Major General Ulysses S. Grant commanded the Federal Army of the Tennessee at Grand Junction and La Grange, just north of the Tennessee-Mississippi border. His overall objective was to capture Vicksburg, one of the last Confederate strongholds on the Mississippi River. The first step toward achieving that goal was to seize the important railroad junction at Holly Springs, 25 miles southwest.
Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Confederate Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, had learned of the size of Grant’s army and pulled back the force defending Holly Springs toward Abbeville, across the Tallahatchie River. He was soon joined by Major General Sterling Price’s Confederate Army of the West. Pemberton left just a cavalry force and soldiers convalescing in the hospital at Holly Springs.
Pemberton reported to his superiors at Richmond that he still did not have the reinforcements that he had been promised. Moreover, many of the men he did have lacked clothing, shoes, and arms. He also did not have enough artillery to guard the bluffs overlooking the Yazoo River, which could be used by Federal naval vessels to get to Vicksburg.
With Holly Springs virtually undefended, Federal forces consisting of the 7th Kansas Cavalry rode into town near dawn on November 13. After a brief skirmish, the Federals drove the Confederate troops out of town and took the convalescing soldiers prisoner. The Confederates briefly tried to take Holly Springs back, but the Federals secured the town by nightfall. This gave Grant control of the rail center there, which he would use to supply his army’s drive on Vicksburg.
Grant ordered Major General William T. Sherman, commanding Federals at Memphis, to start moving his troops southward into Mississippi. He would comprise Grant’s right wing, and Grant would start moving out of La Grange as soon as Sherman’s advance got under way. The two forces were to eventually join near Holly Springs. Major General Frederick Steele, commanding Federals across the Mississippi River at Helena, Arkansas, was to lead his force east and advance on Grenada, Mississippi, about 80 miles behind enemy lines. Rear Admiral David D. Porter was to lead his Western Flotilla down the Mississippi to the Yazoo River.
General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck threatened to ruin Grant’s plan when he ordered Grant on the 23rd to send as many troops as possible directly to Vicksburg without confronting Pemberton. Grant disagreed with this because it would leave Pemberton’s army intact and able to counterattack in the future. He urged Halleck to reconsider because orders had already been issued. Halleck relented: “Proposed movement approved. Do not go too far.”
Sherman’s three divisions marched out of Memphis on the 26th. The men were in good spirits as bands played “We Are Coming, Father Abra’am, Three Hundred Thousand More” and “John Brown’s Body.” The main body of Grant’s army moved out of Grand Junction and La Grange, and arrived at Holly Springs on the 28th. His army now consisted of Sherman on the right (west), Brigadier General James B. McPherson’s two divisions in the center, and Major General Charles S. Hamilton’s three divisions on the right (east).
At roughly the same time, Steele’s cavalry, commanded by Brigadier General Cadwallader Washburn, raided the railroad near Grenada. Washburn’s troopers destroyed track and cut telegraph wires in the vicinity while clashing with Confederates around Charleston, Penola, and Oakland. Pemberton countered by falling back and reconcentrating most of his forces at Oxford.
Meanwhile, complaints about northern merchants seeking profit in the occupied areas continued. Brigadier General Alvin Hovey, commanding the lead brigade under Steele, reported, “I cannot refrain from stating to you the effects of the great evil growing out of our commercial intercourse with the rebels. Unprincipled sharpers and Jews are supplying the enemy with all they want… War and commerce with the same people! What a Utopian dream!”
Like many Federal commanders in the department, Hovey accused the Jews of leading the profiteering craze: “Every secret of our camps is carried by the same men that formerly sold their God for thirty pieces of silver, to our worst enemies for a few pounds of cotton.” Hovey stated that his troops had regularly encountered “the blighting effects of their cupidity. No expedition has ever been dreamed of at Helena that these bloodhounds of commerce have not scented out and carried to our enemies days in advance.”
By month’s end, Grant was headquartered at Holly Springs while most of his army had continued south toward Abbeville. Sherman’s Federals reached Wyatt, downriver from Abbeville, where they had to repair a bridge destroyed by retreating Confederates. Steele’s lead brigade landed at the mouth of the Coldwater River, about 50 miles west of Holly Springs.
Grant quickly tried to deal with the problem of supply. One of his main supply bases was at Memphis, but there was no direct line of transport between Memphis and Holly Springs. Grant therefore had to rely on a single-track railroad line running north through enemy country all the way to Columbus, Kentucky. This line had to be protected at all costs, and Grant worked into December to ensure that supplies continued to reach his army.
- 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.
- Smith, Dean E. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- 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.