April 15, 1863 – Major General Ulysses S. Grant assembled his Federal troops at Milliken’s Bend as Rear Admiral David D. Porter prepared to pass the Vicksburg batteries with his Mississippi River Squadron.
Grant’s plan to bypass Vicksburg on the west bank of the Mississippi and then threaten the city from below was about to be implemented. As Grant explained to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck on the 4th:
“My expectation is for a portion of the naval fleet to run the batteries of Vicksburg, whilst the army moves through by this new route (to New Carthage). Once there, I will move either to Warrenton or Grand Gulf; most probably the latter. From either of these points there are good roads to Vicksburg, and from Grand Gulf there is a good road to Jackson and the Black River Bridge without crossing the Black River.”
Richmond was on the road from Milliken’s Bend to New Carthage. The Federals needed this town to keep the road open. The Confederates needed the town to get supplies across the river to Vicksburg. Major General John A. McClernand’s XIII Corps, led by General Peter J. Osterhaus’s division, secured the town and the road on the 4th, with help from slaves escaping from nearby plantations. McClernand’s troops spent the next few days assembling at and fortifying New Carthage.
A meeting took place on the 8th between Grant, Major Generals William T. Sherman (commanding XV Corps), James B. McPherson (commanding XVII Corps), Francis P. Blair, Jr. (commanding a division), and Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana. Sherman wanted to take the army back to Memphis and retry the overland route to Vicksburg from the north. Grant refused to make any movement that could be construed as a retreat, especially since it was becoming apparent that McClernand was leading a group of officers pushing for Grant’s removal as commander.
McClernand had urged the administration to give him an independent command separate from Grant’s since last year. According to Sherman, the men feared that McClernand “was still intriguing against General Grant, in hopes to regain the command of the whole expedition, and that others were raising a clamor against General Grant in the newspapers of the North.”
McClernand was indeed using his political connections to get Grant ousted. He wrote President Abraham Lincoln that “on the 13th of March, 1863, Genl. Grant I am informed was gloriously drunk and in bed sick all next day. If you (are) averse to drunken Genl’s I can furnish the name of officers of high standing to substantiate the above.” Next, McClernand wrote Illinois Governor Richard Yates, calling the situation “intolerable” because Grant did “nothing decisive,” while “time is passing and the Republic is dying of inertia. Can’t you prevail upon the President to send some competent commander? For our country’s sake do.”
Grant did not directly address the situation at this time. He ordered McClernand to stay put at New Carthage and rejected the urgings of both Porter and Sherman to return to Memphis and start over. However, the administration continued pushing Grant to provide some support for Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s advance on Port Hudson. They envisioned Grant joining forces with Banks to take the fort, and then move together upriver to take Vicksburg.
Grant responded by informing Halleck on the 11th: “Grand Gulf is the point at which I expect to strike, and send an army corps to Port Hudson to co-operate with General Banks.” He then directed McClernand, who was sending the rest of his corps to New Carthage, to “get possession of Grand Gulf at the earliest practicable moment… From there you can operate on the rear of Port Hudson, in conjunction with Banks from Baton Rouge.”
Porter would support McClernand by sending a naval fleet past Vicksburg carrying rations and supplies for the troops. Porter wrote Navy Secretary Gideon Welles on the 12th that Grant “proposes to embark his army at (New) Carthage, seize Grand Gulf under fire of the gunboats, and make it the base of his operations… The squadron will pass the batteries and engage them while the transports go by in the smoke, passing down, of course, at night…” Running short on manpower, Porter reported that he employed 600 local contrabands, and Grant furnished 800 troops.
By the 15th, Grant had 45,000 troops at Milliken’s Bend, in addition to McClernand’s corps now at New Carthage. Grant directed McPherson to begin moving his corps down to join McClernand, as Sherman’s corps got into position to feint against Haynes’s Bluff north of Vicksburg.
Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Confederate Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, was so confused by Grant’s movements that he thought Grant was abandoning the Vicksburg operation. Pemberton reported to General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Western Department, “Grant’s forces are being withdrawn to Memphis.” Confident that Vicksburg was safe for now, Pemberton prepared to return 8,000 Confederate troops on loan from the Army of Tennessee at Tullahoma. He would soon need them back.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 271, 273-75; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 325, 345; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 281; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 86; 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. 626