Advance units of Major-General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federal Army of the Tennessee were at Perkins’s Plantation, on the west bank of the Mississippi River. Grant’s objective was to find a place in which to cross the river and attack the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg from the south. Grant planned to land in the area between Vicksburg and Grand Gulf, but the Confederates had anticipated this and hurried to strengthen their defenses there. Grant therefore directed his troops to move farther downriver to Hard Times, opposite Grand Gulf.
Rear-Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the Mississippi River Squadron supporting Grant, stationed gunboats near the mouth of the Big Black River to isolate the Grand Gulf garrison. Porter told Grant that a “half Union man” claimed 12,000 Confederates and 12 guns were en route to Grand Gulf. Consequently, Porter would not attack without army support.
Grant received a conflicting report from Major-General John A. McClernand, commanding the lead corps on the march down the west bank. McClernand stated, “I saw no great activity of any kind displayed by the enemy, nor did I see any formidable display of batteries or forts.” McClernand asserted that if the Federals were going to attack, “I cannot too strongly urge that it be done now. The enemy should be at once driven away from the crest and river slope of the bluffs, and I believe the gunboats can easily do it.”
Not sure whether to rely on Porter or McClernand, Grant left his Milliken’s Bend headquarters to see for himself. He inspected the batteries at Grand Gulf and then wrote Major-General William T. Sherman, commanding the diversionary corps north of Vicksburg: “I foresee great difficulties in our present position, but it will not do to let these retard any movements.”
Grant had doubts about his chances for success. He had enough supplies for his men, but the U.S.S. Tigress had been sunk with all the army’s medical supplies on board. And the supply line on the west bank of the Mississippi, stretching all the way up to Milliken’s Bend, was narrow and vulnerable to Confederate raids. As Grant explained to Sherman:
“In the first place, if a battle should take place we are necessarily very destitute of all preparations for taking care of wounded men. All the little extras for this purpose were put on board the Tigress, the only boat that was lost. The line from here to Milliken’s Bend is a long one for the transportation of supplies and to defend, and an impossible one for the transportation of wounded men. The water in the bayous is falling very rapidly, out of all proportion to the fall in the river, so that it is exceedingly doubtful whether they can be made use of for the purposes of navigation.”
Grant directed Sherman to keep a close watch on the Confederates defending Snyder’s Bluff, north of Vicksburg. If it appeared that they were being pulled away to confront Grant’s Federals south of town, Sherman was to advance. In the meantime, Grant planned to use the gunboats to take out the Confederate batteries before landing McClernand’s corps on the east bank.
Another issue that Grant needed to address was the expectation from his superiors that he would assist Major-General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federal Army of the Gulf as it threatened the Confederate garrison at Port Hudson, down the Mississippi from Vicksburg on the Louisiana side. On April 14, Grant had notified Banks that his troops would be going to Grand Gulf, and from there he would send a corps to support Banks’s army as long as Banks would bring that corps and the rest of his army back to help capture Vicksburg once Port Hudson had fallen.
Grant’s message reached Banks’s headquarters on the 26th, but Banks was no longer with his army; he had turned over command to tend to civil affairs back in New Orleans. Banks returned to the field and saw Grant’s message in early May, but by that time, Grant was fully invested in his campaign against Vicksburg and could no longer spare any troops for him.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant-General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Confederate Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana from Jackson, Mississippi, had much to worry about:
- Grant was threatening Grand Gulf below Vicksburg
- Banks’s army was threatening Port Hudson farther down the Mississippi
- Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson was raiding Mississippi from the north as a diversion, along with other Federal cavalry units
Unsure where the main Federal thrust would be, Pemberton wrote to Major-General Carter L. Stevenson, commanding the Confederates at Vicksburg, “It is indispensable that you keep in your lines only such force as is absolutely needed to hold them, and organize the remainder, if there are any of your troops as a movable force available for any point where it may be most required.”
- Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. New York: Vintage Books, 1987.
- 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.
- Cutrer, Thomas W., Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi River. The University of North Carolina Press, (Kindle Edition), 2017.
- 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.
- Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 (original 1885, republication of 1952 edition).