Within two days of July in 1863, the Confederate States of America suffered two crushing defeats. The Army of Northern Virginia was repelled at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. Any hopes of Robert E. Lee crushing the North via an invasion were dashed over three days in July. Any hopes of gaining recognition and aid from Great Britain or some other foreign power vanished. But for some historians, like me, the more crushing blow to the South’s hopes happened the next day, July 4, when the City of Vicksburg, Mississippi was taken over Union forces after a short but debilitating siege. Vicksburg was the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi. The fall of the city would cut the Confederacy in two – no longer could trade, supplies, or railroads flow freely through the South.
Grant liked to attack things head on. As Lincoln said of his talents, “I can’t spare this man, he fights!” Vicksburg was someplace he would not be able to do so. Geographically, Vicksburg sits high above the Mississippi River. Its rolling hills and cliff make it the perfect place to defend. A bend in the Mississippi River makes it almost impossible to travel down the river unnoticed. But in the spring of 1863, the weather and floods changed all that.
Grant, as the head of the Army of the Tennessee (River) had started off in Cairo, Illinois in 1862 and had worked his way down through Kentucky and Tennessee. Taking Forts Donelson and Henry, Shiloh, and Corinth, Grant and his army had almost cut the Confederacy in half per Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan. Admiral Farragut had taken New Orleans in early 1862. The only holdouts in the spring of 1863 were Vicksburg and the lowly Port Hudson. However, Grant’s success was not met with plaudits and parades. The northern press had chastised his tactics for the loss of life, while others intimated at his taste for the finer beverages of the day.
If Grant had his way, he would have taken Vicksburg by land. In fact, as early as December of 1862, Grant tried to take Vicksburg. The city held strong. Under the command of John Pemberton, a 30,000 strong force held the heights. A ball was held to celebrate the Confederate successes in holding off Grant. That same night, Grant used recent flooding to make a break and take his 40,000 strong force through bends. The Army of the Tennessee mad eland south of Vicksburg and then made its way up to Jackson (the capital) and then across over to Vicksburg. The defenses around Vicksburg, along with the Geography, made it impossible for Grant to take the city by force. Instead, Grant decided to take advantage of his supply lines being in tact along with control of nearby rail and river traffic. Beginning on May 19, 1863, the Siege of Vicksburg was under way.
Siege warfare is not a new tactic. Greeks, Persians, Romans, and Medieval armies used it to perfection. Grant knew it was only a matter of time. The city’s only hope was rescue from another Confederate Army. Pemberton could not break out for that would leave the city unguarded. In addition, the city had no way to get food in. In a 12 mile loop, Grant’s Army had the Confederates surrounded. Citizens ate whatever they could eat during the 46 day siege. In addition, the Union guns, on land and on the river, kept up a barrage to drive home the terror of this war. This diary entry by Dora Miller describes the terror she faced:
June 25th. – A horrible day. The most horrible yet to me, because I’ve lost my nerve. We were all in the cellar, when a shell came tearing through the roof, burst upstairs, tore up that room, and the pieces coming through both floors down into the cellar. One of them tore open the leg of H_’s pantaloons. This was tangible proof the cellar was no place of protection from them. On the heels of them came Mr. J_ , to tell us that the young Mrs. P_ had had her thigh-bone crushed. When Martha went for the milk she came back horror-stricken to tell us the black girl there had her arm taken off by a shell. For the first time I quailed. I do not think people who are physically brave deserve much credit for it; it is a matter of nerves. In this way I am constitutionally brave, and seldom think of danger till it is over; and death has not the terrors for me it has for some others. Every night I had lain down expecting death, and every morning rose to the same prospect, without being unnerved. It was for H_ I trembled. But now I first seemed to realize that something worse than death might come; I might be crippled, and not be killed. Life, without all one’s powers and limbs, was a thought that broke down my courage. I said to H_, “You must get me out of this horrible place; I cannot stay; I know I shall be crippled.” Now the regret comes that I lost control, because H_ is worried, and has lost his composure, because my coolness has broken down.
On July 3, Gettysburg ended. No one was going to come to the rescue. No Union troops were going to go east and leave Vicksburg by itself as Robert E. Lee once pined. No, this was it. On July 4, the Confederate forces under Pemberton surrendered. The Confederates were not taken prisoner. There were just too many of them! While casualties were low for the siege, there was no way for Grant to feed and house the vast numbers. Originally, Grant had wanted unconditional surrender but was talked out of it by logistical horror stories from his commanders. On July 4, 1863, Union forces took control of the city. It would be a long time before the city would celebrate the holiday. The Confederate soldiers agreed to not take up arms against the Union.
After the siege, Grant would head east into Chattanooga and eastern Tennessee. By the end of the year, his victories resulted in his promotion to being in charge of all Union forces. With Vicksburg in Union hands, river and rail traffic within the Confederacy stopped. It was the high water mark for the Confederacy. From here on out, the South would be running on fumes. It could not keep up with industry and the population of the north.
In 2005, my lovely wife and I toured the National Military Park in Vicksburg. It was the first week in June and the temperature was 90 degrees and humid. I can only imagine the conditions the soldiers and citizens endured that summer.