June 18, 1863 – Major General Ulysses S. Grant continued his relentless siege, and he also finally removed one of his troublesome commanders.
The tedium of the ongoing siege gave Grant time to address a longstanding problem with one of his commanders, Major General John A. McClernand of XIII Corps. McClernand was a former politician who had gained his position through political connections rather than military experience. Grant had long sought to remove McClernand but refrained due to his popularity in the North and his ability to get Democratic support for the war.
In mid-June, Major General Francis P. Blair, Jr., commanding a division in Major General William T. Sherman’s XV Corps, discovered an article in the Memphis Evening Bulletin that included a congratulatory order issued by McClernand to his men for their valiant efforts in the Second Battle of Vicksburg on May 22. The order itself was not improper, but McClernand then went further:
“How and why the general assault failed, it would be useless now to explain. The Thirteenth army corps, acknowledging the good intentions of all, would scorn indulgence in weak regrets and idle criminations. According justice to all, it would only defend itself. If while the enemy was massing to crush it, assistance was asked for a diversion at other points or by reinforcement, it only asked what, in one case, Maj. Gen. Grant had specifically and peremptorily ordered, namely, simultaneous and persistent attacks all along our lines, until the enemy’s outer works should be carried: and what in the other by massing a strong force in time upon a weakened point, would have probably insured success.”
This implied that the defeat had been caused by Grant and his other two corps commanders failing to do enough to support McClernand’s men. McClernand compounded his poor judgment by sending this order to newspapers politically friendly to him, without first sending it through the commanding officer per army regulations. Thus, neither Grant nor anyone else outside McClernand’s corps knew about the order until Blair found it two weeks later.
Sherman sent the article to Grant, calling it an outrage to the rest of the army and “an effusion of vain-glory and hypocrisy.” In fact, it was so offensive that Sherman, who had served under McClernand in the Fort Hindman campaign, initially believed that he had neither written it, “Nor can I believe General McClernand ever published such an order officially to his corps. I know too well that the brave and intelligent soldiers and officers who compose that corps will not be humbugged by such stuff.”
Sherman added that the order, if real, was not intended for the troops, but rather to convince the voters back home that McClernand was “the sagacious leader and bold hero he so complacently paints himself.” Major General James B. McPherson, commanding XVII Corps, called the order an effort “to impress the public mind with the magnificent strategy, superior tactics and brilliant deeds” of McClernand.
Grant was reminded of the War Department directive “which actually forbids the publication of all official letters and reports, and requires the name of the writer to be laid before the President of the United States for dismissal.” He sent the newspaper article to McClernand with a message:
“Inclosed I send you what purports to be your congratulatory address to the Thirteenth Army Corps. I would respectfully ask if it is a true copy. If it is not a correct copy, furnish me one by bearer, as required both by regulations and existing orders of the Department.”
McClernand replied, “The newspaper slip is a correct copy of my congratulatory order, No 72. I am prepared to maintain its statements. I regret that my adjutant did not send you a copy promptly, as he ought, and I thought he had.” Noting that all of McClernand’s orders had gone through the proper channels without incident except this one, Grant immediately issued a directive:
“Major General John A. McClernand is hereby relieved of command of the Thirteenth Army Corps. He will proceed to any point he may select in the state of Illinois and report by letter to Headquarters of the Army for orders.”
Grant assigned Lieutenant Colonel James H. Wilson, the army’s chief engineer who happened to despise McClernand, to deliver the order. Wilson arrived at McClernand’s headquarters at 3 a.m. and woke the general. When he finally read the message, McClernand, knowing that Wilson hated him, invoked a pun: “Well, sir, I am relieved. By God, sir, we are both relieved!”
McClernand quickly wrote a reply: “Having been appointed by the President to command of that corps, under a definite act of Congress, I might justly challenge your authority in the premises, but forbear to do so at present.” Grant did not acknowledge this veiled threat, but he did address McClernand’s official report on the Battle of Vicksburg, which he submitted just before being relieved:
“This report contains so many inaccuracies that to correct it, to make it a fair report to be handed down as historical, would require the rewriting of most of it. It is pretentious and egotistical, as is sufficiently shown by my own and all other reports accompanying.”
Grant replaced McClernand with Major General E.O.C. Ord, a Regular army officer. McClernand spent the rest of the year lobbying General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and President Abraham Lincoln for reinstatement. Lincoln finally returned him to command of XIII Corps in early 1864, after the corps had been transferred to the Department of the Gulf.
Meanwhile, the siege inexorably continued. Federals spent two days digging a tunnel under a Confederate redan north of the road to Jackson. The tunnel was 45 feet long and included three 15-foot passageways. Gunpowder was packed at the end of each passageway, totaling 2,200 pounds, with the intent to blow a hole in the Confederate defenses. The gunpowder was detonated on the 25th. The explosion created a large crater in the ground, but the Confederates had expected the blast and pulled back. They easily repelled the ensuing Federal charge.
Federal artillery on land and on the Mississippi continued bombarding Vicksburg around the clock, and Federal troops inched closer to the Confederate defenses each day. Vicksburg residents and Confederate troops faced starvation as the Federals cut all supply lines and guarded all approaches to and from the city. Grant wrote Sherman about rumors from the Confederate lines:
“Strong faith is expressed by some in (General Joseph E.) Johnston’s coming to their relief. (They) cannot believe they have been so wicked as for Providence to allow the loss of their stronghold of Vicksburg. Their principal faith seems to be in Providence and Joe Johnston.”
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 295; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 414, 421-22, 424; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 313, 316; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 136-37, 147-49; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 368; Simon, John Y., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 456-57