As November began, Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federal army within the Department of the Tennessee consisted of six divisions totaling about 37,000 men. Grant’s goal was to capture Vicksburg, one of the Confederacy’s last strongholds on the Mississippi, and what Confederate President Jefferson Davis called “the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together.”
The first step in the drive to Vicksburg would be to advance on Grand Junction, Tennessee, a key point where the Mississippi Central Railroad intersected the Memphis & Charleston Railroad. From there, Grant planned to move along the Mississippi Central and take Holly Springs, 27 miles south-southwest. He would then push on another 84 miles to Grenada. Grant would personally lead five divisions in this drive.
The sixth division under Major General William T. Sherman was to stay behind at Memphis and guard supply lines. Grant informed Sherman that once the Federals moved south of Holly Springs, Sherman was to “put a force on the railroad to repair it, start toward Grenada, repairing the road as the troops advance.” Sherman was also to feint to the southeast, making the Confederates think there was “a formidable movement to the front.”
Grant, currently at Jackson, Tennessee, informed General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck on November 2: “I have commenced a movement on Grand Junction, with three divisions from Corinth and two from Bolivar. Will leave here to-morrow, and take command in person. If found practicable, I will go to Holly Springs, and, may be, Grenada, completing railroad and telegraph as I go.” Halleck offered indirect encouragement by replying, “I hope for an active campaign on the Mississippi this fall.”
The Federal army would advance in two wings, with Major General James B. McPherson commanding the two divisions in the right (western) wing, and Major General Charles S. Hamilton commanding the three divisions in the left. As Grant later wrote, “I was prepared to take the initiative. This was a great relief after the two and a half months of continued defence over a large district of country, and where nearly every citizen was an enemy ready to give information of our every move…”
A slight delay ensued when it was discovered that Major General William S. Rosecrans, who had gone north to take command of the new Department of the Cumberland, had taken all the vital maps of northern Mississippi with him. Hamilton, who had taken over for Rosecrans at Corinth, wrote Grant, “Please give some instructions about the route to be followed. Rosecrans carried off the maps that were most needed.” Directions were provided, and Hamilton’s wing was soon in motion.
The Federals were united and on the move toward Grand Junction by the 3rd. The Confederate army in northern Mississippi, 30,000 strong, was stationed in and around Holly Springs, with advance units at Grand Junction. Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Confederate Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, staged a review of his army on the same day that Grant began moving. An onlooker called this demonstration “a brilliant and imposing spectacle.”
The Confederate army contained units from the Army of the West under Major General Sterling Price and the fledgling Army of West Tennessee formerly led by Major General Earl Van Dorn. Pemberton had agreed to send these forces back west of the Mississippi, but he was so “much pleased with them” in the review that he decided to retain them under his command. Van Dorn had requested another assignment since Pemberton’s arrival made his role as army commander in northern Mississippi somewhat redundant, but President Davis insisted that he remain.
The day after the grand review, the small Confederate garrison at Grand Junction fell back to the main body at Holly Springs. Pemberton was informed by his superior, General Braxton Bragg, that cavalry was being sent from northern Alabama to bolster Van Dorn’s Confederates. Bragg urged Pemberton to withdraw to the Tallahatchie River, but Pemberton was not to leave Columbus, Mississippi, vulnerable to capture because of “machinery and stores we cannot replace… its loss would be great and irreparable.”
The advancing Federals seized Grand Junction without opposition, as well as La Grange, Tennessee, a few miles west. With the rail and road routes into northern Mississippi secured, the Federals at these two points were to coordinate their southward movements.
Grant’s next target would be the important rail junction at Holly Springs, where 30,000 Confederates awaited. When Halleck informed Grant that 20,000 reinforcements were being sent to Memphis, Grant instructed Sherman to cancel his feint and instead organize the incoming troops into two divisions that could join Grant’s drive. If there were indeed 30,000 enemy troops at Holly Springs, Grant wrote, “I cannot move from here with a force sufficient to handle that number without gloves.” Grant would wait for the reinforcements to arrive before resuming his advance.
As Grant began his movement, Major General John A. McClernand continued raising troops in the Midwest to form his own Army of the Mississippi, whose primary (and secret) mission was to capture Vicksburg. Grant was not aware of this, though rumors of such an expedition began swirling around his headquarters. Halleck was aware, but he could not violate the secrecy of McClernand’s expedition by telling Grant. So as it stood, two separate armies were about to make two separate drives on the same objective, with one being unaware of the other.
- Ballard, Michael B., Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi. The University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
- Catton, Bruce, Grant Moves South. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, Inc., 1960.
- Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 (original 1885, republication of 1952 edition).
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Woodworth, Steven E., Nothing but Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, 2005.