July 6, 1863 (Monday)
William Tecumseh Sherman was not at Vicksburg when it was surrendered to the Federals under General Grant. He had been ordered to head up a force of 34,000 troops sent towards the east to find Confederate General Joe Johnston. As the paroled Vicksburg Rebels under John Pemberton stacked arms and marched out of the city, Joe Johnston’s so-called Army of Relief retreated east from their positions along the Big Black River towards Jackson, about forty miles east of Vicksburg.
As Grant had held Sherman in waiting just west of the Big Black, Johnston too waited for word of Pemberton’s surrender before falling back to Jackson. By that time, Johnston had convinced himself that attacking Sherman’s force guarding Grant’s rear would be suicide, and he had begun to slide his 30,000 men south to bypass when he received word of Vicksburg’s capitulation. Immediately, he turned his army around and marched towards Jackson.
Mississippi during this hot July was rainless and parched. Knowing that Sherman’s men would need water to pursue him, Johnston ordered all the wells in the area to be fouled. Ultimately, Johnston feared being besieged in Jackson and wanted nothing of it. If there was no water, it would force Sherman to attack at once.
Grant’s words to Sherman reached him earlier – on the 3rd. Though the surrender wasn’t yet finalized, things seemed headed in that direction. “I want you to drive Johnston from the Mississippi Central Railroad” wrote Grant to Sherman on the night of the 3rd, “destroy bridges as far as Grenada with your cavalry, and do the enemy all the harm possible. You can make your own arrangements and have all the troops of my command, except one corps—McPherson’s, say. I must have some troops to send to Banks, to use against Port Hudson.” [We’ll get to the siege of Port Hudson soon enough, I assure you.]
Sherman already had three corps at his disposal. The XIII under General E.O.C. Ord, which crossed at the railroad, the XV Corps commanded by Frederick Steele, which crossed to the north at Messinger’s, and John Parke’s IX Corps, which had been sent from Ambrose Burnside in Ohio, which crossed to the north at Birdsong Ferry. All were ordered to converge on Bolton, from where they would launch their final assault upon Johnston at Jackson.
While Johnston would make Jackson by July 8th, Sherman wouldn’t arrive until the 10th. In his memoirs, Sherman wrote that “the weather was fearfully hot, and water scarce. Johnston had marched rapidly, and in retreating had caused cattle, hogs, and sheep, to be driven into the ponds of water, and there shot down; so that we had to haul their dead and stinking carcasses out to use the water.”
But there were scenes more gruesome than what Sherman described. After crossing [and we are delving a bit into the “future” here], Sherman’s men encamped upon the old battlefield at Champion Hill. “We reached it in the night and bivouacked on the very spot where we had fought,” recalled Samuel Byers of Sherman’s staff.
“It was a strange happening. Our sensations were very unusual, for we realized that all about us there in the woods were the graves of our buried comrades and the still unburied bones of many of our foes. Save an occasional hooting owl the woods were sad and silent. Before we lay down in the leaves to sleep the glee club of Company B sang that plaintive song, ‘We’re Tenting To-night on the Old Camp Ground.’ Never was a song sung under sadder circumstances. All the night a terrible odor filled the bivouac.
“When daylight came one of the boys came to our company and said, ‘Go over to that hollow, and you will see hell.’ Some of us went. We looked but once. Dante himself never conjured anything so horrible as the reality before us. After the battle the Rebels in their haste had tossed hundreds of their dead into this little ravine and slightly covered them over with earth, but the rains had come, and the earth was washed away, and there stood or lay hundreds of half-decayed corpses. Some were grinning skeletons, some were headless, some armless, some had their clothes torn away, and some were mangled by dogs and wolves. The horror of that spectacle followed us for weeks. That, too, was war!”
Sherman’s men, incensed that Johnston spoiled the water, wreaked a destruction all their own as they marched towards Jackson. Homes ransacked for food before being put to the torch. Those which were not burned were torn apart from the inside out. Valuables and items of no worth apart from sentimental were either stolen or destroyed by Federal troops.
As his men neared Jackson, an elderly lady of ninety-five years called into her sorry home a doctor traveling with Sherman. She demanded to know why the Union Army was waging a war against women, children and the sick.
“Gentlemen,” she spoke, “look through my house; if you live to be as old as I am, pray never to see the like again as long as you live! Look into that room… ; see how the soldier tore up my things! My daughter lay in there sick; and she has a sick little baby; yet they took the clothes off her bed; tore open the feather beds; broke up the furniture, as you can see!”
Sherman, long before the campaign which made him feared and infamous, showed the people of Mississippi that war was indeed hell.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, Part 1, p245; Part 3, p461; Vicksburg by Michael B. Ballard; Joseph E. Johnston by Craig L. Symonds; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; With Fire and Sword by Samuel Hawkins Marshall Byers. [↩]