National Park Service black bar with arrowhead logo
NPS History E-Library
 
 

Civil War Series

The Campaign for Vicksburg

   

As the light of dawn streaked through the tangled woodland, Union commanders looked upon the surrounding landscape in astonishment. All around they saw a maze of thick canebrakes, crisscrossing ravines, steep valleys, and broad and narrow ridges complicating any plans of attack.

General McClernand arrived at dawn and was briefed on the situation. He learned that a road veering northwest from the Shaifer house ultimately led to the Bruinsburg road. A local black man warned McClernand that Confederate troops (Tracy's Alabamians) were approaching from that direction. McClernand sent Peter Osterhaus's division to meet this threat on the Union left flank.

Meanwhile, Tracy got an urgent message to send a regiment and a section of artillery to reinforce the hard-pressed Green on the Rodney road. At this point, the Rebels had only 2,500 men present on the field; cooperation between Tracy's and Green's widely separated wings was essential but difficult because of the terrain.

Help was on the way. William Baldwin rushed his brigade forward to the fight. The Missouri brigade, led by able Colonel Francis Cockrell, waited impatiently at Grand Gulf. Bowen had been unwilling to gamble that Grant had given up the idea of crossing at Grand Gulf. Once he arrived on the battlefield about 7:30 A.M., Bowen recognized his error. A courier raced to Grand Gulf with orders for the Missourians to hurry to Port Gibson.

BRIGADIER GENERAL PETER J. OSTERHAUS. (NA)

While the Confederates waited for reinforcements, Osterhaus pressured Tracy's wing, using his superiority in numbers to great effect. The timely arrival of another Alabama regiment from Vicksburg helped, but suddenly the Rebels suffered a crisis in leadership. Tracy fell dead from a Union sharpshooter's bullet. Colonel Isham Garrott assumed command but had no idea of Tracy's battle plan. Garrott asked for instructions from Green and received a vague reply to maintain his position "at all hazards."

Osterhaus continued to extend his line in both directions, but Garrott's men, thanks to their tenacity and geographical factors, thwarted Yankee attacks. Finally, Osterhaus decided on a thrust at the Confederate right while massing for an all-out assault on Garrott's center. Then Osterhaus hesitated and waited until Grant, who had arrived at the front, sent a brigade from Logan's division.


(click on image for a PDF version)
BATTLE OF PORT GIBSON, MAY 1, 1863, 8:15 A.M. TO 10 A.M.
The action opens as John McClernand's corps bumps into Martin Green's Confederates posted around Magnolia Church. Peter Osterhaus's division moves to meet Confederates commanded by Edward Tracy. Though Tracy is soon killed, his successor, Colonel Isham Garrott, holds the troops together and stops Osterhaus until late in the afternoon. A. P. Hovey's and Eugene Carr's divisions struggle with Green's Rebels around Magnolia Church. After much bloody fighting, the outnumbered Green falls back to Centers Creek.

On the Rodney road, General Green's small force had been routed by Carr's and A. P. Hovey's divisions. Two cannon from the Virginia Boutetort Artillery had been lost (the Virginia artillerymen were the only participants from that state in the Vicksburg campaign) as well as a caisson and 200 prisoners. Although the terrain had aided Green's stand near the Magnolia Church ridge, he had been heavily outnumbered. Bowen sent Green's shattered command to the right wing to help Garrott.

General Baldwin's brigade arrived from a forced march through a chaotic Port Gibson to take up the fight for the Confederates on the Rodney road. Cockrell's Missourians made a quick march from Grand Gulf and waited in reserve on Baldwin's wing. Bowen now called in all his troops guarding the Bayou Pierre and Big Black waterways.

On the Bruinsburg road, Osterhaus renewed his attacks on Garrott, gradually caving in the Rebel right flank. At 5 P M Green, senior commander on the scene received a message from Bowen to hold out until sunset. If Green could not take the offensive by then, he could retreat. Green, aware the day was lost, thought sunset was close enough and ordered a withdrawal.

The 6th Missouri Confederate regiment, isolated from the other commands on the Bruinsburg road, narrowly escaped being captured during the retreat. By faking an attack, most of the Missourians managed to escape, although the 49th Indiana recognized the ruse in time to bag 46 prisoners. The rest of Green's command retreated across Bayou Pierre toward Grand Gulf.


(click on image for a PDF version)
BATTLE OF PORT GIBSON, MAY 1, 1863, 11 A.M. TO 5:30 P.M.
Green's troops are sent to reinforce Garrott. Federals are reinforced by Logan's division of McPherson's corps. Around 5 P.M. a Federal attack forces Bowen to order Garrott and Green to pull back. On Bowen's left flank Baldwin takes up the fight after Green's retreat. Cockrell and his Missourians go to the left of Green's line and punish Slack's troops along the White Branch of Centers Creek. Infantry from Smith's division and Hovey's artillery stop Cockrell. The retreat on the Confederate right had begun, and Baldwin and Cockrell withdraw.

While victory had finally come on the Union left, McClernand's blue column on the right had encountered stubborn opposition after Green's defeat. McClernand and Richard Yates, the governor of Illinois, along to observe the battle, had made political speeches before Grant quietly urged pursuit of the retreating Confederates. The Yankee pause gave John Bowen valuable time.

On the Rodney road, Bowen anchored his new defensive line in front of a narrow ridge between the White and Irwin branches of Willow Creek. Bowen had decided that he would develop his defense in this lower terrain after observing the action on the broad Magnolia Church ridge. There his troops had been susceptible to artillery fire. Down in the bottom, the ravines and vegetation gave the Confederates better cover.

THE SIXTH MISSOURI (C.S.A.) REGIMENT FOUGHT BRAVELY THROUGHOUT THE VICKSBURG CAMPAIGN. THEY ARE SHOWN HERE FIGHTING OUTSIDE VICKSBURG. (LC)

Bowen's strategy worked for several hours as the battle along the new Rebel defensive line developed into a bloody stalemate. But Bowen feared that the Federals might extend their lines southward to a road that led around his position into Port Gibson. He ordered Cockrell's reserve beyond the Confederate left to assault the Yankee right.

Hovey saw Cockrell's column and tried to get reinforcements to the danger point. Before he acted, the Missourians attacked, devastating James Slack's Union brigade. But massed artillery and superior numbers of Union infantry soon forced the Missourians to retreat grudgingly.

His right secured, McClernand tried to whip Baldwin as he had beaten Green, with a massed frontal assault. The Confederate position here was stronger, and Green's and Cockrell's attack had drained some of the forces McClernand counted on for his attack. So McClernand let the battle develop on its own, but his numerical advantage, enhanced with the arrival of two brigades from Logan's division, eventually collapsed the Rebel left.

A THEODORE DAVIS SKETCH OF LOGAN'S DIVISION CROSSING THE BAYOU PIERRE IN PURSUIT OF THE CONFEDERATES. (LC)

Bowen ordered a retreat, and his men escaped north across Bayou Pierre and its fork, Little Bayou Pierre, firing bridges behind them. Outnumbered more than three to one, Bowen and his subordinates had fought brilliantly, delaying Grant from just after midnight until near sunset of May 1, inflicting 875 casualties on Grant's army while losing 787. The little Confederate force at Port Gibson had bought Pemberton time; it remained to be seen how well he would use it.

A victorious Grant decided to keep up the pressure while he had momentum. He had considered turning south to join Nathaniel Banks and attack Port Hudson. But Banks was currently operating on the Red River and could not effect a junction for several days. So Grant left Port Hudson to Banks, who had the Federal XIX Corps, which considerably outnumbered Rebel defenders.

Pemberton decided to abandon Port Hudson and had wired Franklin Gardner to rush his forces to Vicksburg. But President Jefferson Davis intervened, wiring Pemberton, "To hold both Vicksburg and Port Hudson is necessary to a connection with the Trans-Mississippi." Davis should have left such a decision to his field commander, and Pemberton, his confidence badly shaken by the loss of Port Gibson and subsequently Grand Gulf, should have protested. Pemberton, however, immediately wired Gardner to remain in the Port Hudson works with 2,000 men (about 5,000 reinforcements later joined Gardner's force).

FARRAGUT PASSING THE STEEP RIVERBANKS AT PORT HUDSON. PAINTING BY FRANK SCHELL AND THOMAS HOGAN. (AMERICAN HERITAGE PICTURE COLLECTION)

THE SURRENDER OF PORT HUDSON AS ILLUSTRATED IN THIS CURRIER AND IVES PRINT. (LC)

On May 21 Banks's army began siege operations. The siege of Port Hudson included two desperate assaults by Federal troops, including Louisiana blacks fighting for the Union, on May 27 and June 11, both of which were beaten back by equally desperate Rebel defenders. Confederate operations in Louisiana intended to relieve Port Hudson failed but kept Union forces occupied and constantly on the alert. A frustrated Banks could not force a surrender until July 8, four days after Pemberton's surrender of Vicksburg made Port Hudson untenable.

Grant decided to move north-northeast, feinting toward the Big Black with his true objective being the Southern Railroad that connected Jackson and Vicksburg. Once astride this Confederate supply line, Grant could turn west and attack Vicksburg. Grant marched with two corps, McClernand's XIII and James McPherson's XVII. Sherman had abandoned his Snyder's Bluff demonstration and was hurrying his XV Corps to join Grant. When Sherman arrived, Grant would have a force of some 45,000.

Wagons from a beachhead established at Grand Gulf kept Grant's army supplied. After the war, Grant originated a myth, perpetuated by many historians ever since, that when he left Port Gibson and moved toward central Mississippi he cut his supply line. His army lived off the land, he said. The truth is that well-supplied wagon trains trailed the army inland.

A nervous John Pemberton decided that to counter Grant's march, all Confederate troops must be consolidated west of the Big Black to protect Vicksburg. Pemberton never considered taking the offensive, despite the urging of some of his officers. Joseph Johnston had wired Pemberton on May 1 to unite all his forces to strike Grant, even if that meant abandoning Vicksburg. The wire gave good advice but arrived too late to keep Grant from winning at Port Gibson. Pemberton would have ignored Johnston anyway. President Davis had said to hold Vicksburg, and Pemberton had learned in South Carolina that if ordered to hold a spot, he must do so.

When William Loring arrived on the battle front above Port Gibson, he took command of Confederate forces and led a retreat to the Big Black at Hankinson's Ferry. Reinforcements from Vicksburg arrived, and Loring had an opportunity to strike McPherson's corps, temporarily isolated as the Yankees spread out on a broad front moving northeast. Loring, seemingly reflecting Pemberton's defensive state of mind, let the chance go by.

BRIGADIER GENERAL JOHN GREGG (NA)

Loring led his troops north toward Pemberton's concentration area between Edwards and the Big Black. Pemberton had received intelligence reports that Grant was headed for the railroad near Edwards. Pemberton intended to place his main battle line along the high bluffs on the west bank of the Big Black.

What if Grant decided to attack Jackson instead? Loring persuaded Pemberton to send a detachment east just in case. Brigadier General John Gregg, on his way to reinforce Pemberton from Port Hudson, received orders to take his brigade of some 3,000 men to Raymond. Gregg was to keep an eye out for the enemy but not to fight if outnumbered. Pemberton was risking isolating much needed troops, especially with only a small number of state cavalry, inexperienced compared to Yankee veterans, available to screen Gregg's position. Through confusion of orders, regular Confederate cavalry intended to assist Gregg had been sent in the wrong direction.

Previous Top Next


 

History and Culture