Siege of Vicksburg

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This map shows the routes Ulysses S. Grant took to get to Vicksburg, MO. The red icons represent the battles that occurred while Grant was heading to Vicksburg.


May 22–July 4, 1863

The struggle for the city of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River was one of the most important battles of the American Civil War (1861-1865). Control of the Mississippi was vital for the Union. By controlling the river, the Union could cut off the Trans-Mississippi West from the rest of the Confederacy and bind the Midwest to the Union cause by securing the movement of its goods to the Gulf of Mexico. The Union assault against Confederate positions on the mighty river began in early 1862. While Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote’s Western Flotilla moved down the Mississippi and tested its northern defenses, Flag Officer David G. Farragut’s West Coast Gulf Blockading Squadron would attempt to take New Orleans and move up river from the south.

The northern Union flotilla worked in combination with U. S. Army forces ashore to capture a series of Confederate strongholds: Island No. 10 on April 8, Fort Pillow on June 4, and Memphis on June 6. On April 24 Farragut’s ships ran past the Confederate forts at the river’s mouth, and Union troops occupied New Orleans on May 1. The Union now controlled the entire length of the Mississippi except the fortified town of Vicksburg, located in a bend of the river.

Confederate lieutenant general John C. Pemberton commanded the city’s defenses. Attempts at naval assault failed in May and June 1862, and in late summer and autumn the Confederates reinforced Vicksburg from the east and added a bastion downstream at Port Hudson, Louisiana, giving the South control of the intervening length of river.

In October 1862 Major General Ulysses S. Grant took command of the Army of the Tennessee. Operating from Memphis, he attempted but failed to take the city in the First Vicksburg Overland Campaign, which lasted through late December 1862. Vicksburg was strongly fortified and protected by the natural defenses of its high bluffs facing the river and swamps to the north. The city was most vulnerable from the south and east, but these were remote from Grant’s supply base at Memphis to the north.

In January 1863 Grant encamped his Army of the Tennessee on the Louisiana side of the river, above Vicksburg, and began a series of unsuccessful efforts to get around the city, assisted by Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter’s flotilla via various creeks and bayous. Then on March 29, 1863, Grant crossed the Mississippi above Vicksburg and marched down the Louisiana side of the river to a point south of the city where Porter’s ships, which ran past the Vicksburg batteries on the night of April 16-17, ferried him across the river on April 30. In effect Grant now planned to attack Vicksburg from the rear.

Defying instructions from Washington, Grant abandoned his base at Grand Gulf and marched northeast with 20,000 men, carrying supplies in wagons and partially living off the land. Grant believed that any delay would give the Confederates time to reinforce and fortify. He therefore employed a daring cavalry raid to keep Pemberton confused as to his movements. Grant quickly took Jackson, Mississippi, held by only 6,000 Confederates. The Union troops destroyed everything of military value. Abandoned by Grant, the town was soon reinforced by the Confederates but was no longer available as a logistical center for Vicksburg to the west.

Confederate theater commander General Joseph E. Johnston ordered Pemberton to advance from Vicksburg and cut Grant’s tenuous supply line. Grant learned of this plan through a spy and countered Pemberton’s move. The two armies collided at Champion’s Hill on May 16. Grant commanded 32,000 men, and Pemberton had 25,000 men. Although the battle was hard fought, Grant was victorious. Union casualties amounted to some 2,500 men, while the Confederates sustained 4,000 losses. Pemberton was forced back into the Vicksburg perimeter. Johnston had warned Pemberton not to get shut up in Vicksburg and to abandon the city if necessary, but Pemberton thought he knew better.

Outnumbered at the outset of the campaign, Grant had marched 200 miles in less than three weeks, had won five battles, and ended by shutting up the opposing army in a fortress. Grant then made two futile and poorly planned assaults against Vicksburg on May 19 and 22 before he settled down to a prolonged siege. Union siege guns and guns on the Union ships in the river kept the city and the Confederate lines under constant bombardment. At night Union soldiers advanced their trenches ever closer to the Confederate lines. The strain on the inhabitants of Vicksburg was immense. Food was in short supply, and starvation soon set in; people subsisted on whatever they could find. To escape the bombardment, they dug caves in the hard clay hillsides.

Two days’ march to the east at Jackson, Johnston hovered with some 31,000 men raised specifically to lift the siege. Grant, reinforced, countered with a heavily manned line of eastward-facing defenses. Johnston, despite the urging of Confederate authorities, never attempted to test these or to relieve the garrison.

After six weeks, at 10:00 a. m. on July 4 Pemberton surrendered Vicksburg and 29,495 men. Union casualties of the Vicksburg campaign from October 1862 to July 1863 amounted to around 9,000 men. Confederate casualties were 10,000, not counting prisoners. Port Hudson, the remaining Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi, consequently surrendered on July 9. The entire Mississippi was under Union control, and the Confederacy was split north to south.

The capture of Vicksburg greatly benefitted the Union. Coming at the same time as the great Union victory at Gettysburg, the capture of Vicksburg lifted Northern morale and depressed that of the South. The Trans-Mississippi West was cut off from the rest of the Confederacy. Midwestern farmers could now use the Mississippi for their goods, and this brought that region solidly behind the Union war effort.

References Arnold, James R. Grant Wins the War: Decision at Vicksburg. New York: Wiley, 1997. Ballard, Michael B. Pemberton: A Biography. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991. Bearss, Edwin C. The Vicksburg Campaign. 3 vols. Dayton, OH: Morningside, 1995. Winschel, Terrence J. Vicksburg: Fall of the Confederate Gibraltar. Abilene, TX: Mc- Whiney Foundation Press, 1999. —, ed. Triumph and Defeat: The Vicksburg Campaign. Campbell, CA: Savas, 1998.

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