Vicksburg: Grant Asserts Authority

Major-General Ulysses S. Grant had begun a new Federal expedition against the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, Mississippi. He had come down from Memphis to take personal command of operations, to the chagrin of Major-General John A. McClernand, who believed that he had been promised by President Abraham Lincoln to command this mission.

Grant was initially willing to allow McClernand to maintain some autonomy with his unsanctioned “Army of the Mississippi.” But Grant knew that McClernand was a political general, owing his position to his strong ties to Lincoln and the pro-war Democrats in the Midwest. This made the career officers in the Federal army distrustful of his military abilities. They therefore began bypassing McClernand to get instructions directly from Grant, until finally McClernand had had enough.

McClernand sent Grant a contentious letter on January 30, in which he invited Grant to arrest an officer for insubordination because he had gone over McClernand’s head for orders:

“I understand that orders are being issued directly to army corps commands, and not through me. As I am invested, by order of the Secretary of War, indorsed by the President, and by order of the President communicated to you by the General-in-Chief, with the command of all the forces operating on the Mississippi river, I claim that all orders affecting the condition or operation of those forces should pass through these headquarters; otherwise I must lose a knowledge of current business and dangerous confusion ensue.

“If different views are entertained by you, then the question should be immediately referred to Washington, and one or the other, or both of us, relieved. One thing is certain, two generals cannot command this army, issuing independent and direct orders to subordinate officers, and the public service be promoted.”

In his memoirs, Grant wrote that the letter “was more in the nature of a reprimand than a protest. It was highly insubordinate, but I overlooked it, as I believed, for the good of the service” considering McClernand’s influence over Democrats who were tiring of the war. Grant quickly responded by issuing General Orders Number 13, announcing that he was taking official field command of the expedition. All army corps commanders would “resume the immediate command of their respective corps, and will report to and receive orders direct from these headquarters.”

This relegated McClernand to a corps command, with the other corps that had been previously under him now reporting directly to Grant. Grant then assigned McClernand and his Thirteenth Corps to “garrisoning the post of Helena, Ark., and any other point on the west bank of the river it may be necessary to hold south of that place.”

The notion of going to Helena, some 200 miles north, enraged McClernand because he had been promised an independent command to capture Vicksburg. He immediately wrote Grant, “General orders No. 13 is this moment received. I hasten to inquire whether its purpose is to relieve me from the command of all or any portion of the forces composing the Mississippi River expedition, or, in other words, whether its purpose is to limit my command to the Thirteenth Army Corps.”

McClernand then reminded Grant of his political connections and protested the notion that “while having projected the Mississippi River expedition, and having been by a series of orders assigned to the command of it, I may be entirely withdrawn from it.”

Grant carefully replied the next day:

“The intention of General Orders, No. 13, is that I will take direct command of the Mississippi River expedition, which necessarily limits your command to the Thirteenth Army Corps. I regard the President as Commander-in-Chief of the Army, and will obey every order of his, but as yet I have seen no order to prevent my taking immediate command in the field, and since the dispatch referred to in your note, I have received another from the General-in-Chief of the Army, authorizing me directly to take command of this army.”

While Grant initially thought it might be easier to issue orders through McClernand to other corps commanders, now that he had taken the field he “saw it would be much more convenient to issue orders direct to corps commanders whilst present with the command than through another commander.” This disagreement continued into February.

Meanwhile, Grant set about looking for ways to get to Vicksburg. He had Federals from two corps digging canals on the west bank of the Mississippi that were intended to allow Federal ships to bypass the guns on the Vicksburg bluffs and get to the city from below. Another force was starting to open a levee on Yazoo Pass that might enable troops to get to Vicksburg from the north.

A third corps was looking into possibly cutting a levee in Lake Providence, which could take Federals from the Mississippi to the Red River, where they could get 400 miles below Vicksburg. Grant informed Acting Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the Mississippi River Squadron, that a brigade was being dispatched to start work, and he “would respectfully request that one of your light-draught gunboats accompany this expedition, if it can be spared.”

With the two west bank canals unlikely to successfully bypass Vicksburg, Grant started directing more attention to the Yazoo Pass and Lake Providence projects as January came to a close.


  • Catton, Bruce, Grant Moves South. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, Inc., 1960.
  • Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 (original 1885, republication of 1952 edition).
  • Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
  • Stanchak, John E. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
  • 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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