The Road to Vicksburg: The Battle of Port Gibson
The December 2004 meeting was given by Tony Daly.
By late October 1862 the Union plans in the west had stalled. The Navy under Farragut had failed to take Vicksburg thanks to the heavy gun batteries and the threat of the CSS Arkansas. Grant was now in charge and had to muster his forces as best he could. The ambitious McClernand raised 40,000 troops in one month alone but these recruits need time to train. But Grant, Sherman and Porter connived and McClernand found his fledgling army absorbed under Grants command.
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Meanwhile the South was faring less well. As well being short of men and material, their new commander, John Pemberton, was unproven and worse than that, he was northern born and therefore always under suspicion form the troops. Pemberton believed in a fluid field army to battle the Yankees, and on this point he clashed with President Davis who did not want to lose any more territory
The early days of 1863 proved troublesome for Grant. Disease, bad food and poor sanitation affected his men. Grant continued to formulate his plans. No direct assaults, no retreat and no advance south to a suitable flanking point. Supply was a major concern and he was becoming increasingly worried about rumours of the strength of the forces facing him. To keep his forces busy, Grant orders "diversions" - Sherman northeast of Vicksburg and on April 17th Grierson's cavalry raid. The Navy plays its part by running the Vicksburg guns on April 16th.
Whilst all this was happening Pemberton was suffering from a lack of good information and really didn't have a clue as to Grant's intentions. Carter Stevenson predicts an attack and it wasn't until Pemberton receives reports of barges heading south to attack Grand Gulf that he is finally galvanised into action. He orders some of his troops south, General Green marches his troops 50 miles in 3.5 days despite the hot weather and lack of horses and carts. General Tracy's Alabama regiment also marched 44 miles in 28 hours. These reinforcements brought Brigadier General J S Bowen's command to nearly 6,000 troops in the Grand Gulf area. Woefully under strength for the battles to come.
Union forces go across the river at Bruinsburg and plan to capture Port Gibson in double quick time. But the immediate problem was rations and McClernand corps halts to wait for supplies. With one Union corps on the Mississippi side, the rebels miss an ideal opportunity to counterattack.
The first major skirmish was a night attack near the Shaifer House but in truth more damage is done to the vegetation that the troops. The terrain is very difficult to negotiate through but where there is contact, there is very tough hand-to-hand fighting. With the battle line forming, Green realises he his in a difficult position. The poor roads manes that it is an hour's march from one flank to another whilst the Union forces enjoy condense lines. In fact the Union has an abundance of men and artillery but they can't manoeuvre very well. The rebels suffer a major setback when Tracey is killed at 8:30 Garrett takes over.
Confusion reigns within the southern rebel flank. Cockrell is ordered forward to turn the Union flank but he fails to find the end of the line and Union artillery pounds them mercilessly. A total of 7 regiments are committed piecemeal and all get the same treatment. After a 1- hour onslaught, the rebels fall back due to ammunition shortages. McClernand fails to follow up with a counterattack. Bowen orders a further attack just to determine where the Union forces are.
In the north the position is similar. Probing attack spread the lien out. The 6th Missouri under Irwin enters a gap at about 3:30 without any orders and no flank support. But the action provokes a panic in Osterhaus. Unsure of his situation and feeling that he had done enough, Bowen orders a retreat. But the orders failed to reach Irwin who is left behind. Irwin loudly orders "Fix Bayonets" and whilst the Union are preparing to receive the charge, Irwin promptly retreats in good order.
The Confederate forces are beaten but they buy time for Pemberton. His failure to use it is story for another time. He puts Logan in charge of the forces and with Grant moving out of the beachhead, all Logan can do is second guess Grants intentions, although Vicksburg is undoubtedly the target. On May 12th the forces clash at Raymond. Again heavy Union numbers force the rebels back, but this time it is McPherson who fails to win a crushing victory. But the path to Jackson is clear at it is captured on May 14th. Vicksburg lay within Grants reach. Little did he realise there was some hard fighting to come.
A lively Q&A followed:
Are there any good defensive positions in the area? Yes but the Union dictated the pace of where and when to fight.
Was there any partisan activity? No real evidence of it. The area was sparsely populated and the defenders poorly organised.
Joe Johnston was a puzzling figure - I think we all are a bit puzzled by him. It was interesting to see that all his excuses for failure were laid out at the start of the campaign.
What was the Halleck influence? It was evident that he hated Grant and was aware of the decision to steal the McClernand 40,000 troops. Grant ignores the late orders he received from Halleck, takes over the forces and then takes off in the Mississippi wilderness.
Isn't history a bit harsh on the Western Confederate Generals? With hindsight, but Richmond ordered them time and time again to hold ground but failed to take direct responsibility. Joe Johnston might have been able to hold Sherman up before Atlanta but Davis and him didn't get along due to earlier problems in Virginia prior to his wounding.