Grant's Vicksburg Supply Line
Myth or Fact?
BY PARKER HILLS
From the abandoned general store in the extinct town of Grand Gulf, Mississippi, a narrow road meanders up the steep bluff bordering the Mississippi River floodplain and, after journeying almost 50 miles, terminates at the picturesque town of Raymond, Mississippi. This scenic and historic trace, despite its significance in American history and its remarkable state of preservation, is little known and sparsely traveled today.
This country road of today was a main thoroughfare in the early nineteenth century, and it served as Major General U. S. Grant's main supply route (MSR) during the Vicksburg Campaign. Contrary to the popular myth that Grant cut loose from his base when he moved toward Vicksburg to combat Lieutenant General John Pemberton's Confederate army in the spring of 1863, Grant established and maintained an MSR in Mississippi.
On April 29 and 30, 1863, Grant successfully crossed the Mississippi River at Bruinsburg, Mississippi in his quest for "footing upon dry ground on the east side of the river from which the troops could operate against Vicksburg." On May 1, his troops defeated a much smaller Confederate force just west of Port Gibson, and on May 3, Grant forced the evacuation of the Confederate fortifications at Grand Gulf. Immediately the river fortress of Grand Gulf became a beehive of Federal activity, and Grant's first objective after crossing the Mississippi had been achieved. He reported, "I went to Grand Gulf myself, and made the necessary arrangements for changing my base of supplies from Bruinsburg to Grand Gulf."
While at Grand Gulf, Grant boarded the USS Louisville and made tentative plans to capture Vicksburg and, more importantly, General John C. Pemberton's Confederate army. He fired off a message to his subordinate, General William T Sherman:
I wish you to collect a train of 120 wagons . . . and send them to Grand Gulf; and there load them with rations, as follows: One hundred thousand pounds of bacon, the balance coffee, sugar, salt and hard bread . . . it is unnecessary for me to remind you of the overwhelming importance of celerity in your movements . . . The enemy is badly beaten, greatly demoralized, and exhausted of ammunition. The road to Vicksburg is open. All we want now are men, ammunition, and hard bread. We can subsist our horses on the country, and obtain considerable supplies for our troops.
After taking care of business at Grand Gulf, Grant and his staff mounted their horses around midnight and rode into the darkness along the narrow road, turning their nervous mounts left at a fork leading to Hankinson's Ferry on the Big Black River. The weary party arrived just before dawn on May 4. Lieutenant Colonel James Wilson rode with Grant and described the midnight ride: We "rode rapidly through the dark by a strange and circuitous road." During the daylight hours a war correspondent with the Chicago Times, Sylvanus Cadwallader, followed and described the same route as "a well traveled thoroughfare along elevated ridges."
At Hankinson's Ferry on May 5, Grant sent a pointed message to an aide at Grand Gulf: "See that the commissary at Grand Gulf loads all wagons presenting themselves for stores with great promptness ... Movements here are delayed for want of ammunition and stores. Every day's delay is worth two thousand men to the enemy." The next day Sherman began his crossing of the Mississippi River to Grand Gulf, while Grant evaluated the situation and considered a new plan of attack against Pemberton's army.
Sherman had doubted Grant's plan to utilize Grand Gulf as a supply base from the outset, writing to his wife on April 29 that, "when they take Grand Gulf they have the elephant by the tail." On May 4, after receiving Grant's message for supplies, he wrote to General Frank Blair, one of his division commanders who would be responsible for guarding the supply line, predicting "some other way must be found to feed this army." Sherman despairingly wrote to General James Tuttle the next day: "I apprehend great difficulty in the matter of food." But Sherman's attitude improved somewhat on May 6, while he was still in Louisiana opposite Grand Gulf. He wrote to Blair, "Grant reports plenty of meat and corn on the other side, but salt, coffee, sugar, and bread are out of the question save in our commissariat." A lieutenant with McClernand's corps wrote to his wife on May 5 that his men were "waiting for provisions — we are nearly out — I have got one cracker left and some meat ..."
Sherman worked hard on logistics despite his misgivings, and by May 8 Grand Gulf was stocked with over two million complete rations. Union General John McClernand reported that 60 ammunition wagons had left Grand Gulf for McClernand's location at the hamlet of Willow Springs on the MSR. A Union cavalry colonel wrote to Grant's chief of staff stating that his force of 300 troopers had taken one day's rations from a train on the road that morning. The narrow, serpentine road was supplying Grant's army with food and ammunition.
On May 7, Grant — having decided upon a new plan of attack— rode six miles eastward to Rocky Springs. He would not move directly north across a captured bridge over the Big Black River to fight Pemberton south of Vicksburg, but instead planned an indirect approach "to get to the railroad east of Vicksburg, and approach from that direction." An indirect approach would require a much longer line of supply and was risky. In fact, after Vicksburg surrendered more than two months later, President Lincoln wrote to Grant, "When you turned northward east of the Big Black, I feared it was a mistake." Despite the risk, the possible rewards were great, and almost 128 years later another American fighting force used the same plan to defeat its enemy — a plan to destroy the Iraqi army succinctly described by General Colin Powell: "First, we're going to cut it off, and then we're going to kill it."
Sherman traveled to Hankinson's Ferry, and on May 9 warned Grant at Rocky Springs: "There are over 500 wagons across the river [in Louisiana] ... Stop all troops till your army is partially supplied with wagons, and then act as quickly as possible, for this road will be jammed as sure as life if you attempt to supply 50,000 men by one single road."
Grant immediately responded to Sherman's dire prediction: "I do not calculate the possibility of supplying the army with full rations from Grand Gulf ... What I do expect, however, is to get up what rations of hard bread, coffee, and salt we can, and make the country furnish the balance." Grant also wrote to another subordinate working the supply line that, "Hard bread, coffee and salt should be kept up anyhow, and then the other articles of the rations as they can be supplied."
After receiving Grant's reassuring reply to his "jammed road" missive, Sherman sent instructions to Blair, saying, "Don't let the wagons get encumbered with trash. We will be in want of salt, bread, sugar, and coffee. We may safely trust to the country for meat." Sherman was beginning to understand Grant's intentions.
On May 11, Grant's army continued to move northeastward to the railroad that supplied Vicksburg from the east, and General McClernand sent a warning to Grant, then at Cayuga on the MSR. McClernand's concern was the possibility of the enemy isolating the Union army by crossing the Big Black and severing the MSR. The same day, Grant wrote to Major General James B. McPherson, whose corps was on a separate route to the railroad. He ordered the young general to pick up the rate of march, and informed him that "One train of wagons is now arriving, and another will come with Blair." That night Grant wrote to Sherman: "About 200 wagons are loaded, and leave [from Grand Gulf] for the front today." The 200 will wagons, protected in part by the 25th Iowa regiment, eventually arrived in Raymond on May 15.
The next night, May 12, Grant and Sherman were at Dillon's farm on the MSR. Grant learned of McPherson's fight with a Confederate brigade at Raymond that day, and that Confederate General Joe Johnston was arriving with reinforcements in Jackson. Grant "decided at once to turn the whole column towards Jackson and capture that place without delay." He sent orders to McClernand, advising him that "a supply train left Grand Gulf yesterday and Blair's division, with an additional train, today" He instructed McClernand to send A. J. Smith's division to Old Auburn on the MSR to assist Blair in protecting the trains. As Grant moved to Jackson, he ensured that two divisions would protect the vital wagonloads of supplies. Ever conscious of logistics, Grant carefully managed and protected his MSR.
Remarkably, the existence of an MSR for Grant's army has been misunderstood or even disclaimed since those fateful days in May of 1863. The myth of Grant's cutting loose from his supply base probably began when Charles Dana, a former reporter who accompanied Grant's army as an observer for the Secretary of War, wrote back to Washington on May 4, 1863: "As soon as Sherman comes up and the rations on the way arrive, he [Grant] will disregard his base and depend upon the country for meat and even for bread." In 1867 Adam Badeau, a former Grant staff officer, published the first volume of his three-volume Military History of General U. S. Grant. Badeau wrote that, "[Grant] at once decided to abandon his base altogether, to plunge into the enemy's country with three days rations, trusting to the region itself for forage and supplies." A year later, in The Personal History of U. S. Grant, Albert Richardson compared Grant's Vicksburg Campaign with "Scott's brilliant campaign from Puebla to Mexico," and wrote that Grant "determined to abandon his base."
In 1879, during an interview with a New York Herald reporter, Grant, while recalling the Vicksburg Campaign, said that, as his troops crossed the Mississippi on April 29 and 30, he "had rations in abundance on board the transports, but no transportation for them into the interior." He said he did not abandon his base but "directed the officers to gather all the wagons and teams they could from the plantations as we moved on." Even though the river crossing was several days before Grant arrived at Grand Gulf on May 3, his intentions were dear: he had to have a supply line for his army. Some things such as ammunition, coffee, bread, salt, and sugar could not be foraged from the Southern countryside.
But, when writing his Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant in 1885, more than 22 years after the conclusion of the Vicksburg Campaign, the terminally ill general contributed to the confusion of the supply line issue. He gave credence to the myth of his decision to abandon his supply base at Grand Gulf on May 3 by recalling: "I determined to move independently of Banks, cut loose from my base, destroy the rebel force in Vicksburg and invest or capture the city." This statement was identical to one he had written for an article in Century magazine in July of 1884, published in 1885 and again in 1887 in the four-volume Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.
Grant's phrase in his Memoirs, "cut loose from my base" at Grand Gulf on May 3, often referenced by authors and historians, is contradicted by Grant's words only eight pages later. Grant recalled that at Dillon's farm on May 12 he decided to turn his columns to Jackson. He wrote, "But by moving against Jackson, I uncovered my own communication. So I finally decided to have none — to cut loose altogether from my base and move my whole force eastward. I then had no fears for my communications, and if I turned quiddy enough could turn upon Pemberton before he could attack me in the rear." Even then, however, the MSR was loaded with vital supplies on wagons that were en-route to Raymond and to the soldiers of Grant's army.
Grant's misunderstood MSR from Grand Gulf to Raymond can be traveled today; it is a beautiful drive overflowing with history. Due to legislation sponsored by the Friends of the Vicksburg Campaign and Historic Trail, Inc., this road recently became Mississippi's first scenic byway. In the future the historic road will be properly marked and interpreted, and will provide the traveler an in-depth experience into a misunderstood facet of Grant's Vicksburg Campaign — the "non-existent" Union MSR.
During his 31 years as a Regular Army and National Guard officer; Parker Hills served in various command and staff positions in the United States and overseas. Hills retired with the rank of brigadier general in 2001. He served as president of an advertising agency for fifteen years in Jackson, Mississippi, and established Battle Focus, a leadership training company, upon his military retirement. Through Battle Focus, Hills has conducted corporate leadership training, military staff rides and battlefields tours. He has served as the president of two non-profit organizations involved in battlefield preservation: Friends of the Vicksburg Campaign and Historic Trail, and Friends of Raymond. A graduate of the U.S. Army War College, Hills is the author of A Study in Warfighting: Nathan Bedford Forrest and the Battle of Brice's Crossroads, and co-author of the Vicksburg Campaign Driving Tour Guide.