May 18, 1863 (Monday)
As the beaten Confederate Army under John Pemberton streamed back into the Vicksburg defenses, General Grant was hot on their heels. He saw no reason to move otherwise. By this time, he knew that he had blocked any hope Pemberton held of joining with Joe Johnston’s troops north of Jackson. The Rebel Army was divided and Vicksburg might just be ripe for the picking.
General John McClernand’s XIII Corps was in the lead, marching west on the main road through Bovina Station. To the north, William Tecumseh Sherman’s XV Corps marched along the Bridgeport Road, angling to get between Vicksburg and the Yazoo River. There was some hope that the Rebel forces stationed along the river could be cut off, but the previous day, General Pemberton ordered them to be evacuated. James McPherson, commanding Grant’s final corps (the XVII) was close behind McClernand.
The basic plan was to assault Vicksburg as soon as possible. If he waited too long, Richmond would send more reinforcements to Johnston’s army (now only 12,000 or so strong), creating a force that wouldn’t simply have to be watched, but would have to be fought.
In Vicksburg, General Pemberton’s two battle-worn divisions (under Carter Stevenson and John Bowen) joined the two other divisions manning the defenses (under John H. Forney and Martin L. Smith). The right of the Confederate line, running from the Mississippi River to the railroad was held by Carter Stevenson’s troops, who had been badly whipped at Champion Hill. His was a large division, comprised of what amounted to five brigades. The two brigades in John Bowen’s Division, which had fought along side Stevenson’s, were held more or less in reserve. One brigade hovered in the center, while the other was just north of town.
John Forney’s Division, with two brigades, had previously covered the Yazoo River defenses and the Warrenton Batteries. Since Grant had rendered both of those positions obsolete, Pemberton reunited the division and placed its right flank upon the railroad (and thus upon Stevenson’s left). It ran almost due north before connecting to Martin Smith’s Division, which curved back towards the Mississippi River, completing the circular defenses.
But these works were hardly stout. Building up to this point, Pemberton had a very difficult time finding slave labor to construct this army’s defenses. There simply weren’t enough of his own men to complete the task. Also, he had never really expected Grant to march from the Mississippi River, all the way to Jackson, turn around and then march back to Vicksburg.
With many more men in the works, they could now be strengthened (and the reason why Grant wanted to take Vicksburg as soon as possible). While they were improving them, Pemberton received a message from General Johnston, ordering the abandonment of Vicksburg. His reasoning was simple. Since Pemberton had ordered the Yazoo River defenses to be abandoned, trying to hold Vicksburg was pointless.
“If, therefore, you are invested in Vicksburg,” wrote Johnston of Grant’s coming siege, “you must ultimately surrender. Under such circumstances, instead of losing both troops and place, we must, if possible, save the troops.”
Pemberton called a council of war, bringing together he four division commanders, and asked their opinion on what to do. All agreed that it was impossible to abandon Vicksburg. It would morally destroy the army.
“I have decided to hold Vicksburg as long as possible,” replied Pemberton, “with the firm hope that the Government may yet be able to assist me in keeping this obstruction to the enemy’s free navigation of the Mississippi River. I still conceive it to be the most important point in the Confederacy.”
Just as the meeting was winding down, the Union artillery opened upon Vicksburg. Their chance of escape was gone. The only direction he could have moved was northeast, and it was nearly twenty-four hours too late for that.
The guns were of General Sherman’s Corps, which was staggeringly close to the Confederate right. Grant’s two other corps were to Sherman’s right, encamped several miles away. The next day, Grant planned to strike.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, Part 3, p888, 889-890; Vicksburg by Michael B. Ballard; (Pemberton, Defender of Vicksburg by John C. Pemberton; Nothing But Victory by Steven E. Woodworth. [↩]