April 27, 1863 – Federal troops arrived at Hard Times on the west bank of the Mississippi River. This signaled the successful completion of the first phase of Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s plan to capture Vicksburg.
Grant’s Federal troops were marching down the west bank to get below Vicksburg on the opposite shore. The men would then cross the river and threaten the city from the south. Grant planned for the troops to cross and land at Grand Gulf, Mississippi, but the Confederates anticipated this and hurried to strengthen defenses there.
To counter, Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the Mississippi River Squadron supporting Grant, stationed gunboats on the Mississippi near the mouth of the Big Black River to isolate the Grand Gulf garrison. Porter told Grant that a “half Union man” claimed 12,000 Confederates and 12 guns were en route to Grand Gulf. Consequently, Porter would not attack without army support.
Grant received a conflicting report from Major General John A. McClernand, commanding the lead corps on the march down the west bank. McClernand stated, “I saw no great activity of any kind displayed by the enemy, nor did I see any formidable display of batteries or forts.” McClernand asserted that if the Federals were going to attack, “I cannot too strongly urge that it be done now. The enemy should be at once driven away from the crest and river slope of the bluffs, and I believe the gunboats can easily do it.”
Not sure whether to rely on Porter or McClernand, Grant left Milliken’s Bend to see for himself. He inspected the batteries at Grand Gulf and then wrote Major General William T. Sherman, commanding the diversionary corps north of Vicksburg, “I foresee great difficulties in our present position, but it will not do to let these retard any movements.” Grant planned to use the gunboats to take out the Confederate batteries and then land McClernand’s troops.
Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Confederate Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, had many things to worry about from his Jackson headquarters:
- Grant threatened Grand Gulf below Vicksburg
- Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federal Army of the Gulf threatened Port Hudson farther down the Mississippi in Louisiana
- Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson was raiding from the north as a diversion, along with other Federal cavalry units
Pemberton wrote Major General Carter L. Stevenson, commanding Confederates at Vicksburg, on the 25th:
“It is indispensable that you keep in your lines only such force as is absolutely needed to hold them, and organize the remainder, if there are any of your troops as a movable force available for any point where it may be most required.”
By the 27th, McClernand’s four divisions were at Hard Times, ready to be transported five miles downriver to Grand Gulf, on the east bank. McClernand was joined by one division from Major General James B. McPherson’s corps, with the other two approaching. Sherman’s corps was at Young’s Point, ready to carry out its diversion north of Vicksburg. Grant wrote Sherman:
“The effect of a heavy demonstration in that direction would be good so far as the enemy are concerned, but I am loth to order it, because it would be hard to make our own troops understand that only a demonstration was intended and our people at home would characterize it as a repulse. I therefore leave it to you whether to make such a demonstration.”
If Sherman decided to do it, Grant advised him to “publish your order beforehand, stating that a reconnaissance in force was to be made for the purpose of calling off the enemy’s attention from our movements south of Vicksburg, and not with any expectation of attacking.”
Sherman, who thought nothing of politics or public opinion, replied:
“We will make as strong a demonstration as possible. The troops will all understand the purpose and not be hurt by the repulse. The people of the country must find out the truth as best they can; it is none of their business…”
Meanwhile, Porter issued orders to his captains on how to attack Grand Gulf:
“The Louisville, Carondelet, Mound City, and Pittsburg will proceed in advance, going down slowly, firing their bow guns at the guns in the first battery on the bluff, passing 100 yards from it, and 150 yards apart from each. As they pass the battery on the bluff they will fire grape, canister, and shrapnel, cut at one-half second, and percussion shell from rifled guns…”
Meanwhile, Pemberton directed Brigadier General John S. Bowen, commanding the Grand Gulf defenses, to scout for Federal cavalry if he had the resources, or try strengthening Port Gibson farther south. The Federal cavalry raids compelled Pemberton to spread out his infantry in defense. Bowen reported that a large Federal force was across the river from him and ordered his troops to link the defenses between Grand Gulf and Port Gibson.
The next day, Bowen reported that “transports and barges loaded down with troops are landing at Hard-Times on the west bank.” Pemberton replied, “Have you force enough to hold your position? If not, give me the smallest additional number with which you can.”
Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 353; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18340-48, 18402; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 278; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 330-31; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 285-86