Civil War

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.


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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.


Chancellorsville: A Question of Impatience

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lincolnWhen the spring of 1863 came, President Abraham Lincoln was growing impatient with the progress of the war in the East. However, out West, Ulysses S. Grant was slowly working his way toward to Vicksburg and ultimately choking off the Mississippi River from the South. For Lincoln, the East was all that mattered come April of 1863. With Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy so close, Lincoln was flabbergasted that the Army of the Potomac could not take the city or even get close. General after general had tried and general after general had failed. Part of the reason was the brilliant tactics of Robert E. Lee. The other part was the incompetence of Union commanders. Lincoln knew if the Union could take Richmond, the symbolic nature of the task would be a death knell for the Confederacy.

After the December 1862 disaster that was Fredericksburg, Lincoln named Joseph Hooker commander of the Army of the Potomac on January 26, 1863. Lincoln explains to Hooker why he was selected to command:

Major-General HOOKER:

        GENERAL: I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appears to me to be sufficient reasons, and yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and skillful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not an indispensable, quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm; but I think that during General Burnside’s command of the army you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer. I have heard, in such a way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a dictator. Of course, it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship. The Government will support you to the utmost of its ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders. I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the army, of criticising their commander and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you. I shall assist you as far as I can to put it down. Neither you nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army while such a spirit prevails in it. And now beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy and sleepless vigilance go forward and give us victories.

Yours, very truly,


Joseph Hooker
General Joseph Hooker

Hooker had several battles under his battle and had been highly critical of the strategy of Burnside at Fredericksburg. Now armed with ca little over 130,000 men, Lincoln was assured that the Union could defeat Lee if Hooker could cross the Rappahannock and take Lee and his 60,000 man Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Then, there would be nothing to stop the Union from taking Richmond and bringing the Confederacy to its knees.

On April 20, 1863, Stonewall Jackson stepped off the train at a small Virginia train station to spend some much needed time with his wife and newborn daughter. A Few days later, the Battle of Chancellorsville would begin and Jackson’s place in Southern lore would be immortalized. On the 27th of April, Hooker began his move across the Rappahannock and began using his calvary to try to disrupt Lee’s supply lines. It was to no avail.

At the time, Lee had split his army into 2 parts. General James Longstreet had been sent to southern Virginia to gather supplies and food. Lee still had his right arm, Stonewall Jackson, and A.P. Hill’s corp. Lee began to grow impatient, too, as he was vastly undermanned with 60,000 men. Lee could have easily retreated and let Hooker take Fredericksburg and the surrounding area uncontested so that the Army of Northern Virginia could be at full strength. Lee, impatient, did not. He chose to fight Hooker then and there. Lee, however, did the unthinkable. In the face of a superior foe, he split his army again.

The night of April 30, Lee and Jackson bivouacked and planned the next day’s battle. With his army split, Lee was able to move faster and quicker to find weak points in the Union line. Stonewall Jackson would attacked Hooker’s right flank near Fredericksburg. Hooker, meanwhile, wanted to reconvene all his troops near Chancellorsville and attack en masse on Lee.

Lee and Jackson Bivouac
Lee and Jackson Bivouac


For Hooker, his plan to encircle Lee dissipated quickly. On May 1, Lee and Jackson smashed Hooker’s plans. Lee’s 14,000 man unit acted as a diversion as Stonewall Jackson moved into position to demolish the right flank of Hooker on May 2. With 21,000 men, Jackson and his men came out of the forest as if appearing out of nowhere. This action caught the Union flat-footed and lead to chaos in the Union lines.

An overwhelming sense of urgency permeated the actions of the generals on both sides. The war was dragging on. But here at Chancellorsville, the Confederacy was willing to take a gamble. However, in doing so, the tactics lead to impatience in the commander’s actions. On the night of May 2, after his brilliant action of the day, Jackson was checking his lines. Apparently, impatience had spread to his men. Several shots rang out in the darkness. Jackson wobbled on his horse. He had been shot 3 times by his own men. His left arm would have to be removed. The arm received its own tombstone sometime later.

The tombstone for Jackson's left arm.
The tombstone for Jackson’s left arm.

The loss of Jackson at a crucial point in the battle unnerved Lee. His famous saying of “Jackson has lost his left arm, but I have lost my right.” summed up the impatience he felt. However, Lee still A.P. Hill to call upon. Hill was wounded the next day. Lee would then rely on J.E.B. Stuart.

Despite Hooker’s losses on May 2, come May 3, the opportunities to win were still there. Unfortunately, like many times during the war, the Union attacked in piecemeal. By doing so, Lee united his forces quickly with Stuart’s to repel every attack on May 3. The Union artillery soon ran out of supplies allowing for a Confederate triumph of the day.

For Lee, this was his greatest victory but it came at a huge cost. Jackson never recovered from his wounds. Stonewall Jackson would die shortly after the battle’s completion. Lee was devastated. The victory did lift Confederate spirits but it also showed the growing impatience with the war in the East. Lee knew the Confederates were close to a victory in the East. Lee would gamble again to try and win the war in one battle and get recognition for the Confederacy with a victory on Union soil. He thought that the Union generals were no match for his generals and soldiers. That summer of 1863 Lee would take the fight north into Pennsylvania.

For Lincoln, his impatience was almost at an end.

For further reading: