During the siege of Vicksburg, Major-General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the Federal Army of the Tennessee, feared that the Confederates would try to break the defenders out. Specifically, he worried that the Confederate “Army of Relief,” led by General Joseph E. Johnston to the east, would try to come to the rescue. Grant therefore directed one of his corps commanders, Major-General William T. Sherman, to lead a force to confront Johnston.
Once negotiations began for Vicksburg’s surrender, Sherman was to get ready to move. “I want Johnston broken up as effectually as possible, and roads destroyed,” Grant told him. “I cannot say where you will find the most effective place to strike; I would say move so as to strike Canton and Jackson, whichever might seem most desirable.” As the surrender of Vicksburg was being finalized, Grant provided more detail to Sherman:
“When we go in (to Vicksburg) I want you to drive Johnston from the Mississippi Central railroad; destroy bridges as far as Grenada with your cavalry, and do the enemy all the harm possible. You can make your own arrangements and have all the troops of my command except one corps… I must have some troops to send to (General Nathaniel) Banks, to use against Port Hudson.”
Grant assigned 40,000 of his 77,000 troops to Sherman’s expedition. The Fifteenth Corps, formerly commanded by Sherman himself, was now led by Major-General Frederick Steele. Sherman also had command of Major-General John G. Parke’s Ninth Corps, and Major-General E.O.C. Ord’s Thirteenth Corps. This new Federal army had orders to “inflict all the punishment you can.”
Sherman was ecstatic with his new assignment. He wrote Grant on the day of Vicksburg’s surrender, “I can hardly contain myself… This is a day of jubilee, a day of rejoicing to the faithful, and I would like to hear the shout of my old and patient troops… I did want rest, but I ask nothing until the Mississippi is ours, and Sunday and July 4 are nothing to Americans until the river of our greatness is free as God made it.”
Meanwhile, Johnston had 32,000 Confederates in four divisions under Major-Generals William W. Loring, John C. Breckinridge, Samuel G. French, and William H.T. Walker. He also had Brigadier-General William H. Jackson’s cavalry division. Johnston learned that Vicksburg had fallen on the 5th, the same day that Sherman began his advance. Johnston ordered his men to abandon their line along the Big Black River and fall back east toward the state capital of Jackson. Federals clashed with Johnston’s rear guard at Birdsong Ferry on the river.
The Federals crossed the Big Black on the 6th and headed for Jackson by way of Bolton. Sherman later recalled that “the weather was fearfully hot, and water scarce. Johnston had marched rapidly, and in retreating had caused cattle, hogs, and sheep, to be driven into the ponds of water, and there shot down; so that we had to haul their dead and stinking carcasses out to use the water.”
On the 7th, Johnston deployed 26,000 of his men in defensive works around Jackson. The retreat back to Jackson, coupled with the spreading news that Vicksburg had fallen, severely dampened morale among the Confederates. The Federals camped on the Champion’s Hill battlefield that night, and one of Sherman’s aides recalled the scene:
“We reached it in the night and bivouacked on the very spot where we had fought. It was a strange happening. Our sensations were very unusual, for we realized that all about us there in the woods were the graves of our buried comrades and the still unburied bones of many of our foes. Save an occasional hooting owl the woods were sad and silent. Before we lay down in the leaves to sleep the glee club of Company B sang that plaintive song, ‘We’re Tenting To-night on the Old Camp Ground.’ Never was a song sung under sadder circumstances. All the night a terrible odor filled the bivouac.
“When daylight came one of the boys came to our company and said, ‘Go over to that hollow, and you will see hell.’ Some of us went. We looked but once. Dante himself never conjured anything so horrible as the reality before us. After the battle the Rebels in their haste had tossed hundreds of their dead into this little ravine and slightly covered them over with earth, but the rains had come, and the earth was washed away, and there stood or lay hundreds of half-decayed corpses. Some were grinning skeletons, some were headless, some armless, some had their clothes torn away, and some were mangled by dogs and wolves. The horror of that spectacle followed us for weeks. That, too, was war!”
Sherman’s Federals advanced toward Clinton on the 8th. Enraged by Confederate efforts to ruin the drinking water, they devastated the countryside as they advanced east. They looted and burned private homes, barns, businesses, cotton gins, crops, and anything else within their reach. Valuables were seized, and anything not considered valuable was destroyed. Civilian protests against such treatment of barbarism went unheeded. Meanwhile, Johnston’s Confederates continued strengthening their positions in anticipation of the enemy advance.
Skirmishing occurred at Clinton, Bolton Depot, and various other places as the Federals pushed east. They approached the defenses outside Jackson on the 9th. Johnston wired President Jefferson Davis that he would do his best to hold the town. Although Sherman had 11 divisions against Johnston’s four, Sherman assessed the Confederate defenses and decided to put them under siege.
The siege began in earnest on the 10th. Parke’s Ninth Corps took the left sector of the siege line, extending to the Pearl River above Jackson. Steele’s Fifteenth Corps held the center between the Clinton and Raymond roads, and Ord’s Thirteenth Corps extended to the Pearl below the town. Sherman also sent raiders north and south to cut the Mississippi Central Railroad. Sherman hoped this would result in capturing Johnston’s entire army.
Johnston, who had hoped for an open fight with Sherman, knew that his army could not survive a protracted siege. He later wrote:
“I described to the President, by telegraph, the weakness of the position, and the defects of the intrenched line; and explained that want of supplies, which we had been unable to collect, made it impossible to stand a siege; and therefore, unless the enemy should attack us, we must at the last moment abandon the place; for we could not make a serious attack without exposing ourselves to destruction. Brisk skirmishing was continued until night.”
President Davis, unaware of the massive force extending around Johnston’s works, wrote to him expressing hope that he would “attack and crush the enemy.”
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