January 5, 1863 (Monday)
To this day (in 2013), nobody is completely certain who came up with the idea of steaming up the Arkansas River to attack Confederate Fort Hindman at the town of Arkansas Post. It was either dreamed up by William Tecumseh Sherman, John McClernand, or both.
General Sherman’s attack upon Chickasaw Bayou, just north of Vicksburg, had been a failure. He and his Corps retreated by transport to the mouth of the Yazoo River. While trying to figure out what to do next (and possibly coming up with the idea of hitting Arkansas Post), Sherman learned that General McClernand had finally arrived.
McClernand was the political general who had tried to raise his own independent command to race down the Mississippi River and take Vicksburg. He wanted nobody, not General-in-Chief Henry Halleck or General Grant, in whose department he would operate, to have any say over what he did. Over the course of several months, Halleck and Grant turned it around. The troops McClernand raised were folded into Grant’s Army of Tennessee and his expedition to Vicksburg was given to Sherman, who left before McClernand bothered to show up.
But now McClernand had arrived. On the 3rd, Sherman and McClernand met to discuss their next move. According to Sherman (McClernand never left a record of the meeting), they discussed the USS Blue Wing, which had been captured by the Rebels at Arkansas Post in late December. McClernand’s only plan (again, according to Sherman) was some lofty goal of tearing open the Mississippi River all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
The only things truly decided, it seems, were that they had to leave the Yazoo River and should talk to David Dixon Porter, who was in charge of the Union flotilla.
While all this was going on, McClernand took command of Sherman’s force. Rather than it simply being two corps of Grant’s Army of the Tennessee (the XIII and XV Corps), the political general with delusions of grandeur dubbed it The Army of the Mississippi. Apparently, it slipped his mind that John Pope had used the moniker for his own, sanctioned army before it was absorbed into Grant’s Army of the Tennessee. The XIII Corps became the I Corps, while the XV Corps became the II. None of this was actually official, of course. While McClernand did outrank Sherman, Grant outranked McClernand. The two corps were still actually in the Army of the Tennessee.
And here is where Arkansas Post came into it. On the night of the 4th, Sherman and Porter met with an inexplicably cranky McClernand. Porter, equally cranky, informed McClernand that he would be happy to assist in steaming up the Arkansas River, but only if Sherman personally led the campaign.
Sherman pulled Porter aside and asked him to play nice with the new general. Porter snapped at Sherman, telling him in no uncertain terms that he never liked this man, but eventually agreed to simmer down. As the meeting wore on, Porter stated that he would personally lead the naval part of the expedition. With that, Sherman figured McClernand would send him with his newly renamed II Corps. Instead, McClernand decided to go himself, dragging all 32,000 men of the Army of the Mississippi to take out a small Rebel fort.
The plan, which would be hammered out in the coming days, was a good one – even Sherman admitted that. The overwhelming numbers didn’t hurt.
The problem was that he didn’t really tell anyone about it. President Lincoln, who had given McClernand permission to raise the force, was under the impression that he was moving on Vicksburg. Grant had no idea at all what McClernand was up to. He knew that Sherman didn’t take Chickasaw Bayou, but little more.
To make matters touchier, Arkansas was outside of Grant’s department. It actually fell under the jurisdiction of General Samuel Curtis, operating out of St. Louis. Fortunately for McClernand, he and Curtis met at Helena several days back. They apparently discussed the Arkansas Post problem, so it wasn’t a huge surprise when Curtis received McClernand’s letter telling him that his new Army of the Mississippi was off to kill some Rebels in Curtis’ territory.
As for Grant, McClernand wouldn’t inform him at all until the 8th – right as his force was about to strike a target well outside Grant’s department. The letter wouldn’t reach the commanding General until the 11th, but it was then too late for him to do anything about it. By then, the campaign would be over.
It all boiled down to McClernand wanting to achieve a military victory with an independent command. If he could not personally take Vicksburg, he would hit Arkansas Post, even if it was only garrisoned with 5,500 Rebels.
By the dawn of this date, the transports, accompanied by three of Porter’s gunships, were making their way towards the Arkansas River. To McClernand, all was right with the world. He had his independent command – his very own army. He was unfettered by the restraints of Grant or Halleck and would soon reap the military glory he knew he so readily deserved.
((Sources: Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; Vicksburg by Michael B. Ballard; Major General John Alexander McClernand: Politician in Uniform by Richard L. Kiper; Nothing But Victory by Steven E. Woodworth.))