The Battle of Vicksburg, Mississippi, also called the Siege of Vicksburg, was the culmination of a long land and naval campaign by Union forces to capture a key strategic position during the American Civil War.
President Abraham Lincoln recognized the significance of the town situated on a 200-foot bluff above the Mississippi River. He said, “Vicksburg is the key, the war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.”
Capturing Vicksburg would sever the Trans-Mississippi Confederacy from that east of the Mississippi River and open the river to Northern traffic along its entire length.
First Attempts to Capture Vicksburg
The first attempt to capture Vicksburg in summer 1862 is sometimes called the First Battle of Vicksburg. It consisted of prolonged bombardment by Union naval vessels and sputtered out when the ships withdrew. At the same time, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was moving overland to invest the town from the rear.
His advance ended when Brig. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry tore up his rail supply line, and Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn captured his supply base at Holly Springs.
Grant’s efforts to seize Vicksburg resumed in December but met repeated failures. An assault by troops of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s corps against the high ground of Chickasaw Bluffs north of the town resulted in nearly 1,800 Union casualties, compared to just over 200 for the defenders.
Over the coming months, Grant’s men would attempt to dig canals or find ways through the shallow, narrow bayous to bypass what is called the Confederate “Gibraltar of the West.” Finally, he decided his army would have to operate south of Vicksburg, and that required the cooperation of the navy.
To mask his army’s movement down the Louisiana side of the river, he had Sherman conduct two feints north of Vicksburg, and on April 17 Col. Benjamin H. Grierson left Tennessee on a cavalry raid through Mississippi that ended May 2 when he reached Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Grierson’s raid ranks among the most remarkable cavalry exploits of the war.
On April 16, 1863, a naval fleet under Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter came down the Mississippi, running the gauntlet of guns firing from the Vicksburg bluff, and rendezvoused with Grant’s Army of the Tennessee at Hard Times, Louisiana.
In the largest amphibious operation ever conducted by an American force prior to World War II, Grant and Porter transferred 24,000 men and 60 guns from the west bank to the east. They landed unopposed at Bruinsburg, Mississippi, and began marching toward Port Gibson and Grand Gulf, towns north along the river.
Four divisions clashed with a Confederate brigade along Bayou Pierre near Port Gibson on May 1, costing each side between 700 and 900 men, but the two river towns were captured without further significant fighting. The rest of Grant’s army, under Sherman, then crossed the river at Grand Gulf, bringing his force to over 45,000, which he turned inland toward the Mississippi state capital, Jackson.
Grant’s Inland Campaign in Mississippi
Two Confederate forces were in the area: a small one of approximately 5,000 men at Jackson and 26,500 men of the Vicksburg garrison. Vicksburg was under the command of Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton, a West Point-trained engineer and native Pennsylvanian with a Southern wife, who had chosen to fight for the Confederacy.
One of Grant’s advancing columns collided with a Confederate brigade at Raymond, a few miles west of Jackson, on May 12. Hours of confused fighting ended when the Southerners, under Brig. Gen. John Gregg, retreated.
The following evening, Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston arrived in Jackson. His wounding at Seven Pines, Virginia, in May of 1862 had resulted in Robert E. Lee taking over the defense of Richmond and initiating the Seven Days Battle. Johnston was now commanding the Department of the West and had been ordered to Mississippi to counter the growing threat. He looked at the inadequate defenses and ordered the troops, now about 6,000 in number, to evacuate.
The next day, Gregg’s men fought a delaying action around the town to cover the withdrawal before abandoning 17 guns and the capital to the Federals, who burned much of the town.
Johnston and Pemberton independently came to the conclusion that the best course of action was to sever Grant’s supply line to the Mississippi River. Pemberton left 9,000 men to garrison Vicksburg and marched with 17,500 to find that supply line. While trying to join with Johnston, his force encountered Grant’s marching westward, resulting in the Battle of Champion’s Hill.
Overwhelming numbers carried the day, and Pemberton withdrew. One of his divisions, that of Maj. Gen. W. W. Loring, was cut off, and turned south; it joined Johnston’s forces instead of returning to Vicksburg.
The next clash came May 17 at Big Black River Bridge. Federal troops of Brig. Gen. Michael Lawler’s brigade exploited a weakness in a seemingly strong Southern position and routed their enemy. Pemberton’s weary men returned to Vicksburg, burning bridges behind them.
The 20,000–25,000 he had marched out of Vicksburg with had been reduced by approximately 5,000. Including the garrison he left behind to protect the town, his effective force was not much over 30,000 men.
The Battle of Vicksburg
On May 19, Grant, hoping for a quick victory over a defeated foe, ordered Sherman’s corps to attack along the Graveyard Road northeast of town. Pemberton, the engineer, had developed a series of strong works around Vicksburg, and the Federals were repulsed by the defenders of Stockade Redan, suffering 1,000 casualties.
Three days later, coordinated assaults were made: Sherman along the Graveyard Road, Maj. Gen. James McPherson hitting the center from the Jackson Road, and Maj. Gen. John McClernand attacking from the south along the lines of the Baldwin Ferry Road and the Southern Railroad of Mississippi.
Although McClernand’s men briefly penetrated what was called the Railroad Redoubt, all three columns were repulsed, with a total loss of over 3,000 men.
The Siege of Vicksburg
These losses and the strong Confederate defensive works convinced Grant to take the town by siege, cutting it off from all supply. He initiated a plan that is still studied today as a classic example of how to conduct siege warfare.
Reinforced to over 70,000 strong, for weeks his men dug trenches that zigged and zagged but steadily brought them closer to Pemberton’s positions. One group tunneled underneath the Third Louisiana Redan, named for its defenders, and on June 25 detonated barrels of black powder that blasted a hole in the works. Union soldiers surged into the breach only to be met by a counterattack. Desperate hand-to-hand fighting ensued for hours before the attackers were driven out.
A second mine was exploded on July 1 but was not followed up by an attack.
That same day, Joe Johnston finally sent a relief force from re-occupied Jackson toward Vicksburg, but it was too little, too late, and did not play a role in the fighting.
Inside Vicksburg, civilians huddled in caves to avoid the cannon shells being fired daily from Grant’s artillery around the town and the guns on the fleet in the river. Food and other supplies from outside had been cut off for a month and a half. Horses, dogs, cats, reportedly even rats became part of the diet for soldiers and civilians alike.
On July 3, Pemberton rode out to discuss surrender terms with Grant. Although he had been dubbed “Unconditional Surrender” Grant after his demands to the garrison at Tennessee’s Fort Donelson the previous year, the Union commander agreed to parole Pemberton’s men.
The next morning, July 4, Confederate soldiers began marching out and stacking their guns. The city of Vicksburg would not celebrate the Fourth of July as a holiday thereafter until well into the 20th century. Despite the prolonged shelling they’d endured, the Confederates’ losses during the siege had been light. Some 29,500 surrendered.
The Aftermath of Vicksburg
With the fall of the Confederate Gibraltar, the last remaining Southern stronghold on the Mississippi, Port Hudson, also capitulated. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.” That same July 4, Robert E. Lee’s army was retreating toward Virginia after defeat in the Battle of Gettysburg; Helena, Arkansas, fell to Union forces; and General William S. Rosecrans forced the Confederate Army of Tennessee to withdraw from the Middle Tennessee area to Chattanooga, just north of the Georgia state line. The winds of war had shifted in favor of the North.
The Confederacy had been irretrievably divided east and west. Pemberton found the Confederate government was no longer willing to entrust him with the high command and, remarkably, he resigned his commission and attempted to re-enlist as a private. Southern president Jefferson Davis commissioned him a lieutenant colonel of artillery instead.
Joseph Johnston briefly attempted to hold Jackson, but the Federals reoccupied it. Destruction there was so complete that it became known as “Chimneyville—virtually all that was left. Johnston would lead the Army of Tennessee during most of the Atlanta Campaign and again following the Southern debacle at Franklin and Nashville in the winter of 1864.
He would surrender his army to Sherman near Bentonville, North Carolina, days after Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia.
Grant’s reputation as a fighter who won tough battles was cemented at Vicksburg, and by the following summer, he would be in command of all Union armies in the field. He came to regret his decision to parole the Vicksburg garrison, however. Most of its men re-enlisted without being exchanged for Union prisoners, as was the custom, putting thousands of more rifles back into the Southern ranks.
As a result, Grant would virtually halt prisoner exchanges when he was promoted to command all armies, a decision that perhaps shortened the war but also condemned thousands of prisoners north and south to prolonged incarceration and death in the unsanitary conditions of overcrowded prisoner of war camps.
Today, the Vicksburg National Military Park stretches over 1,800 acres of fields, woods, and ravines.
It includes the Vicksburg National Cemetery, the final resting place of 17,000 Union soldiers, the largest number of any national cemetery.
*This article was originally published at www.historynet.com