June 1, 1863 (Monday)
It appears that things in the east may just be heating up. Therefore, dear readers, it might be a good time to check back in on Generals Grant way out west.
Following Grant’s failed May 22 assault upon John Pemberton’s defenses at Vicksburg, a lull descended over the land, at least as far as the infantry were concerned. Quickly did Grant come to the conclusion that the assault was a mistake. Even if General John McClernand would have followed orders, the weaponry of the day made sieges an entirely different affair than what was taught to all at West Point.
As the Federal artillery took up the task of pounding the living hell out of Vicksburg, on the 25th, Pemberton requested a flag of truce so that the Federals could retrieve their dead from the trenches and slopes of his defenses. After three long hot days, the decaying corpses of the dead had made life for the living even more unpleasant than the siege itself. Grant agreed and soon this macabre task, which had grown all too common, was complete.
At times, some Confederate soldiers tried to take advantage of the ceasefire to cross over into Federal lines to surrender. Strictly speaking, this was against the civilized rules of war. Soldiers could neither fire nor desert during a flag of truce. Rather than break these rules, some Federal officers turned back the wayward Rebels, explaining that they were not barbarians who could desert their army willy nilly. There was indeed a proper time and a place for everything, desertion withstanding, and this was not it.
With the flag of truce at an end, escaping from Vicksburg into Grant’s Army of the Tennessee was no simple task. Along with the artillery keeping up a continuous roar, the Federals had myriad sharpshooters placed up and down their lines. The only job of the sharpshooter was to kill any Rebel who so much as poked his head above the parapets. Your average sharpshooter might fire as many as thirty rounds a day, having no real idea if any or all met their mark.
Grant’s infantry, however, was not idle. Each night as the siege progressed, they inched their entrenchments closer and closer to the Confederate defenses. Most soldiers throughout the siege used a spade much more than a rifle.
But Grant had another problem in the shape of XIII Corps Commander, John McClernand, whose rise in the Army of the Tennessee was one of opportunity and politics (though mostly the latter). On May 30, General McClernand penned a congratulatory order to his corps, detailing their good work in the campaign thus far. There was nothing at all improper in doing just that. But McClernand, as an egotist and all around irritation, could hardly stop at simply congratulating his troops.
General McClernand made two mistakes. The first was contained in the message itself. Following a gushing retelling of the campaign, he gave his own interpretation of why the May 22 assault failed:
How and why the general assault failed, it would be useless now to explain. The Thirteenth army corps, acknowledging the good intentions of all, would scorn indulgence in weak regrets and idle criminations. According justice to all, it would only defend itself. If while the enemy was massing to crush it, assistance was asked for a diversion at other points or by reinforcement, it only asked what, in one case, Maj.Gen. Grant had specifically and peremptorily ordered, namely, simultaneous and persistent attacks all along our lines, until the enemy’s outer works should be carried: and what in the other by massing a strong force in time upon a weakened point, would have probably insured success.
This statement, while McClernand’s own overly-wordy opinion, probably should have been left out. Blaming the commanding General of the army for the failed assault was probably not the best idea McClernand ever had. It was, however, a thousand times better of an idea than how he proceeded.
Rather than submitting the order to Grant’s headquarters, as was done with every other order written, McClernand instead submitted it to at least two newspapers sympathetic to his machinations. Other papers, all across the country, would soon pick up the piece and publish it in turn.
This wasn’t just a bad idea, this was an offense whose punishment was dismissal from the service. The year previous, Grant issued an order (General Orders No. 151) “forbidding the publication of all official letters and reports.” It required the writer “to be laid before the President of the United States for dismissal.”
Grant would not find out about this for another two weeks.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, Part 1, p159-161, 162; Vicksburg by Michael B. Ballard; Nothing But Victory by Steven E. Woodworth. [↩]