If you live long enough you could spend a second lifetime apologizing for the stupid things you said in your first lifetime. During his life William Tecumseh "Cump" Sherman (above) famously said several smart things, but on 29 December, 1862 , just as he was about to attack Chickasaw Bluff, he said this, "We will lose 5,000 men before we take Vicksburg, and may as well lose them here as anywhere else". This was a really stupid thing to say, particularly to one of the "lucky" 5,000. But the future "Butcher of Atlanta" avoided having to live under the shadow of that stupid remark because of the stupidity of the general who hovered just off stage during Sherman's December failure - Major General John Alexander McClernand.
The 50 year old John McClernand (above) was greedy for fame. And greed makes you stupid. He has been described by one biographer as “brash, energetic, assertive, confident, and patriotic”, but also as ”ever the politician", which is an overly polite way of calling him a self obsessed jackass. Contemporaries, such as Illinois politician Richard Oglesby used other words - “vain, irritable, overbearing...(and) possessed of the monomania that it was a mere clerical error which placed Grant’s name and not his in the Commission for Lieutenant General."
McClernand (above, right) would accept no other rational to explain why Lincoln (above, center) did not give him the overall command at Vicksburg. John McClernand was Lincoln's life-long doppelganger. Born in Kentucky - like Lincoln - and raised in Illinois - like Lincoln - he became a lawyer - like Lincoln. In 1835 McClernand founded the “Shawneetown Democrat Newspaper” and used it to win election to first the Illinois statehouse in Springfield - like Lincoln - and later the U.S. House of Representative - like Lincoln. Lincoln had even tried his last legal case in partnership with John McClernand. But unlike Lincoln, McClernand was a Democrat, and as such, politically valuable to the Republican Lincoln...if McClernand could be controlled.
In 1860 McClernand resigned from Congress and 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 as a commander, but extraordinary determination at campaigning behind the scenes to replace his boss, General Grant. McClernand exchanged so many private letters with the President and other politicians that Oglesby said other Illinois generals complained, “We did the fighting. He did the writing,” This of course infuriated his fellow military officers who had to take orders from those same politicians but had no such back door access to them. As a Major General McClernand even suggested himself as a replacement for George McClellan, then commander of the Army of the Potomac. And he was vocal that Grant's plan to advance down the Mississippi Central Railroad would never capture Vicksburg. It was sheer happenstance that McClernand was right.
Lincoln did not like or trust McClernand, but as always would support any general who could give him victory. So, needing to keep northern Democrats on his side, on Thursday, 9 October 1862 Lincoln authorized John McClernand to raise three divisions - what became the XIII Corps - as an independent command to be used against Vicksburg. But when Grant was present, McClernand would remain subordinate to Grant. And despite McClernand's opinion, that could not have been a mere oversight. McClernand showed his ambition in the speed with which he raised and trained his men. His lead elements were dispatched to Memphis, Tennessee, arriving in early December, of 1862. Typically, McClernand was not with them. He tarried in Illinois for personal reasons - to marry his second wife the day after Christmas.
The 41 year old "Cump" Sherman was quick to take advantage of McClernand's absence. Arriving himself in Memphis on 12 December, 1862, with 42 year old Brigadier General Morgan Lewis Smith's 7,000 man division, Sherman kidnapped the first two divisions of the XIII Corps which had arrived - the 6,000 men of General George Morgan's division, and the 8,000 men under 48 year old General Andrew Jackson Smith. All 21,000 men were rushed onto river transports provided and protected by Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter (above), and left Memphis on 20 December, 1862. With 12,000 reinforcements from Helena, Arkansas, all 34,000 men entered the Yazoo river on 21 December, and five days later, as McClernand was saying "I do" in Illinois, Sherman was landing his men 10 miles up the Yazoo river, on one of the many plantations owned by the family of Captain William M. Johnson - a Nova Scotia sea captain - and his American business partner George Bradish, along with their silent partner, the pirate Jeanne Lafitte.
Captain Johnson was Lafitte's fence for those stolen cargoes which could be sold in New York. This proved such a successful business model that in 1795 Johnson and Bradish buying and expanding sugar and cotton plantations in the Louisiana delta and this one along the Yazoo delta, as a way of laundering their profits from selling Lafitte's stolen goods. After harvest. the Johnson sugar cane would be shipped aboard Johnson ships to Johnson distilleries on the west side of lower Manhattan, where it was cooked with New England molasses into rum.
The mash waste from the distillation was shoveled next door as feed to cows kept in dirty factory dairies, milked by Bowery alcoholics , nicknamed the "nurse maids". The New York Times described the resulting "swill milk" as a " “bluish, white compound of true milk, pus and dirty water, which, on standing, deposits a yellowish, brown sediment..."
This was then peddled from street carts, adding to the high childhood death rate in New York City from cholera and diphtheria. And it encouraged the adult residents to drink Johnson's rum as a safer alternative. The distilleries also funded a half century long political delay in New York City sanitary laws.
It was the distillery side of their empire which in 1844 inspired one of the Captain's sons, Bradish Johnson, to name his new money laundering scheme The Chemical Bank of New York. Ninety years after the civil war Chemical Bank bought out Chase Bank and then during the next half century of concentration of wealth, merged and morphed into the too big to fail J.P. Morgan Chase and Company. Thus the Johnson Plantation on the Yazoo River offers a glimpse of the true financial base of slavery and the New York city financial power structure . But I digress. Let's go back to December of 1862.
When Porter's 7 gun boats first nosed into the waters of the Yazoo River there so few rebel soldiers defending the Walnut Hills above the Johnson Plantation, that Sherman saw no reason to rush his men off the 59 transports. Grant was presumed to have Pemberton's rebels tied down outside of Granada, Mississippi. But because the telegraph lines out of Holly Springs had been cut, Sherman did not know that Grant's men were already on half rations, while Pemberton was already transferring most of his little army west, to block Sherman's move at Chickasaw Bayou.
First to arrive on Friday, Christmas eve, was 39 year old Confederate General Stephen Dill Lee (above) - no relation to Robert E. of Virginia - with 5,000 men who marched 15 miles from Vicksburg, up the River Road, which ran along the crest of the Walnut Hills.
In the old army this North Carolina native had been a career artillerist, so using his troops and slave labor from the Johnson Plantation, Lee set out trenches and earthen forts. The lakes and bayous already dictated just two narrow approaches for any attackers, but Lee set his men to constructing abatis - a sort of wooden barbed wire. - confining the attackers even more, into what would one day be called "kill zones".
The 7 Federal gunboats broadcast the chosen landings by bombarding the Johnson plantation, destroying the main house and barns. Then the Federal troops wadded ashore, taking their time. It was not until nightfall on Sunday, 28 December that the 4 divisions were finally on reasonably dry land, with General Frederick Steele's division on the right, at the Johnson plantation, and General Morgan's men on the left , facing the "banks" of the 80 foot wide Chickasaw Bayou, on a small plantation owned by Mrs. Anne Lake.
But Sherman had never reconnoitered this ground. He did not know until Sunday night that there only two escapes out of the bottom land, up the slopes of the Walnut Hills.
Sometime around 8:00am that Monday morning, 29 December, General Morgan ordered his engineers to bridge the bayou (above). That was when the man assigned the task, Major Patterson, discovered that in the rush to launch the expedition a few crucial pieces of their pontoon bridges had been left on the Memphis dock. However, he said he could jury rig a fix in 2 hours.
But at about 10:00am, when the engineers started their work, rebel cannon opened fire, slowing the engineers and causing causalities. Finally, at about 11:00am Sherman grew frustrated. The volume of rebel cannon fire hinted that perhaps he had already waited too long to move for the high ground. He ordered the assault to be launched at once, telling a nervous General Morgan, "That is the route to take. We will lose 5,000 men before we take Vicksburg, and (we) may as well lose them here as anywhere else". In fact it was already too late. Sherman was throwing 30,000 men against, now, 13,000 rebels, dug in and ready for them.
The bridge was not yet finished, so two brigades waded across the chest deep Chickasaw Bayou, exhausting themselves before staggering up the steep incline. Threading their way through the abatis, they managed to drive the rebel pickets from their forward rifle pits.
But despite repeated courageous charges, it was a battle lost even before it began, because of the successful raid on Holly Springs. The Federal troops failed to even dent the main rebel line. By 1:00pm it was all over except for the dying. Federal dead were over 200, with about a thousand wounded. The Confederate losses were about 50 dead, and one tenth of the Union in wounded. In addition, the rebels were able to capture over 500 Yankees, caught in a depression under the guns in front of the Confederate position.
After the repulse Brigadier General George Washington Morgan (above) found General Sherman in Mrs. Lake's mansion, alone and pacing the floor. Morgan reported the failure of the attack, and to his credit Sherman did not demand further sacrifice, But when Morgan asked if he could send out a flag of truce, to recover their wounded, Sherman worried about giving appearance of being defeated. Morgan defended his men, telling Sherman, they were "terribly cut up, but were not dishonored....but that our dead and wounded covered the field and could only be reached by a flag." Still, Sherman refused to ask for a truce until almost dusk. By then it was so dark the rebels could not see the flag, and fired on the parlay team. We will never know how many died because of the delay.
Admiral Porter spent the next day looking for a new spot to try and gain the high ground. He thought he found it a few miles upstream, and on the last day of 1862, Sherman began to shift his men. But when 1863 began with a thick fog blanketing the river bottom, Sherman at last admitted defeat and called off the expedition. On Friday, 2 January 1863 he returned to the Mississippi River, and informed Washington of his failure. By return telegram, General-in-Chief Hallack informed Sherman he and his men were now under the direct command of Major General John McClernand.
It seemed that Grant had lost his chance.
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