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Siege of Vicksburg

The Siege of Vicksburg was the final major action in the Vicksburg Campaign of the American Civil War. In a series of maneuvers, Union Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and his Army of the Tennessee crossed the Mississippi River and drove the Confederate army of Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton into defensive lines surrounding the fortress city of Vicksburg, Mississippi. After two assaults (May 19 and May 22) against the Confederate fortifications were repulsed with heavy casualties, Grant besieged the city from May 25 to July 4, 1863, until it surrendered, yielding command of the Mississippi River to the Union. The Confederate surrender at Vicksburg is sometimes considered, when combined with Robert E. Lee's defeat at Gettysburg the previous day, the turning point of the war.

Background

After crossing the Mississippi south of Vicksburg at Bruinsburg and driving northeast, Grant had won battles at Port Gibson and Raymond and captured Jackson, the Mississippi state capital, in mid-May 1863, forcing Pemberton to withdraw westward. Attempts to stop the Union advance at Champion Hill and Big Black River Bridge were unsuccessful. Pemberton knew that the corps under Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman was preparing to flank him from the north; he had no choice but to withdraw or be outflanked. Pemberton burned the bridges over the Big Black River and took everything edible in his path, animal and plant, as he retreated to the well-fortified city of Vicksburg.

The Confederates evacuated Hayne's Bluff, which was occupied by Sherman's cavalry on May 19, and Union steamboats no longer had to run the guns of Vicksburg, now being able to dock by the dozens up the Yazoo River. Grant could now receive supplies more directly than the previous route through Louisiana, over the river crossing at Grand Gulf and Bruinsburg, then back up north.

Over three quarters of Pemberton's army had been lost in the two preceding battles and many in Vicksburg expected General Joseph E. Johnston, in command of the Confederate Department of the West, to relieve the city—which he never did. Large masses of Union troops were on the march to invest the city, repairing the burnt bridges over the Big Black River; Grant's forces crossed on May 18. Johnston sent a note to his general, Pemberton, asking him to sacrifice the city and save his troops, something Pemberton would not do. (Pemberton, a Northerner by birth, was probably influenced by his fear of public condemnation if he abandoned Vicksburg.)

Opposing forces and the defenses of Vicksburg

Army Commanders at Vicksburg
As the Union forces approached Vicksburg, Pemberton could put only 18,500 troops in his lines. Grant had over 35,000, with more on the way. However, Pemberton had the advantage of terrain and fortifications that made his defense nearly impregnable. The defensive line around Vicksburg ran approximately 6.5 miles, based on terrain of varying elevations that included hills and knobs with steep angles for an attacker to ascend under fire. The perimeter included many gun pits, forts, redoubts, and lunettes. The major fortifications of the line included Fort Hill, on a high bluff north of the city; the Stockade Redan, dominating the approach to the city on Graveyard Road from the northeast; the 3rd Louisiana Redan; the Great Redoubt; the Railroad Redoubt, protecting the gap for the railroad line entering the city; the Square Fort (Fort Garrott); a salient along the Hall's Ferry Road; and the South Fort.

Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's Union Army of the Tennessee brought three corps to the battle: the XIII Corps, under Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand; the XV Corps, under Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman; and the XVII Corps, under Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson.

Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton's Confederate Army of Mississippi inside the Vicksburg line consisted of four divisions, under Maj. Gens. Carter L. Stevenson, John H. Forney, Martin L. Smith, and John S. Bowen.

Assaults

Grant wanted to overwhelm the Confederates before they could fully organize their defenses and ordered an immediate assault against Stockade Redan for May 19. Troops from Sherman's corps had a difficult time approaching the position under rifle and artillery fire from the 36th Mississippi Infantry, Brig. Gen. Louis Hébert's brigade—they had to negotiate a steep ravine protected by abatis and cross a six-foot deep, eight-foot wide ditch before attacking the 17-foot high walls of the redan. This first attempt was easily repulsed. Grant ordered an artillery bombardment to soften the defenses and at about 2 p.m., Sherman's division under Maj. Gen. Francis P. Blair tried again, but only a small number of men were able to advance even as far as the ditch below the redan. The assault collapsed in a melee of rifle fire and hand grenades lobbing back and forth.

The failed Federal assaults of May 19 were damaging to Union morale, deflating the confidence the soldiers felt after their string of victories across Mississippi. They were also costly, with casualties of 157 killed, 777 wounded, and 8 missing, versus Confederate casualties of 8 killed and 62 wounded. The Confederates, assumed to be demoralized, had regained their fighting edge.

Grant planned another assault for May 22, but this time with greater care; they would first reconnoiter thoroughly and soften up the defenses with artillery and naval gunfire. The lead units were supplied with ladders to ascend the fortification walls. Grant did not want a long siege, and this attack was to be by the entire army across a wide front.

Despite their bloody repulse on May 19, Union troops were in high spirits, now well-fed with provisions they had foraged. On seeing Grant pass by, a soldier commented, "Hardtack." Soon all Union troops in the vicinity were yelling, "Hardtack! Hardtack!" The Union served hardtack, beans, and coffee the night of May 21. Everyone expected that Vicksburg would fall the next day.

Union forces bombarded the city all night, from 220 artillery pieces and naval gunfire from Rear Adm. David D. Porter's fleet in the river, and while causing little property damage, they damaged Confederate civilian morale. On the morning of May 22, the defenders were bombarded again for four hours before the Union attacked once more along a three-mile front at 10 a.m.

Sherman attacked once again down the Graveyard Road, with 150 volunteers (nicknamed the Forlorn Hope detachment) leading the way with ladders and planks, followed by the divisions of Blair and Brig. Gen. James M. Tuttle, arranged in a long column of regiments, hoping to achieve a breakthrough by concentrating their mass on a narrow front. They were driven back in the face of heavy rifle fire. Blair's brigades under Cols. Giles A. Smith and T. Kilby Smith made it as far as a ridge 100 yards from Green's Redan, the southern edge of the Stockade Redan, from where they poured heavy fire into the Confederate position, but to no avail. Tuttle's division, waiting its turn to advance, did not have an opportunity to move forward. On Sherman's far right, the division of Brig. Gen. Frederick Steele spent the morning attempting to get into position through a ravine of the Mint Spring Bayou.

McPherson's corps was assigned to attack the center along the Jackson Road. On their right flank, the brigade of Brig. Gen. Thomas E. G. Ransom advanced to within 100 yards of the Confederate line, but halted to avoid dangerous flanking fire from Green's Redan. On McPherson's left flank, the division of Maj. Gen. John A. Logan was assigned to assault the 3rd Louisiana Redan and the Great Redoubt. The brigade of Brig. Gen. John E. Smith made it as far as the slope of the redan, but huddled there, dodging grenades until dark before they were recalled. Brig. Gen. John D. Stevenson's brigade advanced well in two columns against the redoubt, but their attack also failed when they found their ladders were too short to scale the fortification. Brig. Gen. Isaac F. Quinby's division advanced a few hundred yards, but halted for hours while its generals engaged in confused discussions.

On the Union left, McClernand's corps moved along the Baldwin Ferry Road and astride the Southern Railroad of Mississippi. The division of Brig. Gen. Eugene A. Carr was assigned to capture the Railroad Redoubt and the 2nd Texas Lunette; the division of Brig. Gen. Peter J. Osterhaus was assigned the Square Fort. Carr's men achieved a small breakthrough at the 2nd Texas Lunette and requested reinforcements.

By 11 a.m., it was clear that a breakthrough was not forthcoming and the advances by Sherman and McPherson were failures. Just then, Grant received a message from McClernand, which stated that he was heavily engaged, the Confederates were being reinforced, and he requested a diversion on his right from McPherson's corps. Grant initially refused the request, telling McClernand to use his own reserve forces for assistance; Grant was mistakenly under the impression that McClernand had been lightly engaged and McPherson heavily, although the reverse was true. McClernand followed up with a message that was partially misleading, implying that he had captured two forts—"The Stars and Stripes are flying over them."—and that another push along the line would achieve victory for the Union Army. Although Grant once again demurred, he showed the dispatch to Sherman, who ordered his own corps to advance again. Grant, reconsidering, then ordered McPherson to send Quinby's division to aid McClernand.

Sherman ordered two more assaults. At 2:15 p.m., Giles Smith and Ransom moved out and were repulsed immediately. At 3 p.m., Tuttle's division suffered so many casualties in their aborted advance that Sherman told Tuttle, "This is murder; order those troops back." By this time, Steele's division had finally maneuvered into position on Sherman's right, and at 4 p.m., Steele gave the order to charge against the 26th Louisiana Redoubt. They had no more success than any of Sherman's other assaults.

In McPherson's sector, Logan's division made another thrust down the Jackson Road at about 2 p.m., but met with heavy losses and the attack was called off. McClernand attacked again, reinforced by Quinby's division, but with no success. Union casualties were 502 killed, 2,550 wounded, and 147 missing, about evenly divided across the three corps. Confederate casualties were not reported directly, but are estimated to be under 500. Grant blamed McClernand's misleading dispatches for part of the poor results of the day, storing up another grievance against the political general who had caused him so many aggravations during the campaign.

Siege

Historian Shelby Foote wrote that Grant "did not regret having made the assaults; he only regretted that they had failed. Grant reluctantly settled into a siege. On May 25, Lt. Col. John A. Rawlins issued Special Orders No. 140 for Grant: "Corps Commanders will immediately commence the work of reducing the enemy by regular approaches. It is desirable that no more loss of life shall be sustained in the reduction of Vicksburg, and the capture of the Garrison. Every advantage will be taken of the natural inequalities of the ground to gain positions from which to start mines, trenches, or advance batteries. ... Grant wrote in his memoirs, "I now determined upon a regular siege—to 'out-camp the enemy,' as it were, and to incur no more losses.

Federal troops began to dig in, constructing elaborate entrenchments (the soldiers of the time referred to them as "ditches") that surrounded the city and moved closer and closer to the Confederate fortifications. With their backs against the Mississippi and Union gunboats firing from the river, Confederate soldiers and citizens alike were trapped. Pemberton was determined to hold his few miles of the Mississippi as long as possible, hoping for relief from Johnston or elsewhere.

A new problem confronted the Confederates. The dead and wounded of Grant's army lay in the heat of Mississippi summer, the odor of the deceased men and horses fouling the air, the wounded crying for medical help and water. Grant first refused a request of truce, thinking it a show of weakness. Finally he relented, and the Confederates held their fire while the Union recovered the wounded and dead, soldiers from both sides mingling and trading as if no hostilities existed for the moment.

Grant's army began to fill the 12 mile ring around Vicksburg. In short time it became clear that even 50,000 Union soldiers would not be able to effect a complete encirclement of the Confederate defenses. Pemberton's outlook on escape was pessimistic, but there were still roads leading south out of Vicksburg unguarded by Federal troops. Grant found help from Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, the Union general-in-chief. Halleck quickly began to shift Union troops in the West to meet Grant's needs. The first of these reinforcements to arrive along the siege lines was a 5,000 man division from the Department of the Missouri under Maj. Gen. Francis J. Herron on June 11. Herron's troops were attached to McPherson's corps and took up position on the far south. Next came a three division detachment from the XVI Corps led by Brig. Gen. Cadwallader C. Washburn on June 12, assembled from troops at nearby posts of Corinth, Memphis, and LaGrange. The final significant group of reinforcements to join was the 8,000 man strong IX Corps from the Department of the Ohio, led by Maj. Gen. John G. Parke, arriving on June 14. With the arrival of Parke, Grant had 77,000 men around Vicksburg.

In an effort to cut Grant's supply line, Confederates in Louisiana under Maj. Gen. John G. Walker attacked Milliken's Bend up the Mississippi on June 7. This was mainly defended by untrained colored troops, who fought bravely with inferior weaponry and finally fought off the rebels with help from gunboats, although at horrible cost; the defenders lost 652 to the Confederate 185. The loss at Milliken's Bend left the Confederates with no hope for relief but from the cautious Johnston.

All through June, the Union dug lines parallel to and approaching the Confederate lines. Soldiers could not raise their heads up above their works for fear of snipers. It was a sport for Union troops to poke a hat above the works on a rod, betting on how many rebel bullets would pierce it in a given time.

Pemberton was boxed in with lots of inedible munitions and little food. The poor diet was showing on the Confederate soldiers. By the end of June, half were out sick or hospitalized. Scurvy, malaria, dysentery, diarrhea, and other diseases cut their ranks. At least one city resident had to stay up at night to keep starving soldiers out of his vegetable garden. The constant shelling did not bother him as much as the loss of his food. As the siege wore on, fewer and fewer horses, mules, and dogs were seen wandering about Vicksburg. Shoe leather became a last resort of sustenance for many adults.

During the siege, Union gunboats lobbed over 22,000 shells into the town and army artillery fire was even heavier. As the barrages continued, suitable housing in Vicksburg was reduced to a minimum. A ridge, located between the main town and the rebel defense line, provided a diverse citizenry with lodging for the duration. Over 500 caves were dug into the yellow clay hills of Vicksburg. Whether houses were structurally sound or not, it was deemed safer to occupy these dugouts. People did their best to make them comfortable, with rugs, furniture, and pictures. They tried to time their movements and foraging with the rhythm of the cannonade, sometimes unsuccessfully. Because of these dugouts or caves, the Union soldiers gave the town the nickname of "Prairie Dog Village." Despite the ferocity of the Union fire against the town, fewer than a dozen civilians were known to have been killed during the entire siege.

Command changes

One of Grant's actions during the siege was to settle a lingering rivalry. On May 30, General McClernand wrote a self-adulatory note to his troops, claiming much of the credit for the soon-to-be victory. Grant had been waiting six months for him to slip, ever since they clashed early in the campaign, around the Battle of Arkansas Post. He had received permission to relieve McClernand in January 1863 but waited for a unequivocal provocation. Grant finally relieved McClernand on June 18. He so diligently prepared his action that McClernand was left without recourse. McClernand's XIII Corps was turned over to Maj. Gen. Edward Ord, recovered from a wound sustained at Hatchie's Bridge. In May 1864, McClernand was restored to a command in remote Texas.

Another command change occurred on June 22. In addition to Pemberton at his front, Grant had to be concerned with Confederate forces in his rear under the command of Joseph E. Johnston. He stationed one division in the vicinity of the Big Black River bridge and another reconnoitered as far north as Mechanicsburg, both to act as a covering force. By June 10, the IX Corps, under Maj. Gen. John G. Parke, was transferred to Grant's command. This corps became the nucleus of a special task force whose mission was to prevent Johnston, gathering his forces at Canton, from interfering with the siege. Sherman was given command of this task force and Brig. Gen. Frederick Steele replaced him at the XV Corps. Johnston eventually began moving to relieve Pemberton and reached the Big Black River on July 1, but he delayed a potentially difficult encounter with Sherman until it was too late for the Vicksburg garrison, and then fell back to Jackson.

Crater at the 3rd Louisiana Redan

Late in the siege, Union troops tunneled under the 3rd Louisiana Redan and packed the mine with 2,200 pounds of gunpowder. The explosion blew apart the Confederate lines on June 25, while an infantry attack made by troops from Logan's XVII Corps division, followed the blast. The 45th Illinois Regiment (known as the "Lead Mine Regiment"), under Col. Jasper A. Maltby, charged into the diameter, deep crater with ease, but were stopped by recovering Confederate infantry. The Union soldiers became pinned down while the defenders also rolled artillery shells with short fuses into the pit with deadly results. Union engineers worked to set up a casemate in the crater in order to extricate the infantry, and soon the soldiers fell back to a new defensive line. From the crater left by the explosion on June 25, Union miners worked to dig a new mine to the south. On July 1, this mine was detonated but no infantry attack followed. Pioneers worked throughout July 2 and July 3 to widen the initial crater large enough for an infantry column of four to pass through for future anticipated assaults. However, events the following day negated the need for any further assaults.

Surrender and aftermath

On July 3, Pemberton sent a note to Grant, who, as at Fort Donelson, first demanded unconditional surrender. But Grant reconsidered, not wanting to feed 30,000 hungry Confederates in Union prison camps, and offered to parole all prisoners. Considering their destitute state, dejected and starving, he never expected them to fight again; he hoped they would carry home the stigma of defeat to the rest of the Confederacy. In any event, it would have occupied his army and taken months to ship that many troops north.

Surrender was formalized by an old oak tree, "made historical by the event." In his Personal Memoirs, Grant described the fate of this luckless tree:

The surrender was finalized on July 4, Independence Day, a day Pemberton had hoped would bring more sympathetic terms from the United States. Although the Vicksburg Campaign continued with some minor actions, the fortress city had fallen and, with the surrender of Port Hudson on July 9, the Mississippi River was firmly in Union hands and the Confederacy split in two. President Lincoln famously announced, "The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.

Union casualties for the battle and siege of Vicksburg were 4,835; Confederate were 32,697 (29,495 surrendered). The full campaign, since March 29, claimed 10,142 Union and 9,091 Confederate killed and wounded. In addition to his surrendered men, Pemberton turned over to Grant 172 cannons and 50,000 rifles.

Legacy

Tradition holds that the Fourth of July holiday was not celebrated by Vicksburg until World War II, because of the surrender of the city on July 4.

The works around Vicksburg are now maintained by the National Park Service as part of Vicksburg National Military Park.

References

  • Ballard, Michael B., Vicksburg, The Campaign that Opened the Mississippi, University of North Carolina Press, 2004, ISBN 0-8078-2893-9.
  • Bearss, Edwin C., The Campaign for Vicksburg, Volume I: Vicksburg is the Key, Morningside House, 1985, ISBN 0-89029-312-0.
  • Bearss, Edwin C., The Campaign for Vicksburg, Volume II: Grant Strikes a Fatal Blow, Morningside House, 1986, ISBN 0-89029-313-9.
  • Bearss, Edwin C., The Campaign for Vicksburg, Volume III: Unvexed to the Sea, Morningside House, 1986, ISBN 0-89029-516-3.
  • Catton, Bruce, Never Call Retreat, Doubleday, 1965, ISBN 0-671-46990-8.
  • Eicher, David J., The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War, Simon & Schuster, 2001, ISBN 0-684-84944-5.
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian, Random House, 1958, ISBN 0-394-49517-9.
  • Grabau, Warren E., Ninety-Eighty Days: A Geographer's View of the Vicksburg Campaign, University of Tennessee Press, 2000, ISBN 1-57233-068-6.
  • Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant, Charles L. Webster & Company, 1885–86, ISBN 0-914427-67-9.
  • Kennedy, Frances H., ed., The Civil War Battlefield Guide, 2nd ed., Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998, ISBN 0-395-74012-6.
  • Korn, Jerry, and the Editors of Time-Life Books, War on the Mississippi: Grant's Vicksburg Campaign, Time-Life Books, 1985, ISBN 0-8094-4744-4.
  • McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States), Oxford University Press, 1988, ISBN 0-19-503863-0.
  • Smith, Jean Edward, Grant, Simon and Shuster, 2001, ISBN 0-684-84927-5.
  • Simon, John Y. (ed.), The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 8: April 1 July 6, 1863, Southern Illinois University Press, 1979, ISBN 0-8093-0884-3.
  • National Park Service battle description

Notes

Further reading

  • Woodworth, Steven E., ed., Grant's Lieutenants: From Cairo to Vicksburg, University Press of Kansas, 2001, ISBN 0-7006-1127-4.
  • Woodworth, Steven E., Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West, University Press of Kansas, 1990, ISBN 0-7006-0461-8.
  • Woodworth, Steven E., Nothing but Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861 1865, Alfred A. Knopf, 2005, ISBN 0-375-41218-2.

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