May 20, 1863 (Wednesday)
In the battle for Vicksburg, Mississippi, there were two very divergent and contradictory Confederate strategies at work. General John Pemberton, who had commanded the Army of Mississippi in the field while Grant’s Federals gallivanted across the state, believed that Vicksburg itself was the key. The city had to be saved, otherwise the Confederacy in the west would fall. With this in mind, he quickly retreated into the city’s defenses after being defeated at Champion Hill. This line of thought came directly from President Jefferson Davis, who told Pemberton to hold Vicksburg at any cost.
On the other hand, General Joseph Johnston, commander of the Department of Mississippi, held a counter theory. While he certainly believed Vicksburg to be an essential part of the Southern strategy, he placed a higher value upon the Army of the Mississippi itself. Cities could always be recaptured after they fell into enemy hands, he reasoned. Armies, once destroyed, could not be similarly resurrected.
Before Grant had backed Pemberton’s Army into Vicksburg, Johnston had wanted to combine his growing force, which contained brigades sent from all across the South. He and his little “Army of Relief” arrived a few days too late to save Jackson, the state capital. But even after it fell, he was daily urging Pemberton to move northeast to link up. Together, he believed, they could face down Grant’s Army.
Pemberton received Johnston’s final plea for such a movement after the Rebel Army had retired to Vicksburg. After explaining to Johnston that he understood Vicksburg “to be the most important point in the Confederacy,” Johnston acquiesced. There was no hope in convincing Pemberton otherwise. Grant’s Army had invested at least two-thirds of the Confederate lines and, by the looks of things, it was turning into a siege.
“I am trying to gather a force which may attempt to relieve you,” replied Johnston. “Hold out.” Immediately, Johnston set about the task. He wrote General Franklin Gardner, commanding at Port Hudson, telling him to evacuate the fort and bring his force north. After telling him that his position was “no longer valuable,” he explained that “all the troops in the department should be concentrated as soon as possible.” They were all to meet in Jackson, gather strength and sandwich Grant’s forces between the two Confederate Armies.
Pemberton’s retreating army had lost upwards of thirty cannons in their flight back into Vicksburg. Johnston wrote to Braxton Bragg, commanding the Army of Tennessee at Tuscumbia (also in Johnston’s department), hoping to obtain replacements and more cavalry.
The only message to leave Vicksburg on this date was sent from Pemberton to Johnston. Pemberton placed the number assaulting the city at no less than 60,000, though in reality it was a little over half that. “At present,” he continued, “our main necessity is musket caps. Can you send them to me by hands of couriers or citizens?” The situation was clearly growing darker with each passing day. Pemberton was admitting that within the confines of Vicksburg, his supply lines were virtually cut. Johnston’s words written the day before must have been heavy in their prophecy: “If you are invested in Vicksburg, you must ultimately surrender.”
Meanwhile, in Vicksburg, Pemberton’s troops huddled close to the ground as Union artillery “plowed up our works considerably and dismounted tow guns on the center.” Enemy sharpshooters played along the works on the Confederate left, picking off anyone who was daft enough to poke his head above the embrasures.
Morale, as was usual of late in Pemberton’s Army, was down, but the men were encouraged by the rumors that Johnston was nearby with a large force, ready to rescue them.
Over the next week or so, more and more troops would stream into Johnston’s ranks, swelling his forces to nearly 23,000 men. But so too were reinforcements streaming towards Grant, whose numbers would quickly reach 77,000. Until then, Pemberton would continue to plead for reinforcements and supplies, and Johnston would continue to search for troops, counting upon General Gardner at Port Hudson to join him at Jackson.
Gardner, however, was having his own problems in the shape of the Union Army of the Gulf under General Nathaniel Banks. Following his strange romp through western Louisiana, Banks had finally decided to attack Port Hudson. He had previously tried and failed, but now was different. The Confederate bastion had already been weakened by sending troops to Pemberton.
Banks had divided his army in half, and now he was trying to unite it at Port Hudson. While he accompanied one wing from Alexandria, Louisiana, down the Mississippi towards the Confederate stronghold, the other wing was marching north from Baton Rouge. On this date, Gardner’s forces tangled with Banks’ advance troops near Bayou Sara, north of the Confederate stronghold.
General Johnston’s orders to abandon Port Hudson had not yet reached him. In a few more hours, it could all be too late.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, Part 3, p892, 896, 899, 902, 903; Joseph E. Johnston by Craig L. Symonds; Vicksburg by Michael B. Ballard; Pretense of Glory by James G. Hollandsworth, Jr.; Port Hudson, Confederate Bastion on the Mississippi by Lawrence Lee Hewitt. [↩]