I feel relieved when I think of how easy Americans have it in today’s modern world. We have easy access to food,
entertainment, transportation, and communication. It was not always so. In 1863, General Ulysses S. Grant put a stranglehold on the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi. The siege was something not seen since the Middle Ages. Grant’s strangulation of the town was part of a grander plan to cut the Confederacy in half. Vicksburg was the last major Confederate city along the Mississippi River. The capitulation of the city was never in doubt. Just how long the city could hold out was. For 47 days, the citizens held out longer than anyone thought they could.
When most people think of sieges, they tend to think of catapults, barrels of tar, ladders, moats, and battering rams. A specialty of Roman and Medieval warfare, the siege had lost its usefulness in the Napoleonic era. Armies, before the Civil War, met in large numbers of over 100,000 out in the fields of Europe. But the United States was not Europe. If anything, the Confederacy was geographically the opposite of Europe. In climate, it was hot and humid in the summer. In terrain, it was heavily forested and mountainous in the Eastern Theater. Warfare was changing and the technology along with it created for massive casualties in the Civil War. For Union General Ulysses S. Grant, the siege was more an act of desperation to take Vicksburg.
Throughout 1962, Grant had victory after victory with the Army of the Tennessee in Tennessee and northeastern Mississippi. However, those victories came with questions and concerns about the high loss of life. Grant had been given the moniker, “Grant the Butcher.” Allusions were made to his drinking habits, his manhood questioned, but not by President Lincoln. Lincoln proclaimed, “I cannot spare this man, he fights.” More importantly, Grant won in 1862 – something that was not happening in the eastern theater of war.
For Grant, this was not his first siege. At Corinth in northeastern Mississippi, Grant had his army taken away from him for a while by Henry Halleck. Halleck employed the siege strategy in part because the previous battle at Shiloh had been so bloody. In addition, Corinth was not a large town. In little over a month in April and May of 1862, the Union forced the town to surrender and the Union had taken one of the few railroad junctions in the South. After the victory, Halleck went back east, Grant was given back the Army of the Tennessee, but only with 46,000 men.
Now for Grant, his sole objective was to take Vicksburg. The problem was everybody in the south knew Grant was going to go there. As a result, getting there was easier said than done.
Grant said this of the city on the bluff:
The Mississippi flows through a low alluvial bottom many miles in width; and is very tortuous in its course, running to all points of the compass, sometimes within a few miles. This valley is bounded on the east side by a range of high land rising in some places more than two hundred feet above the bottom. At points the river runs up to the bluffs, washing their base. Vicksburg is built on the first high land on the eastern bank below Memphis, and four hundred miles from that place by the windings of the river.
The winter of 1862-63 was unprecedented for continuous high water in the Mississippi, and months were spent in ineffectual efforts to reach high land above Vicksburg from which we could operate against that stronghold, and in making artificial waterways through which a fleet might pass, avoiding the batteries to the south of the town, in case the other efforts should fail.
[…] The ground about Vicksburg is admirable for defense. On the north it is about two hundred feet above the Mississippi River at the highest point, and very much cut up by the washing rains the ravines were grown up I with cane and underbrush, while the sides and tops were covered with a dense forest. Farther south the ground flattens out somewhat, and was in cultivation. But here, too, it was cut by ravines and small streams. The enemy’s line of defense followed the crest of a ridge, from the river north of the city, eastward, then southerly around to the Jackson road, full three miles back of the city ; thence in a south-westerly direction to the river. Deep ravines of the description given lay in front of these defenses.
Even President Lincoln felt it was the most important city at the time:
“See what a lot of land these fellows hold, of which Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket. We can take all the northern ports of the Confederacy, and they can defy us from Vicksburg. It means hog and hominy without limit, fresh troops from all the states of the far South, and a cotton country where they can raise the staple without interference. I am acquainted with that region and know what I am talking about, and, as valuable as New Orleans will be to us, Vicksburg will be more so.”
Beginning in December of 1862, Grant tried to take the city several times. The problem was that the city was too well defended from its high bluffs. But that spring, heavy rains made it possible for Grant, teamed with General William Tecumseh Sherman, to use the flooded river in April to boat past the city and land south of the town and surround it that way. Grant and 12 vessels made the run with Grant crossing into Mississippi at Bruinsburg nine miles south of Vicksburg. Grant said,
I was now in the enemy’s country, with a vast river and the stronghold of Vicksburg between me and my base of supplies. I had with me the Thirteenth Corps, General McClernand commanding, and two brigades of Logan’s
division of the Seventeenth Corps, General McPherson commanding; in all not more than twenty thousand men to commence the campaign with. These were soon [reinforced] by the remaining brigade of Logan’s division and by Crocker’s division of the Seventeenth Corps. On the 7th of May I was further [reinforced] by Sherman with two divisions of his, the Fifteenth Corps.
My total force was then about thirty-three thousand men. The enemy occupied Grand Gulf, Vicksburg, Haynes’s Bluff, and Jackson, with a force of nearly sixty thousand men. My first problem was to capture Grand Gulf to use as a base, and then if possible beat the enemy in detail outside the fortifications of Vicksburg. Jackson is fifty miles east of Vicksburg, and was connected with it by a railroad. Haynes’s Bluff is eleven miles north, and on the Yazoo River, which empties into the Mississippi some miles above the town.
Once on land, Grant had to fight his way to the town during April. Instead of marching north, Grant headed east and took Port Gibson, then Jackson, and worked his way back to Vicksburg along the Southern Railroad. Skirmishes at Champion Hill and Big Black River Bridge did not deter Grant. Grant arrived east of Vicksburg on May 18. The siege had begun. For the next 47 days, life would become a living hell inside the city.
In addition to the constant shelling from Grant’s forces on land, gunboats on the river also provided Union support. The citizens turned to making caves in the soft ground. Vicksburg resident Mary Loughborough stated:
“Our policy in building had been to face directly away from the river. All caves were prepared, as near as possible, in this manner. As the fragments of shells continued with the same impetus after the explosion, in but one direction, onward, they were not likely to reach us, fronting in this manner with their course. On one occasion, I was reading in safety, I imagined, when the unmistakable whirring of Parrott shells told us that the battery we so much feared had opened from the entrenchments. I ran to the entrance to call the servants in; and immediately after they entered, a shell struck the earth a few feet from the entrance, burying itself without exploding. I ran to the little dressing room, and could hear them striking around us on all sides. One fell near the cave entrance, and a servant boy grabbed it and threw it outside; it never exploded.”
In addition to the constant shelling, the weather did not help. Mississippi in early to July is extremely warm and humid. But the unbearable aspect for most involved in the siege was the fact that the spring rains and flooding created a plethora of mosquitoes.
After about 2 weeks, the city began to run out of supplies. The residents turned tree bark into soup. Rats became a delicacy. Confederate soldiers only received “four ounces each of bacon, flour, or meal, the rest comprising peas, rice, and sugar. It was less than half the rations normally issued and led, some believed, to sharply increased sickness among the debilitated troops.” By June 12, there was no meat left. Yet, the troops held on for three more weeks.
The citizens also survived on cowpeas (black eyed peas) that were turned into everything from bread to a meat like substance. Mule even became a staple for the soldiers and citizens. The old Napoleonic adage that an army marches on stomach could be easily adapted to Vicksburg. Confederate General Pemberton began to lose soldiers who deserted for food. On june 28, he received the following letter:
“Our rations have been cut down to one biscuit and a small bit of bacon per day, not enough scarcely to keep soul and body together, much less to stand the hardships we are called upon to stand. If you can’t feed us, you had better surrender us, horrible as the idea is . . . This army is now ripe to mutiny unless it can be fed.”
On July 4, 1863, Pemberton surrendered to Grant. Over 29,000 Confederate soldiers surrendered and they were made to sign loyalty oaths.
All Confederate weapons were seized including guns and artillery. Strikingly surprising was the condition of the Confederate weaponry. Grant said of the seizure of Weapons:
At Vicksburg 31,600 prisoners were surrendered, together with 172 cannon, about 60,000 muskets, and a large amount of ammunition. The small-arms of the enemy were far superior to the bulk of ours. Up to this time our troops at the west had been limited to the old United States flint-lock muskets changed into percussion, or the Belgian musket imported early in the war almost as dangerous to the per son firing it as to the one aimed at – and a few new and improved arms. These were of many different calibers a fact, that caused much trouble in distributing ammunition during an engagement.
The enemy had generally new arms, which had run the blockade and were of uniform caliber. After the surrender I authorized all colonels, whose regiments were armed with inferior muskets, to place them in the stack of captured arms, and replace them with the latter. A large number of arms, turned in to the ordnance department as captured, were these arms that had really been used by the Union army in the capture of Vicksburg.
The Confederacy had been cut in half. The Mississippi River now was totally controlled by the Union. The Anaconda Plan, conceived by Winfield Scott, was working in the West. The US Army stationed 5,000 colored troops to patrol and defend Vicksburg after the siege. They last would leave in 1877.
For Teaching about Vicksburg
This first site has a great image and artifact gallery
This second site has great quotes (some used above) about the conditions in the city during the siege.