May 22, 1863 – Major General Ulysses S. Grant resolved to send his Federals against the Confederate defenses outside Vicksburg once more.
After sustaining a sharp defeat while trying to penetrate the Vicksburg defenses on the 19th, Grant conferred with his corps commanders (Major Generals William T. Sherman, James B. McPherson, and John A. McClernand) on the morning of the 20th and ordered a careful reconnaissance of the Confederate positions before attacking again. Grant told his commanders to spend the next two days preparing “for a renewed assault on the 22d, simultaneously, at 10 a.m.” Unlike the disjointed attack of the 19th, the upcoming assault was to be closely coordinated.
General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Western Department, continued working to relieve Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton’s Confederate army trapped in Vicksburg. Johnston soon assembled about 23,000 troops in northern Mississippi, but that was not enough to confront Grant’s army, which was growing as Grant pulled resources from various posts in northern Mississippi and western Tennessee.
Johnston wrote the Confederate commander at Port Hudson, Major General Franklin Gardner, that Port Hudson was “no longer valuable,” and therefore “all the troops in the department should be concentrated as soon as possible.” But by the time the message reached Gardner, his troops were being surrounded by Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Army of the Gulf on land and Federal naval forces on the Mississippi.
Meanwhile, Confederates in Vicksburg faced a continuous artillery bombardment, as well as the danger of being killed by sharpshooters waiting for anyone to rise above the breastworks. Pemberton wrote Johnston, “At present, our main necessity is musket caps. Can you send them to me by hands of couriers or citizens?” This indicated that Pemberton’s supply lines had been cut, making it only a matter of time before his army was doomed if Johnston did not rescue him or he did not break through the Federal lines.
On the 21st, a Federal gunboat flotilla led by Commander James Grimes forced Confederates to abandon Yazoo City. Grimes led the vessels from Haynes’s Bluff and destroyed a Confederate navy yard, along with several tooling shops and boats. The Federals destroyed three warships under constructions, including “a monster, 310 feet long and 70 beam… she would have given us much trouble.” Outside Vicksburg, Grant’s Federals continued entrenching around Vicksburg in preparation for their attack the next day.
The Federals opened a massive artillery barrage at 6 a.m. on the 22nd, as 200 guns on land joined 100 naval guns on the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers. Confederate return fire scored several hits on the river fleet, as a master’s mate on Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s flagship wrote, “It is useless to try to remember the different times the vessels were hit.” But none of the gunboats were seriously damaged.
After a four-hour bombardment, Federal troops from all three corps began advancing in the first-ever assault coordinated by synchronized watches (done because the signal guns could not be heard above the artillery barrage). Spread across a three-mile front, the men struggled through the dense brush and deep ravines with orders not to fire until they entered the Confederate works.
When the Federals came within range, Confederate artillerists opened fire with every gun they had, pouring grape and canister into their lines. Then the Confederate infantry, “rising in the trenches, poured into their ranks volley after volley with so deadly an effect that, leaving the ground literally covered in some places with their dead and wounded, they precipitately retreated.”
The Federal charge devolved into mass confusion like the assault three days before. Men of Sherman’s corps temporarily seized one area of trenches but were quickly repelled. Grant was about to call off the assault when McClernand insisted that his men could break through the Railroad Redoubt with another charge. Though skeptical, Grant ordered the three corps to renew the attack around 3 p.m., with Sherman advancing on the right and one of McPherson’s divisions supporting McClernand on the left.
Just as Grant feared, the assault failed. Sherman watched the carnage and told an aide, “This is murder. Order those troops back.” The Federal survivors pulled back all along the line. This was the bloodiest engagement of Grant’s campaign. He sustained 3,199 casualties (502 killed, 2,550 wounded, and 147 missing), while the Confederates lost less than 500 men. Sherman reported to Grant, “We have had a hard day’s work, and all are exhausted.” Grant notified General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck:
“Vicksburg is now completely invested… Today an attempt was made to carry the City by assault, but was not entirely successful. We hold possession however of some of the enemy’s forts and have skirmishers close under all of them. Our loss was not severe.”
Grant later expressed regret for ordering the second assault, which “only served to increase our casualties without giving any benefit.” He had ordered it based on McClernand’s exaggerated claims of success. This added more tension to the already tense relationship between McClernand and Grant.
Grant had resisted the idea of besieging Vicksburg because capturing the city could take months. But he finally realized that no attacking force could penetrate such strong defenses, and starving the enemy into submission was the only way to win. Grant informed Admiral Porter, “I now find the position of the enemy so strong that I shall be compelled to regularly besiege the city.” He announced to his officers that night, “We’ll have to dig our way in.”
Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 368; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 128-29; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 320; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 68; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18605; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 286; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 383, 386; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 300-01; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 127, 130-32, 136-37; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 356-57; 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. 632; 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. 166; Simon, John Y., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 456-57; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 781-84