McClernand’s Wild-Goose Chase

Major-General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federal Department of the Tennessee included all forces in western Tennessee and northern Mississippi, including Major-General John A. McClernand’s “Army of the Mississippi” that had recently captured Fort Hindman (also known as the Post of Arkansas) in Arkansas. But Grant did not receive notice that McClernand was moving to attack until the day the Federals captured the fort. McClernand considered himself an independent commander, but to Grant, McClernand’s command was part of Grant’s army. As soon as Grant learned of McClernand’s plans, he quickly responded:

“I do not approve of your move on the Post of Arkansas… It will lead to the loss of men without a result… It might answer for some of the purposes you suggest, but certainly not as a military movement looking to the accomplishment of the one great result, the capture of Vicksburg… From the best information I have, Milliken’s Bend (on the Mississippi River) is the proper place for you to be… Unless you are acting under authority not derived from me keep your command where it can soonest be assembled for the renewal of the attack on Vicksburg.”

But Grant’s directive would not reach McClernand until January 13, two days after the fort had already been captured. Grant reported to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “General McClernand has fallen back to White River, and gone on a wild-goose chase to the Post of Arkansas. I am ready to reinforce, but must await further information before knowing what to do.” Halleck, who thought little of McClernand to begin with, replied, “You are hereby authorized to relieve General McClernand from command of the expedition against Vicksburg, giving it to the next in rank or taking it yourself.”

General Ulysses S. Grant | Image Credit:

Grant then sent another message to McClernand reiterating that “unless there is some object not visible at this distance your forces should return to Milliken’s Bend, or some point convenient for operating on Vicksburg” in order to cooperate with Major-General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federal army possibly coming up the Mississippi from Baton Rouge.

Grant had initially planned to send his army south down the Mississippi to take Vicksburg from the river while he remained at headquarters in Memphis. But this would mean that McClernand, the ranking commander under Grant, would be in charge in the field. Grant therefore announced that “it is my present intention to command the expedition down the river in person.” This would help prevent McClernand from making any more unauthorized movements.

Meanwhile, McClernand was ecstatic with his victory at Fort Hindman. “Glorious! Glorious!” he wrote. “My star is ever in the ascendant!” It appeared he was right because when he submitted his report on the expedition, it sparked mass celebrations throughout the North. It was just what the North needed after a series of military failures, including Grant’s own failure to take Vicksburg in December. Grant knew what it was like to be hailed as a hero, and he knew that the public would not allow him to remove McClernand now. So Grant did not act upon Halleck’s authorization to relieve him.

Grant also held back on relieving McClernand because he learned that his close friend Major-General William T. Sherman, not McClernand, had proposed capturing Fort Hindman in the first place. Grant would go on to write in his memoirs:

“I was at first disposed to disapprove of this move as an unnecessary side movement having no especial bearing upon the work before us; but when the result was understood I regarded it as very important. Five thousand Confederates left in the rear might have caused us much trouble and loss of property while navigating the Mississippi.”

As he planned to attack Vicksburg from the river, Grant soon discovered that this would be just as difficult as an overland advance because of the countless “bends” in the Mississippi above the city. Moreover, as Grant learned on the 16th, the navy would not be able to support him for another 10 days due to their participation in capturing Fort Hindman. Grant ordered McClernand to meet him at Milliken’s Bend to discuss the situation personally.

Maj Gen J.A. McClernand | Image Credit:

McClernand responded that he would “immediately return with my command” to the Mississippi, even though “I would sail from here to Little Rock, and reduce that place but for want of sufficient water in the channel of the Arkansas River.” Then he shirked Grant’s order and informed the Federal commander at Helena, “I shall delay a day or two in order to threaten Little Rock and Pine Bluff as a diversion in your favor.”

As Grant prepared to leave Memphis for Milliken’s Bend, Confederate prisoners from Fort Hindman began arriving on transports. Since McClernand sent no word on what should be done with these men, Grant appealed to Major-General Samuel R. Curtis, commanding the Department of the Missouri (which included Fort Hindman): “As I am leaving Memphis and can take no orders for the disposal of these prisoners, I hope that you will have the kindness to take charge of them…”

Meanwhile, McClernand received Grant’s message refusing to authorize the Fort Hindman expedition and admonishing him for capturing the fort without permission. McClernand angrily responded that he had expected “approval of the complete and signal success which crowned it rather than your condemnation.” Responding to Grant’s claim that the expedition detracted from the goal to capture Vicksburg, McClernand shot back, “From the moment you fell back from Oxford, and the purpose of a front attack upon the enemy’s works near Vicksburg was thus deprived of co-operation, the Mississippi River Expedition was doomed to eventuate in a failure.”

McClernand then wrote directly to President Abraham Lincoln, who had authorized him to conduct an independent operation against Vicksburg last fall. McClernand complained, “I believe my success here is gall and wormwood to the clique of West Pointers who have been persecuting me for months,” and these West Pointers (such as Grant) were “chagrined at the success of your volunteer officers (i.e., McClernand).”

Although no threat of dismissal had been given yet, McClernand pleaded, “Do not let me be clandestinely destroyed, or, what is worse, dishonored, without a hearing.” He then argued that Grant could not effectively command his (McClernand’s) force: “The Mississippi River being the only channel of communication, and that being infested with guerrillas, how can General Grant at a distance of 400 miles intelligently command the army with me? He cannot do it.”

McClernand’s response to Grant and his letter to Lincoln indicated that he considered himself Grant’s equal, even though the War Department order of late December clearly stated that McClernand would merely command a corps within Grant’s army. But McClernand hoped that Lincoln would override that order, writing that his “army” “should be made an independent command, as both you and the Secretary of War, as I believe, originally intended.”

Lincoln did not respond to McClernand’s request for independence, but he did respond to a prior letter from McClernand complaining about Halleck micromanaging his affairs:

“I have too many family controversies, (so to speak) already on my hands to voluntarily, or so long as I can avoid it, take up another. You are now doing well–well for the country, and well for yourself–much better than you could possibly be, if engaged in open war with Gen. Halleck. Allow me to beg, that for your sake, for my sake, & for the country’s sake, you give your whole attention to the better work.”

Meanwhile, the friction between Grant and McClernand was certain to escalate.


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