On April 30, and May 1, 1863, Union Major General U.S. Grant crossed his Army of the Tennessee over the Mississippi River south of Vicksburg. He then cut loose from his supply sources and plunged inland to surround the city and defeat the Confederates.
Grant’s move has been cited as a great risk, which it certainly was. He had to win or face utter ruin of his army and defeat – the starkest all-or-nothing proposition. With hindsight, we know it worked. But what of occasions where such a bold move doesn’t work?
Understanding armies that failed in similar circumstances helps define exactly the stakes of the Vicksburg Campaign in May 1863. Let me provide three examples of such failures.
In March of 1862, Confederates under Earl Van Dorn attacked Union Major General Ben Curtis’ forces at Pea Ridge. Van Dorn, who outnumbered Curtis, aggressively split his army and sent part on a flank march into the Federal rear. For speed, he left his supply wagons behind. His men straggled, and arrived tired and hungry for the battle’s opening on March 7. Confederate attacks were piecemeal and not as vigorous as needed. The next day Confederate artillery ran out of ammunition and Curtis swept the field with a counterattack. Van Dorn’s routed and hungry men took a week to reform.
In September 1942, General Kiyotake Kawaguchi led an 8,000-man brigade to dislodge the U.S. Marine beachhead on Guadalcanal. He left most of his supplies and support behind, and marched his men through trackless jungle to launch a converging attack on the Marine perimeter. Over two days (September 12-13), Kawaguchi’s men hammered the Marines with repeated attacks that all failed. Kawaguchi took five days to retrace his steps, and another month to ready his brigade for another try. Reinforced with the 2d “Sendai” Division under Masao Maruyama, the Japanese tried the same plan again in late October. Movement delays resulted in piecemeal attacks between October 23 and 26, all of which the Marines (reinforced themselves by U.S. Army troops) repulsed. The Sendai Division had lost over 50% of its strength and retreated in an agonizing march back to camp, a diseased and starving group of combat-ineffective men. This was the last Japanese attack against the beachhead.
In March of 1944, nearly 100,000 Japanese of the Fifteenth Army plunged into India from Burma. The commander, General Renya Mutaguchi, planned for his men to carry rations and eat whatever they could capture from the British. Mutaguchi’s plan counted on capturing the bases at Imphal, Kohima, and Dimapur and using their supplies to sustain the offensive. Unlike other British units before that had succumbed to Japanese attacks, General Sir William Slim’s British Fourteenth Army stood firm at Imphal and Kohima for weeks. Air resupply kept Slim’s men in fighting trim, whereas lack of supplies withered the Japanese and forced them into desperate attacks (all repulsed). By June, after three months of fighting, Mutaguchi withdrew back to Burma. British pursuers found thousands of emaciated and dead men lining the retreat routes, victims of disease and starvation. Mutaguchi lost 85-90% of the men he had led to India, and sustained Japan’s greatest single land defeat ever. Conversely, Slim’s victory at Imphal and Kohima has been called one of Britain’s greatest battles.
Collectively, these examples show the fate that Grant courted in 1863 when he cut loose from his supplies and moved against Vicksburg from the south. He risked the Army of the Tennessee in a daring maneuver that succeeded brilliantly, altering the course of the war. That he avoided any of these calamities is a testament to his leadership and the quality of his men as marchers and fighters.
Top: Grant’s advance on Vicksburg, May 1863.
Bottom: The Japanese Imphal-Kohima Offensive, 1944. The British 4 and 33 Corps made up Fourteenth Army under Slim, while Mutaguchi’s Fifteenth Army included the 15th, 31st, and 33d Divisions.