May 8, 1863 (Friday)
When last we checked in with General Grant, he and two-thirds of his Army of Tennessee had landed on the eastern bank of the Mississippi and had an intense throwdown with Confederates at Port Gibson on May 1st. In the week that had since passed, he was not stagnant.
What Grant first needed to do following his victory was get men across Little Bayou Pierre and capture Grand Gulf, due north, which he could then turn into a supply depot for the coming overland campaign. The Confederates, when finally retreating from Port Gibson, also evacuated Grand Gulf. But in doing so, they burned every bridge that the Federals could use to get there. This was a huge dilemma, costing Grant days to remedy. While some of his troops scouted for good crossings, his engineers rebuilt bridges.
With him, Grant had two corps (the XIII Corps under John McClernand, and the XVII Corps under James McPherson), and decided to divide his force. While the XIII Corps pushed north to Grant Gulf, he sent the XVII Corps on the northeast road to Grindstone Ford.
Ultimately, the plan had been for Grant to send McClernand’s Corps (XIII) south to assist General Nathaniel Banks’ Army of the Gulf in taking the Rebel bastion of Port Hudson, following which, they would all come back north and take Vicksburg. But when Grant got to Grand Gulf, he received the letter Banks wrote on April 22nd. Basically, Banks couldn’t help. He had inexplicably taken most of his army well out of the picture and was currently in Alexandria, Louisiana, far up the Red River.
Grant barely even seemed to notice. If Banks could not help him, it was no matter. He would do it himself. By this time (and it was only the 4th!), McPherson’s troops had made it to Hankerson’s Ferry on the Big Black River – the last river they had to cross to get at Vicksburg from the south.
But taking Vicksburg from the south, thought Grant, might not be the best option. The ground was horrible, the Rebels could easily defend it, all the while receiving supplies and reinforcements from Jackson. So instead, he decided to give up Hankerson’s Ferry and march northeast in the direction of Jackson. He hoped to draw Pemberton out and defeat him in detail.
He also decided to wait until William Tecumseh Sherman’s XV Corps arrived from opposite Vicksburg. This would take three days. In the meantime, he sent out detachments and scouts to various directions, hoping to confuse General Pemberton, commanding the Mississippi Confederates. It worked, and, though based out of Vicksburg, Warrenton, and near the railroad bridge spanning the Big Black River, the Rebels were spread thin at first.
Commanding in the field, Confederate General William Loring had figured out that Grant was not about taking Warrenton, but was headed farther inland. He concentrated the spread out forces and waited for Pemberton to make up his mind – should he defend Vicksburg or attack Grant?
This bit of confusion came partially from conflicting advice given to Pemberton by his superiors. General Joe Johnston, commanding the Department of Mississippi, wanted Pemberton to leave the trenches of Vicksburg, find Grant and turn him back. President Jefferson Davis, on the other hand, wanted Pemberton to save Vicksburg at all costs. Since President trumped General, Davis’ thinking won out. Soon, any reinforcements Pemberton might receive were funneled directly into the Vicksburg defenses, leaving General Loring with a much smaller than necessary force.
On the Union side of things, Grant’s troops were moving far too slow for his liking. Sherman did not finish crossing the Mississippi to Grand Gulf until the 7th. He (Sherman) wanted to delay longer, figuring that he needed to establish an organized supply line. This would take far too much time, thought Grant. He ordered Sherman and the other two Corps commanders to live off the land as much as possible. The more time it took the Union Army to get organized, the most time the Rebels would have to strengthen their position.
On this date, Grant began moving in earnest towards Jackson. Moving on parallel roads, McClernand’s troops had the right, while McPherson’s had the left. Sherman’s would bring up the rear.1
- Nothing But Victory by Steven E. Wordworth; Grant Rises in the West by Kenneth P. Williams; Vicksburg by Michael B. Ballard. [↩]