April 29, 1863 – Major General Ulysses S. Grant needed to find another place to cross the Mississippi River after Confederate defenses at Grand Gulf proved too strong to overcome.
By this time, two of Grant’s three Federal corps were below Vicksburg, waiting to be shuttled across the Mississippi River to threaten the city from the south. He planned to land the troops at Grand Gulf, Mississippi, but Confederates had hurried to build strong defenses there. Grant relied on Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s Mississippi River Squadron to break the defenses so the troops could cross.
Grant’s third corps, led by Major General William T. Sherman, was to create a diversion north of Vicksburg. Sherman’s Federals moved up the Yazoo River with a fleet of eight gunboats, three mortars, and 10 transports. Sherman directed the men to stand on the transport decks and “look as numerous as possible.” The Federals landed near Haynes’s Bluff, marched forward, then marched back onto the transports to draw enemy fire while firing back with artillery of their own.
The ploy worked. Major General Carter L. Stevenson, commanding the Vicksburg defenses, wrote Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, department commander, “The demonstration at Grand Gulf must be only a feint. Here is the real attack. The enemy are in front of me in force such as have never been seen before at Vicksburg. Send me reinforcements.”
Meanwhile, 33 miles southwest of Vicksburg, Porter positioned six gunboats on the Mississippi to bombard Grand Gulf: the U.S.S. Benton, Tuscumbia, Lafayette, Carondelet, Mound City, and Louisville. The Confederate defenses included two recently installed heavy batteries. As Grant watched from a nearby boat, Porter began the bombardment. Brigadier General John S. Bowen, commanding the Confederates at Grand Gulf, informed Pemberton that he was under heavy attack in preparation for an enemy troop landing.
The Federals fired 2,500 rounds, but they inflicted just 18 casualties while silencing one battery and disabling four guns. The Confederate response was more damaging, as Porter reported that his fleet was “pretty cut up.” His flagship Benton took 70 hits, the Lafayette took 45, and the Tuscumbia was put out of action for several days after taking 81 hits. The other three gunboats generally stayed out of range and suffered minimal damage.
At 12:30 p.m., five hours after the fight began, Porter signaled the fleet to fall back with the message “transports cannot pass.” The Federals sustained 75 casualties (18 killed and 57 wounded). According to Porter, “It was the most difficult portion of the river in which to manage an ironclad, strong currents (running six knots) and strong eddies turning them round and round, making them fair targets.”
When Pemberton learned of the Federal repulse, he wired Bowen, “In the name of the army, I desire to thank you and your troops for your gallant conduct today. Keep up the good work… Yesterday I warmly recommended you for a major-generalcy. I shall renew it.”
Grant and Porter agreed that the Grand Gulf defenses were too strong for the troop landing. That night, Federals seized a local slave who knew the area and had him show where another landing could be made. Grant initially planned to cross opposite Rodney, but the slave showed the Federals an unguarded crossing farther south, opposite Bruinsburg. A road extended from that town to Port Gibson and the rear of Grand Gulf.
That night, the Federal gunboats lashed transports to their sides facing away from Grand Gulf and passed the Confederate batteries to the new crossing point. The next day, Grant’s lead corps under Major General John A. McClernand began crossing on the transports and landing at Bruinsburg unopposed. By noon, 23,000 Federals had landed on Mississippi soil.
Grant later wrote that he felt:
“… a degree of relief scarcely ever equaled since. I was now in the enemy’s country, with a vast river and the stronghold of Vicksburg between me and my base of supplies. But I was on dry ground on the same side of the river with the enemy. All the campaigns, labors, hardships, and exposures, from the month of December previous to this time, that had been made and endured, were for the accomplishments of this one object.”
Grant directed the Federals to attack before their landing was discovered. They first needed to confront the 5,164 Confederates at Port Gibson, 12 miles east of Bruinsburg and six miles southwest of Grand Gulf. Bowen dispatched 5,000 more Confederates under Brigadier General Martin L. Smith out of Grand Gulf to intercept the Federals. They moved across Bayou Pierre and arrived about four miles west of Port Gibson that night, where they set up defenses.
McClernand’s Federals marched seven miles inland before camping for the night. Grant ordered Sherman to stop his demonstration and come down to join the main operation. Grant had the numbers, and now he had seized the initiative in a daring gamble, with help from Sherman’s feint and Grierson’s raid. The fight for Vicksburg would begin on the 1st of May.
Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 353-54; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 127-29; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 66-68; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18348-56; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 279; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 332, 342-43, 346-47; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 287-88; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 96-97, 100-01; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 343-44; 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. 628; 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. 165-66; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 595-96; 781-84