Eighteen Days and Five Battles: The Vicksburg Campaign
A report on the Ed Bearss lecture by Greg Bayne
To say that we saved the best till last would be a great disservice to our previous speakers but there was no doubt that Ed Bearss talking on "Eighteen Days and Five Battles" was a unique experience that will remain with us for some time.
By March 1863, activity in the Western Theatre had ground to a halt. The key to the Confederate line was Vicksburg, its northern anchor. For topographic reasons, Vicksburg could be attacked only from the east. Logically, to approach from the east, Grant's men must first capture and hold the line of the Mississippi Central Railroad for the distance of several hundred miles. They must then defeat Pemberton's 40,000-man army in a pitched battle somewhere east of the city. Grant was literally "bogged down" in the bayous with the Rebels on the high ground. Van Dorn and Forrest were raiding at will. Grants' army was organised into four Corps, two seasoned West Pointers and two politician volunteers. Of the latter McPherson was the weakest. Grant's main ally was Porter, but in dealing with him Grant also had to deal with his ego.
Slowly Grant formulated a plan that was to break the deadlock and as Bearss put it "win the war". Grant soon realised that the key to the campaign would be the use of amphibious warfare. but it was a risky business. The mighty Mississippi flowed at 6- mile per-hour whilst an ironclad only managed 2.5. Quite simply, once past Vicksburg, they would not be able to return.
Grant realised that he had to cross the river, but how? He mulled over the options - 1) Send the army back to Memphis and advance overland the 220 mile to Vicksburg - quickly discounted as it would be seen as a retreat, 2) attempt an amphibious assault at Vicksburg - but this would be costly or 3) advance through the Parishes and cross lower down.
Grant choose the latter option and whilst his main body started off, he ordered three diversionary feints to confuse Bragg and Pemberton. On April 5th Steel moved to Greenville and Dear Creek causing mischief. Heavy river traffic upriver lead Bragg to believe a major threat was brewing and he withdrew 10,000 troops northwards. On 16th April Grant crossed his own private Rubicon: the campaign to capture Vicksburg was underway. Porter ran the gauntlet. On April 17th Greirson (incidentally a passionate horse-hater) started his epic raid with 1,700 men.
Confused by all this activity, Pemberton planned to concentrate his forces on the Big Black ridge. His plans go awry as he was forced to siphon off this reserve to chase Greirson. Sherman launched a feint at Schneider's' Bluff. Grant landed at Bruinsburg and moved inland but the ground was difficult and his initial movements slow. At this point said Bearss " the light bulbs in Confederate HQ started to glow". Caught with their forces divided Johnson and Pemberton seemed paralysed and waited for Grant's next move.
It came quickly with the battle of Port Gibson. The rebels were outnumbered and outfought. At this point Bearss paused, then asked us to consider what plans Grant had and suggested that he had none except to capture Vicksburg and defeat Johnston in the field. He was forced to halt until 8th May whilst he waited for Sherman to come up with support. The capture of the Big Black Bridge signaled the renewal of the campaign.
Johnston told Pemberton to evacuate Vicksburg. Davis told him to stay. Grant moved his army to the north and east not doing what the enemy expected him to do. On 11th May the Union army was marching along a broad 20-mile front. The rebels were frantically bringing together their scattered forces. Gregg counter-attacked at Raymond, but McPherson's 12,000 easily defeated his 3,000 men. Grant switched to attack the strategic rail links at Jackson, thinking on his feet and being flexible in the approach to Vicksburg. Sherman destroyed the facilities at Jackson while Grant moved west.
The climatic battle came at Champion's Hill. Grant was able to place his army between the three separate forces of Pemberton, Loring and Johnston. He attacked and badly defeated Pemberton who lost 27 cannon and hundreds of prisoners in the retreat to the Big Black River. Loring retreated and eventually joined with Johnston. Pemberton tried to make a stand at the Big Black but McClernand pinned him down while Grant's other corps enveloped his flanks. Pemberton's army fled into the Vicksburg fortifications.
Grant had accomplished his mission: Pemberton was trapped in Vicksburg, Sherman occupied the bluffs at the mouth of the Yazoo and communications were restored with the North. Settling into position on the 21st May, Grant was inspecting a portion of the line when his troops took up the cry "Hardtack! Hardtack!" and it quickly resonated through the army - an ironic prelude to the return to army rations after living very comfortably off of the rich pickings of Mississippi.
Sherman said to Grant "Until this moment, I never thought your expedition a success. I never could see the end clearly until now".
There followed a question and answer session. Responding to one question Ed Bearss firmly told the floor that he believed the war was won in those crucial few months in the west.