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Grant at Vicksburg. By: Mort Künstler.

In the western theater of war, Ulysses S. Grant had set his sights on a goal early in his campaigning: Vicksburg, a town hugging the Mississippi River on the border of Louisiana and Mississippi. Taking the city would not only secure the Mississippi River; taking it would give the Union a lasso around the Confederacy. Just as spring of 1863 was getting underway, Grant had drawn up a plan to take the town and tighten the Union grip on the Confederacy.

His plan consisted of a march down the west bank of the Mississippi River below Vicksburg to cross the river at which point a fleet of ships would provide the cover needed for the soldiers to then attack the town from the southeast.[i] The soldiers would have to move fast as their position would leave them without access to a supply line and against an enemy force of unknown numbers.[ii] Grant’s strategy was not without its detractors: his most trusted subordinates, William Tecumseh Sherman and James Birdseye McPherson, advised him to return to Memphis, establish a secure supply line, and then make his advance from there onto Vicksburg.[iii] Grant, already having a reputation for taking on a fight without fear, believed that “success could not be achieved without risk” and told Sherman:

[T]he country is already disheartened over the lack of success on the part of our armies. . . . If we went back so far as Memphis it would discourage the people so much that bases of supplies would be of no use: neither men to hold them nor supplies to put in them would be furnished. The problem for us was to move forward to a decisive victory, or our cause was lost. No progress was being made in any other field, and we had to go on.[iv]

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Ulysses S. Grant.

On April 16, Confederate officers and civilians gathered for a gala ball held in Vicksburg. News had just come through the Vicksburg Whig that Grant had retreated to Memphis and that the town was in “no immediate danger.”[v] Joviality abound, dancers took to the ballroom floor free of concern, and just as they may have forgotten their worries, explosions boomed outside and lights flashed.[vi] Grant’s gunboats were making their run past the Confederate batteries on a moonless night.[vii] The rebels had spotted them and fired their rounds, but until their comrades ran to the banks and lit bonfires to illuminate the passing boats, the rebel spotters could only catch glimpses of their targets.[viii] These scenes would be replayed throughout the month. By the end of April, Grant had brought to the rendezvous point a powerful fleet and two of three corps.[ix]

While the Confederates expected Grant to make a direct northward advance on Vicksburg along the river so as to maintain his supply route, Grant was on the move into the countryside. Rather than take on the fortifications surrounding the city, he hoped to draw out the rebels and take a more even fight. For weeks, the Yankees “lived well on hams, poultry, vegetables, milk, and honey” they seized from farms.[x] One outraged planter confronted Grant and claimed the Union troops robbed him of everything. Grant responded: “Well, those men didn’t belong to my division at all, because if they were my men they wouldn’t have left you that mule.”[xi]

As May came to its midpoint, the Confederates had obliged Grant and planned to take on Grant outside of Vicksburg and reduce his forces to be insufficient for taking the city or making a move on Jackson, Mississippi.[xii] Sherman stopped the Confederate plan in its tracks, however. Taking his own detachment of men, he raided Jackson and prevented newly arrived Confederate General Joe Johnston from joining his counterpart General John Pemberton in Vicksburg.[xiii] Then, Grant sprung into action: in 17 days, he marched his army 180 miles and fought and won five engagements against the enemy.[xiv] Between Jackson and Vicksburg, about 29,000 Union troops took on 20,000 Confederates, and after significant casualties on the Confederate side, Pemberton retreated to Vicksburg.[xv] It was a sore sight for residents of the city: “Wan, hollow-eyed, ragged, footsore, bloody, the men limped along unarmed . . . humanity in the last throes of endurance.”[xvi]

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Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Grant, sensing victory was near, ordered an advance on Vicksburg despite the city having the “most formidable works of the war” with its “maze of trenches” and rifle pits.[xvii] In fact, he ordered several waves of assault on suspected weak points in the fortifications, but each wave was repulsed with a “hail of lead” and “sheets of fire” that Grant wrote later “only served to increase our casualties without giving any benefit.”[xviii] While the Union men had only seen a parapet as they charged, Confederates had used whites-of-their-eyes tactics to pop up and unleash “murderous fire” on their opponents.[xix] Regardless, the Confederates were trapped: with his troops, Grant had cordoned off the city, and with his fleet had clogged the Mississippi River. Howling shells fell onto Vicksburg demoralizing the city’s residents and causing them to hide under their beds and dining-room tables.[xx] Some residents even dug multiple-room caves in the city to escape the falling rounds, leading Union cannoneers to rename Vicksburg “Prairie Dog Village.”[xxi] Grant wired his commander, Henry Halleck: “The fall of Vicksburg and the capture of most of the garrison can only be a question of time.”[xxii] In fact, some federal troops had too much time: one major recalled later that “a favorite amusement of the soldiers was to place a cap on the end of a ramrod and raise it just above the head-logs, betting on the number of bullets which would pass through it within a given time.”[xxiii]

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Tunnel in Vicksburg, Mississippi. T.E. Lewis, Standing Next to the Cave was 14 Years Old When Occupying the Cave in 1863. Courtesy: Wisconsin Historical Society.

Inside the city sat 3,000 civilians, Pemberton, and his troops. Pemberton regarded Vicksburg as “the most important point in the Confederacy” given its location, and held out hope that Johnston would find a way to pierce the Union line surrounding the city.[xxiv] An army surgeon inside the city wrote that the rebels were “in a critical situation” but could “hold out until Johnston arrives with reinforcements and attacks Yankees in rear.”[xxv] As the days passed, desperation grew. The Vicksburg newspaper had to reduce the size of its issues to a square foot and print it on wallpaper but maintained hope with its headlines: “Hold out a few days longer, and our lines will be opened, the enemy driven away, the siege raised.”[xxvi] Weeks passed without Johnston or any other Confederate coming to the rescue. Confederate President Jefferson Davis could not afford to pull troops from the eastern theater as Confederate General Robert E. Lee needed every last man to make his campaign into Pennsylvania, leaving the unenviable role of rescuer to Johnston.[xxvii]

As weeks passed, conditions in the city had dramatically deteriorated. Soldiers had to take quarter rations, which became one biscuit and a “small bit of bacon per day,” and a substantial portion had scurvy by the end of June.[xxviii] Mules, rats, dogs, and cats became regular fare, and one Confederate officer wrote that “a building will have to be arranged for the accommodation of maniacs.”[xxix]

With June coming to an end, Johnston brought five divisions against Sherman’s seven divisions, but the attempt was futile.[xxx] The Union men outmuscled their opponents and kept up the siege of Vicksburg with guns firing on the city at all hours of every day. By the end of the month, Union troops had dug tunnels under the rebel defenses, and “engineers exploded mines and blew holes in southern lines.”[xxxi] Confederate soldiers penned a letter to Pemberton, a Pennsylvanian by birth: “If you can’t feed us, you had better surrender, horrible as the idea is, than suffer this noble army to disgrace themselves by desertion. . . . This army is now ripe for mutiny, unless it can be fed.”[xxxii] On July 3, 1863, Pemberton asked Grant for terms of surrender.[xxxiii] He remarked to his staff: “I know my people. I know their peculiar weaknesses and their national vanity; I know we can get better terms from them on the Fourth of July than on any other day of the year. We must sacrifice our pride to these considerations.”[xxxiv] While initially Grant lived up to his nickname “Unconditional Surrender” Grant, he relented when realizing the logistical challenge of transporting 30,000 rebels to prison camps in the north; instead, he agreed to parole the prisoners and allow them to return home carrying the stench of defeat with them to their communities.[xxxv] He later wrote, “I believed that consideration for their feelings would make them less dangerous foes during the continuance of hostilities, and better citizens after the war was over.”[xxxvi]

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The Surrender of Vicksburg. Harper’s Weekly.

On the 87th anniversary of the birth of the nation, Grant’s men marched into the city of Vicksburg. One citizen observed the contrast between the “stalwart, well-fed men, so splendidly set-up and accoutered . . . [and] the worn men in gray, who were being blindly dashed against this embodiment of modern power.”[xxxvii] During the Mexican-American War, Grant had written the woman he was to marry, “If we have to fight, I would like to do it all at once and then make friends,” and he was to have his way in Vicksburg.[xxxviii] The Union men came into the city, raised the “stars and stripes over the courthouse” for the first time in two and a half years, and shared their rations with the rebels.[xxxix] The northerners broke into stores of “speculators,” who had hoarded food in the hope of making a fortune, and began throwing the goods down calling out, “Here rebs, help yourselves, you are naked and starving and need them,” as recalled a Louisiana sergeant.[xl] The sergeant continued: “What a strange spectacle of war between those who were recently deadly foes.”[xli]

Within weeks of the Confederate defeat, an unarmed merchant ship traveled from St. Louis to New Orleans without incident, and President Abraham Lincoln announced, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.”[xlii] Grant wrote long after the war that the taking of Vicksburg sealed the fate of the Confederacy.[xliii] As Johnston retreated halfway to Alabama, opening up Sherman and his men to take central Mississippi, Grant had finished the Vicksburg campaign with a flourish and earned high praise from the commander-in-chief for Lincoln labeled the campaign as “one of the most brilliant in the world.”[xliv] President Lincoln declared: “Grant is my man, and I am his the rest of the war.”[xlv]


[i] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 626-27.

[ii] See id. at 627.

[iii] Id.

[iv] Ulysses S. Grant, The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, 2 vols. (New York, 1885), I, 542-43n.

[v] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 626 (citing Samuel Carter III, The Final Fortress: The Campaign for Vicksburg, 1862-1863 [New York, 1980], 155; Peter F. Walker, Vicksburg: A People at War, 1860-1865 [Chapel Hill, 1960], 151, 152).

[vi] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 626.

[vii] See id. at 626-27.

[viii] See id. at 627.

[ix] Id.

[x] See id. at 629.

[xi] Id. (citing Bruce Catton, Grant Moves South [Boston, 1960], 438).

[xii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 630-31.

[xiii] See id.

[xiv] See id.

[xv] Id.

[xvi] See id. (quoting Peter F. Walker, Vicksburg: A People at War, 1860-1865 [Chapel Hill, 1960], 161).

[xvii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 631.

[xviii] Id. at 631-33; Ulysses S. Grant, The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, 2 vols. (New York, 1885), I, 531.

[xix] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. II, 384.

[xx] Id.

[xxi] Id. at 412.

[xxii] Id. at 388.

[xxiii] Id. at 410.

[xxiv] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 633.

[xxv] See id. (quoting Samuel Carter III, The Final Fortress: The Campaign for Vicksburg, 1862-1863 [New York, 1980], 161).

[xxvi] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 634 (citing Peter F. Walker, Vicksburg: A People at War, 1860-1865 [Chapel Hill, 1960], 187-88).

[xxvii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 635.

[xxviii] See id.; Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. II, 415.

[xxix] See id. (citing Bruce Catton, Never Call Retreat [New York, 1967]; Peter F. Walker, Vicksburg: A People at War, 1860-1865 [Chapel Hill, 1960], 227-28).

[xxx] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 635.

[xxxi] See id. at 635-36.

[xxxii] Id. at 636 (quoting Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, 30 vols. [Washington, 1894-1922], Ser. I, Vol. 24, pt. 3, p. 473).

[xxxiii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 636.

[xxxiv] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. II, 608.

[xxxv] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 636.

[xxxvi] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. II, 611.

[xxxvii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 636 (quoting Samuel Carter III, The Final Fortress: The Campaign for Vicksburg, 1862-1863 [New York, 1980], 297-98, 301).

[xxxviii] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. II, 388.

[xxxix] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 636.

[xl] Id. (quoting Samuel Carter III, The Final Fortress: The Campaign for Vicksburg, 1862-1863 [New York, 1980], 297-98, 301).

[xli] Samuel Carter III, The Final Fortress: The Campaign for Vicksburg, 1862-1863 (New York, 1980), 297-98, 301)

[xlii] Roy C. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick, N.J., 1952-55), VI, 409.

[xliii] Ulysses S. Grant, The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, 2 vols. (New York, 1885), I, 567.

[xliv] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 638 (citing Roy C. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. [New Brunswick, N.J., 1952-55], VI, 230; T. Harry Williams, Lincoln and His Generals, [New York, 1952], 272).

[xlv] Roy C. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick, N.J., 1952-55), VI, 230.

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