Chapter XXI. Grant at Vicksburg
While Lee had been disposing of McClellan, Pope and Burnside, Grant had remained in comparative idleness near Corinth, Mississippi. He had, it is true, been assigned to high command in the West when Halleck was ordered to Washington, but the battle of Shiloh had prejudiced the authorities against him and his troops were gradually transferred to other commanders, leaving him with an army barely sufficient to guard the territory it already held. This treatment seriously depressed him and with plenty of time to brood over his troubles, he was in some danger of lapsing into the bad habits which had once had such a fatal hold upon him. But at this crisis his wife was by his side to steady and encourage him, and the Confederates soon diverted his thoughts from his own grievances by giving him plenty of work to keep them at arm's length. Meanwhile, however, something much more disturbing occurred, for he suddenly discovered that preparations were being made to place his long-cherished campaign for the opening of the Mississippi River in the hands of McClernand, the political General whose conduct at Fort Donelson had demonstrated his ignorance of military affairs.
That aroused Grant to action and hastily summoning Admiral Porter and General Sherman to his aid, he started towards Vicksburg, Mississippi, on November 2, 1862, determined to be the first in the field and thus head off any attempt to displace him from the command.
McClernand's project was accordingly nipped in the bud, for, of course, he could not be authorized to conduct a campaign already undertaken by a superior officer, and the troops which had been intended for him were immediately forwarded to Grant. Doubtless, the President was not displeased at this turn of affairs, for although McClernand was a highly important person in the political world and had rendered valuable services in raising troops, his defects as a general were widely recognized, and there had been grave doubts as to the wisdom of permitting him to attempt so difficult an undertaking as the capture of Vicksburg. Within a few months, however, there were even graver doubts as to the wisdom of having entrusted the enterprise to Grant, for by the end of March, 1863, the general opinion was that no one could have made a worse mess of it than he was making, and that it was hopeless to expect anything as long as he was in authority.
As a matter of fact, the immense difficulty of capturing a city such as Vicksburg had not been realized until the work was actually undertaken. It was practically a fortress commanding the Mississippi, and whoever held it ruled the river. The Confederate leaders understood this very thoroughly and they had accordingly fortified the place, which was admirably adapted for defense, with great care and skill. In front of it flowed the Mississippi, twisting and turning in such snake-like conditions that it could be navigated only by boats of a certain length and build, and on either side of the city stretched wide swamp lands and bayous completely commanded by batteries well posted on the high ground occupied by the town. All this was formidable enough in itself, but shortly after Grant began his campaign, the river overflowed its banks and the whole country for miles was under water which, while not deep enough for steamers, was an absolute barrier to the approach of an army.
Indeed, the capture of the city seemed hopeless from a military standpoint, but Grant would not abandon the task. Finding traces of an abandoned canal, he attempted to complete it in the hope of changing the course of the river, or at least of diverting some of the water from the overflowed land, but the effort was a stupendous failure almost from the start. Then he ordered the levees of the Mississippi protecting two great lakes to be cut, with the idea of flooding the adjacent streams and providing a waterway for his ships. This gigantic enterprise was actually put into operation, the dams were removed, and gun-boats were forced on the swollen watercourses far into the interior until some of them became hopelessly tangled in the submerged forests and their crews, attacked by the Confederate sharpshooters, were glad to make their escape. Week after week and month after month this exhausting work continued, but, at the end of it all, Vicksburg was no nearer capture than before. Indeed, the only result of the campaign was the loss of thousands of men who died of malaria, yellow fever, smallpox, and all the diseases which swamp lands breed. For this, of course, Grant was severely criticized and the denunciations at last became so bitter that an order removing him from the command was entrusted to an official who was directed to deliver it, if, on investigation, the facts seemed to warrant it.
But the visiting official, after arriving at the front, soon learned that the army had complete confidence in its commander and that it would be a mistake to interfere with him. Indeed, by this time "the silent General," who had neither answered the numerous complaints against him nor paid the least attention to the storm of public indignation raging beyond his camp, had abandoned his efforts to reach Vicksburg from the front and was busily engaged in swinging his army behind it by a long overland route in the face of appalling difficulties, but with a grim resolution which forced all obstructions from his path. Meanwhile, the gun-boats under Admiral Porter were ordered to attempt to run the land batteries, and April 16, 1863, was selected as the date for their perilous mission. Each vessel had been carefully protected by cotton bales, and the crews stood ready with great wads of cotton to stop leaks, while all lights were extinguished except one in the stern of each ship to guide the one that followed.