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Chapter 14: siege and capture of Vicksburg

Grant, with his victorious army, sat down before Vicksburg, between fifty and sixty thousand strong, on May 18, 1863. The next day they cut off all communication between the beaten and beleaguered garrison and the surrounding country, occupied all the roads, and re-established connection with the Yazoo and the Mississippi above the city. This restored direct communication between the army and the government by steamboat from the landing at Chickasaw Bayou to Memphis, and thence by telegraph to Washington. It had been broken just ten days, during which time the army was operating without any base whatever. Neither Dana nor any one else had sent despatches, for the double reason that all were too busy and that it was too dangerous for the couriers to traverse the country. But two days after the army had closed in upon Vicksburg, Dana sent his first despatch, through Hurlburt's headquarters at Memphis to the Secretary of War at Washington. It gave a comprehensive account of the battles at Champion's Hill and the Big Black, the bridging and passage of that river, the investment of Vicksburg, and the reestablishment of the army's line of supply and communication with the North, through Chickasaw landing on the Yazoo. On May 23d, he followed this with a graphic account of the failure of the general assault made upon the enemy's works [226] the day before, commented on the erroneous reports of McClernand and the disastrous results which followed the claim that he had carried and held the enemy's works in his front, explained the improvement in our position, the certainty of our final success, and the condition of the opposing forces. Almost daily thereafter he sent full accounts of the siege operations, the explosion of the mines under the works of the enemy, the movement of the troops, the cooperation of the gun-boats, the precautions against a sortie, the necessity for reinforcements, the condition of the enemy inside and outside of Vicksburg. Indeed, nothing of importance escaped his attention. He was on the alert night and day, and always going from one point of the lines to another. He was a constant companion of Grant and the working staff, and as a consequence there was nothing of which he was ignorant. He was treated by all as a trusted associate, and it was at this time that the secretary bestowed the rank of major upon him with liberty to report to General Grant if needed by him. In the same despatch the secretary, who was far from effusive, assured him officially that everything in the power of the government would be done to aid General Grant, that the emergency was not underrated at Washington, that his despatches were a great obligation and were looked for with deep interest, and that he could not thank him as much as he felt for the service he was then rendering.

In his correspondence with Stanton Dana gave his observations of men and events in a most interesting manner. As before related, Grant was from the beginning of the Vicksburg campaign more or less embarrassed by the conduct of McClernand, his senior corps commander. As that officer owed his assignment to the friendship of the President rather than to any special fitness according to the standards of the professional soldiers, and was from the first a disturbing element in that army, his behavior from [227] time to time was a matter of special interest to the country and to the administration, and hence Dana's judgment as to the merits and character of that officer is important. He had watched McClernand narrowly, and early came to the conclusion that he had not the qualities necessary for high military command. In short, Dana regarded him merely as a smart man with a quick and active mind but without solid judgment, who had won Mr. Lincoln's support because he was an influential Illinois Democrat with a considerable following among the people of that State. For this reason it was doubtless the President's wish that he should play an important part to the end of the Vicksburg campaign, but his relief shortly after the siege began was made necessary by the issuance of an ill-advised order congratulating the Thirteenth corps in terms which both Sherman and McPherson considered not only unjust to their corps but a breach of army discipline which should not be overlooked. In this connection it must be conceded that Dana's frequent references to McClernand's shortcomings in his correspondence with Stanton had paved the way for the acquiescence of the government in Grant's final action in the case.

I have dwelt upon this episode first because it well illustrates Dana's independence in the performance of a public duty no matter how important the persons concerned might be, and next because McClernand, without reference to his real merits or to his political influence, was the only officer of high rank in that entire army who was not on good terms with Grant, and therefore not acting in cheerful subordination to his commands. It should be added that, notwithstanding his excitable temper and his high ambition, McClernand was not altogether responsible for the trying position in which he found himself during this campaign. Had it not been for the President's personal friendship and official assurances, there is but little reason to doubt that McClernand [228] would have proven himself to be as subordinate as he was brave in carrying out the orders of those in authority over him. While Grant and Dana acted throughout the affair closely within their right and duty, it would be unjust to leave McClernand under the slightest imputation as to his patriotism or his courage. He was one of the first and most important Democrats of Illinois to join Senator Douglas in support of Lincoln and the war for the Union, and never failed to show himself in battle as a leader of the highest courage.

By the first of June, and indeed immediately after the failure of the assault on the intrenchments of Vicksburg, the army settle down to a regular investment and siege. Parallels and approaches were laid out and constructed in front of each corps by the engineers, and troops of the line detailed for that purpose. Mines were driven and exploded under the enemy's works. Mortars were constructed from wooden logs for throwing shells into his lines, and the river above and below the city was watched and carefully patrolled by both the navy and the army. Every possible road and path was closed and watched, and the city was completely isolated. Neither supplies nor reinforcements could reach the garrison, and it was with the greatest difficulty that even the most daring and hardy messenger could get out of it. The enemy's effective strength was estimated at about twenty-five thousand, though counting the non-combatants it approximated thirty thousand men, under the immediate command of Lieutenant-General Pemberton. Johnston, with headquarters at Jackson, was at the same time in chief command of all the Confederate forces in that quarter. He was exerting himself to the utmost to gather an army with which to attack Grant in the rear while the garrison should make a sortie and attack him in front. This imposed double work on the National forces, and as the weather was both hot and dry and the labor incessant, [229] it became necessary at once to reinforce Grant heavily by drawing troops from every other department that could spare them. No one saw this sooner or more fully appreciated the emergency which had arisen than Dana. Living with Grant and his staff and riding the lines day and night, he learned for himself just what was going on, how constantly the troops were laboring in the trenches or were under arms, how they lived and conducted their operations, what they needed for their comfort or safety, and this included reinforcements as well as current supplies of every kind. Every aspect of the great problem was presented to his mind, and in one despatch or another was laid before the Secretary of War.

It was during this month that he and I had many adventures together. It was our custom to visit the trenches and the advanced works under cover of darkness, and although we made the least possible noise we were frequently fired at by the enemy's pickets. On one occasion of this sort the noise of our horses' feet on the road brought a couple of shots, one of which seriously wounded our orderly, and admonished us that we were never entirely free from danger. Later, after our sap-rollers had been pushed up to the enemy's ditches, a sort of truce was established by common consent between the sentries who were watching one another. On one of our visits we found our sentry, a good-natured Kentuckian, very much embarrassed. It seems that the Johnny opposite, who was close enough to shake hands with him, had asked for a chew of tobacco, and one had been kindly passed over. But it had been sent back enclosed in a note which ran about as follows: “Thank you, Yank! It was very good of you to send the tobacco. We are hard up over here and almost anything will do; but, thank God, we are not hard enough up to use such stuff as that.” The Kentuckian, a kind and generous fellow who meant to be neighborly, was evidently [230] chagrined at the rejection of his offering, and seemed disposed to end the truce, but Dana, who was amused by the incident, suggested that the pleasant relations should be continued and that he would bring a plug of better tobacco at his next visit.

In this way newspapers and trifling presents, with much apparently innocent if not trivial information, passed backward and forward between the belligerents. Dana, as well as the rest of us, was constantly watching for whatever the Confederates might let fall. By these means, and frequently as much by what was not said as by what was said, he came to understand what was going on inside, and some time before the surrender actually took place he became certain that it would be made early in July if Johnston failed to raise the siege.

Upon another occasion, as Dana and I were returning from a swim in the Yazoo, we were set upon by a small band of marauders who threatened to maltreat us. While I compelled them to halt and held them at bay, Dana rode to the camp and brought a detachment of the provost-guard which arrested and took then in for trial. Never a day passed without our riding the lines, visiting the hospitals, or going to our base of supplies at the Landing. In this way Dana became familiar with every detail of army administration as well as with the actual military operations. He knew from personal observation every foot of the country between the Yazoo and the Mississippi on one side and the Big Black on the other, as well as every road and path which traversed it. This is well shown by a memorable ride which he took with General Grant into the Yazoo bottom around the right wing of Sherman's corps. Having gone to the steamboat landing with the general and several staff-officers, one of them suggested that the party would save considerable distance if it should return to camp by following down the river-bank and then cutting across the angle to the highlands [231] behind the city. Dana was somewhat doubtful of the plan, and asked several questions about bayous and swamps, but the majority prevailed and all went favorably so long as the route lay on the river-bank. The party trotted along merrily enough till it turned towards the camp. The new route lay through a dense forest, with thick patches of underbrush obstructed here and there by fallen logs, but it was easy to follow it by compass to a bayou which lay across it but looked impassable. It was ten or twelve feet deep and fifty or sixty feet wide, and although nearly all the water had run out of it its slopes and bed constituted a black and forbidding quagmire. It seemed impossible to go on, but as it was eight or ten miles to camp by the way the party had come, and only two or three miles across, one of the officers pushed to the front, dismounted the orderlies, and began the construction of a corduroy road over the mud to the hard ground beyond the creek. Dana at once grasped the situation and helped with all his strength to gather up and drag the drift-wood to the officer who was placing it in position. The work was soon completed, and while it was simple enough to experienced soldiers it was a revelation to city men. Within a half-hour the party was safely in camp, but Dana never ceased to speak of the incident as one of the most interesting connected with the siege.

A few days later, the army having settled down to a dead calm of hard work, marked by a cessation of actual fighting, Grant started on a trip by boat to an outlying detachment supposed to be intrenched at Satartia, some fifty or sixty miles above the mouth of the Yazoo. He took Dana and two young aides-de-camp with him, but had not gone far before he fell sick and was compelled to go to bed and give up the trip. Dana therefore took charge, turned the boat about, and brought the party back to camp, where it arrived after dark the next day. The actual facts of this [232] episode are given in great detail by S. Cadwallader, in an unpublished volume, accounting his experience as the correspondent of the New York Herald at Grant's headquarters.1 But when it is remembered that it became the occasion of a very remarkable letter of remonstrance from Lieutenant-Colonel John A. Rawlins on June 6, 1863, to General Grant, the character and possible consequences of the incident will be better understood. Without repeating details, the subject may be dismissed with the statement that it complete Dana's knowledge of Grant's character and habits from actual observation in a way which no man could gainsay. It is a curious circumstance that neither Grant nor Dana ever made to the other the slightest reference to the peculiar features of the excursion, nor, so far as the records show, did Dana report them to Stanton. On the other hand, nothing can be more certain than that every circumstance connected with it became known at once to the leading officers of Grant's army.

Of course Dana was privy to and heartily approved Rawlins's manly and patriotic letter as the most effective means of accomplishing the end it had in view. The letter was received in the spirit which dictated it, and for the time neutralized the danger against which it was directed. One cannot help reflecting that the consequences of this episode light have been far different had Dana been a narrow-minded and unreasonable bigot, or had he not been prepared by the frank and open confidence that had been reposed in him for just such incidents as the one in which he had found himself compelled to play an important part.

From Dana's despatches it is apparent that he clearly understood the entire situation, not only in Mississippi but in Tennessee as well. At that time Rosecrans, who commanded [233] in the last-mentioned State, was confronted by Bragg with an inferior force, but was slow to move and was also calling for reinforcements. The crisis was an important one and obviously called for a great concentration of the National forces to insure victory on both lines. So profoundly was Dana convinced that everything should be done to “obviate the possible necessity of raising the siege of Vicksburg,” that at Grant's urgent request he started in person to Banks, then besieging Port Hudson, a hundred or so miles farther down the great river, for the purpose of urging him to send the greater part of his forces to Grant's assistance. In pursuance of this object he had got as far as Grand Gulf when he met a previous messenger returning with Banks's positive decision that he could not detach any part of his force even to make Grant's success a certainty. This made it absolutely necessary to bring reinforcements in large numbers from the North, and Dana represented this so frequently and so strongly to the Secretary of War that in the end nothing essential was left undone.

In the earlier stages of the campaign it had been urged by Sherman, and possibly by others, that the armies of the Tennessee and the Cumberland should be united on the Tennessee, and that the latter could be transported within a week by the ample fleet of steamboats under Grant's control to such point on that river as would render the junction certain and insure a great victory for the National arms; but while Dana admitted this, he thought Grant's situation was such that it would be fatal to his reputation to relinquish even temporarily his campaign against Vicksburg. After the brilliant operations which had scattered Johnston's forces and placed Grant's army in the rear of the stronghold, which was his principal objective, Dana properly took the view that withdrawal under the circumstances was inadmissible, if not impossible, unless [234] Grant's rear should be actually attacked by an overwhelming force. Such as are familiar with this phase of the great conflict will remember r that Grant, on his way to Vicksburg early in the year, had clearly foreseen the necessity for the consolidation of the various departments in the Mississippi Valley under one supreme commander, and had written a formal letter to the Secretary of War recommending that measure as the best means of securing the necessary cooperation between the great armies already in the field. Like many other important measures, this one was compelled to wait. Meanwhile it was fully discussed with Dana, and he gave it his adherence and support, but not till Grant had received the surrender of Vicksburg and its garrison, and Rosecrans had been defeated by an overwhelming concentration of the Confederate forces at Chickamauga, was that all-important recommendation carried into effect. Dana from the first took the ground that Grant could not be withdrawn from his advanced position, and that it would be far better for Rosecrans to retreat to Nashville than for Grant to retreat from the hills of Vicksburg. The government at Washington, however, instead of heeding Dana's timely and far-sighted suggestion, yielded to the fatuous determination of Halleck, backed as it was by popular clamor, and forced its reluctant commander to push his widely separated columns into northern Georgia, where, as might have been expected, they were destined to meet disaster.

Of course it was always possible, as pointed out in Dana's despatch of June 12th, for Bragg to send his material to Atlanta, fall back upon Bristol and Chattanooga, and detach the larger part of his army to reinforce Johnston. Fortunately this was not done, and Johnston was left with such insufficient means as he could gather up and put in the field to continue his hopeless campaign against Grant. He was active and enterprising, but the odds were against him. [235] His operations were desultory and lacking in that concentration and weight necessary for success. His antagonist had an interior position from which he could easily strike or frustrate the operations of any ordinary force coming against him, whether it was directed from the west against the colored troops at Milliken's Bend, or from the east against the detachments covering his own rear.

Dana had early taken ground in favor of utilizing the so-called contrabands in such army work as they could properly do, and when the adjutant-general joined Grant's army for the purpose of organizing negro regiments, gave him every assistance in his power. The army itself was indifferent, if not incredulous, as to the benefit to be derived therefrom, but when the Confederate attack on the camp of organization and instruction at Milliken's Bend received a bloody repulse at the hands of the half-drilled negroes, Dana expressed himself as “happy to report” that the sentiment of the army had been revolutionized by the bravery of the blacks, and that prominent officers who used to sneer at the idea were now heartily in favor of it.

As the month of June wore to its conclusion it became more and more evident that the surrender of Vicksburg was near at hand. Despatches to and from the garrison were being captured with greater and greater frequency. Deserters were coming out and giving themselves up nightly. Spies, discouraged planters, paroled Confederate officers, and even an ex-United States senator were contributing to the sum of our information. Some of this was voluntary, but much of it was unwittingly given, although it all went to the confirmation of the inferences which had been drawn earlier in the siege from the friendly conferences between the besieged and those who were drawing the toils about them. As early as June 14th Dana came to the conclusion that the surrender was certain to take place at no distant day. In expectation of that event he anticipated that his [236] next orders would be to go to Rosecrans, or possibly elsewhere, but whatever they might be he naturally expressed a desire to go home first for a short time.

A few days later he reported in detail that General Grant had relieved General McClernand from the command of the Thirteenth army corps and sent him to Illinois to await further orders from the government, gave a full account of the new arrangements made necessary by the change, and set forth a multitude of circumstances connected with the progress of the siege, the operations of Johnston, Taylor, and Kirby Smith, and the conditions prevailing in the country occupied by their forces. In all this correspondence not a despondent thought was expressed, not an uncertain note was sounded. While Dana was the trusted representative of the War Department, he was sparing of his comments and suggestions, and yet when necessary he did not hesitate to criticise the highest officers, whether they were regulars or volunteers. His position required the greatest discretion in speech and consummate tact in his relations with the officers about him. Although he was a commissioner of the War Department, whose duty it was to report upon all, he put on no airs and assumed no responsibilities beyond the strict letter of his instructions. What to report and what not to report was a question constantly before him; and while it was not to be expected that in an army of volunteers drawn from every walk of life there should not be some who were suspicious and many who were envious, it is evident that Dana gave but little ground for either class to take offence at his personal or official conduct while connected with the Army of the Tennessee.

As his correspondence shows, Dana was in every way the eyes of the government from the first to the closing day of the Vicksburg campaign. He participated in the councils of the commander--in--chief as well as in most of the operations of the troops. As the official representative [237] of the Secretary of War he was privy to every step taken in the negotiations for the surrender, and finally rode with the victorious general when he took possession of the captured city. If he did not personally favor paroling the surrendered army, as was promptly done, he fully and frankly made known to the War Department the considerations which finally caused Grant to adopt that unfortunate course. It is now generally conceded that the captured army should have been sent North and divided up between the various prison encampments so as to destroy its organization and make it impossible for it to take further part in the war till it was duly exchanged. But after full consideration Grant came to the conclusion that it would take too large a force to guard the prisoners, and too long a time to transport them to the North, and hence they were permitted to march back into the Confederacy in the original regiments, brigades, and divisions to which they belonged. While it is true that they were furloughed to their homes for a few weeks, it was but a short time till the Confederate government repudiated the terms of surrender and recalled the entire army, except such of the men as permanently deserted, to continue the war against the Union.

Not the least interesting part of Dana's correspondence for this memorable summer is found in the sketches of the various officers with whom Dana became acquainted during the great campaign. As has been shown, he had had an ample opportunity not only to meet them, but to study their peculiarities as exhibited in their daily work. These sketches were hot from the field, and the only ones of the sort known to have been sent to the Secretary of War during the entire war. They were doubtless submitted to the President, and from the intimacy that grew up thereafter between him and the writer, it is safe to infer that they were received at their full value.

1 Four Years at Grant's Headquarters, by S. Cadwallader (unpublished).

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