It always intrigues me as to which battles have drawn popular attention during the sesquicentennial. We’ve heard virtually nothing, for example,of Grant’s failed effort to take Vicksburg in December 1862. The Union commander had proposed a two-pronged offensive, with Grant directing a drive down central Mississippi while William T. Sherman led a riverborne thrust at Vicksburg itself from the north. Whatever the merits of the plan, its hurried implementation owed something to the concern both generals had about the imminent appearance of John A. McClernand, who carried orders that he believed gave him independent command of an expedition against Vicksburg. That this was not quite the case is a story left for another time.
The offensive met with dismal results. Confederate raids against Grant’s supply line, notably the capture of a supply depot at Holly Springs, forced Grant to turn back, although he later said that during the retreat he learned much about living off the land, an experience that would prove useful later. This setback allowed the Confederates at Vicksburg to concentrate on stopping Sherman, a task that proved none too difficult. Part of this was due to the terrain along which the Confederates deployed, a series of bluffs and hills that made Marye’s Heights and the sunken road west of Fredericksburg seem like a mere wrinkle in the ground. But the failure of the Union assault at significant cost also owed much to Sherman’s unimaginative handling of the attack, a trait that he repeatedly displayed throughout the war when it came to assaults upon defensive positions. “We will lose 5,000 men before we take Vicksburg, and may as well lose them here as anywhere else,” he observed, a comment that reflects his readiness to accept losses and his uninspired approach to offensive operations. In fact, Sherman lost 1,176 men, while the Confederates lost a mere 187 men. As Sherman later summed it up in a dispatch to Halleck, ”I reached Vicksburg at the time appointed, landed, assaulted, and failed.” Given both the strength of the Confederate position and Sherman’s approach to launching assaults, it is hard to imagine any other outcome.
The failure of Grant’s first attempt to take Vicksburg reflected the confused nature of Union command relationships at this point in the war. Lincoln had approved three major command changes that fall: Burnside had replaced McClellan, Rosecrans had replaced Buell, and McClernand had wrangled a command independent of Grant, or so he thought. Politics were part of all three command changes: the command structure erected in July 1862 with the appointment of Henry W. Halleck was a wreck. Grant struggled to find out about McClernand’s mission, and moved when he did in part because he had no faith in McClernand’s ability to succeed … and yet it is reasonable to add that if McClernand triumphed, it would come at Grant’s expense, and Grant knew this, too. During the months to come commanders would find themselves having to deal with disloyal subordinates who were all too free with sharing their opinions with the powers that be back at state capitals and Washington, with Lincoln himself avidly listening to such reports. Given his own masterful handling of his cabinet crisis, one wonders why he would promote instability in several army commands. Of the three major commanders in place in December 1862, only one would survive such internal intrigue and be in place a year later. That Ulysses S. Grant prevailed given the obstacles in front of him … and the fire in his rear … remains one of the most interesting and revealing tales in American history.