Vicksburg: Grant’s Third Attempt

January 28, 1863 – Major General Ulysses S. Grant arrived at Young’s Point to begin his third attempt to capture the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg.

Federal General U.S. Grant | Image Credit:

Since his overland advance and thrust via Chickasaw Bayou had failed, Grant sought to try taking Vicksburg with a river expedition. He initially planned to manage the operation from his Memphis headquarters, but that would mean his ranking subordinate, Major General John A. McClernand, would be the field commander. Not trusting McClernand with such an important responsibility, Grant informed one of his corps commanders, Major General James B. McPherson, “It is my present intention to command the expedition down the river in person.”

Grant boarded a steamer to meet McClernand and Acting Rear Admiral David D. Porter at Napoleon, Mississippi. By that time, McClernand’s Federals had returned from Fort Hindman and taken control of Napoleon, partially destroying the town. Major General William T. Sherman, commanding a corps under McClernand, later wrote that he was “free to admit we all deserve to be killed unless we can produce a state of discipline when such disgraceful acts cannot be committed unpunished.”

Upon arriving at Napoleon on the 18th, Grant directed McClernand to return his forces from Arkansas to Milliken’s Bend on the Mississippi River to prepare for a renewed drive on Vicksburg. Porter agreed to support the mission with his Mississippi River Squadron; he halted all naval operations on the White River in Arkansas and ordered all available gunboats to assemble at Milliken’s Bend.

Grant returned to Memphis and informed General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck that he intended to finish digging the canal across the base of the river bend in front of Vicksburg. Federal warships would use the canal to bypass Young’s Point, which was covered by Confederate artillery, and allow the vessels to get below Vicksburg and take the city from behind. Federal troops and contrabands had begun the project last summer, but it ended when the Confederate ironclad C.S.S. Arkansas drove off two Federal naval fleets.

Grant also reiterated his opinion that a mission to capture Vicksburg could not succeed unless its commander controlled both banks of the Mississippi. Currently, the west bank north of Louisiana was part of Major General Samuel R. Curtis’s Department of the Missouri, and Louisiana belonged to Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Department of the Gulf.

Grant proposed combining the four Western Theater military departments (his own, Curtis’s, Banks’s, and Major General William S. Rosecrans’s Department of the Cumberland) into one, with himself as overall commander. This would ensure more effective cooperation. Grant wrote, “As I am the senior department commander in the West, (even though Banks outranked him) I will state that I have no desire whatever for such combined command, but would prefer the command I now have to any other than can be given.”

The Lincoln administration would not go so far as give Grant all of the Western Theater, but Halleck replied, “The President has directed that so much of Arkansas as you may desire to control be temporarily attached to your department. This will give you control of both banks of the river.”

Maj Gen J.A. McClernand | Image Credit:

This confirmed that McClernand, who had tried to operate independently, was subordinate to Grant. However, Grant still had doubts about McClernand’s ability, as he wrote Halleck, “I regard it as my duty to state that I found there was not sufficient confidence felt in General McClernand as a commander, either by the Army or Navy, to insure him success.”

But McClernand’s conquest of Fort Hindman made him popular in the North, so Grant was not prepared to remove him from command yet. He instead directed McClernand’s troops to resume digging the canal at Swampy Toe Peninsula. Grant then ordered Sherman’s corps to start digging a canal at Duckport, northwest of Vicksburg. If completed, the Duckport canal would bring Federal gunboats 20 miles below Vicksburg.

Meanwhile, McPherson’s corps scouted the area around Lake Providence and Bayou Macon to find any viable approaches to Vicksburg from the south. Also, Porter’s squadron reconnoitered the Yazoo River above Vicksburg, clearing out Confederates and using confiscated bales of cotton as “armor” against Confederate artillery. After seizing 11 Confederate steamers carrying supplies for the garrison at Port Hudson, Louisiana, Porter wrote Navy Secretary Gideon Welles:

“The army is landing on the neck of land opposite Vicksburg. What they expect to do I don’t know, but presume it is a temporary arrangement. I am covering their landing and guarding the Yazoo River. The front of Vicksburg is heavily fortified, and unless we can get troops in the rear of the city I see no chance of taking it at present, though we cut off all their supplies from Texas and Louisiana.”

Halleck notified Grant on the 25th, “Direct your attention particularly to the canal proposed across the point. The President attaches much importance to this.” Grant responded, “I leave for the fleet… tomorrow.” Grant traveled 400 river miles from Memphis to Young’s Point, on the Mississippi’s west bank, below Milliken’s Bend and a few miles above Vicksburg.

When Grant arrived at Young’s Point, he assigned 62,000 of his 103,000-man Department of the Tennessee to the Vicksburg campaign:

  • 32,000 men in McClernand’s “Army of the Mississippi” (i.e., two corps under McClernand and Sherman)
  • 15,000 men of McPherson’s corps
  • 15,000 men of Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut’s corps

Grant’s main effort to take Vicksburg involved the canal construction. A secondary effort began on the 29th when Lieutenant Colonel James H. Wilson of the Federal army corps of engineers received orders to open a levee on Yazoo Pass. This inland waterway connected the Mississippi to Moon Lake and Coldwater River. Opening this route could allow the Federal navy to steam around Vicksburg’s flank and cover an army landing from the north.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis was already aware that the Federals could target this area, as he wrote to Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, “Has anything or can anything be done to obstruct the navigation from Yazoo Pass down?”

As the primary and secondary Federal efforts got under way, Grant met with McClernand on the 29th and assured him that no changes would be made to the army’s command structure. However, now that it had been clarified that Grant was in charge in the field, many of McClernand’s subordinates who distrusted his leadership began bypassing him and going to Grant for instructions.

McClernand protested this and Grant’s practice of sending orders directly to Sherman. Sherman had commanded a “corps” in McClernand’s unsanctioned “Army of the Mississippi” that captured Fort Hindman, and McClernand therefore felt that the chain of command between Grant and Sherman should run through him. McClernand told Grant that if he had an issue with this, “the question should be immediately referred to Washington, and one or other, or both of us relieved.”

Grant responded by issuing General Orders No. 13, announcing that he was taking official field command of the expedition. All army corps commanders would “resume the immediate command of their respective corps, and will report to and receive orders direct from these headquarters.” He then assigned McClernand and his XIII Corps to “garrisoning the post of Helena, Ark., and any other point on the west bank of the river it may be necessary to hold south of that place.”

The notion of going to Helena, some 200 miles north, enraged McClernand because he had been promised an independent command to capture Vicksburg. He immediately wrote Grant about the order, “I hasten to inquire whether its purpose is to relieve me from the command of all or any portion of the forces composing the Mississippi River expedition, or, in other words, whether its purpose is to limit my command to the Thirteenth Army Corps.”

McClernand then reminded Grant of his political connections and protested that “while having projected the Mississippi River expedition, and having been by a series of orders assigned to the command of it, I may be entirely withdrawn from it.”

Grant replied that he had the right to issue orders to anyone within his army, and reminded McClernand that, according to Halleck, he (McClernand) merely commanded a corps within Grant’s army. While Grant initially thought it might be easier to issue orders through McClernand to other corps commanders, now that he had taken the field he “saw it would be much more convenient to issue orders direct to corps commanders whilst present with the command than through another commander.” This disagreement continued into February.


References; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 138, 144-45, 189-90; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18307; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 257-58; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 255, 257, 259-60; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 68-69; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 314; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 586; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 846

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