Major-General William T. Sherman’s 40,000-man Federal army had chased Confederates under General Joseph E. Johnston east to the Mississippi capital of Jackson after the fall of Vicksburg. Sherman encircled the city on three sides, with the Pearl River on the fourth, and put Johnston under siege. The Federals began a bombardment on July 12, with heavy guns shelling the Confederate defenses from multiple directions.
Johnston’s only hope was for Sherman to cripple himself by attacking Johnston’s strong defenses, thereby giving the Confederates a chance to escape. Unlike the commanders who had recently lost their armies at Vicksburg and Port Hudson, Johnston was determined to save his army, even if it meant sacrificing Jackson. He wrote President Jefferson Davis, “If the enemy will not attack, we must, or at the last moment withdraw. We cannot attack seriously without risking the army.”
Brigadier-General Jacob G. Lauman’s Federal division of the Thirteenth Corps reconnoitered the woods between the railroad and the Pearl River, on Johnston’s extreme left. During this mission, one of Lauman’s brigades exceeded orders and charged Major-General John C. Breckinridge’s Confederate earthworks. The attack failed miserably, as the Federals lost nearly 500 of 880 men and three regimental colors.
“I am cut all to pieces,” Lauman complained. Major-General E.O.C. Ord, commanding the Thirteenth Corps, claimed that Lauman’s action had taken place “without orders, and directly in violation of the instructions as to the position he was to take.” Ord received permission from Sherman to relieve him of command.
Over the next few days, the Federals inched closer to surrounding the defenses. Johnston notified Davis that Federal cannon now “reached all parts of the town, showing the weakness of the position, and its untenableness against a powerful artillery… If the position and works were not bad, want of stores, which could not be collected, would make it impossible to stand a siege.”
Sherman notified his superior, Major-General Ulysses S. Grant at Vicksburg, “I think we are doing well out here, but won’t brag till Johnston clears out and stops shooting his big rifle guns at us. If he moves across Pearl River and makes good speed, I will let him go.”
By the 14th, Federal commanders had not yet requested a truce to collect the dead from the field after Lauman’s ill-fated attack, and the bodies had been rotting in the sweltering heat for two days. Breckinridge told Johnston of the stench in front of his trenches, leading Johnston to offer Sherman a ceasefire so the Federals could collect the dead. Sherman agreed. This temporarily halted the almost constant exchange of artillery that had taken place since the siege began.
Once hostilities resumed, Johnston dispatched his cavalry division under Brigadier-General William H. Jackson to disrupt the Federal supply line, which included intercepting a large ammunition train coming from Vicksburg. But Jackson could not capture the train before it reached its destination, and the Federals now had enough ordnance to press the siege indefinitely.
Johnston hoped to lure Sherman into a frontal assault, but Sherman would not take the bait. Johnston informed Davis on the 15th, “The enemy is evidently making a siege which we cannot resist. It would be madness to attack him. In the beginning it might have been done, but I thought then that want of water would compel him to attack us. The remainder of the army under Grant at Vicksburg is beyond doubt on its way to this place.”
Grant was not on his way, but he could have easily reinforced Sherman if needed. Johnston had no reinforcements to draw from, and a protracted siege would only result in losing his entire army. Worse, Johnston learned on the 16th that his cavalry expedition to capture Sherman’s supply train had failed, resulting in the Federals having enough ammunition to train 200 guns on the Confederates.
Johnston wrote Davis, “The enemy being strongly reinforced, and able when he pleases to cut us off, I shall abandon this place, which is impossible for us to hold.” He sent his sick and wounded out of town to the east before evacuating the main army that night. The Confederates fell back across the Pearl River to Brandon. They left behind three guns, some 1,400 small arms, and over 20,000 rounds of artillery because they did not repair the railroad bridge needed to transport them. Large amounts of railroad stock were also abandoned.
Some Federals noted what they thought were sounds of a Confederate evacuation on the morning of the 17th. Sherman did not take these reports seriously and was therefore surprised when he received confirmation that the defenses had indeed been abandoned. Sherman dispatched a division to pursue the Confederates, but Johnston withdrew farther east to Morton. The distance and the blistering heat halted the Federal pursuit. Sherman later wrote, “General Johnston had carried his army safely off, and pursuit in that hot weather would have been fatal to my command.”
Sherman lost 1,112 Federals in the partial siege of Jackson (129 killed, 752 wounded, and 231 missing). Johnston lost 600 (71 killed, 504 wounded, and 25 missing). During this time, the Federals had devastated the region between Vicksburg and Jackson. Johnston’s abandonment of the region only made matters worse, as the railroads in Mississippi were crippled for years to come. A Confederate soldier described the scene:
“I thought the condition of northern Mississippi and the country around my own home in Memphis deplorable. There robberies were committed, houses were burned, and occasionally a helpless man or woman was murdered… Women have been robbed of their jewelry and wearing apparel… ear-rings have been torn from their ears, and rings from bleeding fingers… robbery and murder are surely bad enough, but worse than all this, women have been subjected to enormities worse than death… Barns and all descriptions of farm-houses have been burned. All supplies, bacon and flour, are seized for the use of the invading army, and the wretched inhabitants left to starve… The worst slaves are selected to insult, taunt, and revile their masters, and the wives and daughters of their masters.”
The Federals began a second occupation of Jackson and set about looting and pillaging what was left, despite Sherman assigning a division to prevent such destruction. Sherman notified Grant on the 23rd, “Jackson cannot again become a place for the assemblage of men and material with which to threaten the Mississippi river,” and soldiers nicknamed the town “Chimneyville.” The Federals that reached Brandon burned that town as well before Sherman led his force back to Vicksburg on the 25th. Johnston saved his army, but central Mississippi now lay in ruins.
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