Major-General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federal Army of the Tennessee had defeated a Confederate force guarding Port Gibson, on the Mississippi River below the stronghold of Vicksburg. Grant directed his lead corps, commanded by Major-General John A. McClernand, to advance at dawn on May 2 to renew the contest. Finding Port Gibson empty, the Federals looted the town, destroyed homes, and confiscated supplies. During their halt, Major-General James McPherson’s corps took up the pursuit.
Grant directed his chief engineer, Lieutenant-Colonel James H. Wilson, to build a bridge over the south fork of Bayou Pierre. The work was completed by the afternoon of the 2nd. The Federals crossed and the vanguard reached Grindstone Ford, eight miles northeast, where the bridge had been destroyed there as well. It was now becoming clear to the Confederate command that Grant was targeting an area between the state capital of Jackson and Vicksburg, not Vicksburg itself.
Lieutenant-General John C. Pemberton, overall Confederate commander in Mississippi, received word that his southern force under Major-General John S. Bowen had abandoned Port Gibson. Pemberton responded by advising Governor John J. Pettus to remove the state archives from Jackson. He then cabled President Jefferson Davis, “I think Port Hudson and Grand Gulf should be evacuated, and the whole force concentrated for defense of Vicksburg and Jackson.”
General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Western Theater, addressed Pemberton’s reluctance to abandon Jackson or Vicksburg by advising, “Success will give you back what was abandoned to win it.” Johnston forwarded Pemberton’s request for mass reinforcements to Richmond but added a warning: “They cannot be sent from here without giving up Tennessee.”
After Johnston advised Pemberton to “unite your whole force,” Pemberton directed Major-General Franklin Gardner, commanding the Confederate garrison at Port Hudson, Louisiana, to leave a token force there and come north with the rest of his men to join in defending Jackson. Pemberton also called in troops from Grenada and Meridian in Mississippi.
Meanwhile, the Federals moved through Port Gibson and crossed parts of Bayou Pierre on the 2nd. Wilson repaired the bridge over Grindstone Ford so the advance could continue. Meanwhile, Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s Mississippi River Squadron continued ferrying troops across the Mississippi, with gunboats covering their landing.
Bowen’s Confederates fell back to Grand Gulf, where they were joined by Major-General William W. Loring. Bowen explained the situation and offered to turn over army command to Loring. Although he outranked Bowen, Loring declined. Word soon arrived that the Federals were crossing Bayou Pierre. Pemberton directed Bowen to destroy anything useful to the enemy, abandon Grand Gulf, and withdraw across the Big Black River. Pemberton informed President Davis that the Confederates had been forced to withdraw because of “subsistence and proximity to base, and the necessity of supporting Vicksburg.”
The Confederates left five guns and moved north just as four of the gunboats from Porter’s Federal squadron approached to shell their defenses again. When Porter saw the place empty, he reported to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “… it is with great pleasure that I report that the Navy holds the door to Vicksburg.”
By day’s end, the Federals were deep behind the Confederates clinging to Grand Gulf, north of Port Gibson. Pemberton had rushed reinforcements to Bowen, giving him 9,000 men. However, the rest of McPherson’s corps landed to join McClernand’s corps, giving Grant about 30,000 Federals. More would come soon because Major-General William T. Sherman’s corps was on its way.
Grant wrote to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “Our victory has been most complete, and the enemy thoroughly demoralized.” Bowen’s defense effort had been “a very bold one and well carried out. My force, however, was too heavy for his, and composed of well-disciplined and hardy men who know no defeat and are not willing to learn what it is.”
The next morning, McPherson’s Federals led the advance to the Big Black River, with McClernand in support. Grant stopped at Grand Gulf, where he sent another jubilant message to Halleck:
“This army is in the finest health and spirits. Since leaving Milliken’s Bend they have marched as much by night as by day, through mud and rain, without tents or much other baggage, and on irregular rations, without a complaint, and with less straggling than I have ever before witnessed… if all promises as favorable hereafter as it does now, not stop until Vicksburg is in our possession.”
Grant had initially planned to advance on Vicksburg from the south, but the harsh terrain gave defenders a major advantage over attackers. Also, Confederates in Vicksburg could be supplied by the railroad leading to Jackson. So Grant planned instead to move east, cut the railroad between Vicksburg and Jackson at Edwards Station, and then turn to take Vicksburg to the west.
But part of the plan had originally been for Grant to cooperate with Major-General Nathaniel P. Banks, whose Army of the Gulf had been assigned to capture the Confederate stronghold of Port Hudson, on the west bank of the Mississippi. Grant had planned to send McClernand’s corps to reinforce Banks once Grand Gulf was secured, and then once Port Hudson was captured, Banks would come up to reinforce Grant in capturing Vicksburg.
This plan changed when Grant received word that Banks’s Federals were still on the Red River and could not get to Port Hudson until May 10. According to Grant, “The news from Banks forced upon me a different plan of campaign from the one intended. To wait for his co-operation would have detained me at least a month… I therefore determined to move independently of Banks, cut loose from my base, destroy the rebel force in rear of Vicksburg and invest or capture the city.”
Grant notified the commander of the Federal supply base at Milliken’s Bend, “Everything depends upon the promptitude with which our supplies are forwarded.” Grant also wrote to Sherman, whose corps was coming down from north of Vicksburg, to bring five days’ rations, adding, “It is unnecessary for me to remind you of the overwhelming importance of celerity in your movements. The enemy is badly beaten, greatly demoralized, and exhausted of ammunition. The road to Vicksburg is open. All we want now are men, ammunition and hard bread. We can subsist our horses on the country and obtain considerable supplies for our troops.”
Grant elaborated on the subject of supplies in a message to Halleck: “The country will supply all the forage required for anything like an active campaign, and the necessary fresh beef. Other supplies will have to be drawn from Milliken’s Bend. This is a long and precarious route, but I have every confidence in succeeding in doing it.”
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