Grant Moves South
In early November 1862, Maj. Gen. Ulysses Grant ordered his Army of the Tennessee south toward the Confederate positions along the Tallahatchie River. Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton’s forces defending Vicksburg depended on the Mississippi Central Railroad for supplies as much as he did.
The most vulnerable point on the line was the railroad bridge over the Yalobusha River at Grenada, 60 miles south of the Tallahatchie. Destroy the bridge and the Confederate’s supply line would be severed. Pemberton would be forced to retreat from his defenses along the Tallahatchie.
Grant was determined to crack the Confederate defenses so he sent a raid led by Brig. Gen. Alvin P. Hovey with some 7.000 cavalry and infantry across the Mississippi River from Helena, Arkansas to Friar’s Point, Mississippi.
Despite a continuous cold rain that turned the roads into mud, Hovey and his men persevered. Hovey’s infantry bogged down, so he gambled and dispatched his cavalry on to the Mississippi Central Railroad alone. When they arrived, they tore up a section of track a few miles north of the Yalobusha River but discovered that the bridge was to wet to burn. It was also guarded by a growing force of Confederates.
On December 7th, Hovey withdrew his tired and wet troops back to Helena, trailed by over 500 jubilant former slaves. Despite Hovey’s lack of success, it demonstrated Grant’s authority over Union forces on both sides of the river. Halleck had authorized him to make use of forces in Arkansas and Missouri as he required them and Grant was to take advantage of this permission.
On the other hand, Pemberton was to be hindered by his lack of authority over forces on the west side of the Mississippi River. This lack of authority would come back to haunt the Confederate commander in the months to come.
Hovey’s raid was just the harbinger of the use of cavalry by both sides in the Western Theater. It also pointed out that audacity was not confined to the Confederate cavalry. The Union cavalry had learned over the first year and a half of the war and eventually surpassed their adversaries in gray in size and reach of their fast moving columns.
Hovey’s raid pushed Pemberton into abandoning his defensive lines along the Tallahatchie River and falling back the 60 miles to Grenada. The Confederates troops with their slave laborers constructed a new line of earthworks on the south side of the Yalobusha River within sight of the Mississippi Central Railroad bridge.
It was after this time that Grant became aware of Maj. Gen. John McClernand’s attempt to secure an independent command by bypassing Henry W. Halleck, the general-in-chief, and appealing directly to Lincoln and War Secretary Edwin Stanton. For bypassing the chain of command, McClernand earned Halleck’s implacable animosity.
Halleck wired Grant with this one line dispatch, “You have command of all troops sent to your Department, and have permission to fight the enemy when you please.” Grant didn’t need to ask twice for permission to commandeer McClernand’s newly-raised regiments. Grant decided to launch a waterborne attack against Vicksburg led by his chief subordinate and loyal supporter, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman.
Grant took a page out of the plan of his Fort Henry and Fort Donelson Expedition. Sherman was assigned some 33,000 troops. The Army of the Tennessee supplied 20,000 while 13,000 came from the Helena, Arkansas garrison. He would load them onto a flotilla of transports and proceeed down the Mississippi River and then up the Yazoo River to Haynes Bluff, about 15 miles above Vicksburg.
Once they took the high ground, they were to proceed inland and cut off the Southern Railroad of Mississippi between Vicksburg and Jackson, Mississippi. The main problem with this plan was that Grant and Sherman would be separated by hundreds of miles of Confederate-held territory. They would be out of communication and unable to support each other in a crisis. Pemberton had an advantage of interior lines of movement and be able to shift his troops between Vicksburg and Grenada using the railroads.
Grant needed to fix Pemberton’s forces in place at Grenada to keep him from diverting forces to oppose Sherman. In order to keep Pemberton focused on his forces, he ordered them to move south in a continuous movement. He decided not to confront Pemberton’s forces on the Yalobusha line until he knew that Sherman’s forces had landed at Haynes Bluff.
In this plan Grant was acting as an opportunist. If Pemberton stood his ground at Grenada, Grant would continue to give him the impression that he was preparing for an assault, giving Sherman the opening to seize Haynes Bluff. If Pemberton moved his forces out of Grenada, Grant would attack across the Yalobusha River, pummel him and threaten Vicksburg from the rear. This approach marked Grant’s evolution from simply being a fighter to a general.
In December, Halleck directed him to divide the Army of the Tennessee into four corps. The 13th Corps was under the command of McClernand. The 15th Corps was under Sherman. The 16th Corps was under Maj. Gen. Stephen A. Hurlbut and the 17th Corps was commanded by Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson. This reorganization clarified the relationship between Grant and McClernand. McClernand’s Corps, without the general who was still in Illinois, was assigned to Sherman’s force.
The best-laid plans are often disrupted by enemy actions. In this case, Lt. Col. John S. Griffith, a Texas cavalryman, suggested a plan to Pemberton. Why not attack Grant’s supply base at Holly Springs, 30 miles north of Oxford. This attack on the Union rear area would disrupt their offensive operations.
Pemberton, realizing how close the Union raid on the Yalobusha railroad almost succeeded, decided to act on the suggestion. He had just the man for the raid, Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn. Van Dorn was properly matched for this assignment.