July 10, 1863 – Major General William T. Sherman’s Federals approached the Mississippi capital of Jackson to confront General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederates.
During the siege of Vicksburg, Major General Ulysses S. Grant dispatched Sherman to lead a force in defending against an attempt by Johnston’s “Army of Relief” to break the besieged Confederates out. Once Vicksburg fell, Sherman was to go on the offensive against Johnston. The day before Vicksburg’s formal surrender, Grant told Sherman, “I want Johnston broken up as effectually as possible, and roads destroyed.” As the surrender was being finalized, Grant provided more detail:
“When we go in, I want you to drive Johnston from the Mississippi Central Railroad, destroy bridges as far as Grenada with your cavalry, and do the enemy all the harm possible. You can make your own arrangements and have all the troops of my command, except one corps–(General James) McPherson’s, say. I must have some troops to send to (General Nathaniel) Banks, to use against Port Hudson.”
Grant assigned 40,000 of his 77,000 troops to Sherman’s expedition. Sherman commanded Major General Frederick Steele’s XV Corps, Major General John G. Parke’s IX Corps, and Major General E.O.C. Ord’s XIII Corps. This new Federal army had orders to “inflict all the punishment you can.”
Johnston had 32,000 Confederates in four divisions, led by Major Generals William W. Loring, John C. Breckinridge, Samuel G. French, and William H.T. Walker. He also had Brigadier General William H. Jackson’s cavalry division. Johnston learned that Pemberton had surrendered on the 5th, as he was planning to try breaking him out of Vicksburg.
Sherman’s Federals came out of their trenches that day to oppose him. Johnston ordered his men to abandon their line along the Big Black River and fall back east toward Jackson. Federals clashed with Johnston’s rear guard at Birdsong Ferry on the river.
The Federals marched to Bolton before continuing to Jackson. Sherman later recalled that “the weather was fearfully hot, and water scarce. Johnston had marched rapidly, and in retreating had caused cattle, hogs, and sheep, to be driven into the ponds of water, and there shot down; so that we had to haul their dead and stinking carcasses out to use the water.”
On the 7th, Johnston deployed 26,000 of his men in defensive works around Jackson. News spread among the Confederates that Vicksburg had fallen, which dampened morale. The Federals camped on the Champion’s Hill battlefield on the night of the 7th, and one of Sherman’s aides recalled the scene:
“We reached it in the night and bivouacked on the very spot where we had fought. It was a strange happening. Our sensations were very unusual, for we realized that all about us there in the woods were the graves of our buried comrades and the still unburied bones of many of our foes. Save an occasional hooting owl the woods were sad and silent. Before we lay down in the leaves to sleep the glee club of Company B sang that plaintive song, ‘We’re Tenting To-night on the Old Camp Ground.’ Never was a song sung under sadder circumstances. All the night a terrible odor filled the bivouac.
“When daylight came one of the boys came to our company and said, ‘Go over to that hollow, and you will see hell.’ Some of us went. We looked but once. Dante himself never conjured anything so horrible as the reality before us. After the battle the Rebels in their haste had tossed hundreds of their dead into this little ravine and slightly covered them over with earth, but the rains had come, and the earth was washed away, and there stood or lay hundreds of half-decayed corpses. Some were grinning skeletons, some were headless, some armless, some had their clothes torn away, and some were mangled by dogs and wolves. The horror of that spectacle followed us for weeks. That, too, was war!”
Sherman’s Federals, enraged by Confederate efforts to ruin the drinking water, devastated the countryside as they advanced east. They looted and burned private homes, barns, businesses, cotton gins, crops, and anything else within their reach. Valuables were seized, and anything not considered valuable was destroyed. Civilian protests against such barbarism went unheeded.
Skirmishing occurred at Clinton, Bolton Depot, and various other places as the Federals pushed east. They approached the defenses outside Jackson on the 9th. Although Johnston had just four divisions to Sherman’s 11, Sherman opted to move his left flank to the Pearl River above town, extend his right to the river below town, and initiate siege operations. He also sent raiders north and south to cut the Mississippi Central Railroad. Sherman hoped this would result in capturing Johnston’s entire army.
President Jefferson Davis, unaware of the massive force extending around Johnston’s works, wrote to him expressing hope that he would “attack and crush the enemy.”
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