It Would Be Madness to Attack Him – Joe Johnston Abandonds Jackson

July 16, 1863 (Thursday)

There had been three main Confederate forces operating along the Mississippi River through May and June. With the surrender of both Vicksburg and Port Hudson, all that was left was 30,000 troops from General Joe Johnston’s so-called Army of Relief.

Johnston is goin' to Jackson.
Johnston is goin’ to Jackson.

They had been quickly thrown together from all across the Confederacy in order to break the siege at Vicksburg. But when General Grant, surrounding the city, received reinforcements, Johnston thought it wiser to not attack. Instead, he hovered in Grant’s rear the Big Black River. When word reached him that Vicksburg fell, he retreated east to Jackson, forty miles away.

Grant detached William Tecumseh Sherman with three corps from the Army of the Tennessee, who pursued, cutting a large, Sherman-like swath to the heart of the state. It wasn’t until the 10th of July that Sherman arrived before Jackson. Originally, he had wanted to simply attack, hoping to perhaps turn the left flank and dislodge the Rebels from their entrenchments.

When he was able to get a good look at the defenses, however, he thought better. The following day, Sherman’s forces invested Jackson, establishing yet another siege, shelling the town from almost every direction.

This was exactly what Joe Johnston did not want. “If the enemy will not attack, we must,” wired Johnston to President Jefferson Davis, “or at the last moment withdraw. We cannot attack seriously without risking the army.”

For a time, Sherman probed Johnston’s defenses, sending a small force towards the works, but it was of little use. The Confederates beat them back, punishing them with over 500 casualties. After that, it was nothing but siege for the next two days, until John C. Breckenridge, commanding one of Johnston’s divisions, complained of the stench of rotting Federal corpses in the blistering summer sun.

Johnston sent a message to Sherman requesting a ceasefire so he (Sherman) could take care of his dead. Sherman agreed and for a time, a relative quiet fell across the battlefield.

As the days passed, it was becoming clearer to Johnston that Jackson would have to be abandoned. “The enemy is evidently making a siege which we cannot resist,” Johnston wrote to Davis on the 15th. “It would be madness to attack him. The remainder of the army under Grant at Vicksburg is beyond doubt on its way to this place.” While that wasn’t exactly true, Johnston had a point. With Sherman nearly surrounding him and at least the potential for Federal reinforcements, what was the point of all this?

Jackson snowballing Jackson.
Jackson snowballing Jackson.

Johnston had learned that there was a supply train of ammunition en route to Sherman from Grant at Vicksburg. Immediately, he sent his cavalry on an expedition to capture (or at least disrupt) the supplies. It met with very limited success and the vast majority of the ammunition reached Sherman with little trouble at all.

On this date, Johnston learned that his cavalry had failed. He figured that the next day Sherman would bombard the town with 200 pieces of artillery. Apparently, this was the tipping point. He and his forces would abandon Jackson. And so, after darkness fell, Johnston began the withdrawal.

Using parallel roads, the right wing, and then the left crossed the Pearl River and encamped fifteen miles away at Brandon. The cavalry, which had failed to capture the enemy’s artillery wagons, stayed behind to keep watch over the Federals and to burn the bridges behind them. Nobody in Sherman’s camp batted an eye.

Sherman: They're gonna laugh at you in Jackson!
Sherman: They’re gonna laugh at you in Jackson!

By dawn, the city was empty of all Confederates but the seriously wounded. Noticing the obvious lack of enemy before him, Sherman sent his troops into Jackson. Johnston had left behind 23,000 rounds of artillery, 1,400 stand of arms, and three pieces of heavy artillery. This could have been prevented if only Johnston would have repaired the railroad bridge across the Pearl. His men could then have loaded the ammunition, arms and perhaps even the guns into the many rail cars he was forced to leave behind and hauled them east with his retreating army.

Sherman gave a partial chase, sending a division to Brandon, but with the stifling heat, by the time it reached its destination, Johnston’s Rebels had retreated another twenty miles to Morton.

“General Johnston had carried his army safely off,” wrote Sherman in his memoirs, “and pursuit in that hot weather would have been fatal to my command.”

The city of Jackson suffered worst of all. Much of it was burned by the retreating Confederates and the rest of destroyed by Sherman’s out of control troops. The Federals looted and generally pillaged every building and house left standing.

Joe Johnston would take the blame, cast upon him by President Davis, for the fall of Vicksburg and the loss of the Mississippi River to the Confederacy. From the start, Johnston believed that neither Vicksburg nor Port Hudson could be saved from the Federal armies before them. He had wanted to abandon the towns, wishing to save the armies to fight another day. Now, after Davis had insisted and ordered that Confederate forces remain at Vicksburg, both the cities and the armies were gone.

In his typical blind arrogance, Davis could not see this. He would go on to praise John Pemberton, defender of Vicksburg, and soon be in very open and public warfare against Joe Johnston.1

  1. Sources: Vicksburg by Michael B. Ballard; Joseph E. Johnston by Craig L. Symonds; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman. []
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It Would Be Madness to Attack Him – Joe Johnston Abandonds Jackson by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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