150 Years Ago This Week: The fighting in Mississippi

May 1863

With the Union army in defeat in Virginia, focus in mid-May 1863 turned to Mississippi, where Maj. Gen. Ulysses Grant was making advances on the fortified Confederates at Vicksburg. Col. Benjamin Grierson’s cavalry raid from Tennessee through Mississippi had ended at Baton Rouge, La., on May 2.

The raid drew Confederate attention away from Vicksburg and bought time for Gen. Grant to push closer to the city. Col. Grierson started his raid with 1,700 troopers and finished with some 900. His report showed that in the 16 days of the raid, some 100 Confederates had been killed, 500 prisoners had been taken, some 50-60 miles of railroad and telegraph destroyed, 3,000 military arms captured or destroyed and other stores, including some 1,000 horses and mules taken.

In 16 days, three Union troopers were killed, seven wounded, five left behind sick and nine missing. The raid covered 600 miles in those 16 days, 76 miles in the last 28 hours and had fought four engagements.

In the western theater of the war, Gen. Grant and Maj. Gen. William Sherman and joined their forces at Milliken’s Bend and began moving on Vicksburg. He ordered his troops to depend less on their supplies lines and to live off the land. At the village of Spring Hill, Tenn., on May 7, Confederate Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn was shot and killed by an irate husband after it was discovered that Gen. Van Dorn and the doctor’s wife had been having a licentious affair.

Gen. Joseph E. Johnston was placed in command of all Southern troops in Mississippi, with the exception of those under command of Lt. Gen. John Pemberton in Vicksburg. Near Crystal Springs, Miss., Federal cavalry raided the New Orleans & Jackson Railroad, cutting one of Gen. Pemberton’s supply lines.

On Tuesday, May 12, Union troops under Maj. Gen. John A. Logan occupied the town of Raymond, Miss., about 15 miles from the state capital at Jackson. The Federals were attacked by troops under Brig. Gen. John Gregg; each side suffered some 500 casualties until the Confederates were driven off and retreated toward Jackson. As a result of this engagement and harassment by Confederate snipers along Fourteen Mile Creek, Gen. Grant decided to take the city of Jackson before he turned on Vicksburg.

The battle for Jackson, Miss., took place on Thursday, May 14. In a driving rainstorm, Gen. Grant sent two army corps under Maj. Gen. James McPherson and Maj. Gen. William Sherman to take the city. Gen. Johnston and his 12,000 men realized the futility of trying to take on some 40,000 Federals; he began evacuating vital supplies to the north, and left two brigades to delay the Federals. The Union forces easily overwhelmed the Confederates, and occupied Jackson by the afternoon.

Now Gen. Grant turned his attention on Vicksburg and began moving westward to meet the first of Gen. Pemberton’s defenders at Edwards’ Station on the Central Mississippi Railroad. By nightfall on Friday, May 15, the two opposing armies were only four miles apart. Gen. Pemberton realized that he would get no reinforcements from Gen. Johnston, and so began to seek out Gen. Grant’s nearly non-existent lines of communication. A major engagement at Champion’s Hill, near Vicksburg, was a certainty in the next day or so.

In Washington during this time, President Lincoln was conferring by telegraph with Gen. Hooker near Fredericksburg, urging him to take the offensive and go after Gen. Lee. The Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon Chase, argued with President Lincoln over a political appointment, and Chase again tendered his resignation. The President turned it down, but, coming as it did after the Cabinet crises of the preceding December, it foretold of more trouble for Mr. Lincoln’s official family.

In Richmond, President Davis was exceedingly worried about the potential crisis in Mississippi and Vicksburg; he was constantly sending messages to Gen. Pemberton and Gen. Johnston, offering suggestions and giving orders in attempts to prevent the city from being taken by Gen. Grant.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.