Dora Miller, diarist and resident of Vicksburg, saw the remnants of the disaster on the afternoon of Sunday, 17 May, 1863. “About three o'clock the rush began, “ she wrote. “I shall never forget that woeful sight of a beaten, demoralized army that came rushing back...” Another woman described that army as, “Wan, hollow-eyed, ragged, footsore, bloody—the men limped along, unarmed but followed by siege guns, ambulances, gun-carriages, and wagons in aimless confusion. At twilight two or three bands on the courthouse hill and other points began playing “Dixie,” “Bonnie Blue Flag,” and so on; and drums began to beat all about; I suppose they were rallying the scattered army.”
Several of the weary soldiers confided to civilians they would desert before fighting another battle under Pemberton. “The stillness of the Sabbath night was broken...the blasphemous oaths of the soldier and the cry of the child, mingled...There were many gentlewomen and tender children torn from their homes by the advance of a ruthless foe, and compelled to fly to our lines for protection; and mixed up with them in one vast crowd were the gallant men who had left Vicksburg three short weeks before, in all the pride and confidence of a just cause, and returning to it a demoralized mob.”
Dora Miller was northern born and pro-union. But even Emma Balfour, matron of a wealthy and powerful pro slavery family, could not not ignore reality. She told her diary, “ My pen almost refuses to tell of our terrible defeat…What is to become of all the living things in this place when the boats begin shelling – God only knows. Shut up as in a trap, no ingress or egress – and thousands of women and children who have fled here for safety…” And about 18,000 soldiers.
Pemberton had finally ordered the army to begin seizing food stuffs in an around the city. The work did not began in earnest until 15, May. Over the next 48 hours the two division commanders in Vicksburg, Major Generals John Horace Forney and Martin Luther Smith, brought in half a million pounds of smoked pork and salted beef. In addition, every plantation within a day's ride was stripped of chickens, turkeys, beef and dairy cattle, sheep, hogs, mules and horses, all driven within the fortifications which now defined the eastern boundary of the last major Confederate hold on Mississippi River.
The ever judgmental Emma Balfour was not impressed. “From 12 o’clock until late in the night”, she noted, “the streets and roads were jammed with wagons, cannons, horses, men, mules, stock, sheep, everything you can imagine that appertains to an army...” But she also added, “Nothing like order prevailed.” The ever inefficient 40 year old John Clifford Pemberton was certain he had stockpiled more than enough food for the citizens and garrison to hold out until they were relieved by General Joe Johnston and his army, assembling in Jackson. Pemberton estimated he could hold out for about six weeks.
Grant had a lot less time. Recalled one of his officers, “The gloomy report was circulated to the effect that our bread ration was exhausted or so nearly so that (after 20 May) the commissary could not furnish one hardtack apiece for all the men.” Forage, which had been abundant for the army on the march but was suddenly scarce when shared with an opposing army. Not only did the enemy presence restrict forage – the verb - it also forced men and horses to use their forage – the noun - faster. Early on in the war, Washington experts had calculated an army of 45,000 men on the march seeking forage in the Confederacy, would require 6 square miles of land for subsistence. But the closer Grant got to Vicksburg, the smaller was the square he had access to. With starvation now in the near future, Grant had to re-establish his supply line back to Memphis as soon as possible.
Eleven miles east of Vicksburg, Grant was delayed by the destroyed bridges over the Big Black river (above). But while the flames were still licking at the turpentine soaked beams, a 25 year old Buckeye genius, and a hero of the battle of Shiloh, Captain Andrew Hickenlooper, was building a replacement bridge. And he reused the improvisations of his confederate counterpart, Major Lockett. Felling trees from the dense wood which had so hindered the Yankee assault, Hickenlooper built a frame, which he then filled with 47 buoyant cotton bales from Lockett's defensive line. To convert the floating frame into a effective bridge, Hickenlooper dismantled a shoreline cotton gin to provide planks for the road bed and approaches. When finished not long after dawn on Monday, 18 May, the crossing was 110 feet long and 10 feet wide.
The new bridge was promptly put to use by the XIII corps – as soon as the bands could be assembled to play McClernand (above) and his men across.
It was a typically dramatic flourish by the politician McClernand but at least this time did not delay the advance past 8:00 a.m. Despite the Yankees would reach Vicksburg before noon. McClernand's orders were to close up to the rebel defenses and keep the enemy pinned in them.
General McPherson's Corps would not be following XIII corps, but had been redirected by Grant 2 miles to the north, where they were to cross the Big Black at the nearly abandoned village of Amsterdam. The little town had been almost wiped out in the 1830's by cholera and the nearby presence of Edward's Depot. McPerson's (above) orders were to advance while guarding the right flank of General Sherman's Corps. It was Sherman's Corps which had the primary objective on this important day.
Major General Blair beat the XV corps to Bridgeport by a an hour or so, and were unloading the pontoons sections when Sherman marched in about noon on Sunday, 17 May. The few rebel militia were easily chased off the west bank, and the bridge (above) was assembled and in use by night fall. Blair's division crossed that evening, with Frederick Steele's 1st division and James Tuttle's 3rd division crossing on Monday morning, 18 May, 1863. Once on dry ground on the same side of the Big Black River as Vicksburg, Sherman released the 4th Iowa cavalry regiment, with orders to capture the now vital crossroads of the Benton and Oak Ridge Road.