By the morning of May 18, Federal engineers of Major-General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee had built a bridge that enabled the troops to start crossing the Big Black River on their westward march to the vital Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg. On Grant’s right (north), Major-General William T. Sherman’s Fifteenth Corps advanced on Haynes’s Bluff, the formidable defense point north of Vicksburg that the Federals had been trying to capture since the campaign began.
Lieutenant-General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Confederate Army of Mississippi in Vicksburg, positioned his troops in defenses that ringed the city. Being an engineer, Pemberton was sure to make these defenses as impregnable as possible. But to do this, he could no longer hold the defenses at Haynes’s Bluff. Pemberton therefore abandoned this strong position, and Sherman seized control around 10 a.m. Sherman quickly linked with the Federal gunboats on the Yazoo River to open a supply line for the army. The troops would no longer need to live off the land.
Meanwhile, Major-General James B. McPherson’s Seventeenth Corps advanced on Vicksburg from the east, and Major-General John A. McClernand’s Thirteenth Corps advanced from the southeast. General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Western Department, still had about 20,000 troops in northeastern Mississippi. To ensure that they could not join forces with Pemberton, Grant placed the bulk of his forces in the northeast and eastern sectors.
Two of Pemberton’s divisions entered Vicksburg after their defeat at Champion’s Hill and the Big Black Bridge; these were led by Major-Generals Carter L. Stevenson and John S. Bowen. Once in Vicksburg, they joined with the two divisions defending the city under Major-Generals John H. Forney and Martin L. Smith. Entrenchments and breastworks surrounded Vicksburg, with both flanks anchored on the Mississippi River. The defenses were covered by 102 guns.
Pemberton received a message from Johnston urging him to evacuate Vicksburg and move northeast to join forces with him. Pemberton called a council of war, where he shared Johnston’s message with his division commanders and asked for advice on “the question of practicality.” President Jefferson Davis had ordered Pemberton to hold Vicksburg at all costs, but Grant was now closing in on three sides. Federal gunboats covered the fourth side, and they began bombarding the city that day.
As the generals discussed their situation, they could hear enemy guns booming northeast of town. This indicated that the Federals now blocked their only viable escape route. Pemberton replied to Johnston:
“On the receipt of your communication, I immediately assembled a council of war of the general officers of this command… The opinion was unanimously expressed that it was impossible to withdraw the army from this position with such morale and material as to be of further use to the Confederacy. While the council of war was assembled, the guns of the enemy opened on the works… I have decided to hold Vicksburg as long as possible, with the firm hope that the Government may yet be able to assist me in keeping this obstruction to the enemy’s free navigation of the Mississippi River. I still conceive it to be the most important point in the Confederacy.”
Grant, having destroyed any hope Pemberton had to join forces with Johnston, wanted to attack the Vicksburg defenses before Johnston was reinforced enough to try breaking Pemberton out. As Federal troops surrounded the defense perimeter, an officer on McPherson’s staff described what he saw:
“A long line of high, rugged, irregular bluffs, clearly cut against the sky, crowned with cannon which peered ominously from embrasures to the right and left as far as the eye could see. Lines of heavy rifle-pits, surmounted with head logs, ran along the bluffs, connecting fort with fort, and filled with veteran infantry… The approaches to this position were frightful–enough to appal the stoutest heart.”
Even so, Grant planned to attack. His men were filled with confidence after marching through Mississippi and defeating enemy forces with impunity ever since the beginning of May. He also believed the Confederates to be demoralized and ripe for capture.
Grant rode up to Haynes’s Bluff on the morning of the 19th and met with Sherman. By this time, Federal engineers had bridged the Yazoo River near Chickasaw Bayou, where Sherman’s troops had been defeated in December. Supplies were quickly on their way to the troops in front of Vicksburg. As Grant observed, Sherman told him, “Until this moment, I never thought your expedition a success. I never could see the end clearly, until now. But this is a campaign; this is a success if we never take the town.”
Grant issued orders for a “general charge of all the corps along the whole line” at 2 p.m. that day. The idea was for a coordinated assault, but Sherman’s corps was closer to the enemy than the other two. McPherson’s corps was about 1,000 yards from the Confederate center, while McClernand’s corps on the left was slowed by dense underbrush and deep ravines. Thus, Grant’s plan for a three-corps assault began with just Sherman attacking.
Sherman’s troops approached Stockade Redan and realized that the defenses could not be reached without a ladder. Already exhausted from marching across the uneven terrain under fire, the Federals were repulsed. McPherson and McClernand were never able to fully commit their corps to the attack, and those who managed to get close to the defenses were quickly halted by heavy fire. Grant suspended the attack, and the Federals pinned down at the foot of the enemy works fell back under cover of darkness.
The Federals sustained 942 casualties and lost five stands of colors. The Confederates lost less than 200 men. The Confederate defenses proved to be the strongest works of the war to date, giving the defenders a nearly insurmountable advantage over attackers. Sherman wrote his wife, “This is a death struggle, and will be terrible.”
This was the first time during the campaign that Grant’s army had failed to achieve an objective. Grant, refusing to believe that the defenses could not be taken, planned to strike again before Johnston could rescue Pemberton. Johnston received Pemberton’s message that he was going to hold Vicksburg and responded, “I am trying to gather a force which may attempt to relieve you. Hold out.”
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