As the new year began, Major-General William T. Sherman’s 30,000-man Thirteenth Corps remained at Chickasaw Bayou on the Yazoo River above Vicksburg, Mississippi. Sherman had failed to dislodge the Confederates from the bluffs above the bayou, and now a heavy fog was preventing him from renewing the assault. The Federals could hear trains continuously rolling in and out of Vicksburg, indicating that enemy reinforcements were arriving. And Sherman finally received word that Major-General Ulysses S. Grant’s overland drive into Mississippi, designed to work in tandem with Sherman’s expedition, had failed.
Sherman therefore decided to abandon his line and return to Milliken’s Bend, about 10 miles above the Yazoo on the west bank of the Mississippi River. The withdrawal began around 11 p.m. on the 1st. The Confederates celebrated by lighting bonfires and playing songs such as “Dixie” and “Get Out of the Wilderness,” a tune most likely performed especially for the Federals as they prepared to load themselves back on their transports and move back to the Mississippi.
Most Federals were discouraged by the defeat, especially after news had arrived of the disaster at Fredericksburg in Virginia. Many blamed their leaders, and a reporter wrote that when questions regarding this failure “are answered, the causes will be found in the mismanagement, incompetence, and probable insanity of the commanding general, and the intemperance, negligence, and general inefficiency of nearly the whole of the line and field-officers of his command.”
As the Federals began withdrawing on the 2nd, Sherman was informed that Major-General John A. McClernand, the officer assigned to command this expedition, had arrived from Memphis aboard the U.S.S. Tigress. Sherman met McClernand at Milliken’s Bend, where McClernand took command. McClernand also confirmed the news that Grant was withdrawing from Grenada after the destruction of his supply depot at Holly Springs. Apparently disregarding the War Department order placing him under Grant, McClernand split his four divisions into two corps (led by Sherman and Brigadier-General George W. Morgan), and renamed the Thirteenth Corps the Army of the Mississippi.
Sherman informed McClernand that it was futile to try to get to Vicksburg via the Yazoo. He then shared an idea to avenge the Chickasaw Bayou defeat by capturing Fort Hindman, also known as the Post of Arkansas, on the Arkansas River, which emptied into the Mississippi about halfway between Memphis and Vicksburg. The Confederates at this fort posed a threat to Federal supply routes, having recently captured the steamboat Red Wing.
Acting Rear Admiral David D. Porter backed Sherman’s idea and gave assurances that the Mississippi River Squadron would provide gunboat support. Though McClernand was generally disrespectful toward Sherman and Porter, he finally acknowledged that their plan was valid. McClernand approved the expedition.
McClernand officially took command on the 4th, and the Federal expeditionary force that had been en route to Milliken’s Bend would instead be re-routed up the Arkansas to Fort Hindman. But McClernand never asked Grant for permission to proceed, and nobody in the Federal high command knew that such an action was even being considered. Moreover, Arkansas was part of Major General Samuel R. Curtis’s Department of the Missouri, outside the jurisdiction of McClernand or even Grant. But McClernand had discussed the threat Fort Hindman posed with Curtis late last year, so Curtis at least had an idea that McClernand might attack the fort when he told Curtis that he was proceeding on the 5th.
General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, unaware of the Fort Hindman expedition, learned from Richmond newspapers that Sherman had been defeated at Chickasaw Bayou, and he therefore urged that McClernand and Grant join forces with Major-General Nathaniel P. Banks, who was operating somewhere in Louisiana, and once united, “every possible effort must be made to re-enforce” Sherman on the river. Halleck concluded, “We must not fail in this if within human power to accomplish it.” But McClernand was in no mood to listen to Halleck because he believed that Halleck had undermined his efforts to form an independent command to capture Vicksburg.
McClernand’s force headed out by water on the 8th. The fleet consisted of three ironclads, 10 rams and gunboats, and 50 transports conveying 30,000 soldiers. McClernand finally informed Grant about the expedition, explaining that one of the objectives was “the counteraction of the moral effect of the failure of the attack near Vicksburg and the reinspiration of the forces repulsed by making them the champions of new, important, and successful enterprises.” Grant did not receive this message until the 11th, long after the Federals had gone up the Arkansas.
- Ballard, Michael B., Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi (The University of North Carolina Press, 2004), p. 146-49
- Catton, Bruce, Grant Moves South (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, Inc., 1960), p. 343-45
- Cutrer, Thomas W., Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi River (The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2017), p. 160
- Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 253
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 133-34
- Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 251
- Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 228-29
- Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 68
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 308
- McFeely, William S., Grant (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1981), p. 126
- Sherman, William T., Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, Vol. I (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1889, Kindle Edition), Loc 4871-924, 4933
- 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), p. 282-85