Vicksburg: Federal Command Clarified

Major General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the Federal Army of the Tennessee at Oxford, continued operations in Mississippi aimed at capturing the vital stronghold of Vicksburg. As his troops continued to repair his supply line (i.e., the Mississippi Central Railroad), Grant issued Special Field Orders Number 21. This was a unique effort to provide relief to local civilians who had been impoverished by the war.

Maj Gen U.S. Grant | Image Credit: Wikipedia

Grant found this necessary because: “Distress and almost famine having been brought on many of the inhabitants of Mississippi by the march of the two armies through the land, and humanity dictating that in a land of plenty no one should suffer the pangs of hunger.” Under these orders, civilians who proved loyal to the Union could sell their goods to Federal authorities, who would raise money to buy them by imposing taxes on disloyal civilians and commodities such as cotton. The Federals would then distribute these goods to the needy.

Grant also addressed the issue of refugee slaves in the region by making Chaplain John Eaton the superintendent of contrabands. This began a trend within the Federal armies in which clergymen were selected to deal with refugees. Treasury agents had been competing for the job in order to capitalize on the labor the refugees would produce, but members of the clergy were expected to bring a more humanitarian approach to helping slaves transition to freedom.

Near mid-December, Grant sent a cavalry force down the Mobile & Ohio Railroad, raiding Confederate positions along the way, while a diversionary force moved toward the main Confederate Army of Mississippi at Grenada. The cavalry troops rode as far as Tupelo, wrecking railroad track and bridges along the way, before coming up against Confederate horsemen on the Pontotoc-Ripley road. The Federals drove them off and returned to Oxford. Their raid resulted in 150 prisoners taken and 34 miles of track destroyed.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Confederates at Grenada, received reinforcements in the form of three divisions from General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee. Bragg had reluctantly parted with these troops because he was trying to hold Middle Tennessee against a superior Federal army operating out of Nashville. While the Federals raided around Tupelo, Pemberton planned a cavalry raid of his own.

Major General William T. Sherman, commanding a separate Federal force within Grant’s army, returned to his base at Memphis. Grant had directed him to lead his troops down the Mississippi River on transports to threaten Vicksburg from the north. Sherman would ultimately lead four divisions, with support from the gunboats and ironclads of Admiral David D. Porter’s Mississippi River Squadron.

Maj Gen J.A. McClernand | Image Credit:

As Porter’s ships resumed clearing the Yazoo River above Vicksburg in preparation for Sherman’s expedition, Grant continued to voice concerns about Major General John A. McClernand’s separate, supposedly secret mission to capture Vicksburg. Grant believed that not only should the operation be left to one overall commander, but, as he explained to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, he did not want McClernand involved at all because he was “unmanageable and incompetent.”

Meanwhile, McClernand awaited authorization from the War Department to proceed. He announced to his superiors at Washington that he had sent 40,000 troops to Memphis and was ready to leave Springfield, Illinois, and go down to lead them. McClernand notified Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that he was “anxiously awaiting your order sending me forward for duty in connection with the Mississippi expedition.” When Stanton referred him to Halleck, McClernand wrote the general-in-chief, “I beg to be sent forward in accordance with the order of the Secretary of War … giving me command of the Mississippi expedition.”

Halleck, who wanted nothing to do with McClernand’s mission, did not immediately respond. By this time, McClernand was beginning to suspect that he was not getting the backing for his mission that he had expected. He wrote to both Stanton and President Abraham Lincoln, “I believe I am superseded. Please inquire and let me know whether it is or shall be true.” Stanton replied:

“There has been, as I am informed by General Halleck, no order superseding you. It was designed, as you know, to organize the troops for your expedition after they should reach Memphis or the place designated as their rendezvous. The troops having been sent forward, they are now to be organized. The operations being in General Grant’s department, it is designed to organize all the troops of that department in three army corps, the First Army Corps to be commanded by you, and assigned to the operations on the Mississippi under the general supervision of the general commanding the Department. General Halleck is to issue the order immediately.”

The War Department tried to clear up the confusion by issuing General Order Number 210, which formally organized the Army of the Tennessee into a corps structure:

  • The Thirteenth Corps under McClernand
  • The Fifteenth Corps under William T. Sherman (formerly troops from the District of Memphis and the command at Helena, Arkansas)
  • The Sixteenth Corps under Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut (formerly troops from the Districts of Memphis, Jackson, and Columbia)
  • The Seventeenth Corps under Major General James B. McPherson (formerly troops from the District of Corinth)

Of course, McClernand had been promised an independent command for the sole purpose of capturing Vicksburg, not a corps command in someone else’s army. But it seemed pointless for two armies to conduct separate operations against the same objective, and Grant’s army was already established in Mississippi and western Tennessee. This ostensibly ended McClernand’s ambition to form an independent “Army of the Mississippi” to capture Vicksburg.

Halleck notified Grant of this change on the 18th, adding, “It is the wish of the President that General McClernand’s corps shall constitute a part of the river expedition, and that he shall have the immediate command, under your direction.” Grant informed McClernand: “I have been directed this moment by telegraph, from the General-in-chief of the Army to divide the forces of this department into four army corps, one of which is to be commanded by yourself, and that to form a part of the expedition on Vicksburg…” Grant also notified Sherman of the change.

McClernand was preparing to go to Memphis, where he would supersede Sherman due to his higher rank. Grant wanted Sherman, not McClernand, to lead the river expedition, so he urged Sherman to move quickly so that his Federals would be downriver by the time McClernand got to Memphis. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry raid in western Tennessee cut communications between McClernand and Grant. Since Grant thought so little of McClernand as a commander, this suited him fine.


  • 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.
  • Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Never Call Retreat: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 3. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1965.
  • Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition].
  • McFeely, William S., Grant. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1981.
  • Sherman, William T., Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, Vol. I. New York: D. Appleton and Co. (Kindle Edition), 1889.
  • 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.

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