I can empathize with 49 year old Lieutenant General John Clifford Pemberton. (above) That spring of 1863, the chain of command dictated he report to and take orders from 56 year old full General Joseph Eggleston Johnston, 600 miles away in Chattanooga, Tennessee. But he was outranked by the President of the Confederate States of America, 57 year old Jefferson Finis Davis, 1,000 miles away in Richmond, Virginia. Davis's his orders to Pemberton conflicted with Johnston's orders so often that the Pennsylvania Confederate had begun to avoid even communicating with Chattanooga. It was just another example of how everything to do with Vicksburg was complicated.
1789 Constitution of the United States, Article I, Section 8 of which tasked the Federal legislature to “...make all laws...necessary and proper...” for the national government to function. That made the Federal authorities sovereign, and the state authorities subservient. So, despite their complete failure, the slave owners sought to return to the 1781 Articles of Confederation, Article Two of which said that “Each state retains its sovereignty...”. It was why the slave owners called their rebellious government The Confederacy.
This theory meant the Army of the Confederate States was not a national army. The approximately 700,000 flesh and blood 18 to 45 year old white males in Confederate service were paid $11 a month – when they were paid - by their home counties in their individual states – their uniforms, shoes, weapons, ammunition, blankets and eating utensils were all supposed to be supplied by their states. So in December of 1862, Davis was forced to remind the Mississippi legislature in Jackson on, “...the necessity of harmony between the Confederate Government and the State Governments. They must act together...” Except they often did not.
As large swaths of Missouri, as well as counties around Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee were lost to the Yankees, Confederate Generals were forced to cajole local farmers out of their crops, local merchants out of their goods and local bankers out of their money, to support troops from those lost counties.
The Confederate system required that every inch of Confederate territory be defended in order to defend any of it. It was a matter of faith to the firebrands like Davis who had brought on this war, that the north's industrial and population superiority, as well as their centralized civil authority, would be overcome if the southern people took heed of the greatest military mind of their time.
He was the genius whose amazing victory at Austerlitz had inspired Beethoven's fifth symphony, the conqueror of Europe from Moscow to Madrid, the Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte (above). And Napoleon had said, “The moral is to the physical as three to one”, and prophesied “...the sword will always be conquered by the spirit.”
But the military genius whose campaign's Napoleon studied was the King of Prussia, Friedrich “Frederick the Great” Holenzollern (above). And Friedrich said, “Little minds try to defend everything at once, but...He who defends everything defends nothing.” And then there was that other Napoleon quote, “An army which cannot be regularly recruited is a doomed army”.
After Grant's army had popped the cork at Port Gibson on 1 May, 1863, Pemberton ordered the 2,000 men at Port Hudson to join his army defending the main point - Vicksburg. But Confederate President Davis (above) had countermanded that order - "To hold both Vicksburg and Port Hudson is necessary to a connection with Trans-Mississippi.”
And Pemberton remembered that in 1862 he had been removed from South Carolina because he favored abandoning Fort Sumter (above). And the man who had removed him was President Jefferson Davis. So the troops remained at Port Hudson.
But Pemberton still had reason for confidence that first week of May. He had direct command over 33,000 men – the gunners for the batteries defending Vicksburg (above), and 5 infantry divisions. Holding some 11,000 men to defend the city and Haines Bluff above the Yazoo River, Pemberton pushed 17,000 men in three divisions forward 20 miles to the Big Black River.
For the first time in his career, Pemberton took direct command over combat troops in the field, including those of the argumentative 44 year old Major General William Wing Loring's division , as well as that of 45 year old Major General Carter Littlepage Stevenson and 32 year old Brigadier General John Stevens Bowen's battle scared veterans from Port Gibson.
That force seemed sufficient to defend the 4 crossings of the Big Black River against Grant's 30,000 men. The Yankees had already forced the bridge at Hankinson's Ferry, and pushed a mile or so toward Warrenton. But they showed few hints of continuing that advance. Farther north were Hall's Ferry and Baldwin's Ferry. But Pemberton suspected Grant would prefer the crossing closest to Vicksburg, and the one farthest north, the Big Black River Bridge on the Vicksburg – Auburn - Jackson road. Because as far as Pemberton saw it, Grant's army was living on borrowed time.
Everyday the Yankees spent in Mississippi they were consuming food and ammunition. Their supply lines ran 40 miles down the tenuous cordoryed road from Millikan's Bend to Hard Times Landing. Their cargoes then had to be transferred onto 2 weary steamboats to be transported across the river to Grand Gulf. They then had to be reloaded onto wagons to carry the precious supplies another 20 to 30 miles over bad roads to Rock Springs and the Big Black River crossings. Any break, even a temporary one, in that line and Grant's men would be left starving and defenseless. Even if the supply line held, Grant could afford maybe one big fight before his ammunition ran out. And his food would very likely run short even before then.
So, as Pemberton slowly shifted his divisions northward along the Big Black, watching for an opening to cut off any dangling parts of McClearand's Corps, while being careful not to offer any vulnerable parts of his own divisions. Where ever Grant tried to cross the river, Pemberton intended to bleed Grant's army.
President Davis had promised 10,000 more men were on the way from South Carolina. Those reinforcements and the 5-6,000 men Pemberton had already ordered to assemble in Jackson, would sweep up the remnants of Grant's ambitions when his army melted away in the Mississippi interior. So encouraged was Pemberton that he telegraphed Richmond on 3 May that everything was under control.
However, at Rocky Springs 41 year old Lieutenant General Ulysses Simpson Grant was also confident, because he had seen something Pemberton evidently had not.
As his 30,000 plus men edged north along the Big Black River, Grant found himself to be 40 miles from Vicksburg, and 60 miles from the state capital of Jackson, Mississippi. He had achieved what Napoleon called “The Central Position” via “La maneuver sur les derrieres”, or 'A March on the Enemies Buttocks”.
If Grant turned west and successfully forced a crossing of the Big Black, he would drive the rebels into their entrenchments at Vicksburg. Those siege lines would multiply the rebel's numbers. But it would also give the Yankees access to Haines Bluff and re-establish Grant's supply line up the Mississippi to Memphis.
If Pemberton was too vigilant and the Big Black River crossings seemed too strong, Grant could always use McClerand's Corps to screen an attack eastward on Jackson. Destroying the railroad shops and telegraph lines in Jackson would isolate Vicksburg and Pemberton's entire army. But to attempt that, McPherson's Corps would have to turn their backs on Pemberton's forces, making him vulnerable to being taken in the rear. In order to improve his chances in either direction, Grant needed Sherman's Corp on the Mississippi side of the river as quickly as possible.
Until then, for the first week of May, 1863, the two armies were like a pair of cobra's locked in a caduceus, both just one bite from total victory or total defeat.