Wednesday, May 1, 2013

This Day in Civil War History (Port Gibson Ends, Then Begins Campaigns at Vicksburg)

May 1, 1863—Following four months of battling rain, river and mud, Union forces now stood on the same side of the Mississippi as Confederate soldiers--and at the end of a long, hard day of fighting, they had driven their foes back. Moreover, Union losses, though a rough numerical match for the  the Confederates, were proportionately far smaller. Port Gibson became the first of five battles in General Ulysses S. Grant’s successful drive to take Vicksburg, in what may have been the most imaginative and brilliantly conceived campaign of the Civil War.

Yet, even as he contemplated the pleasing prospect before him, Grant must have rued the instrument of it: General John McClernand, highest-ranking of Grant’s corps commanders. 

In an army that, then as now, was not without glory hounds, McClernand had developed a well-earned reputation for shameless scheming. Grant would have loved to have sacked him, but he couldn’t do so. Yet. For several months now, according to Shelby Foote's The Civil War: A Narrative, Grant "could see that this private war against McClernand might well turn out to be as tough, in several ways, as the public one he had been fighting for eighteen months against the rebels.”

Though I wrote about the Confederate surrender at Vicksburg in a post nearly five years ago, much remains to be explored about this crucial campaign, and I hope to do so over the next several weeks. On the Confederate side, for instance, the story of civilian suffering in caves during the siege is heartrending. On the Northern side, Grant’s victory on July 4 represented not just a triumph of arms but a win over backstabbers and rogues—not least of all McClernand.

At the outset of hostilities between North and South, McClernand had been a Democratic supporter of Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, not to mention a longtime congressman. Despite the difference in political affiliation, he also had a number of political, legal and personal associations dating back years with President Abraham Lincoln. Not at all hesitant about exploiting these ties, McClernand was one of the most prominent examples of “political generals,” or Northern politicians appointed to lead armies in the field.

Lincoln, needing a broad-based political and ethnic coalition to maintain support for the war, found such appointments useful in, say, military administration, but their leadership in the field was often suspect. McClernand wasn’t the worst of the lot in the latter regard, but his record also wasn’t especially distinguished. More important, his ceaseless intriguing upset morale among Grant’s high command.

It started with jurisdictional issues. In 1862, Grant headed the Department of the Tennessee; McClernand, the Department of the Mississippi. For several months after his near-disaster at Shiloh, Grant had been effectively sidelined by Lincoln’s chief military adviser (and eventual Chief of Staff), General Henry Halleck. McClernand acted under the assumption that Grant was his subordinate.

In January 1863, General William T. Sherman and Admiral David Porter had expressed their dissatisfaction with McClernand and urged Grant to take command within the department himself. They had made it clear, according to Grant’s Personal Memoirs, that “both the army and navy were so distrustful of McClernand’s fitness to command that, while they would do all they could to insure success, this distrust was an element of weakness.”

Grant was in a delicate situation. It wasn’t only that he knew all the people McClernand could call on, but that McClernand was outranked only by Grant in this theater of the war. That meant maximum awkwardness if he asked Sherman to issue orders to McClernand. The only thing to be done was to assume personal command himself.

McClernand did not take it well. “His correspondence with me on the subject was more in the nature of a reprimand than a protest,” Grant recalled. “It was highly insubordinate, but I overlooked it, as I believed, for the good of the service.”

As all this was happening, Grant was also casting about for a means to take Vicksburg. If the North could seize it, they would, in effect, cut the Confederacy in two. Yet taking the citadel, located on a high bluff, was not proving to be easy. The general had decided, during the winter months and early spring, to try a series of probes, assaults, misdirection, and raids out of nowhere, all designed to confuse the Confederates.

At this juncture, rumors began to circulate about Grant’s drinking habits. Lincoln stayed consistently on the general's side, but as he noted ruefully, sometimes he seemed like the only person to do so. The talk grew loud enough that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton sent Charles A. Dana, a former editor of The New York Tribune, now the eyes and ears of the administration, down to Grant’s headquarters—ostensibly to inspect the pay service, but in actuality to verify the truth about Grant’s drinking, swearing, and other aspects of his character.

Dana spoke to the general and his staff and observed much. In long, enciphered telegrams extending into late April, he came down on the side of Grant and against McClernand. Thus assured, Stanton gave Grant permission to proceed with his campaign.

By the end of April, after Admiral Porter had managed to run his ships past the Confederate batteries at Vicksburg, Grant had managed to get his troops on the other side of the Mississippi. Over the next several weeks, he managed to put the rebels at more and more of a disadvantage. He noted in May that, in one engagement, McClernand had missed the chance to fall upon and annihilate a Confederate unit.

The end for McClernand came in mid-June. He made the mistake of issuing congratulations about his corps in a way that slighted other troops. Sherman and General James McPherson complained to Grant, who had had no knowledge of it beforehand. Indeed, McClernand's message to the press was "in violation of War Department orders, and of mine," the commander noted in his memoir. He promptly relieved his meddlesome subordinate from his command, depriving him of the chance to participate in the great victory only weeks away. That turned out to be his best chance at glory, as he had to leave military service after coming down with fever in his next assignment.

No comments: