Towards the end of March 1863, as it grew increasingly clear that his water engineering projects were coming to nothing, Grant ordered McClernand to send a reconnaissance party south from Milliken's Bend to see if a road could be found to the banks of the Mississippi somewhere below Vicksburg and well beyond the reach of its guns.
The 69th Indiana Regiment was assigned the task and they set off one fine spring morning, supported by cavalry, a field battery and engineers with bridge-building gear. The floodwaters were receding but there was still plenty of water and mud about. A few small rebel patrols were easily driven off, and the march went reasonably smoothly and took the men to New Carthage on the west bank of the river and well below Vicksburg. It was thought that it would be possible to cross the river at this point and gain the dry higher ground on the east hank, which had been Grant's objective all along. But he would need a fleet of transports and navy gunboats to protect them.
Grant discussed the problem with Admiral Porter who felt confident that he could get the boats past the guns of Vicksburg without crippling losses because the fast current would give them the necessary speed. He warned, however, that it would be a committing move. His ironclad gunboats, known as 'turtles', were heavy and under-powered and it would be inviting disaster to try to run them upstream under the rebel gun emplacements.
Grant's generals, especially Sherman, thought that it would be a very risky business. He condemned the plan as 'unmilitary' and did not think that it could possibly succeed. If the army did manage to land on the eastern bank of the river, it would be hundreds of miles deep in enemy territory, cut off from lines of supply and communication, an invitation to be surrounded and destroyed. They should all go back to Memphis, Sherman said, and try again by the original route along the line of the
Misssissippi Central Railroad. Grant had a high regard for Sherman's military sense, but now he was determined to go ahead with the scheme. In his book This Hallowed Ground, Bruce Catton writes: 'It was perhaps the crucial federal military decision of the war; and it was made by a slouchv little man who never managed to look like a great captain, who had a casual unbuttoned air about him and seemed to be nothing much more than a middle-aged person who used to be a clerk in a small-town harness shop - a man who unexpectedly combined dogged determination with a gambler's daring.'
On 29 March Grant ordered McClernand to march his army corps, all four divisions, to the New Carthage area. One division with its artillery was there by 6 April, but the last part of their march had been greatly impeded by flooded roads and fields. So McClernand prospected a new route, farther to the west, that would make the march easier for the rest of the army. It meant constructing several bridges across marshy land, two of them more than 200 yards in length. Grant later wrote proudly: 'The river falling made the current in these bayous very rapid, increasing the difficulty of building and permanently fastening these bridges; but the ingenuity of the Yankee soldier was equal to any emergency. The bridges were soon built of such materials as could be found nearby, and so substantial were they that not a single mishap occurred in crossing all the army with artillery, cavalry and wagon trains, except the loss of one siege gun.'
In Vicksburg, the Confederate commander, General John Pemberton, was becoming a confused man. His resounding victory over Sherman at the Chickasaw Bluffs at the end of December 1862 had made him so confident that he cheerfully obeyed the call to help General Bragg in central Tennessee and sent
Admiral Porter's fleet successfully ran past the Vicks-burg batteries on the night of 16 April 1863, each gunboat with a loaded barge lashed to its starboard side. Confederates on the west bank lit fires to make the ships easier targets for the Vicksburg guns, but even so only one ironclad failed to get through. It was to be a key success. From now oil Vicksburg would be open to attack from dry ground to the south and east of the city.
M Porter's flotilla arriving below Vicksburg on the night of 16 April. In the foreground, General Sherman is being rowed to the lb-gun Benton. Below: two more illustrations depicting the pasage of the Vicksburg batteries.
off three-quarters of his cavalry, men he would miss sorely in the coming struggle. Then came Grant's persistent probings along the waterways to the north and west of Vicksburg in the first months of 1863. Pemberton had no way of knowing which of these moves was seriously intended, which were feints. The only clear thing was that Grant and his army-were still active.
By the end of March, though, all the signs were that Grant's efforts in the waterways had come to nothing. Reports reached Pemberton of many empty boats hurrying down the Mississippi to Milliken's Bend. Then he heard from President Davis in Richmond that it looked as though the Federal army in central Tennessee was being reinforced for a major offensive. This would explain the activity on the river - Grant was pulling back to the north. By 12 April Pemberton was so sure this was the explanation that he promised to dispatch a further 8,000 men to help Bragg in Tennessee. Immediately, he began to have second thoughts. There were no reports of loaded boats heading north from Milliken's Bend, and disturbing reports of McCler-nand's men mending roads and building bridges across the river below New Carthage. On 16 April Pemberton sent off another message to his superiors saying that he was not so sure now that Grant was thinking of retreat. This was the day on which Grant made his clinching move and it had nothing to do with retreat.
Admiral David Porter had made careful preparations for running his fleet past the Vicksburg batteries. He had eight ironclad gunboats and three steamers loaded with stores. Each vessel had a barge full of coal lashed to its starboard side, the side aw ay from the Confederate guns. The great danger was fire spreading from the ships' boilers so these were packed round w ith bales of cotton, hay and grain, all soaked in water. The decks in front of the boilers were protected in the same way. In the holds men stood ready to cram wads of cotton into shot holes in the hull.
It was important to take the enemy by surprise so the attack would be made at night. The ships would carry no lights. For signalling purposes they had dimmed lanterns, specially hooded so that the light would not be visible to the enemy gunners. It was also important to maintain maximum silence until the enemy spotted them and opened fire, so Porter banished all poultry and pets and ordered his captains to steam at low speed, relying on the river's strong current to provide most of the propulsion. The admiral's flagship, Benton, would lead the way, the ships proceeding in line ahead, 50 yards apart, each captain steering slightly to the left of the boat ahead so as to be able to avoid it if it were disabled.
Moorings were slipped at 10.30 on the night of 16 April, a clear, cloudless night with the stars twinkling above. It was very dark at the river level. High above them, as they rounded the sharp bend in the river, they could see the lights of their ultimate objective, the city of Vicksburg, where many of Pemberton's officers and some of the local citizens were attending a dance to celebrate their supposed victory over Grant. The festivities were interrupted by the sudden roar of their guns opening up on the Federal fleet. The Confederates had pickets posted on the far bank of the river and they set fire to derelict buildings to illuminate the water and give their gunners a better view of the targets.
Grant watched the first part of the operation from the deck of his headquarters steamer, and had brought his wife Julia and their two sons to enjoy the show. The elder son, Frederick Dent Grant, was only twelve years old but was allowed to witness much of the Vicksburg campaign from close quarters. More than 30 years later, Fred, as he was known to everyone, reminisced about the experience in a magazine article: 'About 10 p.m. all lights were put out, and the fleet started down the river. Suddenly a rocket went up from the shore; a canon blazed forth from Warrenton; and a shot passed directly in front of our boat. We stopped; a lurid flame sprang up from a house at De Soto, opposite Vicksburg, then another on the river front, and soon fires were burning along the whole front of the city, and the river was lighted as if by sunlight ... The Benton and the other gunboats, steaming up near the city, sent shot and shell pouring into Vicksburg. The transports kept over toward the Louisiana shore, and one - the Henry Clay - was set on fire by a red-hot shell, and burned to the water's edge ... The people of Vicksburg lined the hills, and manifested great excitement. On board our boat my father and I stood side by side on the hurricane deck. He was quietly smoking, but an intense light shone in his
eyes.' Grant was delighted with the night's work. All the ships had been hit, some of them slightly damaged but nothing that could not be repaired quickly. The Henry Clay was the only serious loss.
And the die was now cast. He was committed to going for Vicksburg from the down-river side, even if it meant operating in enemy country without secure lines of supply and communication. Grant was a man of unusual vitality and confidence, but from now until the end of the campaign he displayed these qualities with even greater intensity. One of his officers said of him: 'None who had known him the previous years could recognize him as being the same man ... From this time his genius and his energies seemed to burst forth with new life.'
Grant got Sherman to make a convincing feint along the Yazoo to persuade Pemberton that he was about to be attacked from the north. He ordered Colonel Benjamin Grierson, who had been a music teacher before the war and would much rather have been an infantryman than a cavalry commander, to lead three cavalry regiments on a great rampage through the territory east of Vicksburg, destroying communications and stores. Grierson set off from
Memphis on 17 April and ended up, tattered but triumphant, at Baton Rouge in the far south sixteen days later, having ridden 600 miles and created havoc and consternation in his wake.
The day after the successful passage of his ships, Grant went to see how McClernand's route-finding march was progressing. Pleased with what he found, he returned to his headquarters to compose the orders for the all-important march southwards. They were dated 20 April. The aim, Grant said, was '...to obtain a foothold on the east bank of the Mississippi River, from which Vicksburg can be approached by practicable roads'. The order of march would be: McClernand's XIII Army Corps; McPherson's XVII; and Sherman's XV. They would have to travel light, without tents. For the time being men and officers would have to bivouac.
Grant knew that from now on supplies were going to be a serious problem. Ammunition had to
▼ The Union cavalry leader Benjamin Grierson leads his weary regiments in triumphant procession into Baton Rouge after rampaging through the territory east of Vicksburg, destroying Confederate stores and communications. In sixteen days they covered 600 miles.
Naval uniforms of the Union. Left to right: a quartermaster; a corporal of the Marine Corps; and a lieutenant commander. (Ron Volstad)
be the first priority. He remembered how the food and forage had poured in when he was retreating from Oxford, four months earlier, and his supply lines had been destroyed and he had sent his men out to get what they could from the surrounding farmlands. They would have to do the same now but they would do it, Grant determined, with control and courtesy. His orders stated: 'Commanders are authorized and enjoined to collect all the beef cattle, corn and other necessary supplies on the line of march; but wanton destruction of property, taking of articles useless for military purposes, insulting citizens, going into and searching houses without proper orders from division commanders are positively prohibited. All such irregularities must be summarily punished.'
Any immediate worries Grant may have had about provisioning his men and horses over the next week or two were dispersed on the night of 22 April when another convoy swept past the Vicksburg guns. Once again it was a night operation. The convoy consisted of six river steamers, each heavily loaded and towing two equally loaded barges. The steamers were civilian craft and most of their crews had refused to take the risk. So Grant asked for volunteers from his army and was delighted to hear that many more men than were needed had volunteered. 'Most of them', he later wrote, 'were from Logan's division [of McPherson's army corps], composed generally of men from the southern part of Illinois and from Missouri. All but two of the steamers were commanded by volunteers from the army, and all but one so manned. In this instance, as in all others during the war, I found that volunteers could be found in the ranks and among the commissioned officers to meet every call for aid whether mechanical or professional.'
With every day that passed, he was growing more and more proud of the men under his command. Spirits were high. They were happy to be out of the mud and the marshes at last and on their way to Vicksburg, though no one - not even Grant, at this point - knew which route they would take.
Crossing The River
Grant's first plan was to make the crossing in the region of the Confederate fort at Grand Gulf. 40
Porter's gunboats would knock out the enemy batteries on the cliffs there, then men of McClernand's corps - some 1 (),()()() of them, close-packed on the transports - would land and take the fort.
Eight gunboats moved into the attack at 8 a.m. on 29 April. They fought hard until 1.30 p.m. but failed to silence any of the Confederate guns. Porter lost eighteen sailors killed and 56 wounded, most of them gunners in his flagship which had been hit bv a shell between decks. That night Porter got his whole fleet past the guns of Grand Gulf under cover of darkness, while McClernand's men went ashore again on the west bank of the river, then marched through the night to meet the ships a few miles down-river.
Grant had a lucky break that same night. He had only poor and unreliable maps of the land on the east side of the river, so any decision about the best place to make the landing there had to be largely guesswork. Soon after nightfall, though, a small party of Illinois men rowed quietly across the river, cast about among the farms, and took prisoner a Negro slave who seemed to be sensible and who knew the region well. They carried him back to Grant, who questioned the man closely. From his replies, it became apparent that the best landing place was Bruinsburg, a few miles further dow n the river. There were no Confederate defences there, and by far the best road in the area ran eastwards from Bruinsburg to Port Gibson, where they would be able to cross the flooded Bayou Pierre to threaten Grand Gulf from the rear. To discourage Pemberton from sending reinforcements to Grand Gulf, Grant had asked Sherman to stage another aggressive display along the Yazoo. Done without the loss of a single man, it proved entirely successful.
Before daybreak on 30 April the whole of McClernand's XIII Corps and two brigades of Logan's division of XVII Corps, who had been marching through the night, went aboard the ships once more. At first light they moved quietly downstream to land, unopposed, at Bruinsburg. In his Personal Memoirs, Grant recalled the marvellous moment: 'When this was effected I felt a degree of relief scarcely ever equalled since. Vicksburg was not yet taken it is true, nor were its defenders demoralized by any of our previous moves. I was now in the enemy's country, with a vast river and
A Top: an artist's impression of the unsuccessful naval attack on Grand Gulf on the morning of 29 April 1863.
are: Benton (10 guns), Tuscumbia (5guns), Louisville (13guns, 1 howitzer), Carondelet (13 guns, 1 howitzer), Pittsburgh (12guns, 1 howitzer). Mound City (13 guns, 1 howitzer) and Lafayette (6 guns, 4 howitzers).
the stronghold of Vicksburg between me and my base of supplies. But I was on dry ground on the same side of the river with the enemy. All the campaigns, labours, hardships and exposures from the month of December previous to this time that had been made and endured, were for the accomplishment of this one object.'
Grant had some 20,000 men ashore and the rest of McPherson's corps coming up close behind.
A Top: an artist's impression of the unsuccessful naval attack on Grand Gulf on the morning of 29 April 1863.
A Above: towards the end of the bombardment of Grand Gulf The Union ships, from left to right, are: Benton (10 guns), Tuscumbia (5guns), Louisville (13guns, 1 howitzer), Carondelet (13 guns, 1 howitzer), Pittsburgh (12guns, 1 howitzer). Mound City (13 guns, 1 howitzer) and Lafayette (6 guns, 4 howitzers).
Crossing the Mississippi
Battle of Big Black
Hankinson's Ferry '
Rocky Springs t Willow Springs mBayou Pierre
Confederate Lines 5 10 Miles
A Major General John A. Logan was one of General McPherson '.* outstanding brigade commanders.
Grierson's Raid (17 April to 2 May) ■ ravages Confederate communications and stores east and south of Jackson
Orders had gone to Sherman to leave the Yazoo and hurry after them. But Grant knew that he would be seriously outnumbered if Pemberton gathered all the forces available to him and quick-marched them down to the defence of Grand Gulf. He had to move fast. McClernand's men, who must have been very tired by now, marched eastward towards Port Gibson during the night, and came up against the Confederate outposts before daybreak on 1 May.
There were some 6,000 Confederate troops at Port Gibson under the command of Brigadier General J.S. Bowen. He had sent Pemberton urgent appeals for reinforcements but none had arrived, so he was hopelessly outnumbered. Despite this, Bowen put up a resistance that impressed Grant and induced him to go forward himself and organize the attack. By nightfall Bowen's men were in retreat. Grant urged his weary soldiers a further two miles along the road. Then they were allowed to bivouac for the night. Grant's pride in his men was further strengthened. In a letter to Halleck in Washington he described them as '...well-disciplined and hardy men who know no defeat and are not willing to learn what it is'.
First thing next morning they pushed on into Port Gibson to find the bridges over the Bayou Pierre undefended but destroyed. A makeshift bridge was hurriedly constructed and the troops advanced a further eight miles that day. They were heading north-eastwards, away from the Mississippi, threatening to cut off the Confederate garrison at Grand Gulf, which promptly pulled out and hurried north towards Vicksburg. Porter's ships took over Grand Gulf.
On 3 May Grant ordered McClernand to maintain the push north-eastwards. Grant himself rode to Grand Gulf to find his headquarters and send messages to Washington: 'I had not been with my baggage since the 27th of April and consequently had had no change of underclothing, no meal except such as I could pick up sometimes at other headquarters, and no tent to cover me. The first thing I did was to get a bath, borrow some fresh underclothing from one of the naval officers and get a good meal on the flagship. Then I wrote letters to the general-in-chief informing him of our present position...' Grant told Halleck: 'This army is in the finest health and spirits. Since leaving Milliken's 44
Bend they have marched as much by night as by day, through mud and rain, without tents or much other baggage, and on irregular rations, without complaint, and with less straggling than I have ever before witnessed.'
At his headquarters Grant received news that forced a major change of plan. The intention all along, after securing Grand Gulf as a supply base, had been that he should order McClernand's corps south to link up with General Banks and take the Confederate stronghold at Port Hudson before the final move was made against Vicksburg. But Grant now heard that Banks was still campaigning far up the Red River in Louisiana and could not hope to be in the Port Hudson area before 10 May and then only with 15,000 men. In his present buoyant mood, Grant could not accept such a delay: 'I therefore determined', he wrote later, 'to move independently of Banks, cut loose from my base, destroy the rebel force in rear of Vicksburg and invest or capture the city.' It was the vital decision of the campaign and a highly controversial one.
Grant knew that Halleck, his military chief in Washington, would not approve of such defiance of the West Point rule book on strategy, but he also knew that messages took many days to pass between his headquarters and Washington. More to the immediate point, Grant also knew that his trusted right-hand man, General Sherman, now hurrying to join him, would disapprove strongly. He was right about that. Sherman travelled fast down the road from Milliken's Bend, painfully aware of its length and v ulnerability, the impossibility of protecting it at all points. As soon as he arrived on the scene he sent a peremptory note to Grant: 'Stop all troops till your army is partially supplied with wagons, and then act as quickly as possible, for this road will be jammed as sure as life if you attempt to supply 50,000 men by one single road.' Grant replied: 'I do not calculate upon the possibility of supplying the army with full rations from Grand Gulf. I know it will be impossible without constructing additional roads. What I do expect, however, is to get up what rations of hard bread, coffee and salt we can and make the country furnish the balance.'
A Ashore at last on Jinn dry ground to the south of I icksburg, Grant ordered his vanguard to move rapidly towards Port Gibson. The Confederates retreated. The march on I'icksburg had started.
▼ Men of McClernand 'v army corps in the sharp but brief battle that took place before the Confederates left Port Gibson.
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