- Chickasaw Bayou -- plunging an Army through deep swamps against impregnable bluffs.
The attack upon Vicksburg from the Yazoo River and Chickasaw Bayou in December, 1862, was under the sole direction of General Sherman. The movement had been proposed by General Grant on the 4th of December, and the approval of the plan telegraphed by Halleck on the 5th. On the 8th Grant telegraphed that Sherman would be in command of the river expedition. To this Halleck replied:
After General Sherman left Memphis and before his expedition failed, the President had acted as General Halleck surmised. The following telegram upon that point will also show from its date, that the subsequent removal of General Sherman had no connection with his failure:
This campaign was the first after Shiloh, where General Sherman was entrusted with great responsibilities. General  Grant's order assigning him to the command, left both the details of the preparations and the plans of the movement entirely in his hands, as will appear from the first paragraph of that order:
On the same day Grant telegraphed to Halleck: ‘General Sherman will command the expedition down the Mississippi. He will have a force of about forty thousand men.’ On the 22d of December this army rendezvoused at Friar's Point, ready to move up the Yazoo River to the rear of Vicksburg., On the 27th, the four divisions, Steele's, M. L. Smith's, Morgan's, and A. J. Smith's, aggregating over forty-two thousand men, were landed in front of the bluffs over-looking the swamps through which ran Chickasaw Bayou. To flounder through this boggy low land, cross the bayou, and storm the heights beyond, was the task Sherman laid out for his army. It was his first attempt to command more than a division in action, and he had not before directed a battle. Though the rebels had been reenforced in consequence of the failure of Grant's cooperative movement from Holly Springs, they were still far inferior in numbers to Sherman's army. Their position, however, was impregnable. The high bluffs were strengthened from base to summit with rifle-pits and heavier parapets, and to assault seemed madness then to many of the officers, and appears so still when all the facts can be  coolly considered. But Sherman decided upon this manner of attack, and forty thousand men were moved through bogs and bayous to assault a position of which he now says in his Memoirs:
‘The men of the Sixth Missouri actually scooped out with their hands caves in the bank, which sheltered them against the fire of the enemy, who, right over their heads, held their muskets outside the parapet vertically and fired down.’Extracts from General Sherman's own account show the nature and difficulties of the ground, and the character of the whole attack:
The place of our disembarkation was, in fact, an island, separated from the high bluff known as Walnut Hills, on which the town of Vicksburg stands, by a broad and shallow bayou—evidently an old channel of the Yazoo. On our right was another wide bayou known as Old River, and on the left still another, much narrower, but too deep to be forded, known as Chickasaw Bayou. All the island was densely wooded, except Johnson's plantation, immediately on the bank of the Yazoo, and a series of old cotton-fields along Chickasaw Bayou. There was a road from Johnson's plantation directly to Vicksburg, but it crossed numerous bayous and deep swamps by bridges, which had been destroyed; and this road debouched on level ground at the foot of the Vicksburg bluff, opposite strong forts well prepared and defended by heavy artillery. On this road I directed General A. J. Smith's division, not so much by way of a direct attack as a diversion and threat. Morgan was to move to his left to reach Chickasaw Bayou, and to follow it toward the bluff; about four miles above A. J. Smith. Steele was on Morgan's left across Chickasaw Bayou, and M. L. Smith on Morgan's right. We met light resistance at all points, but skirmished on the 27th up to the main bayou that separated our position from the bluffs of Vicksburg, which were found to be strong by nature and by art, and seemingly well defended. On reconnoitering the front in person, during the 27th and 28th, I became satisfied that General A. J. Smith could not cross the intervening obstacles under the heavy fire of the forts immediately in his front, and that the main bayou was impassable, except at two points—one near the head of Chickasaw Bayou, in front of Morgan, and the other about a mile lower down, in front of M. L. Smith's division. During the general reconnoissance of the 28th, General Morgan L. Smith received a severe and dangerous wound in his hip, which completely disabled him and compelled him to go to his steamboat, leaving the command of his division to Brigadier-General D. Stuart; but I drew a part of General A. J.  Smith's division, and that General himself, to the point selected for passing the bayou, and committed that special task to his management. General Steele reported that it was physically impossible to reach the bluffs from his position, so I ordered him to leave but a show of force there, and to return to the west side of Chickasaw Bayou in support of General Morgan's left. He had to countermarch and use the steamboats in the Yazoo to get on the firm ground on our side of the Chickasaw. On the morning of December 29th all the troops were ready and in position. The first step was to make a lodgment on the foot-hills and bluffs abreast of our position, while diversions were made by the navy toward Haines' Bluff, and by the first division directly toward Vicksburg. I estimated the enemy's forces, then strung from Vickburg to Haines' Bluff, at fifteen thousand men, commanded by the rebel Generals Martin Luther Smith and Stephen D. Lee. Aiming to reach firm ground beyond this bayou, and to leave as little time for our enemy to reenforce as possible, I determined to make a show of attack along the whole front, but to break across the bayou at the two points named, and gave general orders accordingly. I pointed out to General Morgan the place where he could pass the bayou; and he answered, “General, in ten minutes after you give the signal I'll be on those hills.” He was to lead his division in person, and was to be supported by Steele's division. The front was very narrow, and immediately opposite, at the base of the hills, about three hundred yards from the bayou, was a rebel battery, supported by an infantry force posted on the spurs of the hill behind. To draw attention from this, the real point of attack, I gave instructions to commence the attack at the flanks. I went in person about a mile to the right-rear of Morgan's position, at a place convenient to receive reports from all other parts of the line, and about noon of December 29th gave the orders and signal for the main attack. A heavy artillery fire opened along our whole line, and was replied to by the rebel batteries, and soon the infantry fire opened heavily, especially on A. J. Smith's front and in front of General George W. Morgan. One brigade (DeCourcey's) of Morgan's troops crossed the bayou safely, but took to cover behind the bank, and could not be moved forward. Frank Blair's brigade, of Steele's division, in support, also crossed the bayou, passed over the space of level ground to the foot of the hills; but, being unsupported by Morgan, and meeting a very severe cross-fire of artillery, was staggered, and gradually fell back, leaving about five hundred men behind wounded and prisoners, among them Colonel Thomas Fletcher, afterward Governor of Missouri. Thayer's brigade, of Steele's division, took a wrong direction, and did not cross the bayou at all, nor did General Morgan cross in person. This attack failed, and I have always felt that it was due to the failure of General G. W. Morgan to obey his orders, or to fulfill his promise made in person. Had he used with skill and boldness one of his brigades, in addition to that of Blair's, he could have made a lodgment on the bluff, which would have opened the door for our whole force to follow. Meantime the Sixth Missouri Infantry,  at heavy loss, had also crossed the bayou at the narrow passage lower down, but could not ascend the steep bank; right over their heads was a rebel battery, whose fire was in a measure kept down by our sharp-shooters (Thirteenth United States Infantry), posted behind logs, stumps, and trees, on our side of the bayou. ‘The men of the Sixth Missouri actually scooped out with their hands caves in the bank, which sheltered them against the fire of the enemy, who, right over their heads, held their muskets outside the parapet vertically and fired down. So critical was the position that we could not recall the men till after dark, and then one at a time. Our loss had been pretty heavy, and we had accomplished nothing, and had inflicted little loss on our enemy. At first I intended to renew the assault, but soon became satisfied that, the enemy's attention having been drawn to the only two practicable points, it would prove too costly, and accordingly resolved to look elsewhere for a point below Haines' Bluff, or Blake's plantation.’ * * * *Two succeeding efforts to secure a new position from which to attack failed, and two days afterward, as Pemberton was moving reenforcements into Vicksburg and out to Sherman's front, the expedition was abandoned, with a total loss of about two thousand men in killed and wounded. On returning to the mouth of the Yazoo, Sherman found McClernand there with orders to relieve him. He thus concludes his account:
‘Still my relief, on the heels of a failure, raised the usual cry at the North of “repulse, failure, and bungling.” There was no bungling on my part, for I never worked harder, or with more intensity of purpose in my life; and General Grant, long after, in his report of the operations of the siege of Vicksburg, gave us all full credit for the skill of the movement, and described the almost impregnable nature of the ground; and although in all my official reports I assumed the whole responsibility, I have ever felt that, had General Morgan promptly and skillfully sustained the lead of Frank Blair's brigade on that day, we should have broken the rebel line, and effected a lodgment on the hills behind Vicksburg. General Frank Blair was outspoken and indignant against Generals Morgan and DeCourcey at the time, and always abused me for assuming the whole blame. But had we succeeded, we might have found ourselves in a worse trap, when General Pemberton was at full liberty to turn his whole force against us.’And so, according to General Sherman himself, bad as the assault at Chickasaw Bayou turned out to be, success  might have proved still worse. But had an army of forty-two thousand men gained a position in rear of Vicksburg, it might, with the cooperation of the gun-boats, have held its own against Pemberton and all the forces he then could bring. No amount of blame distributed among division commanders can conceal the recklessness with which an army was pushed through swamps and bayous against inaccessible bluffs, and the best answers to all Sherman's unjust attacks upon officers who fought with him there, are found in his own report of the action:
Accompanying this report is a list of casualties, which shows the following losses of each division:
|A. J. Smith's||1||1||......|
|M. L. Smith's||26||103||6|
|George W. Morgan's||62||447||386|
‘My belief is that, of the missing, four hundred were taken prisoners after reaching the enemy's trenches, and the remainder will turn up on boats not their own.’From this report of General Sherman's it will be seen that the very divisions to which he now attributes his failure and upon whose commanders he visits severe censure, were the identical troops and officers he reported at the time as having done his hardest fighting, and accomplished every thing it was possible to perform. The reports of these division commanders, whom he then commended, in turn relieve the brigade officers he now abuses from the blame he attempts to fix upon them, and show that the conduct of Generals Morgan, DeCourcey, and Thayer, and the fighting of their troops were such as should have commanded high praise, even from General Sherman.  Immediately after this action General George Morgan was assigned to an equal command with General Sherman, namely, that of the First Corps, Army of the Mississippi, Sherman taking the Second Corps, while General McClernand succeeded him in command of the army. It would be difficult to find material for more severe criticisms of the statements made in the Memoirs, concerning the failure at Chickasaw Bayou, than is contained in this report of Sherman's, written when the facts were vividly present to his mind.