Major General Earl Van Dorn, commanding the Confederate Army of West Tennessee, was brought before a court of inquiry to answer charges that he had been responsible for the defeat at the Battle of Corinth. The charges were later dropped, but the Confederate high command no longer trusted Van Dorn to lead an army. Under Special Orders Number 73, “The State of Mississippi and that part of Louisiana east of the Mississippi River is constituted a separate military department.” This disbanded Van Dorn’s District of Mississippi under General Braxton Bragg and created a new, independent department.
Major General John C. Pemberton was given command of this new department. Pemberton was a Pennsylvanian who had married a Virginian and therefore went south with her when the war broke out. He had formerly commanded the Department of South Carolina and Georgia, but his northern lineage and sour disposition prompted the governors of both states to push President Jefferson Davis to reassign him. Davis decided to send Pemberton to Mississippi while giving Pemberton’s old department to the hero of Fort Sumter, General P.G.T. Beauregard.
Pemberton was to “consider the successful defense of” Mississippi and eastern Louisiana “as the first and chief object of your command.” Since Federals now occupied part of northern Mississippi and southern Louisiana (including the key points of Corinth, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans), Pemberton’s primary mission would be to guard Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Port Hudson, Louisiana, the Confederacy’s last two major strongholds on the Mississippi River.
Pemberton, newly promoted to lieutenant general, took command on the 14th and took up headquarters at the state capital of Jackson. By this time, Van Dorn had failed to retake Corinth. With his army fairly demoralized and Pemberton taking most of his old command, Van Dorn asked President Davis if he would “do me the kindness to have me ordered to some other field? Anywhere you may be pleased to direct.”
Davis assured Van Dorn that nothing would change now that Pemberton was in command. He added, “The wants of Mississippi and your own fame equally render me unwilling to withdraw you from your present sphere of duty at this time.” Pemberton seemingly left northern Mississippi to Van Dorn and Major General Sterling Price while he focused his administrative attention on matters to the south.
A week after taking command, Pemberton issued orders dividing his Confederate Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana into three districts under three commanders who had all previously served under Van Dorn:
- Brigadier General Daniel Ruggles was to command District 1 from Jackson
- Brigadier General Martin L. Smith was to command District 2 from Vicksburg
- Brigadier General William N.R. Beall was to command District 3 from Port Hudson
Pemberton also called on Van Dorn to send troops from his army to Port Hudson. Van Dorn strongly objected to weakening the force in northern Mississippi, telling Pemberton, “If we are not strengthened here, we shall lose this State.” Van Dorn suggested that Pemberton get reinforcements from Braxton Bragg, whose Confederate army was currently regrouping after being driven out of Kentucky.
But Pemberton now outranked Van Dorn, and he had been given specific instructions from Secretary of War George W. Randolph to bolster the garrison at Port Hudson. Pemberton replied, “If the enemy increases in strength and there is evidence of his intention to advance you will take position behind the Tallahatchie.” Thus, the Confederate army in northern Mississippi was being weakened at the same time that the Federals in that region were gaining strength now that Bragg was no longer a serious threat. The Federals would not only secure their firm grip on northern Mississippi, but they would soon be moving southward to threaten the very points that Pemberton was scrambling to reinforce.
Pemberton also looked west of the Mississippi for help in strengthening his department. This domain belonged to Lieutenant General Theophilus Holmes, headquartered at Little Rock, Arkansas. Pemberton notified his superiors on the 25th that “more troops are greatly needed… Cannot some of Holmes’s be spared?” This was not the first time that Holmes had been asked to send troops east, and a frustrated Randolph reiterated the president’s plan:
“Cooperation between General Pemberton and yourself is indispensable to the preservation of our connection with your department. We regard this as an object of first importance, and when necessary you can cross the Mississippi with such part of your forces as you may select, and by virtue of your rank direct the combined operations on the eastern bank.”
Randolph hoped that reminding Holmes that he would command the joint operation might induce him to move. Davis hoped to secure Tennessee and Mississippi before heading west to secure Missouri and Arkansas. But to Holmes, this seemed like Davis wanted to abandon Missouri and Arkansas altogether. This made Holmes reluctant to go along with the administration’s plan. Moreover, Randolph had written to Holmes’s without Davis’s consent, which would cause friction in the administration in the coming weeks.
- Ballard, Michael B., Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi. The University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
- Cutrer, Thomas W., Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi River. The University of North Carolina Press, (Kindle Edition), 2017.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Smith, Dean E. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- Stanchak, John E. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1 – Vol. 14. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1880-1902.