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

Part two of two

With an escort of twenty cavalrymen, Ulysses S. Grant rode on the evening of May 3, 1863, into the newly captured town Grand Gulf, Mississippi. He passed the now-abandoned Confederate forts, Cobun and Wade, and made his way to the river where four ironclads—Carondelet, Louisville, Mound City, and Tuscumbia—hunkered on the bank, yards away from the two forts they had unsuccessfully tried to reduce just days earlier. The navy had heard the sounds of the forts’ powder magazines going up, set off by the evacuating Confederates, and had sailed in to investigate.[1]

Before Grant got down to business, he took a bath, borrowed fresh underclothes from a naval officer, and grabbed himself a good meal.[2]

When Grant finally caught up on his correspondence on the night of May 3, the mailbag presented news that changed Grant’s situation entirely. Nathaniel Banks had sent a message about his expedition up the Red River, where he’d faced resistance from Confederate Maj. Gen. Richard Taylor. As a result, Banks “could not be at Port Hudson before the 10th of May and then with only 15,000 men.”

“To wait for his co-operation would have detained me at least a month,” Grant realized.[3]

Union Major General Nathaniel P. Banks

And then, when he did arrive, Banks would not be able to bring more than 10,000 reinforcements “after deducting casualties and necessary river guards at all high points close to the river for over three hundred miles,” Grant figured. Pemberton, meanwhile, would use the month’s delay to fortify his position at Vicksburg and bring in more reinforcements than Banks would be able to bring.[4]

If Grant rewrote his plan and moved on Vicksburg rather than on a junction with Banks, he might secure a decisive victory. He had the element of surprise. He had momentum. He had his independence. He faced an under-prepared foe.

And . . . he had a boss back in Washington who would most definitely say “No.”

But the operative phrase, Grant knew, was “back in Washington.”

To communicate with Halleck, dispatches had to go back across the river and retrace the army’s route of march along the west bank of the Mississippi back up to Young’s Point, near Milliken’s Bend, north of Vicksburg. From there, messages then traveled on a dispatch-boat to Cairo, the southernmost tip of Illinois, which was “the nearest point from which they could be telegraphed to Washington.”[5]

Even when Grant was still back up at Milliken’s Bend in early April, Halleck had reminded him about the difficulties communicating—and that was without the additional legs of the journey now be included in any relay. “In regard to your dispatches, it is very probable that many fail to reach here in time,” Halleck had warned. He wanted Banks kept in the loop in regards to Grant’s plans and reminded Grant “the only way he can get this information is through these headquarters.”[6]

As Grant calculated it, a message sent to Halleck and a reply sent to Grant would take eight days to make the full circle.

Eight days.

And that would be without any consultations between Halleck and Banks. Not that Halleck would bother. “I knew well that Halleck’s caution would lead him to disapprove of this course,” Grant later wrote; “but it was the only one that gave any chance of success.”[7]

Grant wrote a lengthy report outlining the details of the campaign thus far.[8] “The move by Bruinsburg undoubtedly took the enemy much by surprise,” he said, gearing up for his big reveal. He came to it indirectly, building, talking about the fine “health and spirits” his men enjoyed, how little straggling he witnessed, how nobly they’d all performed thus far. “The country will supply all the forage required for anything like an active campaign, and the necessary fresh beef,” he said.

By this point, Halleck might have started to wonder, What “active campaign?” but Grant plowed on.

“I shall not bring my troops into this place [Grand Gulf],” he finally announced, “but immediately follow the enemy, and, if all promises as favorable hereafter as it does now, not stop until Vicksburg is in our possession.”

“I therefore determined to move independently of Banks, cut loose from my base, destroy the rebel force in rear of Vicksburg and invest or capture the city.” — Grant, Memoirs

He sent the letter off, took care of other business—including a second, shorter report that went via Memphis detailing casualties from the fight at Port Gibson—then made the return trip to McPherson’s corps at Hankinson’s Ferry. “The time it would take to communicate with Washington and get a reply would be so great that I could not be interfered with until it was demonstrated whether my plan was practicable,” he recalled.[9]

Grant now had a window of a little over a week to push toward Vicksburg and either take the city or at least be so deeply involved in operations that it would be impossible to extract himself. Historian Parker Hills correctly summed it up as a “momentous decision to move fast, strike hard, and finish rapidly.”[10] It was a turning point not just in the campaign but a turning point for the war itself. Had Grant stuck to script, the Vicksburg campaign would never have unfolded as it did.

Grant soon plunged into the Mississippi interior. On May 11, anticipating the reply from Halleck, he sent a preemptive message: “As I shall communicate with Grand Gulf no more, except it becomes necessary to send a train with heavy escort, you may not hear from me again for several days.”[11] Battle at Raymond would erupt the next day.

As Grant prepared to cut communications, Halleck, in Washington, sent his reply to Grant’s May 3 dispatch. As anticipated, he argued strongly against Grant’s improvised plan and pushed the original one instead. “If possible, the forces of yourself and of General Banks should be united between Vicksburg and Port Hudson, so as to attack these places separately with the combined forces,” the general in chief wrote.[12] Halleck, at the time, had the battle of Chancellorsville demanding most of his attention, so his delay in replying to Grant is understandable, but that delay extended Grant’s anticipated eight-day window, effectively giving him even more time to get deeper into his overland campaign.

Grant’s May 11 communiqué was obviously intended as cover, for he still managed to keep up a stream of almost daily updates to Halleck as the campaign wore on. He never forgot to plant seeds in support of his mission, though. On May 15, writing to announce the capture of the state capital, Jackson, Grant mentioned, “A dispatch from General Banks showed him to be off in Louisiana, not to return to Baton Rouge until May 10. I could not lose the time.”[13]

His correspondence dried up shortly after that as he fought his way westward, from Champion Hill to the Big Black River to the outskirts of Vicksburg—and, from there, to an eventual July 4 victory, command of all armies in the West, promotion to Halleck’s job as general in chief, Appomattox Court House, and two terms in the White House. In retrospect, the decision he made at Grad Gulf could not have come with higher stakes.

“I remember how anxiously I counted the time I had to spare before that response could come,” Grant later said. “You can do a great deal in eight days.”[14]


[1] Michael Ballard, Vicksburg: The Campaign that Opened the Mississippi (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2004), 247.

[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] Grant, memoirs, 327.

[4] Grant, memoirs, 328.

[5] John Russell Young, Around the World With General Grant (New York: The American News Company, 1879), Vol. 2, 621.

[6] Halleck to Grant, 9 April, 1863, O.R. XXIV, Pt. 1, 28.

[7] Grant, memoirs, 328.

[8] The quotes that follow come from the report, written 3 May 1863 in Grand Gulf, O.R. XXIV, Pt. 1, 33.

[9] Grant, memoirs, 328.

[10] J. Parker Hills, “Roads to Raymond,” The Vicksburg Campaign: March 29-May 18, 1863, Steven E. Woodworth and Charles D. Grear, editors (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press,  69.

[11] Grant to Halleck, 11 May 1863, O.R. XXIV, Pt. 1, 36.

[12] Halleck to Grant, 11 May 1863, O.R. XXIV, Pt. 1, 36.

[13] Grant to Halleck 15 May 1863, O.R. XXIV, Pt. 1, 36.

[14] Young, 621.

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

  1. Very insightful! Most people are critical of Grant because of the Overland Campaign. The Vicksburg Campaign was brilliant for its maneuver, speed and audacity. It was the right strategy for the situation as was the strategy employed in 1864. It is Grant’s selection of the right tool for the situation that made him a great general.

    1. I think you’re right about picking the right tool for the situation. He wasn’t afraid to root around in his toolbox to try different tools, either, until he finally found the right one. I admire that willingness to try different things and not give up until he found the right one.

  2. The Vicksburg campaign had been wrought with repeated failures, yet Grant relentlessly pursued the task of taking it. That campaign sums up his life, given the repeated failures he endured, yet he prevailed. It also showed what RE Lee was in for. Grant won in both the West and the East. What else can be said?

  3. This article makes mention of several essential elements of Grant’s success at Vicksburg, one of which was The Telegraph.
    The telegraph was the electronic marvel of the age. Extending relentlessly alongside rail lines during the 1850s, by the time of the Secession crisis most major American towns east of the Missouri River were connected to the ever expanding communication network; and a telegraph from Washington D.C. could be read in Chicago (or New Orleans) in under an hour (speed of message arrival dependent upon priority of the message, and necessary operation of relay stations along the line.)
    Although some Federal leaders were besotted with the Telegraph (Halleck, Fremont and President Lincoln spring to mind) U.S. Grant was not a fan: the telegraph meant “control” and General Grant was not amenable to distant supervisors knowing, second-guessing and adjusting, his every move. The Fort Henry operation took place “two days” from Henry Halleck; and Grant’s Fort Donelson messages required up to four days to reach Halleck at St. Louis. General Grant was aware of the “uncertain nature” of the telegraph, subject to lines being cut, frequently affected by rain and flood, and exploited possible delays in relaying reports to the full. [Grant’s unauthorized visit to Nashville February 1862 is a prime example.]
    The Vicksburg operation, especially once Grant launched south of the Rebel Gibraltar, was particularly isolated, requiring dispatch riders and 12 mph paddle steamers to relay reports a portion of the way; and Grant thrived in that isolation, acting as supreme Federal commander, essentially without supervision, commanding 80,000 troops and directing subservient Naval commanders with impunity. And reporting major progress as it occurred (instead of reporting daily, which often means informing superiors of “lack of progress.”)
    Thus, The Telegraph was an essential element of Grant’s success at Vicksburg… by its neglect.

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