Grant’s Failed First Assault upon Vicksburg

May 19, 1863 (Tuesday)

General Grant rightly believed it had been a rout. The Rebels under John Pemberton were divided and thrown back at Champion Hill, and then soundly thrashed the next day at Big Black River Bridge. In their short tramp to the defenses of Vicksburg, Pemberton’s Confederates shed stragglers in droves. They were scooped up by Grant’s pursuit and seemed, by all reasoning, to be completely demoralized.

Union assault upon Vicksburg
Union assault upon Vicksburg

Arriving before the parapets of Vicksburg the day before, Grant resolved to his the Rebels quickly, taking away any chance they had to reinforce or bolster their defenses. But first, his army must eat. Since the beginning of May, they had been living off the land. It had been tenuous at best. Now, with a new supply line set up across the Yazoo River north of Vicksburg, the army could once again feed itself.

Grant’s Army had invested the Confederate left and center with its three corps. This was by design. If any help was to come to Pemberton, it was come from Joe Johnston’s hovering force in the northeast. If Pemberton tried to escape, he would attempt to break out and head to the northeast. And so, with William Tecumseh Sherman on the right, James McPherson in the center and John McClernand on the left, the Army of the Tennessee had effectively backed the Confederate Army of the Mississippi up against its namesake river.

But investing wasn’t enough. Grant wanted to put an end it. While his Army was resupplying, he ordered the assault to begin at 2pm. Moving into position in time, however, was a near impossibility. Many of Sherman’s XV Corps were set, but for McPherson’s XVII Corps and especially McClernand’s XIII Corps, deep ravines had to be crossed, ridges had to be scaled and thick underbrush had to be waded. Slowly, they crept towards the Confederate works as the enemy artillery began to find its mark. By 2pm, very few of McClernand’s men were where they were supposed to be, and McPherson’s Corps was about 1000 very difficult yards from the Rebel lines.

Today's Approximate Map is full of approximateness.
Today’s Approximate Map is full of approximateness.

Only Sherman’s troops were ready to step off when the signal was given for the assault to begin. Grant’s plan for a simultaneous, all out attack, was crushed before it began. But it began anyway.

Before Sherman’s men was a strong point in the Confederate lines called Stockade Redan. It was located at a sharp bend in the entrenchments. This salient allowed Sherman to hit it from two sides at once, but it was also protected by other Confederate trappings that could catch Sherman’s men in a crossfire.

Following an entire morning of artillery bombardment, Stockade Redan looked no worse for wear. At 2pm, when the assault came, it was more than ground than the Rebels that slowed them. By the time they reached the works, many of the men were exhausted. Confederate firepower did the rest.

They arrived before the works and found them towering over the troops. The Rebels and their slaves had dug a trench on the Federal side, making ladders an absolute necessity in scaling the embrasures. A look to the south showed all that neither McPherson nor McClernand was able to attack in earnest. There was nothing they could do but stay where they were.

Huddled under the Confederate works actually protected them from the enemy artillery. To retreat meant to be potentially mowed down. But they could not stay pressed against it forever. Thankfully, they had to wait only until darkness. When it came, the Rebels built fires all along the top of their escarpments in hopes of illuminating the Federals below. All it accomplished, however, was silhouetting any Confederate who moved up top, making him an easy target for entire Union regiments waiting for something to shoot at.

In reality, though quick in coming, the attacks never stood a chance. Grant wanted a quick strike, but it was too soon. His men never had time to get into position. But General Grant was undaunted. He would give it some time and try again. Maybe the Rebels weren’t as demoralized as he had first believed, but he had whipped them before and was determined to do it again.1

  1. Sources: Nothing But Victory by Steven E. Woodworth; Vicksburg by Michael B. Ballard; Grant Rises in the West by Kenneth Williams; Pemberton by John C. Pemberton. []
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Grant’s Failed First Assault upon Vicksburg by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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