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Beyond the Rubicon: The Union Army Secures its Beachhead on Mississippi Soil
Voices that cried so piteously for water pierced the darkness from every direction and served to hail the Angel of Death who throughout the night of May 1, 1863, stalked the battlefield west of Port Gibson. Before the gray streaks of dawn brightened the eastern sky, most of those voices had been forever stilled and the mangled and torn bodies from whence they came were motionless-their souls mercifully released from the pain and suffering dictated them by a cruel fate. Lingering clouds of white-blue smoke that had shrouded the fields and forest the previous day when two armies clashed in furious combat still drifted under the canopy of trees and gave a ghostly appearance to those who searched for killed or wounded comrades. Pervading the horrific scene of carnage and destruction was the stench of death from which there was no escape. The sights and sounds and smells experienced that fateful day would forever haunt those who survived the opening clash of arms in the campaign for Vicksburg.
At the cost of less than 900 men, the Union Army of the Tennessee under the command of Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had won a resounding victory at Port Gibson on May 1. The significance of his triumph cannot be overstated as it secured Grant's beachhead on Mississippi soil and provided his army with a base from which to launch its inland drive against Vicksburg. Of greater impact than the reported 787 casualties inflicted on the Confederate army, the action threw his opponent, Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton, off balance. Reeling in shock, the commander of the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana embraced a defensive posture and relinquished the offensive to a dangerous adversary. Michael Ballard, biographer of the general in gray, asserts that "when Grant crossed the Mississippi, he pushed Pemberton across his personal Rubicon." Confused, uncertain, and with his confidence shattered, Pemberton would stumble through the unfolding crisis with predictable indecision.
Such character, however, was not woven into the fabric of the Union commander who moved quickly to further his initial success. Grant had seized the initiative in his bold march through Louisiana and had gained the upper hand with his amphibious landing at Bruinsburg and victory on the battlefield at Port Gibson. Seeking to exploit the situation, Grant decided to march on Vicksburg with his entire force and ordered the gruff commander of his XV Corps and most trusted subordinate, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, to join him with all possible dispatch.
With the rising sun on Saturday, May 2, blue-clad soldiers of the XIII Corps commanded by Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand formed ranks and advanced cautiously on the town, expecting the battle to be resumed with renewed fury. As they crossed Willow Creek and pushed up the steep slopes from where stiff resistance had been offered the previous afternoon, the soldiers encountered only discarded arms and equipment which littered the road and evidenced that their enemy had fled. Realizing there was no danger, the men moved fluidly from line of battle into column formation and marched into Port Gibson.
As the long column began descending from the heights overlooking Bayou Pierre, the deserted streets of Port Gibson came into view. A magnificent panorama spread before the men for the town wore a lavender crown furnished by the chinaberry trees that lined its streets. Stately homes greeted their gaze and rising toward Heaven through the colorful umbrella were the spires of Port Gibson's diverse houses of worship. Pvt. Israel Ritter of the Twenty-fourth Iowa Infantry marveled at such elegance and recorded his impression of the town in the pages of his diary: "A most beautiful place, high and fine buildings, four large churches, Meth., Presby., and Catholic, etc. Nearly all the citizens are gone. Much property taken but still the town is well protected." He declared emphatically that Port Gibson was the "best place I ever saw."
The Federal soldiers quickly filed through the tree-shaded streets only to discover that the retreating Confederates had burned the suspension bridge across Little Bayou Pierre on the north edge of town. In order to open the direct route to Vicksburg, pioneers and fatigue parties under the direction of Lt. Col. James H. Wilson and Capt. Stewart R. Tresilian were set to work bridging the deep and sluggish stream. One soldier noted that "teams soon brought the dry trunks of trees, logs, rails and boards, anything that would float and piled them into the water." Cotton gins and nearby buildings were also torn down to provide material for the bridge that was thrown across the bayou by early afternoon. But the improvised bridge failed under the strain as a cannon pulled by four mules eased out onto the span only to tip and sink. "It was rather an expensive trial," admitted Thomas B. Marshall of the Eighty-third Ohio who witnessed the incident and selfishly theorized, "but better than a column of infantry."
Grant was anxious to push across Little and Big Bayou Pierre and keep the momentum going lest the Confederates move into position to deter his efforts and block his drive on Vicksburg. Rather than wait for the engineers to complete their task, elements of Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson's XVII Corps were directed to ascend the bayou and, if need be, force a crossing at Askamalla Ford three miles above town. The brigades of Brig. Gens. John E. Smith and Elias Dennis were ordered to shoulder their knapsacks and swing into column. Guided by a local black the rugged soldiers marched out of town and off to the southeast. An hour later they reached the bank of Little Bayou Pierre and were relieved to find that the ford was unguarded. The two brigades quickly splashed across the stream and, pushing on, were soon in position on Confederate Colonel Benjamin Grubb Humphrey's plantation where they secured possession of the Port Gibson-Vicksburg road. Here they discovered a commissary depot that contained 8,000 pounds of bacon which, much to their delight, was distributed among the men to augment their limited supplies. (The Confederates would later lament loss of this bacon as by the end of June the Vicksburg garrison was issued mule meat.)
Grant also ordered Maj. Gen. John A. Logan to move with one brigade of his division and investigate the possible use of the road and railroad bridges across Bayou Pierre west of Port Gibson that led to Grand Gulf. As the Federals expected, the highway bridge that had served as the avenue of escape for Brig. Gen. John S. Bowen's force from the battlefield the previous afternoon had been torched by the retreating Confederates. To further deter the bluecoats, a brigade of infantry led by the aggressive Col. Francis Cockrell, four guns of Capt. Henry Guibor's Missouri Battery, and the two remaining guns of the Botetourt (Virginia) Artillery guarded the crossing. Logan had no desire to force a crossing in the face of determined opposition and so simply held the Confederates in position for several hours then retired to Port Gibson.
Back in town, Wilson and Tresilian completed a more-sturdy span that was a continuous raft which measured 166 feet long and 12 feet wide. As the approaches were over quicksand, the engineers had fatigue parties corduroy the road and cover the planks with dirt. By 4:00 p.m. the bridge was open and the XVII Corps division of Brig. Gen. Marcellus Crocker crossed over the bayou. Turning east, Crocker's men pushed past Humphreys' plantation, where the brigades of Smith and Dennis joined the column, and on toward Grindstone Ford in hope of securing intact the suspension bridge across Big Bayou Pierre.
It was near 7:30 p.m. and the last light of day was rapidly fading when the vanguard reached Grindstone Ford. To their disappointment flames were licking at the far end of the bridge and threatened to engulf the structure. Captain Tresilian, who was traveling with the vanguard, organized men into a firefighting brigade and hurried onto the span to extinguish the flames. Their valiant effort managed to put out the blaze and save the bridge, but repairs were needed before troops could cross.
Throughout the night as soldiers of Crocker and Logan's divisions caught some much needed sleep, the corps' pioneer company and soldiers from the Fourth Minnesota labored to make repairs. Charred sections were planked over to form a new roadway and long pieces of timber were lashed to the suspension rods by wire to strengthen the bridge. As the new floor was ten inches above the old surface, ramps also had to be raised to facilitate the passage of wagons and artillery. Tresilian pushed the men hard and by 5:30 the following morning the bridge was declared open.
Watching the Federal activity from a safe distance were the weary soldiers of Col. Arthur E. Reynolds' demi-brigade who had moved into position on the high ground overlooking the bayou after a grueling march from Big Black River Bridge, east of Vicksburg. Consisting of the Fifteenth and Twenty-sixth Mississippi Infantry and the four guns of Company C, Fourteenth Mississippi Artillery Battalion, Reynolds' men were no match for the powerful Federal force that gathered on the opposite side of the stream. The Mississippians realized that they were all that stood between the enemy and Hankinson's Ferry on the Big Black River, thus blocking the direct road to Vicksburg. Despite the disparity of numbers they mustered their courage and settled in for a long night during which they prayed that succor would arrive in the morning.