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The Siege of Vicksburg

January – July 1863

In September 1862 Confederate engineers had begun constructing a fortified line to protect Vicksburg against an attack from the rear. For the most part, this line of strong defense works had been thrown up along the crests of commanding ridges fronted by deep ravines. The line began at Fort Hill on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi 1½ miles north of Vicksburg, curved for 9 miles along the ridges, and returned to the river at South Fort, 3 miles below the city. River batteries mounting heavy guns were positioned on the crest, slope, or base of the bluffs at intervals along a 4½-mile line, extending from the Water Battery in front of Fort Hill to South Fort.

Artillery positions and forts (lunettes, redans, and redoubts) had been constructed at salient and commanding points along the exterior line. The earth parapets of the forts were up to 20 feet thick. In front of most of these the Confederates had dug a deep, wide ditch so that any assaulting troops who managed to reach the work would still have a high steep wall to climb to get into it. Lines of rifle-pits or entrenchments, for the most part protected by parapets and ditches, covered the ground between the strong points. Where spurs jutted out from the main ridges, forward artillery batteries provided a deadly crossfire against attacking lines. During the early phase of the siege, the Confederates mounted as many as 115 cannon (including a few heavy siege guns) along the defense perimeter. The River Batteries contained an additional 31 heavy guns and some field pieces.

The area’s topography greatly strengthened the Confederate position. Over the centuries, running water had eroded the region’s soil into deep gullies and ravines, creating a broken and complicated terrain that seriously obstructed Union movements. The Confederates had cut down most of the trees fronting their lines to permit a clear field of fire and to further hinder advancing troops. Several hundred yards away, roughly parallel to the Confederate position, was a ridge system not so continuous and more broken than that occupied by Pemberton’s army. Along this line the Union army would eventually take position and begin siege operations.

On the scattered natural bridges of high ground spanning the ravines, six roads and one railroad entered Vicksburg. To guard these access points, the Confederates had constructed nine defensive works—Fort Hill on the river north of the city, Stockade Redan, Third Louisiana Redan, Great Redoubt, Second Texas Lunette, Railroad Redoubt, Fort Garrott (also known as Square Fort), Salient Work, and South Fort on the river below Vicksburg. The Confederate divisions defending the city were, north to south, those commanded by Maj. Gen. Martin L. Smith, Maj. Gen. John H. Forney, and Maj. General Stevenson. Maj. General Bowen’s division was held in reserve. The Army of Vicksburg at the beginning of the siege numbered about 31,000 men. Grant listed his strength, shortly after the siege began, at 50,000.

By midday of May 19 Grant had deployed 20,000 of those troops behind Vicksburg. In the north, Sherman’s corps was in position opposite the Confederate left, extending from the river (at the present location of the national cemetery) to Graveyard Road. McPherson’s corps, on Sherman’s left, stretched from near Graveyard Road to near Baldwin’s Ferry Road, while the front of McClernand’s corps extended from Baldwin’s Ferry Road southward toward the Square Fort. About 500 yards separated the opposing armies.

Grant had had little opportunity to assess the strength of the Vicksburg defenses because Confederate skirmishers had slowed his army’s approach, thus preventing a close inspection of the Southern fortifications. Nevertheless, the Union commander decided to launch an immediate attack, reasoning that the longer he waited the stronger those defenses would become. He ordered an assault for 2 p.m. on the 19th.

Sherman’s troops, whose early arrival had enabled Grant to launch the attack, advanced under heavy fire against the Confederate left. Although they got close to the works, they failed to breach the defenses and withdrew. McPherson and McClernand, not yet in good position for attack, could do little more than advance several hundred yards closer to the defense line. Grant lost 1,000 men testing the Vicksburg defenses and discovered an unyielding army manning the works. Confederate losses were slight.

Although the probing operation of the 19th had failed, Grant did not despair but continued to ponder what important results a successful assault would achieve. Such a move, however costly, would save a long siege. In the end, fewer men might be lost, and a growing threat to the Union rear—General Johnston raising troops near Jackson for the relief of Vicksburg—could be eliminated by quickly capturing Vicksburg and throwing the entire Union strength against Johnston. In addition, the Federal troops, spirited by recent victories and impatient to seize the prize for which they had campaigned so long, would work more zealously in the trenches with pick and shovel if they were certain that a siege was the only alternative. With 40,000 troops available, Grant issued orders on the 21st for another assault against Vicksburg the following day.

The Union assault of May 22 was centered against the Confederate line along a 3½-mile front from a point midway between Fort Hill and Stockade Redan to Square Fort. The felled trees and thick undergrowth, as well as the precipitous faces of the ravines, restricted the scope of Union maneuver. In preparation for the attack, field batteries were run forward and emplaced to provide a covering fire for the infantry, and troops were advanced into concealed positions—in places within 200 yards of their objective. To prevent Pemberton from shifting his forces from one threatened point to another, the infantry attacks were to begin simultaneously at 10 a.m. Watches of all Union commanders were synchronized. Reserves were posted to exploit a breakthrough.

The attack on the Stockade Redan by Maj. Gen. Francis P. Blair’s division of Sherman’s corps exemplified the day’s action in method and result. Blair’s men were faced with formidable obstacles: the route of advance along the Graveyard Road was covered by Confederate fire, and access to the redan itself was rendered difficult by steep exterior slopes and by a deep ditch fronting the works. The night before, Sherman had decided that a bridge would be needed by his men to span the ditch. Only one source of lumber could be found—a frame house in which General Grant was sleeping. Informed of the need, Grant dressed and watched the house quickly torn down for bridging material.

At the stroke of 10, the artillery bombardment of the fortifications ceased and the “Forlorn Hope,” a volunteer band of 150 men, surged along Graveyard Road toward the redan. They carried planks to bridge the ditch and ladders to scale the steep exterior slope. The Confederates held their fire until the column issued from a cut in the road 400 feet away. Then the Southern soldiers “rose from their reclining position behind the works, and gave them such a terrible volley of musketry” that the road soon was nearly obstructed by the bodies of the killed and wounded, “the very sticks and chips scattered over the ground jumping under the hot shower of Rebel bullets.”

A Federal color-bearer managed to place a flag on the exterior slope. The galling fire forced the remnants of attack formations that had reached the redan to take cover in the ditch. Attempting to prevent the defenders from firing down into the ditch, Federal infantry swept the top of the redan with withering volleys. The Confederates fought back, using artillery shells as hand grenades and rolling them down among the Union troops pinned in the ditch. In the face of ferocious resistance, the morning attack ground to a halt at the Stockade Redan.

Union flags were also placed on the slopes of the Railroad Redoubt, the Great Redoubt, and at the rifle-pits near the Second Texas Lunette. At the Railroad Redoubt a tenuous breach was made in the Confederate defenses by McClernand’s troops. A small band of Iowans led by Sgts. Joseph Griffith and Nicholas Messenger crawled through a gap blasted by Union artillery at the salient angle, entered the redoubt, and drove out most of the remaining defenders. Later a dozen Confederates inside the redoubt surrendered. Other Federal troops clung to the slopes or took cover in the ditch.

Encouraged by his partial success, McClernand asked Grant for reinforcements and a renewal of the attacks. One of McPherson’s divisions marched to augment McClernand’s striking power. Grant ordered Sherman and McPherson to create a diversion in McClernand’s favor. All assaults in the afternoon were shattered by a resolute Confederate defense. Responding to a call for volunteers to evict the Federals clinging to the Railroad Redoubt, picked men of Waul’s Texas Legion late in the afternoon counterattacked and cleared the redoubt of enemy troops. The gap in the Confederate lines was sealed.

The afternoon attacks, the last massive assault against Vicksburg, served only to increase Federal losses and to intensify an already bitter controversy over McClernand’s military performance. Union casualties on May 22 totaled 3,200. A month later McClernand was replaced by Maj. Gen. Edward O.C. Ord.

After May 25, when Grant began siege operations, only two attempts were made to break through the Confederate defenses, neither of which succeeded. Sherman, holding the Union right opposite the strong Fort Hill position, determined to neutralize the upper river batteries of that sector. On May 27 the gunboat Cincinnati, protected by logs and bales of hay, moved into position and engaged the several river batteries of that sector. Subjected to a daily plunging fire which “went entirely through our protection—hay, wood, and iron,” Cincinnati went down with her colors nailed to the stump of a mast.

A month later the Federals attempted to pierce the defence line by exploding a mine under the 3rd Louisiana Redan. From the head of Logan’s Approach, which had reached the exterior slope of the redan, a tunnel was dug under the three-sided fort and packed with 2,200 pounds of powder. Meanwhile, the Confederate garrison had heard the miners’ picks at work beneath the redan and began a countermine in a grim race for survival. On June 25, as the entire Union line opened fire to prevent the Southerners from shifting reinforcements, the mine was detonated. The blast severely damaged the redan and gouged out a crater 40 feet wide and 12 feet deep. The 45th Illinois Infantry Regiment leaped from the approach and drove forward. Having anticipated this kind of maneuver, the redan’s garrison had previously withdrawn to a new defence position to the rear. Now the Confederates pinned down the Illinoisans in the crater under a murderous fire. A sharp firefight continued for the next 24 hours, then the Federals withdrew. A second mine was detonated under the redan on July 1; still others were being prepared by Union engineers at the time of the surrender.

By the beginning of July the Army of Vicksburg had held the line for six weeks, but its unyielding defense had been a costly one. Pemberton reported 10,000 of his men so debilitated by wounds and sickness as to be no longer able to man the works, and the list of ineffectives swelled daily from the twin afflictions of insufficient rations and the devastating fire of Union artillery and the searching volleys of Union sharpshooters. Each day the constricting Union line pushed closer against the Vicksburg defenses, and there were indications that Grant might soon launch another great assault which, even if repulsed, must certainly result in a severe toll of the garrison.

Pemberton’s foremost objective in prolonging the defense of Vicksburg was to afford Johnston and the Confederate government time to collect sufficient troops to raise the siege. Unfortunately, circumstances worked against his plan. Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia began its invasion of the North shortly after Grant invested the city, and no troops could be spared from that quarter. Only a limited number of men were available from other areas.

By the first week of June, reinforcements from Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia had increased Johnston’s force to 31,000 troops. Grant, anticipating that Johnston would move against his rear, sent reinforcements from Kentucky, West Tennessee, and Missouri to construct and man a strong outer defense position facing the probable line of advance. This gave Grant two lines of works—one to hold Pemberton in, the other to keep Johnston out. While Confederate Secretary of War James A. Seddon counseled Johnston that “the eyes and hopes of the whole Confederacy are upon you, with the full confidence that you will act, and with the sentiment that it is better to fail nobly daring, than, through prudence even, to be inactive,” Johnston notified his government on June 15: “I consider saving Vicksburg hopeless.”

On July 1 Johnston moved his army of four infantry divisions and one cavalry division to the east bank of the Big Black River, seeking a vulnerable place to attack Grant’s outer defenses. His reconnaissance during the next three days convinced him that no practical crossing of the Big Black River lay north of the railroad bridge. On July 5 Johnston received definite word of the fall of Vicksburg. On the following day he began withdrawing his army toward Jackson.

Efforts by Confederate forces in the Trans-Mississippi to assist the Vicksburg garrison were checked by Union troops holding the Young’s Point, Milliken’s Bend, and Lake Providence enclaves, supported by Admiral Porter’s gunboats. At Milliken’s Bend, on June 7, there was a savage fight in which a brigade of blacks suffered heavy losses during an attack by a brigade of Texans. The timely arrival of Union gunboats compelled the Texans to withdraw. This was the first Civil War battle in which blacks played the major role.

Faced with dwindling stores and no help from the outside, Pemberton saw only two eventualities: “either to evacuate the city and cut my way out or to capitulate upon the best obtainable terms.” Contemplating the former possibility, he asked his division commanders on July 1 to report whether the physical condition of the troops would favor such a hazardous stroke. All but two of his division and brigade commanders were unanimous in their replies that siege conditions had physically distressed so large a number of the defending army that an attempt to cut through the Union lines would be disastrous. Pemberton’s only alternative, then, was surrender.

Although not requested, Pemberton also received the verdict of his army in a message from an unknown private, signed “Many Soldiers.” Taking pride in the gallant conduct of his fellow soldiers “in repulsing the enemy at every assault, and bearing with patient endurance all the privations and hardships,” the writer requested the commanding general to “think of one small biscuit and one or two mouthfuls of bacon per day,” concluding with the irrefutable logic of an enlisted man: “If you can’t feed us, you had better surrender us, horrible as the idea is.”

At 8 a.m. on July 3 Chaplain R. L. Howard of the 124th Illinois Infantry located near the Shirley House noticed “a white flag away to our left on the rebel works. Soon another appeared, and another and, directly, one in front of us. The firing ceased, and all was still, the first time since May 25th, thirty-nine days. Soon greybacks began to show themselves all along the lines. Heads first, cautiously, then bodies, and we straightened up too, in many places only a few yards from them. The works were mounted and we looked each other in the face, the line of motley and the line of blue. How eager we all were to see, and what did it all mean?” A few hours later Grant and Pemberton met beneath an oak tree on a slope between the lines to begin negotiations for the surrender of the 29,500-man garrison. No accord was forthcoming at this meeting. Following an exchange of communications, an agreement was reached early the next morning. It had been 14 months since Farragut’s warships had first engaged the Vicksburg batteries, seven months since Grant’s first expedition against the city, and 47 days since the appearance of the Federal army on the city’s eastern approaches. On the morning of July 4, 1863, while Northern cities celebrated Independence Day, the Army of Vicksburg was formally surrendered. The Confederate troops marched out from their defenses and stacked their rifles, cartridge-boxes, and flags before a generally hushed Union army which witnessed the historic event with little cheering—a testimonial of respect for the courageous defenders of Vicksburg, whose line was never broken.

Into the city which had defied him for so long, and which nearly proved the graveyard rather than the springboard of his military career, rode General Grant. At the courthouse, where the Stars and Bars had floated in sight of the Union army and navy throughout the siege, he watched the national colors raised on the flagstaff, and then proceeded to the waterfront. With every vessel of the navy sounding its whistle in celebration, he went aboard Porter’s flagship to express his gratitude for the work of the fleet.

The surrender of Vicksburg and the simultaneous repulse of Lee’s northern invasion at the Battle of Gettysburg marked the beginning of the end for the Southern Confederacy. Previously there had been confidence that victory, although demanding desperate measures, could yet be achieved. Now there was only the hope that the North might sicken at the frightful cost of continuing the war and terminate hostilities. The great objective of the war in the West—the opening of the Mississippi River and the severing of the Confederacy—had been realized with the fall of Vicksburg. While in the East the Union armies battled on in bloody stalemate before Richmond, the armies of the West would now launch their columns deep into the Confederacy’s vitals.

Grant emerged from the Vicksburg Campaign with a hard-won reputation as a master strategist. His clear-cut victories at Vicksburg and subsequently at Chattanooga prompted President Lincoln, in March 1864, to place him in command of all the armies of the United States. From this position he was destined to direct the final campaigns of the war and to receive Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. As for Pemberton, the fall of Vicksburg subjected him to painful criticism from those who held that a more resourceful defense might have saved the city, or his army, or both. Essentially, both commanders had disobeyed orders in like manner—Grant in striking behind Vicksburg alone rather than waiting to combine forces with Banks; Pemberton in deciding to protect Vicksburg at all cost rather than joining Johnston and risking loss of the city. But Grant’s gamble had succeeded and Pemberton’s had failed; and in war, as a leading Confederate commander had soberly remarked, the people measure a general’s merit by his successes. “I thought and still think you did right to risk an army for the purpose of keeping command of even a section of the Mississippi River,” President Davis wrote to Pemberton after the surrender. “Had you succeeded none would have blamed, had you not made the attempt few if any would have defended your course.”

In the Confederate capital, Col. Josiah Gorgas, one of the most able of Southern leaders, confided to his diary the implications of the calamitous change in fortune to the South attending the twin disasters of Gettysburg and Vicksburg: “Events have succeeded one another with disastrous rapidity. One brief month ago we were apparently at the point of success. Lee was in Pennsylvania threatening Harrisburgh, and even Philadelphia. Vicksburg seemed to laugh all Grant’s efforts to scorn. . . . All looked bright. Now the picture is just as somber as it was bright then. Lee failed at Gettysburg. . . . Vicksburg and Port Hudson capitulated, surrendering thirty-five thousand men and forty-five thousand arms. It seems incredible that human power could effect such a change in so brief a space. Yesterday we rode on the pinnacle of success—today absolute ruin seems to be our portion. The Confederacy totters to its destruction.”

In Washington, a grateful President Lincoln sat at his desk seeking words to express appreciation to Grant “for the almost inestimable service” he had done the country. Explaining the fear he had entertained that the Union army might be destroyed during its daring thrust in the rear of Vicksburg, which he believed at the time to be “a mistake,” Lincoln wrote to Grant: “I wish now to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right and I was wrong.”

On July 9 the Confederate commander at Port Hudson, upon learning of the fall of Vicksburg, surrendered his garrison of 6,000 men. One week later the merchant steamboat Imperial tied up at the wharf at New Orleans, completing the 1,200-mile passage from St. Louis undisturbed by hostile guns. After two years of land and naval warfare, the grip of the South had been broken—the Mississippi River was open, and merchant and military traffic now enjoyed unrestricted passage to its mouth. In the words of Lincoln, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.”