December 21, 1863 (Monday)
Following his march to and from Knoxville, William Tecumseh Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee was ordered by General Grant to hold a long line along their namesake river, from Stevenson to Decatur, Alabama, and then on up to Nashville. Sherman was willing enough to abide by the orders, but had dreams of something bigger.
Prior to reinforcing the Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga, Sherman had planned to clear Mississippi of the disjointed Confederate armies and bands of cavalry. Now, he wished to return and do just that. Grant had moved his headquarters to Nashville, and so on this date, Sherman made the journey to meet with his friend and commander.
While Sherman’s line along the Tennessee was important enough, he was actually in command of a department that reached to the eastern banks of the Mississippi River. Portions of his army remained along the course as he and 20,000 marched to aid Grant. The two main Federal holds were upon Vicksburg, which was under the command of James McPherson, and Memphis, which was overseen by Stephen Hurlbut.
After the fall of Vicksburg in July, Confederate strength in Mississippi had waned, but had not vanished. “The rebels still maintained a considerable force of infantry and cavalry,” wrote Sherman, “threatening the river, whose navigation had become to us so delicate and important a matter.”
Sherman proposed to Grant a move down the Mississippi and then a move inland toward Meridian, where General Leonidas Polk’s Confederate Army of Mississippi (it’s unofficial moniker) was headquartered. Grant liked the idea, but had his own addition in the shape of Nathaniel Banks’ Army of the Gulf. While Sherman attacked Polk in Mississippi, Banks could bring his army from New Orleans to strike out against the Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi under Robert Taylor and Kirby Smith. This would ensure that the waters of the muddy river would flow completely uncontested to the Gulf. More importantly, it would further sever the Confederate West from its Far West.
The Far West, or Trans-Mississippi Department was headed by Kirby Smith, who had spent much of the autumn shifting troops to Shreveport, Louisiana. He had no real idea where Nathaniel Banks’ Federals would attack, and so hedged his bets with an interior line from where he could dispatch troops with relative ease. Smith’s army was greatly outnumbered by Banks, and so he needed some clear and decisive means of redressing the balance. He hoped, therefore, to draw Banks out and lop off a division or two at a time. This was sound.
President Jefferson Davis, however, was not. Rather than defeat Federal armies, Davis wanted to hold territory. To accomplish this, Smith would have to disperse his troops over a wide swath of geography, and thus weaken their ability to successfully wage war. Davis’ flawed strategy was largely responsible for the loss of Vicksburg, and even though many of his top commanders strongly disagreed with it, he continued to believe this was the best way to win the war, even though most others could see that it was having much the opposite effect. Smith was unable to do both, and even though he made the attempt, ultimately, he was doing neither.
Robert Taylor, who commanded one of the three districts under Smith, was a native of Louisiana, and was defending his home state. Little by little, Smith was wicking away Taylor’s troops, sending some of his cavalry to Texas, and nicking a division of infantry for a bid to recapture Little Rock (though they were later recalled as the Federals were too strong to best). By this point, both Smith and Taylor had decided to settle into winter quarters. They would take up their campaigning, as well as their in-fighting, come spring.
At any rate, William Tecumseh Sherman immediately decided to get to work come the New Year. “I will go home for Christmas (the first for more than twenty years),” he wrote to his subordinates, “but on the 2nd of January will start for Cairo, and in concert with Admiral [David] Porter must do something to check the boldness of our enemy in attacking boats on the Mississippi.”
Sherman expressed his desire to open the Mississippi to safe travel thus: “To secure the safety of the navigation of the Mississippi River I would slay millions. On that point I am not only insane, but mad.” He explained that one or two quick strikes would, in his mind, “astonish the natives of the South, and will convince them that, though to stand behind a big cottonwood [tree] and shoot at a passing boat is good sport and safe, it may still reach and kill their friends and families hundreds of miles off. For every bullet shot at a steamboat, I would shoot a thousand 30-pounder Parrotts into even helpless towns on Red, Ouachita, Yazoo, or wherever a boat can float or soldier march. Well, I think in all January and part of February I can do something in this line.” Clearly, General Sherman was determined to wage a special brand of warfare that, perhaps, only the late Stonewall Jackson, who had proposed to fly the black flag in the Shenandoah Valley, might find acceptable.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 31, Part 3, p 459-460; Memoirs William Tecumseh Sherman; Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; Nothing But Victory by Steven E. Woodworth; Richard Taylor and the Red River Campaign by Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr.; A Crisis in Confederate Command by Jeffery S. Prushankin. [↩]