May 1, 1863 – Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federals tried pushing inland from the Mississippi River to gain a foothold on the ground south of Vicksburg. Confederates blocked their advance at Port Gibson.
Grant’s troops continued landing at Bruinsburg, on the east side of the Mississippi, while Major General William T. Sherman’s troops continued diverting Confederate attention north of Vicksburg. Sherman informed Grant, “At 3 p.m. we will open another cannonade to prolong the diversion, and keep it up till after dark, when we shall drop down to Chickasaw and go on back to camp.”
Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Confederate Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana from Jackson, received word of Grant’s landing and immediately called on both General Joseph E. Johnston (commanding the Western Department) and President Jefferson Davis to send reinforcements. Davis replied that he was trying to get Johnston to send troops from southern Alabama. Secretary of War James A. Seddon replied that reinforcements should be forthcoming from General P.G.T. Beauregard’s department at Charleston.
Johnston advised Pemberton, “If Grant’s army lands on this side of the river, the safety of Mississippi depends on beating it. For that object you should unite your whole force.” Pemberton currently had about 5,500 Confederates under Major General John S. Bowen to contest the Federal landing force, estimated to number at least 20,000.
At 6 a.m., Grant’s lead corps under Major General John A. McClernand pushed inland from Bruinsburg toward Port Gibson, about 30 miles south of Vicksburg. The main road split into north and south paths, separated by heavy brush and ravines. A local slave informed McClernand that the roads reconnected at Port Gibson, so McClernand sent one division up the north road and three up the south.
Confederate defenders contested both roads, with Brigadier General Edward D. Tracy commanding the northern approach and Brigadier General Martin L. Smith commanding the southern. Bowen arrived at Port Gibson in mid-morning to assume overall command.
The Confederates put up a strong resistance as the Federals advanced along the difficult terrain, during which Tracy was killed. Colonel Isham W. Garrott, who temporarily took over for Tracy, recalled that he “fell near the front line, pierced through the breast, and instantly died without uttering a word.”
A Federal thrust on the southern road knocked Smith back to within a half-mile of Port Gibson. Bowen directed Confederate reinforcements from Grand Gulf and Vicksburg to help defend the southern road. Meanwhile, Federal artillery began bombarding the Confederate positions.
Heavily outnumbered, Bowen notified Pemberton that he would “have to retire under cover of night to the other side of Bayou Pierre and await reinforcements.” Before receiving this message, Pemberton, now at Vicksburg, replied that he was “hurrying reinforcements; also ammunition. Endeavor to hold your own until they arrive, though it may be some time, as the distance is great.” When Pemberton saw Bowen’s message, he wrote, “It is very important, as you know, to retain your present position, if possible…”
Fighting raged back and forth until a division of Major General James B. McPherson’s Federal corps came up to reinforce both fronts and aid in a general advance. The Confederates on the northern road broke and retreated toward Grand Gulf. The southern road defenders broke soon after, falling back through Port Gibson before turning north toward Vicksburg. The Confederates destroyed bridges over Bayou Pierre and Little Bayou Pierre.
Bowen directed his men into position to defend Grand Gulf, which he believed would be the Federals’ next target. Bowen had skillfully delayed the Federal advance for a day despite being heavily outnumbered. The Federals camped just outside Port Gibson for the night, with Grant planning to push northeast toward Jackson, not Vicksburg, the next day. Grant directed Sherman to stop his diversionary operation and join the main army.
The Federals sustained 875 casualties (131 killed, 719 wounded, and 25 missing), and the Confederates lost 832 (68 killed, 380 wounded, and 384 missing). Abandoning Port Gibson gave Grant a permanent foothold on the east side of the Mississippi. Pemberton informed Davis, “Enemy movement threatens Jackson, and, if successful, cuts off Vicksburg and Port Hudson from the east.”
The Federals advanced at dawn to renew the contest but found Port Gibson empty. Grant directed his chief engineer, Lieutenant Colonel James H. Wilson, to build a bridge over the south fork of Bayou Pierre. The work was completed by the afternoon of the 2nd. The Federals crossed and the vanguard reached Grindstone Ford, eight miles northeast, where the bridge had been destroyed. It was now becoming clear to the Confederate command that Grant was targeting Jackson and not Vicksburg.
Pemberton received word that Bowen had abandoned Port Gibson and responded by advising Governor John J. Pettus to remove state archives from the capital at Jackson. He then asked Johnston to send “large reinforcements” to handle this “completely changed character of defense.” Pemberton next cabled Davis, “I think Port Hudson and Grand Gulf should be evacuated, and the whole force concentrated for defense of Vicksburg and Jackson.”
Johnston addressed Pemberton’s reluctance to abandon Jackson or Vicksburg by advising, “Success will give you back what was abandoned to win it.” When Johnston advised Pemberton to “unite all your troops,” Pemberton directed Major General Franklin Gardner, commanding the Confederate garrison at Port Hudson, to leave a token force there and come north with the rest of his men to join in defending Jackson. Confederates abandoned Grand Gulf by nightfall.
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