“How does it look now?“, reads U.S. Commanding General Joseph Hooker. The telegram in his hands is from President Abraham Lincoln, who, like every Spring since the war started, is highly anxious and high strung now that Winter is behind them. With the warmer weather, the Army of the Potomac should be on the move. But at the beginning of each Spring they must deal with rising rivers from the melting snow and consistent rains, which often hinder their movements. The last major move the Union army made in the Eastern theater of war was at Fredericksburg last December, under U.S. Major General Ambrose Burnside. It had resulted in a major loss that has challenged the will of the people in the North to continue the war and has diminished the power of the United States on an international level. With Hooker now in charge, Lincoln has been sending communications that he no longer wants constant maneuvering of positions. He wants a battle and he wants it won. The Union needs a major victory.
It just so happens that Hooker has just begun moving his troops today, in what he considers a major plan to surprise C.S.A. General Robert E. Lee and the majority of his troops in the Fredericksburg area. Hooker is hoping to swing around Lee and cut off their supply lines from Richmond, and to turn the Confederate left flank. Hooker isn’t looking for a repeat battle at Fredericksburg; he was against the move back in December as he saw Lee’s troops on the high ground behind the stone wall protecting them. He has his own plans for success.
After days of waiting for the water levels to lower, Hooker’s Fifth, Eleventh and Twelfth Corps cross the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers above Fredericksburg. Union cavalry under Major General George Stoneman begins a long distance raid against Lee’s supply lines that Hooker is hoping will be successful and also preoccupy some of Lee’s troops.
The man who had once been a friend of U.S. Major General Ulysses S. Grant and had met with him on surrender terms back in February 1862 at Fort Donelson, Tennessee is promoted today by C.S.A. President Jefferson Davis. Major General Simon Buckner, who has spent the last six months in command of the District of the Gulf and has been in charge of the defenses in Mobile, Alabama, has been assigned command of the Department of East Tennessee. He will make arrangements to make the move to Knoxville, where he will work closely under C.S.A. General Braxton Bragg, who he has worked with before and dislikes as a General. In fact, Buckner had been one of many to publicly denounce Bragg’s performance during his Fall campaign in Kentucky last year, which resulted in Bragg’s army abandoning any future invasion of Kentucky even after a successful fight in Perryville in October.
Two days ago Grant had given specific orders for his men to be ready to take Grand Gulf, Mississippi fortifications in a strategic move to take the final target of Vicksburg. Yesterday Grant had arrived at U.S. Major General John McClernand’s camp only to find it highly disorganized and not at all working on his orders to prepare for the move today. McClernand had steamers and transports that were still scattered freely along the river and bayous, unable to support the move as planned. The two divisions that were to board the steamers were stuck on land. Instead of following Grant’s orders of preparation, McClernand staged a review of a single brigade for his visiting friend, Illinois Governor Richard Yates. McClernand’s men listen to a long and splendid motivational speech from Yates, followed by one from McClernand. At the end, McClernand has his artillery fire a salute to the Governor using ammunition that was to be saved to fight the enemy per Grant’s orders, as they were in very low supply. McClernand couldn’t have made a more obvious statement to Grant that he did not only disagree with his plan, but disrespected him as a leader. This was not new to Grant, who has been struggling with McClernand for months, with McClernand feeling that he should be the one in charge of the Vicksburg campaign. Though Yates has strong political power, Lincoln has the final say and he believes in Grant’s abilities.
Grant again sends specific, written orders to McClernand as to what he wants done today: McClernand’s troops are to board and await orders to move via steamers to a point opposite Grand Gulf. The Navy will reduce whatever batteries the Confederates have in place, and then McClernand’s men will be ferried to the Mississippi shore, where they are to unload from the steamers and storm up the bluffs, capturing the Confederate fortifications. Men are to take only three days supply of rations; Grant wants everyone traveling light and with only the bare necessities. He needs his men to be able to move quickly.
Instead of following Grant’s orders, McClernand again has other ideas. Instead of taking the troops via water, he wants to take an open road to the same point opposite Grand Gulf, which leads to a little village called Hard Times. Grant allows a reconnaissance party to see if roads are passable, and instead they find Confederate cavalry. As McClernand still does not have enough transports to board his men, Grant seizes the opportunity and orders the last two of McClernand’s divisions to drive the Confederates out and take the village of Hard Times. There will be no move today against Grand Gulf but at least the Union army can accomplish something.
Wanting to create a diversion, Grant turns his attention to his most trusted fellow officer, U.S. Major William T. Sherman, who is the furthest north and closest to Vicksburg. He sends a note to Sherman:
“If you think it advisable, you may make a reconnaissance of Haynes’ Bluff, taking as much force and as many steamers as you like. The effect of a heavy demonstration in that direction would be good so far as the enemy are concerned, but I am loath to order it, because it would be so hard to make our own troops understand that only a demonstration was intended, and our people at home would characterize it as a repulse. I therefore leave it to you whether to make such a demonstration. Publish your order beforehand, stating that a reconnaissance in force is to be made for the purpose of calling off the enemy’s attention from our movements south of Vicksburg, and not with any expectation of attacking.”
The orders Sherman receive give him a lot of leeway and decision making power. But Grant trusts him fully. Sherman immediately swings into action. To cover the road from Milliken’s Bend to New Carthage, he detaches a division under Major General Frederick Steele. Sherman reveals to Steele that “General Grant directs me to control matters at this end.” Sherman knows he has Grant’s trust and that fuels him; it gives him confidence in his own abilities, which is something he lacked at the beginning of the war.
The move Grant wanted to make today against Grand Gulf will have to wait until tomorrow. He only hopes that this delay has not given the Confederates time to repulse their attack. But in typical Grant fashion, he has still made moves and tried to take advantage of the delay as best he can. He understands that public and political perception is very important right now.
C.S.A. Lieutenant General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson sends another battle report to General Robert E. Lee, this time regarding the second Battle of Manassas (known as Bull Run in North) from last August. He once again praises the support of C.S.A. Major General and cavalry officer J.E.B. Stuart for his action on the field. His fondness for Stuart is very obvious; it’s a huge compliment coming from someone who does not often give such high praise so freely. Jackson closes with the following:
For these great and signal victories our sincere and humble thanks are due unto Almighty God. We should in all things acknowledge the hand of Him who reigns in heaven and rules among the armies of men. In view of the arduous labors and great privations the troops were called to endure and the isolated and perilous position which the command occupied while engaged with greatly-superior numbers of the enemy we can but express the grateful conviction of our mind that God was with us and gave to us the victory, and unto His holy name be the praise.