Return to CCWRT Home Page


Serving Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana Since 1956

Preservation Project Canister Newsletter About Us Future Speakers Research & Information Hamilton CWRT Contact Us
Eighteen Days in May:
Confederate Command Failure at Vicksburg

By David M. Smith

February 15, 2001

© 2001 David M. Smith and the Cincinnati Civil War Round Table

The two men rode in silence. Both were graduates of West Point, but they well could have been father and son. One was responsible for constructing the defenses of Vicksburg, the other with defending them. And the older of the two, and defender of Vicksburg, John C. Pemberton, was depressed and dispirited.

John C. Pemberton
As they rode towards the defenses of Vicksburg, silence was the order of the day. Depressed by the twin defeats of Champion Hill and Big Black Bridge, Pemberton was clearly struggling with his emotions. Finally, he turned to the younger man, Major Samuel Lockett, class of 1859 at West Point: "Just thirty years ago," he said, "I began my military career by receiving my appointment to a cadetship at the U.S. Military Academy, and to-day - the same date - that career is ended in disaster and disgrace." The day was May 17, 1863, and Pemberton, Lockett, and the defenders of Vicksburg were about to culminate a very active, and fruitless, 18 days in the life of the American Civil War.

Mention the Vicksburg Campaign to a student of the Civil War, and invariably a series of images comes to mind. Probably first, and foremost, is the looming specter of Major General Ulysses S. Grant, and his magnificent campaign that ended with the opening of the Mississippi and the capture of an entire 29,500-man Confederate army.

Samuel Lockett
But ask that same Civil War student about the Confederates at Vicksburg, and you are likely to get a much more muddled view. The Confederate high command - President Jefferson F. Davis, General Joseph E. Johnston, and his immediate subordinate and Vicksburg commander Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton - left a confused, irrational, and blame-filled narrative behind as their legacy of failure. It is that legacy, and the events that led to it, that is the topic of our time here tonight. If, when we are finished, those confused events from the Confederate perspective become a bit clearer to you, then I will have succeeded in my task.

What are the Confederate images that most often come to mind when you think about Vicksburg? Is it not that Pemberton, relied on word received from the War Department in Richmond, and obstinately clung to the belief that Vicksburg should be held at all costs? Do we not also believe that Johnston, while building a force outside Jackson, Mississippi, was too weak to effectively take action against Grant? And finally, do we not also believe that Pemberton's regard of the high value of Vicksburg effectively doomed the garrison upon his retreat to the defenses on May 18, 1863?

When we look at the events of May 1 through May 18, we often view them from the perspective of Grant. The opening rounds of the campaign were fired on May 1 at the Battle of Port Gibson, and the subsequent days seemed one steady, inexorable march towards the eventual entrapment of Pemberton's forces in Vicksburg. Certainly, there were Confederate alternatives, but most everyone sees them as a seemingly simple decision to vacate Vicksburg and link with Johnston near Jackson. The logical next steps seem to escape those who so argue.

Jefferson Davis
I suggest to you tonight that there were multiple strategic options available to the Confederates once Grant crossed the Mississippi, and that simple decisions made played major roles in the subsequent shaping of the Vicksburg Campaign. The simple passage of time, for example, played havoc with Confederate strategies. Command confusion - the simple fact that Pemberton and Johnston were less than 30 miles apart for the last five days of this period, and never came face-to-face muddied understanding between the two - and forced bad decisions on Pemberton's part. Pemberton's plans, however, as he developed them from May 1 to May 13, were sound. Johnston's arrival in Jackson, however, in spite of the good intentions of President Davis, simply played into Grant's hands, and significantly contributed to the resulting disaster.

As historian Brooks Simpson suggested, understanding Confederate failure at Vicksburg requires that you must place yourself on the eastern bank of the Mississippi, and north of the Big Black River, on April 30. Much of what has been written, and largely our understanding of the campaign, has come from the Union perspective - from the western bank of the Mississippi, and south of the Big Black River. So for the remainder of our time tonight, kindly forget those inherent biases, and enter with me into the muddled, confused, and often mistaken world of the Confederate command ala Vicksburg.

In dealing with the initial days of May 1863, however, we must at least go back a month to set the stage, and place the Confederate players in their appropriate places. Most importantly, events that occurred in April 1863 were to force upon John Pemberton a series of decisions that would influence his options once Grant crossed the river. In addition, the departmental command attitude of Joseph Johnston, and that of Jefferson Davis as well, would likewise influence events as they unfolded.

Earl Van Dorn
In October 1862, John C. Pemberton was named to head the newly created Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana. The department, and subsequent command, reflected the disappointment of President Davis concerning the defeat of Earl Van Dorn at the Battle of Corinth, fought on October 3-4, 1862, and in particular Van Dorn's command abilities. Van Dorn did little to merge the military and civilian needs in Mississippi, and Davis hoped that Pemberton, who had been serving in a departmental command in the Carolinas, would better suit their needs.

On November 24, 1862, Davis assigned General Joseph E. Johnston to a large departmental command that included the Confederacy west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, south to the Gulf of Mexico, and east of the Mississippi River. Within Johnston's command would be the armies of Pemberton, General Braxton Bragg in middle Tennessee, and the small army in eastern Tennessee late under the command of Edmund Kirby Smith. Davis made this move in response to perceived failings among his western subordinates - this time for the unwillingness of multiple army commanders to cooperate during the fall 1862 Kentucky invasion.

Joseph E. Johnston
Johnston, Davis hoped, would lend his military expertise to coordinating efforts among these diverse geographical commands. Johnston made his army headquarters with Bragg in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Prior to being ordered to Mississippi on May 9, 1863, Johnston would visit his Mississippi operations only once, in December 1862.

Union commander Grant spent much of the first three months of 1863 working at improbable ways to bypass the defenses of Vicksburg. Once April arrived, however, he began thinking, in earnest of a way to get troops down the Mississippi on the western bank, and a way to transport them cross the river.

For the Confederates holding Vicksburg and Port Hudson, Louisiana (both commands of which belonged to Pemberton), these efforts could be effectively countered, but involved keeping forces spread over the entire department. Pemberton himself set his headquarters in the Mississippi capital of Jackson, not Vicksburg. Clearly, as the new year of 1863 dawned, Pemberton thought (and Davis would have approved) in terms of a departmental command, and not simply for the defense of Vicksburg.

In anticipation of crossing the Mississippi River, Grant pulled back his scattered forces, in preparation for a push past the defenses resting atop the bluffs of Vicksburg.

This concentration had an important effect on Pemberton - the river traffic involved in moving unneeded ships back and forth from Vicksburg to Memphis led to erroneous speculation that Grant was giving up, and returning his army to Memphis. Were this to happen, it would be a logical strategy for the Federal forces to link up in Tennessee with General Rosecrans, and attempt to destroy Bragg's army. A correct Confederate response would be to move Pemberton's army to Bragg as quickly a possible.

The Confederates spent the first two weeks of April in a state of uncertainty. Grant did his best to enhance this uneasiness. In preparation to pass the Vicksburg batteries, Grant ordered Colonel Benjamin Grierson to take 1,700 troopers on a raid that would start in La Grange, Tennessee on April 17, and end on May 2 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Along the way, Grierson ripped up miles of interior Mississippi railroads, and immobilized Confederate infantry in a useless attempt to catch the hard-riding raiders.

One day earlier, Grant's plans for passing the batteries had matured, and that night, a portion of the Union Navy passed the Vicksburg defenses. The fleet withstood two-and-a-half hours of intense bombardment, and remarkably sustained the loss of only one transport and several barges. Grant finally had the transports needed to cross the river.

Correctly surmising Grant's intent perplexed Pemberton. From his desk at Jackson, Pemberton had to defend the defenses in and near Vicksburg, the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers against a frontal attack by Grant, work with the civilian government of Mississippi, and still deal with the problems created by Grierson and his raiders.

John S. Bowen
Pemberton made two decisions that dramatically impacted his ability to deal with Grant. First, he dispatched division commander John Bowen to Grand Gulf to finish its fortifications. Grand Gulf was located on the southern side of the confluence of the Big Black and Mississippi Rivers, with defenses situated along high bluffs. Northern forces had to cross the Big Black River in order to confront the defenses of Vicksburg. As long as the Confederates kept Grant south and east of the Big Black, Vicksburg was in no direct peril. A strong defense at Grand Gulf was a requirement.

Pemberton's second decision seemed innocuous enough, but had significant impact on his ability to concentrate once Grant crossed the river. As Grierson approached the Southern Mississippi Railroad east of Jackson on April 24, Pemberton had little cavalry with which to counter the Union raider. In response, he dispatched Major General William W. Loring's division of infantry from Vicksburg to guard the rail line.

Grant attacked the Confederate defenses at Grand Gulf with the Union Navy, but was rebuffed by Bowen. Even though Grant had clearly demonstrated his intent to find a way across the river, Pemberton remained in Jackson, seemingly more concerned with Grierson than with Grant. It was not until late April that he moved his headquarters from Jackson to Vicksburg. Relying on subordinates to control the situation in their front, he acted more as a department administrator than as a military commander.

Grant's crossing of the Mississippi on April 30 and landing at Bruinsburg should have changed Pemberton's mind. Bowen rushed to Port Gibson with less than ten thousand men to confront Grant's 25,000, and kept Pemberton informed with constant updates from the front. Pemberton sent his encouragement, and ordered Loring to Bowen's aid the day of the battle. But Loring was caught on the wrong side of a railroad break, and was unable to bring his 6,000-man division in time to participate in the Port Gibson battle. Pemberton complained bitterly about Loring's tardiness, but in fact any order the day of the Battle of Port Gibson to rush reinforcements there was too late to affect the outcome.

On May 1, Union forces pushed Bowen through the tangled ravines between the river and Port Gibson in a bitterly contested battle, and secured the road network to the interior of the state. Bowen was outnumbered three to one, yet managed to delay Grant's forces for an entire day, and protected the vital bridge over the Big Bayou Pierre until after his forces had crossed.

From a Confederate command perspective, everything fell apart on May 1. Messages, in great quantities, flew forth from Pemberton to various subordinates scattered throughout his command. The correspondence of that day illustrates the confusion and disregard for command harmony that typified Pemberton's department. Nothing illustrates this more than Pemberton's efforts to move Loring to Port Gibson as quickly as possible.

William W. Loring
On that day, Pemberton ordered Loring to forward, in person, nearly two brigades of infantry located at Jackson and Edward's Station. "I want you to proceed in advance," Pemberton telegraphed. "Hurry on troops with all possible haste, without baggage. Bowen is hard pressed," he told Loring. Loring fired back three replies questioning the route his units were to take. An exasperated Pemberton telegraphed one of Loring's brigade commanders, Lloyd Tilghman, directly, to avoid the contentious Loring. In all, an incredible 16 communications were sent back and forth between Tilghman (a Loring-supporter), Loring himself, and the harried Pemberton in order to get the better part of two brigades to move with promptness to Port Gibson.

Pemberton attempted to keep his superior, Johnston, and the War Department in Richmond informed of events. Pemberton was quite aware that Davis knew the area between Port Gibson and Vicksburg well, having lived there for years. Secretary of War James Seddon replied for Davis: "Your dispatch received by the President. Heavy re-enforcements will be sent from General Beauregard's command" in South Carolina.

Johnston, safely ensconced in Chattanooga, forwarded his own gratuitous advice to Pemberton: "If Grant's army lands on this side of the river, the safety of Mississippi depends on beating it. For that object you should unite your whole force." One can only wonder at Pemberton's state of mind at that time, trying to deal with the recalcitrance of Loring and Tilghman while attempting to affect the very concentration his superior was calling for. With the exception of this advice, Johnston offered no further help on May 1.

The next day, however, Johnston added, "If Grant crosses, unite all your troops to beat him. Success will give back what was abandoned to win it." President Davis, at least, worked to forward reinforcements to Pemberton. Johnston could only offer unneeded advice.

Confederate troops frantically converged on Vicksburg and Port Gibson as part of Pemberton's effort to concentrate his forces. The loss at Port Gibson forced the evacuation of Grand Gulf. Bowen and the remainder of his forces fell back to the Vicksburg side of the Big Black River, and the cat-and-mouse game between Pemberton and Grant began in earnest.

Grant's goals remained simple. The capture of Port Gibson did not solve his major problem; as long as the muddy, meandering Big Black River stood between his army and Vicksburg, Pemberton still held the upper hand. In order to supply his army with munitions and medicines, he had to march them down the western bank of the Mississippi, ferry them across the river, and haul them via wagons to his army. He could live off the surrounding countryside for some time, but battles would deplete ammunition, and depending on where he was, supply lines would be tenuous and subject to being severed.

West Point Military Atlas - Vicksburg Campaign
Pemberton had to defend the crossings of the Big Black River. In his favor was the limited number of crossings, of which Hankinson's, Hall's, and Baldwin's Ferries, and the Big Black River Bridge were the most significant. Moreover, the most logical place for Grant to cross, Pemberton believed, was the one farthest from Port Gibson - Big Black Bridge.

Furthermore, the directional flow of the Big Black River aided Pemberton in defending the river crossings. From Grand Gulf, the Big Black moved upstream in a meandering fashion that allowed Pemberton to move along interior lines, while Grant traversed along exterior lines.

The river, however, played against Pemberton's greatest weakness - his lack of cavalry with which to probe and counter the movements of Grant. His superior, Johnston, had ordered away 90 percent of the department's cavalry - the division of Earl Van Dorn, back in late December. The Big Black River, which presented an obstacle of substantial difficulties for Grant, also provided a shield behind which he could maneuver his forces. Pemberton could use infantry to scout the approaches to the Big Black, but had to be careful in doing so.

The final issue confronting Grant, which Pemberton well knew, was that he had only two of his three corps across the Mississippi on May 1. Grant's most trusted subordinate, Major General William T. Sherman, had held a position at the bluffs overlooking the Yazoo River, and kept a Confederate division occupied. Now, with the beachhead securely established, Sherman marched hastily to join Grant.

Grant feinted towards Pemberton's forces at Hankinson's Ferry - the crossing nearest Grand Gulf, but the feint was an effort to delay and hold Pemberton in position while he waited for Sherman's arrival. Pemberton, meanwhile, strengthened his positions on the Vicksburg side of the Big Black. Although ready to confront Grant, as early as May 2 he informed a subordinate at the Mississippi capital that Jackson might be a likely target. On May 3, he was able to inform Davis that he thought everything would be all right.

"Ten thousand men have been ordered from General Beauregard. Five thousand and some batteries are probably on the way," was the cheery news received from Richmond on May 4. In the meantime, Pemberton's defensive line was beginning to form. A single division of infantry held the city of Vicksburg, another held the defensive positions from Chickasaw Bayou to Hayne's Bluffs along the Yazoo, and those of Major General Carter Stevenson, Loring and Bowen defended the Big Black crossings.

By late on May 4 Pemberton believed Grant would feint toward Big Black Bridge, and attempt to force a crossing at Hankinson's Ferry. Forces remained concentrated at that crossing, even though Grant's cavalry was beginning to push in an easterly fashion, reaching as distant a location as Edward's Station. On May 6, Pemberton heard from Johnston for the first time since May 2. His boss queried: "Have heard nothing further from you of the previous battle, reported on 1st. What is the result, and where is Grant's army?" Pemberton had corresponded with Richmond, and perhaps assumed that the War Department was forwarding his messages to Johnston. And while it is inexcusable that Pemberton did not copy his telegrams to his immediate superior, it is equally inexcusable that Johnston waited four days to further ask about Pemberton's situation.

Late on May 7, President Davis telegraphed Pemberton that the 10,000 South Carolina reinforcements promised by General Beauregard would only amount to 5,000. Furthermore, he instructed his departmental commander: "To hold both Vicksburg and Port Hudson is necessary to a connection with Trans-Mississippi. You may expect whatever is in my power to do." On that same day, Pemberton detailed for Johnston the disposition of his troops. Other than this telegram, nothing of substance passed between the two.

And yet, even with the disappointing news regarding reinforcements, and with dialogue between superior and subordinate seemingly non-existent, Pemberton had his defensive efforts under control. His expectation regarding Grant's likely movement had changed as well: "From information received, I have reason to believe the enemy will make a raid on Jackson at the same time they will make attack on Big Black Bridge," he told Brigadier General John Adams at Jackson. Pemberton had slightly over 40,000 men available in his Vicksburg command, while Grant, with the arrival of Sherman's corps, had approximately 55,000. Pemberton, however, had the advantage of prepared positions, a limited number of river crossings, interior lines of movement, and Grant could not sustain his army forever within the interior of the state. Grant had to cross the Big Black River.

A careful reading of the correspondence in the Official Records provides insight into a command, carefully managed by Pemberton. As Grant moved in an eastern and northern direction, Pemberton skillfully maneuvered his divisions in a "leap frog" fashion along the Big Black, keeping the bulk of his force in position to face Grant at the most likely crossing point. For all that Pemberton should be faulted for during the campaign, the defense of the Big Black River crossings is not one of them.

If there was any question in Pemberton's mind of the need to hold Vicksburg, it was dispelled on May 7. The telegram from Davis noted the importance of holding both Vicksburg and Port Hudson, and Pemberton dutifully informed his subordinate Major General Franklin Gardner, commanding at Port Hudson: "President says both places must be held."

Grant's army was halfway to Jackson on May 8, and its intentions were still masked and undetermined as far as Pemberton could determine. Johnston telegraphed that he believed the dispositions of troops reported by Pemberton the day before to be "judicious," and could be "readily concentrated against Grant's army." These words were the most complimentary words that passed from Johnston to Pemberton during and after the campaign had concluded.

On May 9, 1863 Pemberton informed the War Department that the situation was unaltered and quiet, and Grant still east of the Big Black. Unbeknownst to him at the time, however, President Davis, with the best of intentions, changed the course of the campaign; for on that day, he ordered General Joseph E. Johnston to Mississippi.

"Proceed at once to Mississippi and take chief command of the forces, giving to those in the field, as far as practicable, the encouragement and benefit of your personal direction," Davis informed Johnston. Responding in a ominous manner, Johnston relied, "I shall go at once, although unfit for field service."

Why did Jefferson Davis order Joe Johnston to Mississippi? The decision had to do, I believe, with Davis's recognition that Pemberton had no army command experience in the field. In spite of interpersonal problems between Davis and Johnston, Joseph E. Johnston was still recognized as one of the top military leaders in the Confederacy. Taken in this light, Davis's decision is understandable.

By May 10 Pemberton understood that Jackson might be the target of Grant, and he ordered Brigadier General John Gregg to move his brigade to Raymond to block the road from Port Gibson. No matter what Grant did, however, Pemberton had to keep the bulk of his forces between Grant and the Big Black River.

On May 11, John Bowen reported that 40,000 Union troops were in the vicinity of Rocky Springs, which put them in position to move against either Baldwin's Ferry or Big Black Bridge. Bowen also noted that entrenchments supporting the Big Black Bridge position would be finished the next day. Pemberton still believed that in spite of indications that Grant would move against Jackson, the railroad position at Big Black Bridge remained the most likely target. Pemberton was dead wrong.

John Gregg
Grant made his decision on May 12 when he marched the corps of Major General James B. McPherson to the town of Raymond. Pemberton moved his command from Vicksburg to Bovina, site of the town nearest to Big Black Bridge. He sent dispatches to both Davis and Johnston, and believed Johnston to be at Chattanooga. That Pemberton was not informed that Johnston was en route to Mississippi simply boggles the mind, but is entirely consistent with how this campaign progressed. Apparently Davis could communicate with both Pemberton and Johnston, without informing the other.

McPherson's troops clashed with the brigade of Texan John Gregg outside the small town of Raymond, and although the Confederates enjoyed initial success, substantially greater numbers of Federal troops pushed Gregg out of the town and back towards Jackson. Pemberton's belief that Grant's primary objective was Big Black Bridge proved incorrect, at least for the moment. Perhaps more importantly, as Grant converged upon Jackson, so was Joseph Johnston. It was later this day that for the first time, Pemberton was informed of Johnston's impending arrival at Jackson. The balance, character and events of the Vicksburg Campaign were about to irrevocably change. The Confederate effort to defeat Grant, which at times which seemed disjointed, but at least appeared coordinated and responsive, was now about to completely unravel.

The events of May 12 convinced Pemberton that the lower crossings of the Big Black - Hall's, Hankinson's and Baldwin's Ferries, were not the focal point of Grant's efforts. Quickly, he ordered the majority of the troops he considered mobile - the divisions of Bowen, Stevenson, and Loring - into position in and around the tiny town of Bovina. His two other divisions were left to cover Vicksburg, Yazoo River, and the lower Big Black River crossings. Pemberton concentrated a mobile strike force, and worked to ensure that other key points were covered.

A troubled and doubtful Joseph E. Johnston arrived in the capital city of Jackson, late in the evening of May 13. Four days spent riding the deteriorating and rickety Southern rail system to get from Chattanooga to Jackson had soured his disposition.

The tired and dispirited Johnston received news from Gregg that Grant's army was bearing down on Jackson. Hurriedly, he penned off a quick note to Richmond: "I arrived this evening finding the enemy's force between this place and General Pemberton, cutting off the communication. I am too late."

William T. Sherman
Somehow Johnston mistakenly learned that Sherman was several miles to the west, at Clinton. Without verifying the information, he immediately wired Pemberton at 8:40 that evening: "I have lately arrived, and learn that Major-General Sherman is between us, with four divisions, at Clinton. It is important to reestablish communications, that you may be re-enforced. If practicable, come up on his rear at once. To beat such a detachment, would be of immense value. The troops here could co-operate. All the strength you can quickly assemble should be brought. Time is all-important." To ensure delivery, Johnston sent copies via three different couriers.

Johnston realized that Jackson could not be held, and retired his command towards Canton, a town 20 miles northeast of Jackson. Gregg was left with two brigades to delay Grant's incoming forces, and although he put up a spirited resistance, Gregg was pushed out of Jackson. Jubilant Union forces entered the capital, and manufacturing and industrial locations were put to the torch.

Johnston's dispatch to Pemberton arrived early on May 14. By now, Pemberton had consolidated his forces, and had his three divisions located between Bovina and Edward's Station. As the dispatch was delivered, rain began to fall, and Pemberton sent off a quick response to Johnston. He acknowledged receipt and noted he would move in compliance. But Pemberton had misgivings about leaving the road to Vicksburg open, concluding his note with: "I do not think you fully comprehend the position that Vicksburg will be left in, but I comply at once with your order."

Pemberton started out with his 23,000-man army on May 14. At some point during the day, he must have received some intelligence, or simply became concerned about the validity of the "detachment" Johnston alleged to be at Clinton. He halted his army at noon, and called a council of war.

There were three options available to Pemberton: proceed as planned to Clinton, remain at Edward's and await Grant's approach, or move on Grant's supply line, supposed to be at Dillon's Plantation on the Raymond - Port Gibson Road. The record is unclear as to what was discussed and believed, a possible reflection on the futility of councils of war. Pemberton apparently argued for the continued defense of Vicksburg - remain at Edward's Station. He suggests in his report on the campaign that a majority of subordinates favored continuing the move towards Clinton, while division commanders Stevenson and Loring favored the move on Grant's supply line.

Despite conflicting testimony regarding the council, we do know that Pemberton decided to make the move favored by Stevenson and Loring. Since his junior officers were evidently in favor of an advance of some sort, and Pemberton evidently realized the impracticality of the Clinton move, he decided to move on Grant's supply line. That evening, he penned a note to Johnston informing his superior of the decision.

About the same time, Johnston was preparing another message for Pemberton. Once more, this message is indicative of the problems inherent with communicating during the campaign. The note, written late on May 14, did not reach Pemberton until 5:45 p.m. on May 16 - at a point at which Pemberton and his army were retreating from the battlefield of Champion Hill. "I am anxious to see a force assembled that may be able to inflict a heavy blow upon the enemy," he wrote. Johnston, however, chose to move his small army away from Pemberton, and not towards it, as he had promised.

Pemberton's note to Johnston, explaining his decision to move on Grant's supply line, reached the departmental commander early the next day. Johnston was incensed upon receipt of the dispatch; he had moved towards the northeast, on the Canton Road, and Pemberton's movement would take him directly away from Johnston. But Johnston had no orders for his subordinate, other than the tired command to move to Clinton, and unite forces. Johnston had no information for Pemberton regarding the disposition of Grant's forces. Both men were operating in the dark.

Like so many of the messages that went back and forth between the two men, this one took a full day to deliver. Even though he did not give his subordinate a direct or peremptory order, the stage was set for the decisive battle of Champion Hill.

U.S. Grant
Unbeknownst to the Confederates, one of the three copies of Johnston's first message (of the evening of May 13) was entrusted to a Federal spy, who turned it over to Grant. Given an unexpected intelligence coup, Grant moved quickly and turned his army to search out Pemberton.

Whereas Grant moved swiftly, the same could not be said for Pemberton. Orders for the morning march on May 15 went immediately awry. Loring, Bowen and Stevenson were to take the Raymond Road as far as Mrs. Ellison's house, at which point they would turn south and move to Dillon's Plantation. Provisions, which should have been available, were not, and the march did not start until 1:00 p.m. A bridge over Baker's Creek on the Raymond Road, previously assumed to be intact was in fact washed out, and the army had to detour around Champion Hill in order to regain their line of march.

The corps of Federal Major General John McClernand made first contact with Loring's division on the Raymond Road early in the morning of May 16. Pemberton's plan to march against Grant's supply line was clearly impractical, given the buildup of Union forces in his front.

To compound the situation, early on May 16 Pemberton received Johnston's message of the previous day, which ordered him again to move to Clinton. Perhaps, at this point, Pemberton had simply had enough. Rather than developing the Federal forces in his front or better, falling back on the Big Black Bridge defenses, the confused commander attempted to turn his army around, march back to Edward's, take the road north to Brownsville and bypass Grant in order to reach Johnston. In doing so he forsook all of the strategic tenets that had guided him up to this point.

To extricate his army involved complicated maneuvering. The tail of the column, Stevenson's division, had to become the head. The wagon trains had to be moved out of the way in order to allow the newly created head of the column to pass. By mid-morning, the wagon train reported itself in position to allow the army to advance.

Grant had no intention of allowing Pemberton to slip away. As units skirmished with Loring on the Raymond Road, Stevenson's division was caught attempting to turn around, and three Federal divisions hurled themselves into the newly created head of the Confederate column.

Champion Hill was a hotly contested affair, and although Grant held the advantage of manpower, a ferocious counterattack by Bowen's undersized division almost cleared the Union center. But there were simply too many Union troops that day, and Stevenson and Loring did not fight their divisions well. Facing annihilation if his army continued the fight, Pemberton wisely ordered a retreat.

Even in retreat, the Confederates faced total disaster. The bridge over Baker's Creek, washed out earlier on May 15, had fortuitously been repaired. Federal forces captured the other bridge (on the Jackson Road), and the entire Confederate army had to cross Baker's Creek over the repaired bridge. Late in the day, Loring's division, which had been engaged in rear-guard action, began to cross. Shells lobbed at the bridge from Union forces across the creek to the north stopped Loring, and he ordered his forces to move south of the Raymond Road, away from Pemberton, to avoid capture.

Instead of then moving his division towards Pemberton, and using another crossing of the Big Black River, Loring not only failed to communicate with his beleaguered commander, but also moved away from Vicksburg, towards Johnston. Loring's movements deprived Pemberton of an entire division of nearly 6,000 men, and the battle of Champion Hill cost Pemberton 3,800 men, of which 2,400 alone were missing or captured. In addition, the Confederates left 27 cannon on the field.

Pemberton fell back to his next position, 10 miles closer to Vicksburg at Big Black Bridge. Defensive works had been thrown up on the eastern side of the river. A fresh brigade of new troops, and Bowen's veterans, manned the hastily dug works. Pemberton, still uncertain of Loring's location, hoped to hold the bridge crossing until his subordinate arrived.

Pemberton blundered again. The resulting Battle of Big Black Bridge was scarcely a battle. The fresh troops manning the Confederate defenses were unreliable; the remainder were exhausted and dispirited. The Confederate works quickly fell. This time, 1,750 irreplaceable soldiers were lost, along with another 18 cannon. In two days, Pemberton had lost more than 5,000 troops, a 6,000-man division, 45 cannon, plus associated ammunition and small arms. Pemberton made it back to Vicksburg late on May 17.

And what of Johnston? What was Pemberton's superior doing while his subordinate struggled against Grant? Johnston was busily engaged in bringing together the scattered reinforcements then converging on Jackson, and setting up his army. Johnston's dispatch of May 15, which led Pemberton to attempt to turn his army around, was written "ten miles from Jackson," on the Canton Road.

On the morning of May 16 Johnston finally updated the President and the War Department. The message was curiously written for a general upset with the movements of his subordinate. "I have no information from General Pemberton except of his move to Dillon's with 17,000 men," he wrote the Secretary of War. "My object is to unite all the troops," he concluded.

For a man who after the campaign, as well as in his post-war writings, severely censured Pemberton for his decision to move against Grant's supply line, Johnston was surprisingly indifferent at the time. In addition, President Davis endorsed the telegram, wondering why a junction between the forces of Pemberton and Johnston was not attempted. Davis was as confused about the situation in Mississippi as everyone else.

Furthermore, Johnston was not moving in fulfillment of his written promises to Pemberton, which made uniting the two forces even more difficult. Twice, he urged his subordinate to move on Clinton, and twice he sat still, or moved in the opposite direction.

Sitting quietly in camp, Johnston received Pemberton's dispatch of May 16, which announced his re-found intent to move to Clinton. Even though the time taken to deliver the message meant Pemberton had a head start on the consolidation effort, Johnston did not begin moving until the next day, and by the end of that day's march, was still well short of the rendezvous point.

The battles at Champion Hill and Big Black Bridge, however, made the issue moot. On May 17 both Pemberton and Johnston were both moving west, but in Pemberton's case, it was a retrograde movement, back into the trenches at Vicksburg. From his headquarters in Vicksburg, Pemberton dutifully updated Johnston on the situation. Reflecting his feelings about the chain of events that led to his defeat and subsequent retreat, he closed the note with: "I greatly regret that I felt compelled to make the advance beyond Big Black, which has proved so disastrous in its results."

May 17 was a nightmarish day for Joseph E. Johnston. Pemberton's dispatch announcing the defeats at Champion Hill and Big Black Bridge, as well as the retreat to the Vicksburg defenses, arrived at his camp that evening. Immediately, Johnston penned a response to his subordinate. He wrote:

Your dispatch of to-day . . . was received. If Haynes' Bluff is untenable, Vicksburg is of no value, and cannot be held. If, therefore, you are invested in Vicksburg, you must ultimately surrender. Under such circumstances, instead of losing both troops and place, we must, if possible, save the troops. If it is not too late, evacuate Vicksburg and its dependencies, and march to the northeast.

Even now, although he clearly believed that maintaining an army inside the defense perimeter of Vicksburg to be worthless, Johnston could not bring himself to peremptorily order Pemberton to vacate Vicksburg.

West Point Military Atlas - Vicksburg Campaign
For the second time in four days, Pemberton called his subordinates together to discuss available options. As opposed to the council held outside Edward's Station on May 15, this time results were unanimous. Having suffered back-to-back defeats on the two previous days, everyone believed morale to be too weak to break out.

In his response to Johnston dated May 18, Pemberton outlined problems inherent with leaving the defenses of Vicksburg, and concluded his thoughts with words with which Johnston disagreed: "I still conceive it (Vicksburg) to be the most important point in the Confederacy."

The defenders of Vicksburg stood siege to the forces of U.S. Grant. At Jackson, Joseph E. Johnston assembled his "Army of Relief" that eventually totaled 30,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry. Pemberton repulsed assaults on May 19 and May 22, and watched with growing impotence as Grant tunneled his way closer and closer to the works. In the meantime, Grant received reinforcements in mid-June, and by June 23 dispatched the corps of William T. Sherman to the Big Black River to defend against a possible movement by Johnston.

The question of whether or not the siege of Vicksburg could have been relieved during late May and early June 1863 is the subject for another night. In trying to understand the command perspective of the Confederates at Vicksburg during first 18 days of May 1863, I believe six key points are worth noting:

First, the defensive strategy implemented by Pemberton during the first 13 days of May was strategically sound, given his circumstances. All told, Pemberton had approximately 40,000 men to combat Grant's nearly 55,000. The limited number of available river crossings, and the strength of those positions made the Big Black Pemberton's best defensive line. Pemberton correctly reasoned that as long as the enemy remained outside the Big Black, his time was limited, and would grow continually more so. Grant had to get inside the Big Black to negate the Confederate's defensive line along the Yazoo River, in order to open his preferred line of supply.

Second, the plan just described, as developed by Pemberton, was judiciously carried out. As Grant continued to push inland, Pemberton maneuvered his forces along the Big Black to keep pace. On May 10, as Grant pushed towards Raymond, Pemberton moved a portion of his forces outside the Bovina defense line to Edward's Station to hold that vital railroad position. Pemberton realized that to try to cover the Mississippi capital of Jackson, with forces available at that time would extend his lines too far, and leave Vicksburg uncovered.

Third, it is abundantly clear that as far as John C. Pemberton and Jefferson Davis were concerned, the city of Vicksburg, and its Mississippi River defenses, were a top Confederate priority and had to be held. Pemberton knew from Johnston's December visit the low regard his superior held for the city and its extended defenses, but President Davis, in his communications with Pemberton, made it very clear that he expected his subordinate to hold both Vicksburg and Port Hudson at all costs.

Fourth, the lack of cavalry, of which Pemberton complained of during and after the campaign, was a significant factor once Grant's inland campaign began. Pemberton argued that his lack of cavalry hampered his ability to counter Grierson's April raid into Mississippi, and forced him to use Loring's division of infantry to guard the railroad. This, he suggested, delayed concentration of his army at Port Gibson.

The presence of Loring at Port Gibson, however, would not have changed the outcome of the battle, nor would it have changed the character of the campaign. The significance of the lack of cavalry manifested itself more in Pemberton's inability to track, follow and harass Grant's army once it moved inland. A mobile division of troopers, competently handled, would have been charged with the task of restricting Grant's ability to move at will within the interior of the state. Such harassment might have forced Grant to make a hasty or ill-advised attack on one of the Big Black River crossings, at an earlier date.

Fifth, Jefferson Davis's decision to send Joseph Johnston to Mississippi, while made with the best of intentions, changed the character of the campaign for the worse. From the time that Johnston arrived in Jackson, his indecisiveness, refusal to move personally to Pemberton, and unwillingness to give Pemberton peremptory orders drastically effected Pemberton's decisions. The command expertise that Davis hoped Johnston would bring to the Mississippi command backfired. Johnston was unwilling to take command and accept his delegated responsibility.

And finally, sixth, Pemberton's lack of military field experience made Confederate chances of victory at both Champion Hill and Big Black Bridge almost nil. The decision to sever Grant's supply line at Dillon's Plantation was also a poor one. The movement would uncover Vicksburg every bit as much as would Johnston's order for a rendezvous at Clinton, so one can question why, other than a perceived need to do something, Pemberton made this choice.

Pemberton's defensive strategy at Big Black Bridge defies understanding and logic. That he waited and hoped for Loring to arrive, given his unknown whereabouts, is understandable, but why he chose to position himself on the eastern side of the river is not easily understood.

Counter-factual, or "what if" speculation suggests there are two other possible directions the campaign could have taken. In the first, Pemberton takes his army and joins Johnston, which would have pleased his commander. This would have resulted in the loss of Vicksburg (and Port Hudson), however, and left Johnston (now in command) facing an aggressive Grant. Where Johnston could have staked a line of defense, however, is not clearly understood. All joking about Joe Johnston's abilities to retreat aside, I simply do not know what course of action Johnston could have taken had Pemberton united with him at the onset of Johnston's arrival in Jackson.

The other scenario contemplates a Vicksburg campaign without Joe Johnston's presence in Mississippi. Were Johnston not present, the events that led Pemberton to stumble into the Champion Hill and Big Black Bridge battles would not have happened, and a concentrated defense of the upper Big Black crossings might not have led to disasters as great as these two battles. Could Pemberton have inflicted a strong enough blow on Grant, or at least hurt him badly enough, that he had to fall back on his base at Grand Gulf? If that happened, what would the Confederates have done once their ranks swelled to 65,000 to 70,000, once reinforcements arrived?

The answer is, of course, that we simply do not know. Given the command and tactical deficiencies of Pemberton, Loring and Stevenson, the most likely answer is that they probably would have found a way to make significant mistakes and still be required to fall back into the Vicksburg defenses. The tactical situation, though, would have been decisively different, and at least in this case, the 30,000-man Army of Relief that sat inactive at Jackson would at least have been involved in the defense of Vicksburg.

"General Pemberton made not a single movement in obedience to my orders and regarded none of my instructions," wrote Johnston in his Official Report after the campaign closed. I can only hope that by chronicling the events of the first 18 days in May 1863, I have at least shown to you that those "orders" and "instructions" were at best couched in terms that gave Pemberton latitude in obeying, and certainly lacked the peremptory implications that Johnston subsequently suggested.

Pemberton himself blundered on many occasions, but blame for failure in the campaign cannot be laid solely at his feet. Jefferson Davis, acting with the best of intentions from his desk in Richmond, contributed to the situation as well.

In the final analysis, then, it was not one single man who caused Confederate defeat at Vicksburg, and led to the army's surrender on July 4, 1863. It was a team effort, from President Jefferson Davis, to unwilling departmental commander Joseph E. Johnston, to commander on the scene, John C. Pemberton and his subordinates. That they faced U.S. Grant as an adversary was unfortunate, also.

Perhaps Vicksburg could have been held, perhaps not. But one can only wonder at the effect on the Union war effort had U.S. Grant been pushed back, and viewed as a failure, in May 1863. The story of the Confederate effort, starting from the eastern bank of the Mississippi River, is sadly one that has been seldom told in our histories of the campaign. I can only hope, within this discussion, the events and causes that led to the siege of Vicksburg are somewhat clearer to you tonight.

Return to Top