Grant’s Rising Troubles in the West

January 28, 1863 (Wednesday)

Confederate President Jefferson Davis was more than a little worried about the Mississippi River. Federal troops and gunboats were slowly squeezing their control up and down its banks. Having not heard from his Arkansas general, Theophilus Holmes, in nearly a month, he decided to touch base and explain the situation.

Grant’s got 99 problems, but a ditch ain’t one. Actually, the ditch is rather troublesome.

“The loss of either of the two positions, Vicksburg and Port Hudson,” wrote Davis, “would destroy communication with the Trans-Mississippi Department and inflict upon the Confederacy an injury which I am sure you have not failed to appreciate.”

He again urged co-operation between Holmes and General John Pemberton, commanding the troops at Vicksburg and Port Hudson, but he also threw another name into the hat. Kirby Smith, from last autumn’s Kentucky Campaign, had been placed in command of the Louisiana and Texas troops. From the wording (“General E. Kirby Smith has been sent to take command of the department to be composed of Louisiana and Texas.”), Davis made it sound like they were creating a new department just for Smith.

And thus far, that was the case. Theophilus Holmes was still in command of Arkansas and Missouri. Davis expected that the friendship between Smith and Holmes would help their working relationship. Together, they could do something about the large force of Yankees assembling on the lower Mississippi. Holmes was also charged with securing Arkansas and invading Missouri in hopes of drawing off troops from General Grant’s large force above Vicksburg.

General Grant’s hulking Army of the Tennessee was certainly menacing. But for the time being, Grant had troubles of his own.

First was General John McClernand. Originally, McClernand was to command a completely independent expedition to take Vicksburg. After all was said and done, however, William Tecumseh Sherman led the campaign under the flag of Grant. With the loss at Chickasaw Bayou, just north of Vicksburg, McClernand arrived and wrested command from Sherman (and Grant), making his very own little army.

This unofficial mass of men steamed up the Arkansas River, and took Fort Hindman before Grant even knew what his own troops were up to – McClernand never bothered to inform him until it was far too late.

Get to know Vicksburg – you’ll be here for awhile.

In Grant’s mind, McClernand had to go. “I regard it as my duty to state that there was not sufficient confidence felt in General McClernand as a commander, either by the Army of Navy, to insure him success,” wrote Grant to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck on January 20th. Grant cautioned Halleck that he wasn’t the only one that felt this way. Admiral David Dixon Porter, leading the Federal Navy in the Upper Mississippi, felt likewise.

But even if McClernand would simply disappear, Grant’s troubles were far from over. Getting to Vicksburg wasn’t nearly as simple as first suspected. The weather was turning foul and the waters were rising. Cutting new roads across land was now completely impossible due to the rains.

Getting at Vicksburg from the north via the river was nearly impossible. Confederate heavy artillery virtually blanketed the channel. Before steaming into Vicksburg, the Federal Naval vessels would have to navigate around Youngs Point, a sharp bend in the river completely covered by the Rebels. Once on the other side of the bend, however, they would be below Vicksburg.

And thus the idea of a canal by-passing Youngs Point and Vicksburg was invented. It wasn’t the first canal along the Mississippi to be attempted. One had been tried last year up the river a bit (called the William’s Canal), but was abandoned.

This new canal would take what they learned from the previous attempt and would thus, Grant hoped, be successful. Time would tell.

But still, there was yet another problem. This one could easily be solved by Washington. Grant commanded only the east bank of the Mississippi River. He had received much co-operation from Samuel Curtis, commanding the west bank, but still, it was an awkward way to do things, especially with a canal being built on the western side.

“Both banks of the Mississippi should be under one commander, at least during present operations,” wrote Grant to Halleck. To this, President Lincoln immediately acquiesced, giving Grant all of Arkansas that he needed for the Vicksburg Campaign. Both banks were now Grant’s.

Oh, and Port Hudson, too.

This led to another problem with another Banks. General Nathaniel Banks had been sent to New Orleans with the Army of the Gulf, 31,000-strong, to steam up the Mississippi and take Vicksburg from the south. Standing in their way, however, was Port Hudson, a formidable fort with a long series of artillery positions. Getting at the thing would be deadly. Taking it out might prove impossible. Grant could expect no help anytime soon from Nathaniel Banks.

Grant had been in Memphis most of January, but now he was ready to take the field. He arrived at Youngs Point in the evening of this date, being urged by Lincoln to press forward with the canal project. But his mere presence wouldn’t be enough to solve problems with the canal or with General McClernand.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 53, p847; Kirby Smith’s Confederacy by Robert L. Kerby; Grant Rises in the West by Kenneth P. Williams; Vicksburg by Michael B. Ballard. []
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