The bulk of Major-General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federal Army of the Tennessee had crossed the Mississippi River and was now below the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, Mississippi. The Federal vanguard, consisting of Major-General James B. McPherson’s Seventeenth Corps, crossed the Big Black River on the morning of May 4. Vicksburg lay about 25 miles straight north, but the ground between the two points was filled with ravines and other impediments that made it extremely difficult for an army to cross. So Grant decided to instead move northeast to cut the railroad link between Vicksburg and the state capital of Jackson.
The railroad that supplied Vicksburg went through Jackson, and if the Federals could cut the line, Vicksburg could be starved into submission. It was also important to secure Jackson if possible because it was the most logical gathering and launching point for Confederate reinforcements if they were to be sent to drive off the Federals and save Vicksburg from capture.
Before Grant could get moving in earnest, he needed his trailing corps, commanded by Major-General William T. Sherman, to finish crossing the Mississippi and come up to join the main body. Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana, observing Grant’s campaign on behalf of the War Department, reported Grant’s plan to Washington: “As soon as Sherman comes up and the rations on the way arrive, he will disregard his base and depend on the country for meat and even for bread. Beef cattle and corn are both abundant everywhere.”
As he prepared to move, Grant tried to deceive the enemy by sending a small force toward Warrenton, on the Mississippi, while preparing to lead his main force to Edwards Station. Grant faced three primary opposing forces, all under overall command of Lieutenant-General John C. Pemberton:
- About 25,000 Confederates in and around Vicksburg
- A small force at Jackson that was said to be reinforcing
- Some 10,000 Confederates at Port Hudson, on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi
Pemberton arranged his Vicksburg forces on a line consisting of:
- Major-General Carter L. Stevenson’s Confederates on the right (or north, in Vicksburg)
- Major-General William W. Loring’s Confederates in the center (northeast)
- Major-General John S. Bowen’s Confederates on the left
- Detached forces held the bluffs north of Vicksburg and the city’s riverfront
On the 6th, Sherman arrived at Grand Gulf as his corps reached Hard Times on the Mississippi’s west bank. Sherman directed the crossing that night and into the next day. Rations coming into Grand Gulf were distributed to the troops as Grant issued orders to begin advancing northeast on the 7th. Patrols were assigned to guard the left (Vicksburg-facing) flank and rear. Major-General John A. McClernand’s Thirteenth Corps made up the left column up the Big Black River Valley, and McPherson’s corps made up the right, on a path to Raymond. Sherman’s corps would move up when ready and take the center of the advance.
Meanwhile, Pemberton wired Secretary of War James A. Seddon explaining that he did not receive enough reinforcements to stop the Federals. Pemberton wrote, “The stake is a great one; I can see nothing so important.” President Jefferson Davis wrote the next day, approving the withdrawal from Grand Gulf while stating, “Am anxiously expecting further information of your active operations… To hold both Vicksburg and Port Hudson is necessary to our connection with Trans-Mississippi. You may expect whatever it is in my power to do for your aid.”
This prompted Pemberton to countermand his order for Major-General Franklin Gardner to lead the bulk of his force from Port Hudson to help defend Jackson. Pemberton instead directed Gardner to stay at Port Hudson “and hold it to the last. President says both places (Port Hudson and Vicksburg) must be held.” However, Pemberton received conflicting instructions from General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Western Department, who urged him to come out of his defenses and fight Grant, even if it meant losing Vicksburg.
By the morning of the 7th, Grant’s army had swelled to 44,000 men. Grant commended his troops for their victory on May 1, a battle which added to “the long list of those previously won by your valor and endurance.” Grant declared, “A few days’ continuance of the same zeal and constancy will secure to this army the crowning victory over the rebellion… A grateful country will rejoice at our success, and history will record it with immortal honor.”
Sherman was concerned that the supply line running from Grand Gulf would not be adequate to sustain the army, and he wrote Grant, “Stop all troops till your army is partially supplied with wagons, and then act as quickly as possible, for this road will be jammed as sure as life if you attempt to supply 50,000 men (on) one single road.” Grant replied:
“I do not calculate upon the possibility of supplying the army with full rations from Grand Gulf. I know it will be impossible without constructing additional roads. What I do expect, however, is to get up what rations of hard bread, coffee and salt we can and make the country furnish the balance… A delay would give the enemy time to re-enforce and fortify.”
The Federals resumed their advance that morning, with McPherson’s Federals marching northeast on the road to Jackson. McClernand’s corps moved on a parallel road, and they both united at Rocky Springs, 10 miles from the Big Black River, that night. Sherman’s corps trailed behind in the center. As the Federals advanced, they looted houses, farms, and plantations, leaving desolation in their wake.
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