May 22, 1863 (Friday)
General Grant’s attack upon the Vicksburg defenses on the 19th had not gone well at all. Nothing was gained because two of his three corps were not ready to launch an attack. Taking a couple of days to rethink the plan, the approaches, and to allow his men to crawl into better positions, believed Grant, would do the trick.
The previous day (the 21st), feeling all was ready, Grant issued the orders for the next day’s attack to begin at 10am. He was, of course, confident that it would succeed. And if it did, he could then turn on Joe Johnston’s force, hovering somewhere north of Jackson, destroying it before even more reinforcements could add to its strength.
Calling his three corps commanders together, Grant had them synchronize their watches with his. There would be no signal aside from the clock striking ten. The men would advance, bayonets fixed, and not fire a shot until they were inside the enemy works. The waiting was nearly unbearable and morale plummeted. Having seen the Confederate works up close, Grant’s troops had quickly lost faith that they could successfully assault them.
The Union artillery had kept up a steady pace since the 19th, but now, as the hour approached, its crescendo reached a steady roar, making it impossible for the opposing Confederates to work their guns in reply. But the quickened pace convinced the Rebels that the attack they knew was coming, was indeed at hand. Risking and giving their lives to beat it back, the Confederate artillerists again took to their pieces, ready to fire canister and grape at the deadly blue lines.
And at ten o’clock they came. All across the lines, William Tecumseh Sherman’s Corps on the right, James McPherson’s in the center, and John McClernand’s on the left, advanced as the Rebels unleashed hell itself upon them.
Sherman’s main assault was led by 150 men – all volunteers – with ladders. Guns strapped to their backs, they rushed forward to bridge the trench placed by the Rebels before their works and the scale the works themselves. Even Sherman knew this plan was doomed, calling the squad, “a forlorn hope.”
When but 100 feet away from the Confederate defenses, the Rebels rose up and delivered a volley into them. Some fell, to be sure, but the majority made it into the relative cover of the trench. It took three minutes and now all they had to do was wait for the rest of the Corps to catch up. While their comrades advanced, some dug holes into the escarpment for better cover, and planted regimental flags along the Rebel lines.
The rest of the troops were coming, but under a galling Rebel fire. Some units raced to the trench, while others fell flat upon the road or hid behind ridges to avoid being hit. The prostrated regiments forced the units behind them to detour, collecting more death as they went.
Grant’s orderly assault had devolved into separate masses clamoring towards the Confederate works, flowing at will into the cover of the trench. The same story repeated itself all up and down the lines. The Federals would advance in column under a deadly and exacting fire, until they made it to the trench where they found themselves stuck. In this fashion, the hot day tarried on relentless. Throats parched and dried in the sun for lack of water, and many succumbed to heat stroke.
At first, the trench was a refreshing respite. The Confederates could not fire down into it, so close was it to their works. Then someone in gray got the idea to lob hand grenades over the parapets into the Union ranks. At first, their lobbing landed the devices on the other side of the trench, causing little damage to anyone. Then, around noon, after figuring out their error, the Confederates began rolling them down the steep embrasures, right into the Federal masses. The Union troops could sometimes grab the grenades and toss them back into the Rebel lines, but soon the Southerners got wise to this and cut the fuses shorter, so that they would explode as soon as they landed among the Federals.
On the Union left, General McClernand was convinced that he had a breakthrough. He wasn’t entirely mistaken in this. His artillery had succeeded in punching a hole through a log fort and some of his boys from Iowa streamed into it. On the other side of the breech, however, they were greeted with a killing fire that forced them back out and into the trench like the rest of the army.
Seeing the break, McClernand called upon Grant for reinforcements and for General McPherson in the center to create some sort of diversion. Grant quickly replied that if McClernand needed reinforcements, he should use the troops he left in reserve before making the attack. But McClernand somehow failed to retain reserves and had not an extra man to throw in to exploit his supposed advantage.
Undaunted, McClernand wrote back, telling Grant that his men had taken control of two of the Confederate forts – if Grant could only see the stars and stripes floating freely above them! But Grant could see no such thing. From his vantage point that gave him a fine look over the entire front, he only saw pockets of troops huddled in the trench before the Rebel works. Peering through his glass, he saw no Federal flags, no breakthroughs, nothing that McClernand was describing.
General Sherman, who was with him, urged Grant to act upon it. He reasoned that the message was official. It was personally signed by John McClernand, and though nobody really liked him or trusted him even a little bit, Sherman couldn’t believe that a Major-General in the Army of the Tennessee would just make up something of this nature.
But Grant wasn’t so sure, and decided to ride over to McClernand’s lines to see for himself. He ordered Sherman and McPherson to renew the assaults at 3pm, telling the latter to send an entire division to help out McClernand’s supposed breakthrough.
The renewed assault came and ended just as the first had ended. The troops had collected in the trench and could go no farther. “This is murder,” said Sherman to one of his officers, “order those troops back.” Getting back with the sun still shining was a near impossibility, and so it wasn’t until nightfall that they were able to slide out and back into their own lines.
General Sherman summed it up perfectly in a quick letter to Grant: “We have had a hard day’s work, and all are exhausted.”
To Admiral David Dixon Porter, commanding the Union Naval flotilla nearby, Grant explained that he would need all the help he could get, especially the mortar boats. “I now find the position of the enemy so strong that I shall be compelled to regularly besiege the city,” he wrote.
General McClernand’s report that his men had taken two forts, was, in Grant’s mind, a complete fabrication. It was no mere misunderstanding or faulty intelligence. It was simply a lie told to get reinforcements sent to his own front. For a time, Grant considered relieving McClernand of duty, but, with the General’s strong connections in Washington, coupled with the two failed assaults upon Vicksburg, that might not be the best move.
And so, keeping a close eye upon McClernand’s command, Grant began the long process of digging in and laying siege to the city of Vicksburg.1
- Sources: Grant Rises in the West by Kenneth P. Williams; Vicksburg by Michael B. Ballard; Nothing But Glory by Steven E. Woodworth; Vicksburg is the Key by William L. Shea. [↩]