The History of the Confederate War, Its Causes and Its Conduct. Volume 2 of 2
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In all this he was instantly and completely baffled. Low grounds bordered the Yazoo at the point of landing, while the Confederates occupied and had cannon-crowned the bluffs at a little distance from the stream. The flat lands with their marshes were pestilential to the young men of the northwest who constituted Sherman's army. At times of high water the lowlands were often overflowed to a depth of ten feet. They were at all times malarial, and such water as could be had by digging a foot or two into the mucky soil was simply poisonous for human beings to drink. On the other hand, the Southerners on the bluffs above were living in much more salubrious conditions. They had the advantage also of being immune by lifelong use to the miasms which laid so many of the Northern soldiers low. It is scarcely too much to say that the spores of miasmatic disease were at this time more important to the Confederates as a means of defense than their powder and bullets were.
Still further, Sherman had been misled and misinformed with regard to the character of the bluffs which he must assail. He had supposed them to be easily accessible to such lithe young fellows as those northwestern boys who constituted the pith and marrow of his army. He found them instead scarcely more accessible than the steeps of Gibraltar itself. And as at Gibraltar, so at this point the men standing upon the defense not only occupied the heights, but held their bases with a bristling row of well-served cannon, strongly supported by an infantry as good as any that ever fought. The approaches across bayous and creeks and broad marshes were narrow and difficult. The Confederates had fully made good their deficiency in numbers by so planting their cannon and their riflemen as to command these approaches completely.
It was on the twenty-ninth of December, 1862, that Sherman made his desperate attack. One brigade, by determined fighting, reached the foot of the bluffs but was instantly hurled back again, leaving five hundred of its men stark and stiff on the battlefield. At another point a regiment of daring fellows reached the base of the headland and found it impossible either to go forward or to retreat without inviting destruction. The men dug rat holes for themselves at the base of the bluffs, and did what they could in the way of self-protection, while the Confederates on the cliffs above kept up a murderous vertical fire upon them throughout the day, until nightfall mercifully came and brought with it an opportunity for the Federals to retire.
In this struggle Sherman lost nearly two thousand men, while the Confederate loss was less than two hundred – one man killed on the one side to ten laid low on the other.
Sherman was a man not easily daunted. He was not yet ready to abandon his plan, to admit himself defeated or even to suspend his preternatural activity. He instantly decided upon still further assaults at other points. He arranged that the transports should carry the bulk of his army further up the river to Haines's Bluff during the night with the purpose of taking the Confederate works there by assault from the rear.There came a great fog so that the transports could not find their way, and so this plan miscarried.
By this time Sherman discovered that great bodies of Confederates were being hurried into the defensive works surrounding Vicksburg. He had previously heard nothing whatever from Grant, and it was only in this way that he learned that Grant had somehow failed to hold Pemberton in check, and that he, therefore, had in front of him the greater part of the Confederate army instead of the little garrison which he had set out to encounter and overcome.
Sherman was a man of wits and promptitude. He wasted no time in speculation, but at once re?mbarked his troops and returned to the mouth of the Yazoo, thus abandoning as a failure the campaign which he had undertaken in full confidence that it would be crowned with distinguished success. He did not abandon the hope of ultimately reducing the Vicksburg stronghold, but for the time being he knew not how to go on with that enterprise with any tolerable prospect of success. He sat still, therefore, for a day or two, until on the fourth of January, 1863, General McClernand was placed in command of the forces which Sherman had previously controlled.
Many little actions followed, most of them directed to the purpose of breaking up small tributary Confederate posts and fortresses on the Arkansas river and elsewhere in the neighborhood. In these little operations the Federals were in the main successful, but as yet they had achieved nothing that seriously threatened the integrity of the Confederate position at Vicksburg, and that alone was the real object of their persistent endeavors.
Then came Grant. His coming opened a new chapter in the war for the possession of the Mississippi river. He brought to bear upon the problem all that superb determination, that dauntless courage and that splendid obstinacy which afterward won for him his place in history.
He had no particular plan at first, because he was not yet familiar with the terms and conditions of the problem he was set to solve. But he intended to take Vicksburg, and he did not intend to fritter away the energies of his army in little side expeditions which in no important way could affect the general result. He called in all the troops who had been sent by McClernand to unimportant points and set himself at work to find a way of conquering the stronghold, the conquest of which was the sole object of his campaign.
The difficulties that presented themselves were many and exceedingly great. While Vicksburg, itself, was perched upon high hills, every conceivable road to it lay through swamps and morasses naturally defended by streams that were bottomed with unfathomable mud.
The best approaches to the town were from points farther down the river, but except by desperate endeavor it was impossible to reach those approaches so long as the works at Vicksburg completely commanded the stream. Grant was satisfied that if he could reach any point on the river below Vicksburg where a landing was practicable he could march thence into the rear of the town and compel its surrender.
In order to accomplish this he sent McClernand and Sherman to cut a canal across the peninsula made by the great bend in the river west of Vicksburg. This effort proved a failure, partly through engineering difficulties and partly because there were bluffs on the eastern side of the river below Vicksburg, which the Confederates promptly fortified and armed in such fashion as to command the outlet of the proposed canal.
Grant soon saw that even if he should succeed in making this canal cut-off, he must still find himself confronted on the river bank by heavily armed and high-placed works as difficult for his flotillas to pass as were the bluffs at Vicksburg itself.
He continued the work, however, in despair of anything better to do until early in March when a sudden flood in the Mississippi completely overflowed the peninsula on which the Federals were working, and compelled Sherman to withdraw hastily to save his army from drowning.
Grant's next scheme was by cutting another canal to carry his flotilla through Lake Providence west of the Mississippi, and thence by way of the many navigable bayous in that quarter to a point on the river well below Vicksburg. A good deal of digging was done in an attempt to carry out this plan, but in the end it failed as completely as the former one had done.
Grant now turned his attention to possibilities on the eastern side of the Mississippi. By blowing up a lev?e he tried to open again an old and abandoned waterway from the Mississippi into the Yazoo river, by way of the Tallahatchie and Yalobusha rivers. Those two streams unite at Greenwood to form the Yazoo river. They are narrow, tortuous, uncertain of channel, and densely wooded along their banks. The Confederates with their ceaseless and alert activity swarmed on the banks of these rivers, and obstructed them not only by the fire of sharpshooters, and now and then of a field battery, trained against the advancing flotilla, but still more effectively by felling trees into the stream and thus rendering it impassable. Presently Grant found also that the Confederates were engaged in a system of defense still more dangerous to him than this. While obstructing his pathway down these streams in the way described they were also felling trees into the channels in the rear of his flotilla, and constructing strong earthworks along the banks above him. It was obvious that he must withdraw at once from his perilous position or encounter something worse than a mere risk of capture.
The work of extricating himself was difficult, but with strong reinforcements continually coming to him Grant succeeded in accomplishing it.
Still he did not abandon his hope of getting into the rear of Vicksburg by some movement from the north. The Yazoo river was connected by many bayous and other watercourses on the west of Haines Bluff with its tributary, the Big Sunflower. Grant decided to go up the Yazoo to Steele's Bayou and to go on up that watercourse, through some difficult passes into the Big Sunflower; thence he planned to descend the last-named stream, and strike the Yazoo again above the fortifications at Haines Bluff. If he could accomplish this he would have an open and comparatively easy road into the rear of Vicksburg.
This effort was met and baffled, as the former one had been, by Confederate obstructions in the streams, and by ceaseless annoyance from the woodlands on the banks. So active were the Confederates that at one time Commodore Porter seriously contemplated the abandonment of all his gunboats and transports. His energy, however, and his wonderful skill in navigation saved him at last from this humiliating necessity. By backing through streams in which there was not room enough to turn around, he managed at last to retreat lobster fashion, through thirty miles of tangled and crooked waterways, under a constant and galling fire from the banks, and in the end to get back into openly navigable waters.
As a wise and discreet commander, it was Grant's habit to adopt those measures which promised success at the smallest cost of human life – these first. But as a man of indomitable courage and determination, it was his habit also, if the less costly method failed, to venture upon more desperate courses with a single-minded determination to accomplish his purposes at whatever hazard and whatever sacrifice. He was convinced now, that in order to conquer the stronghold at Vicksburg he must manage in some way to place his army on the river bank below that city in some position from which he could march into its rear. To do this involved a world of difficulty, incredible hardship, and immeasurable danger. He must somehow get his army past the town, and into a position where it would be hopelessly dependent upon such stores as he could carry with him for the maintenance of his troops from day to day.
In order to reach such a position he must take incredible risks, and, having attained it, he must find himself isolated without communications of any sort, and dependent upon complete and quick success for the very existence of his army. Having once placed himself in that position he must promptly conquer Vicksburg, or ingloriously surrender all his force.
Fortunately, he had for his coadjutor one of the most enterprising and most daring men who ever commanded a ship. David D. Porter, in his personal character, was typical of that all-unfaltering courage which the officers of the American navy have always exacted of each other and of themselves as the measure of a man. Porter was ready for anything. Cool-headed, skilled in navigation, resolute, and thoroughly familiar with the problems of the Mississippi, he responded instantly and eagerly to Grant's demand that he should run his fleet past the Vicksburg batteries at any and every hazard and place it in a position below, where the gunboats might serve as transports to the troops if Grant could manage to get the troops there.
This thing was splendidly done, and perhaps nothing more picturesque or dramatic occurred during the war. Porter chose the night, of course, for his attempt, but the Confederates on the shore had long anticipated some such enterprise and had prepared themselves to overcome the difference between night and day. They had collected great piles of lumber on the banks; they had filled many houses with combustibles, and to all these they instantly set fire when it was known that the fleet was endeavoring to pass the batteries. The river and the entire landscape were rendered lurid by the flames. The men behind the guns on shore were enabled to deliver their fire as accurately as if the sun had been shining. The fleet, in the meanwhile, replied to every shot as it steadily steamed by, and in spite of the hellish appearances the losses on either side were trifling.
In the meanwhile Grant had moved on the western side of the Mississippi, from Milliken's Bend to a point opposite Grand Gulf. There he found the Confederates strongly fortified, but by moving down the river to Bruinsburg he succeeded in getting his army across on the thirtieth of April.
If the reader will now look at a map, remembering that Vicksburg and Port Hudson were both held by the Confederates, and that the regions along the river bank on the western side of the stream were quagmires, traversed at every step by impassable streams and bayous, he will have some conception of the boldness of this movement of Grant's. The great fighter had deliberately carried his army into a position where he had no possibility of communication with any base of supplies in either direction. He had cut himself off from all help and must henceforth rely exclusively upon himself. He had put himself in a position where victory was the only alternative to destruction. During all the course of the war no other general on either side ventured upon so desperate a risk as this.
Having marched over difficult roads, and by circuitous routes, Grant had brought with him, of course, supplies of food and ammunition sufficient only for a very brief campaign. For further food than this he must depend upon a country by no means rich in supplies at any time, which had already been stripped nearly bare by the requisitions of his adversary. For ammunition, beyond the store that he had in his caissons and cartridge boxes, he had no supply-source at all. To employ the old metaphor of war history, he had completely burned his ships and his bridges behind him. But at least and at last he had succeeded in placing himself in a position from which he could operate in the rear of Vicksburg.
The Confederate general, Joseph E. Johnston – just recovered from the well-nigh mortal wound he had received at Seven Pines – had been sent to Jackson, Mississippi, less than fifty miles east of Vicksburg to take command of such forces as could be gathered there. He had in fact collected a considerable body of men whose numbers Grant could in no wise ascertain. Nevertheless, Grant determined to push his own army into a perilous position between that of Johnston at Jackson, and that of Pemberton near Vicksburg. He was aided in this by a great cavalry raid which had recently been made by Grierson from the north which swept through the Mississippi country, desolating it and occupying the attention of the Confederates in many quarters from which, but for this diversion, Johnston might easily have drawn reinforcements.
During the next two months the battling was well-nigh incessant, and the losses on both sides, though incurred in comparatively small engagements, amounted in the aggregate to those of a great contest. One considerable battle occurred on the fifteenth of May at Champion Hills. Having captured the city of Jackson and destroyed there everything that could aid the Confederates in their struggle, Grant had turned westward in a direct march toward Vicksburg. At Champion Hills he encountered Pemberton, who had taken up a strong position on high ground and who desperately resisted the Federal advance. After four hours of such fighting as only veterans could have done or stood, Pemberton retreated, leaving his dead, his wounded and thirty guns on the field. The losses on either side were between twenty-five hundred and three thousand men. Yet this battle of Champion Hills is scarcely known by name to the millions of youths who every year pass their examinations in American history. A smaller but still considerable battle was fought on the Big Black river on the seventeenth, resulting in a loss of eighteen guns and two thousand men to the Confederates.
From that point Pemberton retired to Vicksburg and Grant following, closely besieged that city. In the meanwhile his operations had been so far successful that he was now in command of a point on the Yazoo where he established a secure base of supplies.
In apprehension of an attack from Johnston in the rear, Grant made a tremendous effort on the twenty-second to carry the Vicksburg works by storm, but was beaten off with losses so heavy that he determined to settle down into regular siege operations.
During the period of this siege the situation in Vicksburg was appalling in an extreme degree. The Federal guns were near enough to pour a continuous stream of shells into the town, and they did so without pause, night or day. The inhabitants, including women and children, were ceaselessly under a fire that might well have staggered the courage even of veteran soldiers. No house in the town was for one moment a safe dwelling place, and for refuge the people dug caves in the cliffs and harbored there unwholesomely. In the meanwhile they were suffering under progressive starvation. The food supplies were daily dwindling, yet with splendid courage those who were beleaguered in the city maintained their cheerfulness to the end, as is testified by files of that daily journal printed upon the back of wall paper which appeared at its appointed time every day and in spite of all, until the end.
The end came on the fourth of July, one day after the failure of Lee's final assault at Gettysburg.
Pemberton surrendered unconditionally, and Grant generously directed that the surrendered men should first be fed and then paroled and permitted to return to their homes.
One event which belongs rather to biography than to history may perhaps be mentioned here in illustration of General Grant's delicacy of sentiment, – a trait in his character often overlooked. When it was arranged that the surrendered Confederates should march out, General Grant issued an order to forbid all demonstrations that might wound a conquered enemy's pride or sensitiveness. "Instruct the commands," the order read, "to be orderly and quiet as these prisoners pass, and to make no offensive remark."
Thus at Vicksburg, as at Appomattox many months later, that soldier who has been accounted the least sensitive of all to considerations of sentiment, manifested a generous delicacy to which all honest minds must make reverent obeisance. During his correspondence with Pemberton concerning the surrender, Grant had declined to consider any terms that limited or imposed conditions upon the capitulation. But he had also generously written to his adversary as follows: "Men who have shown so much endurance and courage as those now in Vicksburg will always challenge the respect of an adversary, and I can assure you that you will be treated with all the respect due to prisoners of war."
Grant's supplies, in his difficult position, were meager in the extreme, and it is one of the most touching incidents of the war that his men voluntarily furnished from their own haversacks the food their famished enemies needed, thus cutting off their own dinners in order that these starving foes might not longer suffer the pangs of hunger. Such incidents go far to redeem war from its curse of brutal barbarity.
Five days after the fall of Vicksburg, Port Hudson was surrendered, and in Mr. Lincoln's own phrase, thenceforth the Mississippi "flowed unvexed from its source to the sea." The Confederacy was cut in twain. The end seemed to be foreordained beyond peradventure, but the determined courage and endurance of the Confederates was destined to postpone that end for nearly two years longer.
The result of this campaign taken in connection with the baffling of Lee's invasion of the North at exactly the same time, in effect determined the issue of the war. From that hour forward, as we now see, it was certain that the Federal cause must ultimately triumph; but how and at what cost remained in the womb of fate.
Grant's conquest of Vicksburg and of the Mississippi river was a result inestimably valuable to the Federal cause if viewed only in its strategic, geographical and other external aspects. But it bore one other fruit of immeasurably greater importance even than these things. It discovered to the government at Washington the existence and the capacity of a commander capable of measuring swords with Robert E. Lee. It taught the authorities at Washington at last the lesson which ought to have been learned by them many moons earlier, namely that in Grant the nation had at its service a man great enough to understand the war problem and to solve it – a man capable of clearly seeing and perfectly understanding that the Confederate strength lay in the fighting force of the Southern armies, rather than in the possession of strategic positions – a man fit to use the enormously superior resources of the North in men, money and material, in such fashion as to break the resisting power of the Army of Northern Virginia.
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