Major General William T. Sherman prepared to lead a portion of the Federal Army of the Tennessee down the Mississippi River from Memphis to Walnut Hills, also known as Chickasaw Bluffs, on the Yazoo River. This was the water phase of Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s land-water advance on the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg.
Seizing Chickasaw Bluffs would put the Federals on the northern flank of the Confederates defending Vicksburg, forcing them to either fight or flee. Sherman would be supported by Admiral David D. Porter’s Mississippi River Squadron, along with Grant’s Federals moving overland to keep the Confederates at Grenada from reinforcing those defending Vicksburg.
Sherman was ready to move on December 17, but it took another three days to assemble the transports needed for his men. And the river was low, making water transport more difficult than usual. Grant’s plan to keep the Confederates at Grenada occupied was thwarted by the destruction of his supply depot at Holly Springs on the 20th. This forced Grant to cancel his overland movement and return to Memphis.
Confederate raiders led by Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest cut Federal communication lines, so Sherman proceeded with his mission unaware that Grant could no longer support him. He wrote Grant, “You may calculate on our being at Vicksburg by Christmas. River has risen some feet, and all is now good navigation. Gunboats are at mouth of Yazoo now, and there will be no difficulty in effecting a landing up Yazoo within 12 miles of Vicksburg.”
The expedition finally began at midnight on the 20th, as three divisions of the Thirteenth Corps were loaded onto transports. It took a day and a half to load the men, with each division needing 12 to 15 steamboats. This corps technically belonged to Major General John A. McClernand, but he was still in Illinois recruiting volunteers.
Sherman collected a fourth division at Helena, Arkansas, under Brigadier General Frederick Steele on the 21st, giving him 32,000 men. By this time, Federals from Grant’s army were arriving at Memphis and spreading the word that the Holly Springs depot had been destroyed. When Sherman learned of this, he wrote Grant, “I hardly know what faith to put in such a report, but suppose whatever may be the case you will attend to it.”
Two more days went by without Sherman knowing that Grant could not support him. McClernand still had not gotten the news that he was now a corps commander in Grant’s army, nor did he know that Sherman was moving on Vicksburg without him. McClernand finally wrote Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “I am not relieved from duty here so that I may go forward and receive orders from General Grant. Please order me forward.”
Stanton replied, “It has not been my understanding that you should remain at Springfield a single hour beyond your own pleasure and judgment of the necessity of collecting and forwarding the troops. You are relieved of duty at Springfield and will report to General Grant for the purpose specified in the order of the General-in-Chief.” McClernand quickly prepared to head down to Memphis and take command.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Confederate Army of Mississippi at Grenada, was able to send reinforcements to Vicksburg now that Grant was withdrawing. Grant sent a message to Sherman that was not received:
“Raids made upon the railroad to my rear by Forrest northward from Jackson, and by (Earl) Van Dorn northward from the Tallahatchie, have cut me off from supplies, so that further advance by this route is perfectly impracticable. The country does not afford supplies for troops, and but a limited supply of forage. I have fallen back to the Tallahatchie, and will only be able to hold the enemy at the Yalobusha by making a demonstration in that direction or toward Columbus and Meridian.”
Sherman’s Federals met little resistance as their flotilla steamed from Helena downriver toward the Yazoo. Sherman later wrote, “What few inhabitants remained at the plantations on the river-bank were unfriendly, except the slaves, some few guerrilla-parties infested the banks, but did not dare to molest so strong a force as I then commanded.”
The flotilla advanced to within 50 miles of Vicksburg on Christmas Eve, where Confederates guarding an outpost at Point Lookout, 11 miles south of Lake Providence, spotted the vessels. Using a private telegraph line that the Federals did not know about, the Confederates sent a frantic wire to Philip Fall, stationed across the Mississippi from Vicksburg: “Good God Phil, 81 transports loaded with Yankees, and gunboats galore, passing down the river, and many more behind moving on… I can see lights as far as the eye can reach up the river.”
Fall hurriedly rowed across the river to relay the message to Major General Martin L. Smith, commanding the army defending Vicksburg. Smith was attending a Christmas ball at the home of Dr. and Mrs. William Balfour. When Smith was given the news, he turned “ashy pale” and announced, “This ball is hereby at an end.” Smith quickly ordered his troops to man the river defenses. Brigadier General Stephen D. Lee was given command of the Confederates defending Walnut Hills north of town.
Sherman’s hope to surprise the Confederates had been ruined. He now had neither Grant’s support nor the element of surprise, thus putting him at a major disadvantage. But the expedition continued nonetheless, and on Christmas Day, the Federals began landing at Milliken’s Bend, on the west bank of the Mississippi about 10 miles above the mouth of the Yazoo and 20 miles from Vicksburg.
Sherman dispatched Brigadier General Stephen G. Burbridge’s brigade of Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith’s division to wreck the Vicksburg, Shreveport & Texas Railroad. Sherman hoped that this would make the railway “useless to our enemy” for months. Burbridge’s Federals marched 75 miles wrecking telegraph lines and railroad tracks, capturing cattle, mules, and horses, and destroying large amounts of Confederate supplies.
The rest of Smith’s division stayed at Milliken’s Bend while Sherman’s other three divisions moved out at 8 a.m. on the 26th. They entered the Yazoo River, with Porter’s gunboats leading the way clearing out river torpedoes and enemy sharpshooters. The troops began landing at Johnson’s Plantation, about 13 miles upriver on the south bank. The gunboats bombarded nearby Haynes’ Bluff to cover them.
Smith’s division joined the rest of Sherman’s force the next day, and the Federals advanced in four columns. Lee had just 6,000 Confederates to defend against Sherman’s 32,000, but Lee held the high ground overlooking approaches from both the Yazoo and Chickasaw Bayou. Also, the marshes and swamps would force the attackers to funnel toward the center of the Confederate defenses, enabling the defenders to concentrate their fire. And the Confederates had cleared the woods in their front, giving them a clear view of any approach.
Sherman considered this a terrible place to attack, as he explained to Porter, “This piece of land is all cut up with Bayous. We get across one only to find ourselves on the bank of another.” Nevertheless, Sherman sent his men forward to search for any exploitable weaknesses. The Federals advanced under heavy fire, slogging through the swampy terrain. Porter continued bombarding positions from the river, but Confederate counterfire from the Yazoo bluffs finally forced him to pull his gunboats back. Sherman was informed that just four approaches could be used to reach the bluffs, and each was guarded by heavy artillery.
The Federals continued probing to determine the Confederate positions, with heavy skirmishing breaking out at several points. On the 28th, McClernand arrived at Memphis to learn that the expedition had started without him. The cut telegraph lines had prevented Grant from informing McClernand; they also prevented Grant from urging Sherman to abort his mission.
That day, Steele’s division tried to cross Blake’s Levee to reach the bluffs, but the Federals could not overcome the Confederate guns and abatis in their path. Brigadier General George W. Morgan’s division tried to approach on a causeway north of Chickasaw Bayou but was repelled with heavy loss. The Federals did little more than push the Confederates up into their strong defenses on the Walnut Hills bluffs. They could hear the sounds of trains arriving at Vicksburg, indicating that Confederate reinforcements were coming in.
Nevertheless, Sherman still expected Grant to provide support, and he therefore resolved to launch an all-out attack on the bluffs the next day. The Federals camped for the night in the cold mud, with campfires prohibited to avoid enemy detection. They could hear Confederates playing “Dixie” on the bluffs in the distance.
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