December 26, 1862 (Friday)
William Tecumseh Sherman was not in command. Though he assembled the troops and arranged for help from the Naval fleet, this was not his show. Even though the commanding officer, the political general, John McClernand, was still in Illinois, Sherman was merely another officer. Highly placed, true, but not in command.
Except, he was in charge. He had accompanied General Grant south, leaving from Memphis with a corps of troops in late November. By the end of the first week of December, however, Grant had devised a new strategy. Before them was General John Pemberton and the Confederate Army of Mississippi blocking the overland route to Vicksburg – the largest Rebel bastion on the Mississippi River.
While Grant moved by road, General McClernand had secretly twisted Washington’s arm into letting him command an independent expedition to hit Vicksburg by water. The secret wasn’t kept and soon Grant was raising a huge fuss about it since McClernand’s force was operating in Grant’s department while not being under any authority at all. That was soon changed and Grant took control over McClernand’s force, throwing Sherman into the mix as a corps commander, reducing McClernand, in this case, to a mere figurehead.
For all intents and purposes, McClernand was out of the picture. He was supposed to lead the expedition, but Grant scheduled it to begin before McClernand was able to show up to lead it. Basically, Grant trusted Sherman. He did not trust McClernand.
So, while Grant held Pemberton in check, Sherman’s job was to cruise down the Mississippi with 31,000 men, accompanied by a flotilla of gunships. Together, they would attack the smaller Rebel force of about 14,000 at Vicksburg.
Three-fourths of Sherman’s force left Memphis on the 19th. Two days later, they arrived at Helena, Arkansas, where they picked up the rest of the men, giving Sherman four divisions.
The float down the river went smoothly. “What few inhabitants remained at the plantations on the river-bank were unfriendly, except the slaves,” recorded Sherman after the war, “some few guerrilla-parties infested the banks, but did not dare to molest so strong a force as I then commanded.”
By Christmas Day, they were at Millken’s Bend, fifteen miles northwest of Vicksburg. There, Sherman detached a division to tear up track along the railroad leading west into Louisiana. They would all rejoin Sherman’s main body a couple of days later.
Sherman and David Porter, who commanded the Federal flotilla, discussed what exactly to do next. They decided to continue with the three other divisions to the mouth of the Yazoo River. They’d then follow that waterway for about twelve miles to Chickasaw Bayou, a messy assortment of old river channels and marshes. On this day, they arrived.
But they did not arrive undetected. Confederate scouts had informed General Pemberton of the seventy or so Federal ships casually making their way down the Mississippi. He immediately left the field for Vicksburg.
Before any of this, the Rebels had constructed defenses north of town, along the Walnut Hills Line, which overlooked the Yazoo River and Chickasaw Bayou. General Martin Smith, commanding these defenses, had them fully manned by Christmas Day. He concentrated on the few bits of land that Sherman’s infantry could use, and by the end of the day, he was very pleased with his prospects.
Sherman, on the other hand, was not pleased at all. Chickasaw Bayou was a terrible place to wage an assault. Between his troops and the Rebels was a swampland with only two passable points. Both were easily commanded by enemy sharpshooters and artillery. Further reconnaissance would be needed, but things were not looking so good for Sherman and his fellows.
((Sources: Memoirs, Vol. 1 by William Tecumseh Sherman; Vicksburg by Michael B. Ballard; Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 17, Part 1, p605-606.))
On this day, he arrived near Chickasaw Bayou,