What If: “We Will Water Our Horses in The Mississippi”

A.S. Johnston vs. U.S. Grant

Shiloh Dawn

The sounds of firing diminished and then stopped altogether. The Confederate high command peered anxiously in the direction of the Union camps and the Tennessee River. From their location at the junction of the Bark Road and the Pittsburg and Corinth Road, they could see nothing but the rear elements of General Polk’s First Corps. Beyond the irregular lines of gray-clad infantry lay nothing but dark woods. General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard spoke: “General, we have surely lost the element of surprise. We must retire to Corinth immediately.”

The 59-year-old commanding general stood leaning toward a campfire sipping coffee. Before he could reply, the sharp rattle of nearby musketry again burst out. Albert Sidney Johnston straightened to his full six-foot, 200-pound, robust height and calmly replied, “The battle has opened, gentlemen; it is too late to change our dispositions.”

He mounted his magnificent bay, Fire-eater, and said to his staff, “Tonight we will water our horses in the Tennessee River!”

It was 6.40 a.m., April 6, 1862. Overhead, a brilliant sun rose above the river mist. Johnston’s aide, Captain W.L. Wickham, turned toward Johnston’s personal physician, “Doctor Yandell, it must be another sun of Austerlitz.” Then Wickham and the other staff officers hurried to mount their horses because already Johnston was disappearing into the woods, riding fast toward the sounds of firing.

Wickham caught up with Johnston on the edge of the Seay Field. Across the field, Arkansas men belonging to Brigadier General Thomas Hindman’s brigade were involved in a difficult struggle with a tenacious regiment of Union troops. The firing intensified. The Confederate ranks wavered. Soldiers broke ranks and began drifting rearward. Johnston spurred Fire-eater into the field to rally the infantry. His voice somehow rose above the din of battle, “Men of Arkansas! They say you boast of your prowess with the Bowie knife. Today you wield a nobler weapon, the bayonet. Employ it well!”

The soldiers responded with cheers. One recalled that Johnston’s face was “aflame with a fighting spirit.” Inspired by Johnston’s commanding presence, they re-formed and prepared to charge again.

Young Colonel John Marmaduke was busily aligning his 3d Confederate Regiment when he felt a hand on his shoulder. Marmaduke glanced up to see a well-remembered face from the Old Army days. “My son,” Johnston said, “we must this day conquer or perish!” Marmaduke later recalled that he felt nerved “tenfold”.

Thirty minutes later a courier arrived to report to Johnston that Major General Braxton Bragg’s men were being hotly pressed and needed help. Johnston rode to the nearest unit and ordered it to follow him. Together they moved to the right, in the direction of the heaviest firing. But the soldiers were unable to keep up with their fast-moving leader. Accompanied by a handful of aides, Johnston disappeared into the woods.

He arrived in the rear of Brigadier General Adley Gladden’s brigade shortly before 9.00 a.m. Johnston immediately ordered Gladden to conduct a bayonet attack. Gladden’s line surged across the Spain field and sent the Yankee line rearward. Johnston followed them as they swept into an abandoned Union camp. Scores of hungry rebels broke ranks to feast from the hot but untouched breakfast kettles. Others began looting the tents. Johnston saw an officer emerge from a tent with an armload of trophies. He spoke sharply, “None of that, sir; we are not here for plunder!”

A dejected look crossed the officer’s face and his shoulders sagged. Johnston reached from his horse to take a tin cup from a table. He softened his tone and said, “Let this be my share of the spoils today.”

The general continued through the camp. All around him were wounded and suffering soldiers, most of whom belonged to the enemy. Johnston summoned Doctor Yandell: “Doctor, send some couriers to the rear for medical officers. Meantime, look after these wounded people, the Yankees among the rest. They were our enemies a moment ago, they are our prisoners now.”

“General,” Yandell protested, “others can attend to these men. My place is with you.”

“Go ahead and begin your work, doctor. I’ll advise you when I am moving on.”

As Johnston turned to confer with an aide, Yandell heard Captain Wickham speaking softly to him: “Doctor, disregard what he says. You’ve seen the way he takes terrible risks. This army depends upon him and he may have reason to depend upon you. Follow him wherever he goes, just stay a little ways behind. He never looks backward.”

Soon Johnston was off to the front again. Shortly before noon, one of Beauregard’s aides observed the general “sitting on his horse where the bullets were flying like hail stones. I galloped up to him amid the fire, and found him cool, collected, and self-possessed, but still animated and in fine spirits.” Another officer found Johnston observing the successful charge of Chalmers’s brigade. As the Rebel line disappeared beyond a nearby ridge line, Johnston remarked with satisfaction, “That checkmates them.”

Indeed, from Johnston’s vantage point it seemed like the Confederates were driving General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee backwards all along the front. But looks were deceiving. At several places Grant’s men defended their positions tenaciously. Nowhere was this more true than on the Union left, in the area of a peach orchard. Here, Brigadier General John C. Breckinridge’s Confederates struggled to advance for more than an hour. Breckinridge became distressed with his inability to make the Tennessee regiments in Colonel W.S. Statham’s brigade press the attack vigorously and galloped up to Johnston to complain that he could not make the brigade charge. Breckinridge was a former Vice-President of the United States and remained an influential Southern political leader. Johnston knew that he had to be handled with kid gloves. He gently replied, “Oh, yes, General, I think you can.”

The emotional Breckinridge nearly broke down. “I can’t, General. I have tried repeatedly and failed!”

“Then I will help you, we can get them to make the charge.” Johnston firmly said.

Johnston galloped down a ravine toward the Tennessee soldiers. Among his aides, only Captain Wickham remained. Wickham glanced backward. With relief he saw that Doctor Yandell was still shadowing the general.

Johnston rode among the battered and discouraged Rebels. His sword remained sheathed in its scabbard. Instead, he held the tin cup he had taken from the Union camp in his hand. Wielding the cup as if it were a sword, he gestured toward the Union line. “We must drive them!” Then he rode in front of his men, reached with his cup to touch their bayonets, and said repeatedly, “Men, they are stubborn; we must use the bayonet.” He took station at the center of Statham’s brigade, turned and shouted, “Men! I will lead you!”

Like an attack dog poised and waiting for the command, the entire Confederate line seemed to tremble with anticipation. One soldier recalled that Johnston gave them “irresistible ardor.” At the signal they cheered mightily and charged. It was a few minutes before 2.00 p.m.

Three Rebel brigades assailed the Union position. On the left, Statham’s men passed the Sarah Bell cabin and charged directly toward the Yankees in the peach orchard. As had occurred twice already, this effort stalled against fierce Union opposition. On the right Jackson’s brigade became ensnarled in a wooded ravine and managed to contribute only two regiments to the attack. The attack’s success depended upon the center brigade commanded by Brigadier General John Bowen. Bowen’s Arkansas and Missouri infantry proved equal to the task. A Union defender recalled, “The Rebels came on us before we knew it. The undergrowth was so thick we could not see them until they got within twenty yards of us.” In a wild, confused fight, Bowen’s brigade broke the Union line.

Finally, Johnston’s relentless series of charges began to produce dividends. The Union left crumbled, thereby exposing adjacent units to enfilade fire. Masses of Rebel infantry pushed through the peach orchard to exploit the situation. Worse still, from the Union perspective, few fresh troops stood between the triumphant Rebels and Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River.

But the breakthrough was not without cost. Bowen went down with a severe wound. Hundreds of Confederate infantry likewise fell dead, dying, or wounded. General Grant later remembered this part of the field was “so covered with [Confederate] dead that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing, in any direction, stepping on dead bodies, without a foot touching the ground.”

Amidst the carnage, an elated Albert Sidney Johnston watched his plan succeed. Tennessee Governor Harris appeared. Johnston smiled and pointed to his left boot, which had been struck by a bullet, and said, “Governor, they came very near putting me hors de combat in that charge.” The general then sent Harris and all but one of his aides coursing the field to carry orders to complete the victory. Only Captain Wickham remained with Johnston.

When Harris returned from his mission to report to Johnston he suddenly saw the general sink in his saddle and begin to reel to his left. Harris saw that Johnston’s face was deadly pale. “General, are you wounded?”

Johnston replied, “Yes, and I fear seriously.”

Harris and Wickham propped Johnston in his saddle and led him to shelter behind a small knoll. They saw that Johnston’s horse, Fire-eater, had been struck twice by bullets or shrapnel. As they lifted Johnston to the ground, Wickham looked up with relief to see Doctor Yandell. Wickham told the doctor that Johnston had been hit in the boot but that there was no other obvious sign of a wound. Yandell untied Johnston’s cravat, unbuttoned his collar and vest, and pulled his shirt open. He could not find a wound. The general lost consciousness. Yandell pulled off Johnston’s left boot. Nothing. He pulled off the right and it was full of blood. Hastily, Yandell slit open Johnston’s trouser leg. He found a profusely bleeding wound behind his right knee joint. Apparently a lead ball had struck the calf and torn, but not severed, the popliteal artery, and lodged against the shin bone. It was an ugly, dangerous wound which, if left untended, would quickly kill.

Yandell reached into Johnston’s pocket where, at the surgeon’s behest, Johnston kept a field tourniquet. Yandell expertly tied it in place to stanch the flow. Colonel William Preston galloped onto the scene. He dismounted rapidly, took out a flask, and cradled Johnston’s head in his arms. He poured whiskey into Johnston’s mouth and asked desperately, “Johnston, do you know me?”

The general’s eyes opened. He recognized Preston and smiled weakly. In a faint voice he said, “Tell Beauregard to drive the Yankees into the river.” And then he lost consciousness again.

Davis’s Generals

In Richmond, an anxious President Jefferson Davis awaited news from his friend, Sidney Johnston. During the Mexican War, Johnston’s quick-thinking reaction to a dangerous confrontation had probably saved the lives of both men. Thereafter, Davis’s admiration knew no bounds. A few months before, when some Tennessee politicians protested that Johnston had abandoned valuable Tennessee soil and was “no general,” Davis had replied that if Johnston was not a general, “we had better give up the war, for we have no general.” On the eve of Johnston’s offensive against Grant, Davis sent a telegram saying, “I anticipate victory.”

The absence of news from Johnston troubled Davis greatly. He told his aides that if his friend were alive he would have heard something. April 6 passed, and then April 7. Finally news came about the Confederate defeat. After Johnston’s wounding, Beauregard had been unable or unwilling to capitalize upon the Confederate advantage during the remainder of the day. The next day, the Union forces counterattacked and drove the rebels from the field. Beauregard ordered a retreat to Corinth.

To Davis, it seemed that “Old Bory’s” retreat undid the victory that was there for the taking when Johnston fell. It cemented his dislike for the Creole general. In contrast, Davis had nothing but tender concern for Sidney Johnston. He inquired about his friend’s health, wished him a rapid recovery, and proposed that the general be moved to Davis’s own Mississippi plantation, Brierfield, to convalesce. Davis wrote movingly about the plantation’s beauty and charm. It was in a secluded backwater, far from the front, an altogether perfect place for the general to enjoy quiet and peace while regaining his strength.

In Corinth, the staggering number of Confederate wounded overwhelmed the medical service. Moreover, the army’s return to the city quickly polluted the shallow wells that provided the region’s drinking water. The number of men on the sick list soared as typhoid, dysentery, and other waterborne diseases attacked the already weakened army. Among the afflicted was Albert Sidney Johnston.

Fearful that the wounded general would succumb to disease, Doctor Yandell fought to overcome Johnston’s reluctance to move. “I should be with my men,” Johnston weakly protested. The president’s hospitable offer was like a lifeline for the worried doctor. So, on the last day of April, a locomotive pulled away from Corinth and headed south along the Mobile and Ohio Railroad. Three days later a horse-drawn ambulance pulled up before the white-posted veranda of Jefferson Davis’s plantation at Davis Bend on the Mississippi River, some 20 miles below Vicksburg. Here Johnston began a long, long convalescence.

President Davis had placed the western theater in the hands of the general whom he most trusted. Johnston’s wounding left a command void. Any replacement would have found it difficult to measure up to Johnston in the grief-stricken mind of the commander-in-chief. When Beauregard yielded western Tennessee without a fight and then went off on sick leave without asking permission, Davis replaced him with Braxton Bragg. But shuffling commanders did not address the South’s strategic conundrum: a long defensive line, stretched so thin that it could be broken by the superior enemy forces most anywhere; yet to abandon territory, to concentrate, risked losing valuable assets forever. Indeed, this is what had taken place at the South’s greatest city. Stripped of its defenders for the grand stroke at Shiloh, New Orleans fell to an aggressive Federal fleet in the dismal spring of 1862.

Davis examined the strategic map and saw that Tennessee remained vulnerable from the Mississippi to the Alleghenies. He was willing to take risks and the only solution he saw was the offensive-defensive. So, the president held high hopes for Bragg’s counteroffensive into Kentucky which began in the late summer of 1862. Bragg skillfully interposed his army between the Union army and its base at Louisville. For a few shining hours Bragg grasped potential victory, but at the critical moment he hesitated, declined battle, and permitted the Federals to pass his front and gain Louisville. The subsequent Union offensive drove him out of not only Kentucky but much of Tennessee as well. The president candidly told Congress that the South had entered “the darkest and most dangerous period yet.”

The disasters of 1862 taught Davis that his offensive-defensive required some form of mobile reserve. He explained to one of his generals, “We cannot hope at all points to meet the enemy with a force equal to his own, and must find our security in the concentration and rapid movement of troops.” Meanwhile, Grant was on the move again. He had collected a large army and a seemingly invincible fleet to spearhead a drive south down the Mississippi River, and the defending Confederate generals doubted their ability to stop him.

Davis knew that Vicksburg was the key to controlling the Mississippi. It was one of the places the South needed to hold if it were to endure. The president responded to the crisis by redrawing department boundaries and appointing a new general to defend the city. Davis chose Lieutenant General John Pemberton, a Pennsylvania-born officer whose brothers fought for the North and whose birth state made him the focus of deep suspicion among the endangered people of Mississippi. Indeed, a Confederate sergeant observed his new general and wrote, “I saw Pemberton and he is the most insignificant ‘puke’ I ever saw.”

At Brierfield Plantation, Sidney Johnston knew little about the command frictions besetting the Confederacy. The blood loss from his wound had weakened him such that he fell easy prey to a prolonged, and nearly fatal, bout of typhoid fever. On rare days during the summer of 1862 his strength rallied and Davis’s servants, supervised by the fretful Doctor Yandell, carried him outside for a few hours of bracing sunshine.

One such day occurred on August 4, when Johnston watched the Confederate ironclad Arkansas bravely steam south to attack Baton Rouge. He had no notion that the ironclad’s engines badly needed repairs nor that had she remained beneath Vicksburg’s fortified bluffs she might have prevented much of what was to come. It was fortunate as well for the general’s health that he was not present the next day to witness the death throes of the most active vessel the South had ever floated to defend the Mississippi.

Fall came and Johnston slowly regained his health. General Bowen, who had recently recovered from his Shiloh wound, visited Johnston. The conversation naturally reverted to a refight of Shiloh. Johnston said that many of the difficulties encountered in that battle stemmed from the soldiers’ inexperience and lack of discipline. Bowen agreed and then interjected, “But General, it is different now. If you could see my division, particularly Cockrell’s Missouri boys, you would see a brigade of perfectly prepared fighting cocks. I would lead them into the jaws of hell itself.”

After Christmas, news of Vicksburg’s successful defense against William T. Sherman’s landing at Chickasaw Bayou seemed the perfect tonic for Johnston. He began drafting a request to return to duty. But the cold, exceedingly wet winter brought on an incapacitating lung inflammation and again the general took to his bed. The first anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh found him still pale, drawn, and weak.

Bowen Confronts Grant

On the night of April 16, Admiral David Porter’s ironclads ran the batteries at Vicksburg. Whether Porter would have taken this risk if the invincible Arkansas had still been afloat is impossible to say. What is certain is that Porter’s success radically altered the strategic chessboard. General Grant resolved to march along the Mississippi’s western shore and bypass Vicksburg. Then, aided by a series of clever diversions, he planned for Porter to ferry his army across the river to attack the city from below. It was a bold and brilliant strategy, and it fooled Pemberton and nearly all the Confederate commanders.

The exception was the commander of the fortified post at Grand Gulf, General Bowen. Bowen alone perceived the new situation caused by Porter’s success. On April 27 he concisely outlined in a letter to Pemberton the dire threat posed by Grant’s likely future maneuvers. He asked for reinforcements to help hold Grand Gulf. Pemberton neither attended to Bowen’s warnings nor sent him reinforcements.

At 8.00 a.m., April 30, the greatest amphibious invasion heretofore in American history began. By noon, most of General John McClernand’s 17,000-strong XIII Corps had completed the unopposed landing below Grand Gulf. Grant later wrote:

“I felt a degree of relief scarcely ever equaled since. Vicksburg was not yet taken it is true, nor were its defenders demoralized… But I was on dry ground on the same side of the river with the enemy. All the campaigns, labors, hardships and exposures… that had been made and endured, were for the accomplishment of this one object.”

Bowen had previously selected a strong position at Port Gibson as the best place to try to stop Grant. It was to this position that he sent his available manpower at 1.00 a.m. on April 30, seven hours before the first Union soldiers landed on the Mississippi’s eastern shore. On the morning of May 1 came the first combat. The terrain was a bewildering mix of irregular ridges divided by deep and impassable ravines. The subsequent battle placed a heavy tactical burden on leaders on both sides. According to one historian, “From battle’s beginning to end, officers on both sides had trouble understanding their own position relative to supporting, friendly units and had even less comprehension of how lay the opponent.” Although outnumbered three to one, the Confederates fought extremely well. Bowen himself had four horses shot out from under him. But eventually valor gave way to superior numbers. That night Bowen retreated from the field and retired behind the North Fork of Bayou Pierre.

Confederate Reactions

General Joseph Johnston was nominally in command of all Confederate forces in the West. On May 1, before he learned of Grant’s movements, he advised Pemberton, “If Grant crosses the Mississippi, unite all your troops to beat him.” It was sound strategy, but Joe Johnston had no intention of taking any personal role in seeing it through. This left Pemberton in a difficult bind. He believed Vicksburg to be his sacred trust, all the more sacred because he knew that many Mississippians doubted his loyalty to the cause. Consequently, Pemberton was extremely loath to denude the city in order to muster a field force sufficient to challenge Grant. Furthermore, Grant’s multiple diversions had fooled the Pennsylvania-born general.

On May 2 Pemberton began to send some reinforcements south to join Bowen. But a sense of pessimism seemed to enter his thinking. He ordered Vicksburg prepared for a siege and advised Mississippi Governor John Pettus to “remove the State archives from Jackson.” Pettus, in turn, frantically telegraphed Jefferson Davis to report that Pemberton had lost his nerve and unless an immediate command change took place, all was lost.

Jefferson Davis found himself in a not unfamiliar position. Time and again, politicians had complained that their constituents were being ill-served by the generals in command. Often they demanded that Davis make command changes. In Davis’s mind, Pemberton was merely the latest in a list that at various times had included Robert E. Lee, Thomas Jackson, Braxton Bragg, and even Sidney Johnston himself. Davis had stood by his selections and they, in turn, with the possible exception of Bragg, had rewarded his patience and loyalty with victories.

Davis considered patience and loyalty admirable virtues, particularly for a commander-in-chief of a beleaguered nation. He was certain that these virtues had been key to victory in the First American Revolution and had no doubt that they would be equally crucial to Confederate victory in the Second American Revolution. Moreover, to relieve Pemberton at this moment of crisis would be to admit publicly that Pemberton’s selection had been a mistake. This he was extremely loath to do.

But Davis also understood what was at stake. If Grant succeeded, the Confederacy would be divided in two, the hungry armies of the east forever cut off from the cattle and corn, the hogs and the horses of the fertile trans-Mississippi. The loss of Vicksburg could well be a fatal blow.

For several hours the president paced back and forth in his office at the White House of the Confederacy. His inner struggle was monumental because he knew that the decision he had to make was of immense strategic consequence. His already pale face—Davis was sick with bronchitis—gained an even more ghastly, sunken appearance as the strain brought the onset of another painful bout of neuralgia. He knew that Joe Johnston, the nominal supreme commander in the West, was making leisurely progress toward Vicksburg, presumably to take field command, but he also knew that Johnston’s preferred maneuver was the strategic retreat. Davis could conceive of only one possible alternative to Pemberton; namely, to send Lee west. Yet he knew both that Lee would resist transfer and that Lee’s absence would leave the Confederate capital vulnerable. He had just about resolved to retain Pemberton when an aide knocked at his office door.

The aide’s eyes were shining with excitement as he handed Davis a just-arrived telegram. It was from Albert Sidney Johnston and read: “I learn that the enemy is on this side of the river. I wish to report for duty, whether as a simple private carrying a musket or in any other capacity you deem appropriate.”

It was as if a bracing breeze had blown away the rain clouds that had deluged Richmond for the past several days. Davis began dictating orders: Sidney Johnston to take command of all field troops operating around Vicksburg with the mission of driving Grant into the Mississippi; Pemberton to remain in command at Vicksburg to defend the Confederate citadel against direct attack while assisting Johnston by forwarding men and supplies. The president completed his flurry of orders by telling Beauregard in Charleston, South Carolina, to send 5,000 men west to Jackson, Mississippi. As he completed his work, Davis found, to his surprise, that the sharp pain of his neuralgia had receded into a mere dull ache.

Johnston Takes Command

Sidney Johnston had failed to mention to Davis that Doctor Yandell still forbade him to ride a horse for any extended time. So it was a plantation carnage that delivered Johnston to Major General William Loring’s headquarters on the north side of the Big Black River just after dawn on May 3. Johnston mounted the steps of the McCleod mansion and paused on the veranda. From within he heard the heated sounds of argument. Apparently there was some sort of council of war taking place. He heard a voice trying to overmaster the angry buzz of debate: “Gentlemen, I repeat, shall the army move with dispatch to Vicksburg or shall it hold the Big Black?”

He recognized General Bowen’s voice in reply:

“General Loring. We have my two fine brigades on the enemy side of the river along with Reynolds’s fresh Tennessee Brigade. On this side we have the two brigades you have brought us with Barton and Taylor coming up fast. This gives us more than 16,000 men. My scouts tell me that we face McPherson’s XVII Corps, that it is unsupported, and that it is strung out in road column. I say attack!”

Johnston nodded approvingly and smiled. His smile turned to a frown when Loring spoke again:

“General Bowen, we all applaud your fighting instincts, but my hands are tied. My orders from General Pemberton are to be on the lookout for your division and, if necessary, to fall back across Big Black. I have found you and your men and now we will…”

Sidney Johnston strode into the room and completed Loring’s sentence, “Attack!”

Loring began to sputter but Johnston brusquely cut him off:

“Gentlemen, the time for debate is over. I have here orders from the President assigning me command of all troops in the field. We will attack immediately. I do not know the relative numbers but I know that on these narrow roads they cannot put more men at the front than we can. Besides, I would fight them if they were a million!”

Johnston’s words electrified the Confederate generals. With the exception of Loring, they responded with deep approval. Then they rose as one to shake hands with the new army commander.

The Battle of Hankinson’s Ferry

On the day after his victory at Port Gibson, General Grant pushed his army hard. He believed that he had the Rebels off balance and confused, and wanted to exploit the situation. The first obstacle to surmount was the Little Bayou Pierre. His engineers worked feverishly during the morning to construct a 12-foot wide, 166-foot long bridge using timbers taken from a nearby cotton gin. They corduroyed the bridge approaches over a dangerous patch of quicksand and announced the bridge practicable. From start to finish the entire operation required a mere four hours, which was good, because Grant was in a big hurry. As the first Union infantry approached the bridge, there was their general to urge them on: “Men, push right along; close up fast, and hurry on.”

The North Fork of Bayou Pierre presented a more substantial barrier. Grant hoped that his men could capture the suspension bridge at Grindstone Ford. By 7.30 p.m. his hard-marching men reached the ford only to see that the bridge was on fire. An energetic engineering officer, Colonel James Wilson, ordered the infantry to extinguish the blaze. In the fading light Wilson observed that enough of the bridge’s original structure remained to serve as a foundation for a new bridge. During a dark, stormy night, Union pioneers salvaged timbers and beams, lashed them to the suspension rods with telegraph wire, and rebuilt the bridge. By dawn, May 3, the bridge was ready for the infantry.

Only one more significant natural barrier, Big Black River, stood between Grant’s Army of the Tennessee and Vicksburg. The aggressive General John Logan’s division spearheaded the drive toward this river. In the unlikely event Logan faltered, McPherson accompanied the division. Together, the two officers drove the men hard. McPherson hoped that if his men marched fast enough they could cut off any Confederates trying to escape back to Vicksburg. McPherson also hoped to capture the Hankinson’s Ferry bridge intact in order to secure a bridgehead over the Big Black.

Around 10.00 a.m. the leading Union regiment encountered what appeared to be a Rebel roadblock just south of Willow Springs. McPherson ordered an aide to ride to a nearby plantation and bring back someone to interrogate. The plantation owner, an elegant, garrulous fellow named Reinertsen, assured McPherson that nearly all the Confederate troops had retired across the Big Black. Meanwhile, Logan ordered the van regiment, the 20th Ohio, to double-time ahead along with De Golyer’s 8th Michigan Battery. The battery galloped into position, unlimbered, and prepared to lay down a covering barrage. The panting Ohio infantry arrived. One of the men spotted Logan and called out, “Shall we not unsling our knapsacks?”

“No!” Logan snarled. “Damn them, you can whip them with your knapsacks on!”35 Inspired by Logan’s stern words, the 20th Ohio advanced to storm the roadblock.

Whether Logan and McPherson should be faulted for their impetuosity is difficult to say. Since neither general survived the battle, we cannot know exactly what they thought they saw. What seems certain is that their hasty reconnaissance failed to detect the presence of a formidable, and rapidly increasing foe.

The Confederates manning the roadblock itself belonged to Colonel A.E. Reynolds’s 26th Mississippi Infantry. Concealed in the nearby trees were four guns belonging to Lieutenant Culbertson’s Company C, 14th Mississippi Artillery Battalion. Initially, Reynolds’s orders were merely to fight a rearguard action; force the enemy to deploy and then retire without risking too much. But 30 minutes before the Yankees appeared, a sweat-stained horse and rider appeared to deliver new orders: Reynolds was to defend his position to the last man! Reynolds read the dispatch and his face turned ashen. The courier grinned and told him not to worry. Reinforcements were coming up fast led by Albert Sidney Johnston himself. Which part of this intelligence shocked Reynolds most also cannot be determined because the Mississippi colonel was another who did not survive the battle.

Reynolds mounted an overturned plantation buggy that formed part of the roadblock and addressed his men. In part he predicted that the Rebels “would run Grant and his boys back over ole Mississippi before they knew what had hit them.” The cheering had not yet subsided when the first shells from De Golyer’s 8th Michigan Battery burst around the roadblock. A large metal fragment from a 6-pounder James rifle shell tore off the colonel’s arm and inflicted a mortal wound.

Hard on the heels of the deadly shelling came the 20th Ohio. Colonel Manning Force led his Buckeyes forward. When they came within 200 yards of the roadblock, the heretofore unseen Mississippi artillery opened fire. The battery’s single 3-inch rifle fired at the Michigan artillery in an effort to divert their all too effective barrage. Meanwhile, two 6-pounder smoothbores and a single 12-pounder howitzer flailed the blue-coated infantry with canister.

Although surprised to receive fire from the masked battery, the veteran Ohio infantry closed ranks and pressed on. They endured two volleys from the defenders behind the roadblock but the fire from the Mississippi infantry was ragged; apparently the 26th Mississippi was unnerved by the fall of its colonel. The Buckeyes lowered bayonets and charged home. Manning Force himself mounted the carriage where Reynolds had fallen, stabbed a Rebel color-bearer with his sword, and seized the flag with an exultant scream. The defenders broke toward the rear and the Ohio infantry surged over and through the roadblock, scooping up prisoners as well as the Mississippians’ state colors. This charge proved to be the high water mark for the Army of the Tennessee.

Sidney Johnston had had little time to organize an offensive. His plan was not subtle: his 16,000 soldiers would cross Hankinson’s Ferry and attack the enemy where found. His objective was to drive the Yankees back through Grindstone Ford. Johnston placed his trust in the combination of surprise and superior numbers. He was, however, able to ensure that the first Confederates who arrived to support Reynolds’s Mississippians were the best fighters in his army—Colonel Francis Cockrell’s Missouri Brigade.

As Cockrell’s men swept forward at the double they passed a farmhouse and heard the sound of female voices singing Dixie. Glancing over, they saw a group of ladies singing and cheering to encourage their heroes. Cockrell, looking like a quintessential Southern cavalier, held his reins and a magnolia blossom in one hand and his sword in the other. He flourished his sword in salute to the patriotic ladies and then pointed his weapon at the enemy. Nearby, Private John Dale of the 5th Missouri leaped over a rail fence and ran forward while screaming, “Come on Company I, we can whip the Goddamn Yankee sons-of-bitches!”

The initial Confederate onslaught recaptured the barricade and broke the second Union line as well. “Black Jack” Logan galloped forward to rally his men. He rose in his stirrups and shouted, “We must whip them here or all go under the sod together. Give ’em hell.” The Missouri battery supporting Cockrell’s brigade targeted Logan’s line. A shell from one of its 10-pounder Parrott rifles decapitated the Union general, catapulting his lifeless body to the ground like a dancing marionette whose strings had been severed.

Logan’s sudden death shocked the Yankees. But it was the unexpected sight of Cockrell’s wildmen, shrieking like banshees and coming closer with every step, that unnerved the Union men. They broke before contact. Confederate Sergeant William Ruyle described the ensuing charge: “We gave them the Missouri yell… and gave them a charge in Missouri REBEL style. We routed them and took after them.”

The Union collapse occurred so fast that the supporting brigade hardly had time to deploy before ittoo faced Cockrell’s furious charge. Like Logan, young General McPherson understood that the crisis was at hand. Unlike Logan, he did not use profanity. As he tried to steady his men he called out, “Give them Jesse boys, give them Jesse.”39 Wearing his full dress uniform, riding a superb black horse, McPherson exposed himself recklessly. He made an unmistakable target and died outright when a Confederate marksman shot him through the lower back. The bullet’s trajectory tore upward toward the heart. McPherson toppled from the saddle.

The surging Rebels found an orderly cradling the general’s head in his lap. “Who is lying there” an Arkansas captain inquired. The orderly replied, “Sir it is General McPherson. You have killed the best man in our army.”

The deaths of two popular and charismatic leaders demoralized the XVII Corps. The corps was strung out in road column and ill-prepared for combat. In the absence of both corps and divisional commanders, no one seemed to take charge. The first inkling most men had that the enemy was near came when demoralized soldiers ran by them crying out, “Logan is down!” or “McPherson has fallen!” For the remainder of the afternoon the Union soldiers concentrated on escaping to safety over Grindstone Ford.

The day ended with the XVII Corps fleeing over the ford, having lost some 3,200 men including its two best known generals. As had been the case at Fort Donelson and Shiloh, the Rebel attack had found the Union army commander far from the scene of action. Grant had spent the day at Grand Gulf where he conferred with Admiral Porter and worked to unclog his line of communications. In part because McPherson’s death had plunged the staff into confusion, Grant did not learn of the debacle at Hankinson’s Ferry until early evening. He responded to the grim news in characteristic fashion by summoning all available manpower to support his wounded field army. Sherman’s corps was still marching south through the Louisiana bayous on the far side of the Mississippi. Grant’s dispatch to Sherman candidly related the day’s news. He ordered Sherman to accelerate his march and ended by saying, “It is unnecessary for me to remind you of the overwhelming importance of celerity in your movements.”

As Grant prepared to gallop off to rejoin his army, Admiral Porter cornered John Rawlins, Grant’s chief of staff, to learn the news. In Porter’s mind it could hardly be worse. His fleet lay trapped between two fortified rebel citadels: Vicksburg to the north and Port Hudson to the south. The army held an unsecure bridgehead at the end of a precarious line of communications stretching back to Milliken’s Bend. Its back was against the continent’s greatest river while somewhere to the front was a hungry enemy closing in for the kill. Porter summoned his steward for a glass of naval rum. After Grant and his staff departed, the admiral began preparing his ironclads and transports to ferry the army back over the Mississippi just in case it all went wrong.

The Second Battle of Port Gibson

That evening, the elated Confederate army celebrated its victory in style. The soldiers were in fine spirits, eager to come to grips again with the invaders. A Tennessee lieutenant’s description of his comrades reveals the prevailing mood:

“They are effective men. Men that are fighting for the property of their families, for their rights… such men can’t be subjugated, unconquerable with too much hatred to even wish for peace, all joyful and full of glee, marching perhaps right into the jaws of death. Ah, will the God of Battles givethis splendid army to Lincoln’s hordes who have robbed the defenseless women and children of the staff of life? No the God of Battles will grant us Victory.”

An exceedingly weary Sidney Johnston tried to focus on the myriad tasks that needed doing and discovered that he could not. Finally, he summoned Bowen to his headquarters. Bowen found Johnston lying down while an anxious Doctor Yandell applied a cold compress to his brow.

“My friend,” Johnston said:

“I need your help. Tomorrow, we will of course, attack. The enemy is off balance and brittle. If we hit them hard before they can get set, they will break. Before we attacked today I asked Pemberton to forward reinforcements. Most of the Vicksburg garrison should be here sometime tomorrow morning. I want you to act as my chief of staff. Send orders to all units en route and order them to force march through the night. Ten soldiers who arrive tomorrow are worth more than fifty who come the next day.”

While Johnston rested, Bowen and a band of devoted staff officers worked tirelessly to assemble a fresh Confederate striking force. In truth, even Pemberton—always more comfortable directing affairs from a rear area headquarters—responded well to Johnston’s request for reinforcements. Loring’s and Stevenson’s complete divisions along with a brigade each from William Forney and Martin Smith arrived in time for battle. Even Wirt Adams’s Mississippi Cavalry abandoned their futile chase of Grierson’s raiders to complete a cross-country trek to join Johnston and be in at the kill.

That morning a stiff and sore Sidney Johnston summoned his subordinates. Again his plan was simple: a simultaneous attack all along the front. “Gentlemen,” he said, “You will not do wrong if you march to the sounds of the heaviest firing and givethem the bayonet.” After Dr Yandell helped him into the saddle, Johnston fixed his lieutenants with a stern look and said, “Tonight we will water our horses in the Mississippi!”

The ensuing so-called “Second Battle of Port Gibson” proved to be a onesided affair. Grant emulated his fallen comrades by exposing himself recklessly. The soldiers who fought under his immediate command responded bravely. But Grant was forced to act as corps commander for the leaderless XVII Corps, and because of this need he was unable to keep a tight rein over McClernand’s XIII Corps.

While it is unlikely—contrary to the charges of his political foes, who point to the fact that as post-war governor of Illinois McClernand seemed quite content to let the southern portion of his state secede to join the Confederate States of America—that McClernand was secretly assisting the Rebels, the facts speak for themselves. During the battle McClernand’s command remained largely inert, apparently quite content to let the remnants of the XVII Corps fight unaided. The only initiative he displayed was in leading his men to be first aboard Porter’s transports when the Army of the Tennessee abandoned its bridgehead on the Mississippi’s eastern shore.

The ignoble flight of Grant’s army proved decisive in the collapse of the Union war effort. The midwestern anti-war press, led by Matt Halstead, the acid-penned editor of the influential Cincinnati Commercial, demanded Grant’s dismissal. It was Shiloh all over, complete with charges that Grant had again been drunk.

Perhaps Lincoln would have retained his favorite western general had not another catastrophe occurred in the east. Hooker’s debacle at Chancellorsville elevated Northern anti-war sentiment to a fevered pitch. Lincoln discarded Grant but it failed to silence his political critics. Worse, in a textbook demonstration of the advantage of interior lines, five Confederate brigades took to the cars to move from Vicksburg to Richmond in early June 1863. Their presence allowed Robert E. Lee to wage a careful campaign of maneuver culminating in the epic Battle of Gettysburg. The sight of Cockrell’s valiant Missouri men charging side by side with Pickett’s Virginians to storm Cemetery Ridge is memorably depicted by the cyclorama at the Richmond National Museum’s Hall of Valor.

General Johnston did not live to water his horse in the Mississippi. As at Shiloh, he led from the front and this time paid the full price when he fell while directing the last charge against the gallant but futile Union rearguard conducted by Colonel Boomer’s brigade. We have only the not altogether reliable words of his aide, Captain Wickham, that Johnston knew that his army stood on the cusp of a great and decisive victory before he died. Certainly anyone seeking more information about Johnston’s death is well advised to visit the Martyr’s Rotunda in our nation’s capital in Richmond.

The Reality

Jefferson Davis went to his grave believing that, had his friend Sidney Johnston lived, the South would have won the war. “When Sidney Johnston fell,” Davis plaintively observed, “it was the turning point of our fate; for we had no other to take up his work in the West.” How successful Johnston might have been has been a popular speculative topic every since that bloody April at Shiloh. Skeptics point to Johnston’s ponderous, flawed tactical alignment at Shiloh. However, recall that Grant had his Belmont, Lee his botched campaign in West Virginia and again during the Seven Days, Jackson his Kernstown. All of these men learned from experience and it seems reasonable to believe that, had Johnston lived, he too would have improved. Instead, Johnston assigned Doctor Yandell the task of caring for the wounded and subsequently died with a tourniquet in his pocket which, if promptly applied, would have saved him.

The outline of events in my story follows reality. The details of Cockrell’s dramatic charge are taken from the Battle of Champion Hill. McClernand did in fact put in an amazingly slack performance at that same battle. Pemberton did concentrate a mass of maneuver after the Battle of Port Gibson. Had he employed this force offensively, he well might have caught the XVII Corps in the type of situation I describe. Historian Edwin Bearss speculates that Grant’s impetuous pursuit gave “the Confederate leaders a chance to destroy or maul one of his corps.” When I considered this opportunity in my own Vicksburg book I concluded, “if the recent fight at Port Gibson proved anything, it was that the area’s terrain was far better suited to the defense than the attack.” Still, an aggressive leader such as Lee, Jackson, or Grant would have hazarded the stroke. With the element of surprise and a numerical advantage of 16,000 versus 11,000, a Confederate success is well within the realm of possibility.

To make my story plausible required a Confederate leader willing to hazard the stroke. When I first proposed my story to the editor, he replied that Pemberton would never have taken the risk. Indeed, Pemberton’s foolish commitment to defending what he undoubtedly believed to be his sacred trust, namely Vicksburg itself, was key to what actually did take place; he achieved a potential battle-winning concentration at Hankinson’s Ferry and then dispersed it to guard against Grant’s next thrust. So, if not Pemberton then who? Not Lee, who steadily refused to serve in the West, not Joe Johnston, who never saw a position as good as the next one to the rear, therefore a “resurrected” Sidney Johnston.

What would have been the impact of Grant’s failure at Vicksburg? It is a provocative topic for speculation. Recall three points: in the spring of 1863 the people of the Old Northwest were very unhappy about the stalemate on the Mississippi and weary about casualties among their boys, and here the peace movement was growing; one of the main reasons Lee went north in the fateful summer of 1863 was to relieve pressure at Vicksburg; if the Confederate reserves sent to relieve Pemberton had instead nourished Lee’s invasion, if even the 5,000 men Beauregard could spare had been present at Gettysburg on July 1 or July 2, what might have transpired? Such is history.

James R. Arnold


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