In October of 1862, General John A. McClernand had grasped a simple truth. Whichever Union General succeeded in capturing the fortress town of Vicksburg would become President of the United States of America after the war. AND… it was going to be him.
General McClernand had been a prominent Springfield, Illinois lawyer and politician before the war. (Yes… that Springfield, Illinois.) Once the war had begun he felt his considerable skill as both a litigant and a legislator would make him an excellent general. (How hard can it be?) Lincoln, realizing that if he couldn’t have at least an experienced officer corps, an officer corps of political allies was the next best thing, had his good friend made a Brigadier.
General McClernand served in several campaigns under General Grant including Belmont, Donaldson and Shiloh. While Grant had little use for the political general, McClernand received promotions after each engagement until finally he was made a Major General after the battle of Shiloh.
At the same time Grant suffered a severe, but temporary career setback. Shiloh had pretty much sucked.
Shiloh and the War
At Shiloh, something remarkable happened. A major battle occurred. Not the puny toy major battles of the previous century but a real mother of a blowout. Prior to Shiloh, all previous battles had been by comparison a pillow fight. Shiloh claimed more lives than the War of Independence, more lives than the Mexican- American War, and more lives than the War of 1812. Each side lost over 10,000 men. The word “Major” had to be recalibrated. Oh… and Shiloh was a strategic draw. Nothing had been decided. Nothing had changed.
Needless to say the commanders had a lot to answer for. Commanders in the field had clearly blundered badly as it was simply not possible that battles should be so costly. Shiloh HAD to be an aberration. The alternative, that battles would routinely cost thousands of men their lives without yielding meaningful results, couldn’t be the norm.
The Union commander, U. S. Grant was blamed and demoted to second in command under General Halleck. It was not possible to punish the Confederate commander, Albert Sidney Johnston, as he had been killed leading his men in a desperate charge. Instead, P. G. T. Beauregard, the confederate second in command, was exiled to Charleston where he spent the next two years defending the South Carolina port from invasion by land or sea.
Over the next four months two things happened to return General Grant to favor:
- Campaigns along the Mississippi proved successful. Iuka, Corinth and Island number 10 fell to Halleck’s Army. Halleck, in acknowledgement of this success received a promotion to general-in-chief of all union armies and returned to D.C.
- The Seven Days, Stones River, Second Manassas and Antietam proved that Shiloh had not been a fluke. Battles in the American Civil War all pretty much sucked and Shiloh had just been the first example.
General Halleck, for a brief time, had commanded the entire western theatre and his departure had left a vacuum. Grant filled much of that vacuum as had others. Was there enough vacuum left for McClernand too? McClernand thought yes and saw to it that he had a chat with an old friend.
The Army of the Mississippi
For much of the first 18 months of the war, the western rivers had been the focus of Union aggression. One after another, the mighty river forts of the Mississippi and Tennessee rivers had fallen until at last Memphis had slid into Union hands. With this, focus had shifted to conquering Kentucky and Tennessee overland and the Union Army of Mississippi had been disbanded to provide veteran troops to the mighty armies of the Tennessee and Ohio.
With the continued growth of Union arms and control of yet more Mississippi Forts by the Confederates, many believed another Army of the Mississippi was needed. Certainly John A. McClernand did and the he told just that to President Lincoln.
In October of 1862, while on a leave of absence from the US army for the purpose of getting married, General McClarnend saw to it that a portion of his honeymoon was spent within an easy carriage ride of the White House. Meeting with the President, McClernand laid out his plan:
- Collect an Army in Cairo Illinois
- Borrow the Navy for a bit
- Go down river
- Give em’ hell
- We win the War and chicks dig us
How tough could it be?
Lincoln liked this plan. After a year of firing generals for not being aggressive and not wanting to close to with the enemy, Lincoln was pretty desperate for Generals that wanted in the game. He shared this plan with Secretary of War Seward and Seward made sure that an army of 30,000 men would be in Cairo waiting for General McClernand when he returned …from his honeymoon… in a month.
General Grant disliked General McClernand. So did General Sherman. So did Admiral Porter (who’s fleet would be put at McClernand’s disposal.) Pretty much everyone with a military background disliked McClernand including, to McClernand’s great misfortune, General Halleck.
When Grant discovered an army was being gathered in his backyard which was NOT intended for his use, he decided McClernand’s plan sucked and that he could do better. Not having received orders to not take these troops and incorporate them into his forces, he felt that it was his DUTY to do just that. Grant cabled Halleck and confirmed that Cairo was within his military control and that troops that might be stationed there where his to distribute and use. Halleck, knowing a ripe plan when he saw one, responded “yes”. Cairo was in Grant’s military control and Halleck had not seen any orders changing that.
In December of 1862 Grant had 30,000 extra men but only a week or so to use them. Knowing that simply landing these troops above Vicksburg on the Yazoo would be tough given that the Vicksburg defenders would be able to rapidly deploy to the cliffs and hills from their location from Vicksburg, Grant came up with a different plan. What if the troops from Vicksburg were busy? An invasion through Mississippi would draw these troops out into the open and even if Grant could not punch his way through then at least an assault from the Yazoo could not be stopped. Grant sent General Sherman to Cairo along with Porter’s river fleet and they agreed to meet in Mississippi on the 27th of December.
The plan gets screwed
So… what happened. Earl Van Dorn’s Cavalry raided Holly Springs on December 20th and made off with everything but General Grant’s wife. Holly Springs had been the Army of the Tennessee’s main campaign depot and it’s loss meant that the army was living on 100% forage from this point on. Grant, realizing that he had too much supply line and not enough stuff, decided that he needed to back out of Mississippi now and try to cancel the invasion.
Even worse, Sherman did not get the word. For a 5 days Sherman was ignorant of the fact that Grant had been forced backwards and on December 26th he launched an attack on the Chickasaw Bayou and the rested and tanned Army of Vicksburg.
It gets worse
Once Sherman returned to Porter’s fleet with about 2,000 less men than he set out with, he had the great displeasure of running into the man he least wanted to see, General McClernand, sitting on Porter’s Flagship, ready for his explanation… and McClernand was not amused.
Perhaps he should have been pleased though. His plan had been executed with competence and enthusiasm by one of the greatest military minds of the 20th century. If Sherman could not succeed with the plan then the plan had sucked all along. Far better to take command of an army just after a defeat then before it. Now the situation was entirely Grant’s fault.
Worse still, McClernand had a good idea. Or rather Admiral Porter did and McClernad was a good listener. Up from Vicksburg, at Arkansas Post was Fort Hindmand, a smaller confederate fort guarding the Arkansas river. A very doable fight and a decent place to bag Confederates with a ginormous ironclad fleet and an amphibious Union army at hand. On January 9th, the fort, realizing that it was outmatched, surrendered its garrison of over 5,000 men. At that point the largest capitulation of southern troops during the war. McClernand was now something of a Hero.
Grant arrived on the scene just after the battle with permission from his superiors to relieve McClernand of his command. Apparently, though a good idea, the battle of Arkansas Post had been fought without permission or discussion with superiors and Halleck was not impressed. Grant was though. Realizing that the worst time to fire a general was immediately after a victory, he did not feel he could get rid of McClernand. Instead he acted like he had been in command the whole time. Grant assumed command by rank and reorganized his army with McClernand as one of his Corp Commanders.
McClernand, again not amused, sought the aid of the President and this time was disappointed. It had been one thing to give McClernand new, undeployed troops that where apart of no army at all. Now, Mclernand wanted troops taken from Grant in the field and the army just wasn’t managed that way. The President told McClarnand to be patient and to do his best. Halleck, on the other hand, told Grant to hang on to that permission to relieve McClernand of command… it might come in handy later.