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Unsupported and Outmatched

By Steven E. Woodworth
6/4/2018 • America's Civil War Magazine

Confederate General John Pemberton fought Ulysses S. Grant, his own commander and a subordinate during the Vicksburg campaign.

In late May 1863, Confederate Lieutenant General John Clifford Pemberton found himself, his soldiers and the local population of Vicksburg pinned between the Mississippi River and the formidable Union army of Ulysses S. Grant. A lengthy Yankee siege had turned the great fortress city of the South into a prison. Forty-seven days of bombardment had worn down the Rebel defenders and driven hordes of desperate civilians into caves. With troops and citizens alike starving, rats, mules and even kittens found their way onto the menu for many. Finally, accepting that he could hold out no longer, Pemberton surrendered the city on July 4. The valuable Mississippi citadel was in Northern hands.

Grant and his soldiers, of course, deserve a great deal of credit for the Union success during the Vicksburg campaign, but the fact remains that John Pemberton was a woefully inadequate choice as commander of the Confederate forces in Mississippi. Which begs the question: Considering how critical the Mississippi River, and the state in general, were to the Confederate cause, just how did a mediocre general like Pemberton come to hold such an important command—a command in Jefferson Davis’ home state, only a few miles from the Confederate president’s plantation?

A main reason was availability. As fall approached in 1862, Davis decided he didn’t want to promote either of the top two generals already serving in Mississippi. He had a very low opinion of Maj. Gen. Sterling Price of Missouri, having once told Price to his face that he would be surprised if the general ever accomplished anything for the Confederacy. His opinion of Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn, who had faltered at both Pea Ridge, Ark., and Corinth, Miss., was little better. Joseph Davis, the president’s older brother, once remarked, “When Van Dorn was made a general, it spoiled a good captain.”

But who else could step in among the Confederacy’s officer hierarchy? Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson and James Longstreet were needed in Virginia. In May 1862, Davis lost faith in P.G.T. Beauregard when Beauregard failed to hold Corinth in the wake of the Battle of Shiloh. General Joseph E. Johnston, who had had his own troubles with Davis, was another tempting choice, although events later in the war proved that he could be a considerably less than tenacious defender. Davis, though, still had a high enough opinion of Johnston’s ability that he appointed him to command all Confederate forces between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River.

Braxton Bragg, meanwhile, was busy leading the Army of Tennessee, and it was probably no secret that Leonidas Polk and William Hardee, Bragg’s chief lieutenants, were busy undermining him. Simon Bolivar Buckner would have been an intriguing choice, though his reputation had been tainted by the Rebel loss of Fort Donelson in February.

That left Pemberton, whose record in the war thus far was anything but special. In fact, his tenure in command at Charleston in early 1862 had roundly drawn criticism from many observers, including Lee, who was serving as an adviser to Davis at the time. Pemberton, a Philadelphian who had graduated in the middle of his West Point class, was no shining star, but he was available. The Vicksburg job was his.

A great deal of thinking behind that decision came down to quirks in Davis’ personality. Like Pemberton, the Confederate president had not been an extraordinary cadet at West Point. Also, since Pemberton was from the North, Davis saw his choice to side with the Confederacy as proof that even an honest Yankee could agree with the rightness of the Confederacy’s cause— when in fact it was Pemberton’s devotion to his Southern-born wife that had spurred him to join the Rebels.

Davis also liked to give a poke to critics of his appointments by assigning the man being disparaged to an even more responsible position, like he had done by promoting Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin to secretary of state. In other words, how better to show his disdain for those unhappy with Pemberton’s performance in South Carolina than by assigning him to a command in the president’s own state, leading the defense of the vital Mississippi River?

In October 1862, Davis transferred Pemberton to Mississippi in an effort to stabilize an unraveling situation there. Two armies, one under Van Dorn and the other under Price, had operated in the state with little cooperation and even less success in the late summer and early fall. Pemberton was to bring unity of command, and along with the new appointment came promotion to the rank of lieutenant general. As a further step toward ensuring cooperation among the Confederacy’s Western armies, Davis created an overall command for all Confederate forces between the Appalachians and the Mississippi and assigned it to Johnston, who would thus be Pemberton’s immediate superior.

Pemberton’s command in Mississippi, known as the Army of Mississippi and East Louisiana, started off well enough when he won two key early engagements with his Union counterpart. The first came after Grant launched a November offensive southward from western Tennessee along the Mississippi Central Rail Road. Pemberton retreated steadily, giving up first Holly Springs and then Oxford, before he launched a devastating counterstroke, dispatching Van Dorn’s cavalry to destroying the Union supply depot at Holly Springs on December 20. Van Dorn was spectacularly successful, and Grant had no alternative but to retreat.

Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, commanding the other prong of the Union offensive against Vicksburg, had taken an army down the Mississippi in steamboats and landed it just above Vicksburg near the mouth of the Yazoo River. There he attempted to drive toward the town through the bottomlands of Chickasaw Bayou. The tangle of bayous in the low country channeled the assault into a couple of easily defended routes where Pemberton’s outnumbered Confederates easily mowed down the attackers.

Grant pressed on, however. He established himself on the Louisiana shore a few miles up the river and spent the first three months of 1863 looking for a way to Vicksburg other than via the hopeless Chickasaw Bayou route. Success for Grant could come only by getting his army onto Mississippi’s interior plateau, which abutted Vicks burg to the east and south. To reach that ground Grant had to cross the Yazoo above Vicksburg or the Mississippi below it. Powerful Confederate batteries at and near Vicksburg essentially barred direct river access to either area, and Pemberton, assisted by assorted natural obstacles, blocked all other thoroughfares. A few sharpshooters picking off Union gunboat sailors or a minuscule fort of cotton bales with two cannons could all but shut down an entire Union expedition.

By early April, Pemberton believed he had put an end to Grant’s threat and that the Union army on the Louisiana shore was simply being transferred up the Mississippi River for service in Tennessee. He learned the blatant error of his thinking on April 16 when a Union gunboat fleet ran past the Vicksburg batteries, dispelling the myth that the Rebel cannons there could bar the river against a determined downstream run. It also put an end to the belief that Grant was giving up. The Union commander promptly marched his men down the west bank and prepared to cross them over to the Mississippi shore.

Grant set about distracting Pemberton with two diversions. The first was a cavalry raid led by Brig. Gen. Benjamin Grierson, roving through the middle of the state from the Union lines in western Tennessee all the way to the Union-held enclave at Baton Rouge. The diversion was highly successful. Not only did it unsettle Pemberton but it also persuaded him to commit most of his scant cavalry forces—Johnston had removed the rest for service in Tennessee—and thus crippled his reconnaissance efforts. Pemberton was also distracted by Union troops under Sherman moving as if to renew the assault across Chickasaw Bayou, above Vicksburg.

In the midst of these distractions, Pemberton initially attached relatively little credence to reports from Maj. Gen. John Bowen, commanding at Grand Gulf, that dispositions of Union boats on the Mississippi suggested a probable attack on Grand Gulf and an attempt to cross the Mississippi below Vicksburg. Thinking the Union activity at Grand Gulf was a feint, Pemberton opted not to send reinforcements to Bowen until Grant outflanked Grand Gulf by landing his troops farther downriver at Bruinsburg. At that point, the reinforcements Pemberton did send were too little, too late. On May 1, Grant easily defeated Bowen at the Battle of Port Gibson, and Pemberton finally grasped the serious threat facing Vicksburg. By then Grierson had completed his raid through the Mississippi interior, and Sherman’s feint toward Chickasaw Bayou was over.

On advice from Johnston, Pemberton’s first response after telegraphing Davis for reinforcements was to unite his forces for a showdown battle with Grant. That meant pulling most of the garrisons out of Port Hudson, La., and Jackson. With these troops and those he could spare from the trenches of Vicksburg, as well as another 5,000 reinforcements that Davis promised to send, Pemberton began to feel confident that he could deal with Grant. “We will be all right,” he told Davis.

On May 7, however, a telegram from the president changed Pemberton’s plans: “To hold both Vicksburg and Port Hudson,” Davis wrote, “is necessary to a connection with the trans-Mississippi.” Pemberton interpreted that as an admonition not to pull the garrison out of Port Hudson even as a temporary expedient to defeat Grant. Davis evidently believed Pemberton could foil the Union commander without such a move by finding and cutting Grant’s supply line.

With large forces tied to the strongholds at both Vicksburg and Port Hudson, Pemberton, who actually had more troops in Mississippi than Grant did, was forced to meet his opponent in every battle of the campaign with at least a slight disadvantage in numbers. He was further handicapped by a lack of sufficient cavalry to bring him timely intelligence of Grant’s whereabouts, strength and movements. That led him to the mistaken belief that Maj. Gen. James McPherson’s XVII Corps, one of Grant’s three corps, was merely a light flanking column to the Union army. Pemberton ordered Brig. Gen. John Gregg, with a single brigade, to sally forth from Jackson and attack the column, which led to a stunning Confederate defeat at the Battle of Raymond on May 12.

Despite that setback, Pemberton’s situation was far from hopeless. He wisely established his maneuver force at Big Black Bridge, on the railroad between Jackson and Vicksburg, where he could counter any direct lunge Grant might make toward Vicksburg or move against the Federals if Grant decided to advance against another target inland.

Davis, meanwhile, ordered Johnston to Mississippi. On May 13, the general arrived in Jackson and found that Grant was approaching the capital. Since his own force in Jackson was too small to engage Grant directly, Johnston told Pemberton to advance and strike Grant in the rear. Receiving Johnston’s dispatch the next morning, Pemberton called a council of war and informed his generals he felt they should stay put. His generals disagreed. Most maintained that they should march on Grant’s rear near Jackson, as Johnston had ordered; a few wanted to strike southeastward toward Grant’s supply line. Feeling he had to do something, Pemberton chose to follow the minority sentiment and move southeast.

The action proved fruitless, and on the morning of May 16 Pemberton received another dispatch from Johnston informing him that Jackson had fallen and directing him to rendezvous with him at Clinton, Miss., a railroad town about 10 miles west-northwest of the capital. Pemberton had just begun turning north to comply with that order when Grant, helped by a spy with access to the Confederate commanders’ correspondence, caught him at Champion Hill.

In the ensuing battle, the two sides engaged relatively equal numbers. Grant’s attack fell on Pemberton’s left flank and was successful in driving it in, threatening to cut off any retreat route; the right side of the Confederate line, composed largely of the division of Maj. Gen. William W. Loring, remained unengaged, however. Pemberton ordered Loring to send reinforcements to the crumbling left, but Loring simply refused. The gregarious one-armed general had a reputation for insubordination, having already caused trouble for both Lee and Stonewall Jackson in Virginia earlier in the war. He had long despised and resented his commander in Mississippi.

Compounding the damage, Loring chose to retreat separately from the rest of Pemberton’s army and made his way with his division to join Johnston. Pemberton, unaware of Loring’s desertion, assumed that the division was still seeking to rejoin his army, and attempted to hold Big Black Bridge the following day, hoping to preserve Loring’s line of retreat. Pemberton was quickly overwhelmed by Grant’s surging army.

After the defeat at Big Black Bridge, Pemberton had little choice but to retreat into the Vicksburg entrenchments. He did well to rally his troops and hold his lines against Grant’s assaults on May 19 and 22 and to hold out through six weeks of siege. In the absence of a relieving army, however, the fate of Vicksburg was all but sealed at Champion Hill.

Pemberton had managed to keep the Federals away from Vicksburg while Grant was struggling to find a way through or around the forbidding swamps of the Delta, but once the Union commander established himself on solid upland ground, the Rebel leader was hopelessly outclassed. The magnitude of Pemberton’s defeat was only increased by the misplaced advice of Jefferson Davis and the unsupportive behavior of both Joe Johnston and his subordinate William Loring.

 

Steven E. Woodworth is a professor of history at Texas Christian University. He is the author of numerous books, including Jefferson Davis and His Generals and While God Is Marching On.

Originally published in the July 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here

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