November 11, 1862 (Tuesday)
The news, if true, was alarming. Confederate General John Pemberton had understood the Union command problems perfectly. To his front was the Army of the Tennessee, commanded by Ulysses S. Grant. To his right was nothing, but to his left was the Mississippi River. While the Federal Navy had command of the river, Grant did not have command of the troops on the other side. Pemberton knew of the sizable Union presence in Helena, Arkansas, but figured that since Grant couldn’t touch them, they couldn’t cross.
But if the word was right, and they were crossing, this placed Union troops almost behind his own fortifications along the Tallahatchie River. How could this be?
It all started about two weeks prior. Grant was planning a move from Grand Junction south towards Pemberton’s Confederates. He had complained to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck that the way departments were divided up was less than helpful. Specifically, his department contained the eastern bank of the Mississippi, while the next door department, under General Samuel Curtis, contained the western bank. For an eventual push against Vicksburg, this would not do.
Halleck was unhappy about two different things, and both worked in Grant’s favor. First, he and Curtis had been going round and round about strategy for Missouri and Arkansas. Second, the secret little expedition for a separate thrust at Vicksburg, set up and commanded by politician-turned-General John McClernand really tested his patience.
To Curtis, Halleck ordered him to stop whatever game he was playing in southeast Missouri and move all available troops to Helena for a possible push on Little Rock. Curtis insisted that Halleck was wrong. There were more Rebels than he could count (at least accurately) in northeast Arkansas and soon they would be in southeast Missouri. Furthermore, said Curtis, all the reinforcements sent by Washington were going to Grant. Why was it that Curtis couldn’t also be reinforced?
Probably unable to roll his eyes enough, Halleck tersely told Curtis to get his troops to Helena. Curtis capitulated by sending four Iowa regiments and requesting more troops from Washington before he did anything else. In return, Halleck found him more troops – General Frederick Steele and his men at Pilot’s Knob seemed to be fairly available. Granted, these were men already in Curtis’ Department, but Halleck figured since they weren’t really being used by Curtis for anything, he might as well let Curtis use them for something.
Then on the 9th, Curtis learned from General John Schofield (commanding troops near Pea Ridge, Arkansas and Springfield, Missouri) that the rumors of 35,000 or more Rebels in northeastern Arkansas were unfounded. There were, perhaps, 1,000 there. That was all.
Another rumor floated in from James Blunt, commanding troops at Pea Ridge. He claimed that nephews of Chief John Ross, who were loyal to the Union, had been in Little Rock and discovered that all of the Rebels assembled there (the same Rebels that Curtis believed were in northeastern Arkansas) were ready to storm into northern Arkansas for a thrust into Missouri.
Again worried, he told Frederick Steele, still gathering his forces at Pilot Knob, and Steel practically laughed it off, claiming that the Rebels didn’t have 30,000 men in all of Arkansas. He also found it unlikely that a loyal nephew of John Ross would wander into Little Rock. If he did, there was no way he would learn anything, but by rumors. He refused to believe Curtis and went about his business as ordered by Halleck.
Fortified in his belief that southwestern Missouri was about to be attacked by innumerable Rebels, Curtis defied Steele’s assurances and Halleck’s orders by ordering 10,000 men to be detached from Steele’s command. They were to make a forced march across some very barren land to Batesville, Arkansas. Steele, when he learned of this, was infuriated. He refused Curtis’ orders in a letter to Halleck, and continued making preparations to go to Helena.
By this date, several thousand Federal troops had crossed the Mississippi River at Helena. This was, if anything, the vanguard of Frederick Steele’s probe across the river. It was not yet an organized threat against Pemberton’s Confederates, but it was a start. Steele would not arrive for another week.
This effectively took care of Grant’s problems concerning departmental lines along the Mississippi. But what about this hardly-a-secret-anymore expedition planned by General McClernand? On November 9th, around the time that Steele was happily ordered to Helena, Grant was tired of waiting for reinforcements. “Reinforcements are arriving very slowly,” he wrote to Helleck. “If they do not come on more rapidly I will attack as I am.”
When Halleck told him that things were moving as swiftly as possible, Grant finally let slip that he knew about the hush-hush McClernand plan. “Am I to understand that I lie still here while an expedition is fitted out from Memphis?” asked Grant of Halleck. He also inquired about Sherman’s forces. Where they still his or were they going to be subject to whatever whims McClernand might have?
Then, on this date, just as Pemberton was receiving the news that Union forces were crossing the Mississippi River, Grant received news of his own.
“You have command of all troops sent to your department, and have permission to fight the enemy where you please.”
With that bit of great news, Grant decided to wait a while. He told Sherman not to move from Memphis until he had two full divisions (twenty-four regiments with artillery and cavalry, as well). Grant was still not yet sure whether he would have Sherman move down the Mississippi or take a position farther to the east – perhaps Moscow, Tennessee. But for the time being, Grant was elated that the move on Vicksburg was receiving so much help.
Grant was having other problems, however. Part of Grant’s job as department commander was to issue trade licenses to those wanting to conduct business (mostly related to cotton). The system was a bad one and left open the gates to myriad corruption. He soon began to see that many of his officers were entangled and fully engaged in this corruption, when really they should have been preparing their men for the coming military campaign.
Cotton speculation had run rampant. In the words of William Tecumseh Sherman: “The great profit now made is converting everybody into rascals….” But, due to the prejudices of the time (not that that is an excuse), “everybody” engaged in making great profits, the “rascals,” were somehow thought to fall under the category of “The Jews.”
As far back as July, Sherman reported “flocks of Jews” swarming in. Curtis in Arkansas reported much the same, telling Halleck that his camp had been “infested with Jews.”
On November 9th, Grant got into this shameful practice by ordering General Stephen Hurlbut, commanding one of his districts, to “refuse all permits to come south of Jackson for the present. The Israelites especially should be kept out.”
The next day, he ordered General Joseph Webster, his superintendent of railroads that “no Jews are to be permitted to travel on the railroad southward at any point.” He added that they should be encouraged instead to go north, out of his department. “They are such an intolerable nuisance that the department must be purged of them.”
Just as Grant was waiting to see what reinforcements he would receive, he waited to see how Hurlbut and Webster dealt with the “intolerable nuisance of the Israelites.”1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 13, p773, 778, 779, 782, 785, 787-788; Official Records, Series 1, Vol 17, Part 1, p467; Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 17, Part 2, p335-336; Grant Rises in the West by Kenneth P. Williams; Vicksburg by Michael B. Ballard; Nothing But Victory by Steven E. Woodworth; Fields of Blood by William L. Shea. [↩]