Every war needs a plan. No commander can go to war with no end game in sight and expect a positive outcome. The plan cannot simply be, “Meet the enemy in the field and kick their butts,” either.
The commander of the Union Army at the outset of the Civil War was Old Fuss & Feathers himself, Winfield Scott. He was far too old for a field command but still had a strong grasp of the strategic situation. He realized that what the Union needed to do was slowly strangle the Confederacy by starting at the edges and working in. His plan was derisively dubbed the Anaconda Plan and almost immediately abandoned by his successors in favor of planning for decisive battles of annihilation and a march on Richmond.
This would have been a fantastic except for one problem. His immediate successor as commander of the Union Armies was George B. McClellan. Yes, that George B. McClellan, the one who couldn’t be convinced to engage in battle unless Lincoln set his ass on fire and pointed him in the general direction of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Meanwhile, Henry Halleck ended up in charge in the west and didn’t really bother to do much of anything on the Mississippi River, instead deciding that the Tennessee was the river of strategic importance. This was a baffling decision. The Anaconda Plan would have actually taken care of the whole Tennessee River fairly quickly.
The northern border of the Confederacy, at least in scenarios where Kentucky is part of the Confederacy, was the Ohio River. The Ohio feeds in to the Mississippi at the southern tip of Illinois, which is why Grant’s position in Cairo, Illinois was so strategically important at the outset of the war, since Cairo is the southern-most city in Illinois.
The Mississippi, then, was effectively the western border of the Confederacy. Most of Louisiana and all of Arkansas and Texas are west of the Mississippi and Missouri was a battleground at various points but most of the war took place between the Mississippi and the Atlantic. This is why the Anaconda Plan went up the Mississippi and over to the Ohio.
The Tennessee, meanwhile, feeds in to the Cumberland, which then feeds in to the Ohio from the south and east. The join occurs just a bit east of Cairo. It therefore stands to reason that any moves east from the Mississippi and south from the Ohio would quickly take away the Tennessee as an operational area from the Confederacy.
Halleck apparently didn’t see the wisdom in this and basically abandoned the Mississippi. Fortunately for him the Navy was there to pick up the slack in the early part of the war. Lincoln declared a blockade on the entire Confederate coastline from the beginning of hostilities. This put New Orleans in the Navy’s operational area.
The blockade itself was problematic. From Texas to Virginia the Confederate coastline was some three thousand miles long and dotted with tiny inlets and river mouths. To put the whole thing in perspective the Confederate coastline was longer than the entire European Atlantic coast. This was a huge undertaking. Adding to the degree of difficulty was the fact that the U.S. Navy had very few ships at the outset of the war and there were almost no warships capable of navigating the thousands of miles of inland rivers.
To put things in perspective, the British effectively blockaded Europe during the Napoleonic Wars. Their blockade assisted by the fact that Napoleon’s Continental System intended to keep Europe a self-contained area. The British really only had to stop Napoleon’s warships from concentrating into a large enough force to sweep aside the British Navy and cross the English Channel. This, too, was greatly helped by Napoleon, since he did not understand naval warfare, did not put the necessary resources in to keeping up his warships, and had a navy built as a coalition of French, Spanish and, briefly, Dutch warships. The British took the Dutch out of the fight quickly and the Spanish hated the French far more than the British. The Spanish largely celebrated the British victory at Trafalgar.
The only overseas merchant marine that could have really made the British blockade an issue was from America. America was mostly on the side of the British from the Jay Treaty of 1794 until the lead-up to the War of 1812. By then it was far too late, anyway. The French also didn’t help their own cause with the XYZ Affair, but that’s a story for another day.
The situation at the outset of the Civil War was far different from Europe seven decades earlier. The U.S. Navy was fairly weak, it suddenly lost several of its bases and, in the process, warships (the Merrimac being the most famous example), the South absolutely needed to get its supplies from outside forces, and Britain and France each had a vested interest in keeping trade open with the Confederacy. An effective blockade, then would be of paramount importance to the north while keeping the coastline open would be of equal importance to the south.
It was readily apparent to the Navy that New Orleans was key to the entire process. There were two problems. First, the mouth of the Mississippi was defended by two redoubts named Fort St. Philip and Fort Jackson that would not go down easy. Second, the abandonment of the Anaconda Plan meant that the Navy would have to get to New Orleans from the south. There was no Union column marching down the Mississippi River like Winfield Scott had planned.
On the night of April 24, 1862 a fleet under David Farragut ran the guns of St. Philip and Jackson. Farragut had an interesting but fairly common biography for the Civil War. He was a Tennesseean with family ties in Louisiana and Virginia and a service record in the U.S. Navy that went back to the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War. The Navy didn’t trust his loyalty at the outset of the war, which required Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles to personally intervene on his behalf and get him a command.
He started the war commanding a desk in Washington and ended up going down in history. We remember Farragut for his battle cry, “Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!” That was at the Battle of Mobile Bay, about two and a half years after New Orleans. Still, Farragut was responsible for the victories in two of the most important naval battles of the Civil War. Not bad for a man rejected as a probable traitor.
Of course Farragut probably didn’t say his famous words, but, really, who’s counting?
Either way, with New Orleans in the hands of the Union the Mississippi was no longer a valid supply line for the Confederacy. The Mississippi still dominated the strategic situation in the west even if Henry Halleck wasn’t inclined to believe it. The Union couldn’t use the Mississippi because there was still a major Confederate stronghold on the river: Vicksburg.
The Confederates recognized the importance of Vicksburg early on and spent 1861, 1862, and 1863 fortifying the city. When Grant finally started moving towards the city at the end of 1862 Confederate cavalry under Generals Van Dorn and Nathan Bedford Forrest did everything in their power to disrupt Grant’s movements and hit his supply lines.
Grant’s biggest problem wasn’t the Confederate cavalry. It was a Union General named John A. McClernand.
McClernand was one of those curious breed in the Union known as a War Democrat. There were few Democrats in the Union and most of them were Copperheads. War Democrats had a disproportionately large influence. It’s why Andrew Johnson, a Democratic Senator from Tennessee who was the only Southerner who stayed on in Washington ended up as the Vice President and then the President of the United States.
McClernand thought he should be the one to take Vicksburg. He put forward a plan in Washington to recruit an army in Illinois and move south down the Mississippi. Henry Halleck didn’t like the plan, but lacked the political clout to put it to a stop.
He instead informed Grant that something was going on. Separated as he was from Washington and holding Halleck’s old position as a Department Commander, Grant could take over McClernand’s force without getting in trouble.
This did mean that Grant was forced to abandon his march from central Mississippi and cross to the west side of the Mississippi River. Rather than a relatively quick overland march, Grant would be forced to operate along the river. His operations suddenly got difficult.
For the record, nicknames for political groups are terrible anymore. There were great ones in the 1800s, like the Copperheads, the Stalwarts, the Know Nothings, and the Mugwumps (because they had their mugs on one side of the fence and their wumps on the other). Now we have, what, the neo-cons? That’s just boring.