Despite several Union attempts to take it, Vicksburg remained a Confederate stronghold in 1862. In the fall and winter of that year, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant devised an overland campaign to seize the city and cut the Confederacy in two. The campaign lasted for weeks and consisted of several small engagements. One battle, fought on 29 December, occurred between Union forces under Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and Confederate defenders at Chickasaw Bayou (also known as Chickasaw Bluffs), northeast of Vicksburg.
Grant hoped to occupy Confederate forces, including the main army under Gen. John C. Pemberton, in Northeast Mississippi near Grenada. If these forces could be lured into battle away from Vicksburg, then Sherman, moving south from Memphis with four divisions (more than thirty thousand men) could capture the city. The plan, however, began to unravel almost before it started. Grant’s supply lines stretched nearly two hundred miles from North Mississippi through Tennessee and into Kentucky. Nathan Bedford Forrest and his cavalry began wreaking havoc on these lines, so Grant decided to build a new supply depot at Holly Springs, Mississippi. Soon after the depot’s completion, Gen. Earl Van Dorn led a successful raid to destroy it, capturing fifteen hundred Union troops and plundering more than two million dollars in supplies. This action, coupled with Forrest’s raids in Tennessee, forced Grant to call off the plan and withdraw from Mississippi.
Sherman, however, was busy making his way south from Memphis by ship to a landing at Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana, twenty miles north of Vicksburg on the Yazoo River. He had not gotten word of the cancellation of the operation, mostly owing to the disruption of telegraph lines by Confederate cavalry. Pemberton, sensing something amiss, had fourteen thousand defenders on the bluffs overlooking Sherman’s position. Once Sherman and his troops disembarked from the transports, they found not solid ground conducive to marching but swamps, marshes, and bayous. In addition, Confederate troops created even more obstacles, such as felled trees, rifle pits, sharpshooters, and artillery positions. Sherman’s forces needed more than two days to travel four miles and position themselves to attack the Confederates.
On 29 December 1862, after a small skirmish the day before, Sherman ordered a full frontal assault on the bluffs at Chickasaw Bayou. Though some of his subordinates doubted him, Sherman believed the operation could succeed: “We will lose 5,000 men before we take Vicksburg, and we may as well lose them here as anywhere else.” After a two-hour artillery bombardment beginning at 10:00 in the morning, the infantry advanced but immediately encountered problems. One brigade became lost and maneuvered in the wrong direction, another could not make it across the bayou to get in the fight, and one unit found itself pinned down by relentless Confederate fire. After five separate attempts to take the bluffs, Sherman decided the Confederate position could not be taken.
Sherman’s force suffered more than seventeen hundred total casualties, while Confederate losses amounted to fewer than two hundred. He withdrew back through the difficult terrain to the transports waiting on the river. Sherman decided against another assault further up the Yazoo River and ordered his force back to Milliken’s Bend, possibly to await Grant. But at least temporarily, the Confederate victory at Chickasaw Bayou had obstructed Grant’s campaign to take Vicksburg by direct assault.
- Bruce Catton, Grant Moves South, 1861–1863 (1960)
- Lee Kennett, Sherman: A Soldier’s Life (2001)
- David G. Martin, The Vicksburg Campaign (1990)