July 16, 1863 – General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederates abandoned Jackson and central Mississippi as superior Federal numbers closed in on them.
Major General William T. Sherman’s 40,000 Federals had chased Johnston east to the Mississippi capital of Jackson after the fall of Vicksburg. Sherman partially encircled the city and prepared to put Johnston’s 32,000 Confederates under siege. The Federals began a bombardment on the 12th, with heavy guns shelling the Confederate defenses from multiple directions.
Johnston did not want to lose his army the way that Generals John C. Pemberton and Franklin Gardner lost theirs at Vicksburg and Port Hudson. Johnston was willing to sacrifice the town if it saved his men. He wrote President Jefferson Davis, “If the enemy will not attack, we must, or at the last moment withdraw. We cannot attack seriously without risking the army.”
Brigadier General Jacob G. Lauman’s Federal division of XIII Corps reconnoitered the woods between the railroad and the Pearl River, on Johnston’s extreme left. During this mission, one of Lauman’s brigades exceeded orders and charged Major General John C. Breckinridge’s Confederate earthworks. The attack failed miserably, as the Federals lost 465 of 880 men and three regimental colors. Major General E.O.C. Ord, commanding XIII Corps, relieved Lauman from command for this fiasco.
Federal commanders did not request a truce to collect the dead from the field, instead leaving them to rot for two days in the sweltering heat. Johnston sent Sherman a message offering a ceasefire so the Federals could collect the bodies, and Sherman agreed. This temporarily halted the almost constant exchange of artillery that had taken place since the siege began.
Over the next few days, the Federals inched closer to surrounding the defenses. Johnston dispatched his cavalry division under Brigadier General William H. Jackson to capture a large wagon train coming from Vicksburg to supply Sherman’s Federals. However, Jackson could not intercept the wagon before it reached its destination, thus ensuring that the siege would last indefinitely.
Sherman notified Major General Ulysses S. Grant at Vicksburg, “I think we are doing well out here, but won’t brag till Johnston clears out and stops shooting his big rifle guns at us. If he moves across Pearl River and makes good speed, I will let him go.” Johnston hoped to lure Sherman into a frontal assault, but Sherman would not take the bait. Johnston informed Davis on the 15th:
“The enemy is evidently making a siege which we cannot resist. It would be madness to attack him. In the beginning it might have been done, but I thought then that want of water would compel him to attack us. The remainder of the army under Grant at Vicksburg is beyond doubt on its way to this place.”
Grant was not on his way, but he could have easily reinforced Sherman if needed. Johnston had no reinforcements to draw from, and a protracted siege would only result in losing his entire army. Worse, Johnston learned on the 16th that his cavalry expedition to capture Sherman’s supply train had failed, resulting in the Federals having enough ammunition to train 200 guns on the Confederates.
Johnston wrote Davis, “The enemy being strongly reinforced, and able when he pleases to cut us off, I shall abandon this place, which is impossible for us to hold.” He sent his sick and wounded out of town to the east before evacuating the main army that night. The Confederates fell back across the Pearl River to Brandon. They left behind a large amount of weapons and supplies because they did not repair the railroad bridge needed to transport them.
Noting a lack of enemy activity on the morning of the 17th, Sherman sent his troops forward to confirm the defenses had been abandoned. He dispatched a division to pursue the Confederates, but Johnston moved farther east to Morton. The distance and the blistering heat halted the Federal pursuit. Sherman later wrote, “General Johnston had carried his army safely off, and pursuit in that hot weather would have been fatal to my command.”
Sherman lost 1,112 Federals in the partial siege of Jackson, while Johnston lost 604. The Federals began a second occupation of the city and set about looting and pillaging what was left, despite Sherman assigning a division to prevent such destruction. The Federals that reached Brandon burned that town as well before Sherman led his force back to Vicksburg on the 25th. Johnston saved his army, but he gave up central Mississippi in the process.
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