JULY 2018

JULY 2018
One Hundred Years Later, Same Message. 1916 - 2017


Saturday, July 08, 2017

VICKSBURG Chapter Three

It was a stormy Saturday night, both outside and inside the lounge on the Federal steamer Tigress, tied up at Millikin's Bend (below), 20 river miles north of Vicksburg, Mississippi - 3 January, 1863. The host was military anarchist, Major General John Alexander McClernand, and he was in a foul mood even before his guests arrived.   
In his view, 2 weeks earlier this pair had conspired to steal "his" army and had taken it for a joy ride up the Yazoo River.  And now the thief-in-chief , the tempestuous ginger-headed bipolar General William Tecumseh Sherman, had surrendered those men back to the arrogant pompous jackass from Illinois who outranked him - i.e. Major General McClernand.  And finally, Vice Admiral David Porter who controlled the gunboats and transports was....well, nobody was ever really certain just what Porter was thinking. A Chicago newspaper dubbed him, ‘The greatest humbug of the war."  Porter
had been promoted over 80 superior officers for his new job commanding the "Inland Squadron", in part because he assured his superiors he had no problem working with "The Aurora Beacon", as the press labeled McClernand .  But when the inflated McClernand announced that he alone would lead the expedition to Fort Hindman , it was Porter who threw a temper tantrum and petulantly stormed out of the meeting.
The target was a new rebel fort (above), which had been named after the 35 year old politician and now General Thomas Carmichael Hindman, Jr;. He  had been wounded at the bloody battle of Shiloh. His earthen namesake stood 25 miles from the Mississippi River, on 25 foot bluffs above the Arkansas River, supposedly protecting the rebel state capital in Little Rock, 50 miles upstream. 
But it's 5,000 man garrison, mostly horseless Texas cavalry, were short of discipline, food and clothing. They had been short of ammunition, but in mid December, 1862, rebels had captured the Federal steamer The Blue Wing, pulling two barges of shot and shell down the Mississippi River. This impudent assault on their supply line inspired Sherman and Porter to plan an punitive expedition - to sail a division and a couple of "tin clad" ironclads up the Arkansas and reduce the fort to dust. And then McClernand replaced Sherman as ground commander. Suddenly, like the ancient Athenian attack on Syracuse, a great ego swelled the raid into a full blown invasion, with all 34,000 men at Millikin's Bend moving not south toward Vicksburg, but north and west, off into the wilderness of Arkansas.
That was what sent Porter (above) storming out of the meeting. He knew with the certainty of Moses that at the first easy victory,  this wobble head blowhard would march his little army right off the map and out of the war.  Sherman knew it too, but since Porter had exploded, Sherman was forced to play the peacemaker. 
In a forward cabin, Sherman (above) reminded Porter that his orders required him to support only operations against Vicksburg. Fort Hindeman was in Arkansas, for God's sake. Still they would be on very shaky ground refusing to obey McClernand. So they agreed that Porter would agree to support McClernand's expanded Fort Hindeman operation, but only if Sherman accompanied the move, in a responsible position.
Back in the lounge the conspirators discovered that McClernand (above) the ego maniac had left the room, leaving in his place McClernarnd the politician.  Before Sherman and Porter could make their demands, the "Beacon" announced - magnanimously, of course - that he would need Sherman to lead half the expedition - 15,000 men. And, of course, he would listen to any advice offered from "Cump", because, after all, it was his idea. And it was a good idea - as far as it went.
The year had ended in a seemingly senseless waste of money, sweat and blood at Chickasaw Bluffs. The army was demoralized and frustrated. What the troops needed was a quick, easy victory.  But about the only thing that everyone could agree upon was that the army did not respect McClernand. As the correspondent for the Illinois Journal put it, "No one thinks McClernand is the man for the place."  Ignoring that reality, the next morning McClernand announced that his little 3 division corps was now the mighty Army of the Mississippi.
There was no official approval for a new "army".  All supplies still had to be funneled through the quartermaster of the Army of Tennessee, under Grant. No fancy executive order changed any of that. And since Grant was still the ranking officer assigned to capture Vicksburg, McClernand's men were still in his "Army of Tennessee".  And Arkansas was not in Grant's area of command. But Grant was still out of telegraph contact with Washington. Until he was reconnected, McClernand was "off the leash" and running free, chasing glory anywhere his attention deficit syndrome attention span might spy it. He did take the time on 8 January to pen a letter, informing Grant that he had hijacked an entire wing of Grant's army. Turnabout is fair play in politics, and it must also be true in the military. Right?  But McClernand was confident that by the time this letter reached Grant, the operation would be over.
On the same day McClernand sent his note to Grant - Thursday, 8 January, 1863 - Sherman arrived 140 river miles north of Millikin's Bend, at the pinch point of Beulah Bend, where similar currents had driven the Blue Wing within rebel cannon range, near the town of Napoleon, Arkansas (above), at the mouth of the Arkansas River.  Under protection from Porter's ironclads, Sherman's men landed and destroyed the positions used to shell the Federal supply line. And then Sherman's men simply disappeared. It was smartly and professionally handled.
In fact,, screened by the raiding party, the entire Federal armada had sailed past Napoleon, further north to the mouth of the White River (above), below Montgomarys Point. Steaming up the White RIver for 15 miles allowed the Federals to use the 8 mile "cut off" between the White and Arkansas Rivers, reducing sailing time and avoiding warning Fort Hindman of their approach. And at about 5:00pm on Friday, 9 January, McClernand started landing skirmishers on the plantation of the late one time French Bonaparte Colonel, Frederick Notrebe, less than 4 miles from the earthen walls of Fort Hindman.
After emigrating from France in 1809, Colonel Notrebe had built a fortune trading axes, guns and matches to the native Americans for furs. And he turned that into a bigger fortune with a town, called Arkansas Post, a bank and eventually a plantation. Frederick was the man most responsible for introducing cotton to the region, and he built another fortune doing that. But when he died of pneumonia in 1849, his son-in-law took over the property, stealing the widow's share Within a few years most people left the Post for the new state capital of Little Rock, 50 road miles up the road and river to the north west.  
Facing his duty inside the diamond shaped earth fort was 38 year old Brigadier General Thomas James Churchill (above). On paper he had almost 5,000 men. Fit and ready for duty he could muster maybe 3,000. The impressive fort had only 2 ten pound and 2 six pound rifled Parrot guns. And the abrupt appearance of a Federal army out numbering his 6 to 1, impelled Churchill to telegraph for help and advice from his boss in Little Rock, 58 year old Major General Theophilus H, Holmes, less than affectionately known as "Granny" Holmes. The General's reply did not inspire confidence. With no troops to send, Holmes told Churchill he should “... hold out till help arrived or until all dead.” In short, the rebel high command offered no help what so ever.
On Saturday, 10 January, 1863 the Federal ironclads began blasting the fort from 400 yards - almost point blank range. Meanwhile the mass of Federal infantry stumbled ashore, and got organized. McClernand did not get his men into position on the Confederate left until 4:30pm. As it was, half the force - Sherman's half -  was not in position when McClerand launched his glorious charge. 
The Confederates put up a stiff but short fight before white flags began appearing along the rebel line. Just who ordered them displayed remains unclear, but once they did, logic dictated they became general. Porter claimed he was first through the parapets on the river side, but the soldiers got most of the credit. And they paid in blood for the privilege - 134 federal dead, almost another thousand wounded. The rebels lost 709 dead and wounded, and the remaining 4,000 taken prisoner - 25% of all rebel troops in the Trans-Mississippi Confederacy had been wiped off the board in this single move.
While the infantry pushed the fort's walls into the river, Porter probed up the Arkansas, looking for a mythical rebel ironclad,  and infantry was dispatched into the surrounding countryside to steal or destroy crops and livestock. These necessary operations were violent and cruel, but the Union soldiers were not nearly as efficient as they would be a year later in Georgia. And none of them met significant rebel resistance. 
And then, just as the operation was nearing its successful completion, as his supporters feared and his enemies had predicted, Major General John Alexander McClernand (above) peed in his own water bucket. On Wednesday, 14 January he issued a memo to Admiral Porter and General Sherman, informing them of his intention to march against Little Rock.
Did he believe his proposal would be accepted in Washington? Or did he hope to get started before Washington would find out? The Arkansas state capital was 100 miles away from the Mississippi River, and 240 miles from Vicksburg. Even such a buffoon as McClernand must have known what a deeply, deeply stupid idea this full scale invasion of Arkansas was. But it put him further away from Grant. It kept his command independent. And clearly he could convince himself that keeping his little command was worth weakening the Union war effort. Proof yet again that greed and ego makes you stupid.

Both Sherman and Porter sent a howl up the chain of command, Porter to the Secretary of the Navy and Sherman to Grant. The gist was that McClernand was incompetent to lead any large body of men. Thankfully Grant had finally reached Memphis, putting him back in the "loop". General of the Army Hallick cabled Grant that he could remove McClernand, if necessary.  “General Banks is a personal friend of the President, and has strong political supporters in an out of Congress...I think the President will hesitate to act, unless he has a definite request from you ...as a military necessity..."   So Grant restrained himself.  He ordered McClernand to stay put and explain his plans in more detail. Three days later - Tuesday, 17 January, 1863, he ordered McClernand to move his men and ships troops back to Millikin's bend.
And for the rest of the Vicksburg campaign, Grant(above)  would be forced to keep McClernand where he could control him, meaning right under his thumb.  Grant would have to move the focus of his campaign to the river, and he would have to begin the new phase from Millikin's Bend. This was not by choice, but by necessity. As the old saying goes, "Some men are born great, but most have greatness thrust upon them."  The same could be said of a broken leg.
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Friday, July 07, 2017


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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Thursday, July 06, 2017


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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