Prelude to the Vicksburg Campaign
At the onset of the American Civil War, the State of Tennessee comprised most of the northern border of the Confederate States of America in the West. Defending that border was difficult for the Confederacy because three major rivers (the Mississippi, which flows south to the Gulf of Mexico, and the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, which flow north to the Ohio River) provided relatively easy access to the South.
Federal Control of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers
By late 1861, President Abraham Lincoln was pressuring Union commanders in the west to invade the South. On January 30, 1862, the Western Theater commander, General Henry Halleck, reluctantly approved a request from Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant to attack Fort Henry on the Tennessee River. Eager to move, Grant left Cairo, Illinois on February 2, with 15,000 soldiers, plus a flotilla of seven gunboats, commanded by United States Navy Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote. On February 6, Confederate Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman surrendered Fort Henry after a seventy-five-minute bombardment by Foote’s gunboats. Following the surrender of Fort Henry, Grant turned his attention toward investing Fort Donelson, located just twelve miles to the east of Fort Henry on the Cumberland River. After a failed breakout on February 15, the Confederate commander of Fort Donelson, General Simon B. Buckner, surrendered Fort Donelson to Grant the next day.
The Fall of Memphis
With two of the three main rivers connecting the North and South under Union control, the Federals turned their attention to the Mississippi River. If the Union could gain control of the Mississippi, the Confederacy would lose easy access to supplies from the Gulf of Mexico and territories in the American West. Admiral David Farragut captured the port city of New Orleans on May 18, 1862, closing down Confederate access to the Gulf. In June, the Union tightened its grip on the Mississippi, when Federal forces captured the river city of Memphis, Tennessee. Nevertheless, the South still controlled traffic on much of the river because of its strong fortifications at Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Vicksburg sits on a high bluff on the eastern side of the Mississippi River, south of the mouth of the Yazoo River. Known as “The Gibraltar of the Confederacy,” the city seemed to be impregnable. The height of the cliff on which it sat protected it from amphibious assaults. To the north, nearly impenetrable swamps and bayous protected Vicksburg. To the east, a ring of forts, mounting 172 guns, shielded the city from overland assaults. The land on the Louisiana side of the river, opposite Vicksburg, was rough, etched with poor roads and many streams.
Battle of Chickasaw Bluffs
In July 1862, President Abraham Lincoln summoned Major General Henry W. Halleck to Washington to serve as chief of all Union armies. Halleck’s departure left Major General Ulysses S. Grant in charge of operations in the Western Theater.
In December 1862, Grant launched the first of several unsuccessful attempts to capture Vicksburg. He sent three divisions, commanded by his most trusted subordinate, General William T. Sherman, down the river from Memphis to attack Vicksburg from the north. Meanwhile, Grant approached the city with the bulk of his army from the east, but Rebel cavalry cut his supply lines, forcing him to retreat before launching an assault. Unaware that Grant had pulled back, Sherman attacked, and the Rebels defeated him at the Battle of Chickasaw Bluffs (December 29, 1862).
During the winter, Grant attempted to approach Vicksburg from other directions. One scheme involved dredging an old canal that by-passed the bend in the river where Vicksburg sits. None of these attempts were successful. When spring arrived, Grant tried a new, more complicated plan.
On March 29, 1863, Grant put part of his army to work constructing bridges, draining bayous, and constructing a road past Vicksburg on the west side of the Mississippi. On March 29, 1863, Grant put part of his army to work constructing bridges, draining bayous, and building a road past Vicksburg on the west side of the Mississippi. By mid-April, his men had carved a path through the Louisiana wilderness that would enable the Army of Tennessee to march south past Vicksburg, cross the river back into Mississippi, and then attack the city from the south.
Running the Gauntlet
To complete the river crossing, however, Grant needed the help of his naval forces. On the night of April 16, seven gunboats and three supply ships under the command of Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter ran the gauntlet of Confederate batteries along the river. Despite heavy Rebel fire, Porter passed the city, losing only one ship. On April 22, six more boats made it through, bringing Grant the supplies he needed to launch his assault on Vicksburg.
Feint at Snyder’s Bluff
To divert attention from his main operations, Grant ordered Sherman to feign an attack against Confederate forces stationed at Snyder’s Bluff, upriver from Vicksburg, from April 29 through May 1. Grant also ordered Colonel Benjamin Grierson to stage a daring cavalry raid through central Mississippi, which forced Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, Confederate commander of the Army of Mississippi, to divert troops away from Vicksburg.
Crossing the Mississippi at Bruinsburg
On April 29, Grant put his grand scheme into action. With the aid of Admiral Porter’s gunboats, Grant attempted to move his army across the Mississippi River at Grand Gulf, below Vicksburg. When the Confederate resistance proved too formidable, Grant bypassed the Rebel works and moved the crossing nine miles farther down the river at Bruinsburg. The crossing at Bruinsburg was successful, and by April 30, the Federal army began moving inland. After a brief encounter with Rebel forces on May 1, Grant established a base of operations at Port Gibson. Fearing that Grant’s forces would surround the Confederate defenders at Grand Gulf, Pemberton abandoned his batteries there.
Once back in Mississippi, Grant had three options. He could move directly north and launch an assault on Vicksburg. To do so, however, would expose his army to attack from a Confederate army that General Joseph Johnston was assembling at Jackson, Mississippi, forty miles to the east of Vicksburg. Alternatively, Grant could turn and face Johnston’s army and then assault Vicksburg. Finally, Grant could follow his original orders and march his army south to combine with the Army of the Gulf, under command of Nathaniel P. Banks, and capture the river town of Port Hudson, and then return to assault Vicksburg. Choosing the latter would place Grant under the command of the more senior Banks, an option that probably did not appeal to Grant. When Banks informed Grant that he was unprepared to assault Port Hudson, Grant settled on moving toward Jackson.
Union Forces Occupy Jackson, Mississippi
On May 12, the Army of the Tennessee captured the rail line connecting Jackson and Vicksburg at the Battle of Raymond, further isolating Vicksburg and preventing Pemberton and Johnston from linking their forces. On May 14, the Federals arrived at Jackson. With only about 6,000 soldiers available to defend the city, Johnston ordered the citizens of Jackson to evacuate. The Federals attacked at 10:00 a.m. After brief but heavy fighting, Johnston retreated, allowing Union troops to occupy Jackson. After ordering the destruction of anything in the city that could support the Southern war effort, Grant marched his army back toward Vicksburg on May 16.
Battles of Champion Hill and Big Black River
On May 16, 1863, Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, the Confederate commander of the Army of Mississippi, unsuccessfully tried to halt Grant’s advance on Vicksburg by attacking the Union army at Champion Hill, twenty miles east of the city. The next day, the Confederates made another futile stand along the Big Black River. With no other options, Pemberton ordered his men to burn the bridges spanning the river, gather everything edible in their path, and retreat to the safety of Vicksburg.
Grant now had Pemberton’s army trapped inside Vicksburg. Grant made two attempts to storm Vicksburg on May 19, and on May 22. Neither assault was successful, costing the Federals 639 killed, 3,277 wounded and 155 missing men. Rather than suffer further Union casualties, Grant besieged Vicksburg. On May 25, the Army of Tennessee started to dig in, creating entrenchments around the city.
A week earlier, on May 19, William T. Sherman’s cavalry had forced the Confederates to evacuate their gun battery at Hayne’s Bluff, enabling Grant to establish a direct supply line on the Mississippi River to feed, arm, and reinforce his army. As Grant’s forces swelled to nearly 75,000 Yankees, Pemberton’s only hope for escape was the possibility of General Johnston raising an army and marching against Grant from the east. Johnston did not share the belief held by others about Vicksburg’s military importance, so help never came.
With no supplies coming into the city, citizens and soldiers alike suffered from a lack of food. Gradually, the poor diet led to the onset of diseases, including scurvy, malaria, dysentery, and diarrhea. To add to the misery, Union artillery batteries and Farragut’s gunboats on the river lobbed thousands of shells into the city, forcing citizens to dig and inhabit over 500 caves for shelter.
On July 3, 1863, Pemberton asked Grant for terms of surrender. Initially, Grant proposed an unconditional surrender, as he had done at Fort Donelson. Upon further reflection though, Grant decided that he did not want the burden of nearly 30,000 starving prisoners in poor health. Instead, he offered to parole all the Rebels, hoping that they would not take up arms against the Union again. On July 4, 1863, the opposing generals reached an accord and Pemberton surrendered the city and his garrison. The Confederate government later challenged the terms of parole on technical issues, and some prisoners Grant pardoned fought against the North at Chattanooga and during Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign.
Aftermath of the Vicksburg Campaign
The surrender of Vicksburg was a significant turning point in the American Civil War. Before the campaign began, President Abraham Lincoln stated, “Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until the key is in our pocket.” Confederate President Jefferson Davis said, “Vicksburg is the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together.” Both were correct. Vicksburg’s fall gave the Union complete control of the Mississippi River, reestablishing trade through the Gulf of Mexico. It also severed the Confederacy’s connections with territories in the American West, denying the South essential agricultural supplies.
Darkest Two Days in Confederate Military History
Combined with the victory at Gettysburg (July 3) by Major Major General George G. Meade, the retreat of Confederate General Braxton Bragg from Middle Tennessee at the conclusion of Major General William S. Rosecrans’ highly successful Tullahoma Campaign (July 3), and the triumph of Major General Benjamin Prentiss over Confederate troops in Arkansas at the Battle of Helena (July 4), Grant’s victory at Vicksburg completed the darkest two days in Confederate military history.
Grant’s success at Vicksburg also restored reputation, which had suffered after the surprise Confederate attack at Shiloh. The renewed confidence in Grant would have a decisive impact on later events in the Eastern Theater and on the final chapters of the war.