Major General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the new Federal Army of the Tennessee, had advanced and captured Grant Junction and La Grange in Tennessee. Using a supply line running north all the way from Columbus, Kentucky, Grant planned to drive south into Mississippi and ultimately seize the vital stronghold of Vicksburg, on the Mississippi River. To do this, the Federals would need to secure Grenada and the important rail junction at Holly Springs.
Grant directed Major General James B. McPherson, his former chief engineer and current commander of the army’s right (west) wing, to reconnoiter the area north of Holly Springs. McPherson reported that the Confederates were poised to give battle south of the Coldwater River, at a railroad crossing just above Holly Springs. But McPherson did not consider them a true threat and advised Grant that he could take Holly Springs with a concerted effort. Grant did not yet know how many Confederates were waiting on the Coldwater, so he held off for now.
There were actually 24,000 Confederates there that included veterans of the Corinth defeat, recently released prisoners of war, and returning stragglers from the Corinth campaign. The troops were riddled with poor health and low morale, and were therefore not fit to defend against a substantial enemy force. Therefore, Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Confederate Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, directed them to pull back. Pemberton reported, “I deemed it advisable to withdraw from the indefensible position at Holly Springs and take a strong one behind Tallahatchie, and am fortifying.”
Grant’s advance was delayed again while he awaited reinforcements from Major General Samuel R. Curtis’s Department of the Missouri, west of the Mississippi River. Grant had argued that any operation against Vicksburg required command of both sides of the river, but Washington would only give Grant some of Curtis’s troops, not Curtis’s whole department. Not wanting to wait any longer for Curtis’s troops, Grant wrote General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck on November 9, “Reinforcements are arriving very slowly. If they do not come on more rapidly I will attack as I am.” Halleck assured him that the troops were being transferred as fast as possible.
Meanwhile, Major General John A. McClernand continued to prepare a separate offensive against Vicksburg, seemingly without Grant’s knowledge. By this time, however, the mission was not so secret since McClernand was sending recruits for his new Army of the Mississippi to Memphis, which was Grant’s base of operations. Grant received word from Cairo, Illinois, that new recruits were moving through “with a kind of loose order to report to Gen McClernand.” Major General Charles S. Hamilton, commanding Grant’s left (east) wing, wrote to Grant on the 9th, “A letter from Wisconsin advises me that Wisconsin regiments in that State… are ordered to McClernand. Is that so?”
Rumors were also circulating that Major General William T. Sherman’s division, guarding Grant’s far right flank near Memphis, would be placed under McClernand. Grant calmly replied that he had not received any word on sending troops to McClernand, adding, “I imagine if any such order has been issued it is to report to him as general forwarding officer, and he is instructed to send them here.”
But, as Grant noted, “Two commanders on the same field are always one too many,” and he sent a frustrated message to Halleck: “Am I to understand that I lie still here while an expedition is fitted out from Memphis, or do you want me to push as far south as possible? Am I to have Sherman move subject to my order, or is he and his forces reserved for some special service? Will not more forces be sent here?”
Halleck sent a vague response: “You have command of all troops sent to your department, and have permission to fight the enemy where you please.” This reflected the dubious nature of the McClernand expedition; President Abraham Lincoln had personally approved the mission (mainly for political reasons), but Halleck and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton resented McClernand for going over their heads to get the president’s approval and wanted nothing to do with his expedition.
Grant experienced other problems besides delays and a rival force. As his men moved into newly conquered territory in western Tennessee and northern Mississippi, northern merchants and speculators rushed there to buy and trade confiscated goods, especially cotton. They then colluded with army officers to sell these goods in northern markets at inflated prices and reaped enormous profits. Some of these businessmen had been sent there by Grant’s own father.
Such activity threatened to breed vast corruption and demoralize the army; as Sherman pointed out, “The great profit now made is converting everybody into rascals…” Since it was assumed by most in the army that these traders were Jewish, the “Jews” became the symbol of the corrupt profiteer. Sherman had complained the past summer about “flocks of Jews” moving into the department, and Curtis had reported that his department in Missouri had become “infested with Jews.”
Grant responded by instructing Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut, commanding at Jackson, Tennessee, “Refuse all permits to come south of Jackson for the present. The Israelites especially should be kept out…” He then instructed Colonel Joseph Webster, his new railroad manager, “Give orders to all the conductors on the road that no Jews are to be permitted to travel on the railroad south from any point. They may go north and be encouraged in it; but they are such an intolerable nuisance that the department must be purged of them.”
Moving deeper into enemy territory brought the Federals in contact with slaves escaping from nearby plantations and seeking sanctuary within Federal lines. To keep these refugees from hindering army operations, Grant directed his chief of staff, Lieutenant Colonel John Rawlins, to issue an order:
“Chaplain (John) Eaton of the 27th Ohio Infantry Volunteers is hereby appointed to take charge of the contrabands that come into camp in the vicinity of the post, organizing them into suitable companies for working, see that they are properly cared for, and set them to work picking, ginning and baling all cotton now out and ungathered in the field… Suitable guards will be detailed by Commanding Officers nearest where the parties are at work to protect them from molestation.”
Eaton asked Grant to be removed from this project, but Grant refused: “Mr. Eaton, I have ordered you to report to me in person, and I will take care of you.” Grant told Eaton that this needed to be done not only because of military necessity, but to save the refugees from famine and death. Eaton agreed to stay on, stating, “Never before had I heard the problem of the future of the Negro attacked so vigorously and with such humanity combined with practical good sense.”
Eaton adopted the Federal system in place at Port Royal, South Carolina, in which the refugees were given food, clothing, shelter, and medical care, while “squads of colored men and women under the protection of soldiers began to go out into the deserted fields of the Confederate planters and gather the crops of corn and cotton.” The cotton that was picked was sent north to be sold, and the refugees were paid wages from those sales.
Eaton also hired out refugees to planters who were willing to pay the former slaves to harvest their crops. This system became very successful in southern areas under Federal occupation, and by war’s end Eaton managed some 13,000 former slaves in Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi.
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