Civil War

The Promotion of Ulysses S. Grant: Setting the Stage for 1864

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When 1864 began, Abraham Lincoln and the Union were at a crossroads. The Civil War was being won slowly and that was a problem. Despite huge wins at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July of 1863, the public and press were still clamoring for victory at the beginning of the new year. Some politicians were clamoring for peace. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia were still on the loose; his army badly beaten after Gettysburg but they still could put up a fight at the beginning of 1864, albeit only on Virginia soil. The biggest problem for Lincoln was who could he put in charge of the Union armies to go after Lee in the eastern theater. lincoln_abraham_photograph-thumb-425x563[1]

For two and a half years, the Army of the Potomac had protected the nation’s capital. The army had also flailed away at trying to take the Confederate capital of Richmond and they were defeated on Virginia soil by Robert E. Lee each time. The only times Lee lost was on Union soil at Antietam (Sharpsburg) and Gettysburg. Five Generals had their crack at destroying Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. Irvin McDowell lost at Bull Run (although Lee was not there in 1861) and McDowell was promptly removed from command as his armies retreated over civilians and politicians on their way back to Washington after the loss.

George McClellan thought himself the second coming of Napoleon. Lincoln did not. McClellan always thought he needed more men to go after Lee. Lincoln did not. McClellan always surmised that Lee outnumbered him at every turn. Lincoln did not. Even after a McClellan win at Antietam, Lee escaped Maryland as McClellan hesitated fearing a final Confederate attack. McClellan was removed from command of the Army of the Potomac in November of 1862.

McClellan was replaced by Ambrose Burnside. Burnside’s tenure was short-lived. After a failed attack towards Richmond resulted in the disastrous failure that was the Battle of Fredericksburg, Burnside was removed in January of 1863. Joseph Hooker replaced Burnside and was quickly praised for raising morale and organization within the Army of the Potomac. However, failure to win at Chancellorsville and arguments over the protection of Washington and Baltimore, Hooker resigned in late June of 1863 and was reassigned to the West later that summer.

General George Meade was only on the job for four days when the Battle of Gettysburg began. When it was over, Meade failed to pursue a weakened Army of Northern Virginia. Lincoln, again, was frustrated with whomever was in command. Lincoln felt the war might have been shortened drastically had Meade pursued Lee on the third day after the disaster that was Pickett’s charge. But Meade, like McClellan, felt a counter attack by Lee was forthcoming. It was not.

Union victories in the fall in Tennessee at Chattanooga and Knoxville secured a launching pad to invade the deep South. The stage was set in 1864 for the Union to make great strides in strangling the South by invading Georgia and going after Lee in Virginia. Who was going to lead that charge? With victory in the distance, Lincoln knew it could not be Meade. Meade was a good General with great organizational and tactician skills, and he could command troops in the heat of the battle, but he was not the great strategist and commander of other generals. Lincoln turned his eye to the West to find the right man to get the job done. It would be a controversial selection to some, but to Lincoln, it was the only choice at the end of 1863.

In February of 1864, Lincoln began the machinations needed to place Grant in charge of all Union forces. That choice was one that was developed and cultivated over two years despite the two men never having met until 1864. Historian John Simon said:

While Grant fought the war in the West, his only contact with Lincoln came through correspondence, and there was no great amount of it. Yet the man in the White House kept a careful eye on Grant, who held a series of posts so vital that mismanagement would have been fatal.

Here is one telegram that Lincoln had written Grant after the Siege of Vicksburg. 4639933210_2ef2e398c1

“I do not remember that you and I ever met personally. I write this now as a grateful acknowledgement for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further. When you first reached the vicinity of Vicksburg, I thought you should do, what you finally did–march the troops across the neck, run the batteries with the transports, and thus go below; and I never had any faith, except a general hope that you knew better than I, that the Yazoo Pass expedition, and the like, could succeed. When you did get below, and took Port-Gibson, Grand Gulf, and vicinity, I thought you should go down the river and join Gen. [Nathaniel] Banks; and when you turned Northward East of the Big Black, I feared it was a mistake. I know wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right, and I was wrong.”

For many historians, this was the beginning of the relationship where Lincoln would state his objections to what Grant was doing but then quickly defer to Grant’s expertise.

For Ulysses S. Grant, the rise to head the Union Army in 1864 and gain the confidence of Abraham Lincoln began in 1862. Victories at Fort Donnelson, Fort Henry and Shiloh brought Grant fame and some of it was not so kind. High casualty rates caught the attention of the press and earned him the nickname of “Grant the Butcher.” It did not bother Grant. And more importantly, it did not bother Lincoln who was to have allegedly said, “I cannot spare this man; he fights.”

In 1863, Grant’s Mississippi campaign aimed to divide the Confederacy in half. Historian E.B. Long called Grant a “great organizer of war, too often submerged because of the more spectacular events he engineered.” This quality was one that endeared Grant to Lincoln. When complaints of Grant’s drinking in times of boredom became an issue, Lincoln was said to have quipped “that if he could find out what brand of whiskey Grant drank, he would send a barrel of it to all the other commanders.”

In addition to his skills on the field of battle, Grant also had friends in high places. One was his neighbor from Galena, the ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, Elihu B. Washburne. Washburne had the tug of Lincoln’s ear and would often praise Grant and give assurances to Lincoln about Grant’s ability and drinking, and even Grant’s political aspirations, which were none.

Representative Elihu Washburne - Grant's friend and neighbor
Representative Elihu Washburne – Grant’s friend and neighbor

Lincoln wanted a man who could get things done. One view of the hiring by Samuel H. Beckwith, a War Department telegraph operator, who believed that Grant:

“was selected as Lincoln’s last hope, and when the President knew his worth and saw his handiwork, he placed the army in his keeping and backed the intrepid solider in his every move. And Grant appreciated highly the cooperation and loyal support given him from Washington. Unlike McClellan and his successors, he did not bombard the Capitol with petitions and remonstrances and criticisms and appeals for reenforcements.”

In late February of 1864, Lincoln asked Congress to revive the rank of Lieutenant General in the US Army. On February 29, the Senate obliged and Lincoln put in Grant’s name for the command of all Union forces.


After meeting Grant for the first time in Washington, Lincoln and Grant discussed war aims, expectations, and their roles in the war. Lincoln said of meeting Grant:

“Well, I hardly know what to think of him, altogether, I never saw him, myself, till he came here to take the command. He’s the quietest little fellow you ever saw. . . . The only evidence you have that he’s in any place is that he makes things git! Wherever he is, things move!”

Their relationship was set up that Grant was to make the decisions on how to best achieve Lincoln’s political goals using the military. 1864, after all, was an election year. If the war was not almost finished by the fall, Lincoln knew he would not be re-elected, peace could come with a Democratic President, and the grand experiment known as the Union would be over.

For Grant, when word of promoting him first came about on a suggestion by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in the fall of 1863, Grant was reluctant and hesitant to take such a position. He initially wanted no part of it. Part of the reason was Grant did not like politics and the second was he did not like Washington meddling in the affairs of the Army.

Somehow, during the winter of 1863-64, Grant changed his mind in part to end what he did not like about the post, and more importantly, because of Lincoln. Through communications, Lincoln displayed a unique ability to state his own opinion on a matter while deferring to other’s expertise of Grant’s command, skills, and ability to be fit for the job (not be drunk).

Shortly after Grant was given the rank of Lieutenant General, he began developing a plan that strategically required the Union to attack on all fronts against the Confederates in 1864. The logistics of this plan Grant did not share with Lincoln. Lincoln wrote this telegram to Grant in early April of 1864:

Not expecting to see you again before the Spring campaign opens, I wish to express, in this way, my entire satisfaction with what you have done up to this time, so far as I understand it. The particulars of your plans I neither know, or seek to know. You are vigilant and self-reliant; and, pleased with this, I wish not to obtrude any constraints or restraints upon you. While I am very anxious that any great disaster, or the capture of our men in great numbers, shall be avoided. I know that these points are less likely to escape your attention than they would be mine. If there is anything wanting which is within my power to give, do not fail to let me know it.
And now with a brave Army, and a just cause, may God sustain you.

The fact that Lincoln was alright with not knowing the plan kept Grant happy and it kept Lincoln happy too that April of 1864. He later quipped to the press when asked about the spring strategy that April:

“He hasn’t told me what his plans are […] I don’t know, and I don’t want to know. I’m glad to find a man who can go ahead without me.”

Grant was preparing to cross the Rappahannock River and go after Robert E. Lee. That was what Grant was hired to do – to lead. In May of 1864, Grant began earning his new pay grade.

Germanna Ford across the Rappahannock
Germanna Ford across the Rappahannock

Ulysses S. Grant: “Personal Memoirs”
Bruce Catton “Grant Takes Command”
Charles Bracelen Flood, “Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War”;
Jean Edward Smith, “Grant”; The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies,” Vol. 32, Pt. 3”
James MacPherson: Ordeal by Fire
Stephen Woodworth: Nothing but Victory
John Y. Simon and Michael E. Stevens, New Perspectives on the Civil War: Myths and Realities of the National Conflict
David L. Wilson and John Y. Simon, Ulysses S. Grant: Essays and Documents, p. 19. (E.B. Long, “Ulysses S. Grant for Today”).


The Battle of Gettysburg – Day Three: Hallowed Ground

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James Longstreet
James Longstreet

“General, I have been a soldier all my life. I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments and armies, and I should know . . what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no 15,000 men ever arrayed for battle can take that position.”  – James Longstreet

I do not think the thought of leaving the battlefield after July 2 ever occurred to Robert E. Lee. It should have. Had Lee left, his men could have lived to fight another battle at full strength. That could have been the battle. Instead, Lee, partly guided by hubris, his own self-confidence, and his own distaste for his opponent, never thought he could be beaten. Lee never imagined that Meade, only 5 days on the job could best him on a field of battle. Time and again throughout two year old war, Lee had put on one of the greatest military displays in history. Many historians, including myself, consider him America’s greatest general. That distinction, however, does not mean he was without fault. He was. And on July 3, 1863, one error to stand and fight ultimately marked the high water mark for his army and the Confederacy.

For Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg was different than most previous battles. Throughout the war, Lincoln was kept abreast of the day’s events through telegraph communiques. Ironically, the President had used the telegraph to issue orders to commanders in the field. This time, it would not be so.

Lee’s plan for battle had three parts. Part one included an assault on Culp’s Hill in the morning. It was hoped the Army of Northern Virginia could take the hill and the control the battlefield. If it failed, Lee had two additional parts. The second part was made possible the arrival the day before of the cavalry under the command of J.E.B. Stuart. Stuart was to swing wide and attack the Union from the rear on the east. The third part of the plan was to be an afternoon assault on the Union center near Cemetery Ridge. An artillery barrage would commence aimed at two points. The center would be targeted as well the woods behind where Lee believed Meade would hold his reserves to reinforce positions up and down the line. The brigades of Pickett and Heth then would converge on the point (Called The Angle) like a funnel, break through the Union lines, and divide the Union in two with Stuart attacking the same point from the east. Some of Lee’s generals did not like the plan but James Longstreet was the most vocal. Longstreet felt that the Union had two whole days to reinforce those heights. It is what Longstreet would have done had he been in command of Union forces.

Meade’s plan was based on the Council of War held the night before. Up to this point, what had allowed the Union to hold the lines was that Meade had used his reserves to reinforce key positions depending on the point of attack. For the third day, Meade would have no reserves other than cavalry. So, rather keep them in the woods behind the lines, Meade shifted them east to reinforce the right flank. In addition, Meade reinforced Culp’s Hill with units from two divisions.


Part 1 – Culp’s Hill

The attack on Culp’s Hill began early in the morning on July 3. It did not go well for the Confederates. With the extra men, the Union held position on the hill. By 11 a.m. the fighting on the hill ceased. The failures to take the Hill lead Lee to implement the final two parts to win.

Part Two – Stuart and the Cavalry

J.E.B. Stuart and his cavalry swung wide east of Gettysburg to swing around and flank the Union forces. Unable to reconnoiter the day before, Stuart found himself staring face to face with the 3rd Division commanded by 23 year old George Armstrong Custer and the 2nd Division commanded by David Greeg. Though neither side had a tactical advantage, the Union despite having fewer forces was able to thwart and repel Stuart. When the Union forces slammed into the Confederate Cavalry line, the line stopped creating a traffic jam of Confederate cavalry.

Part Three – Pickett’s Charge

At 1:07 p.m., 150 Confederate guns opened up on what Lee thought were Union positions at Union artillery in the center along with troops positioned there, and at positions behind the front line where Lee thought Meade held his reinforcements. After two hours, the barrage ceased. Emerging from the woods along Seminary Ridge, 13,000 – 15,000 Confederate soldiers lined up to begin their march toward the Union Center. Led by General George Pickett, the line stretched almost a mile long.

Silently, on an 81 degree summer afternoon, the march began across open field in the face of the enemy. The Union held their artillery to make the Confederates think the barrage had taken out the guns. Without sound, the Confederates made their way across the field until a fence line appeared near the Emmitsburg Road. The soldiers increased in height to near 10 feet while climbing the fence. The Union opened fire on soldiers crossing the field. At this point, Union artillery opened fire at point blank range decimating Pickett’s and Pettigrew’s forces as they neared the wall. But it did not stop the Confederates from coming.

A fence has been rebuilt near the location of  where one was during Pickett's Charge
A fence has been rebuilt near the location of where one was during Pickett’s Charge

Some Confederates breached the wall near the Angle. Some Union forces retreated in fear only to be rounded up and returned to fight the Confederates. When artillery used at short range began pummeling Confederates at short range, a full on retreat began. No one is sure to this day who ordered the retreat. When the Confederates reached Seminary Ridge, Lee tried to reform his lines for another attack. When Pickett appeared in front of Lee, Lee told him to reform his brigade. He told Lee his division was gone. Only 5,000 – 6,000 of the assault force returned to Seminary Ridge. Pickett’s Charge had been a disaster.

For most, this is where the fighting ended. Lee would reform for an attack from Meade that never came. On July 4, 1863, the rains come. And with that rain, Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia began the long sulk back to Virginia. The invasion was over. The Union had won the battle. Combined with the victory at Victory at Vicksburg, it was a great day. But not for President Lincoln. When informed of the victory, Lincoln was ecstatic. When informed that Meade let Lee limp away, Lincoln was furious with the decision. Meade, according to Lincoln had a chance to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia, wipe it out, and this end the war in the Eastern Theater. It was not to be. Like previous commanders of the Army of Potomac, Meade erred on the side of caution. In other words, he erred. It would soon cost him command.

Soon after the battle, photographers made their way to Gettysburg and images from the conflict made their way into newspapers. These images shocked the nation to the ultimate price both sides paid. Later, the ground would be consecrated with a national cemetery for it was truly hallowed ground.

"Harvest of Death" Courtesy of the Library of Congress
“Harvest of Death”
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

It easy to sit here 150 years later and second guess Lee and Meade and their decisions. At the time, reports by both generals conveyed their own assessments of the battle and their determination that their efforts were right. Lee, for example, still was throwing J.E.B. Stuart under the proverbial bus.

Lee’s Report:

About 1 p.m., at a given signal, a heavy cannonade was opened, and continued for about two hours with marked effect upon the enemy. His batteries replied vigorously at first, but toward the close their fire slackened perceptibly, and General Longstreet ordered forward the column of attack, consisting of Pickett’s and Heth’s divisions, in two lines, Pickett on the right. Wilcox’s brigade, marched in rear of Pickett’s right, to guard that flank, and Heth’s was supported by Lane’s and Scales’ brigades’ under General Trimble. The troops moved steadily on, under a heavy fire of musketry and artillery, the main attack being directed against the enemy’s left center. His batteries reopened as soon as they appeared. Our own having nearly exhausted their ammunition in the protracted cannonade that preceded the advance of the infantry, were unable to reply, or render the necessary support to the attacking party. Owing to this fact, which was unknown to me when the assault took place, the enemy was enabled to throw a strong force of infantry against our left, already wavering under a concentrated fire of artillery from the ridge in front, and from Cemetery Hill, on the left. It finally gave way, and the right, after penetrating the enemy’s lines, entering his advanced works, and capturing some of his artillery was attacked simultaneously in front and on both flanks, and driven back with heavy loss. The troops were rallied and reformed, but the enemy did not pursue. A large number of brave officers and men fell or were captured on this occasion. Of Pickett’s three brigade commanders, Generals Armistead and [R.B.] Garnett were killed, and General Kemper dangerously wounded. Major-General Trimble and Brigadier-General Pettigrew were also wounded, the former severely.

Meade’s report

The result of the campaign may be briefly stated in the defeat of the enemy at Gettysburg, his compulsory evacuation of Pennsylvania and Maryland, and withdrawal from the upper valley of the Shenandoah, and in the capture of 3 guns, 41 standards, and 13,621 prisoners; 24,978 small-arms were collected on the battle-field. Our own losses were very severe, amounting, as will be seen, by the accompanying return, to 2,834 killed, 13,709 [13,713] wounded, and 6,643 missing; in all, 23,186 [23,190]. It is impossible in a report of this nature to enumerate all the instances of gallantry and good conduct which distinguished such a hard-fought field as Gettysburg. The reports of corps commanders and their subordinates, herewith submitted, will furnish all information upon this subject. I will only add my tribute to the heroic bravery of the whole army, officers and men, which, under the blessing of Divine Providence, enabled a crowning victory to be obtained, which I feel confident the country will never cease to bear in grateful remembrance.

Regardless of their opinions in their reports, the fact remains that the Battle of Gettysburg extremely weakened Lee’s future attempts to attack. He would now fight a war of defense while the Union was still up in the air as to what it would do. Meade would stay in command for the fall. No other major battle was fought in the eastern theater that fall. Come spring of 1864, a new Union general would be given the charge of destroying the Army of Northern Virginia.

In the end, Henry Kaiser’s diary entry for July 4, 1863 says it all:

“All is quiet along the line this morning.”

Little Round Top and Big Round Top
Little Round Top and Big Round Top
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

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The Battle of Gettysburg – Day Two: Holding the Line

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When the fighting of the first day ended, the Confederates were ready for a great victory on Union soil. If Lee could whip Meade, there would be little to stand between Lee and the capital. When the first day of battle ended, the Confederates had taken the town while the Union army had scattered to the hills south of town. Lee, who had arrived at 1 p.m. on the first day of battle tried to convince Richard Ewell to take Culp’s Hill, “if practicable.” To Ewell, those last two words deemed it an option. Lee did not mean it that way. Robert E. Lee knew if he did not have the high ground, victory could be elusive.

Arriving to aid Lee was General James Longstreet and his division. J.E.B. Stuart was still missing but he would arrive later in the day. The Union began to reinforce its positions as well. The fighting would not begin in earnest until noon. Reconnaissance had to take place. The next 6 hours would give hope to a Confederacy, while Union tried to find hope in any form. By the end of the day, names like Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, Culp’s Hill, Cemetery Ridge, the Peach Orchard and the Wheatfield became part of the American Lexicon.

Day Two Positions
Day Two Positions

The weather was mild on July 2, 1863. The sun shone and there were no overcast skies. Temperatures were in the middle 70s. Meade really had no plan other than to defend the high points. Meade planned to use the roads between the hills to shift reinforcements back and forth. Lee, on the other hand, was going to try and take three hills, Culp’s Hill, Round Top and Little Round Top. From his vantage point on Seminary Ridge Lee knew if controlled those hills, the battle would be won. Much of the fighting on day two would take place on the Union’s northern flank, closest to town.

The fighting that afternoon was fierce. The Union line ebbed and flowed after each Confederate wave from Longstreet, Ewell, and AP Hill. Meade, however, kept the Union line in attack through by reinforcing weak points in the line. IF Hill of Longstreet had broken through, the Union army would have split in two. But the “bend but don’t break” strategy succeeded for the Union that day. But, it did not feel like a victory. In fact, Lee thought that one more attack on July 3 fighting would win the day. Lee’s subordinates did not. Most notably, Longstreet was not in favor of attacking the high ground.

Action on Little Round resulted in the Union solidifying its position thanks to a downhill bayonet charge by the 20th Maine led by Joshua Chamberlain. The result was the capture of many in the 15th Alabama. The result was a southern flank that could not be taken. Attacks on Culp’s Hill failed. Dan Sickles tried to take on Confederate troops near the Emmitsburg Road by leaving his position in the hills. Meade, furious, filled the lines and Sickle would later retreat back to his origin. The Confederates had taken much of the low ground at Devil’s Den, the Wheatfield, and The Peach Orchard.

Joshua Chamberlain
Joshua Chamberlain

Charles Potts of the 115th Pennsylvania briefly summed up the day’s events:

Placed in field about one mile northwest of town. Rebs held in check, but think they will be able to drive our men on the morrow. Guarded by the 17th Va. Infantry, commanded by Col. French. Well treated, and find an old Colonel a gentleman, but no provisions

Lee, however, saw this point of view:

The result of this day’s operations induced the belief that, with proper concert of action, and with the increased support that the positions gained on the right would enable the artillery to render the assaulting columns, we should ultimately succeed, and it was accordingly determined to continue the attack. The general plan was unchanged. Longstreet, re-enforced by Pickett’s three brigades, which arrived near the battle-field during the afternoon of the 2d, was ordered to attack the next morning, and General Ewell was directed to assail the enemy’s right at the same time. The latter, during the night, re- enforced General Johnson with two brigades from Rodes’ and one from Early ‘s division.

As confident as Lee was, Meade, on the other hand, came across differently. The night of July 2 saw Meade hold his infamous Council of War. In this council, Meade met with his corps commanders to determine the course of action for the next day. The choices were to stay and defend, or to leave the field and regroup at another position. The unanimous decision was to stay and fight. Meade has been criticized for holding the council. It could be viewed as a sign of weakness. Then again, consensus was built and the fortitude inherent in the unanimous declaration may have swayed the next day.

This was certain – July 3, 1863 would decide the battle. What was not known was whether it would decide the war.


The artifacts page I give students to analyze
The artifacts page I give students to analyze. Click to Enlarge.

The Battle of Gettysburg is one topic in which students are rapt and engaged. However, it is also one in which students can get easily lost and disengage. I learned several years ago in my early teaching that kids want to learn about the Civil War in great detail. They do not want to sit and watch three hours of Gettysburg or watch 2 hours of some History Channel documentary replete with GCI special effects.

The Battle of Gettysburg is a transformative event in American history. To try to cover it in one day would be inefficient. I do several things to engage students when it comes to Day Two. I use two strategy simulations (one from each side), some map work, and a few journals.

There is more to being a soldier than just shooting weapons. There are the hours spent not fighting – which tend to drastically outnumber the hours spent in combat. My most favorite part of the whole Civil War Unit is I give students pictures of 20 objects and the students have to figure out what they were used for in camp. The artifact pictures come from the Gettysburg National Military Park:

It is interesting to hear what students think the soldiers used the items for in camp. The website has a variety of topic and sub topic pages. Click on each picture and you get an in-depth description of the artifact.

The website of the Gettysburg National Military Park I use to get the artifacts
The website of the Gettysburg National Military Park I used to get the artifacts


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The Battle of Gettysburg – Day One: All Roads Lead There

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When the fighting began at 6 a.m. in the largest battle ever fought in the western hemisphere, it would be the first of three days of the most horrific carnage the world knew at the time. When it was over on July 3, there would be piles of arms, legs, and horses stinking in the hot, Pennsylvania summer sun. Almost 8,000 soldiers lay dead and another 27,000 injured. In addition, 11,000 were captured or missing. The battle that began on July 1, 1863 was a long time in the making and would redefine a nation. To hear historian David McCullough tell the story in Ken Burns Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg was about shoes. 1 out of 5 Confederate soldiers needed them and Gettysburg had a shoe factory there.  Shoes were only a minor part of the why 165,000 Americans fought it out in the wheat fields, forests, and rocky facades around this sleepy, seminary town of 2500. It was more about roads.

Gettysburg form Cemetery Ridge courtesy of the Library of Congress
Gettysburg form Cemetery Ridge courtesy of the Library of Congress

When shots rang out at 6 a.m. on July 1, the Battle of Gettysburg had been months in the making.  The summer before (1862) saw the Union army invade Virginia and create havoc on the civilian population in northern and eastern Virginia. While the Confederate’s won most engagements in their home state in 1862 and early 1863, victory came at a high price. By the beginning of 1863, the farmers in Virginia needed time to grow crops and raise livestock to feed themselves and the Army of Northern Virginia. By invading the North, Confederate General Robert E. Lee hoped to take pressure of the Virginia farmer and place the onus back on the Union to defend its own.

When Lee began making invasion plans, Gettsyburg was on the map. However, it was not the target. Lee hoped to capture a major northern city like Harrisburg. Harrisburg was not only the capital, but it was also a major rail center and additionally had a training center for the US Army. Lee thought if he could capture the city along the Susquehanna River, he could curry favor from Europe in either money, loans, weapons, troops, or recognition. The closest the Confederates came to Harrisburg that summer was two miles away.  Additionally, the time for invasion was ripe. The siege at Vicksburg was not going well for the Confederacy. Lee felt by invading the North, he might draw some troops away for the last Confederate bastion on the Mississippi River. On all counts, Lee would be wrong. Vicksburg was doomed and recognition would not be coming, victory or not.

After the Battle of Chancellorsville, Lee had to restructure his command in the wake of Stonewall Jackson’s death. Lee would have to rely on men who were not fit to walk in Jackson’s boots. For Lee and Jackson, they had been tied together at the hip. Lee always counted on Jackson to succeed in the most improbable conditions, and Jackson had until his own men shot him. Without his right-hand man, Lee had to find new ways of winning wars.  Lee divided up Jackson’s army into 2 parts. One part of the crops went to AP Hill, and the other to Richard Ewell. J.E.B. Stuart would again be in charge of the Calvary, or as Lee often referred to the unit, his eyes and ears.Lee felt confident he could win against any Union force.  

In early June of 1863, Lee began his move northward through Virginia. Calvary skirmishes at Brandywine Station, Aldie, Upperville, Aldie, and Middleburg showed the movement to Union leaders. Union General Hooker began to set up a defensive position, Hooker, rather than attack. Hooker felt he had to keep Washington, D.C. at his back at all times. Lincoln again, wanted an attack. Up to this point, the Union command structure held true to form that summer as Lincoln kept firing the Generals who lost to Lee. For almost two years straight, Lincoln kept changing what he thought were inept men, incapable of attacking but capable of coming up with excuses not to attack. When Lee and his forces skirmished with the Union in the middle of June, the new man in charge would not give Lincoln the satisfaction of firing him, Joseph Hooker would resign. He was replaced with George Meade on June 28. There was no way Meade would attack only days into his new role. Like Hooker, Meade felt he first duty was to defend Baltimore and D.C. Meade thought it better to fight the battle he wanted to rather than the one Lee or Lincoln wanted. It would be prophetic and sad at the same time.

For the city of 2500, Gettysburg held no great military advantage, arsenal, training center, supply dept, railroad junction or camp. It was a seminary school. Sure, it had some shoes, but it was not world renown for its footwear. Within three days, it would have another distinction. But what Gettysburg did have were roads – lots of them. Lee, having scattered his armies to the four winds in Pennsylvania to avoid to being destroyed in whole, decided the town would be the perfect place to reconvene his forces and use the roads to march out in new directions.

On June 30, 1863, Confederate General Henry Heth sent some of James Pettigrew’s men into Gettysburg to commandeer some shoes and other supplies. What the rebels found were Union Calvary in the town. The Confederates quickly retreated from the town and informed Heth. The next morning around sunrise, Heth began his assault on the town.

Day One 10 a.m.
Day One 10 a.m.

Dismounted and waiting for the advance was the 1st Division Calvary Corps (dismounted) under the command of John Buford. Though outnumbered, Buford mustered his troops to fight back Heth’s forces throughout the morning while awaiting reinforcements. His help came with John Reynolds later that day. Reynolds, himself, would not make it through the day. In one flanking movement along McPherson’s ridge, Reynolds was shot and died instantly. Abner Doubleday took over for Reynolds and helped to hold the line Reynolds started.

Reynolds meets his maker - Courtesy of the Gettysburg National Military Park
Reynolds meets his maker – Courtesy of the Gettysburg National Military Park
Union General John Buford
Union General John Buford

However, the rest of the day saw the Confederates slowly advance into Gettysburg. The Union had to retreat from the town. At first glance, one would think the Confederates had a great victory. Technically, they did. They had driven the 1st Calvary Division from the town, killed its General, and they now occupied the town. Confederate General John Gordon described one scene in which a Union commander

“was surrounded by Union dead, and his own life seemed to be quickly ebbing out. Quickly dismounting and lifting his head, I gave him water from my canteen, asked his name and the character of his wounds. He was Major General Francis C. Barlow, of New York, and of Howard’s corps. The ball had entered his body in front and passed out near the spinal cord, paralyzing him in legs and arms. Neither of us had the remotest thought that he could possibly survive many hours. I summoned several soldiers who were looking after the wounded, and directed

Francis Barlow
Francis Barlow

them to place him upon a litter and carry him to the shade in the rear. Before parting, he asked me to take from his pocket a package of letters and destroy them. They were from his wife. He had but one request to make of me. That request was that if I should live to the end of the war and should ever meet Mrs. Barlow, I would tell her of our meeting on the field of Gettysburg and of his thoughts of her in his last moments. He wished me to assure her that he died doing his duty at the front, that he was willing to give his life for his country, and that his deepest regret was that he must die without looking upon her face again.”

Barlow miraculously survived the battle and the war.

When Union General Winfield Scott Hancock arrived at the battle around 4 p.m., the Union army was in full retreat south towards Cemetery Hill, one of many high points surrounding the town. It was on these high areas that the Union would make their stand. The only consolation of losing the town was now having advantageous positions for day two. However, for the Union, it looked grim. Little did the Union know that all roads lead to Gettysburg. On day two, those roads, combined with the high ground, would create a catastrophe for the Confederacy.


See also:

The Siege of Vicksburg – Cutting the Confederacy in Two

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I feel relieved when I think of how easy Americans have it in today’s modern world. We have easy access to food,

RT Johnson at Grant's HQ in Vicksburg
RT Johnson at Grant’s HQ in Vicksburg

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.

Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant

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

Battle_at_Vicksburgdivision 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.

At the entrance to the Vicksburg National Military Park, this marker explains the military positions. This picture was taken in 2005.

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.

Confederate Lines - Picture Taken in 2005
Confederate Lines – Picture Taken in 2005

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. 

An antebellum home in Vicksburg in 2005.
An antebellum home in Vicksburg in 2005.

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.

Loyalty Oath
Loyalty Oath

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.

For Further Reading
Starving the South by Andrew F. Smith

Picture of the Day

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Taken at the Shiloh National Military Battlefield in 2005. Happy Memorial Day.