Drama in the West, Even Without the Rebels

December 18, 1862 (Thursday)

Today, Grant learns about compromise.

Ulysses S. Grant had more problems than the Confederates and the illegal cotton trade to worry about in Northern Mississippi. He also had quite a bit of concern over John McClernand’s secret and independent Federal command currently gathering in Memphis.

McClernand was a political general who had a falling out with Grant, went to Washington and convinced Lincoln to allow him to raise troops in Illinois for a special campaign against Vicksburg, Mississippi. Originally supposed to be a secret, Grant found out about it and, along with help from General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, managed to gain some control over this new expedition.

While Grant had some nominal control, he figured that it was tenuous, at best. He knew that Vicksburg had to be taken and that if McClernand showed up, it would just add confusion to the already bubbling pot.

For a time, he considered sending William Tecumseh Sherman back to Memphis to organize an amphibious expedition against Vicksburg (which sounded an awful lot like McClernand’s idea). Not only did Grant figure McClernand would add confusion, but he didn’t feel that the political general had what it took to successfully launch a campaign. Grant simply didn’t trust him in any way, shape or form. In a letter to Halleck on the 14th, Grant requested that McClernand not be sent to him at all, calling him “unmanageable and incompetent.”

I’m unmanageable and incompetent!

After much deliberation, Grant decided to chance it and send Sherman down the Mississippi River with a force of 40,000. While Sherman readied his men, McClernand wired President Lincoln that he was ready to launch his secret expedition with 40,000 troops.

The problem was that these were the same exact 40,000 troops. Grant was given command of any units sent to his department. Since McClernand’s men were sent to Memphis, they technically were Grant’s to use.

McClernand also wrote to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, telling him that he was “anxiously awaiting your order sending me forward for duty in connection with the Mississippi expedition.”

Stanton replied dismissively, telling McClernand that he thought Halleck had already issued the orders. McClernand began to smell a rat, but dutifully wrote to Halleck to see what was up.

“I beg to be sent forward,” he wrote, “in accordance with the order of the Secretary of War … giving me command of the Mississippi expedition.”

McClernand waited for a reply, but none came that day (the 16th). And so, in the morning of the next day, after putting the pieces together, he wired both Lincoln and Stanton: “I believe I am superseded. Please inquire and let me know whether it is or shall be true.”

Stanton responded with a bit of word jugglery. McClernand wasn’t actually being superseded. The plan, explained the Secretary, was for McClernand to raise the troops and send them to Memphis. Since Memphis was in Grant’s department, they were to be incorporated into three corps of Grant’s army. McClernand, however, would still have command of those corps.

But this wasn’t at all what he, Lincoln and Stanton had discussed. The troops raised by McClernand were originally to be commanded by McClernand and McClernand only. Grant was to have nothing at all to do with it.

The next day (that is to say, this date), everything was cleared up and whatever machinations McClernand had were squashed completely. From Washington, Grant received formal orders to organize his Army of the Tennessee into four corps (eventually to become the XIII, XV, XVI, and XVII Corps). He was to give one of the corps to McClernand and make sure that it “constituted part of the river expedition and that he shall have the immediate command under your direction.”

Grant probably saw this as a compromise. Though he didn’t want McClernand in his department at all, even more he didn’t want him having an independent command on the Mississippi River. Wasting no time at all, Grant wrote to McClernand with the good news.

He informed McClernand that he was giving him two divisions and that he would be joined by Sherman’s corps for the expedition. “Written and verbal instructions have been given General Sherman,” explained Grant, “which will be turned over to you on your arrival at Memphis.”

Grant hoped that the expedition could begin immediately, but McClernand was to inform him if any “unforeseen obstacles should be in your way.” With Sherman already in Memphis, it seemed fairly clear that if McClernand couldn’t make it on time, Grant was completely fine with starting without him.

Forrest and his quaff.

On this same day, Grant learned that Confederate cavalier, Nathan Bedford Forrest, was on the loose well behind him, on the west side of the Tennessee River. Forrest had whipped some Federal cavalry in Lexington and seemed to be headed to Jackson. Grant ordered three different forces to culminate and stop the Rebels from destroying his lines of communication. They were to keep Forrest from escaping and destroy him. It was a bit of underestimation, of course, but Grant wanted to teach Forrest a lesson.

An additional Confederate cavalry force, however, was also on the prowl. General Pemberton, commanding the Rebels opposing Grant, had given Earl Van Dorn 2,500 cavalry troopers to destroy Grant’s supply depot at Holly Springs. Taking a crooked path, Van Dorn fooled the Yankees and even his own men to his destination. By this date, they were New Albany, southeast of Grant’s position, and ready to strike.1

  1. Sources: Official Records Series 1, Vol. 17, Part 2, p420, 425, 432-433; Vol. 52, Part 1, p313; Vicksburg by Michael B. Ballard; Nothing But Victory by Steven E. Woodworth; Grant Rises in the West by Kenneth P. Williams. []
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Drama in the West, Even Without the Rebels by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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