Major-General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the Federal Army of the Tennessee, had been repulsed when he sent his troops up against the strong defenses surrounding the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, on the Mississippi River. But since Vicksburg was the main object of the entire Mississippi campaign, Grant resolved to attack again.
Grant conferred with his corps commanders (Major-Generals William T. Sherman, James B. McPherson, and John A. McClernand) on the morning of May 20 to determine why they could not break through the enemy lines the previous day. They all agreed that the uneven terrain had forced them to attack along the roads leading into Vicksburg, where the Confederates were strongest. Grant ordered a careful reconnaissance of the enemy positions before attacking again. He told his commanders to spend the next two days preparing “for a renewed assault on the 22d, simultaneously, at 10 a.m.” Unlike the disjointed attack of the 19th, the upcoming assault was to be closely coordinated.
Meanwhile, Federal engineers were hard at work building a supply line that would link shipping on the Yazoo River north of Vicksburg to the army. As Grant rode among the troops, they began chanting, “Hardtack!”, which prompted Grant to assure them that the supply line would soon be completed. The men answered with loud cheers, and by the night of the 21st, they were back on full rations.
On the Confederate side, Lieutenant-General John C. Pemberton, whose Army of Mississippi was now trapped in Vicksburg, reported to his superior, General Joseph E. Johnston, on the 20th: “The enemy assaulted our intrenched lines yesterday at two points, centre and left, and was repulsed with heavy loss. Our loss small… At present, our main necessity is musket-caps. Can you not send them to me by hands of couriers and citizens? An army will be necessary to relieve Vicksburg, and that quickly. Will it not be sent?”
Pemberton sent Johnston another message the next day. “The enemy kept up incessant sharp-shooting all yesterday, on the left and centre, and picked off our officers and men whenever they showed themselves,” Pemberton wrote. He added, “The great question is ammunition. The men credit, and are encouraged by, a report that you are near with a strong force. They are fighting in good spirits, and their organization is complete.”
These messages indicated that Pemberton’s supply lines had been cut, making it only a matter of time before his army was doomed if Johnston did not rescue him or he did not break through the Federal lines. The Confederates in Vicksburg faced a continuous artillery bombardment, as well as the danger of being killed by sharpshooters waiting for anyone to rise above the breastworks. Pemberton also reported on the 21st, “Incessant mortar-firing from the river, and last night three gunboats engaged our lower batteries.”
Johnston soon assembled about 23,000 troops in northern Mississippi, but that was not enough to confront Grant’s army, which was growing as Grant pulled resources from various posts in northern Mississippi and western Tennessee. Johnston tried to pull the Confederates out of Port Hudson on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi, but they were being surrounded by the Federal Army of the Gulf and unable to move.
More bad news for the Confederates came when a Federal gunboat flotilla under Commander James Grimes left Haynes’s Bluff and forced the abandonment of Yazoo City. The Federals destroyed a Confederate navy yard, along with several tooling shops and boats. They also destroyed three warships under construction, including what Grimes described as “a monster, 310 feet long and 70 beam… she would have given us much trouble.” Outside Vicksburg, Grant’s Federals continued entrenching around the city in preparation for their scheduled attack.
The Federals opened a massive artillery barrage at 6 a.m. on the 22nd, as 200 guns on land joined 100 naval guns on the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers. Confederate return fire scored several hits on the river fleet, as a master’s mate on Rear-Admiral David D. Porter’s flagship wrote, “It is useless to try to remember the different times the vessels were hit.” But none of the gunboats were seriously damaged.
The corps commanders had set their watches to match the time on Grant’s, and when they ordered their men forward at 10 a.m., this became the first combat assault ever coordinated by synchronized watches. This was done because the signal guns could not be heard above the artillery barrage. Spread across a three-mile front, the men struggled through the dense brush and deep ravines with orders not to fire until they entered the Confederate works. Troops from McPherson’s corps advanced dragging ladders that could be used to scale the enemy works.
When the Federals came within range, Confederate artillerists opened fire with every gun they had, pouring grapeshot and canister into their lines. Then the Confederate infantry, “rising in the trenches, poured into their ranks volley after volley with so deadly an effect that, leaving the ground literally covered in some places with their dead and wounded, they precipitately retreated.”
The Federal charge devolved into mass confusion like the assault of the 19th. A Federal contingent captured a fort but was forced to relinquish it after withstanding a bayonet charge; Confederate Brigadier-General Stephen D. Lee noted, “A more daring feat has not been performed during the war.” In another sector of the line, the Federals withstood what an officer called “the most murderous fire I ever saw.” Men of Sherman’s corps temporarily seized one area of trenches but were quickly repelled.
Grant was about to call off the assault when he received a message from McClernand insisting that his men could break through the Railroad Redoubt with another charge if McPherson and Sherman joined them as a diversion. According to Grant, “I occupied a position from which I believed I could see as well as he what took place in his front, and I did not see the success he reported. But his request for reinforcements being repeated I could not ignore it,” so he ordered another attack around 3 p.m.
Just as Grant feared, the assault failed. Sherman watched the carnage and told an aide, “This is murder. Order those troops back.” The Federal survivors pulled back all along the line. This was the bloodiest engagement of Grant’s campaign. He sustained 3,199 casualties (502 killed, 2,550 wounded, and 147 missing), while the Confederates lost less than 500 men. Sherman reported to Grant, “We have had a hard day’s work, and all are exhausted.”
“That night there were stirring times at Grant’s headquarters,” Grant’s staff engineer recalled, as “McClernand was spoken of in no complimentary terms.” Grant’s chief of staff, Lieutenant-Colonel John A. Rawlins, furiously declared that history should “charge the loss of a thousand lives to that… McClernand.” A brigade commander bitterly stated, “Probably not less than two thousand men were killed and wounded as a result of a despatch which seemed to have no foundation in fact.”
Grant later expressed regret for ordering the second attack, which “only served to increase our casualties without giving any benefit.” McClernand’s exaggerated claims of success added more tension to the already tense relationship he had with Grant.
For his part, McClernand issued a “congratulatory order,” which, being a former politician, was highly political in nature. McClernand urged his men to emulate the troops who sacrificed at Bunker Hill and declared, “Shall not our flag float over Vicksburg? Shall not the great Father of Waters be opened to lawful commerce? One thinks the emphatic response to one and all of these is, ‘It shall be so.” McClernand added:
“How and why the general assault failed, it would be useless now to explain… (McClernand’s corps) only asked what in one case Major-General Grant had specifically and peremptorily ordered, namely, simultaneous and persistent attack all along our lines… and what, in the other, by massing a strong force in time upon a weakened point, would have probably assured success.”
This implied that the attack failed because the men in the other two corps had failed to do their jobs. This statement, coupled with the fact that McClernand had this order published in the press, would have lasting repercussions in the coming weeks.
Despite this setback, Grant’s Federals still had a firm grip on Vicksburg. Grant had resisted the idea of besieging the city because, as one of his officers stated, “Our own troops, buoyant with success, were eager for an assault and would not work well if the slow progress of a siege were undertaken.” But now Grant finally realized that no attacking force could penetrate such strong defenses, and starving the enemy into submission was the only way to win. Grant notified General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck:
“Vicksburg is now completely invested. I have possession of Haynes’ Bluff and the Yazoo; consequently have supplies. Today an attempt was made to carry the City by assault, but was not entirely successful. We hold possession, however, of two of the enemy’s forts and have skirmishers close under all of them. The nature of the ground about Vicksburg is such that it can only be taken by a siege. It is entirely safe to us in time, I would say one week if the enemy do not send a large army upon our rear.”
Grant informed Admiral Porter, “I now find the position of the enemy so strong that I shall be compelled to regularly besiege the city.” He announced to his officers that night, “We’ll have to dig our way in.”
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