May 18, 1862 (Sunday)
The Spring of 1862 in the Shenandoah Valley was shaping up to be beautiful, and this quiet Sunday was no different. As the camp of Stonewall Jackson knelt in prayer near Mt. Solon, a very flustered and conflicted General Richard Ewell dropped by unannounced and without orders. This Sabbath would not be a simple day of praising the creator and kind Providence for either Jackson or Ewell.
Their commander, General Joe Johnston, had issued orders requiring Ewell, and strongly suggesting Jackson, leave the Valley. The orders were not conditional or discretionary. They were also not up to date, being written on May 13. On the other hand, General Robert E. Lee, military advisor to President Jefferson Davis, had issued his own orders on the 16th, allowing both Jackson and Ewell to storm down the Valley as far north as the Potomac River.
Johnston’s orders were outdated and so couldn’t reflect the changes in the Valley, while Lee’s took into account the depleted force of Union General Banks and contained what would become Lee’s trademark strategy of threatening Washington to relieve the pressure elsewhere. Besides, both Jackson and Ewell were hungry for a fight.
Jackson urged Ewell, each based thirty miles apart from the other, not to leave the Valley until he (Jackson) heard a response from Johnston to the telegraph he sent the previous day. Ewell, however, was still in the dark as to whatever it was that Jackson was planning. There was no doubt that they were both needed at the gates of Richmond, but if Jackson’s grand plan was about to come to fruition, Ewell was close enough to be a part of it. To hopefully dispel his confusion, he rode into Jackson’s camp, finding it a place of respite on the day of rest. At a time when every hour mattered, Jackson was taking the day off.
After finding Jackson, they rode to an old mill to discuss the situation. The Union forces arrayed themselves around Jackson’s troops. In the east, General McDowell’s troops held Fredericksburg, as General Shield’s Division was somewhere near Warrenton, marching to join McDowell. To the north, Banks was digging in at Strasburg, while to the west, General Fremont held Franklin. With the combined forces of Jackson and Ewell, they outnumbered each individual Federal commander’s force (except McDowell’s). The Union troops were so spread out that with quick marches, Jackson and Ewell could defeat each in turn without the other coming to its rescue.
But then, that would technically be against orders. Jackson had telegraphed Johnston the night before, but there was no reply. Time, with the apparent exception of the Lord’s Day, was of the essence. Whether they were to leave the Valley for Richmond, or to storm down the Valley, they needed to do it immediately the next day. Johnston’s orders were out of date and Lee, who had no idea that Johnston had ordered Jackson and Ewell east, contradicted them. No further word had been heard from either and so, it seemed, they were at an impasse.
But Ewell had an idea. Since his men were in the Valley, they were technically under the direct command of Jackson, not Johnston. If Jackson gave the word, Ewell would move north towards Banks. This made much more sense than leaving the Valley to track down a moving General Shields. If both Ewell and Jackson moved, they could unite their forces near New Market. Two days later, they could be beating down Banks’ door at Strasburg.1
Jackson took the burden off Ewell with the order stating “that as you are in the Valley District you constitute part of my command. Should you receive orders different from those sent from these headquarters, please advise me of the same at as early a period as practicable.” He then issued orders for Ewell to move to New Market, “unless you receive orders from a superior officer and of a date subsequent to the 16th instant.”2
It was clear, they were disregarding Johnston’s orders (written on the 13th) and going with Lee’s (written on the 16th).
After leaving New Orleans at the mercy of General Benjamin Butler, Union Flag Officer David Farragut’s fleet steamed up the Mississippi River. Baton Rouge, the state capital of Louisiana, fell on the 7th after a bit of wrangling with an egotistic mayor. Five days later, Natchez, Mississippi met a similar fate. Having traveled nearly 280 water miles from New Orleans to Natchez, Farragut decided to push on another eighty to Vicksburg, the next heavily-defended Confederate city.3
Leaving much of the fleet near Natchez, Farragut ordered the USS Kennebec, Oneida, and several other vessels, north to reconnoiter the defenses. He would follow in a few days with the Hartford and some infantry. Around 11am on this date, the fleet got their first glimpse of the Rebel fortifications, 200 feet above the water.4
Under a flag of truce, Union Commander Samuel Phillips Lee, in the name of Farragut and Butler, demanded “the surrender of Vicksburg and its defenses to the lawful authority of the United States, under which, private property and personal rights will be respected.”5
While waiting for a reply, the Federals had a chance to take a long look at what they would be up against. Heavy artillery guarded the city to the south and north, 8,000 troops garrisoned its redoubts and a fleet of gunboats lingered nearby.6
After the ship that delivered the message to Vicksburg returned, one of the heavy guns fired a shot across her bow. If that was not answer enough, just over an hour later, the replies from the city arrived.7
“Regarding the surrender of the defenses,” flatly stated General M.L. Smith, commanding the Confederate forces, “I have to reply that having been ordered here to hold these defenses, it is my intention to do so as long as in my power.”
Vickburg’s Mayor Lindsay agreed, relating that while the city’s municipal authorities weren’t the ones who erected the defenses, “neither the municipal authorities nor the citizens will ever consent to a surrender of the city.”
Lastly, the military governor of Vicksburg, James L. Autrey, delivered a riposte laced with bravado and defiance. “I have to state that Mississippians don’t know, and refuse to learn, how to surrender to an enemy. If Commodore Farragut or Brigadier-General Butler can teach them, let them come and try.”8
That was settled. Vicksburg was no Baton Rouge or Natchez. It was heavily defended, with fortifications so high that the ship-board artillery couldn’t be elevated enough to hit. They decided to anchor south of the city and await Flag Officer Farragut and the infantry.
- Mostly compiled from Stonewall in the Valley by Robert G. Tanner, Stackpole Books, 1996, as well as Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, MacMillan, 1997. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p897. [↩]
- Thunder Along the Mississippi by Jack D. Coombe, Castle Books, 2005. [↩]
- Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 18, p810. [↩]
- Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 18, p491. [↩]
- Thunder Along the Mississippi by Jack D. Coombe, Castle Books, 2005. Oddly, this book doesn’t mention the demand for surrender. [↩]
- Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 18, p810. [↩]
- Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 18, p492. [↩]