- Historic Sites
General Grant escapes the swamps and a War Department move to relieve him of command
October 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 6
Early in 1863 Grant came down to take personal charge of the operations against Vicksburg. Various expedients were tried. Upstream from the fortress there was a network of bayous and backwaters leading into the Yazoo River, which flows into the Mississippi just above Vicksburg, and two separate amphibious expeditions were sent into that tangled area in an effort to come down on Vicksburg from the north. Both of these failed; the area proved to be too swampy, roadless and generally favorable to the defense to permit successful offensive operations. Grant also busied himself with a project for cutting a canal across the neck of land opposite Vicksburg, in the hope that the Mississippi could be diverted and leave the city and its fortifications high and dry. He sent Captain F. E. Prime and Lieutenant James H. Wilson, engineers on his staff, down to look into this project to see whether it offered a feasible method of getting south of Vicksburg without braving the fire of its heavy batteries.
I accompanied these two officers on the little steamer Catahoula and arrived there Jan. 28 (I think) and proceeded in their company to the upper end of the canal and followed it clear through to its mouth, a few miles below the fortifications on the opposite shore. The river at that time was moderately full, barely high enough to fill the shallow ditch, but not high enough to decide positively upon the practicability of its use. It was standing full of still water, without any current whatever and quite as much inclined to empty itself into the river above Vicksburg as below it. My first feeling was one of great disappointment. The canal was shallow and narrow, and not one-tenth part of the work had been expended on it which I foresaw would be necessary for heavy transports, to say nothing of [Admiral David] Porter’s ironclads. The valuable part of the work consisted in clearing its course through the timber and underbrush. This was well done for a considerable distance on each side of the actual excavation and rendered the after task of widening it, if need be, a comparatively easy one.
Its radical defect was that it left the river at its upper end nearly at a right angle with the current which ran close to the shore at that place, and very little force of the current swept into the canal. Another defect, perhaps even more important, was that unless it was doubled in depth, any subsequent rise of the river would overflow the whole country before water sufficient to float the transports would enter the canal.
Gen. Grant’s inspection of the canal on the day of his arrival must have satisfied him that its plan was defective, for orders were immediately given to the troops arriving daily to commence some important alterations of it. One of these was to commence from a half mile to a mile above its head, and take it into the river at an acute angle with the current, and also to widen and deepen it throughout. This work was pressed forward with all the force that could work at it, until the rise of the river, which came soon after, did actually overflow about all of Young’s Point and rendered its further prosecution impossible. It had been so nearly completed that one or two light draft vessels had traversed nearly its entire length. Our delay in completing the work had been so great that the Confederates had planted batteries on the opposite shore exactly opposite its mouth by which an enfilading fire could destroy vessels in the lower two-thirds of its length. As a matter of historical interest it may be stated that very little water ever ran through it, and the theory that a small stream once diverted into it would soon widen and deepen it, until it became the main channel of the river, was completely exploded.
The overflow of the Mississippi that winter and spring was extraordinary in volume and extent. The troops in front of Vicksburg were soon driven from their camps to the levee which became the only ground above water for many miles. The army was compelled to retire to Milliken’s Bend, twelve miles up stream. Military operations were necessarily suspended except in attempts to secure new lines of approach to Vicksburg through the numerous bayous and waterways which this phenomenal overflow seemed to make practicable.
It does not appear from any of Gen. Grant’s orders, communications to Washington, or from his private or public utterances then or afterward, that he ever placed much reliance upon any of these inland transportation schemes; but he foresaw that the stage of high water would last for months, and that the army would be in better condition by reason of such temporary work and occupation than by laying idle in camp. The public sentiment at the north gave outbursts of impatience at the delay; and intrigues were at work to remove Grant, and place McClernand or someone else in his place. It was apparent that continued activity was the only condition on which he could hold his position.
The Yazoo Pass expedition, the most celebrated perhaps of all, was undertaken about March 1st • by which it was intended to transport a heavy body of troops from its upper end, eight miles below Helena, Ark., eastward into Moon Lake, which emptied into Coldwater river, and this into the upper Yazoo. The shallowness of the water prevented the passage of fully half the transports and ironclads, and occasioned delays that enabled the Confederates to erect an exceedingly strong fortification, known as Ft. Pemberton, at the junction of the Tallahatchie and Yalobusha rivers. This fort was entirely surrounded by water for several miles when our transports arrived in its vicinity. There was absolutely no road by which infantry could reach it. It was too strong to be reduced by the force which could be brought to bear upon it; and the ironclads could not get close enough to do the work. Part of the troops commenced the return trip to the Mississippi on March 21st arriving at Milliken’s Bend on the 23rd.
• Work on this waterway was started several weeks before March 1, and the attempt to pass troops through it began on February 24.
The next attempt of importance, if not in the order of date, was known as that of Steele’s Bayou. This bayou debouched from the west, or right, bank of the Yazoo about halfway from its mouth to Haynes’s Bluff; and extended northward about seventy-five miles. It was very tortuous, filled with logs of decaying trees, overhung with cypress and tangled growths, and found to be exceedingly difficult to navigate. Gen. Sherman was in command; and two gunboats from Admiral Porter’s fleet led the procession up the Bayou.
On emerging into the Deer Creek plantations, we found the Bayou so narrow and shallow that persons could jump from the boats to dry land on either side. As usual the Confederates began to appear in the distance and to show a determination to stop our advance, if possible. Porter’s “ironclads” finally were several miles ahead of the infantry transports. Soon firing was heard in the extreme advance, and it became apparent that the enemy were trying to impede and harass the gunboats. No fears were entertained for their safety however until an appeal for aid came from Porter to Sherman.
The infantry made a forced march to their relief and found them in what seemed to the “dough-boys” a ridiculous predicament. The Confederates had dumped one or two kilns of brick into the channel in front of the boats so it was impossible for them to proceed; and had then gone deliberately to work felling trees in the creek in the rear. Sharpshooters were in tree tops commanding the ironclads and every one who appeared on deck was a target for prize shooting. The Admiral and his boats were at their mercy and would have been starved into a surrender beyond all question without outside aid!
Gen. Sherman raised the siege, helped to remove obstructions in the rear, and enabled the fleet to back out. A reconnaissance showed that Deer Creek and the Sunflower would not permit the passage of vessels, and the expedition was considered a failure, and the return commenced.
Up to this time nearly every projected movement on Vicksburg had proven a decided failure. The army was becoming discouraged; and during its stay in the swamps and bayous of Young’s Point and Milliken’s Bend had lost heavily from the unsanitary condition of its camps. Public feeling in the North had also become excited and troublesome. The cry of “On to Vicksburg” was as common as “On to Richmond.” Gen. Grant’s enemies were industrious and persistent in their efforts to have him removed from command. Many leading newspapers were openly demanding it. Public opinion had set so strongly in this direction because of the great length of time spent at Young’s Point and Milliken’s Bend, fruitlessly as it seemed to the nation at large, that his staunchest friends found it difficult to defend him.
The government was finally almost compelled to take some action in the premises. Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas was thereupon sent from Washington City to the theater of Grant’s operations on a double mission. One of these was to examine the condition of the “contraband” camps on the Mississippi river, and if possible organize Negro regiments there. The other, and most important, duty assigned him was to investigate affairs about Vicksburg with a view to Grant’s removal. It was asserted in some quarters that he came clothed with authority to do this, if in his opinion it seemed advisable.
Contrary to public expectation Gen. Thomas became so interested in Negro regiments that he seemed unlikely to reach Grant’s headquarters before midsummer. He stopped at nearly every landing on the river and spent what seemed to be an unnecessary time at each, until he was suspected of purposely evading the disagreeable subject. However this may have been, the impatience at the capital became so great that Hon. Charles A. Dana, First Assistant Secretary of War, soon followed Gen. Thomas with full power to carry out the instructions previously given to the former so far as Gen. Grant was concerned.
Gen. Grant had been apprized by friends of Mr. Dana’s visit and its probable object. A conference of Staff officers was held, the situation was explained by Rawlins, and a line of procedure agreed upon. The paramount object was to keep Mr. Dana quiet until Grant could work out his campaign. Several of the staff could scarcely be restrained from open manifestations of their hostility, but wiser counsel prevailed. Col. [William S.] Duff, chief of artillery, pronounced him a government spy, and was more inclined to throw him in the river, than to treat him with common civility. But Rawlins took a sensible practical view of the situation, and said: “I am surprised, Col. Duff, at your discourteous and unmilitary remarks. Mr. Dana is the First Assistant Secretary of War, and an official representative of the government. He should not be left in a moment’s doubt as to the cordiality of his reception. He is entitled to as much official recognition as Mr. Stanton, or any other high public functionary. I shall expect you to see that a tent is always pitched alongside Gen. Grant’s, for Mr. Dana’s use as long as he remains at headquarters—that sentries are placed in front of it—that orderlies are detailed for his service—and a place at mess-table specially reserved for him.”
A suitable horse and equipments were provided for Mr. Dana’s use and the entire staff, including Col. Duff, were properly deferential. Dana was not long in becoming an enthusiastic admirer of Gen. Grant’s military ability, and remained his staunch friend till the war ended. Thus again was imminent danger averted by the wisdom and tact of Rawlins, and Grant spared to become the greatest military chieftain his generation produced.
Mr. Dana was shrewd enough to see that much which had been urged against Gen. Grant was untrue, or unjust, and undoubtedly thought it would be unwise to remove him from command on the eve of important movements, or in the middle of a campaign. This authority could be exercised later on should failure seem to justify it. Should the campaign prove successful, his delay would be completely vindicated. He therefore sacrificed personal comfort, adapted himself to the situation, shared the fatigues and deprivations of the march, and remained at headquarters till Vicksburg surrendered.
[With Grant’s army posted on the west bank of the Mississippi below Vicksburg, Porter brought his ironclads and transports down past the dangerous batteries by night, and on April 30 ferried Grant’s troops to the east bank. A sharp fight took place at Port Gibson, but the Confederates fell back, and Grant set up his headquarters at Grand Gulf. Then, cutting loose from his base and subsisting on the country, Grant began his advance on Vicksburg by way of Raymond.]
The stories and anecdotes circulated, then and since, relating to Gen. Grant’s being separated from his Headquarters train for days at a time, depending on borrowed horses for passing from one command to another, sleeping on the ground without blankets or covering of any kind; and having no baggage but a toothbrush, are so literally true that no exaggeration is possible. The headquarters train could not be brought to the front for several days after the battle of Port Gibson, and his horses, servants, mess-chest, and clothing, except what he had on, were too far behind for any communication. He rode a naked saddle tree for a week which had nothing but stirrups for upholstery.
During a delay at Hankinson’s Ferry, Gov. Oglesby • of Ill. and Hon. Elihu B. Washburne, member of Congress from the Galena District of that state, arrived at headquarters on a very short visit. The governor brought with him a barrel of whiskey which was generously distributed by the drink (or canteenful in a few instances). On leaving, the governor turned over to Col. Duff and myself all that remained in the barrel with the jocular remark that we seemed to be the only persons who could be safely trusted with such a valuable commodity. We filled and secreted as many canteens and bottles as we could obtain, and had a small store in reserve when the barrel was finally emptied. This reserve lasted us, and a few of our friends, until the morning of the investment of Vicksburg, May 18th.
• Richard J. Oglesby was not elected Governor of Illinois until November, 1864. The visitor was Governor Richard Yates, who reviewed Grant’s Illinois troops and delivered a speech. See Charles A. Dana’s letter to Stanton of April 2, 1863, Stanton Papers, Library of Congress.
It will give some insight into the habits and character of Gen. John A. Logan, at that time, to state that he often rode from his headquarters to ours, at night, after his troops had gone into camp, a distance varying from five to ten miles, attended by a single staff officer or orderly, ostensibly on some business with Gen. Grant, but in reality to have a convivial hour with Col. Duff. He was, as yet, not up to the conventional requirements of a Brigadier General. A great change came over him in after life, when I think he renounced his earlier political habits of drinking and swearing. He was developed and broadened by the times, and grew up to requirements of the eminent military and civil positions he afterwards held.
But during this same campaign I saw him on one occasion (after he became a brigadier general), with nothing on him in the way of clothing but his hat, shirt and boots, sitting at a table on which stood a bottle of whiskey and a tin cup, and playing on the violin for a lot of darky roustabouts to dance. When the exercise began to flag, which it generally did at short intervals in the face of such temptations, potations were indulged in by player and dancers. Yet he was never accused of drunkenness—was not intoxicated from the beginning to the end of the war, so far as came to my knowledge.
The night of May 12th was spent by me on an army cot in Col. Duff’s tent. About midnight, or soon thereafter, Gen. Grant came into the tent alone, in the dark, and requested a drink of whiskey. Col. Duff drew a canteen from under his pillow and handed it to him. The general poured a generous potation into an army tin cup and swallowed it with great apparent satisfaction. He complained of extraordinary fatigue and exhaustion as his excuse for needing the stimulant, and took the second, if not the third drink, before retiring.
A light was struck upon his entrance, so that he knew of my presence; but he made his request, and drank the whiskey in an ordinary manner, as if it was a matter of fact procedure which required no particular apology. His stay in the tent did not exceed twenty or thirty minutes. He sat on the edge of Duff’s cot, facing mine, and apparently addressed himself to me as much as to Duff.
This was the first time I ever saw Gen. Grant use any spirituous liquor, and I was a little surprised by his openness in asking for it, and drinking it, before me. My intercourse with him to that time had been casual or accidental rather than intimate and confidential as it afterwards became; yet there was nothing evinced in word or behavior, from which I could infer that he desired the slightest secrecy or concealment concerning the object of his midnight call. The occurrence was never mentioned by me, excepting perhaps to Rawlins, until after the close of the rebellion. I think Col. Duff did suggest to me after the general’s exit from the tent, that in view of Grant’s reputation for excessive drinking, and his peculiar surroundings at that time, the affairs of state as well as my personal interests, might be best promoted by discreet silence, inasmuch as the general did not know that anyone occupied the tent with him until concealment was out of the question.
But I put a different construction upon his indifference, which was fully borne out by after events. The general knew that Gov. Oglesby had left nearly a half barrel of whiskey in the joint care of Col. Duff and myself on taking his departure from headquarters a few days before. I also subsequently learned that Duff had catered to Grant’s inordinate desire for stimulants long before this, and continued to do so till his “muster-out” at City Point. Rawlins suspected him of doing so, but had no positive proof of the fact for more than a year after this. Duff did not rise from his cot during Grant’s stay that night, but lay stretched out at full length, except when he half rose on one elbow to join the General in his drinks, and to volunteer “success to our campaign, and confusion to the Whole Confederacy.” But little was said by Grant in response to these sentiments, beyond an expression of satisfaction at what he had thus far accomplished, and a cheerful hope and belief that Vicksburg would soon be ours.
[In a swift and dazzling campaign, Grant moved east from the Mississippi, drove General Joseph E. Johnston’s forces out of Jackson, defeated Pemberton’s men in a sharp fight at Champion’s Hill, and compelled them to retreat into their trenches at Vicksburg. He drew his own army up in trenches that completely cut Pemberton’s army off from hope of relief, and then launched an all-out assault in the hope of capturing city and army without a siege. Unfortunately, the assault was an expensive failure, and the siege became necessary.]