Big Black River Campaign, 7-19 May 1863

The second part of General Grant’s successful Vicksburg of 1863 (American Civil War). The first stage of the campaign had seen Grant march down the opposite bank of the Mississippi while part of his fleet ran past the guns of Vicksburg. Grant had then ferried part of his army across the river, before defeating a small part of the Confederate forces defending the city at Port Gibson (1 May).
Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicle (UK)
Vicksburg Campaign, 1863

Brigandine armour
Big Black River, campaign 1863

Although Grant had dealt with his first problem, that of getting his army onto the dry ground south of Vicksburg, he now faced a real threat from Confederate forces that, if united, would match him in numbers. However, those forces were widely spread, and under different commanders. General Pemberton, the commander at Vickburg, had the biggest Confederate army in the area (30,000 men surrendered at the fall of the city). More troops were being gathered to the east, and on 9 May they were put under the command of General Joseph Johnston.

Grant had been briefly very vulnerable to a counterattack by Pemberton alone, but throughout the upcoming campaign Pemberton’s biggest failing was to be his unwillingness to remove troops from Vicksburg. By 7 May, the final part of Grant’s army, under General Sherman, had joined the army on the east bank of the Mississippi, bringing Grant up to 45,000 men. While Johnston was travelling to join his troops at Jackson, the state capitol of Mississippi, Grant was already moving to remove any chance of Confederate success.

His plan was bold and daring. His army would abandon its supply line back across the Mississippi, and live off the land as it marched.  His first move would be towards Jackson, where he would defeat the Confederate reinforcements gathering there, before turning back west towards Pemberton and Vicksburg.

Grant made good use of his three army corps, commanded by Generals McPherson, McClernand and Sherman. Grant advanced along the line of the Big Black River, with McClernand on the right (touching the river), Sherman in the centre and McPherson on the right, nearest to Jackson. That gave his corps the first battle of the campaign, at Raymond on 12 May, where they found and defeated a Confederate force 5,000 strong under General Gregg.

Having made contact with the forces around Jackson, Grant decided to turn east with two of his corps (Sherman’s and McPherson’s), with McClernand acting as a rearguard. It was at this moment, on 13 May, that Joseph Johnston arrived at Jackson. There he found about 6,000 Confederates, about to be attacked by twice that number of Federals. His first telegraph back to Richmond contained the line ‘I am too late’. Events of the next few days were to prove him right. Reinforcements that would have brought his army at Jackson up to about 11,000 men had to be ordered to stop their advance.

The next day (14 May), McPherson’s and Sherman’s corps smashed into Jackson. Johnston was already evacuating the city, and escaped north, leaving the state capitol to the none-too tender mercies of Sherman’s men, who now started to gain the destructive skills they were to use throughout Georgia and the Carolinas. Johnston’s mobile force was around 6,000 strong, but he was unable to form a junction with his reinforcements in time for it to make any difference in the upcoming battles.

While Sherman remained in Jackson, Grant turned McPherson and McClernand back west to deal with Pemberton. They clashed at Champion’s Hill (16 May 1863), half way between Vicksburg and Jackson. Pemberton had come out of Vicksburg with 20,000 men, enough to risk a serious defeat, but hardly enough to pose a threat to Grant. Despite McClernand failing to play his part properly, Grant’s army still won a significant victory, inflicting 3,800 casualties at a cost of 2,400.

Brigandine armourBig Black River, battle of, 17 May 1863

Worse was to follow for Pemberton. One of his divisions was cut off at Champion’s Hill, and decided to head east to join Johnston. However, Pemberton did not know this, and attempted to keep a bridge over the Big Black River open in the hope that this division would return. On 17 May a sudden Federal attack forced them away from that position at the cost of another 1,750.  That evening Pemberton retreated back into Vicksburg. Two days later Grant’s men arrived in front of the city. The gamble of cutting loose from his lines of communications had paid off. In four battles he had defeated Confederate armies that if they had been allowed to combine could have threatened the success of his entire campaign. The fate of Vicksburg was now sealed. Grant could settle down for the third stage of his campaign, the siege, secure in the knowledge that he had dealt with any potential Confederate reinforcements.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (5 October 2006), Big Black River Campaign, 7-19 May 1863 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/wars_big_black_river.html

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