Better late than Never? by Morgan Gates
Ever have one of those mornings when everything is going wrong? The alarm didn’t go off, you grab coffee and burnt toast and rush out to your car, only to discover you (wife, teenager, brother-in-law, insert your usual suspects here) has left the car on empty and you now must stop for gas. You get behind the school bus, there is a wreck on the highway and traffic is backed up etc. etc. You finally get to work and there stands the boss! You sheepishly say better late than never! It happens to everyone once in a while and if, you are like me, it embarrassing and you strive not to let it happen again. Some people however don’t seem to share our sense of urgency. To them what we perceive as a must do goal, does not seem that important. Often it seems these “I’ll get to it eventually people, cause more frustration than actual damage”, often but not always. In truth, these frustrations are not unique to our modern world, they have happened throughout history. In the Vicksburg Campaign our man with the “better late than never” attitude was General Joseph E. Johnson!
I sure anyone reading this blog is enough of a history buff to understand that the Campaign ended with a 47-day siege of Vicksburg. From May 19th to July 4th the city was surrounded and bombarded from land and water. Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy had lived in Vicksburg before the War and understood the importance of Vicksburg to the Southern cause. Davis had ordered Lt. General John C. Pemberton to hold the city at all cost. The problem was that Pemberton was not just in charge of Vicksburg but the entire state of Mississippi and eastern Louisiana as well, and was desperately short of the manpower, firepower and supplies to properly defend such a vast area. After his forces failed to counter Grant’s river crossing thirty miles south of Vicksburg, he moved his headquarters from the state capital at Jackson to the fortress city. Grant’s daring and unconventional tactics thwarted Pemberton’s efforts to stop his approach and finally Pemberton had to go to his fallback positon inside the bulwarks of the Gibraltar of the south. Pemberton, ever the good soldier had steadily reported his status to his superiors, Joseph E Johnson in Tennessee and President Davis in Richmond Virginia. Realizing that Pemberton will need rescue, Davis orders Johnson to Jackson Mississippi and starts curry combing the Confederacy for spare troops to create the “Army of the Relief”. Johnson’s failure to come to Vicksburg’s aid is a subject of debate among historians to this day.
Union General U. S. Grant had excellent intelligence, in the form of sympathetic southern railroad men and telegraph operators organized by Grenville Dodge (fun fact: Dodge City of Old West fame was named for him). He knew where Johnson was and knew he had a swelling army, and he made plans accordingly. Grant was being supplied via the Mississippi River, a supply line the Rebels could not challenge. Union General Henry Halleck, Chief General of the Union Army at the time was no fan of Grant, but despite his misgivings he realized that, the frumpy little general that not follow the rules, was on the verge of capturing “The Key” to the Mississippi River, and he sent Grant the reinforcements he requested. The Union forces surrounding the city more than doubled as the siege progressed, almost half of those men were facing EAST! In a ring of fortifications – that was called the exterior Line- stretching from the Yazoo River to the Big Black that rivaled the Confederate works in front of Vicksburg.
Johnson seemed ambivalent about Vicksburg. Almost as soon as he had gotten off the train at Jackson, he telegraphed Davis that “he was too late”, Pemberton who had orders from the president himself to hold Vicksburg, was badgered by Johnson to abandon the city and save his army. Once besieged Pemberton constantly (as long as he can get messages out at least) implored Johnson to come. Johnson in his return messages lead Pemberton to believe that he was indeed coming and never actually admitted he was not until after communications had been cut off. Both the Confederate Secretary of War and President Davis were constantly urging Johnson to move. Yet he sat comfortably ensconced in the little town of Canton Mississippi until the city was near capitulation. Johnson finally moved toward Vicksburg at the end of June, he arrived at the Big Black River –15 miles east of the besieged city-- on July 1st only to find his path blocked by the Union Exterior Line, other than a few cavalry probes Johnson never even crossed the Big Black! By mid-day July 3rd Pemberton has begun surrender negotiations. Grant had by this time detached Sherman - his pit bull - from his 15th corps duties and placed him over a sizable “Army of Maneuver” when Grant gave the command “sic ‘em” Sherman chased Johnson first to Jackson and then out of the state.
Why Joe delayed so long is an open subject to this day, and Johnson does have his admirers and defenders, including Grant and Sherman, I however, am not one of them. Some of his defenders point out that the concept of fixed defenses has today been proven faulty and Joe saw this “ahead of his time”! To me that is an inadequate defense considering the loss of Vicksburg effectively cut the South in half. The most generous excuse I can give him is he perhaps was suffering from what is today know as PTSD, he had nearly died of wounds received in front of Richmond early in the War. On the low side, theories advanced by some include:
We here at RDHV appreciate all of you who read us via Facebook; however, it helps us even more if you would take a moment to sign up to follow us directly from our website, rediscoveringhistoicvicksburg.com this will give you first access to our newest posts, special events and our upcoming RDHV books series. Thanks!