May 14, 1863 (Thursday)
General Grant was up before dawn, marching northeast with William Tecumseh Sherman’s XV Corps. They were moving on Jackson, Mississippi, where rumors that the Rebel General Joe Johnston had arrived with 20,000 men abounded. A light rain had fallen throughout the night, turning roads to mud. Around 9am, four hours after they stepped off, to the north, they heard the sounds of artillery.
What Grant and Sherman heard was the Confederates putting up a fight against James McPherson’s XVII Corps, as they approached Jackson from the west from Clinton. As they moved within range, the Rebels opened upon them with artillery. McPherson deployed for an all out attack, but the light rain turned heavy, and he decided to wait it out.
Sherman’s men had reached Lynch Creek, two or three miles south. Throughout the morning, McPherson and Sherman had been in communication, trying their best to arrive before the Jackson defenses at the same time. They didn’t give much credence to the rumors of Johnston and the multitudes of Rebels, but at least some resistance was expected. Around 11am, Sherman unleashed his mass of artillery upon the small band of Rebels at Lynch Creek.
Inside Jackson’s defenses, Confederate General Joe Johnston was in the midst of leaving. He had ordered General John Gregg to command two small brigades of troops in a delaying action which would allow the rest of the men and supplies to escape northeast.
At first, he suspected the Federals to come only from the west. But when his scouts reported that just as many were coming from the southwest, he had to divide his already too small command. When both attacked at once, Gregg’s men held tight, forcing the enemy to fully deploy and take their time in coming. All the while, the supplies and stores were being loaded upon train cars to be whisked north upon the Northern Railroad.
It was hardly much of a battle. Mostly, the artillery pounded away, while the infantry gestured. Around 2pm, the trains were away and whatever could not be hauled off was set ablaze. Gregg could now follow. He took his two infantry brigades and left the artillerists – mostly locals – to keep up a steady fire to delay the Federals even more. They, along with their seventeen guns, were all captured.
On the road north, General Johnston wrote to John Pemberton, commanding Confederates troops at Edward’s Station, between Jackson and Vicksburg. He wanted them to move east to Clinton, closer to Jackson, and to disrupt Grant’s lines of supply and communication. More than anything, however, he wanted to combine his force with Pemberton’s. Since his force was quickly speeding north, however, he wasn’t quite sure how to make that happen.
“I am anxious to see a force assembled that may be able to inflict a heavy blow upon the enemy,” wrote Johnston. He was convinced that the Union force that had attacked Jackson was half of Grant’s Army. “It would decide the campaign to beat it,” he continued, “which can only be done by concentration.”
With the Rebels scurried north, Grant, Sherman and McPherson met at the Bowman House, which had been Joe Johnston’s headquarters, to discuss what to do next. McPherson brought a bit of fine news to the meeting. Apparently, General Stephen Hurlbut, commanding Union troops in Memphis, had somehow planted a spy within General Johnston’s staff. The previous day, when Johnston put down his plans for the coming campaign, he gave them to three couriers, one of whom was Hurlbut’s spy.
As Grant explained in his post-war Memoirs: “One of the messengers happened to be a loyal man who had been expelled from Memphis some months before by Hurlbut for uttering disloyal and threatening sentiments. There was a good deal of parade about his expulsion, ostensibly as a warning to those who entertained the sentiments he expressed; but Hurlbut and the expelled man understood each other. He delivered his copy of Johnston’s dispatch to McPherson who forwarded it to me.”
The crux of the message was that Johnston meant to join with Pemberton. “It is important that you establish communications, that you may be re-enforced,” wrote Johnston in the missive Grant was never meant to see.
Grant then knew precisely what to do. Figuring that Johnston would continue north until finding a road with which he could join Pemberton, he dispatched his orders for the following day. Both McPherson’s and McClernand’s Corps were to occupy Bolton Station, about twenty miles west of Jackson. Grant reasoned that if Johnston was going to try to unite with Pemberton, he would do it there. Sherman’s corps was to remain in Jackson to tear up track and destroy railroad equipment – something at which his men were already excelling.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, Part 1, p51, 240, 785-786; Part 3, p370, 870; Joseph E. Johnston by Craig L Symonds; Vicksburg by Michael B. Ballard; Grant Rises in the West by Kenneth Williams. [↩]