Siege of Vicksburg The Fall of Vicksburg was probably the real turning point of the Civil War. Short of some disaster, it is impossible to see how the Confederacy could win independence once the Mississippi River is in Union hands. Occurring at the same time as the battle of Gettysburg, July 4, 1863 was the beginning of the end of the war.
The Problem of Capturing Vicksburg
Surely a favorite part of Shelby Foote’s trilogy was the lengthy chapter in which he describes the various strategies that Grant tried and failed before finding the right one. To anyone who believes the nonsense that Grant was a butcher, respond that the Vicksburg campaign was an unmistakable sign of the man’s steely determination and shrewd mind. Grant failed over and over, but he never gave up. No other commander on the Union side had the emotional toughness to have succeeded.
The difficulty was that Vicksburg sits on a high bluff above the Mississippi River on its eastern bank, and the Union Army had no road to that side of the River. Commanding the Confederate forces at Vicksburg was Lt. General John Pemberton. A Pennsylvania native, Pemberton had a rare distinction of being a northern-born officer who decided to fight for the Confederacy. Though outnumbered, Pemberton was determined to hold on to Vicksburg, there were roughly 30,000 Confederates in the region that could be used to defend the city.
Grant had tried to campaign overland directly but his single supply railroad line could not be held, and his advance was over very rough geographic conditions. The Yazoo Pass expedition was a major setback to Grant’s plans.
In the Winter of 1862, Sherman attempted a direct attack across the river north of Vicksburg. If he could force his way at this location, Vicskburg could easily fall. This required an attack in the bayous or swamps in the Delta region, and in particular, crossing the Chickasaw Bayou. Aware of this possibility, Confederate Lt. General Stephen D Lee held the high ground above this passage. When Sherman made his attack, Lee was there and stopped him with severe losses.
Of all the various plans that failed, there is a special fondness for one in particular. Union Navy forces attempted to capture the city of Vicksburg in 1862, but were unable to accomplish it without army support. Grant’s Canal was an attempt to create a canal through De Soto Point in Louisiana, across the Mississippi River from Vicksburg, Mississippi. Brigadier General Thomas Williams was sent to De Soto Point with 3,200 men to dig a canal capable of bypassing the Confederate defenses, diseases, especially malaria and dysentery, and falling river levels, prevented Williams from successfully constructing the canal, and the project was abandoned until January 1863, when Grant took an interest in the project.
Recognizing that there were extensive engineering obstacles to the project, Grant began by moving the upstream entrance where there was a stronger current.
Reports suggested that the water standing in the canal was stagnant and without a current. A much deeper channel would be needed before the Union Navy ironclads could pass through it, Grant also ordered that the canal be widened, by the end of the month, Grant knew the canal project would not succeed, Visiting Union officers later found that the water was only 2 feet and noted the lack of a current, although depths of up to 8 feet and widths up to 12 feet were reported in places.
In April 1876, the Mississippi River actually changed course, forming a channel through De Soto Point. Vicksburg became isolated from the riverfront after the oxbow lake formed by the course change became cut off from the river. Vicksburg would not be located on the river again until the completion of the Yazoo Diversion Canal in 1903. While farmers have since destroyed most of the Grant Canal path, a small section still remains. Yes, General Grant really did succeed in changing the course of the Mississippi River, an astonishing accomplishment, just too late to be of military value.
Grant Finds the Solution
All of the bayou operations were failures, but Grant was determined and would not quit. He chose a course that was bold but precarious. Grant marched the Army of the Tennessee down the west side of the Mississippi River. The troops had to rendezvous with the Union navy, which provided transport for the river crossing into Confederate territory. On the evening of April 16, an acting rear admiral sneaked his Union fleet past the Confederate batteries at Vicksburg to meet up with Grant.
As the boats rounded De Soto Point, they were spotted by Confederate lookouts who spread the alarm, although each vessel was hit by Confederate fire, the fleet successfully fought its way past the Confederate batteries and met up with Grant.
Rear Adm. David Dixon Porter was the naval officer who coordinated “brown river” naval operations with Grant. Without these supply ships and support, Grant’s audacious plan could not succeed. Porter later became Superintendent of the Naval Academy when it was restored to Annapolis. Porter was de facto Secretary of the Navy early in the Grant administration. When his adoptive brother David G. Farragut received the promotion to admiral, Porter became vice-admiral; likewise, when Farragut died, Porter became the second man to hold the rank of admiral. His grandson, same name, won the Medal of Honor in 1901 for actions in the Philippines.
The army marched south on the west side of the Mississippi River and crossed the river south of Vicksburg. At that stage, Grant had several options, including attacking Vicksburg from the south and the east, or to join forces with Banks, capture Port Hudson, and then as a combined force, march on Vicksburg. To succeed though, Porter had to sneak his navy past the guns defending Vicksburg. There had to be a sufficient number of gunboats and transport ships south of the city for the plan to work. Once the navy had made this downstream passage, there was no return: the river current would slow them too much.
After crossing the river and advancing towards Port Gibson, the Union army skirmishes with Confederate outposts for around three hours. At dawn, the Confederates made a strong resistance against the Union advance and a battle ensued. The Confederates continued to fall back and establish new defensive positions at different times during the day. Eventually they conceded and left the field in the early evening. Grant was now in control of Port Gibson and Grand Gulf.
Grant now had to make a choice. His orders were to join up with General Banks and take Port Hudson, then together attack Vicksburg. He did not follow these orders. Instead, he sent message to Halleck. That Banks was in the middle of his own operations, and so he would advance on his own. He was well aware that 8 days would be needed for the message to be received and responded to.
The real reason Grant made this decision was that Banks ranked Grant as a Major General, if the two had joined, Grant would have been subordinate. Grant knew Banks was incompetent and he had no desire to have Banks mess things up. So Grant just avoided joining Banks and pursued his own plans without hindrance. Grant was in position to accept Pemberton’s surrender, and Banks was in Port Hudson. He might have felt that he had a great plan and that including a below average political general would only have slowed him down.
The Battle of Champion Hill (May 16, 1863) was the decisive battle of the Vicksburg Campaign. It was the moment when Pemberton had the chance to hold off Grant from attacking Vicksburg.
Pemberton was out of line for the battle, with his right flank forward, as he hadn’t decided his course. John A. McClernand’s corps attacked Pemberton on the Union left and James B. McPherson on the right, with Stephen Lee providing an excellent defense. At 1 PM they took the crest of the hill. McPherson’s corps advanced, capturing a critical crossroads, and closing the Jackson Road escape route. A counterattack pushed the Federals back beyond the Champion Hill crest before their surge was halted, but they were too few to hold the position. Grant now also counterattacked, committing all of his forces. Pemberton’s men could not stop this assault, and he ordered his men to use the one escape route still open, the Raymond Road crossing of Bakers Creek.
Major General John A McClernand has frequently been characterized as a typical politician given military command and who came into conflict with career Army officers, he was a prominent Democrat in Illinois elected to Congress before the war. He was a good friend and political ally of Abraham Lincoln. Furthermore, he served as a subordinate under Grant, seeing service in the battles of Belmont, Fort Donelson, and Shiloh.
In the Battle of Champion Hill, McClernand had three divisions (six brigades) of his Corps stand idle. While the toughest of the fighting was going on. He did attack and participated in the victory over Pemberton. Still, his conduct at Champion Hill contributed to excessive casualties in Hovey’s division (the fourth division) of McClernand’s Corps and permitted Pemberton to get away. It was Grant’s opinion that at Champion Hill McClernand was dilatory. But he waited for an even better excuse to remove him; he clearly knew his man.
After a costly and unsuccessful assault against the Vicksburg entrenchments (ordered by Grant), McClernand wrote a congratulatory order to his corps. This order was published in the press, contrary to an order of the department and another of Grant. Grant relieved him for unauthorized communication with the press, finally putting an end to a rivalry that had caused Grant discomfort since the beginning of the war. McClernand was relieved of his command on June 18, two weeks before the fall of Vicksburg, he was replaced by Maj. Gen. Edward O. C. Ord. McClernand left the Army in 1864 and served as a judge and a politician in the postbellum era.
Pemberton retreated to a fortress defense inside Vicksburg. After two attacks against the heavily fortified city were repulsed, Grant surrounded the city and laid siege in late May 1863. Although surrounded by a powerful army and without access to food, weapons, and ammunition, Vicksburg’s Confederate soldiers and civilians refused to surrender.
Grant’s forces built their own network of earthworks and trenches running parallel to the Confederate defensive line.
Union artillery cannons pummeled the defenses, and Union gunboats on the river fired into the city. The lack of food, compounded by malaria, scurvy and dysentery, took a heavy toll on the Confederate force in Vicksburg.
By the end of June, half were out sick or hospitalized. The conditions in the city got worse over the next several weeks. Food became scarce, causing citizens and soldiers to eat anything available including horses, dogs, cats, and even rats and tree bark. Because of the artillery, no one could safely walk the streets or live in their houses, so shelters were built into the hills in dug out caves . On July 4, 1863, the Confederates had had enough. General Pemberton surrendered to Grant.
As a result of the final Vicksburg campaign, May 18 to July 4, the Confederate army suffered 3,202 casualties with 875 deaths; Grant’s Operations against Vicksburg from April 15 to July 4, claimed 10,142 Union casualties with 1581 deaths. During the 47-day siege, May 23-July 4, the Union experienced 638 casualties with 94 deaths, vs. the Confederate loss of 3202 casualties with 875 deaths. Additionally, there were 380 deaths at the battle of Champion Hill, on May 16.
At Vicksburg the Confederates surrendered between 29,500-31,600 prisoners (depending on source), together with 172 cannon, about 60,000 muskets, and a large amount of ammunition. The Confederate soldiers received parole.
Lincoln’s letter of congratulations to Grant:
“My dear General
I do not remember that you and I ever met personally. I write this now as a grateful acknowledgment for the almost inestimable service you have done for 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 got below, and took Port Gibson, Grand Gulf, and vicinity, I thought you should go down the river and join Gen. Banks; and when you turned Northward East of the Big Black, I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong.
Yours very truly,
Siege of Vicksburg Written by Dr Lloyd W Klein
- Donald L Miller, Vicksburg: Grant’s Campaign That Broke the Confederacy. Simon and Schuster, 2019.
- Bruce Catton,The Centennial History of the Civil War. Vol. 3, Never Call Retreat. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965.
Siege of Vicksburg