Prelude to the Battle
After the Union successes at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, the Federals turned their attention to the Mississippi River. If the Union could gain control of the Mississippi, the Confederacy would lose easy access to supplies from the Gulf of Mexico and territories in the American West. Admiral David Farragut captured the port city of New Orleans on May 18, 1862, closing down Confederate access to the Gulf. In June, the Union tightened its grip on the Mississippi when Federal forces captured the river city of Memphis, Tennessee. Still, the Confederacy controlled traffic on much of the river because of its strong fortifications at Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Vicksburg sits on a high bluff on the eastern side of the Mississippi River, south of the mouth of the Yazoo River. Known as “The Gibraltar of the Confederacy,” the city seemed to be impregnable. The height of the cliff on which it sat protected it from amphibious assaults. To the north, nearly impenetrable swamps and bayous protected Vicksburg. To the east, a ring of forts, mounting 172 guns, shielded the city from overland assaults. The land on the Louisiana side of the river, opposite Vicksburg, was rough, etched with poor roads and many streams.
Grant Divides His Forces
In July 1862, President Abraham Lincoln summoned Major General Henry W. Halleck to Washington to serve as chief of all Union armies. Halleck’s departure left Major General Ulysses S. Grant in charge of operations in the Western Theater.
In December, Grant divided his Army of the Tennessee into two wings and launched his first attempt to capture Vicksburg. Grant personally led about 40,000 Union soldiers that marched south out of Memphis. To the west, Major General William T. Sherman commanded about 30,000 soldiers that traveled by boat down the Mississippi River to the mouth of the Yazoo River. The flotilla then traveled up the Yazoo to Johnson’s Plantation, where three of Sherman’s four divisions disembarked on December 26. On December 27, the fourth division landed farther upstream.
Upon landing at Johnson’s Plantation, Sherman began probing for weaknesses in the Confederate defenses protecting Vicksburg from the north. Reports from reconnaissance patrols were not promising. Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton and Brigadier General Stephen D. Lee had entrenched over 13,000 Rebel soldiers between the Sherman and Vicksburg at Chickasaw Bluffs (also known as Walnut Hills). To assault the Confederate defenses, Sherman’s soldiers would have to cross an area of swampland and the chest-deep waters of Chickasaw Bayou. To make matters worse, the Rebels had constructed defensive barriers at the base of the bluffs.
December 27, 1862 — Sherman Attacks
On December 27, the Federal soldiers began moving through the swamplands toward Chickasaw Bluffs. On December 28, Sherman ordered one division to turn the right flank of the Confederate lines, but Rebel artillery fire repulsed the attempt. Seeing no other option, Sherman ordered a frontal assault on December 29.
At about 7 a.m. on December 29, Union artillery began bombarding the Confederate defenses. The barrage lasted until about 11 a.m. but had little effect. At noon, the Union soldiers began their assault. Stiff resistance from the Rebels defenders forced them to fall back. Several other attacks later in the day also failed. By evening, the Confederates had inflicted over 1,700 casualties upon the Yankees, compared with just over 200 of their own.
Sherman planned to continue the assault the next day, but overnight he thought better of it and withdrew, ending the battle.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Battle of Chickasaw Bayou was one of the more lopsided victories for either side in the Civil War. Despite outnumbering the Confederates by a ratio of over two to one, Sherman suffered over eight times as many losses as the Rebels. The Confederate victory, coupled with Grant’s stalled overland offensive to the east, ended the Union’s first attempt to capture Vicksburg.