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Thursday, July 06, 2017

VICKSBURG Chapter One

I know two amazing things about General and President Ulysses Simpson Grant, and the first one is that was not his name. His name was Hiram Ulysses Grant (above). His mother's maiden name had been Simpson, and in 1839 when Ohio Democratic Congressman Thomas Hamer nominated Ulysses for West Point, somebody on his staff screwed up the application. So, as the reporter in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" intones, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." So Hiram Ulysses became Ulysses Simpson, earning Grant the nickname at West Point of "Sam", as in Uncle Sam. The other amazing thing about U.S. Grant is that at the end of 1862 he was a slightly better than average general. What made him maybe the best general of his generation was his campaign to capture the Mississippi town of Vicksburg. And that did not begin very well at all.
Now, to most northerners, in the fall of 1862 the American Civil War was looking like a stalemate. But Southerners were beginning to panic. James Shirley, a businessman in the Mississippi River town of Vicksburg confided to his diary in even before war was declared, “We are in the midst of a terrible commotion caused by the election of Abe Lincoln...all kinds of property has depreciated in value....and...soon a terrible storm will overwhelm us”.  Well, the storm had come.  In the second full year of warfare, Union troops had driven Confederate forces right out of Missouri. Similarly most of western Tennessee had been cleared of rebel troops, from Memphis on the Mississippi River to Pittsburg Landing, and Shiloh near the head of navigation on the Tennessee River. And just across the border, was the town of Corinth, Mississippi, which had just fallen under Union control. It was called the "Cross Roads City", because in that city was the junction of the Mobile & Ohio railroad running from Virginia to Chattanooga,  Tennessee (  “The vertebrae of the Confederacy”)  and the north/south Memphis & Charleston railroads. That junction was  the 16 most valuable square feet in the Confederacy. And, as I said, that  vital rail connection was now  firmly in Federal hands. 
At the beginning of May, 1862, New Orleans, the largest city in the Confederacy with 168,000 residents and $500 million in annual revenue - a port crucial to the long term economic survival of the Confederacy - had been captured by Federal ships under Admiral David Farragut. Within days Federal ships has also sailed 50 miles up the meandering Mississippi River to capture Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and then continued another twisting 50 miles north to briefly capture Natchez, Mississippi. Beginning on 18 May, 1862 Admiral Farragut's fleet even spent 2 months bombarding and threatening Vicksburg itself,   400 miles up river from New Orleans.
But Vicksburg's then commander, Brigadier General Martin Smith,  refused to surrender to Farragut's floating cannon. Then, in July, a rebel ironclad, The Arkansas,  appeared.  And with the water levels falling the Federals finally gave up the attempt. And this failure left the Confederacy still controlling a 450 mile stretch of the Mississippi River - 150 miles from the bluffs of Memphis, Tennessee (above)...
...south through the delta of the Yazoo River to the high ground around Vicksburg -  the Walnut Hills. And on the opposite shore from Vicksburg was the high ground of De Soto Point, named after Hernando de Soto , whom Europeans claimed had discovered the 100 million year old Mississippi River,  in 1541 A.D.  Sixty river miles south of Vicksburg the 80 foot bluffs again touched the river at Grand Gulf, but only on the eastern shore.
Then, 80 miles of swamp south were the 80 foot high bluffs at Port Hudson,  the southern tip the bluffs.  Another 25 more miles of swamp south of Port Hudson were the entrenchments outside of Baton Rouge held by the Federal government since May of 1862. In between Memphis and Baton Rouge was that narrow 150 mile waist of the Mississippi River. And the single spot in that 150 miles with high dry ground on both sides of the river able to support a railroad line was  between  Vicksburg and the De Soto Peninsula. This was now Richmond's only connections to the Trans-Mississippi Confederacy - its richest state of Louisiana, and the fertile  farm and cattle lands of Arkansas and Texas. So it was decided in Richmond, that Vicksburg must be turned into the Gibraltar of the Confederacy.
No bridge spanned the Mississippi south of northern Illinois. But the Vicksburg, Shreveport and Texas railroad ran a 5'6" wide gauge track from the supply base at Monroe, Louisiana , 78 miles east to the village of Desoto (above) at the head of the peninsula across from icksburg. The line had only 6 locomotives and 67 cars, and because of its non-standard gauge and because there was no bridge,  any supplies had to be unloaded and transferred to barges, and then floated across the river to the Vicksburg docks. 
The corn and sugar and beef and wool and leather had to be then reloaded on the Southern Railroad for shipment east through Jackson, Mississippi and beyond. Permanently cut the Southern Railroad by occupying Vicksburg and or central Mississippi, and all the cattle, cotton, pork and wheat, sugar and flax from the the Trans-Mississippi might as well be on the moon. And that is what Jefferson Davis meant when he said that Vicksburg must be held at all costs.
The guy Davis picked to defend Vicksburg was 48 year old Lieutenant General John Clifford Pemberton (above).  During the Mexican - American War he had twice been promoted for bravery. But he might have been a better general if his politically connected Philadelphia daddy had not helped his career so often.  Jefferson Davis also promoted the big man quickly up the ladder in the Confederate Army - a year from Colonel to General. And that appears to have made Pemberton a living example of the Peter Principle - "managers rise to the level of their incompetence." And maybe the real reason John Pemberton got the job of defending Vicksburg was that Davis found him acceptable, and his rank said he could handle the situation. In fact only one of those statements was true.  
Bruce Catton, who wrote the centennial history of the Civil War in 1965,  described Pemberton as 
"diligent and he took a firm hand, reorganizing his staff departments, shaking up supply services, pushing the work on fortifications and organizing a steam boat line to bring foodstuffs from the Trans-Mississippi. For the first time the department got competent administration...Yet the man could not win people.  In a spot that called for inspirational leadership he was uninspiring "  One Confederate Senator even told President Davis that "hardly anyone in Mississippi so much as realized that Pemberton was in command..."  And Lieutenant General Theophilus Holmes, commander across the river in Arkansas, wrote that, "Pemberton has many ways of making people hate him and none to inspire confidence." 
The Federal campaign to defeat Pemberton and capture Vicksburg was supposed to begin on Sunday, 2 November 1862, when Lieutenant General Ulysses Simpson Grant (above)  took over as commander of the Department of Tennessee. He was now the highest ranking Federal officer in the theater, with authority over every Federal soldier west of Nashville, and south to Baton Rouge.  Directly below him in rank was Major General John Alexander McClernand, but he was on detached duty,  recruiting men in Iowa and Illinois.  And Grant knew it would be best if things could be settled before McClernand returned.
 
The weather did not favor that happening. While Grant's 40,000 men advanced south from high ground around Lagrange, Tennessee, repairing the Mississippi Central railroad as they marched, seemingly endless rains turned the roads into quagmires.  A 7,000 man expedition out of Helana, Arkansas, did just enough damage to the Mississippi Central railroad, to encourage Pemberton to withdraw his 24,000 men from defensive lines along first the Tallihatchie and then the Coldwater rivers. Pemberton gave up first Holly Springs  on Sunday, 29 November, 1862, and then, on Thursday, 4 December,  Oxford, Mississippi, both without a fight.   The Confederate forces had now retreated another 50 miles and were building new defense lines around Granada, Mississippi on the banks of the Yalobusha River. The advances were encouraging for the Federal armies, but Grant never forgot his goal was not northern Mississippi, but Vicksburg. And he wanted to achieve that goal before McClernand returned. He had to find a way to quickly force Pemberton to either fight or retreat again. 
Grant stockpiled food for men and horses, ammunition, uniforms and shoes - for men and horses - at Holly Springs (above), and dug in south of Oxford. He would use this position as the anvil  The hammer would be forces under his most trusted subordinate, General William Tecumseh Sherman. 
Grant ordered Sherman to secretly load a single division of his men on empty supply trains heading back to Memphis.  He would then assume command of all soldiers in the Queen City - most of whom would be about 2 divisions of McClernand's new corps - and then all 30,000 plus men would sail down the Mississippi to the mouth of Yazoo River, just above Vicksburg.  Once on that river Sherman was to steam to the first high ground east of the Vicksburg defenses and land his men, threatening Vicksburg and Jackson, Mississippi, the state capital, and thus outflanking Pemberton's position at Granada.
It was risky. The two forces were too widely separated to support each other, or co-ordinate their movements. Once on the river, Sherman's men would not be available to support the rest of Grant's army, nor receive support from them.  But if Sherman could seize a position on the Walnut Hills, perhaps at a spot called Chickasaw Bluffs, then Pemberton would be forced to give up Granda and retreat to defend Vicksburg itself, or surrender the city to save his army.
But Pemberton sensed that Grant was thinking about a move like this, was not willing to go passively down to defeat. He decided to make a move of his own, striking at Grant's Holly Springs supply depot. And the logical choice to make that raid was the commander of his cavalry, the handsome and debonair and fecund ladies man par excellence - he would father 4 children with three women, in addition to the 3 children he fathered with his own wife - 62 year old Major General Earl Van Dorn. But perhaps most importantly, Van Dorn was an even better example of the Peter Principle in action than Pemberton.
A year earlier General Van Dorn had been promoted to commander of the Army in the West in the Trans-Mississippi, and assigned to retake Missouri. He boasted to his wife, "I must have St. Louis—then Huzza!" At the June 1862 battle of Pea Ridge he not only outnumbered the Federal troops, but he had surprised them, by marching so fast he out ran his own supplies. And in two days of vicious fighting, his hungry exhausted men lost the battle. And lost Missouri forever because of it. Huzza!
Van Dorn was relieved and given command of the Army of Tennessee. In October he led that army in a clever attack at a second battle attempting to retake Corinth, Mississippi.  But Van Dorn lost his cool in another 2 day battle and was charged with being drunk, neglecting his wounded and again outrunning his supply lines and sending his men into battle without enough food or water. The Court of Inquiry cleared Van Dorn of all charges but President Davis gave his  army to Pemberton, and reduced Earl Van Dorn to commander of the cavalry. Which is how Van Dorn was first promoted to his level of incompetence and was then reduced to his level of competence, again
The timing could not have been better for the rebels. Van Dorn left Grenada Mississippi on Thursday, 18 December, leading 3,500 horsemen around the Federal right.  And 2 days later, on Saturday, 20 December, Sherman's 1 veteran and 2 borrowed divisions sailed from the docks at Memphis, putting them temporally out Grant's reach.  And that same day, as if from nowhere, the competent Van Dorn led his rebels galloping into the middle of Holly Springs and burned $1.5 million worth of supplies, before heading back to Grenada. In that single devastating raid, and a second which again threatened the rail center at Corinth, Lieutenant General Grant was forced to immediately put his men on half rations, and 4 days later order them to evacuate Oxford, and began to carefully fall back. Now, even if Sherman was able to capture the high ground at Chickasaw Bluffs, Pemberton's 24,000 men were still effectively blocking Gran's 42,000.
It was a most inauspicious beginning to the most auspicious military campaign in American history.
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