“You can do a great deal in eight days”: Ulysses S. Grant’s Forgotten Turning Point (part one)

Grand Gulf Military Monument Park preserves the site of one of the most monumental–but overlooked–turning points of the Civil War.

Part one of two

Ulysses S. Grant had envisioned his arrival in Grand Gulf, Mississippi, under other circumstances. A week earlier, he had targeted the landing as the ideal spot to cross his army from the west bank of the Mississippi River to the east, and from there, he would launch an overland trek to “the Gibraltar of the Confederacy,” Vicksburg, some thirty-five miles to the north. But on April 29, after a five-hour battle, Federal naval forces proved unable to reduce the Confederate fortifications at Grand Gulf or dislodge the garrison’s defenders.

Grant improvised and switched his landing spot to Bruinsburg. The navy shuttled Grant’s army across on April 30 and, the very next day, Grant threw his men into combat. By May 3, his forces had advanced far enough inland to outflank the Grand Gulf garrison, which abandoned its post lest the men find themselves trapped. When Grant finally arrived in Grand Gulf, it was by horseback from the east rather than by boat from the west, making a seventeen-mile ride from an inland crossroads called Hankinson’s Ferry.

“I had been in the saddle since we crossed the river, three days before,” he later recalled, “and had not had a regular meal or any sleep in that time.”[1] And perhaps worst of all, because he’d been without his baggage “since the 27th of April,” he “consequently had had no change of underclothing. . . .”[2]

But his arrivals at Grand Gulf on the night of May 3, under trying circumstances large and small, would lead Grant to one of the most consequential decisions of the Civil War—an oft-overlooked turning point that illustrated his determination, resilience, and willingness to make calculated risks.

Grant had been trying to take Vicksburg for months. Six separate attempts had all led to naught, although the resulting operations spread Grant’s forces over an arc of more than sixty miles on the Louisiana side of the river. “The division of your army into small expeditions destroys your strength, and, when in the presence of an enemy, is very dangerous,” complained Grant’s boss, General in Chief of the Army Henry Halleck, in early April from his desk in Washington. “What is most desired, and your attention is again called to this object, is that your forces and those of General Banks should be brought into co-operation as early as possible.”[3]

Banks, based in Baton Rouge, had been assigned to capture Port Hudson, twenty-five miles north of the Louisiana capital and, by at least one estimation by Grant, some 300 river miles south of Vicksburg.[4] Port Hudson, like Vicksburg, was a riverside stronghold that sat atop high bluffs and controlled traffic on the river.

Grant had no desire to join forces with Banks, though, either for a move against Vicksburg or Port Hudson. Banks, a political general who’d once been speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, outranked Grant, so Grant knew any junction of their forces would mean he’d take a back seat to the less-able Banks.

And indeed, Banks had been proving his less-ableness for months. Not only had “Commissary Banks” been embarrassed out of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley in the spring of 1862, he’d most recently run into grief in March in a first stab at Port Hudson. Just as Grant looked for ways to bypass Vicksburg, Banks looked for ways to bypass Port Hudson, and in late March, began an effort that took him up the Red River. This would prove fortuitous to Grant.

By that point, Grant had begun to develop his next plan for attacking at Vicksburg. He would cross the Mississippi somewhere south of Vicksburg and, subsisting off the land and whatever supply chain he could safely maintain, he would approach the river city from its landward side. But Halleck’s pressure to unite with Banks threatened to undermine the effort. Initially, Grant told his boss he would “send an army corps to Port Hudson to operate with General Banks” in the reduction of Port Hudson, detailing the 17,000 men of Maj. Gen. John McClernand’s corps for the task.[5]

Grant promised the detachment by April 25, but by the 19th, he began to equivocate. “This will now be impossible,” Grant told Halleck, but added that he would get the men to Banks as soon as possible. “There shall be no unnecessary delay . . . in my movements.”[6]

Grant’s relationship with McClernand was certainly fraught, and so that no doubt informed his decision to send the difficult subordinate away. McClernand, like Banks, was also a politician-turned-general, and Grant may have felt the two birds of a feather deserved each other. But McClernand did have a credible force and so would be of legitimate assistance. (McClernand had around 20,000 men; McPherson had around 17,000 men; Sherman, still defending the Federal supply depot at Milliken’s Bend but soon on his way to Grand Gulf, had around 20,000 men.)

But the more Grant considered the situation on the Mississippi side of the river, the less he wanted to give up any of his men; the more success he met with in his operation, the less he wanted to attend to Port Hudson.

Orders were orders, though. “Up to this time my intention had been to secure Grand Gulf, as a base of supplies, detach McClernand’s corps to Banks and co-operate with him in the reduction of Port Hudson,” Grant later explained.[7] He rode into Grand Gulf on the evening of May 3 knowing he couldn’t put off his obligation to Halleck and Banks any longer.

(to be continued….)

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[1] John Russell Young, Around the World With General Grant (New York: The American News Company, 1879), Vol. 2, 620.

[2] Ulysses S. Grant, “The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant,” Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters, Mary Drake McFeely and William S. McFeely, editors (New York: Library of America, 1990), 326.

[3] Halleck to Grant, 2 April 1863, O.R. XXIV, Pt. 1, 25.

[4] Grant, memoirs, 328.

[5] Grant, memoirs, 327.

[6] Grant to Halleck, 19 April 1863, O.R. XXIV, Pt. 1, 30.

[7] Grant, memoirs, 327.

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3 Responses to “You can do a great deal in eight days”: Ulysses S. Grant’s Forgotten Turning Point (part one)

  1. Eric says:

    Thanks for the article, looking forward to the continuation. I believe there is a small typo in reference to the Ferry, the Ferry on the Big Black at Hankinson’s Ferry. Reference to the historical marker and additional info on Grant is here:

    https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=103849

    Following the battle at Port Gibson, McPherson’s Corps would have dueled with Bowen’s rear guard at Grindstone Ford while attempting to get across Bayou Pierre. Further movement from there would have taken them towards Grand Gulf and Hankinson’s Ferry.

  2. John Foskett says:

    Chris: Thanks for this article. And a brief salute to Grierson, whose raid helped deflect attention away from Grant’s intended move.

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