May 3, 1863: The Turning Point of the Civil War?

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.


18 thoughts on “May 3, 1863: The Turning Point of the Civil War?

  1. TF Smith May 3, 2013 / 10:44 am

    In such decisions, the fates of nation both mighty and puny, are made…

    Nice post

  2. M.D. Blough May 3, 2013 / 10:57 am

    Longstreet was roundly attacked for being seriously underimpressed by Chancellorsville and not believing it was remotely worth the cost. Some of it may well have been sour grapes for being stuck in Suffolk and away from the big time. However, in the overall scheme of things, Lee gained nothing from the victory at Chancellorsville and sustained some major minuses. I’m not talking about losing Jackson, although Lee’s situation at Gettysburg was not improved by debuting a new corps structure with 2 out of 3 corps commanders being novices in that role. I’m talking about drawing so many incorrect conclusions about the AOP. The biggest wrong conclusion that Lee and the ANV drew about the AOP, IMHO, was the belief that the rank and file of the AOP were discouraged and demoralized when, in fact, that was only true of the highest level of command. Most of the AOP, including the corps commanders, were furious at Hooker’s decision to withdraw at Chancellorsville. There was no reason, other than its commander, that the AOP could not have recovered from Jackson’s attack, just as it did a year later from Longstreet’s two attacks at the Wilderness. If you look at the AOP at Gettysburg, the toughest and best fighting came from the rank and file and even many of the best decisions came from division, brigade, and regimental commanders. The AOP at Gettysburg was on home ground and was looking for a chance to redeem its reputation.

  3. Ned May 3, 2013 / 12:08 pm

    Couple of comments:

    – You write “James McPherson’s command, assisted by John Logan’s division”. To me this is a strange construction since John Logan’s division was part of John McPherson’s command.

    – “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.” I don’t see what in Banks message in March gave any impression that Port Hudson was about to fall. Grant had also written more recently than the 22nd indicating that he would send a portion of his command to Banks.

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 3, 2013 / 5:28 pm

      WordPress gave me lots of trouble in the editing stage this morning, with some revisions not making it through. That was one of those cases, although we’re all human, right, “John McPherson?”

      As for the Grant-Banks correspondence, I’m speaking of Grant’s understanding, and his decision of May 3 was made in accordance with Banks’s reply to his March 22 letter (Banks’s reply was dated April 23, and he dated Grant’s letter as March 23, but Simon’s edition concludes that Grant’s letter was dated March 22). Banks’s letter of March 13 (to which Grant’s letter of March 22 was a reply) mentioned that he was heading for Port Hudson that very day. As we now know, Banks was off by more than a couple of months in estimating his arrival outside of Port Hudson due to other circumstances.

      • Ned May 3, 2013 / 6:10 pm

        Yes we are all human, so touche on “John McPherson”.

        Banks letter of March 13 says that he was heading for Port Hudson that day “to make a demonstration upon that work, for the purpose of co-operating in the movement of the fleet.” He was not “off by more than a couple of months in estimating his arrival outside of Port Hudson” since he did exactly what he said he would in the March 13 letter. The letter goes on to say that the size of the Confederate force “precludes the idea of an assault upon our part, and accordingly the main object of the present movement is a diversion in favor of the Navy”. Would this really give Grant the understanding that the fall of Port Hudson was imminent?

        • Brooks D. Simpson May 3, 2013 / 6:22 pm

          I think that Grant believed it was reasonable in light of his previous communication with Banks that he would at least be outside Port Hudson by mid-April … not maybe by May 10 (and it was longer than that). Now, the delay may be understandable (as opposed to blaming Banks), but I think Grant’s reasoning is also understandable. I’d say he made the right decision. Let’s face it, under the circumstances it would have been impossible to expect better communications (and that situation would not improve for sometime, especially when it came to Washington).

          • Ned May 3, 2013 / 7:19 pm

            I am reacting to two things.

            The first is the idea that Grant had been led to believe by Banks that Port Hudson was about to fall. Seems to me that the opposite was the case: that he had been led to believe it was not to be about to fall at all — both Banks and Farragut had told him it was too strong in March for Banks to take unaided.

            The second thing is what appears to me as unfair blaming of Banks. In the March 13 letter Banks said he was going to make a demonstration at Port Hudson. He did so. If Grant then believed something about Banks further intentions, Banks also was led to believe something about what Grant was going to do and Banks subsequent timetable was partially a reaction to what he thought Grant was doing. The verbal message brought by Farragut’s secretary on April 10 was that Grant would send a force through Lake Providence to the Red River by May 1; so Banks wrote he will get back to Port Hudson by May 10 to cooperate. But Banks then learned Grant wasn’t actually coming that route, so he doesn’t go back to Port Hudson at that time. Next Banks gets a note from Grant saying he will send a corps down the river to Bayou Sara by the 25th [Grant meant April, but he left off the month in the message] so Banks replied that he will be back to Port Hudson by May 25 to cooperate (which he did). He is attempting to match his timing to what he thinks Grant is proposing. But by the time Banks was reading Grant’s message it was 3 week old and Grant had already changed his plans.

            I completely agree that Grant made the right decision. The turn around time of communication was a big problem and coordinating at that distance in a fluid situation did not work. It would consume too much time to send men down the river and wait for their return, giving the opponent time to adjust. He made the right call, not because Banks did something wrong but because the situation was just unworkable.

          • Brooks D. Simpson May 3, 2013 / 7:50 pm

            I thought I was making it clear that I wasn’t blaming Banks for anything. Circumstances changed and communications were lousy. Banks wasn’t pouting like Thomas before Nashville, for example. But it’s also clear that Grant was surprised that things had not progressed as far as he thought they would.

            I didn’t say that Banks led Grant to believe anything. I said that Grant came away from the exchange anticipating something that did not turn out as he anticipated. There’s a big difference.

          • Ned May 4, 2013 / 10:51 am

            I appreciate your responses.

  4. Tony May 3, 2013 / 1:15 pm

    So you’re not sold on the assertion that Grant intended to strike for the railroad with or without McClernand? Sherman alludes to this in a letter to Steele (IIRC), saying that he will soon march south and find Grant and McPherson near the railroad bridge. In such a context, Sherman’s letter to his brother claiming that Grant’s plan for campaign is the most foolhardy of the war is a little less histrionic.

    Mississippi in early May is so full of counterfactuals that it’s hard to pick a single turning point. I tend to think of the turning point as being between May 1 – May 12:

    What if Pemberton had sufficiently reinforced Bowen at Port Gibson?
    What if Grant had detached McClernand to Banks?
    What if McPherson hadn’t raided the railroad at Crystal Springs, trapping Maxey’s 3500 man brigade south of the city?
    What if McPherson had allowed Logan to strike across the creek with his leading brigade at Raymond?
    What if McPherson hadn’t masked his deployment at Raymond, giving Gregg a heads up about what he was facing and Pemberton some idea about what Grant’s next move would be?
    What if McPherson hadn’t thrown a tantrum at Raymond and forced Grant to turn his entire army toward Jackson?

    After May 12th, the counterfactuals get less interesting and Vicksburg seems doomed.

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 3, 2013 / 5:18 pm

      I guess that if McPherson hadn’t done those things you would not be as fond of him as you are.

      • Tony May 3, 2013 / 7:28 pm

        Eh … I think he was always correct, even in the decisions where he and Grant butted heads. But I see his tantrum at Raymond as eliminating him as a possible replacement to Grant as the only man who could (a) win the war and (b) put up with Lincoln’s bullshit.

  5. James F. Epperson May 3, 2013 / 2:32 pm

    Turning point in terms of decisions made? Or in terms of achievements. I totally agree that the turning point in terms of USG’s decisions was in early May, and I’ll defer to your knowledge of the details to put it at May 3rd. But in terms of achievements, I have to go to May 16 and the Battle of Champion Hill. That made Big Black Bridge possible, and that made the siege possible. But, still, a very good post.

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 3, 2013 / 5:17 pm

      The decision led to the achievement. Champion Hill was the decisive moment of the campaign that Grant started on May 3 … and without Raymond on May 12 everything would have been different, anyway, in terms of specifics. That’s why there’s a question mark in the title, because everyone treats the concept of “turning points” in their own way. After all, if you see a decision made on May 7, 1864, as a turning point, you, too, favor the notion of turning point in terms of a decision.

    • Tony May 3, 2013 / 10:49 pm

      Champion Hill was certainly the big battle of the campaign. But a turning-point rests on counter-factuals. What if this had happened, or that had not happened. You don’t get many interesting counter-factuals when it comes to Champion Hill. Pemberton quite accidentally met Grant on very good defensive ground, and one of Grant’s two army corps sat idle all day with a general engagement raging at one point only 500 yards away.

      If you’re Pemberton, you really don’t get much more favorable conditions than he enjoyed at Champion Hill.

      After May 12th, Maxey’s 3500 man brigade was too far away to help out, McPherson had severed the railroad between Vicksburg and Jackson, Sherman had occupied the high ground south of Jackson, Gregg’s brigade had been reduced by 1000 men and were fought to exhaustion, Johnston only had 4,000 effective men on hand to defend Jackson, and Gregg had failed to notify Pemberton of the movement in a timely fashion.

      After May 12th, Pemberton would have had to turn a double somersault, and land on the federal rear and on both flanks at the same time … and that was not within Pemberton’s repertoire.


  6. James May 3, 2013 / 10:08 pm

    I’m a bit confused, Dr. Simpson. One of the major takeaways that I got from you some 15 years ago was that there really aren’t any “turning points” in reality, only in the review and retelling, and therefore attempting to determine them is not particularly useful. Was I mistaken in my understanding of that?

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 3, 2013 / 11:12 pm

      I think that how people determine “turning points” tells us more about their understanding of history, their priorities, and their own interpretive slant than anything else. Thus I used the question mark. Had Grant lost at Champion Hill, for example, we would not view his decision on May 3 the same way, although we would still say it was important. However, the decision Grant made on May 3 shaped the course of events to follow in significant ways, and that’s what makes it worth discussing.

      • James May 10, 2013 / 8:16 am

        Thanks for the reply (and I apologize for the late follow-up)!

        Okay, that first sentence of your reply is the gist of what I learned from you. I was confused because it seemed from the original post that maybe you now thought differently. I only commented because, quite honestly, that was one of the most continuingly useful lessons I got from you.

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