The Battle of Port Gibson

By the morning of May 1, about 22,000 Federal troops of Major-General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee had crossed the Mississippi River and were now on the east bank at Bruinsburg, south of the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg. This was “the greatest amphibious operation in American history up to that time.” Grant’s goal was to push inland before turning north to capture Vicksburg. The first leg of the journey would be to Port Gibson, about 30 miles south of Vicksburg.

Meanwhile, Major-General William T. Sherman’s Federal corps continued diverting Confederate attention north of Vicksburg. Sherman informed Grant, “At 3 p.m. we will open another cannonade to prolong the diversion, and keep it up till after dark, when we shall drop down to Chickasaw and go on back to camp.”

Lieutenant-General John C. Pemberton, the Confederate commander in Mississippi, received word of Grant’s landing and immediately called on both General Joseph E. Johnston (commanding the Western Department) and President Jefferson Davis to send reinforcements. Davis replied that he was trying to get Johnston to send troops from southern Alabama. Secretary of War James A. Seddon replied that reinforcements should be forthcoming from General P.G.T. Beauregard’s department at Charleston.

Pemberton had a force of about 5,500 Confederates under Major-General John S. Bowen to contest the Federal landing; Bowen was badly outnumbered, but the ridges, ravines, and heavy brush between Bruinsburg and Port Gibson would hamper the advancers more than the defenders.

The Federals and Confederates had been skirmishing at various points since before daybreak. At 6 a.m., Grant’s lead corps under Major-General John A. McClernand began pushing inland. In addition to the natural impediments, the main road split into north and south paths, making the coordination of movements even more difficult. McClernand sent one division up the north (Bruinsburg) road and three up the south (Rodney) road.

Confederate defenders contested both roads, with Brigadier-General Edward D. Tracy commanding the northern approach and Brigadier-General Martin L. Smith commanding the south. Bowen arrived at Port Gibson in mid-morning to assume overall command. The Confederates put up a strong resistance as the Federals advanced along the difficult terrain; Tracy was killed in the fighting. Colonel Isham W. Garrott, who temporarily took Tracy’s command, recalled that Tracy “fell near the front line, pierced through the breast, and instantly died without uttering a word.”

Major-General Peter Osterhaus, commanding the Federal division on the Bruinsburg road, slowly advanced from ridge to ridge in the face of strong Confederate resistance. When Osterhaus could go no further, Grant reinforced him with the vanguard of Major-General James B. McPherson’s corps, which was coming up behind McClernand’s.

A Federal thrust on the Rodney road knocked Smith back to within a half-mile of Port Gibson. Bowen directed Confederate reinforcements from Grand Gulf and Vicksburg to help defend the southern road. Meanwhile, Federal artillery began bombarding the Confederate positions.

McClernand then directed an advance between the two roads, which knocked the Confederates back. Grant arrived to witness the action with Illinois Governor Richard Yates. The three men rode along the line as the Federals cheered them loudly. McClernand, a politician-turned-general, joined with Yates in delivering speeches to the men, calling this “A great day for the northwest!” Grant urged McClernand to continue his advance. The Federals were soon in motion once more, meeting with another line of resistance. Heavy fighting resumed until the Federal numbers finally took their toll, and the Confederates were forced to withdraw once more.

Maj-Gen J.S. Bowen | Image Credit:

Heavily outnumbered, Bowen notified Pemberton that he would “have to retire under cover of night to the other side of Bayou Pierre and await reinforcements.” Before receiving this message, Pemberton, who had recently moved his headquarters from Jackson to Vicksburg, replied that he was “hurrying reinforcements; also ammunition. Endeavor to hold your own until they arrive, though it may be some time, as the distance is great.” When Pemberton saw Bowen’s message, he wrote, “It is very important, as you know, to retain your present position, if possible…”

Pemberton reported to Johnston, “A furious battle has been going on since daylight, just below Port Gibson… General Bowen says he is outnumbered trebly… Enemy can cross all his army from Hard Times to Bruinsburg… I should have large reenforcements… Enemy’s success in passing our batteries has completely changed character of defense.” Johnston replied, “If General Grant’s army lands on this side of the river, the safety of the Mississippi depends on beating it. For that object you should unite your whole force.”

Fighting continued raging back and forth until more reinforcements from McPherson’s corps entered the fray. The Confederates on the Bruinsburg road broke and retreated toward Grand Gulf. The Rodney road defenders broke soon after, falling back through Port Gibson before turning north toward Vicksburg. The Confederates destroyed bridges over Bayou Pierre and Little Bayou Pierre. Bowen directed his men to defend Grand Gulf, which he believed would be the Federals’ next target. Bowen had skillfully delayed the Federal advance for a day despite being greatly outnumbered.

The Federals camped just outside Port Gibson for the night. Grant reported to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck that the Confederates had put up a strong resistance. “My force, however,” Grant wrote, “was too heavy for him, and composed of well-disciplined and hardy men who know no defeat and are not willing to learn what it is.” Grant planned to push northeast toward the Mississippi capital of Jackson, not Vicksburg, the next day. Grant directed Sherman to stop his diversionary operation and join the main army.

The Federals sustained 875 casualties (131 killed, 719 wounded, and 25 missing), and the Confederates lost 832 (68 killed, 380 wounded, and 384 missing). Abandoning Port Gibson gave Grant a permanent foothold on the east side of the Mississippi. Pemberton informed Davis, “Enemy movement threatens Jackson, and, if successful, cuts off Vicksburg and Port Hudson from the east.”


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