December 29, 1863 – Major General William T. Sherman shared his plan to clear the Confederates from Mississippi and its connecting waterways with his close friend Major General Ulysses S. Grant.
Following his victory at Chattanooga, Grant returned to division headquarters at Nashville. President Abraham Lincoln sent him a personal message, which Grant issued to his troops as a general order:
“Understanding that your lodgment at Chattanooga and Knoxville is now secure, I wish to tender you, and all under your command, my more than thanks–my profoundest gratitude–for the skill, courage, and perseverance with which you and they, over so great difficulties, have effected that important object. God bless you all.”
Grant soon began preparing for the next campaign. Sherman, whose troops had recently returned to Chattanooga after “rescuing” the Federals at Knoxville, urged Grant to send him back to Mississippi to deal with the growing number of guerrillas on the Mississippi River, Confederates raiding Federal supply lines, and Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk’s Army of the Southwest stationed at Meridian.
Grant agreed, notifying his superiors at Washington, “I will send Sherman down the Mississippi.” Sherman planned to work with Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s Mississippi River Squadron to clear the waterways for Federal commerce and then confront Polk’s Confederates. Sherman wrote General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “I will be at Cairo (Illinois) and down the Mississippi by January 2, and strike Grenada and Shreveport, if the admiral agrees. I left my command ragged, but in splendid fighting order.”
In a second letter to Halleck, Sherman addressed the growing problem of guerrillas attacking Federal shipping and elaborated on his plans:
“I propose to send an expedition up the Yazoo, above Yazoo City, to march back to the Grenada road and do a certain amount of damage, and give general notice that for every boat fired on we will destroy some inland town, and, if need be, fire on houses, even if they have families, for I know the secessionists have boasted that although we have the river, still it shall do us no good.”
Sherman asserted that there was “complicity between guerrillas and the people, and if the latter fire on our boats loaded with women and children, we should retaliate.” After clearing the Yazoo River, Sherman proposed to move up the Red River “as high as the water will permit, and make them feel their vulnerability.” Sherman then explained his overall view on how the war should be prosecuted in the Mississippi region:
“I do not believe in holding possession of any part of the interior. This requires a vast force, which is rendered harmless to the enemy by its scattered parts. With Columbus, Memphis, Helena, and Vicksburg strongly held, and all other forces prepared to move to any point, we can do something, but in holding the line of the Memphis and Charleston road, inferior points on the Mississippi, and the interior of Louisiana, a large army is wasted in detachments.”
Turning to the command structure, Sherman told Halleck that Grant’s authority should be expanded to control the entire Mississippi River. Currently Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, who technically outranked Grant, controlled the stretch running through Louisiana to the Gulf of Mexico. Sherman proposed retaining Banks’s Department of the Gulf, but limiting its jurisdiction to Texas only.
Writing to Grant on the 29th, Sherman provided more specifics in his plan to wipe Confederates off the Mississippi and other connecting rivers. He reported that he had asked Porter to provide “accurate accounts of all damages to steam-boats on the Mississippi, with the localities where they occurred.” Once this data was collected:
“I think that we can hold the people on Yazoo and back responsible for all damages above Vicksburg, the country on Ouachita for all damages between the mouth of Red and Arkansas on the west bank, and finally the rich country up Red River for the more aggravated cases near the mouth of the Red River. We should (force) planters pay in cotton not only for the damages done, but the cost of our occupation, and in case of failure to pay we should inflict exemplary punishment.”
Sherman then added a lavish assessment of his friend’s new prominence in the army command:
“You occupy a position of more power than Halleck or the President. There are similar instances in European history, but none in ours. For the sake of future generations risk nothing. Let us risk, and when you strike let it be as at Vicksburg and Chattanooga. Your reputation as a general is now far above that of any man living, and partisans will maneuver for your influence; but if you can escape them, as you have hitherto done, you will be more powerful for good than it is possible to measure.”
He then repeated to Grant what he had proposed to Halleck: “I wish you would urge on Halleck to give you the whole Mississippi.” With the entire river now under Federal control, “the navigation is one and should be controlled by one mind.” Without Grant commanding all of the Mississippi, Sherman’s proposed expedition up the Red River could be rejected by Banks because Sherman would be operating in Banks’s department.
The discussion would continue into next year, as Sherman went on planning for what he hoped to be a ruthless campaign.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 918