Lieutenant-General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Confederate Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, initially believed that Major-General Ulysses S. Grant had given up trying to capture Vicksburg and was bringing his Federal Army of the Tennessee back to Memphis. But by April 18, Pemberton was convinced that Grant was not giving up, but instead planning to attack Vicksburg from the south. Pemberton was also convinced that he did not have the resources to stop Grant. He wrote President Jefferson Davis:
“There are so many points to be defended at this time–Vicksburg, Grand Gulf, Port Hudson, Snyder’s Mill, and Fort Pemberton–that I have only twenty-eight guns at Vicksburg. Vicksburg and Port Hudson, and if possible Grand Gulf, ought to be greatly strengthened in guns… A large supply of ammunition and projectiles should be constantly forwarded.”
Pemberton asked Lieutenant-General Edmund Kirby Smith for help since Grant’s army was in Louisiana, which was part of Smith’s Trans-Mississippi Department. But Smith’s resources were tied up trying to stop Major-General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federal Army of the Gulf from capturing Port Hudson. So all Pemberton could do was to try to strengthen the defenses at Grand Gulf.
When reports arrived that Federal cavalry was closing in from the north, Pemberton once again asked General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Western Department, to send him horsemen: “Heavy raids are making from Tennessee deep into this state. Cavalry is indispensable to meet these expeditions. The little I have is… totally inadequate. Could you not make a demonstration with a cavalry force on their rear?” Johnston again replied that he could not spare the troopers.
Johnston was having trouble dealing with Pemberton. A War Department official who had gone to Mississippi to inspect the situation reported that Johnston “receives no intelligence from General Pemberton, who ignores his authority, is mortified at his command over him and receives his suggestions with coldness or opposition.” This lack of adequate communication would do much to harm Confederate prospects in regards to Vicksburg.
Meanwhile, Grant issued Special Orders Number 110, which announced his intention “to obtain a foothold on the east bank of the Mississippi river, from which Vicksburg can be approached by practicable roads.” Army troops were to be ferried across the Mississippi on transports belonging to Rear-Admiral David D. Porter’s Federal naval fleet, with Major-General John A. McClernand’s Thirteenth Corps in the lead, Major-General James B. McPherson’s Seventeenth Corps next, and then Major-General William T. Sherman’s Fifteenth Corps last.
The army was to travel light; regimental, brigade, and division commanders could have one tent each, but the troops were to have no shelter. One tent was allowed per company, but only to hold and protect rations. Sick or wounded soldiers were sent to both convalesce and guard the Federal supply depot at Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana.
As Grant assembled, Porter noted the confusion among the Confederates ever since his naval fleet passed the Vicksburg batteries on the night of the 16th. He wrote Grant from New Carthage:
“I think 10,000 good men landing in Vicksburg the other night would have taken it… This move has demoralized these fellows very much, don’t give them time to get over it. I wish 20 times a day that Sherman was here, or yourself, but I suppose we cannot have all we wish… We can, with the steamers and barges, land 6,000 men, if you think that enough; if we can get more transports it will be better.”
Noting that Pemberton was scrambling to reinforce Grand Gulf, Porter wrote, “They will move heaven and earth to stop us if we don’t go ahead.” He offered to “go down and settle the batteries” without Grant’s support, but Porter warned that if his ships sustained heavy damage, he could not “cover the landing when it takes place.”
Porter reconnoitered the Grand Gulf batteries on the 21st aboard the U.S.S. Lafayette. He reported seeing a “strong fort” under construction before the Lafayette’s guns drove the workers off. The Federals also chased off the steamer Charm, which was trying to deliver supplies to the Confederates via the Big Black River. Based on this, Porter recommended to Grant a joint army-navy assault on Grand Gulf: “I don’t want to make a failure, and am sure that a combined attack will succeed beautifully.”
Grant agreed, but first he wanted to run more supplies past the Vicksburg batteries to his troops. By this time, two of his three corps (McClernand’s and McPherson’s) were below Vicksburg on the west bank of the Mississippi. Sherman’s corps stayed behind to create a diversion on the Yazoo River, north of the city. Grant wrote General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “If I do not underestimate the enemy, my force is abundant, with a foothold once obtained, to do the work.”
The Federals were ready to move, but the single narrow road that ran from Milliken’s Bend to their forward positions would not be enough to keep the men supplied. Thus, another fleet of boats needed to be sent down the Mississippi past the Vicksburg batteries. Unlike the first convoy which consisted mainly of warships, this fleet would contain just six transports and 13 barges, without gunboat support. Crewmen would consist of army volunteers, not naval personnel (civilians crews refused to take the risk). And the Confederates at Vicksburg would be on high alert for any Federal attempt to duplicate Porter’s run.
The transports conveyed tons of rations, medical supplies, and other equipment for the Federals below Vicksburg. The fleet had orders “to drop noiselessly down with the current… and not show steam until the enemy’s batteries began firing, when the boats were to use all their legs.” The vessels were to stay as close to the east bank as possible so that enemy gunners atop the bluffs could not depress their gun muzzles low enough to hit them.
As the fleet rounded De Soto Point around 11:30 p.m., the Confederates were waiting. They lit up the river and immediately began firing at the ships. Colonel William Oliver, commanding the transport Tigress, reported that the fleet endured “a shower of missiles of all shapes and kinds, from Minie balls to 200-pound shot and shell.” The Tigress took a hit that tore a four-foot hole in her hull.
The men abandoned ship and used cotton bales to float downriver before they were rescued by another Federal vessel. The Tigress had been carrying all the medical and hospital supplies in the convoy. She also had three newspaper correspondents on board. Sherman, who disdained the press and did not know the reporters had been rescued, said, “We’ll have dispatches now from hell before breakfast.” Six barges were also sunk.
Of the five transports that made it through, only two were still operable. Nevertheless, enough of the fleet got through with enough supplies for Grant to proceed with his plan. He now had ships to ferry his troops across the Mississippi and supply them for the coming campaign.
The next day, Pemberton notified Major-General Carter L. Stevenson at Vicksburg, “… that communications, at least for infantry, should be made by the shortest practicable route to Grand Gulf. The indications now are that the attack will not be made on your front or right, and all troops not absolutely necessary to hold the works at Vicksburg should be held as a movable force for either Warrenton or Grand Gulf.”
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