Mackubin Owens: Grant at Vicksburg

December 24, 2020

This article originally appeared in The Weekly Standard.

While Robert E. Lee was whipping Joe Hooker at Chancellorsville in May 1863, there were ominous developments for the Confederacy in Mississippi. During that month, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee crossed the Mississippi River south of Vicksburg and then executed a lightning campaign of maneuver that sealed the doom of that important Confederate stronghold, which surrendered on July 4.

In examining the Vicksburg campaign, it is useful to go back to the beginning of the war in the West. The primary Union goal in this theater was to penetrate deep into the Confederate heartland, opening the way to Chattanooga and Atlanta on the one hand and gaining control of the Mississippi River on the other. The overall Union commander in the West was Henry Halleck, who recognized that the Tennessee River constituted the main “line of operation” for Union forces.

In keeping with Halleck’s observation, a Union army under Grant and a naval flotilla under Flag Officer Andrew Foote captured Forts Henry and Donelson, on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers respectively, in February 1862. Grant continued to move south toward the critical rail center of Corinth, Mississippi. Before Grant could reach Corinth, however, a Confederate army under Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston surprised him near Shiloh, Tennessee. Union forces were mauled on the first day of the battle, but after reinforcement arrived that evening, they drove the Confederates from the field. Both sides suffered unprecedented casualties at Shiloh—indeed, more soldiers died in this battle than in all of the nation’s previous wars. But Shiloh was only a foretaste of things to come.

Although Grant had been surprised at Shiloh, he learned from the experience. In addition, his victory at Shiloh led to the capture of Corinth. The way was now open toward both Vicksburg on the Mississippi River and Chattanooga—the gap through the Appalachian barrier necessary to the capture of Atlanta.

In December, Grant launched his first attempt to capture Vicksburg. The problem was how to “get at” the city. It sits on a high bluff above a sharp bend in the Mississippi. Its guns commanded the bend in the river at De Soto Point. To the north lies the Mississippi Delta, a swampy area between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. The Confederates held strong defensive positions on the higher, drier ground to the east and northeast of the city.

Grant first attempted a direct approach. Sending his favorite and most reliable subordinate, William Tecumseh Sherman, and a naval force to assault Vicksburg via Chickasaw Bayou, an offshoot of the Mississippi, Grant moved the bulk of his army south from Memphis on the high ground east of the Yazoo, planning to launch a coordinated assault against the city. As Grant approached Grenada, however, a Confederate cavalry force raided his supply base at Holly Springs, forcing him to retreat. Before Grant could get word to Sherman that his attack had been aborted, the latter launched his assault at Chickasaw Bayou and was decisively repulsed.

Rather than return to Memphis for the winter and wait for the waters of the Mississippi to recede in the spring, Grant initiated a number of other attempts to get at Vicksburg. In attempting to reach the dry ground east of the Mississippi, he confronted a formidable obstacle: the combination of high water and Confederate defenders.

In early 1863, Grant undertook two engineering projects to get south of the city. The first was the attempt to dredge the “old canal,” which, had it been successfully accomplished, conceivably would have permitted the passage of naval transports from the Mississippi above Vicksburg to points south without exposing them to the fire of the Confederate batteries that commanded the river at De Soto Point. The second was the Lake Providence Canal project, a plan to connect a network of rivers and bayous in the bottomlands of northeast Louisiana, creating a navigable, though circuitous, route that would enable shallow-draft steam craft to get south of the city.

High water and endless swamplands made life miserable for the soldiers attempting to implement these projects. A contemporary jingle captures the essence of the soldiers’ plight: Now I lay me down to sleep / in mud that’s many fathoms deep. / If I’m not here when you awake / just hunt me up with an oyster rake.

Grant also tried again to get directly at Vicksburg from the north, first by approaching the city by means of the Yazoo Pass, then by way of Steel Bayou. Both of these joint Army-Navy operations failed.

In late March, the waters of the Mississippi receded earlier than expected. While the falling water aborted another of his engineering projects, it provided Grant an opportunity to undertake a far bolder operation. He planned to move his army down the west bank of the river, while Admiral David Porter’s transports and gunboats ran the gauntlet at De Soto Point. Once south of Vicksburg, the transports would carry the Army across the river, enabling Grant eventually to move on Vicksburg from the east.

On March 29, Grant ordered one of his corps under the command of Maj. Gen. John McClernand to move from the Union base at Milliken’s Bend south along the west bank of the river to New Carthage, halfway between Vicksburg and Grand Gulf. Once McClernand had reached New Carthage, he was to prepare to cross the Mississippi. Because the river had fallen, the ground on the west shore was swampy—in the words of one soldier, “a vast bog, intersected by numerous bayous half flooded with water”—and difficult to traverse. Progress was slow.

The plan entailed considerable risk, so much so that Sherman felt obligated to express his doubts in writing. The first problem was successfully coordinating all that needed to be accomplished, especially if the Confederates divined his intentions. The second was the difficulty of keeping McClernand supplied over the soggy Louisiana countryside on the west bank of the Mississippi. Even if the actions of the Army and Navy could be coordinated, Grant would face additional risks once he crossed the river.

Grant’s plan called for a robust deception operation to focus the attention of Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton, the Confederate commander, away from Grant’s main effort south of Vicksburg. As McClernand began his movement south, Grant dispatched a division of Sherman’s corps in the opposite direction to Greenville, Mississippi, about 70 miles upriver from Vicksburg. This division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele, destroyed corn, carried off farm animals, and liberated about 1,000 slaves.

The “Greenville Wallow” accomplished its military goal of distracting the Confederates from Grant’s main effort, causing Pemberton to send a force under Gen. Stephen Lee (no relation to Robert E. Lee) to deal with Steele. But it also reflected the new policy of the Lincoln administration of targeting Southern social and economic institutions, adumbrating Sherman’s “March to the Sea” after the capture of Atlanta in September 1864. “Rebellion has assumed that shape now that it can only terminate by the complete subjugation of the South or the overthrow of the Government,” Grant wrote to Steele. “It is our duty therefore to use every means to weaken the enemy by destroying their means of cultivating fields, and in every other way possible.”

While a threat to Braxton Bragg’s lines of communication in Tennessee drew the legendary Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest away from Mississippi, Grant launched another diversion. On April 17, Col. Benjamin Grierson led a force of 1,700 horsemen from La Grange, Tennessee, south into Mississippi. After tearing up the tracks of the Southern Railroad east of Jackson, Grierson decided to continue south, reaching Baton Rouge 16 days after leaving La Grange. This raid, the most spectacular Union cavalry operation of the war (fictionalized in the classic John Ford film The Horse Soldiers, starring John Wayne) and certainly the most strategically significant, created chaos in Pemberton’s department, occupying his attention for two weeks as Grant moved the main body of the Army of the Tennessee south of Vicksburg.

On the moonless night of April 16, Adm. David Porter’s Mississippi Squadron made its first attempt to run the Rebel batteries at Vicksburg. Though battered by the Confederate gunners, all eight of Porter’s gunboats and two out of three of his transports made it through. A few nights later, five out of six transports successfully made the run. By the end of April, Grant had two of his three corps south of Vicksburg and, with the aid of Porter, was ready to cross the river at Grand Gulf.

As Grant prepared to make his crossing, he ordered one more diversion. For two days, one of Sherman’s divisions conducted a demonstration in front of the Rebel positions on Haynes’ Bluff near Chickasaw Bayou, the site of Sherman’s repulse the previous December. As in the case of the Greenville expedition and Grierson’s raid, Pemberton took the bait, recalling 1,000 troops that had been sent to deal with whatever Grant was planning to do. Meanwhile, Porter’s gunboats bombarded the Confederate position at Grand Gulf.

Although weakened by the naval bombardment, the Confederate defenses at Grand Gulf appeared to be a tough nut to crack. Grant feared a reprise of Chickasaw Bayou if he tried to land at a place commanded by towering bluffs where entrenched defenders could extract a high price. Upon reflection, he decided to cross further south and land at Bruinsburg, Mississippi, which he did on April 30.

When he realized what Grant was doing, the energetic Confederate commander at Grand Gulf, Brig. Gen. John Bowen, rushed his troops to block Grant’s way at Port Gibson, 10 miles east of Bruinsburg. While Grant had only two of his corps across the river (after his demonstration at Haynes’ Bluff, Sherman was just now marching south on the west bank of the Mississippi), he still outnumbered the Confederate force. The Confederates put up a spirited defense at Port Gibson but were ultimately pushed aside. Grant had now established a secure lodgment on the east side of the river. Fearing that the garrison at Grand Gulf would be trapped, Pemberton ordered the position abandoned.

Grant understood that it was the beginning of the end for Vicksburg. In his memoirs he wrote:

When [the crossing] was effected I felt a degree of relief scarcely ever equaled 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 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, labors, 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 objective.

Pemberton finally understood that Grant now had most of his army south of Vicksburg, but he was still in a quandary concerning what the Federals would do next. The most direct—and predictable—approach, one that would maintain lines of communication and supply with the river, was to drive due north. But Grant was aware that the general designated by Jefferson Davis as the overall Confederate commander in the West, Joseph Johnston, was gathering a force near Jackson, 40 miles east of Vicksburg. If Grant did the predictable thing, Johnson could conceivably pose a potential threat to Grant’s right flank.

Instead, Grant decided to eliminate the Johnston threat before dealing with Pemberton. To do so, he abandoned his supply line, heading northeast toward Jackson. There were plenty of smokehouses and full corn bins on the way, and Grant’s soldiers proved to be excellent foragers.

During the 17-day period after landing at Bruinsburg, Grant’s Army of the Tennessee marched 180 miles, fought and won five major engagements—Port Gibson (May 1), Raymond (May 12), Jackson (May 14), Champion Hill (May 16), and Big Black River (May 17)—inflicting 7,200 casualties to 4,300 of his own, pinned Pemberton’s army inside the defenses of Vicksburg, and with his right flank now anchored on the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers north of the city, reestablished his lines of communication and supply.

The Confederate defenders repulsed several direct assaults against Vicksburg’s lines, so Grant settled in for a siege, the outcome of which was not in doubt. On May 24, Grant advised Halleck that the enemy “was in our grasp. The fall of Vicksburg and the capture of most of the garrison can only be a matter of time.” The city surrendered on July 4, one day after Lee was turned back at Gettysburg.

The keys to the Union victory at Vicksburg were Grant’s bold decision to cross the Mississippi River south of the city, his risky decision to abandon his supply and communication lines with the Mississippi, and his subsequent execution of the lightning campaign of maneuver during May 1863. Those who think of Grant as a butcher need to examine this masterpiece of operational art.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and teaches in the American history and government M.A. program at Ashland University of Ohio.