As sunlight first struck Virginia on Monday, 4 May, 1863, both armies were staggering back from the disaster of the battle of Chancellorsville. The 133,000 man Federal Army of the Potomac under Joe Hooker had literally been worse than decimated, losing some 17,000 men - 1,600 dead, 9,800 wounded and almost 6,000 captured or missing. - almost 13% of their total strength. But the 60,000 man rebel Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee had suffered some 13,000 causalities - 1,700 dead, 9,000 wounded and over 2,000 captured or missing – or over 20% of their strength.
General Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker, although still in command, rightly bore most of the blame for the Federal failure. He was mocked in the press both south (above) and north. However, although few could see it at the time, the tragedy was a tactical victory for the Confederates, but a strategic defeat.
Two advantages helped disguise the scale of the disaster for General Lee's army. First and foremost, General Longstreet's corps had not been present at Chancellorsville. Lee (above) had been forced to disperse one third of his army, some 30,000 men , to southern tidewater Virginia, so they could be fed. They would now be rejoining Lee - combat veterans, fresh and not blunted by a wasting battle. And secondly, Lee had won a clear psychological victory over Hooker. Lee, it seemed always won his battles with the Army of the Potomac. But Lee knew better.
The only shadow which seemed to darken this victory was that Lee's right hand man, the religiously fanatical General “Stonewall” Jackson, had lost his left arm at Chancellorsville. He was bedridden now, and would not be available to General Lee on his invasion of Pennsylvania. And Lee must invade. His army would never be stronger. And only in the north would the Confederacy find the surpluses to feed, clothe and arm their soldiers.
marching to realign after Grant's attack around the rebel right flank. There were now about 33,000 men in and around Vicksburg, another 6,000 in and around Jackson, with perhaps 2,000 men in Port Hudson on the Mississippi, just above Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Pemberton's first impulse had been to abandon Port Hudson and call the garrison back to Vicksburg, but Confederate President Jefferson Davis had countermanded that order. In fact, over the next few weeks Davis would feed another 10,000 reinforcements into the isolated post, while commanders elsewhere in the state would be starved for men.
One of the most powerful Confederate regiments was on a forced march to Grand Gulf that morning - the 400 plus men of the 26th Mississippi Infantry. In April they had repelled the Federals at Fort Pemberton. They might have used the Southern Railroad to save some time, but after the raid on Newton Station, that line was no longer available. The only way to get from the Yazoo delta to Grand Gulf was on foot. And for 2 and a half days they had been marching under their colonel, A.E. Reynolds. But they only got as far as Bayou Pierre before running into the Federals, who were marching north to meet them.
Their commander, the acquisitive Arthur Exum Reynolds, was a big man in Tishomingo County - he was rich, he was politically powerful and he was fat. The 300 pound lawyer (above, evidently holding in his gut) had moved to the north eastern corner of Mississippi in the early 1840's, once the Chickasaw native peoples had been forced out. After the Presidential election of 1860, as a wealthy state representative "A.E." was a natural choice to represent his county at the secession convention. He agreed with the majority that "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery", but like 16 others he voted to wait until other states had joined the rebellion before taking the ultimate step.
When they did, "A.E." raised his own 400 man regiment. He was unanimously elected Colonel of the 26th. They arrived at Fort Donaldson, Tennessee in February of 1862 (above) - just in time to suffer 12 dead and 69 wounded in their and General Grant's first major battle. During that engagement, "A.E."'s horse was killed, and the substantial Colonel, while uninjured, lacked the wind to keep up with his unit under his own power. So he led from his rear. The entire regiment, including A.E., were forced to surrender. They were paroled and reformed in September at Jackson, Mississippi. The 46 year old A.E. was again in command as they skirmished with Grant's army during his December 1862 advance to and January 1863 retreat from Grenada, Mississippi. And now under orders from the profane General Loring, A.E. offered only token resistance to the advancing Yankees.
Captain Patterson's Kentucky Federal engineers worked all night to repair the bridge over the North Fork of Bayou Pierre, and at 5:30 the morning of Monday, 4 May, 1863, General Smith's division crossed the bridge and continued up the Port Gibson road toward Willow Springs. As they approached the tiny community a battery of rebel artillery from the Mississippi 26th made a show of firing a few rounds, but retreated before Federal artillery could return the favor. And with that the valuable water supply of Willow Springs fell into Union hands.
While the Yankees were refilling their canteens a civilian plantation owner appeared riding a mule and demanding to speak with the officer in charge. The General's soldiers, the outraged plantation owner complained, had stolen everything in his larder - pigs and cows and horses.
The man demanded his property be returned and the thieves punished. The craggy General Smith calmly ask the planter who owned the mule he had arrived upon. It was his mule, responded the planter. Well, said General Smith, the thieves could not have been his men, because his men would not have left the mule behind. And with that the planter was sent on his way.
Clearly, the troops were already working to stretch their rations beyond the ten days they had been told to make them last. And they were having no trouble doing that. However General Smith did not allow his men to tarry at the springs or forage too much along their route. That very afternoon Smith pushed his men forward through Rock Springs, 5 miles to Harkinson's Ferry - the main crossing of the Big Black River by the Port Gibson Road from Vicksburg. They arrived there just as the day was ending, and after a brief exchange of cannon fire the 20th Ohio Infantry stormed across the bridge, forcing the rebels to assume that Grant was going to make a drive directly for Vicksburg, just 20 miles further north. The Yankees did little more than raid up the road, but if an immediate assault in Vicksburg was that was not Grant's intention, what was next for the Army of the Tennessee?
Before he had even crossed the Mississippi River, Lieutenant General Ulysses Simpson Grant (above) understood what he was risking by passing below the still active guns at Vicksburg. He would write later, “To have no communications - to cut loose altogether from my base and move my whole army without a rear link was a tremendous gamble!" It meant there could be no retreat, no rescue and no resupply. He could not merely stay where he was. He had to fight and he had to win, every fight and every skirmish. A single reversal could force him to pause and spell doom. But fight who, and fight where?
There was still the possibility of joining with Nathaniel Banks( above) and his 30,000 man Army of the Gulf, together crushing Port Hudson and then marching north to Vicksburg with 70,000 men. But Banks had been tempted to follow a will-o-wisp of easy victories up Bayou Teeche, moving farther away from the key battleground of the Mississippi River. The Massachusetts political general would not meet his promised return date of 10 May in front of Port Hudson. And Grant could not surrender all he had won to turn south and wait until Banks returned. Grant had the initiative, and he could not surrender it, else Pemberton would eventually gather strength against him. He most move forward. And after a bath in the newly liberated fortress of Grand Gulf, Grant rode north to keep a close eye on his most troublesome subordinate, Major General John McClernand.
Grant arrived at Rocky Springs after a daylong ride, "...by a strange and circuitous road." The next morning he might move directly on Vicksburg. But he had only some 30,000 men in 2 corps drawing up to the Big Black River south of the city. And Pemberton had about that same number in the new fortifications on the eastern side of Vicksburg. Isolated as he was , Grant could not afford any battle which offered him less than favorable odds, as an attack against trenches and forts did. Deep in his enemies' rear, he must keep the Confederates divided and not allow them to concentrate against him. Grant truly had the elephant by the tail. He needed Sherman to join him, as quickly as possible.