Pemberton Sees the Light – Grant About to Attack

April 18, 1863 (Saturday)

It was a strange thing. All the time General Grant was pushing troops south towards New Carthage, and bypassing the guns of Vicksburg, General John Pemberton, in command of the Confederates opposite Grant, was convinced his enemy was leaving.

John Pemberton, the Eternal Optimist

General Pemberton was an eternal optimist. He did not panic, he did not see warnings in dark, ominous clouds, and could even believe that Grant’s force before him was melting away. He had watched each of Grant’s attempts to get at Vicksburg fail. The Yazoo Pass Expedition, the canals, the Steels Bayou Expedition – all complete failures. Rather than thinking that Grant would simply try again, Pemberton believed that his adversary had had enough.

Early in April, Grant ordered multiple transport ships to be brought down the Mississippi from Memphis. Instead of thinking that Grant would use them near Vicksburg, Pemberton decided that Grant was pulling out to reinforce General Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland near Nashville, Tennessee.

As late as April 14, Pemberton held that “all of Vicksburg army coming up.” But the very next day, reports came in that Grant seemed to have no intention of leaving. According to General Carter Stevenson, in command of a division at Vicksburg, the enemy “was in force here.” He related that all of the troops up river had now concentrated before him at Vicksburg. He even told of reports suggesting that Grant would try to take Grand Gulf.

Another report, in from Memphis, spelled it all out for General Pemberton. Grant’s retrograde movement from Vicksburg was a ruse, and an attack was expected at any moment.

But even that didn’t fully convince him. The same day that both Stevenson’s and the Memphis report arrived on his desk, Pemberton wished to reinforce General Bragg in Tennessee, “being satisfied that a large portion of Grant’s army is reinforcing Rosecrans.”

As time went on, something in the back of his mind must have been warning him. Maybe the two foreboding reports weighed upon him, as the next day (the 16th), he admitted “that no large part of Grant’s army will be sent away.” Still, he was still willing to send two of his brigades to Bragg.

Throughout that day, further reports trickled in. Rumors that Grant was building batteries opposite Grand Gulf “were confirmed to-day with observation by the telescope.”

It was on the night of this same day that Union Admiral David Dixon Porter was able to steam a fleet of gunboats and supply transports past the Vicksburg guns. Finally, General Pemberton was convinced that Grant was not leaving and he would have to deal with him at Vicksburg.

“I cannot send anymore troops,” wrote Pemberton the next day, “and think those on the way to General Johnston ought to come back.” He reported that even worse news had recently come in. Sixty-four steamers had left Memphis on the 15th, “loaded with troops and negroes, apparently with intension of making an assault on Vicksburg.”

In numerous messages sent to his commander, General Joe Johnston, heading the Department of Mississippi, Pemberton reiterated that he could send no more troops. He still clung to the believe that Grant had sent troops to Rosecrans, “but there now seems to be no doubt that reinforcements are being sent down again.”

Carter Littlepage Stevenson

Johnston, of course, allowed the troops to be recalled and sent back to Pemberton. Since Grant was operating on the Louisiana shore and being supplied by land, Johnston wondered if General Kirby Smith, now commanding the Department of the Trans-Mississippi couldn’t do something to disrupt that.

But then, that had always been Johnston’s pet peeve. He believed that one overall commander needed to be in charge of the entire Mississippi Valley – both sides of the river. But President Davis, in all of his wisdom, was completely against such an idea. Here again were the fruits of having two commanders each take a side of the great river. Rather than being able to order Smith to disrupt Grant’s supply line, Johnston could only wonder if Smith would do it.

On the 17th, Pemberton began to get exacerbated, if not panicked. General Stevenson reminded him that ammunition for the heavy guns was in short supply. Pemberton replied that not only was more coming up from Selma and Mobile, but that a few more heavy guns were en route, as well. But when one of the guns arrived, it was a Brooke gun, a piece that looked an awful lot like a Parrott rifle, but took completely different ammunition. Pemberton had no idea where to fit out such a piece.

By this date, Pemberton was not only convinced that Grant was here to fight, but he believed that there was insufficient defenses to stop the Federals. “There are so many points to be defended at this time — Vicksburg, Grand Gulf, Port Hudson, Snyder’s Mill, and Fort Pemberton — that I have only twenty-eight guns at Vicksburg,” wrote Pemberton to Jefferson Davis. “Vicksburg and Port Hudson, and if possible Grand Gulf, ought to be greatly strengthened in guns. […] A large supply of ammunition and projectiles should be constantly forwarded.”

After sending out the message to Richmond, Pemberton tried to convince Kirby Smith to help out – even a little. But Smith, thanks in a large part to Nathaniel Banks’ odd little foray into western Louisiana, could send nothing. In fact, soon he would be asking Pemberton for help.

All that could be done now was to extract the small Confederate force on the western bank of the river and add them to the growing defenses at Grant Gulf. This would leave only a small sliver of cavalry to hold up Grant’s advance and build up at New Carthage.

By the evening, some good news filtered into headquarters. The asked-for ammunition had arrived at Vicksburg. “All quiet to-night” came the message from General Stevenson.1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, Part 3, p741-742, 744, 749, 750, 751-752, 758, 760; Vicksburg by Michael B. Ballard. []
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