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Seven Failures Before The Taking of Vicksburg

This page is about the Battle of Vicksburg (where all references live) during the American Civil War. This material relates to Union failures prior to the successful taking of Vicksburg.

Table of contents
1 Preliminaries
2 The first failure
3 The second failure
4 A Union reprieve
5 Plans
6 The third failure
7 The fourth failure
8 The fifth failure
9 The sixth failure
10 What is going wrong? -- an investigation
11 The seventh failure


After Grant's victory at the Battle of Shiloh and at The Battle of Corinth, the Union's prime problem in the west was the capture of the well-defended stronghold of Vicksburg.

After Corinth, Grant marched south down the Mississippi Central Railroad, making a forward base at Holly Springs.

But the enemy in front with 20,000 troops conspired with the enemy in his rear, and not all enemies were Confederate.

Grant's vulnerable supply line went 150 miles. A war Democrat and less-than-competent political general, John A. McClernand, was organizing his own army for an assault on Vicksburg.

McClernand's being a Democrat was of importance. The dominant Republicans needed Democratic support, and Abraham Lincoln gave McClernand the go-ahead, without first telling Grant. Filled with dreams of military and consequent political conquest, the ambitious McClernand began organizing regiments, sending them to Memphis, Tennessee.

Back in Washington, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck was likewise nervous about McClernand, giving Grant control of all troops in his own department. McClernand's troops were split into two corps, one under McClernand, one under Sherman. McClernand complained, but to no avail. Grant made off with his troops, one of several maneuvers in a private war within the Union army between Grant and McClernand that would finally come to a head during the The Siege of Vicksburg.

The first failure

Grant's plan was to have Sherman go downriver while Grant went overland in a two-pronged assault. Grant's telegram to McClernand never made it, as Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest had cut Grant's communications.

Forrest and Confederate general Earl Van Dorn ended Grant's first effort. Forrest's 2,000 tricky cavalry troops out-fought a number of Union garrisons, while Van Dorn's rode north of Grenada, got behind Grant and destroyed his supply lines, together with his depot at Holly Springs. Van Dorn escaped before Grant could catch him.

The second failure

Grant retreated to Tennessee, tellingly noting how his troops lived off the land. But Sherman was stuck up the primeval Yazoo Delta, a confusing swamp that offered the only overland route to Vicksburg's north. Sherman never learned of Grant's withdrawal, as the telegraph lines were down. Sherman attempted an assault, being badly repulsed, losing 1,800 Union to 200 Confederate troops.

A Union reprieve

Union gloominess was somewhat relieved by their spectacular victory under general William S. Rosecrans over the Confederates and their woefully incompetent general Braxton Bragg at the Battle of Stones River (the Confederates simply called it Murfreesburo, after the city in Tennessee by which at happened). Copperhead anti-Union sentiment somewhat lessened. But Vicksburg stood defiant.


Grant went down the Mississippi to Millikens Bend, planning an army-navy assault. The Confederates best ally was Mother Nature -- it had rained hard all winter, nearly immobilizing the army, many of whom landed on the sick list.

The third failure

The next project was for Sherman's troops to cut a canal around Vicksburg's guns, and the Confederates could have simply moved guns to attack the canal's mouth downstream. The river was not cooperative either; Sherman's troops risking drowning.

The fourth failure

The Lake Providence route followed a wandering course from an oxbow lake fifty miles upstream of Vicksburg through the bayous some four hundred miles below. But this effort was abandoned as too time-consuming.

The fifth failure

If gunboats could simply get through the jungle of the Yazoo Delta north of Vicksburg, past the well-defended cliffs, the Union would have a good landing on dry ground. McClernand and several gunboats blew some dikes outside Helena some 400 miles above Vicksburg, hoping to float gunboats down the now-flooded Yazoo Delta.

But the primeval Delta apparently sided with the Confederates, trees destroying anything above decks. Confederates felled more trees in the way. A quickly-constructed Confederate fort by Greenwood, Mississippi fired on the Union boats, and the effort collapsed.

The sixth failure

The next boondoggle was an effort to go up the Yazoo Delta just north of Vicksburg, managed by the navy and admiral Admiral David Dixon Porter. The primeval Yazoo Delta seemingly conspired against the Union forces yet again, angry animals dropping from trees on the Union boats and Confederate felling more trees in their path. This time the Union forces became immobilized, the Confederates intent on capturing the lot of them. A contraband (a freed black) sent a note to Sherman requesting help. They managed to disgracefully avoid disaster, but the fifth effort had failed, Porter's paddlewheelers bumbling out.

What is going wrong? -- an investigation

Lincoln was wondering what ws going on. He sent the Horace Greeley's newspaperman Charles A. Dana to presumably to investigate the paymaster service of the army in the west, but Grant knew his real purpose -- to snoop on Grant to see if all those wild rumors about him were true. Some on Grant's staff recommended getting rid of Dana, but Grant welcomed him, a move that proved wise, for Dana had nothing but high marks for Grant, regarding Grant as a modest, honest and even-tempered man.

The seventh failure

Pemberton thought Grant was giving up and withdrawing to Memphis. Pemberton sent most of his cavalry to Bragg, a loss that proved telling later on. Confederates were in high spirits. They had cause.

Grant's last failure was preceed by seeking a route down the Atchafalaya River, thence to the Red River. They managed a blockade of the Red, but little else.

But the real effort was to dig a canal south of Duckport, aimed at getting lighter boats past Vicksburg. Nothing but the lightest of boats could get through, and this depended upon the height of the river. It came to naught.