked and retreated back and forth, leaving one in three men dead or wounded - , the highest causality rate for any battle in 4 long years of bloody battles. The Nashville Daily Union reported, "Murfreesboro is one vast hospital..."
Although federal causalities slightly outnumbered rebel ones, the battle was a tactical draw - one in which Steven's division might have made the difference. Instead, on the morning of Sunday, 4 January, Bragg decided his losses, which he could not replace, and his withering supply line, required that he retreat, thus converting the battle into a strategic win for the Federals. A private letter from one rebel officer, captured and published in the New York Times, called Bragg a disgraceful failure., adding that he was "...almost universally hated by all our troops...it is sheer folly to call him a general....Col. Savage remarked..."This may be good Generalship, but if it is, I can't see it."
Rosecrans won Lincoln's praise for not losing, while Bragg earned almost universal anger from his officers for not winning. Davis ordered Joe Johnston to assess the situation. Was this. like the loss at Shiloh, Pittsburg Landing, after which a change of command was required? It seems likely that Davis (above) had been expecting Johnston to replace Bragg. Instead, after visiting the army in its new camps south of the Duck River. and finding it displaying good discipline, Ol'e Joe recommended that Bragg stay right where he was. The general officers might despise Bragg but the common soldiers generally admired him. And so, with both sides exhausted physical and morally, the war in Tennessee went to sleep for six months.
But in Mississippi, at year's end the situation was far more dramatic. The raid on Holly Springs forced General Ulysses Simpson Grant to put his army on half rations, and begin his retreat from Oxford on Christmas eve, 1862. But this was not a panicked run for supplies. As the Federals slowly withdrew north, back up the Memphis and Charleston railroad, they destroyed everything of value to the Confederacy - barns and plantation houses, salt licks and bridges, and, of course, the railroad itself. And the flesh and blood engines the rebels depended upon to convert the soil into future wealth, followed of their own free will. On Saturday, 9 January 1863, Holly Springs was evacuated, leaving behind destruction and nothing of value, not even the population
The prime example of the advantage Grant had over Pemberton and Johnston was on full exhibit at the once vital railroad junction town of Corinth, Mississippi (above). On Sunday, 25 January, 1863 the Federals left Corinth, having destroyed the rail lines, and burned the locomotive shops and bridges. And they were not followed closely by a rebel army. The most important railroad crossroads in the Confederacy was not re-occupied by a Confederate army because without repairing the rail lines, they could no longer support large numbers of men in northern Mississippi. Like a paraplegic trapped in a broken body, once this "vertebra" of the south and been snapped, it could not be rejoined. Horse drawn baggage cars might plod the abandoned rail lines. But the south had not enough iron rails to replace what was twisted or stolen.
And because, without the iron rails the steam engines could no longer reach Corinth, without the mechanics and blacksmiths and their forges to repair the engines, the laborers, often slaves who filled and maintained the water towers and collected the wood the engines burned, because all of those people were driven out, the town of Corinth had no justification for existing. And so it ceased to exist until the engines would return, after the war.
Jefferson Davis' Confederacy, fighting to maintain its addiction to human slavery, could not occupy northern territory in the same way Grant had just occupied northern Mississippi. Even if the rebels could drive the hated Yankees back from Confederate lands, as they had at Oxford, Holly Springs and Corinth, they could not fully reclaim the land, not merely because buildings were burned or iron rails were twisted and stolen. The human heart and muscle of the land had left it.
Having created a war to defend slavery, that war was destroying the institution even before Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which had gone into effect on Thursday, 1 January, 1863. But accelerating with each passing day, the South's peculiar institution was finally dieing. Freedom, with all its risks and dangers, with free slaves knowing they would be despised by soldiers in blue as well as grey, was prefered by a high enough percentage of slaves over a half filled belly and a shabby roof overhead. Not all slaves, in most areas perhaps not even most slaves, but enough of the youngest and strongest were willing to risk their lives to experience that magical word - Freedom. , It quickly put the lie to the myth of happy darkies basking in the benevolent warmth of European - white - superiority.
And because no rebel army followed the Federal retreat, Grant could leave just a single corps to guard the high ground around Lagrange, Tennessee. A second corps, under Sherman, was held in Memphis, as a mobile striking force. And his new third Corps, under the troublesome McClernand, Grant decided to use to poke and prod at Pemberton. Grant had never intended on attacking Vicksburg from the river side. This shift had been forced upon him by circumstances. And it would take him a little time to decide how to best proceed. But, unlike other generals, he was not going to sit idly until a plan presented itself. Grant was going to go out looking for one. Starting right now.