Vicksburg: Grant Takes Command

Federal Major-General Ulysses S. Grant, headquartered at Memphis, was in the process of devising a new plan to capture Vicksburg, the vital Confederate stronghold, on the Mississippi River. His overland thrust into Mississippi had been turned back, and Major-General William T. Sherman’s effort to gain a foothold from the river at Chickasaw Bayou had been repelled as well. Grant soon determined that another river expedition be undertaken, this time with a different landing point.

But launching a new offensive would mean that Grant’s ranking subordinate, Major-General John A. McClernand, would be the field commander. Not trusting McClernand with such an important operation, especially after his unauthorized attack on Fort Hindman, Grant decided to take command in person.

Maj Gen J.A. McClernand | Image Credit:

After capturing Fort Hindman, McClernand’s “Army of the Mississippi” (actually a portion of Grant’s Army of the Tennessee) fell back to Napoleon, Mississippi. The Federals quickly took control and partially destroyed the town. Sherman, commanding a corps under McClernand, later wrote that he was “free to admit we all deserve to be killed unless we can produce a state of discipline when such disgraceful acts cannot be committed unpunished.”

On January 17, Grant boarded a steamer to meet with McClernand, Sherman, and Acting Rear Admiral David D. Porter (commanding the Mississippi River Squadron) at Napoleon. When Grant arrived, he received assurances from Sherman and Porter that the capture of Fort Hindman had served a useful purpose in that it cleared Confederate threats from the Federal rear in any upcoming expedition against Vicksburg. Grant also noted:

“It was here made evident to me that both the army and navy were so distrustful of McClernand’s fitness to command that, while they would do all they could to insure success, this distrust was an element of weakness… I felt great embarrassment about McClernand. He was the senior major-general after myself within the department. It would not do, with his rank and ambition, to assign a junior over him. Nothing was left, therefore, but to assume the command myself.”

Grant directed McClernand to lead his command to Milliken’s Bend, on the west bank of the Mississippi. From there, the Federals would resume work on a canal begun last summer but foiled by the now destroyed C.S.S. Arkansas. This canal would bisect the bend and enable Federal warships to bypass Young’s Point, which was covered by Confederate artillery, and get below Vicksburg to take the city from behind. Porter agreed to assist by halting all naval operations on the White River in Arkansas and ordering all available gunboats to assemble at Milliken’s Bend.

Grant returned to Memphis and shared his plans with General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck. He also told Halleck, “I regard it as my duty to state that I found there was not sufficient confidence felt in General McClernand as a commander, either by the Army or Navy, to insure him success.” Grant explained that he felt compelled to say this if only because “it was forced upon me.”

Consequently, Grant informed Halleck that he would be leading the Vicksburg river expedition in person. Regarding McClernand, Grant concluded, “There is no special necessity of mentioning this matter.” Grant knew that McClernand’s strong political ties–both to the War Democrats in the Midwest and to President Abraham Lincoln himself–as well as his newfound popularity in the North for capturing Fort Hindman would protect him from any kind of demotion or reassignment.

Grant also reiterated his opinion that a mission to capture Vicksburg could not succeed without cooperation from Federals west of the Mississippi, as well as support against potential enemy threats in Tennessee and Louisiana. He therefore proposed “to combine the four Departments in the West under one commander”:

  • Major-General Samuel R. Curtis’s Department of the Missouri (west of the Mississippi and north of Louisiana)
  • Major-General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Department of the Gulf (Louisiana)
  • Major-General William S. Rosecrans’s Department of the Cumberland (Middle and East Tennessee)
  • Grant’s own Department of West Tennessee

Grant wrote, “As I am the senior department commander in the West, (even though Banks outranked him) I will state that I have no desire whatever for such combined command, but would prefer the command I now have to any other than can be given.”

The Lincoln administration would not go so far as to give Grant all of the Western Theater, but Halleck replied, “The President has directed that so much of Arkansas as you may desire to control be temporarily attached to your department. This will give you control of both banks of the river.” But Halleck informed Grant that Banks may not be able to cooperate with him because Banks’s Federals were in the process of attacking Port Hudson on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi.

With Grant now in control of the Vicksburg area on both sides of the Mississippi, he was poised to take personal command of the next offensive against the Confederate stronghold.


  • Ballard, Michael B., Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi. The University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
  • Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 (original 1885, republication of 1952 edition).
  • 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.
  • Rhodes, James Ford, History of the Civil War, 1861-1865. New York: The MacMillan Company (Kindle Edition, Reservoir House, 2016), 1917.
  • 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.

Leave a Reply