The Right to Command the Expedition

The conflict over who would command the Federal expedition against Vicksburg, Mississippi, had seemingly been resolved in late January, when Major-General Ulysses S. Grant took personal command and relegated Major-General John A. McClernand’s “Army of the Mississippi” to a corps within Grant’s Army of the Tennessee. But McClernand was not yet ready to give up hope that he would be in charge.

In a letter to Grant on February 1, McClernand finally agreed that he would be subordinate to Grant “for the purpose of avoiding a conflict of authority in the presence of the enemy.” But he would officially protest the situation because he had been promised to lead the expedition by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton (even though Stanton had since acknowledged that the expedition would take place within Grant’s military department, thereby giving Grant supreme command).

Maj Gen J.A. McClernand | Image Credit:

McClernand also requested that all correspondence related to this matter, both past and future, “be forwarded to the General-in-Chief, and through him to the Secretary of War and the President.” McClernand still insisted, “I claim the right to command the expedition,” and he wanted Washington to know it “in justice to myself as its author and actual promoter.”

Grant complied with McClernand’s request and sent the dispatches to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, along with a note of explanation. Grant wrote that by taking over the Vicksburg expedition, he was merely acting upon Halleck’s recommendation to leave his Memphis headquarters and take personal command. Reminding him that Major-General William T. Sherman had originally been tasked with the job, Grant wrote, “If General Sherman had been left in command here, such is my confidence in him that I would not have thought my presence necessary.”

Grant then offered his opinion on McClernand’s generalship: “But whether I do General McClernand injustice or not, I have not confidence in his ability as a soldier to conduct an expedition of the magnitude of this one successfully.” Nevertheless, Grant pledged that if his superiors overruled him and put McClernand in charge, “I will cheerfully submit… and give a hearty support.”

Meanwhile, McClernand appealed directly to President Abraham Lincoln, who had originally authorized Stanton to send him on an independent expedition against Vicksburg in October: “Please cause it to be signified to me whether Genl. Grant or myself will have immediate command of the Miss. River Expedition.” Lincoln did not respond, leaving prior War Department orders that Grant take command in effect.

McClernand then expressed his dissatisfaction by requesting that his command be sent to Arkadelphia, where he could operate against Confederates in far-off western Arkansas. Grant further cemented his authority by denying the request and turning his full attention to the operations related to capturing the enemy stronghold of Vicksburg.

But McClernand was not Grant’s only resentful subordinate. When Grant left Memphis to command the Vicksburg expedition, he left the District of West Tennessee to Major-General Charles S. Hamilton, a friend and classmate of his at West Point. Hamilton had commanded a division at the Battles of Iuka and Corinth, and his promotion to major-general was largely believed to have been because of Grant’s backing.

Hamilton initially wished Grant the best in his mission, writing on February 9, “I hope you will be entirely successful in your undertaking. The taking of Vicksburg is your right, and I hope it may be added to the laurels which belong to you as the most successful general of the war.” But just two days later, Hamilton wrote to Wisconsin Senator James R. Doolittle:

“You have asked me to write you confidentially. I will now say what I have never breathed. Grant is a drunkard. His wife has been with him for months only to use her influence in keeping him sober. He tries to let liquor alone but he cannot resist the temptation always. When he came to Memphis he left his wife at LaGrange & for several days after getting here was beastly drunk, utterly incapable of doing anything. Quimby and I took him in charge, watching him day & night & keeping liquor away from him & we telegraphed to his wife & brought her on to take care of him.”

Hamilton went on to allege that Major-General Stephen A. Hurlbut (commanding the Memphis garrison) was also a drunk, that Major-General James B. McPherson was undeserving of his recent promotion and assignment to the Vicksburg expedition, and that McClernand was untrustworthy. When Grant learned of these accusations, he protested to his superiors, and they backed him by immediately accepting Hamilton’s resignation when he submitted it in April.

As the disgruntled subordinates were dealt with, the Vicksburg campaign began taking shape this month.


  • Catton, Bruce, Grant Moves South. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, Inc., 1960.
  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes. Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889.
  • Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964.
  • 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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