Vicksburg: Grant’s Two-Pronged Advance

December 18, 1862 – Confederate forces prepared to defend against Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s advance on Vicksburg from both water and land.

Lt Gen John C. Pemberton | Image Credit:

The Confederate Army of Mississippi, the main force within Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton’s Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, was mainly stationed around Grenada, Mississippi. There they awaited an overland approach by Grant’s Army of the Tennessee, which advanced near Oxford along the Mississippi Central Railroad line. Grant’s objective was Vicksburg, the stronghold on the Mississippi River facilitating the flow of Confederate supplies from the west.

Grant directed Major General William T. Sherman to join forces with Major General John A. McClernand at Memphis and launch a second drive on Vicksburg via the Mississippi. The Federals of Sherman and McClernand would move downriver to Helena, Arkansas, where they would pick up reinforcements. Then, supported by Admiral David D. Porter’s Mississippi River Squadron, they would advance through Chickasaw Bluffs on the Yazoo River and threaten Vicksburg from the north.

Federal Gen W.T. Sherman | Image Credit:

Sherman left for Memphis on the 9th, wiring Porter, “Time now is the great object. We must not give time for new combinations.” Porter’s first task was to clear the Yazoo of obstructions and Confederate torpedoes (i.e., mines). He dispatched a squadron of four gunboats, with two shallow-draft vessels sweeping for mines and the ironclads U.S.S. Cairo and Pittsburgh bombarding Confederate batteries and sharpshooters on the shores.

As the squadron approached Haynes’ Bluff, Lieutenant Commander Thomas O. Selfridge moved the Cairo farther up the main channel, where a torpedo detonated under her hull at 11:55 a.m. The crew abandoned ship, and Selfridge later reported, “The Cairo sunk in about 12 minutes after the explosion, going totally out of sight, except for the top of her chimneys, in 6 fathoms of water.”

The Cairo was the first Federal vessel destroyed by a Confederate torpedo in the war. Prior to this, Porter had reported to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles that “these torpedoes have proved so harmless… that officers have not felt that respect for them to which they are entitled.” Federal naval commanders quickly became much more cautious in dealing with torpedoes.

As Porter’s ships resumed clearing the Yazoo, Grant continued voicing concern about McClernand’s separate, supposedly secret mission to capture Vicksburg. Grant believed that not only should the operation be left to one overall commander, but, as he explained to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, he did not want McClernand involved at all because he was “unmanageable and incompetent.”

Grant had sent Sherman to Memphis to join forces with McClernand, knowing that McClernand was still in Illinois recruiting volunteers for the operation. Grant hoped to send Sherman’s Federals downriver with McClernand’s recruits before McClernand could come down to take charge. Grant reasoned that he had authority over McClernand’s men because they were being sent to Memphis, which was part of Grant’s military department.

Meanwhile, McClernand awaited authorization from the War Department to proceed, notifying Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that he was “anxiously awaiting your order sending me forward for duty in connection with the Mississippi expedition.” When Stanton referred him to Halleck, McClernand wrote the general-in-chief, “I beg to be sent forward in accordance with the order of the Secretary of War … giving me command of the Mississippi expedition.”

McClernand soon realized that neither Stanton nor Halleck wanted him to lead the expedition, so he went to President Abraham Lincoln, who had authorized him to proceed in the first place: “I believe I am superseded. Please inquire and let me know whether it is or shall be true.” The War Department tried clearing up the confusion by issuing General Order No. 210, which formally organized Grant’s army into a corps structure:

  • XIII Corps under Major General John A. McClernand
  • XV Corps under Major General William T. Sherman (formerly troops from the District of Memphis and the command at Helena, Arkansas)
  • XVI Corps under Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut (formerly troops from the Districts of Memphis, Jackson, and Columbia)
  • XVII Corps under Major General James B. McPherson (formerly troops from the District of Corinth)

Grant was to see that McClernand’s corps “constituted part of the river expedition and that he shall have the immediate command under your direction.” Grant did not want McClernand at all, but at least now McClernand would be reporting to him and not leading his own operation.

This ostensibly ended McClernand’s ambition to form an independent “Army of the Mississippi” to capture Vicksburg. But McClernand, who outranked Sherman, would take command of the river expedition as soon as he got to Memphis. To prevent this, Grant directed Sherman to lead the Federals downriver before McClernand arrived.


References; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 241, 245; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 63-64, 74; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 236, 238, 240-41; Hattaway, Herman, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 500; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 293-95, 298; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 131-32; Pritchard, Russ A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 178-79

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