Vicksburg Becomes the Focal Point

Federal Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas issued General Order Number 168, which gave Major General Ulysses S. Grant command of the new Department of the Tennessee. All Federal troops within this department were designated the Thirteenth Corps. This included not only the Armies of the Tennessee and the Mississippi already under Grant’s command, but the area from Cairo, Illinois, and Forts Henry and Donelson to the north; Kentucky and Tennessee west of the Tennessee River to the east; Corinth, Mississippi to the south; and the Mississippi River to the west.

Maj Gen U.S. Grant | Image Credit: Wikipedia

Grant’s command had previously been on a district level, which made coordination between the various commands much more difficult, as evidenced by the struggle to join forces at the Battle of Corinth. Under this new structure, Grant concentrated all the troops into a new Army of the Tennessee. He then urged General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck to allow him to go beyond just guarding railroads and supply depots by launching an offensive against Vicksburg, Mississippi.

The last two strongholds controlled by the Confederacy on the Mississippi River were Vicksburg on the east bank and Port Hudson downstream on the west. If the Confederates lost these two posts, there would be no way for their troops east of the river to get supplies from the west, via Mexico.

Conversely, if the Federals could capture Vicksburg and Port Hudson, they could open the Mississippi from its source all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. This would do much to placate farmers in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa who relied on this waterway to transport their goods, and who were growing increasingly disenchanted with the war each day that the river was blocked. Consequently, the Lincoln administration desperately wanted to capture these strongholds and open the Mississippi.

Moving against Vicksburg would be difficult for Grant because his command was spread out among various posts in western Tennessee and northern Mississippi. Moreover, the Confederate army that had been defeated at Corinth in early October was still operating in northern Mississippi, which required Grant to detach resources in case of another attack.

Unbeknownst to Grant, a campaign to capture Vicksburg had already been clandestinely approved. Major General John A. McClernand had served under Grant at Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, and Shiloh, before taking a leave to recruit more Midwesterners into the army. McClernand had been a highly influential Illinois politician before the war, and he was now highly valuable to the Lincoln administration as a Democrat who could persuade fellow Democrats to support the war.

Maj Gen J.A. McClernand | Image Credit:

During his leave, McClernand went to Washington to convince President Abraham Lincoln to form his recruits into a new army under his command for the express purpose of capturing Vicksburg. McClernand proposed leading 20,000 men from Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa (along with reinforcements from Grant’s department) in a joint operation with Commander David D. Porter’s naval forces stationed above Vicksburg on the Mississippi. McClernand assured the president that this would revive enthusiasm for the war among disgruntled Democrats.

Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and Halleck all had serious doubts about McClernand’s ability to handle such a mission with such little military experience. But with Don Carlos Buell refusing to confront the Confederates in eastern Tennessee and George B. McClellan refusing to confront the Confederates in Virginia, Lincoln would listen to anyone proposing an aggressive move somewhere.

Lincoln approved, and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton issued confidential orders for McClernand “to proceed to the States of Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, and to organize the troops remaining in those states and to be raised by volunteering or draft, and forward them with all dispatch to Memphis, Cairo or such other points as may hereafter be designated by the general-in-chief, to the end that, when a sufficient force not required by the operations of General Grant’s command shall be raised, an expedition may be organized under General McClernand’s command against Vicksburg, and to clear the Mississippi river and open navigation to New Orleans.”

The order concluded, “The forces so organized will remain subject to the designation of the general-in-chief, and be employed according to such exigencies as the service in his judgment may require.” This put the mission under Halleck’s overall command, even though Halleck had little confidence that a politician like McClernand could lead an army to victory.

Lincoln endorsed this order by writing, “This order, though marked confidential, may be shown by Gen. McClernand, to Governors, and even others, when, in his discretion, he believes so doing to be indispensable to the progress of the expedition. I add that I feel deep interest in the success of the expedition. And desire it to be pushed forward with all possible despatch, consistently with the other parts of the military service.”

The ambiguous nature of the orders led McClernand to believe that he would be leading the new “Army of the Mississippi” fully autonomous from Grant. Unaware of this secret plan, Grant began planning to move on Vicksburg by gathering his troops at Grand Junction, Tennessee.

But even without McClernand’s independent operation overlapping his, Grant found another problem that needed addressing: while he held the east bank of the Mississippi, a separate Federal department held the west bank, and a third Federal department operated east of Grant. None of these three commands were in regular communication with the other, which would be needed for joint operations.

Grant brought this issue to Halleck’s attention on the 26th: “You never have suggested to me any plan of operations in this department, and as I do not know anything of those of commanders to my right or left I have none therefore that is not independent of all other forces than those under my immediate command.” But now Grant had come up with a course of action. Since the Confederates were targeting Corinth because of its importance as a key railroad center, Grant proposed:

“Destruction of the railroads to all points of the compass from Corinth… and the opening of the road from Humboldt to Memphis. The Corinth forces I would move to Grand Junction, and add to them the Bolivar forces except a small garrison there. With small re-enforcements at Memphis I think I would be able to move down the Mississippi Central road and cause the evacuation of Vicksburg and to be able to capture or destroy all the boats in the Yazoo river.”

But for this to succeed, Grant wrote, “I would respectfully suggest that both banks of the river be under one command.” Halleck, well aware of McClernand’s secret mission, did not reply to Grant’s proposal. In fact, Halleck offered very little regarding McClernand’s operation, mainly because he opposed it but could not openly say so to his superiors. Nor could he inform Grant because those involved were held to strict secrecy.

Halleck did not have to wait long, however, for the press to leak McClernand’s mission. On the 29th, Colonel William S. Hillyer of Grant’s staff wrote to Major General William T. Sherman, one of Grant’s division commanders: “From the Newspapers and other reports it is probably that McClernand will go to Helena (Arkansas) and lead whatever expedition may move from there, and report to (General Samuel) Curtis (commanding west of the Mississippi).”

Neither Halleck’s reticence nor the press leaks would deter Grant, as he quickly began assembling a force to take the fight to the Confederates, with Vicksburg as the ultimate prize.


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