January 14, 1863 (Wednesday)
January had, thus far, not been the best of times for General Ulysses S. Grant. Politically, he had been forced by President Lincoln himself to rescind an order vanquishing all Jews from his department. He did so, but offered no apology. Militarily speaking, William Tecumseh Sherman’s short campaign to take Vicksburg had failed miserably. As a follow up, John McClernand swooped down the Mississippi River, took command of Sherman’s force (which was actually two corps in Grant’s Army), redubbed them as his own “Army of the Mississippi,” steamed up the Arkansas River and reduced Confederate Fort Hindman – all without Grant’s knowledge.
Grant finally learned what his underling was up to on the day McClernand attacked the Rebel fort. By then it was too late. Still, Grant ordered McClernand and his two corps back to the Mississippi River.
During all of this, Grant, now based out of Memphis, was trying to figure out a way to take Vicksburg. First, however, he had to fix the damage done by Confederate cavalry in northern Mississippi and Tennessee. Raiders under Earl Van Dorn and Nathan Bedford Forrest had made quick work of Federal supplies and infrastructure. Bridges were to be repaired, as well as railroads.
It was around this time that Grant ordered all Southern sympathizers out of Memphis, believing they greatly aided Van Dorn and Forrest. But what he wanted was an army in the field.
A couple of things were supposed to come together that were simply not working. For starters, Nathaniel Banks had taken command in New Orleans. He and his Army of the Gulf were to drive north up the Mississippi to join with Grant in taking Vicksburg. Grant expected him to move, but alas, Banks was doing nothing of the sort.
He also learned that Union General William Rosecrans had defeated Braxton Bragg at Stone’s River, Tennessee. This was, of course, good news, but it also meant that Bragg was retreating closer and closer to Grant’s department. Might this mean that Bragg would speed down and threaten Grant’s rear? Crazier things had happened.
Through all of this, Grant decided to take to the field. He would first send a brigade to meet McClernand at the mouth of the Arkansas River, and would then come himself with two divisions. When all was assembled, they would push off, hopefully by the 18th.
On the 13th, Grant received McClernand’s report from the battle of Fort Hindman. He was more or less unimpressed since it had been undertaken without orders and had used up David Dixon Porter’s Union Flotilla. According to Porter, it would take fifteen days for it to be refitted. Fifteen days was ten days after Grant wanted to get started.
Having no real idea what McClernand was up to, Grant merely hoped that he would follow orders. He suspected, however, that the errant General would move up river towards Duvall’s Bluff to threaten Little Rock, Arkansas.
But McClernand was not heading towards Little Rock. It was not, however, because he didn’t want to. “I would sail from here to Little Rock,” wrote McClernand to Grant on this date, “and reduce that place but for want of sufficient water in the channel of the Arkansas River.” Instead, he would do as Grant ordered and return to the Mississippi River.
However, it would not be right away. He told Grant that he would “immediately return with my command [to the Mississippi],” but that’s not what he did. “My orders from Major-General Grant require me at once to go to Napoleon [on the Mississippi],” McClernand told General Willis Gorman, in command of Federal troops at Helena, Arkansas, “but I shall delay a day or two in order to threaten Little Rock and Pine Bluff as a diversion in your favor.”
It was clear, and would soon become clearer, that John McClernand was not one to take orders, even from his Army commander, all too seriously.1
- Sources: Grant Rises in the West by Kenneth P. Williams; Vicksburg by Michael B. Ballard; Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 17, Part 2, p560-562. [↩]