May 23, 1863 (Saturday)
News and letters from Washington DC to the Mississippi River often traveled at such a slow pace it’s hard to understand why anyone even bothered. On this date, General-in-Chief Henry Halleck received Nathaniel Banks’ letters written on May 2 and 4. In them, Banks explained why he couldn’t help Grant in his campaign against Vicksburg.
When Banks wrote the letters, Grant had just crossed the Mississippi River, though neither Banks nor Halleck was aware of it. By the time that Halleck received Banks’ letters, all he knew about Grant’s campaign was that Mississippi’s state capital, Jackson, had fallen. Banks knew little more. Halleck had no idea that Grant had besieged Vicksburg or that Banks had decided to do the same at Port Hudson.
Nevertheless, Halleck’s frustration over the whole affair was no less real and, with a bit of reasoning, no less poignant.
Several letters back, Banks had openly mused to Halleck that he was planning on joining Grant somewhere east of Vicksburg and taking part in his campaign. Taking Banks at his word, Halleck was disappointed that this didn’t happen. “I regret to learn,” he began, “that you are still pursuing your divergent line to Alexandria.” Of course, Banks’ Divergent Line to Alexandria Campaign had wound down when all the Rebels scurried away. Since then, he had steamed down the Mississippi and decided to besiege Port Hudson.
“If these eccentric movements, with the main forces of the enemy on the Mississippi River,” continued a very irate Halleck, “do not lead to some serious disaster, it will be because the enemy does not take full advantage of the opportunity.”
Neither Confederate Generals John Pemberton nor Joe Johnston had taken any advantage of any opportunity presented to them at any time during the months of April and May. This was almost fully due to President Jefferson Davis’ complete and baffling insistence upon both Vicksburg and Port Hudson being saved. Rather than focusing upon the defeat of the Union armies (as Joe Johnston urged), Davis focused upon the salvation of cities.
Halleck assured Banks that “the Government is exceedingly disappointed” that he and Grant were “not acting in conjunction.” Though Banks was getting much of the blame for this, Grant had also refused to send troops to Banks – which had been his plan for some time.
Because Banks actually outranked Grant, Halleck had hoped that the prospect of assuming “the entire command as soon as you and General Grant could unite,” would greatly appeal to Banks.
“If Grant should succeed alone in beating the enemy and capturing Vicksburg,” wrote Halleck in closing, “all will be well.” But if Grant was defeated, “both your armies will be paralyzed and the entire campaign a failure.”
While all of these letters were passing, much had changed. Grant had besieged Vicksburg and Banks was, on this date, sealing off Port Hudson. Through a series of skirmishes, Banks’ troops backed the Confederates fully into their entrenchments around the city. They Rebels had tried to break the siege with a sharp counterattack, but it was no use. Banks, it seemed, was in Port Hudson to stay.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 26, Part 1, p500-501; The Port Hudson Campaign: 1862-1863 by Edward Cunningham. [↩]