Marching the Parishes to Port Gibson
Report by John Murray
Former chairman of the ACWRT(UK) Tony Daly addressed members on 10 August 2002 at the National Army Museum. Tony spoke on Grant's march on Vicksburg in Spring 1863 through the north eastern parishes of Louisiana and the crossing of the Mississippi river.
Early in 1862 there had been Union successes in the western theatre at Fort Henry, Fort Donelson and Shiloh leading to the division of Mississippi and Tennessee. Rosecrans faced Bragg in Tennessee, while Grant faced Pemberton. The Union navy had control of much of the Mississippi river. In mid 1862, the South lost New Orleans, Island No 1, Fort Pillow, Corinth and Memphis. Following the fall of New Orleans, the Federals were close to Vicksburg but failed to take it because Ben Butler did not see the need to control the whole of the river.
By November 1862, Grant had reached Holly Springs. By the end of the year the USS Cairo hit a torpedo (i.e. a mine) and sank. Back in the east, the North suffered defeat at Fredericksburg. Grant moved south but Van Dorn attacked Holly Springs which resulted in millions of dollars of supplies being destroyed or taken away. Grant had no supply line but he learned something; he realised that the land was bountiful and that his men could live off it.
Sherman launched an attack at Chickasaw Bluffs and his troops were slaughtered. In December 1862, the battle of Stones River was fought between Rosecrans and Bragg. In the new year, Grant moved west.
Tony described the Mississippi river. Half a mile to a mile wide in places, it was narrower at Vicksburg and Grand Gulf. The river was very different in 1862-3 from what it is now. At that time, there was 50 inches of rain per year (half that now). East of the river, there were mountains to climb; to the west, lowlands where dykes and levees were used. The soil was very dark, very rich. The population was greater then than now. Transportation was poor with dirt roads. Between Grand Gulf and Port Gibson there was a railroad but Farragut had burned Grand Gulf and part of the railroad.
Grant meanwhile found his army split and unable to concentrate. He kept his men occupied. He restored Williams' canal with slaves and Sherman's troops. With the men crammed together, smallpox broke out with many deaths. Work stopped when the canal flooded and it was abandoned. Grant then considered bringing his men through the delta north of Vicksburg with the assistance of Porter's ships. But they in turn needed assistance from part of Sherman's troops and Grant brought his march to an end.
Grant had three options: (1) direct attack on the Bluffs at Vicksburg where casualties would have been high; (2) withdraw to Memphis and then use the railroad - this would have seemed a retrograde step at a time of poor election results and opinion turning against the war, (3) walk the army down. Grant decided to march through the parishes.
In the meantime, McClernand went to New Carthage. Tony described McClernand, the highly ambitious lawyer-politician, War Democrat, who, within one month, raised 40,000 men in Illinois.
Grant had another look at the Yazoo river and made plans for another canal. Grant implored Porter to run Vicksburg's guns. Porter, who despised McClernand, commanded the Mississippi squadron. The 8 Vicksburg batteries were without officers when Porter made his run and they performed badly allowing all of Porter's ships to get by and reach New Carthage.
Pemberton, seeing ships go north, thought the Yankees were in retreat. He was told McClernand was leaving Milliken's Bend. However, troop ships were coming south. The Confederates were clearly confused With Sherman above Vicksburg, a couple of cavalry raids were made: one to sever railroads and the other Grierson's raid from North Tennessee to Baton Rouge. Nathan Bedford Forrest was forced to hunt a Yankee raider and was effectively taken out of the picture. Confederate spies indicated that troops were leaving, suggesting a strike in Tennessee not Mississippi. However, John S. Bowen at Grand Gulf did not believe it.
The Union army reached Hard Times and was ready to assault Grand Gulf. Porter did not like the look of Bowen's defences and Union troops were held on transports for 18 hours before heading back to Hard Times. A slave said there was a good road from Bruinsville and Grant trusted him. Union troops were ferried across to the Mississippi shore and advanced on two roads to Port Gibson. There they confronted Bowen's smaller force who put up spirited resistance for 18 hours. Bowen's force had to pull back.
After all the various and strenuous efforts made over the previous months, Grant was now poised to advance toward the ultimate goal - Vicksburg.