Reflexive Control in Operational Art: Designing Emergent Opportunity in the Vicksburg Campaign

By Wilford L. Garvin

The profoundest truth of war is that the issue of battle is usually decided in the minds of the opposing commanders, not in the bodies of their men.

—B.H. Liddel Hart, Strategy

True victory in military operations arises through the acceptance of defeat by one of the antagonists. Despite this, military decision making frequently devolves into analysis of things over thoughts. Reflexive control theory provides an insight into human cognition that can help address this tendency. Reflexive control is “a means of conveying to a partner or an opponent specially prepared information to incline him to voluntarily make the predetermined decision desired by the initiator of the action.” This creates opportunity for cognitive maneuver within assumptions and risk whereby military leaders attack the decision calculus of others within their problem-set. This occurs intuitively within human interaction; however, it receives little emphasis in western military thinking. Military leaders should understand the employment of and defense against reflexive control within operational art. With this view toward the future, Grant’s masterful Vicksburg campaign informs us of these risks and opportunities from the past.


Confederate Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton arose on 16 May 1863 with a visualization of the day. Somewhere east, between Jackson and Vicksburg, Mississippi, laid 32,000 men of the Union Army of the Tennessee, commanded by Major General Ulysses S. Grant. Two days prior, Lieutenant General Joseph E. Johnston directed Pemberton to attack Grant’s rear. Pemberton had doubts about moving his 23,000-man army further from Vicksburg, which Confederate President Jefferson Davis tasked him to retain. Reluctantly, Pemberton decided to attack and sever Grant’s lines of communication. Like so much of the Vicksburg campaign, little of Pemberton’s visualization matched reality.

Pemberton’s army began movement late the day prior and halted exhausted on Champion Hill with trail elements closing after midnight. Pemberton delayed the army’s wake-up. However, at 0700, Union cavalry initiated contact. Skirmishing began as Pemberton received another message from Johnston informing him that Grant seized Jackson, and directed Pemberton to link up. As Pemberton’s Army attempted to countermarch, Grant’s XVII Corps attacked. The Battle of Champion Hill, the decisive battle of Grant’s Vicksburg campaign, began as Pemberton’s visualization shattered around him, subordinates observing his confusion. Pemberton struggled to retain key terrain and maneuver reinforcements. His psychological state regressed to needing assistance to mount his horse. By early evening, resistance gave way as the victorious Yankees surged forward. For a cost of 410 men killed, 1,844 wounded, and 187 missing, Grant inflicted at least 381 killed, 1,018 wounded, 2,441 missing. Additionally, a severed division would play no further role in the campaign. Afterward, Pemberton, knew he was beaten and Vicksburg would be lost.


This victory owed little to Grant’s prowess as a tactician. Rather, defeat of Confederate forces outside Vicksburg came as an emergent opportunity masterfully crafted in operational art. Pemberton’s army blundered against a foe it was unprepared to meet, was unable to find or fix, and was engaged by the enemy where they did not expect. These conditions came about because of decisions Pemberton logically made. Reflexive control theory, employed by design, offers a way leaders may emulate Grant’s success.

As 1863 dawned, “these u nited States of America” found themselves in their 20th month of civil war. The Union needed to gain marked advantage before either foreign recognition of Southern independence or war weariness threatened preserving the Union. President Abraham Lincoln looked to the Mississippi River to issue a blow to the Confederacy. Seizing the river would sever Confederate east-west lines of communication, achieving a strategic military advantage. Such a victory would bolster Union morale, demoralize the Confederacy, and deter foreign involvement in the conflict. The War Department therefore tasked Major General Nathaniel Banks to seize Port Hudson, and the seizure of Vicksburg to Grant.

Grant faced a significant problem-set. Grant and Pemberton served together in the Mexican-American War and could each call upon this knowledge in consideration of the other’s actions. Pemberton had five divisions and 43,000 men to defend Vicksburg, but was also required to secure the state and its capitol. Pemberton fortified Vicksburg to deter assaults and deny Union use of the river. Confederate forces possessed the ability to defend from bluffs along the river, providing key terrain against river born attacks. Rain and flooding disrupted operations. Grant also faced pressure from Washington, DC driven by political pressure on Lincoln, to cooperate with General Banks. Thus, Grant’s environment contained significant risk, both military and political.

After the reversal of a land approach in 1862, Grant decided on a joint land and maritime operational approach to maneuver his army, consisting of three corps and 43,000 men. This reduced risk as the Union maintained control of the river north of Vicksburg. Grant also enjoyed an excellent relationship with his Navy counterpart, Admiral David Porter. They had several options to attack Vicksburg via the river; however, Vicksburg’s city and northern bluff defenses deterred direct attack. As such, Grant boldly decided to cross his force south of Vicksburg. However, the guns of Vicksburg stood between Grant and viable crossing sites and winter weather favored the defenders. Grant also required the disruption and dispersal of Confederate forces. Therefore, Grant embarked on a series of projects to busy his army, satisfy Lincoln, and begin probing Pemberton.

vicksburg porter

From January through April, the Army of the Tennessee and Porter’s naval force conducted five operations referred to as “the Bayou Expeditions.” Grant resumed a canal project just west of Vicksburg aimed at creating a bypass. While Grant continued to update Washington on the canal’s progress, he lost hope in its success but noted Confederate reactions. The canal and other projects to bypass Vicksburg through maritime maneuver failed as Grant expected, however they satisfied Lincoln as to Grant’s effort. Pemberton, confident in his defense, dispersed his forces as Grant intended.


Grant also needed to disrupt Pemberton’s decision making to slow Confederate forces massing against his crossing. Grant achieved this with operations to disrupt information collection systems. On 3 April, a US division seized Greenville. The threat to the populace and local economy compelled the detachment of a brigade from Vicksburg, presenting yet another dilemma. While Pemberton focused north, Grant’s main body on the west bank of the Mississippi moved south. While the Confederates observed this, an overloaded Pemberton was determined to believe Grant had begun withdrawal by river to Memphis. Then, on the nights of 16 and 22 April, Admiral Porter’s fleet ran the guns of Vicksburg. Pemberton was failing to correctly interpret the changes within his environment, and his assumptions drove him to assume risk exactly as Grant intended.

Grant’s most decisive effect against Pemberton resulted from a raid from 17 April – 2 May. Over sixteen days, a cavalry brigade rode the length Mississippi to Union held Baton Rouge, destroying stores, rail lines, and telegraph wire. Grant synchronized this with the over-land movement of his army and Porter’s fleet running the guns of Vicksburg. To meet what he perceived as his greatest threat, Pemberton stripped his division south of Vicksburg of cavalry. In addition to further dispersing forces, Pemberton’s decision to detach his cavalry would deprive him of information collection capability. All subsequent decisions Pemberton would make in the campaign occurred with insufficient information to make timely and well-informed decisions.

Grant had one more decision he required Pemberton to make to set conditions for the crossing. Grant planned to seize the Confederate fortifications at Grand Gulf as his foothold on the east of the Mississippi, and could not afford Pemberton shifting reinforcements from Vicksburg. To this end, Grant tasked XV Corps to conduct a demonstration north of Vicksburg. At the time, Grant believed the feint was successful. However, the demonstration did not deceive Pemberton due to his near obsessive focus on terrain. Regardless, the idea of the direct assault on Vicksburg achieved the desired effect and disrupted Pemberton’s operational approach. Though Pemberton created a reserve with a planning priority to reinforce his southern division, his decision to release the reserve to Bowen was too late to alter coming events. Porter’s naval attack on 29 April against Grand Gulf failed. However, Grant adapted to unanticipated opportunity by crossing the Mississippi farther south on 30 April near Bruinsburg. Pemberton’s distraction on security operations, rigid terrain-centric prioritization of retaining Vicksburg, and false assumptions reinforced by Union maneuver combined in Pemberton assuming multiple risks in Grant’s favor. Grant’s feint may have failed, but his manipulation of Pemberton still succeeded. Pemberton learned Grant had crossed the Mississippi with an Army of unknown size but Grant secured his foothold.


Grant resolved to exploit success. His XIII Corps began movement to contact to the east, making initial contact with elements of General John Bowen’s division shortly after midnight near Port Gibson on 1 May. Grant attacked and, despite complex terrain greatly favoring Bowen’s skillful defense, Union mass prevailed. Grant lost 131 killed, 719 wounded, and 25 missing. The Confederates sustained 60 killed, 340 wounded, and 387 missing in the delaying action . With Bowen’s defense of Port Gibson turned, he withdrew north of the Big Black River. The following day, XVII Corps seized a foothold on the north side of the Big Black River and occupied Port Gibson, establishing Grant’s base on the east bank of the Mississippi.

black river

Grant now faced a decision with strategic implications. He still operated with the directive to cooperate with General Banks. However, Grant assessed that reinforcing Banks would squander the surprise of his crossing. Grant decided instead to move inland and draw Pemberton from his defenses. To accomplish this, Grant needed to consolidate his entire force and then compel Pemberton to expose his force outside of Vicksburg. To buy time, Grant manipulated Pemberton’s assumption that he would attack Vicksburg directly by maintaining contact with Bowen’s force retrograding north. Both Pemberton’s writings and actions attest to the effectiveness of Grant’s reflexive control; for two days, Pemberton prepared to defend near Hankinson’s Ferry. Grant therefore achieved sufficient time to consolidate.

Grant resumed movement on 4 May, severing communication with Washington as he advanced inland. He correctly assumed Pemberton held the majority of his forces near Vicksburg and would not attack him. Grant advanced along three lines of operation with Edwards, Mississippi as the principle objective. By placing his army between Vicksburg and Jackson, Grant intended to sever Pemberton’s line of communication, compelling engagement. Pemberton perceived the threat to Edwards on 5 May, and set to redeploy forces. Pemberton’s lack of cavalry continued to deny him intelligence. Expecting Grant to pivot west toward Vicksburg, Pemberton decided to orient his defense on the natural linear obstacle of Fourteen Mile Creek, but he also had the dilemma of securing the state capitol. General John Gregg and one brigade arrived at Jackson on 8 May, tasked to screen Jackson against raids and attack Grant’s rear when the Union forces pivoted west. Simultaneously, General Johnston, reassigned to take command of operations in Mississippi, also headed for Jackson.

Grant’s XVII Corps made unexpected contact with Gregg’s brigade on 12 May. Gregg, assuming he faced Grant’s rear guard, committed his force. Over the hot and confused day Union numerical superiority compelled Gregg to withdraw to Jackson. The Union losses were 66 killed, 339 wounded, and 37 missing. Confederate losses were 100 killed, 305 wounded, and 415 captured. Gregg’s action at Jackson bought little time; Johnston arrived on 13 May reporting he was “too late.” Grant’s tempo had already sapped Johnston’s will for battle. Conversely, Pemberton left Vicksburg on 12 May to take command of the three division ad hoc “Army of Vicksburg,” leaving two divisions defending against direct assault. Pemberton, inexperienced as a field commander with a force that had never maneuvered as an army, now prepared for battle outside Vicksburg’s defenses. Compounding this, Pemberton did not yet know that the Battle of Raymond had occurred, and had no way of knowing that his assumptions of Grant’s designs were invalid.

Grant’s new understanding demanded he reassess his plans. The aggressive Confederate action at Raymond suggested that reinforcements from Jackson would present a threat to his rear. Worse, reinforcement of Pemberton would increase the probability of a fair fight. Grant now faced his own dilemma and responded by reframing his operational design rather than sticking with his existing plan. With Gregg’s brigade in retreat and additional reinforcements assumed en route, Grant saw an emergent opportunity and issued new orders. His immediate objectives changed to Jackson and defeat of Confederate forces there to prevent the enemy from massing combat power. While Grant’s army marched against Jackson on 13 May, Pemberton continued to send orders to Gregg thinking him still defending at Raymond.

Grant’s decision to attack Jackson relied on the assumption that Pemberton would not suddenly turn aggressive. However, Grant acknowledged the risks of this assumption being wrong. Therefore, Grant’s new plan included a subordinate operation by XIII Corps to fix Confederate forces at Edwards to encourage Pemberton’s passive behavior. Pemberton would not learn of the Battle of Raymond until the morning of 14 May, during the Battle of Jackson. He was also unaware of Grant’s shift against Jackson until it was too late for him to react.

On the rainy morning of 14 May, two Union corps converged on Jackson. Confederate forces fought a delay as Johnston slipped away. Grant recorded the cost as 41 killed, 228 wounded, and 21 missing while inflicting 845 casualties and capturing 17 guns. XV Corps would spend 15 May destroying material and infrastructure of military value. By accepting prudent risk, Grant precluded Johnston from joining with Pemberton and triggered the cancellation of reinforcements en route to Jackson. Johnston and his force would play no significant role in the campaign.

Grant had now gained and maintained decision making superiority. Johnston’s 13 May dispatch to Pemberton, received during the Battle of Jackson, caused Pemberton to believe that Johnston was combat effective in Jackson. The message directed Pemberton to attack the rear of Union forces. After a council of war, Pemberton finally transitioned to offense. To balance Johnston’s focus of destroying Grant with Davis’ essential task of retaining Vicksburg, Pemberton decided to attack southeast to sever Grant’s communications and provoke a defensive engagement on ground of Pemberton’s choosing. So it was that Pemberton’s Army of Vicksburg, worn from days marching against an elusive threat, trudged exhausted onto Champion Hill on the night of 15 May.

The Battle of Champion Hill provided Grant the decisive victory of the campaign. It was a blunt affair with little tactical finesse, characterized by friction between Grant and a subordinate’s cautious interpretation of orders. Indeed, Grant perhaps missed an opportunity to destroy Pemberton’s army. However, its significance within Grant’s operational art was in that the battle happened at all. Grant learned Pemberton’s disposition on 14 May and received a captured dispatch directing Pemberton to join with Johnston. He wasted no time maneuvering against Pemberton. Grant forced Pemberton to fight without prepared defenses and a linear water obstacle as Pemberton wished. The decisive defeat of the tired and disgruntled Army of Vicksburg emerged deliberately because of Grant’s operational design. The battle cost Pemberton almost 4,000 casualties, the separation of a division, and deterred Johnston from assisting in the defense of Vicksburg. Pemberton was a beaten man, and he knew it.

Pemberton had no other course of action than to fall back to Vicksburg. However, he made one more assumption that delayed his retrograde. Pemberton assumed his severed division would rejoin the army. Pemberton therefore occupied defensive positions on the west and east side of the Big Black River to defend the crossing long enough to rejoin forces. This created new risk, offering Grant another opportunity to attrit Pemberton’s force. Grant tasked XV Corps to flank Pemberton, but this proved unnecessary. One of XIII Corps’ brigade commanders exercised bold initiative, exploiting dead space in the observation and fields of fire of the defenses, assaulting the Confederate defenses before either Grant or Pemberton expected. Grant, ever the opportunist, commenced the attack to reinforce unexpected success that caught many Confederates on the wrong side of a water obstacle. Grant recorded Union losses at 39 killed, 237 wounded, and three missing for 1,751 Confederates and 18 guns captured. Pemberton staved off complete disaster by burning the bridges over the river, delaying Grant’s pursuit as the beaten commander of a beaten army returned to Vicksburg. Pemberton bemoaned, “Just thirty years ago I began my military career at the US Military Academy, and today … that career is ended in disaster and disgrace.”


Grant’s army reached Vicksburg on the evening of 18 May and linked with the Mississippi, restoring the army’s access to its river borne lines of communication. Union attempts to exploit momentum by assaulting Vicksburg on 19 and 22 May did not succeed, and the army transitioned to a siege. Though Johnston directed Pemberton to break out of Vicksburg and join forces with him, the Confederates never attempted an action. With no relief, morale and health of the force failing, Grant reinforced to strength of 90,000, and an assault expected, Pemberton surrendered Vicksburg on 4 July, 1863; one day after Robert E. Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg. The assaults and siege cost the Union 806 killed, 3,940 wounded, and 164 missing. The Confederate losses, however, were 805 killed, 1,938 wounded, 129 missing, and 29,491 captured. General Banks had laid siege to Port Hudson on 21 June. After the fall of Vicksburg, it too surrendered on 9 July.

These events altered the war. Confederate leaders began to realize the war trended toward defeat. Grant had delivered a lightning campaign with a tempo his opponents could not match, governed by a design aimed not merely at seizing an objective but by manipulating his foe’s cognition. Herein lies the excellence of the Vicksburg campaign; Grant’s genius lay in patterns of strategic thought, not tactical excellence.

Grant’s campaign masterfully achieved strategic effects by tactical actions across time and space, governed by an evolving operational design. Through understanding of his adversaries’ assumptions and risk, Grant compelled Pemberton to act in a manner that created emergent opportunity, directly resulting in the siege and surrender of Vicksburg. His operational art exhibited flexibility, allowing him to transition faster than his foes. Grant’s employment of the military instrument of national power destroyed a Confederate army, seized a major political objective, and shocked the whole Confederate system. Analysis of Grant’s operational design offers military leaders insight on how operational art within the context of the environment enables commanders to manage risk, manipulate adversaries, exploit opportunity, and better link tactical actions to achieve strategic effect. Reflexive control theory, employed by design, offers one way whereby military leaders may seek to emulate such strategic patterns of thought.

Major Wilford L. Garvin is a US Army armor officer with two combat deployments in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn. MAJ Garvin is currently a student at the Army Command and General Staff College’s School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He is a graduate of Air Command and Staff College’s Multi-Domain Operational Strategist program.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.


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