October 20, 1862 (Monday)
Confederate success in the West was hard to come by. Nowhere was this more obvious than along the Mississippi River. Every single Rebel stronghold, from Fort Pillow to New Orleans, had been lost to Federal forces. That is, except for Vicksburg and Port Hudson. If Vicksburg fell, however, Port Hudson wouldn’t be too far behind.
The Federal Navy had attempted to force Vicksburg’s surrender, but were met with cold resistance. The city, though situated on the river, was well behind current Confederate lines. The Rebel force blocking the way had been defeated at Corinth, Mississippi, but was still quite formidable.
Two commands, under Generals Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price, had combined and attacked the Union-held Corinth. Federal troops under General William Rosecrans (himself under Ulysses S. Grant) had successfully defended their positions. They did not, however, follow the retreating Rebels.
In the days since the battle, the entire Confederate army was placed under General John C. Pemberton (not to be confused with John S. Pemberton, also a Confederate, who invented Coca-Cola in 1865). Pemberton was born and raised in Pennsylvania. He went to the University of Pennsylvania and then to West Point. His military career took him all across the eastern United States, north and south. But it was the south, in Virginia, where he met his wife and settled down. When the war started, he was a Federal officer stationed in Washington, DC. But when Virginia seceded, he went with her.
Now, he found himself in command of the Department of Mississippi and Eastern Louisiana, as well as all of Price and Van Dorn’s 30,000 men. President Jefferson Davis seemed to know that Van Dorn’s campaign against Corinth would fail, as he had sent Pemberton to Mississippi before the battle to pick up the pieces afterwards.
Van Dorn was, of course, fairly unhappy about this arrangement. He had been the head of both the army and the department, but fully understood that he was now head of nothing. It wasn’t that he was ousted from command and driven from the field, it was more like he was given a leash.
From his camp in Holly Springs, Van Dorn worried about Grant’s Union forces gathering around Grand Junction, roughly thirty miles northeast. There were 45,000 of them and they were growing more numerous each day. He implored Pemberton to come see the situation for himself. By this date, the new department commander was with his new army.
It wasn’t that Van Dorn had nothing to worry about. While Grant’s forces were gathering, he (Grant) had no immediate and approved plans to attack. By this time, Grant was probably working on one that he would soon submit to Washington, but for the time being, he was holding steady.
The plan that Grant was hammering out was a brash, overland move down the eastern bank of the Mississippi River to eventually force the surrender of Vicksburg. This was a plan that Lincoln would most certainly favor.
Lincoln, however, was a step ahead of Grant on this point. He knew Vicksburg must be taken, but seemed to have little faith that Grant would have the time or resources to take it.
In stepped John McClernand, a politician-turned-officer from Illinois. Though he had no real military training, during the battles for Forts Henry and Donelson, he more or less proved himself. Like most politicians, his biggest problem was his mouth. He could not keep it shut. It seemed that every time he opened it, he was speaking ill of fellow commanders and any troops who were not his. It all came to a head with Grant in August, when he asked Washington for a leave of absence to help raise troops in his home state.
That was only part of it, however. McClernand used his time wisely, traveling to Washington to bend Lincoln’s ear. What he wanted to do was raise a special force specifically for taking Vicksburg. He, along with Naval forces under David Dixon Porter, would steam down the river and take the city.
This special force was to be limited to 20,000 men, but McClernand wanted 5,000 from Grant’s command. He gave a list of thirteen specific regiments that he wanted for his own.
On this date, Lincoln agreed to McClernand’s plan, allowing him to raise troops from Indiana, Illinois and Iowa, and to lead the expedition himself.
The following day, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton would make it official. After the troops were raised, they were to gather at Cairo, Illinois and then, when ready, would move “against Vicksburg and to clear the Mississippi River and open navigation to New Orleans.”
Left out of this entire operation was not only General Grant, but General-in-Chief Henry Halleck. While Grant wouldn’t find out about this until later, Halleck knew about it right away. He never had much use for politicians and had no love for those who played soldier. Most of all, he was not even a little happy that this whole military operation had been concocted and approved of by civilians.
By the time the orders were officially submitted, Halleck must have gotten Secretary Stanton’s attention, insisting that McClernand’s expedition be subject to Halleck’s orders and judgment. It wasn’t exactly getting his way, but at least he could allow it to not get out of hand. For the time being, the mission was secret. This secrecy, however, would not last long.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 16, Part 2, p502, 747-748; Darkest Days of the War by Peter Cozzens; Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; Henry Halleck’s War by Curt Anders; The Mississippi by Francis Vinton Greene; Vicksburg by Michael B. Ballard. [↩]