As the 150th anniversary of the 1862 battles of the Civil War passes into history there are some that have received little or no attention. In my recent reading of Edwin C. Bearrs three volume history of the Vicksburg Campaign I found just such an example in the fight for Chickasaw Bayou. The excellent description of this fight contained in Volume I made me realize just how badly I had misinterpreted this fight in the soggy lowlands of upper Mississippi. Most Civil War enthusiasts have probably thought of this as a suicidal attack against an impregnable line of massed defenders. While certainly a major failure for the Federal forces involved that image could not be further from the truth. The story begins in October of 1862.
After successfully defending the important railroad junction at Corinth, Mississippi in the first week of October the prospects for a direct overland attack on Vicksburg looked promising for the Union army. As the bloodied Confederates retreated west to consolidate a defensive line along the Yocona River, under newly promoted LTG John Pemberton, the new Union commander, MG U.S. Grant, also consolidated his forces at Grand Junction, Tennessee for a drive southward down the Mississippi Central Railroad. The Confederate strongholds of Holly Springs and Grenada lay squarely in his sights. The Confederate commander at Holly Springs, MG Earl Van Dorn, who Pemberton had superseded, made it clear that there was little hope of maintaining his position without reinforcements. While Pemberton struggled with the Confederate bureaucracy to get the needed reinforcements he instructed Van Dorn to abandon the town if the threat of an overpowering Union force became too great. On November 8th after a personal look at the conditions at Holly Springs Pemberton ordered a withdrawal to a position behind the Tallahatchie River.
The Union forces were quick to occupy the abandoned depot city and began the process of establishing a logistical hub of their own there. From Holly Springs, Grant intended to continue south through Grenada then on to Jackson, Mississippi and ultimately to Vicksburg. Reacting to the Federal build up Pemberton, still pleading for troops, relinquished his Tallahatchie line. Yet another defensive position behind the Yalobusha River was established on December 5th and 6th. The Confederates immediately went to work on fortifications and as reinforcements began to trickle in the line became quite formable. Grant saw it would take a substantial and costly effort to breach the line but in its strength he also saw an opportunity. While it would take a large force to successfully attack the Yolabusha line it also took many to defend it. If the threat of an impending attack occupied the bulk of enemy forces then they had to be thin somewhere. By December 4th Grant realized that a direct attack on any prepared defense might not be the best alternative to achieve their objective. It was time to challenge Fortress Vicksburg from another direction.
On the afternoon of the 4th Grant wire General in Chief Halleck that he intended to pin the enemy defenses while an amphibious attack was made on Vicksburg by troops from Helena and Memphis. He followed this wire up on the 5th with a message trying to get Halleck to commit to his operational plan. Unable to be decisive Halleck left Grant to operate as he saw fit. Grant wasted no time preparing for his Vicksburg expedition. On December 8th he met with MG William T. Sherman at his Oxford, Mississippi headquarters. The two men set in motion a plan to send over 30,000 men down from Memphis to attack Vicksburg from the north.Chickasaw Bayou (Campaign Series)