December 28, 1862 – Confederate forces hurried to defend Chickasaw Bluffs as Federal troops under Major General William T. Sherman struggled to reach them.
On the day that Confederates destroyed the main Federal supply depot at Holly Springs, Sherman prepared to head down the Mississippi River from Memphis to Walnut Hills, also known as Chickasaw Bluffs, on the Yazoo River. This was the water phase of Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s land-water advance on the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg.
Seizing Chickasaw Bluffs would put the Federals on the northern flank of Confederates defending Vicksburg, forcing them to either fight or flee. Sherman would be supported by Admiral David D. Porter’s Mississippi River Squadron, along with Grant’s Federals moving overland to keep Confederates at Grenada from reinforcing those defending Vicksburg. Unaware that the Holly Springs raid prevented Grant from supporting him, Sherman wrote Grant:
“You may calculate on our being at Vicksburg by Christmas. River has risen some feet, and all is now good navigation. Gunboats are at mouth of Yazoo now, and there will be no difficulty in effecting a landing up Yazoo within 12 miles of Vicksburg.”
The next day, Sherman began loading three divisions of XIII Corps onto transports. This corps technically belonged to Major General John A. McClernand, but he was still in Illinois recruiting volunteers. Grant, being the department commander, did not trust McClernand to lead this operation, so he directed Sherman to lead it before McClernand arrived. Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate raiders indirectly helped Grant by cutting telegraph wires and preventing McClernand from getting Grant’s message that the expedition was starting without him.
Sherman collected a fourth division at Helena, Arkansas, on the 21st, giving him 32,000 men. After receiving word that the supply depot at Holly Springs had been destroyed, Sherman wrote Grant, “I hardly know what faith to put in such a report, but suppose whatever may be the case you will attend to it.” The cut telegraph lines prevented Grant from warning Sherman that he could expect no land support.
The Federals encountered little resistance as their flotilla steamed from Helena downriver toward the Yazoo. Sherman later wrote, “What few inhabitants remained at the plantations on the river-bank were unfriendly, except the slaves, some few guerrilla-parties infested the banks, but did not dare to molest so strong a force as I then commanded.”
The flotilla steamed to within 50 miles of Vicksburg on Christmas Eve, where Confederates guarding an outpost on Lake Providence, west of the Mississippi, spotted them. Using a private telegraph line the Federals did not know about, the guards sent a wire around midnight, “Great God, Phil, 81 gunboats and transports have passed here tonight.”
A messenger hurried across the river to relay the message to the Vicksburg commander. He cut a Christmas ball short and ordered his troops to man the defenses. Sherman’s hope to surprise the Confederates had been dashed. On Christmas Day, Federal forces began landing at Milliken’s Bend, on the Mississippi’s west bank about 10 miles above the mouth of the Yazoo. Sherman dispatched a division to wreck the railroad connecting Vicksburg to Monroe, Louisiana, while the rest of the 64-vessel flotilla continued downriver.
The Federals entered the Yazoo near Steele’s Bayou the next day. They were about four miles northwest of Chickasaw Bluffs, which were another six miles northeast of Vicksburg. Federal troops began landing at Johnson’s Plantation, with Porter’s gunboats bombarding nearby Haynes’ Bluff to cover them.
Initially, just 6,000 Confederates defended the bluffs, led by General Martin L. Smith. But now that the Confederates at Vicksburg knew of Sherman’s advance, they rushed another 8,000 men there. General Stephen D. Lee superseded Smith as Confederate commander until Lee was superseded by the arrival of General Carter L. Stevenson.
Sherman still had twice as many men, but the defenders held the high ground overlooking approaches from both the Yazoo and Chickasaw Bayou. Also, the marshes and swamps would force the attackers to funnel toward the center of the Confederate defenses, enabling the defenders to concentrate their fire. And the Confederates had cleared the woods in their front, giving them a clear view of any approach.
Sherman considered this a terrible place to attack, but he dispatched units to search for any exploitable weaknesses. The Federals advanced under heavy fire, slogging through the swampy terrain. Porter’s gunboats tried covering them as they took up positions along the water barriers in front of the Confederate defenses. Sherman was informed that just four approaches could be used to reach the bluffs, and each was guarded by heavy artillery.
The Federals spent the next few days probing to determine the Confederate positions, with heavy skirmishing breaking out at several points. On the 28th, McClernand arrived at Memphis to learn that the expedition had started without him. The cut telegraph lines had prevented Grant from informing McClernand; they also prevented Grant from urging Sherman to abort his mission.
That day, Brigadier General Frederick Steele’s division tried crossing Blake’s Levee to reach the bluffs, but they could not overcome the Confederate guns and abatis in their path. Brigadier General George W. Morgan’s division tried approaching on a causeway north of Chickasaw Bayou but was repelled with heavy loss. Nevertheless, Sherman resolved to launch an all-out attack on the bluffs the next day.
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