The Severest Blow That Can Be Struck

Major General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the Federal Army of the Tennessee, finally conceded the impossibility of capturing Vicksburg, Mississippi, from the north. He had failed or was on the verge of failing in five efforts to reach the stronghold:

  • Overland via the Mississippi Central Railroad
  • On water via Chickasaw Bayou
  • On water via various canal projects
  • On water via Steele’s Bayou
  • On water via Yazoo Pass

Grant had two more ideas. One was to attack Haynes’s Bluff, a point on the Yazoo River where Confederates had placed batteries north of Vicksburg. The other was to set up a camp below Vicksburg, at New Carthage on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River. Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the naval forces in conjunction with Grant’s army operations, had agreed to send his warships down the river to help Grant at New Carthage, but he warned that once the warships went down past the Vicksburg batteries, they may not be able to come back up again. Therefore, he brought Grant on one last reconnaissance of Haynes’s Bluff to help the general make up his mind as to which plan he would adopt.

Grant and his most trusted subordinate, Major General William T. Sherman, boarded the U.S.S. Tuscumbia and steamed up the Yazoo. Before they left, Grant had figured that he would have to adopt the Haynes’s Bluff plan. Even though taking such a fortified position would involve heavy loss, Grant concluded, “I think it can be done.” As the Tuscumbia approached, Grant observed the enemy batteries in the heights above. He also noted the natural obstacles and enemy torpedoes that could sink naval vessels. Grant wrote Porter the next day, “After the reconnaissance of yesterday, I am satisfied that an attack upon Haynes’ Bluff would be attended with immense sacrifice of life, if not with defeat. This, then, closes out the last hope of turning the enemy by the right (north).”

The focus now shifted to operating on the other side of the Mississippi from Vicksburg. This involved moving Federal troops from Milliken’s Bend, above Vicksburg, to New Carthage below. But Grant intended for this operation to support the Federal advance on Port Hudson, Louisiana, not to take Vicksburg. Grant feared that this might take months, risking the chance that the Lincoln administration would lose patience and call it off. Therefore, Grant started reworking the New Carthage plan to attack Vicksburg from below rather than support the Port Hudson operation. Grant wrote, “I have sent troops through from Milliken’s Bend to New Carthage, to garrison and hold the whole route and make the wagon road good.”

From New Carthage, Federals could cross the Mississippi and attack either Grand Gulf or Warrenton, which guarded the back door to Vicksburg from the south. Grant wrote, “It is important to prevent the enemy from further fortifying either of these places. I am satisfied that one army corps, with the aid of two gunboats, can take and hold Grand Gulf until such time as I might be able to get my whole army there and make provision for supplying them.”

The troops currently at Milliken’s Bend belonged to the Thirteenth Corps under Major General John A. McClernand. They were in the process of clearing the path for men and supplies to move to New Carthage. McClernand reported to Grant, “I am now repairing the roads and bridges between here and Richmond, a distance of 12 miles, including a floating bridge of 200 feet in length, and will soon commence repairing the road from that place to (New) Carthage, and constructing barges to ply between the same places, unless stopped by unknown obstacles.”

Grant and McClernand had never gotten along; Grant was a West Pointer and McClernand was a former politician with connections going all the way up to President Abraham Lincoln. When Grant asked McClernand to detach some of his troops to dig a levee, McClernand replied, “I think it probable that you would not have ordered it with a fuller knowledge of my operations… the prospect so far is quite encouraging… and I hope you will find it consistent with your general views to leave me to prosecute my present undertaking with all the resources at my disposal.”

Porter was opposed to the idea of marching the army down the west bank of the Mississippi. He thought that Grant should pull his army back to Memphis and march overland along the Mississippi Central Railroad to Vicksburg, just as he had tried in December. But the northern public and the administration would view this as yet another defeat, which could be detrimental to the careers of all involved. Grant could only move forward.

Maj Gen U.S. Grant and Rear Adm D.D. Porter | Image Credit:

Grant met with Porter on March 2 and described the plan in greater detail:

  • Sherman’s corps would feign an attack on Haynes’s Bluff as a diversion
  • Grant’s remaining two corps would move from Milliken’s Bend to New Carthage, building roads during the march
  • Porter’s fleet would pass the Vicksburg batteries with gunboats, transports, and supply vessels, and meet Grant’s troops at Hard Times, 30 miles south of the city
  • The ships would ferry the troops to the east bank of the Mississippi, where Grant would advance on Vicksburg from the south

Porter, still wary of the plan, warned Grant that “when these gunboats once go below we give up all hopes of ever getting them up again.” But Navy Secretary Gideon Welles urged Porter to cooperate, writing that if the operation succeeded, it would be “the severest blow that can be struck upon the enemy,” and thus “worth all the risk.”

On the Confederate side, Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, endured not only mounting Federal threats to Vicksburg, but mounting criticism of his abilities as well. But President Jefferson Davis defended him, writing that “by his judicious imposition of his forces and skillful selection of the best points of defence he has repulsed the enemy at Vicksburg, Port Hudson, on the Tallahatchie and at Deer Creek, and has thus far foiled his every attempt to get possession of the Mississippi river and the vast section of country which it controls.”

Pemberton had requested reinforcements from General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Western Department. Pemberton specifically wanted Major General Earl Van Dorn’s cavalry, which belonged to General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee. But Johnston replied:

“In the present aspect of affairs, General Van Dorn’s cavalry is much more needed in this department than in that of Mississippi and East Louisiana, and can not be sent back as long as this state of things exists. You have now in your department five brigades of the troops you most require, viz., infantry, belonging to the Army of Tennessee. This is more than a compensation for the absence of General Van Dorn’s cavalry command.”

The situation changed on the 3rd, when it appeared to the Confederates that Grant’s army was falling back from Vicksburg. But unbeknownst to the Confederates, this was just the beginning of Grant’s move across the Mississippi. Johnston interpreted the move as an effort to reinforce Major General William S. Rosecrans’s Federal Army of the Cumberland in Middle Tennessee. He therefore ordered Pemberton to send a division to reinforce Bragg. So instead of getting reinforcements, Pemberton was having his army weakened just as Grant was beginning to mount his greatest threat to Vicksburg to date.


  • Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years. New York: Doubleday, 1967.
  • Ballard, Michael B., Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi. The University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
  • 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.
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
  • Johnston, Joseph E., Narrative of Military Operations During the Civil War. Sharpe Books, Kindle Edition, 2014.
  • Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865. Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press (Kindle Edition), 2012.

Leave a Reply