In the spring of 1863, General Grant was painfully aware of a simple fact; Vicksburg was vulnerable to attack… so long as the attack was not launched from the north, west or south… where he could feasibly place his army. For months Grant struggled to open a path around the guns of Vicksburg so that he could transport his army to a point that they could attack into the heart of Mississippi without having to endure a ride past the guns of Vicksburg. With the capture of the Trans-Mississippi Grant had an interesting opportunity. He could use the river south of Vicksburg now if not the stretch of river directly in front of Vicksburg.
Grant could have always moved his army past Vicksburg. This was easy. All he had to do was either march south through Mississippi to the east of the Mississippi delta or march south west of the Mississippi river in Louisiana. The later of these two paths, and Grant’s ultimate choice, offered the greater likelihood of surprise given the loss of connection between Trans-Mississippi Confederates with their eastern brethren.
The shortcomings of this route are legion however:
- That cute red line on that map above doesn’t actually coincide with the existence of a road. It does coincide with existence of many unbridged rivers and bayous.
- Grant’ path lay on the wrong side of the river. The Mississippi is a mile wide here. An army the size of Grant’s would require a MAJOR fleet to cross the river fast enough not to be mauled by a confederate army that could be gathered by rail, horse or road from all parts of the confederacy.
- That is a LONG road. Supply for an army would have to move along that huge distance and would be WAY vulnerable interception by armed guerillas. You could move an army across it but you couldn’t feed an army at the end of it.
Roads and bridges take time an men to build. Grant had both. For months his engineers had by combing the bayous of the western bank of the Mississippi river looking for shortcuts to perhaps shift his navy and in the process all weather paths had been created. Eventually, with a path clear in his mind, a road was built that would provide excellent transport extending from Milliken’s bend north of Vicksburg to the wonderfully named town ‘Hard times” opposite of Bruinsburg in Mississippi.
There would be no substitute for Porter’s fleet in crossing the Mississippi however. Every ship that COULD pass the guns of Vicksburg would have to do so. On April 16th, Admiral Porter and 11 of the best ships of this River Navy creeped past the guns of Vicksburg… and paid for it. His entire fleet was badly damaged in the crossing and one ship had been lit on fire and sunk. On the 21st another 6 ships, this time army transports, made the run and again all paid a price and one ship paid a whole lotta price.
The damage to the fleet had been anticipated and supplies for their repair had been moved to New Carthage. By the 29th the fleet had been repaired. The real cost of this maneuver had not been ships or sailor’s but rather the commitment of Porter’s fleet to operations south of Vicksburg. While ships can run downstream of Vicksburg with relative ease they could NEVER go back. Farragut had attempted an upstream passing of Port Hudson in March and only two of his seven boats made the trip. AND Port Hudson was no Vicksburg. From now on all of Grant and Porter’s options lay south of Vicksburg.
The third of the Grant’s long road problems was the most difficult to solve; Supply. Not enough food could ever be moved along this long road and it could NEVER be supplemented by rail or boat given the regions topography. Grant’s solution to this problem ranks amongst the great strategic accomplishments of warfare. Right up there with moving elephant’s across the alps or pitching soldiers out of airplanes. Grant would solve the problem of supply by… <wait for it> … ignoring it. He would raid the confederates pantry for all the food he would need… hopefully.
Foraging is an act of desperation for an army and has a number of limitations:
- Only moving armies can successfully forage as once an area is cleaned out of food then… well… its cleaned out of food.
- Forage works best while food is growing in the field. Once it’s harvested it’s mobile and can be hidden.
- Foraging works best in areas with a low density of population and a high density of agriculture. More food to steal, less people to defend it.
- The area to be foraged should have as little warning as possible to prevent goods from being moved.
Mississippi was one of the breadbaskets of the confederacy. This portion of Mississippi in particular, with its access to both rail and river transport and no history of Union operations, was flush with supplies and short on troops. May would find the fields filled with edible food with no means to remove it. Furthermore, Grants decision to invade without a line of supply caught everyone utterly by surprise on both sides of the war. Armies as a rule do not go on the offensive with securing a line of supply… and certainly not Union armies. Both Grant’s superiors and subordinates took Grant at his word that food would not be a problem.
The potential of offensive forage was a lesson that had been learned by Grant the previous year when he was forced to retreat back to Memphis when Forest’s and Van Dorn’s cavalry had destroyed his supply line in Tennessee and at Holly Springs. The order to retreat and to forage for supply had returned an impossibly large amount of material. Far from starving, his retreating army had eaten rather well. Grant put this trivia nugget away.
On the 29th and 30th of April, Grant moved much of his army into the deep rear of his confederated adversary just south of Bayou Pierre. Grant had somehow moved an army of 50,000 men through 100 miles of confederate controlled territory without the confederates noticing. Partially this can be attributed to the limitations of his opponent’s imagination but Grant had also gone to a lot of trouble to give the confederates something else to think about.
Something else to think about
In April of 1863 the North’s long standing aversion to modern cavalry tactics ended. Grant had not one but two raids planned to give the confederates something to think about other than “hey… where DID those gunboats go”.
If you are ever asked to lead a cavalry raid deep into enemy territory using mules instead of horses, you should turn this offer down. Colonel Abel D. Streight did not come to this sensible conclusion and led a force of 1700 mule mounted cavalry on attack from Tuscumbia (in northern Alabama near Mississippi) to Cedar Bluff (In northern Alabama near Georgia). On May 3rd, near Cedar Bluff, Streight and his command were captured by one Darth Vader Nathan Bedford Forest.
This was more useful to the union army than it might sound. Forest had magical dark powers and could screw up virtually anything. He read minds, was invulnerable to bullets and was generally a very scary man. With Forest in eastern Alabama he could neither muck with Grant nor could he interfere with the second, more successful, Union cavalry raid led by Colonel Grierson.
Colonel Grierson’s raid is worthy of study. He was loose in Mississippi for 17 days and destroyed, deceived and confused confederates continually. His orders had been to go from Memphis into Mississippi and come back. As his troops engaged confederates he would split his forces sending some back north but continuing further south with his main unit further into Mississippi. Once on the far side of Jackson, he took the fateful decision to continue south until he ran into a Union position along the Mississippi river. After having occupied 20 times his own force in a fruitless effort to find him, he finally arrived in Baton Rouge and joined General Banks forces on May 2nd. The following month Lincoln had him promoted to a Brigadier General and he was celebrated as one of the great heroes of the war
In an interesting side note… Grierson hated horses. He had been kicked in the face by a horse as a child and was desperately afraid of them. His appointment to the Cavalry branch had been made over his objections.
Meanwhile, back at Vicksburg, Sherman had not made the trip to Mississippi in the last weeks of April along with the rest of Grant’s army. His corps still sat right in front of Vicksburg where it did its best to look like an Army. On the 29th, it retraced to steps to the Chickasaw bluffs where it had been bloodily repulsed the previous December. There his troops disembarked, reembarked, made funny noises and, in general, looked menacingly at the confused confederates. This move did much to distract confederates and convince them that they should stay put and protect Vicksburg from a more direct assault.
Grierson’s raid destroyed communications, distracted resources and generally confused the confederates utterly for a fortnight. Sherman’s demonstration froze the defenders of Vicksburg and convinced them to defend their old positions in the same old way. While dealing with Grierson’s cavalry and Sherman’s corps, confederates utterly lost Grant who crossed the Mississippi by the 1st of May. Grant was now in Mississippi and Sherman set out to catch up to the rest of the army.