On May 19th, Pemberton, in command of the Confederate forces in Vicksburg, sent this message to Jefferson Davis, explaining his failure to hold positions as Grant advanced on Vicksburg:
Against my own judgment, but by instructions from superior authority, sustained by the unanimous voice of my general officers, I felt myself compelled to advance my position beyond Edwards Depot, and to offer or accept battle according to circumstances. The enemy attacked me in very great force about 7 a. m. on 16th. My position was a good one, but numbers prevailed; at 5 p. m. we were forced to retire. General Loring’s DIVISION, which covered the retreat across Baker’s Creek, failed to rejoin me, but will probably form a junction with General Johnston. We were again driven from and intrenched line at east and south head of Big Black Bridge, on morning of 17th; we lost a large amount of artillery. The army was much demoralized; many regiments behaved badly. We are occupying the trenches around Vicksburg; the enemy is investing it, and will probably attempt an assault. Our men have considerably recovered their morale, but unless a large force is sent at once to relieve it, Vicksburg must before long fall. I have used every effort to prevent all this, but in vain.
Grant, having encircled Vicksburg, convinced that the Confederate forces were demoralized, ordered an assault on the 19th centered around the part of the north part of the line, which was under Sherman’s command. The assault was successfully repulsed. I quoted Grant’s description of that assault in my last Vicksburg post:
The enemy had been much demoralized by his defeats at Champion’s Hill and the Big Black, and I believed he would not make much effort to hold Vicksburg. Accordingly, at two o’clock I ordered an assault. It resulted in securing more advanced positions for all our troops where they were fully covered from the fire of the enemy.
Grant was still convinced that Vicksburg was vulnerable to an assault and was worried that Johnston’s forces at his rear could create real trouble if they came toward Vicksburg. Plans were made to try again on May 22nd.
To anyone who has seen the topography of the land between the Union and Confederate lines ( pictured above) would, I think, would have found the prospects of a direct assault foreboding. I have walked those lines, and read accounts of the assaults, and remain amazed that the assault was thought possible.
The assault was planned with artillery beginning at dawn, followed by the assault itself beginning at 10:00 AM. For the first time in history, the assault was commenced by synchronized watches.
Over the years, I’ve read a number of accounts of the events of that day. The Union troops made it onto the outer walls of the Confederate forts in a number of places, planting their colors on the outer walls, and, in some places, holding those positions through the day. In one place, they briefly entered the Confederate position but were shortly repulsed, a matter that caused great controversy among the Union generals.
Federal troops ended up penned in the ravines under the Confederate lines, some unable to even sit up without being exposed to Confederate fire. The Confederates were setting fuses to artillery shells and then rolling them down toward the Union forces. Finally, after dark fell, the Union survivors were able to make it back to their lines.
Grant’s account of all this is less than his usual vividness, particularly compared to his other accounts of engagements. It’s also an instance where he does not report the casualties at the end of an engagement.
The 20th and 21st were spent in strengthening our position and in making roads in rear of the army, from Yazoo River or Chickasaw Bayou. Most of the army had now been for three weeks with only five days’ rations issued by the commissary. They had an abundance of food, however, but began to feel the want of bread. I remember that in passing around to the left of the line on the 21st, a soldier, recognizing me, said in rather a low voice, but yet so that I heard him, “Hard tack.” In a moment the cry was taken up all along the line, “Hard tack! Hard tack!” I told the men nearest to me that we had been engaged ever since the arrival of the troops in building a road over which to supply them with everything they needed. The cry was instantly changed to cheers. By the night of the 21st all the troops had full rations issued to them. The bread and coffee were highly appreciated.
I now determined on a second assault. Johnston was in my rear, only fifty miles away, with an army not much inferior in numbers to the one I had with me, and I knew he was being reinforced. There was danger of his coming to the assistance of Pemberton, and after all he might defeat my anticipations of capturing the garrison if, indeed, he did not prevent the capture of the city. The immediate capture of Vicksburg would save sending me the reinforcements which were so much wanted elsewhere, and would set free the army under me to drive Johnston from the State. But the first consideration of all was—the troops believed they could carry the works in their front, and would not have worked so patiently in the trenches if they had not been allowed to try.
The attack was ordered to commence on all parts of the line at ten o’clock A.M. on the 22d with a furious cannonade from every battery in position. All the corps commanders set their time by mine so that all might open the engagement at the same minute. The attack was gallant, and portions of each of the three corps succeeded in getting up to the very parapets of the enemy and in planting their battle flags upon them; but at no place were we able to enter. General McClernand reported that he had gained the enemy’s intrenchments at several points, and wanted reinforcements. I occupied a position from which I believed I could see as well as he what took place in his front, and I did not see the success he reported. But his request for reinforcements being repeated I could not ignore it, and sent him Quinby’s division of the 17th corps. Sherman and McPherson were both ordered to renew their assaults as a diversion in favor of McClernand. This last attack only served to increase our casualties without giving any benefit whatever. As soon as it was dark our troops that had reached the enemy’s line and been obliged to remain there for security all day, were withdrawn; and thus ended the last assault upon Vicksburg.
Grant wrote: “The attack was ordered to commence…” By whom? More accurate would have been “I ordred the attack to commence…. ”
Sherman referred to the afternoon losses in support of McClernand’s exaggerated report that his forces had seized the Confederate lines and needed support as “murder.” That is, the call for a forces to advance elsewhere on the lines produced casualties who died with no purpose.
In any event, the advance failed, and Grant realized he was dealing with a siege.
Thereafter, McClernand wrote a multiple page account of the Vicksburg campaign to that date creating the distinct impression that his corps had carried the day throughout with little support. He had this account published as a congratulatory order to his troops, but did not send a copy to Grant before arranging its publication. It is this letter that produced the letter from Sherman to Lieutenant Colonel John A. Rawlins, who was essentially Grant’s personal aide. This letter was mentioned by Anderson in comments, and is one of the greatest angry letters I’ve ever read. Gen. McClernand’s “order” congratulating his troops violated both Army regulations and standing orders, and resulted in Grant relieving him of his command and ordering him to leave Grant’s department three days after Sherman’s letter to Rawlins. McClernand’s attempts to claw back into command (beginning here) by going over Grant’s head are at the same time annoying and amusing.
After the jump are some more direct accounts of the fighting from officers on both sides.
Continue reading Grant’s Memoirs, the Vicksburg Campaign May 20th-22nd: Assault on Vicksburg