President Jefferson Davis continued his tour of the Western Theater. He left Chattanooga late on the afternoon of December 16, accompanied by General Joseph E. Johnston, the Theater commander. The train had to take a detour because Federal troops controlled the Memphis & Charleston Railroad on the Tennessee-Mississippi border. This reinforced Johnston’s argument that General Braxton Bragg at Murfreesboro could not adequately reinforce Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton at Vicksburg.
The train stopped for the night at Atlanta, where Davis responded to a citizens’ serenade. The next day, Davis and Johnston traveled to the first Confederate capital at Montgomery, Alabama. At midday, Davis delivered a speech from the portico of the Alabama state capitol, just as he had done for his inaugural address in February 1861. The men continued on and arrived at Mobile that evening.
At Mobile on the 18th, Davis delivered the second formal speech of his western trip. He then reported to Secretary of War James A. Seddon that morale was good in Bragg’s Army of Tennessee, and he hoped that the cavalry raids by Brigadier Generals Nathan Bedford Forrest and John Hunt Morgan would destroy Federal communications.
Accompanied by Johnston, Davis returned to his home state of Mississippi and arrived at the capital of Jackson on the morning of the 19th. They agreed to return to appear together before the state legislature on the 26th, and after eating lunch, they traveled on to Vicksburg. Upon arriving, Davis and Johnston inspected the city’s new and improved defenses on both land and water. Johnston was not impressed; he later wrote:
“An immense intrenched camp, requiring an army to hold it, had been made instead of a fort requiring only a small garrison. In like manner the water-batteries had been planned to prevent the bombardment of the town, instead of to close the navigation of the river to the enemy; consequently the small number of heavy guns had been distributed along a front of two miles, instead of being so placed that their fire might be concentrated on a single vessel. As attack was supposed to be imminent, such errors could not be corrected.”
The men next headed for Pemberton’s headquarters at Grenada, 60 miles south of Oxford. Davis and Pemberton supported pulling the Confederate forces into Vicksburg, turning the city into an impregnable fortress, and defending it to the end. Johnston instead favored defending Vicksburg with a small, compact force while sending the main Confederate army out to meet the Federals before they reached the city. If the army was defeated, it could give up Vicksburg and fall back to fight another day as opposed to being trapped in the city and starved into submission.
Johnston also continued urging Davis to pull reinforcements from Arkansas to aid in the defense of Mississippi. He argued that if the Mississippi River was so important, then it should be held even if most of Arkansas was lost. Davis finally agreed and wrote to Lieutenant General Theophilus H. Holmes, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department at Little Rock.
Davis explained that it was “clearly developed that the enemy has two principal objects in view, one to get control of the Missi. River, and the other to capture the capital of the Confederate States.” Richmond was secure for now, especially after the Confederate victory at Fredericksburg, but the Mississippi was in serious danger. Major General Ulysses S. Grant was preparing an overland thrust to Vicksburg, Major General John A. McClernand was preparing a river drive toward the same town, and Major General Nathaniel P. Banks was about to begin a move upriver from Louisiana.
Davis had urged Holmes to seize Helena, Arkansas, on the Mississippi, but he guessed “that it has heretofore been impractical.” To stop the Federals from “dismembering the Confederacy, we must mainly depend upon maintaining the points already occupied by defensive works: to-wit, Vicksburg and Port Hudson (Louisiana).” Davis wrote:
“From the best information at hand, a large force is now ready to descend the Mississippi and co-operate with army advancing from Memphis to make an attack upon Vicksburg… It seems to be, then, unquestionably best that you should re-enforce General Johnston, so as to enable you successfully to meet the enemy, and by his defeat to destroy his power for such future operations against you as would be irresistible by your isolated force, and by the same means to place the army here in such condition as would enable it in turn to re-enforce you when the season will make it practicable for you by active operations to expel the enemy from Arkansas, and having secured your rear, to advance to the deliverance of Missouri.”
Davis speculated that the Federals would not threaten northwestern Arkansas until spring, and so he relied on Holmes and Johnston to provide the “security of concentration and rapid movement of troops. Nothing will so certainly conduce to peace as the conclusive exhibition of our power to hold the Mississippi River, and nothing so diminish our capacity to defend the Trans-Mississippi States as the loss of communication between the States on the eastern and western sides of the river.”
However, rather than ordering Holmes to work with Johnston, Davis merely left it to Holmes’s “patriotism and discretion” to decide whether to send troops east. Holmes would not, as he wired Davis near month’s end:
“My information from Helena is to the effect that a heavy force of the enemy has passed down the Mississippi on transports… Thus it seems very certain that any force I can now send from here would not be able to reach Vicksburg, while such a diversion would enable the enemy to… overrun the entire state (of Arkansas) and gradually reduce the people to… dependence.”
Davis and Johnston returned to Jackson, where Davis wired Seddon, “There is immediate and urgent necessity for heavy guns and long range field pieces at Vicksburg.” The men then took the train 100 miles north to Grenada, where Pemberton’s men were building defenses on the Yalobusha River. Pemberton’s cavalry, led by Major General Earl Van Dorn, harassed Grant’s rear and supply line, but Johnston urged Pemberton to withdraw farther south. Pemberton preferred to face the enemy at Grenada, and Davis agreed.
Returning to Jackson, Davis spent Christmas Day with relatives at the home of his niece, Mrs. Ellen Robinson. He prepared for the speech he would deliver to the Mississippi legislature the next day. In that speech, Davis began:
“After an absence of nearly two years, I again find myself among those who, from the days of my childhood, have ever been the trusted objects of my affection… The period which has elapsed since I left you is short; for the time which may appear long in the life of a man is short in the history of a nation. And in that short period remarkable changes have been wrought in all the circumstances by which we are surrounded.”
Davis expressed disappointment that neither Great Britain nor France had yet recognized Confederate independence, but he stated, “Put not your faith in Princes, and rest not your hopes on foreign nations. This war is ours; we must fight it out ourselves.” In this fight, he “looked on Mississippi soldiers with a pride and an emotion, such as no others inspired.” He called on the governor to do all in his power to recruit volunteers to join the effort in defending Mississippi.
He defended the Conscription Act, particularly its clause exempting owners of 20 or more slaves, because it would help discourage slave rebellions once President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1. He called on Mississippians to look after each other’s families while their men were off to war. He also called on the legislature to help fight “a power armed for conquest and subjugation.” In closing, Davis declared that there could never be reunion with the U.S., and to that end, “Vicksburg must not fall.”
Johnston, who attended the speech, was asked to rise and give a speech of his own. Johnston replied, “Fellow citizens, my only regret is that I have done so little to merit such a greeting. I promise you, however, that hereafter I shall be watchful, energetic, and indefatigable in your defense.” This gratified the legislators, who seemed more enamored with Johnston than their fellow Mississippian Davis.
The next day, Davis visited the new plantation of his oldest brother Joseph along the railroad west of Jackson near Bolton. From there, Davis was informed that Grant’s army was retreating, Van Dorn had destroyed Grant’s supply base at Holly Springs and captured the garrison, and Forrest was destroying Federal supplies and communications in western Tennessee. However, Davis was soon met with the bad news that Major General William T. Sherman’s Federals were advancing on Chickasaw Bluffs with part of Grant’s command, supported by Admiral David D. Porter’s ironclads, in another effort to take Vicksburg.
Davis left Mississippi on New Year’s Eve, traveling to Mobile, Alabama. Upon his arrival, he addressed citizens from a balcony of the Battle House. Davis then telegraphed Seddon, “Guns and ammunition most effective against iron clads needed at Vicksburg and Port Hudson. Very much depends upon prompt supply.”
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Johnston, Joseph E., Narrative of Military Operations During the Civil War. Sharpe Books, Kindle Edition, 2014.
- Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), 1988.