We all know that today most eyes will be turning to Chancellorsville. Such is the pride of place of the Eastern theater in our consciousness. Some of you will be wiping virtual (or real) tears as you contemplate the events of the last twenty-four hours some 150 years ago, when the mighty Stonewall was cut down by his own men in a demonstration of just how unfriendly friendly fire can be in the chaos of combat. Others of you will point out that May 3 saw some of the most intense and bloody fighting of the war in Virginia, and you would be right; some of you will point out that the fascination with Jackson’s march, wounding, and death obscures our understanding of what happened at Chancellorsville, and, again, you would be right.
But you would be wrong to focus solely on what was going on in Virginia 150 years ago today. That’s because the most important event of the day happened far to the west, at Grand Gulf, Mississippi. Set aside your fascination with the drama and bloodshed of the ultimately indecisive campaigns of 1863 in the East and look west to see where people (and one in particular) made decisions that changed the course of the war.
On May 3, 1863, Ulysses S. Grant entered Grand Gulf, Mississippi. It had been three days since two corps of his Army of the Tennessee had crossed the Mississippi River, and two days since he had prevailed over the Confederates at Port Gibson, mastering unbelievably difficult terrain as well as stubborn defenders (and a somewhat befuddled John McClernand) to carry the day. Far fewer people visit Port Gibson than see Chancellorsville, which is a shame, because only by seeing the battlefield south of Port Gibson for yourself can you understand the following passage in Grant’s memoirs:
The country in this part of Mississippi stands on edge, as it were, the roads running along the ridges except when they occasionally pass from one ridge to another. Where there are no clearings the sides of the hills are covered with a very heavy growth of timber and with undergrowth, and the ravines are filled with vines and canebrakes, almost impenetrable. This makes it easy for an inferior force to delay, if not defeat, a far superior one.
Following his victory on May 1, Grant entered Port Gibson itself on May 2. There he was joined by his eldest son, Frederick, who was a month shy of thirteen. Frederick carried with him what he wore and nothing more: along with Charles A. Dana, an War Department representative assigned to “observe” Grant, he had scrounged up two aged mounts to ride to his father’s headquarters. Grant was in no better shape. It would take days for his headquarters train to arrive. At Port Gibson the general learned of the success of Benjamin Grierson’s raid through central Mississippi (in fact, Grierson reached Baton Rouge on that very day). By nightfall he was ready to move northward, for his men had repaired a bridge across the river separating them from Grand Gulf and points north. The next morning, May 3, James McPherson’s corps drove the Confederates away from Hankinson’s Ferry on the Big Black River, some fifteen miles due south of Vicksburg.
Later that day Grant entered Grand Gulf, which the Confederates had hastily evacuated. The Rebel batteries there had frustrated Grant’s effort to cross the Mississippi there a week earlier. Now Grant encountered David Dixon Porter’s sailors, who had taken possession of the town. The dirty general took a bath, borrowed some underwear from a naval officer, and boarded the ironclad Louisville to get a good meal.
Awaiting him were a number of dispatches. Grant read with most interest one from General Nathaniel P. Banks. He had been looking to cooperate with Banks for some time: he had contemplated establishing a foothold on the east bank of the Mississippi, gathering supplies, and keeping an eye on John Pemberton’s Confederates at Vicksburg while he sent McClernand’s Thirteenth Corps south to cooperate with Banks in taking Port Hudson, Louisiana, one of the few other remaining Confederate strongholds along the Mississippi River. Banks had given Grant the impression that Port Hudson’s fall was imminent … in March. With that impression in mind, Grant had written Banks on March 22, conveying his willingness to assist Banks. Now, some six weeks later, he learned that Banks was still intent on taking Port Hudson … eventually. He now expected to arrive there May 10. Would Grant still assist that operation?
Grant had a decision to make, and he made it quickly. If he detached McClernand’s corps now, he estimated it would take at least a month to get him back for a strike against Vicksburg … and that was if Banks kept to his schedule. That would give the confused Confederates plenty of time to prepare their defenses and gather reinforcements. Moreover, Grant now knew that it would be difficult and time-consuming to coordinate movements, and that did not take into account what orders he might receive from Washington. Better, he decided, to abandon all thought of cooperating with Banks and turn all his attention to Vicksburg. He would spend the next several days gathering supplies, having his men forage off the land, and await the arrival of William T. Sherman’s Fifteenth Corps before moving on Vicksburg. “The enemy is badly beaten, greatly demoralized and exhausted of ammunition,” he told Sherman. “The road to Vicksburg is open; all we want know are men, ammunition and hard bread–we can subsist our horses on the country, and obtain considerable supplies for our troops.” Off went a letter to Halleck describing the events of the preceding week: Grant added that he was now making plans to “immediately follow the enemy” and would “not stop until Vicksburg is in our possession.” He knew that it would be some time before Halleck could respond, and even longer until he read that response. In that time much might happen.
We have heard a lot over the past several days about a boastful Union general, a last meeting between a commander and his subordinate, the news of a smashing surprise flank attack followed by the wounding of that subordinate, and so on, all part of “Lee’s greatest victory.” That is all well and good, I suppose. But nothing decisive happened that first week of May in the woods south of the Rappahannock and Rapidan, while to the west someone made a decision on the spur of the moment in response to unanticipated circumstances that forever shaped the course of the conflict. In our desire to remember, let us not forget where the fortunes of war truly changed in May 1863.