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Chapter 8 (partial excerpt)

COLLAPSE

"A halt is made and the Enfields of the 24th add their clamor to the hell of sound, and their missiles to the many that make the very air writhe."
- Sgt. Charles Longley, 24th Iowa Infantry

BY THE TIME GRANT went over to the attack, four Union divisions had made contact with Pemberton's Confederates. Far to the south on Grant's left flank, A. J. Smith's division had pressed along the Raymond Road early that morning until confronted by William Loring's three-brigade line of battle posted strongly on the Coker house ridge. A temporary stalemate ensued there while both sides assessed the threat posed by the other. In the center, Peter Osterhaus's division marching on the Middle Road had come up against a vigorous, if thinly-held, Rebel defensive line opposite the all-important crossroads. The heavy terrain and orders to advance cautiously slowed down the Middle Road advance to a crawl. The Jackson Road front on the right flank of Grant's army offered more obvious possibilities-especially since Grant traveled with this part of his army. There, Hovey (McClernand's corps) and Logan (McPherson's corps) were aggressively moving forward to bring on what Grant hoped would be the decisive battle of the campaign. Three more divisions under Frank Blair (behind Smith), Eugene Carr (behind Osterhaus), and Marcellus Crocker (behind Logan and Hovey) were all within striking distance of Pemberton's extended line.

Grant's seven divisions, however, were on three different roads separated by almost impassable terrain. He had done a good job moving his army quickly and bringing it into contact with the enemy, and was generally well positioned to wage a major offensive battle. Pemberton's army, though also dispersed, enjoyed three advantages Grant's Federals did not: fighting on the defensive while protecting a road network at its confluence, better terrain, and interior lines of communication. How Pemberton would utilize his advantages remained to be seen. His more experienced opponent had seized the initiative and was now working to exploit it, leaving Pemberton flat-footed and reacting to circumstances as they developed with a largely impassable stream behind him.

As it was since early that morning when initial contact was made, Grant's most difficult dilemma remained command coordination. His scattered deployment left only three of the seven divisions under his (or a trusted subordinate's) immediate command. Grant was in contact with his center and left wings by courier, but the roads were congested with wagons, men, horses, and other associated baggage that trails in the wake of moving combat columns, and thus difficult to traverse. It took a long time to dispatch a rider from the Jackson Road sector to the center and back again. Communication with his distant southern wing was even more problematic. As Hovey and Logan rolled forward under Grant's watchful eye, more than one-half of the army was under someone else's tactical command-and that someone was John A. McClernand.

There was no love lost between Grant and McClernand. They treated one another with professional respect, but they were never on friendly terms. As far as Grant was concerned, McClernand was a grandstanding politician more concerned with his media image than taking care of and leading the men who served under him. The self-educated McClernand, distrustful of professionally-trained soldiers, thought little of Grant and his obvious favorites in the army-Sherman and McPherson. As the morning of May 16 was about to expire, the civilian-politician McClernand controlled the four divisions on the Middle and Raymond roads. Grant dispatched couriers urging McClernand to "push forward with all rapidity" and seemed convinced McClernand's twin punches (one on the Middle Road and the other on the Raymond Road), coupled with his own thrust south along the Jackson Road over and around Champion Hill, would win a decisive victory.

Despite what Grant may have believed, McClernand's effective command and control-much like his own on the far right-did not extend beyond his immediate Middle Road front. The politician's communication with A. J. Smith's and Frank Blair's divisions on the Raymond Road was tenuous at best. Osterhaus's far left and Smith's far right stretched toward one another in an attempt to make and remain in contact, but direct communication over the rough and rolling creek-cut ground was extraordinarily challenging in a fluid battlefield environment. Major General Frank Blair, whose division trailed Smith's on the left flank, never took charge there. That meant Smith, a brigadier general leading the forward division with little information about what was transpiring elsewhere, controlled the ebb and flow of battle on the army's distant southern front. William Sherman, as we know, was still back at Jackson. With McPherson commanding the attack of the right wing, Grant could have ridden to the center or left flank to oversee McClernand or Smith, but he instead chose to remain on the Jackson Road. Why?

The answer will never be known for certain. Despite his dislike of McClernand, Grant probably considered him a better tactician and a more reliable field commander than McPherson. Despite what Grant later wrote, this conclusion seems evident in the tasks Grant assigned McClernand. The advance down the west side of the Mississippi River through Louisiana, arguably the most important assignment of all, had been given to McClernand. The honor of establishing the all-important bridgehead on the eastern side of the Mississippi, where heavy fighting was expected to take place, was given to McClernand and his XIII Corps. It was McClernand who was tasked with leading the march inland against an uncertain foe through difficult terrain. It was McClernand who competently waged the battle of Port Gibson and handled his corps well thereafter. In similar circumstances but facing a far weaker opponent at Raymond, McPherson had fed his men piecemeal into the action and was ill-prepared to follow up his expensive victory. To McClernand fell the task of finding Pemberton's army, and his divisions, on Grant's orders, led all three prongs of the advance on the morning of May 16. Grant could easily have left McPherson in command on the army's right that morning and ridden south to oversee McClernand. Instead, he chose to give his favored subordinate tactical control while he remained by his side.

* * *

John Pemberton was sifting through reports at his headquarters at the Isaac Roberts house when Grant went over to the offensive. The home was about 600 yards south of the crossroads, a good central location given the deployment of his army-except during a battle. Pemberton knew his left was seriously threatened and that its defense was in the hands of an inexperienced division commander. Yet he chose to remain on the Roberts property, dispatching couriers and managing his army like the bureaucrat he was. Grant was at the point of decision at the head of his army; Pemberton was at his headquarters.

"It was at this time the battle began in earnest along Stevenson's entire front about noon," admitted Pemberton in his report of the action. The thunder of artillery and small arms fire portending the breakout of a full-scale battle continued to mount on Carter Stevenson's front to the north well beyond the crossroads. The earlier withdrawal of Cumming's Brigade from the Ratliff Road front had seriously weakened Pemberton's center. Pemberton would soon learn by courier that Stevenson had ordered Seth Barton's Georgians away from the crossroads area running northwest to support the far left. That decision, Pemberton would later write, left "a gap between his [Stevenson's] and Bowen's divisions." Matters on the army's right would get even more complex for Pemberton.

Still, the events unfolding opposite the center and right wings were secondary to what was transpiring on the left (to the north) around the battlefield's dominant terrain feature. Stevenson's steady stream of messages alerting Pemberton to that fact, however, had yet to convince him that decisive action-and his presence-was required there. As the keen Stephen D. Lee would later write, "[Pemberton] did not realize his condition until it was too late."