Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federal Army of the Tennessee had advanced as far into Mississippi as Oxford, with a tenuous supply line on the Mississippi Central Railroad. Grant’s objective was to move overland to Vicksburg, the stronghold on the Mississippi River facilitating the flow of Confederate supplies from the west. But Vicksburg was more than 150 miles southwest of Oxford.
The Confederate Army of Mississippi, commanded by Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, was blocking Grant’s overland advance at Grenada, some 50 miles south-southwest of Oxford. Grant decided to send a portion of his army under Major General William T. Sherman back north to Memphis. From there, Sherman’s Federals would steam down the Mississippi and threaten Vicksburg’s waterfront. Grant hoped that this would compel Pemberton to divide his army to face both the overland and water advances.
General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck had approved this plan and allowed Grant to retain all the troops temporarily assigned to him from Major General Samuel R. Curtis’s department west of the Mississippi. But then Halleck reconsidered, and he wrote Grant on December 7, “The capture of Grenada may change our plans in regard to Vicksburg. You will move your troops as you may deem best to accomplish the great object in view. You will retain, till further orders, all troops of General Curtis now in your department. Telegraph to General Allen in St. Louis for all steamboats you may require. Ask Porter to cooperate. Telegraph what are your present plans.”
Grant thought about advancing to Grenada, but then decided that this could best be done by having Sherman create a diversion. He responded to Halleck on the 8th:
“General Sherman will command the expedition down the Mississippi. He will have a force of about 40,000 men. Will land above Vicksburg, up the Yazoo, if practicable, and cut the Mississippi Central railroad and the railroad running east from here, my movements depending on those of the enemy. With the large cavalry force now at my command I will be able to have them show themselves at different points on the Tallahatchie and Yalobusha, and where an opportunity occurs make a real attack. After cutting the two railroads General Sherman’s movements to secure the ends desired will necessarily be left to his own judgment. I will occupy this railroad to Coffeeville.”
Grant then issued orders to Sherman: “You will proceed with as little delay as practicable to Memphis, Tennessee, taking with you one division of your present command. On your arrival at Memphis you will assume command of all the troops there, and that portion of General Curtis’s forces at present east of the Mississippi River, and organize them into brigades and divisions in your own way.” Grant explained that he would either move in concert with Sherman or advance on Grenada and set up a supply base there.
Sending Sherman down the Mississippi took care of another problem for Grant. Major General John A. McClernand, a Democrat with substantial political influence, had raised a Federal force of his own in Illinois, which he called the Army of the Mississippi. McClernand planned to lead this force in capturing Vicksburg for himself, and he was in the process of sending troops to Memphis, which was his intended launching point. Grant wanted to get Sherman down the Mississippi before McClernand could get there and take over.
Sherman left for Memphis on the 9th with his “best fighting division” led by Brigadier General Morgan L. Smith. He staged a review of his other two divisions, and according to Sherman, “The men cheered till my little mare Dolly nearly jumped out of her skin.” Sherman planned to move downriver to Helena, Arkansas, where they would pick up reinforcements from Curtis’s command. Then, supported by Admiral David D. Porter’s Mississippi River Squadron, they would advance through Chickasaw Bluffs on the Yazoo River and threaten Vicksburg from the north.
Sherman wrote Porter, “Time now is the great object… It will not be necessary to engage their Vicksburg batteries until I have broken all their inland communication. Then Vicksburg must be attacked by land and water. In this I will defer much to you.” Porter’s first task was to clear the Yazoo of obstructions and Confederate torpedoes (i.e., mines). He dispatched a flotilla of four gunboats, with two shallow-draft vessels sweeping for mines while the ironclads U.S.S. Cairo and Pittsburgh bombarded Confederate batteries and sharpshooters on the shores.
As the squadron approached Haynes’ Bluff on the 12th, Lieutenant Commander Thomas O. Selfridge moved the Cairo farther up the main channel, where a torpedo detonated under her hull at 11:55 a.m. The crew abandoned ship, and Selfridge later reported, “The Cairo sunk in about 12 minutes after the explosion, going totally out of sight, except for the top of her chimneys, in 6 fathoms of water.”
The Cairo was the first Federal vessel destroyed by a Confederate torpedo in the war. Prior to this, Porter had reported to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles that “these torpedoes have proved so harmless… that officers have not felt that respect for them to which they are entitled.” Federal naval commanders quickly became much more cautious in dealing with torpedoes.
As Porter cleared the way for Sherman’s transports, Grant’s Federals continued to repair the railroad around Oxford, and McClernand continued to plan for an independent advance on Vicksburg, unaware that Grant was already launching a drive of his own.
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- Catton, Bruce, Grant Moves South. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, Inc., 1960.
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- McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865. Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press (Kindle Edition), 2012.
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- 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.