April 27, 1863 (Monday)
When General Grant arrived in John McClernand’s camp the previous day, he was met by a disorganized mess. He had called for order and readiness, yet he found few things to be orderly and nothing to be ready. The plan was to cross the Mississippi River and attack Grand Gulf, south of Vicksburg. To do this, McClernand had steamers and transports on hand, but they were scattered freely along the river and up bayous as if he cared not at all for Grant’s plans.
This was because McClernand cared not at all for Grant’s plans. And so in person Grant ordered him to place his two divisions encamped at the Perkins Plantation, south of New Carthage, to board the steamers, which he ordered to be made ready. This was so that McClernand’s other two divisions, still around New Carthage, could encamp at Perkins. He also reminded him that gunpowder was in short supply and artillery should be reserved only for firing at the enemy.
Naturally, McClernand ignored the orders for the entirety of the 26th. On this date, he continued, and took it a step or two farther. Not only did he refuse to board the first two divisions, but he called up the second two and staged a grand review of a single brigade for visiting Richard Yates, Governor of Illinois. Yates thought the day a splendid one and gave a long political speech to enliven the boys. McClernand thought the same and gave a speech of his own. And then, as icing on top of a the most insubordinate layer cake ever, McClernand had his artillery fire a salute to the visiting governor.
And so Grant again issued the orders. The troops were to board and await orders to move via the steamers to a point opposite Grand Gulf. He again explained the plan. The Navy would reduce whatever batteries were employed by the enemy and, once accomplished, McClernand’s men would be ferried to the Mississippi shore, disembarked and were to storm up the bluffs, capturing the already-destroyed Rebel fort.
But McClernand had another idea. Why take the troops by water, exposing them to the guns of Grand Gulf, if there was an open road to the same point opposite Grand Gulf? What McClernand had in mind was the little village of Hard Times. He had, on Grant’s orders, sent a reconnaissance party to see if the roads were passable. What they found was Rebel cavalry. McClernand sent two messengers to Grant, explaining that his forward party would need reinforcements if they were to continue.
What luck it was, then, that McClernand did not have enough transports upon which to board his men. Seeing an opportunity, Grant ordered the last two of McClernand’s divisions to drive out the Rebels and establish themselves at Hard Times. This would also solve the problem of where to encamp them.
Grant then turned his attention north, to William Tecumseh Sherman. Originally, the plan had been for Sherman’s entire corps to follow McClernand’s and McPherson’s. But as there was little room for such an army, Grant had another idea. Wanting to create a diversion, he had ordered all of Sherman’s Corps to readiness at Milliken’s Bend, just north of Vicksburg. “If you think it advisable,” wrote Grant to Sherman, “you may make a reconnaissance of Haynes’ Bluff, taking as much force and as many steamers as you like.” Clearly, this was the corps commander completely trusted by Grant.
But this was a touchy situation. “The effect of a heavy demonstration in that direction would be good so far as the enemy are concerned, but I am loath to order it,” he explained, “because it would be so hard to make our own troops understand that only a demonstration was intended, and our people at home would characterize it as a repulse. I therefore leave it to you whether to make such a demonstration.”
What Grant didn’t want was a demoralized army or Washington on his case about yet another setback. What he wanted was a diversion, and suggested that if Sherman make it at all, he should “publish your order beforehand, stating that a reconnaissance in force was to be made for the purpose of calling off the enemy’s attention from our movements south of Vicksburg, and not with any expectation of attacking.”
Grant concluded that he would probably move the following day.
Sherman immediately swung into action. To cover the road from Milliken’s Bend to New Carthage, he detached a division under Frederick Steele. In his orders to Steele, all Sherman revealed to his own division commander was that “General Grant directs me to control matters at this end.” It was all Steele needed to know.
Meanwhile, across the Mississippi, Confederate General Pemberton was still mostly concerned about the Yankee cavalry operating behind his lines throughout Mississippi. The only thing that brought his attention back to his defenses on the Mississippi was his belief that a column of Union cavalry was making for Port Gibson, just south of Grand Gulf.
To General John Bowen, commanding the Confederates defenses at Grand Gulf, Pemberton asked if he could not deplete his meager force by sending out some cavalry to check the Federals, which he supposed were probably headed somewhere close to his location. Even Pemberton admitted that it was all “only a matter of conjecture.”
Instead, General Bowen replied that there was a rather large force directly across the river from him. They had transports and were looking as if they indented to cross. He figured they’d do so at St. Joseph (a little south of Hard Times), crossing to the town of Rodney (this was actually one of Grant’s backup plans). So convinced was Bowen that he ordered his engineers to find a line of defense at Port Gibson. This wasn’t because of the cavalry conjectured by Pemberton to be soon behind him, but because of Grant’s troops before him.
And still, Pemberton ignored Bowen and focused solely upon the Union cavalry, even taking men away from Vicksburg to meet them. It wouldn’t be until the following day that he took the 40,000 enemy troops in plain sight of Grand Gulf seriously.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, Part 1, p80-82; Part 3, p 237-240, 792-793; Vicksburg by Michael B. Ballard; Nothing But Victory by Steven E. Woodworth. [↩]