On April 30, Grant ferried his troops across the river from the Louisiana shore to Bruinsburg, Mississippi, and the first columns began an eight-mile march east to the inland town of Port Gibson, twenty-five miles south of Vicksburg. On May 1, the Union troops fought an all-day battle against two Confederate brigades, throwing them back and taking Port Gibson.
Grant had orders telling him that, before he moved against Vicksburg, he must first march south to join Major General Nathaniel Banks in an effort to capture Port Hudson, Louisiana, but he learned from Banks that he was still clearing the west side of the Mississippi in his Red River campaign and could not move on Fort Hudson for another month. At the same time, Grant received intelligence that Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, a master of maneuver, was assembling forces that would total twenty-four thousand men in Alabama and eastern Mississippi. Johnston’s plan was to have these men follow him as soon as possible to Jackson, forty-five miles east of Vicksburg, where there were six thousand Confederate soldiers in place. The situation was fluid: Johnston hoped to find a way to link up with the Confederate defenders now inside Vicksburg and either defeat Grant in the field or in some other way relieve the pressure that was sure to be brought on that city.
Johnston’s movements prompted Grant to make a decision that was in its way as bold as the one to run down the river in front of Vicksburg. Disobeying orders and against the advice of his subordinates, Grant took forty thousand men and headed straight for Jackson. His plan was to intercept Johnston and defeat or throw him back, and then to turn and give his full attention to Vicksburg.
As Grant’s troops began this move, news came of the brilliant Confederate victory over the far larger Union forces under General Joseph Hooker at Chancellorsville in Virginia. (Three weeks before Robert E. Lee’s victory over Hooker, Sherman had written Ellen, “I know Hooker well, and tremble to think of his handling 100,000 men in the presence of Lee.”) The news of the Confederate success was accompanied by the details of the death of Stonewall Jackson. Just after the supreme triumphal moment of the war’s other great military partnership, that between Lee and Jackson, Lee learned that Jackson, wounded by musket balls mistakenly fired at him by his own men, had been operated on and his left arm removed. In sending a chaplain to Jackson with a message of “affectionate regards” and wishes for a speedy recovery, Lee said to the clergyman, “He has lost his left arm, but I have lost my right.” Now Jackson was dead—a great blow to Confederate arms, but Lee’s tour de force at Chancellorsville left the North once again disheartened and thirsting for news of a success. (When Lincoln heard of the Union defeat, he exclaimed, “My God! What will the country say! What will the country say!”)
Whatever the reverses in the East, Grant kept up his characteristic momentum in the West. Assisted by a bold diversionary cavalry raid through east Mississippi made by Colonel Benjamin Grierson and seventeen hundred men, in the next two weeks he brought off a military masterpiece. Marching 180 miles, he changed directions twice and fought five large-scale engagements against different forces whose total numbers were greater than his own. At the end of this sweep, his troops had killed, wounded, or taken prisoner more than seven thousand Confederates while suffering less than half that many casualties themselves. The results were impressive, and they demonstrated Grant’s mastery. As far back as the Battle of Belmont in November 1861, he had shown that he understood how to work with rivers and ships, but this was the first time that he had shown his ability to employ cavalry in the strategy of a campaign. Always, he kept the ball moving—on May 7, as Sherman began a march from Grand Gulf, Mississippi, south of Vicksburg, to join him, Grant wrote, “It’s unnecessary for me to remind you of the overwhelming importance of celerity in your movements.”
Sherman understood the need to keep things going, but worried about traffic jams of wagons along Grant’s lines of supply, he wrote Grant on May 9 urging him to “stop all troops” until the wagons could bring up supplies for the marching men. Grant had other ideas: he decided to leave the supply wagons behind as he marched to attack and briefly hold Jackson.
The manner in which Grant made this march again showed boldness and originality similar to that which enabled him to get his army past the guns of Vicksburg. Breaking with the traditional ideas of feeding an army from its existing supplies, Grant told Sherman that he intended to start off with “what rations of hard bread, coffee & salt we can and make the country furnish the balance.” They would live off the land, foraging for fruit, corn, and other vegetables, while slaughtering whatever chickens, sheep, hogs, and cattle they found, and let nothing slow them down. Sherman learned from what he was about to see.
By now, Grant understood Halleck. Saying later of the general in chief in Washington that “I knew well that Halleck’s caution would lead him to disapprove this course” and hold him in place if he knew that he intended to cut loose from his slow-moving supply lines, Grant simply sent Halleck a brief telegram whose last words were, “You may not hear from me for several days.” By the time Grant’s next communication arrived in Washington, he had taken Jackson. His advance was so swift that Joseph E. Johnston, now in overall command of the Confederate forces in Mississippi, after some initial fighting on the outskirts quickly ordered the six thousand men defending the city to evacuate it, and the Union forces took it without further bloodshed.
Sherman had come up quickly from Grand Gulf, and on the morning of May 14 his corps was one of the two that had swept away the last of the Confederate resistance. Jackson had fallen so swiftly that when Grant and Sherman rode into the city together during a driving rainstorm, many of the residents did not know anything had happened. The two men entered a textile mill where women workers were weaving cloth to make tents for the Confederate Army. None of the women looked up from working at their looms. After watching for a while, Grant finally told Sherman he thought they had done work enough. He later described how “the operatives were told they could leave and take with them what cloth they could carry.” As they left, Grant, knowing that he would soon give up the city to turn back toward Vicksburg, ordered Sherman to burn down the factory and to wreck everything else that could be useful to the Southern cause—the city’s other factories and machine shops, its foundries and railroad facilities, and the state arsenal.
Grant’s army had two interesting supernumeraries riding with it: Charles Dana, and Grant’s son Fred, now thirteen, whom Julia had willingly left behind when she returned north after her visit. Dana and Fred, riding together, seemed to have an ability to get near the action without bothering anyone or being hurt. Grant remembered seeing them on the quick forced march to Jackson, “mounted on two enormous horses grown white with age.” Fred, wearing the sword his father never used, got into Jackson ahead of the main Union force and had to duck down a side street to avoid a company of Confederate foot soldiers who were hurrying out of the city as part of Joseph E. Johnston’s evacuation. A few minutes later he saw an advance party raise the Stars and Stripes above the statehouse and was there to greet his father when he and Sherman rode into the city at the head of the main force.
Grant’s presence in Jackson made Johnston think he had a great opportunity. Assuming that if a good part of Grant’s army was in Jackson, it meant that there were supply lines stretched all along the more than forty miles back to the Mississippi River, Johnston ordered the general commanding Vicksburg to come out of the city and strike at those wagon trains. As Johnston saw it, any combination of advantages could be gained: supplies could be destroyed or captured, and if Grant headed back the way he had come—from the west—to protect the route under attack, Johnston could take reinforcements around to the north side of Vicksburg and add to its defenses.
The Confederate leader who brought a large part of the defending force out in response to Johnston’s order was General John C. Pemberton, a West Pointer from Pennsylvania who, as a young lieutenant, had been involved in the same attack on Mexico City’s Garita San Cosme during which Grant had managed to place a mountain howitzer in a church’s belfry and lob cannonballs behind enemy lines. At least partly influenced by his beautiful Virginian wife and her family, Pemberton had chosen to fight for the South. Now, at the head of twenty-three thousand men, Pemberton started moving back and forth in the area south of Vicksburg, looking for convoys of wagons that did not exist because of Grant’s new policy of living off the land.
By now, Grant was already moving back toward Vicksburg, not with convoys but with regiments of combat infantrymen. A spy gave Grant information about Pemberton’s movements; coming forward to reconnoiter as fast as he could, Grant saw that he had been given a chance to fight many of the defenders of Vicksburg in open country, rather than having to attack all of them when they were behind the strongest entrenchments either side had built during the war. His intuition, correct as it so often proved to be, was that there was an opportunity to fight Pemberton without having to fight Johnston at the same time. Grant ordered Sherman, still back in Jackson destroying that city’s warmaking capacity, to bring his corps to join him with the same “celerity” he had previously asked for, and prepared to strike the bewildered Pemberton.
The result was the crucial battle of Champion’s Hill, eighteen miles east of Vicksburg. Starting at seven in the morning on May 16, with Sherman still on the way from Jackson, Grant moved his thirty thousand men into action, and the opposing armies began grappling with each other. By ten o’clock, Pemberton had his forces placed in good defensive positions atop an L-shaped ridgeline. At the corner of this forested higher ground was Pemberton’s defensive anchor, Champion’s Hill, 140 feet high. With the capricious and controversial Union general McClernand inexplicably failing to move his corps forward as ordered, and Sherman still not there despite a remarkably swift march, Grant fought the battle with the three divisions available to him on the right side of his line. After bloody attacks and counterattacks, at two-thirty in the afternoon, with McClernand still not putting pressure on the enemy and Sherman six miles away, the Confederates poured down the side of Champion’s Hill toward Grant’s men, threatening to scatter them.
In a situation where everything seemed to be going against him, Grant was smoking a cigar while he quickly organized all his available artillery. He turned to one of his generals who was just now bringing some fresh troops up to the battle. Matter-of-factly, Grant said that he was ready to make his last stand then and there, and sensed that the enemy “is not in good plight himself. If we can go in there again and make a little showing, I think he will give way.” As he spoke, an enlisted man was struck by his calm, recalling that “I was close enough to see his features. Earnest they were, but signs of inward movement there were none.”
Grant let loose a blast from his artillery, stopping the Confederate advance. He had only two depleted regiments ready to counterattack, totaling five hundred men, but he threw them in. The Seventeenth Iowa and Tenth Missouri charged forward against larger numbers, but in those few minutes they changed the tide of battle. The Confederates began an orderly withdrawal, with Grant finding and sending in more units to add to the momentum of his counterattack. By four in the afternoon, Grant’s men had Champion’s Hill, and Pemberton’s Confederates were headed back in the direction of Vicksburg.
Unlike many battles, in which both sides knew in advance roughly where the fighting would take place, this action had materialized and been fought within twenty-four hours. Pemberton’s force had lost 3,840 men killed, wounded, or missing, in contrast with a Union loss of 2,441. The disparity in numbers was less important than the fact that Grant, deep in Confederate territory and opposing forces under the overall command of the greatly admired Joseph E. Johnston, was outmaneuvering the enemy at every turn and winning every engagement.
Within hours of losing at Champion’s Hill, Pemberton fell back that night to the Big Black River, which was the last natural defensive position he could hold outside of Vicksburg. The next day, a spirited Union attack forced Pemberton’s men back across the Big Black River Bridge, eight miles east of Vicksburg, but the Confederates destroyed it before making the final march of their retreat into the fortress city. Pemberton had lost 1,751 men and twenty-seven cannon at the Big Black River, while Union losses were just 200.
That night, Sherman was back with Grant’s main force. The immediate problem was to get across the river at the place where the Confederates had destroyed the bridge; once that was accomplished, the entrenchments of Vicksburg lay just eight miles ahead, and the job of taking the great bastion could at last begin. Grant came toward Sherman in the dark, and Sherman described the quietly dramatic time they had together:
A pontoon-bridge was at once begun, finished by night, and the troops began the passage. After dark, the whole scene was lit up by fires of pitch-pine. General Grant joined me there, and we sat on a log, looking at the passage of those troops by the light of those fires; the bridge swayed to and fro under the passing feet, and made a fine war-picture.
The essence of this moment was not that two increasingly important generals were watching their forces cross a river by night, but that two soldiers who had been under fire together were sitting on a log in friendly comradeship. Undoubtedly Sherman was talking and Grant was as usual politely listening, but the bond between them was that known only to those who become friends at a time when they know that any day may be their last.
The next day, May 18, 1863, Sherman marched his corps around to the north of Vicksburg. Johnston had remained away from the city, and Grant achieved the objective he had sought for months: Union troops surrounded the enemy bastion on three sides, and on its west side, Porter’s warships controlled the waters of the Mississippi. In the final movement that sealed the ring around the city and its miles of defenses, Grant and Sherman rode among the advanced skirmishers at the front of one of their columns to secure the entrenchments atop Chickasaw Bluffs, which Sherman had been unable to take during the torrential rains five months earlier. Grant described what happened as they approached the hostile trenches: “These were still occupied by the enemy, or else the garrison from Haines’ [sic] Bluff had not all got past on their way to Vicksburg. At all events the bullets of the enemy flew thick and fast for a short time. In a few minutes Sherman had the pleasure of looking down from the spot coveted so much by him the December before where his command had lain so helpless for offensive action.”
As they rode into the just-abandoned Confederate positions, all was quiet. Now the muddy slopes of the previous December were dry, and the swamps below them bore no resemblance to the boiling brown rapids that had tumbled Sherman’s men back when they tried to advance under fire. The cannon still in the enemy trenches had been spiked by the withdrawing defenders to make them useless.
Sherman, usually talkative, remained silent for a while. It was he who had at one point urged Grant to take his army back to Memphis and strike out again for Vicksburg on a different route. Along with virtually everyone else, including Halleck and Stanton, Sherman had disapproved of Grant’s plan to move ships down the river under Vicksburg’s guns. When he had urged Grant to wait for his supply trains to catch up to the troops, Grant had cut loose, foraged off the country, and, movement upon movement, seized every opportunity to bring them to this day. Now he and Grant were sitting on their horses, atop strategically placed heights that looked toward the great Southern bastion that their army had surrounded. Inside Vicksburg were thirty thousand men who, no matter how well they defended their positions, could no longer get out to help other Confederate forces.
Turning to Grant, Sherman spoke words that combined apology and admiration: “Until this moment I never thought your expedition a success. I never could see the end clearly until now. But this is a campaign; this is a success if we never take the town.”
As for taking the town, Grant intended to do that as soon as he could. Pemberton was behind his fortifications with about thirty-three thousand soldiers, with another six thousand civilians of all ages and both sexes in the little city, but Grant knew that Pemberton was not the only enemy general he needed to think about. After his clashes with Grant, Joseph E. Johnston had decided not to come into Vicksburg but stay out in the open country to the east of Jackson for the time being, and, as Grant put it, “was in my rear, only fifty miles away, with an army not much inferior in number to the one I had with me, and I knew he was being reinforced. There was danger of his coming to the assistance of Pemberton.” Grant hoped to take Vicksburg at one stroke, so that he could be free to turn east again and face Johnston, if need be. Accordingly, at two in the afternoon on May 19, the day after he and Sherman were under fire together at Chickasaw Bluffs, Grant struck the Vicksburg defenses with all three of his corps: the one led by Sherman, the one belonging to the self-promoting McClernand, and the one under young Major General James B. McPherson, who had moved swiftly upward through the officer ranks and was a man both Grant and Sherman saw as a great future leader in the war.
As they headed up the slopes of the Vicksburg defenses, Grant’s men ran into a wall of fire. Grant later minimized the extent of that repulse, saying that the overall attack “resulted in securing more advanced positions for all our troops,” but Sherman wrote Ellen a more accurate appraisal: “The heads of Colums [sic] are swept away as Chaff thrown from the hand on a windy day.” Echoing Grant’s concerns, he added, “We must work smartly as Joe Johnston is collecting the shattered forces, those we beat at Jackson and Champion’s Hill, and may get reinforcements from Bragg … and come pouncing down on our Rear.” Telling Ellen about one of her younger brothers, Captain Charles Ewing, he said, “Charley was very conspicuous in the 1st assault, and brought off the colors of the Battalion which are now in front of my tent[,] the Staff 1/4 cut away by a ball that took with it a part of his finger.” Summing up the campaign to this moment, he said, “Grant[’]s movement was the most hazardous, but thus far the most successful of the war. He is entitled to all the Credit, for I would not have advised it.” As for his fellow corps commanders, “McPherson is a noble fellow, but McClernand a dirty dog.”
Three days after this, on May 22, Grant once again threw all three of his corps at the slopes of Vicksburg. This time it was another of Ellen Sherman’s younger brothers, Brigadier General Hugh Ewing, who was in the thick of the action. Lying with his men in a ditch just down the slope below an enemy parapet from which they had fallen back under a withering fire, he handed a captain a new regimental battle flag and said, “I want this planted on the top.” The captain took the banner forward and was killed; the man’s younger brother managed to spike the flag’s staff into the earth at the crest and rolled back down the slope to safety. The area became a no-man’s-land; for hours, the Confederates kept trying to rush that battle flag at the edge of their defenses and capture it, while Ewing’s men exposed themselves to rise up and shoot them down. At dusk, when orders came to withdraw down the slope, a private volunteered to crawl forward and yank the flag out of the earth. He succeeded, and Ewing and his men came down the slope with their flag.
It had been an afternoon of brave fighting on both sides, but of this effort, which cost him more than three thousand casualties, Grant said, “The attack was gallant, and portions of each of the three corps succeeded in getting up to the very parapets of the enemy and placing their battle flags upon them; but at no place were we able to enter.” As for an additional attack during the afternoon that Grant ordered in deference to repeated messages from McClernand that he was about to break through and needed additional support from Sherman on his right and McPherson on his left, Grant commented, “This last attack only served to increase our casualties without giving any benefit whatever.”
As aggressive a general as the Civil War produced, Grant nevertheless realized that more frontal attacks would be futile. “I now determined upon a regular siege—to ‘out-camp the enemy,’ as it were, and to incur no more losses. The experience of the 22d convinced officers and men that this was best, and they went to work on the defenses and approaches with a will. With the navy holding the river, the investment of Vicksburg was complete. As long as we could hold our position the enemy was limited in supplies of food, men and munitions of war to what they had on hand. These could not last always.”
While Grant’s army began its various entrenchments, building earthworks to house the artillery that would ceaselessly slam away at the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy,” visitors, some of them coming down the river on ships that disembarked them above the city, arrived to visit their family members who were soldiers and to see where the next act of the long Vicksburg drama would take place. Grant found himself amused by the sight of families of soldiers bringing the men “a dozen or two of poultry.” Unaware that in living off the land, Grant’s troops had wrung the necks of any number of chickens, ducks, and turkeys, hastily cooking them and often eating them while they marched, “They did not know how little the gift would be appreciated … the sight of poultry … almost took away their appetite. But the intention was good.”
Not only the families of soldiers came to see besieged Vicksburg. Grant described one of the most important visitors and how Sherman refused to take any credit for the success of the campaign to date and directed it all toward Grant.
Among the earliest arrivals was the Governor of Illinois, with most of the State officers. I … took them to Sherman’s headquarters and presented them. [Fifteen of Sherman’s fifty regiments were from Illinois.] Before starting out to look at the lines—possibly while Sherman’s horse was being saddled—there were many questions asked about the late campaign … There was a little knot around Sherman and another around me, and I heard Sherman repeating, in the most animated manner, what he had said to me when we first looked down … upon the land below on the 18th of May, adding: “Grant is entitled to every bit of the credit for the campaign; I opposed it …”
But for this speech it is not likely that Sherman’s opposition would ever have been heard of. His untiring energy and great efficiency during the campaign entitle him to a full share of all the credit due for its success. He could not have done more if the plan were his own.
The siege began. From out in the river, the 100 cannon aboard Admiral Porter’s gunboats began firing shells into the fortified city at all hours, and Grant’s 220 cannon and mortars opened up on the inland side. The Confederate defenders responded with artillery fire from more than 170 guns, and sharpshooters from both armies began firing at anything that moved. As the siege continued, Grant received reinforcements from Memphis; eventually he had between seventy and eighty thousand men, and used half of them to guard his rear against Joseph E. Johnston, who at times had thirty thousand men under his command in the area east of the city but had almost no artillery with him and little in the way of a supply line. (On May 29, Johnston tried to get a letter through the lines to Pemberton. In it he said, “I am too weak to save Vicksburg,” and held out only the hope that he might be able to “save you and your garrison” if Pemberton could “cooperate” in an effort to break out of the city and link up with him. The impossibility of that was shown by the fact that the Union lines were so closely drawn around the city that the letter could not be sneaked through to Pemberton until sixteen days later.)
As the daily bombardments and sniping continued, attackers and defenders had an enormous variety of experiences. Within the besieged area, Henry Ginder, a civilian construction engineer who was continuing to improve the already-formidable Confederate fortifications, wrote an account of the dangers he faced and of a shell that was a dud and did not explode.
Not a day passed but in riding back and forth from my labors the shells burst around my path and minié balls whiz past my ears. Last night I was on foot returning from the scene of my labors, and I heard a 13-inch shell coming but couldn’t see it; it came nearer and nearer until I thought it would light on my head, when splosh! it went into the earth a few feet to my left, throwing the dirt into my face with such force as to sting me for some time afterwards. The Lord kept it from exploding … Otherwise it would have singed the hair off my head and blown me to pieces into the bargain.
Many of the civilians inside Vicksburg began spending much of their time in caves, to avoid being hurt in the bombardment. What could happen to a house was recorded in her diary by Dora Richards, the young wife of a lawyer: “I was just within the door when the crash came that threw me to the floor … Shaken and deafened I picked myself up … The candles were useless in the dense smoke, and it was many minutes before we could see. Then we found the entire side of the room torn out.” The defenders started to cope with shortages: running out of newsprint, the defiant Vicksburg Citizen and the Vicksburg Whig, both assuring their readers that Joseph E. Johnston was on his way to break the siege and save the city, put out their editions in a small format printed on one side of cut-up wallpaper.
Among the besiegers, various unlooked-for things occurred. “Old Abe,” the American bald eagle that accompanied the Eighth Wisconsin as its mascot, was wounded by the defenders’ fire but survived. Captain J. J. Kellogg of the 113th Illinois, a company commander in the brigade led by Ellen Sherman’s brother Hugh Ewing, a few days earlier had seen Grant and Sherman looking at him through their field glasses as he led a charge up to the parapet on which a Union battle flag was finally planted. Now, redeployed with his company to a seemingly far safer position beside a bayou on an approach to Vicksburg, he started to put up a sleeping tent and encountered a surprise.
When I was driving stakes for my new home, a great green-headed alligator poked his nozzle above the surface of the bayou waters and smiled at me.
Upon examination of the ground along the bayou shore, I discovered alligator tracks where they had waltzed around under the beautiful light of the moon on a very recent occasion, so I built my bunk high enough to enable me to roost out of reach of these hideous creatures.
Though I had built high enough to escape the prowling alligators I had not built high enough to get above the deadly malaria distilled by that cantankerous bayou.
On one of the early days of the siege, a private of the Fourth Minnesota saw an older Union soldier in a rumpled uniform standing at the top of an observation tower near the front, looking toward the entrenchments on the enemy-held slopes, and shouted, “Say! You old bastard, you better keep down from there or you will get shot!”
The man paid no attention, but when the Minnesotan started to shout again, his captain grabbed him and said, “That’s General Grant!”
While he was stationed on the northern end of besieged Vicksburg, Sherman kept up with developments in Washington. He learned that the federal government, needing ever-greater numbers of soldiers to add to the dwindling number of volunteers for the Union Army, intended to introduce conscription and draft three hundred thousand men into the service. Sherman saw that as necessity, but the plan for how these new troops were to be used shocked him. One hundred thousand would be trained and sent forward to fill up the ranks of the existing regiments, many of which by now had an excellent level of combat experience shared by veteran officers and men, but the remaining two hundred thousand were to be formed into entirely new regiments. This was to be 1861 all over again: new colonels would be commissioned from civilian life by political appointment, and recruits with a few weeks’ training would march to unnecessary deaths in a military version of the blind leading the blind. Any of the experienced, proud old regiments whose casualties had caused their numbers to fall below three hundred were arbitrarily to be consolidated with other old regiments, instead of receiving recruits who could fill their ranks and immediately profit from the experience to be gained by serving with combat veterans.
As a man with a penchant for order who frequently found the workings of a democracy incompatible with the realities of raising an efficient army and fighting successful campaigns, Sherman was appalled by the prospect of having more “political colonels” and sending into battle more than a hundred untried regiments. On June 2, he wrote Grant a letter on the subject.
I would most respectfully suggest that you use your personal influence with President Lincoln to accomplish a result on which it may be, the Ultimate Peace and Security of our Country depends.
… All who deal with troops in fact instead of theory, know that the knowledge of the little details of Camp Life is absolutely necessary to keep men alive. New Regiments for want of this knowledge have measles, mumps, Diarrhea and the whole Catalogue of Infantile diseases, whereas the same number of men distributed among the older Regiments would learn from the Sergeants, and Corporals and Privates the art of taking care of themselves … Also recruits distributed among older Companies catch up, from close and intimate contact, a knowledge of drill, the care and use of arms, and all the instructions which otherwise it would take months to impart.
… I am assured by many that the President does actually wish to support & sustain the Army, and that he desires to know the wishes and opinions of the officers who serve in the woods instead of the “Salon.” If so you would be listened to … I have several Regiments who have lost … more than half their original men … Fill up our present ranks, and there is not an Officer or man of this Army, but would feel renewed hope and courage to meet the struggles before us.
I regard this matter as more important, than any other that could possibly arrest the attention of President Lincoln and it is for this reason, that I ask you to urge it upon him at the auspicious time.
Grant forwarded Sherman’s letter to Lincoln, along with his own letter endorsing Sherman’s facts and reasoning, and told the president, “I would add that our old regiments, all that remains of them, are veterans equaling regulars in discipline … A recruit added to them would become an old soldier, from the very contact, before he was aware of it.” He went on to point out that the existing regiments already had their encampments, garrison equipment, and supply trains, and that in addition to considerations of military efficiency and morale, it would cost the government far less to put new recruits into existing regiments than to buy and construct everything necessary to organize new ones. What he and Sherman got for their trouble was a letter to Grant from Halleck, saying that, as planned, two hundred thousand men would go into new regiments. Lincoln was still making military appointments as political favors.
As the siege went on, new developments in other matters continued to occur. On June 7, an unusual battle took place at Milliken’s Bend. Four understrength and outnumbered regiments of virtually untrained black Union Army soldiers, newly freed slaves from Louisiana and Mississippi who had volunteered only since the siege began, using obsolete Belgian muskets and supported by one of Admiral Porter’s gunboats, drove off a Confederate brigade that was trying to raid a Union supply line. There were reports that the Confederates murdered some of the black soldiers they captured, and two of the white Union officers who led the men were apparently also executed.
This battle, though brief and small in size, changed the minds of many Union Army commanders concerning blacks’ willingness and ability to fight. Charles Dana, still with Grant’s army, had this to say:
A force of some two thousand Confederates engaged about a thousand negro troops defending Milliken’s Bend. This engagement at Milliken’s Bend became famous from the conduct of the colored troops. General E. S. Dennis, who saw the battle, told me that it was the hardest fought engagement he had ever seen. It was fought mainly hand to hand. After it was over many men were found dead with bayonet stabs, and others with their skulls broken open by the butts of muskets. “It is impossible,” said General Dennis, “for men to show greater gallantry than the negro troops in that fight.”
The bravery of the blacks at Milliken’s Bend completely revolutionized the sentiment of the army with regard to the employment of negro troops. I heard prominent officers who formerly in private had sneered at the idea of negroes fighting express themselves after that as heartily in favor of it.
Grant was among those persuaded. In a letter to Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas, he made this comment on a reorganization of the black regiments that were coming into existence: “I am anxious to get as many of these negro regiments as possible and to have them full and completely equipped.” In a letter to Halleck he said, “The negro troops are easier to preserve discipline among than our White troops and I doubt not will prove equally good for garrison duty. All that have been tried have fought bravely.”
Sherman had a different attitude. Months after Milliken’s Bend, he was still expressing his mistrust of the abilities of black troops. In a letter to Ellen he told her, “I would prefer to have this a white man’s war and provide for the negroes after the time has passed, but we are in revolution and I must not pretend to judge. With my opinions of negroes and my experience, yes, prejudice, I cannot trust them yet.”
At this point in the siege, Grant’s nemesis, alcohol, reentered the picture. The evidence on the point is an in-headquarters letter to Grant from his chief of staff Rawlins. Saying that his motivation was “the great solicitude I feel for the safety of this army,” Rawlins made reference to a report that Grant had been drinking with a military surgeon at Sherman’s headquarters “a few days ago,” but concentrated on this: “Tonight when you should, because of the condition of your health if nothing else, have been in bed, I find you where the wine bottle has just been emptied, in company with those who drink and urge you to do likewise, and the lack of your usual promptness and clearness in expressing yourself in writing tended to confirm my suspicions.”
Years later, Charles Dana said that he had been present when Rawlins “delivered that admirable communication. It was a dull period in the campaign. The siege of Vicksburg was progressing with regularity. No surprise from within the city or from without was to be apprehended; and when Grant started out in drinking, the fact could not imperil the situation of the army or any member of it except himself.” At the time, Dana clearly maintained the policy he had adopted: this incident was just what he was supposed to report to Washington in the special telegraphic code devised for him to use, but he believed in Grant and intended to tell Lincoln and Stanton about Grant’s drinking only after the critical situation at Vicksburg came to its end.
As if Grant did not have problems enough, his ambitious, fractious subordinate McClernand now sought to further his own reputation with the public in a way that broke army regulations and was guaranteed to anger Grant and Sherman, both of whom had suffered at the hands of the press. McClernand was already on the thinnest of ice: through Dana, Secretary of War Stanton had recently passed the word to Grant that he was free to relieve McClernand at any time and send him north for reassignment. Unbeknownst to Grant, on May 30 McClernand had written what he called his “General Orders 72.” Ostensibly a document congratulating his troops for their bravery, it was in fact an astonishing piece of self promotion, which, in addition to being circulated among his units, McClernand had sent to St. Louis to be published in the Missouri Democrat. He presented himself as the hero of the failed attacks on May 22 that he had in fact made worse by urging an additional attack—the one that Grant said “only served to increase our casualties without giving any benefit whatever.” The text of McClernand’s order implied that Sherman, on his right, and McPherson, on his left, had failed to support him, and that Grant, by not sending him reinforcements, had lost the opportunity to take Vicksburg that day.
The piece appeared in St. Louis on June 10, and a copy arrived at Grant’s headquarters three days later, where its effect was symbolically like that of an incoming Confederate salvo. Not only did it misrepresent the costly support McClernand had received—Grant said that it “did great injustice to the other troops engaged in the campaign”—but its publication violated the rules of both the War Department and Grant’s military department, which required that no document of this sort could appear in the press without the permission of the departmental commander, i.e., Grant.
Even now, Grant postponed action on the matter; a letter he sent to McClernand two days later speaks only of troop movements. On June 17, Sherman saw a copy of the Memphis Evening Bulletin reprinting McClernand’s orders and sent a blazing letter to Rawlins. Sherman said that on May 22 McClernand had lied about the extent of his advance in order to convince Grant to support a further effort, and when that effort was made, swiftly and fully, “we lost, needlessly, many of our best officers and men.” One account had it that Sherman also appeared at Grant’s headquarters, holding the Memphis newspaper and so angry that he could not speak for several minutes. On that day, Grant wrote a peremptory note to McClernand demanding that he either confirm or deny that Orders 72 was his work. The following day, McClernand telegraphed that he had written it, and stood by it, but thought it had been sent to Grant before being published. Within hours, Grant relieved McClernand of command; in a telegram to Halleck telling him of his action, Grant said, “I should have relieved him long ago for general unfitness for his position.” The next day, Dana wired Stanton that Grant’s most pressing reason for removing McClernand was that, if Grant were incapacitated, McClernand would outrank both Sherman and McPherson, which would have “most pernicious consequences to the cause.”
Other than saying of McClernand’s departure that “not an officer or soldier here but rejoices he is gone away,” Sherman had little time to think about anything but the campaign at hand. Worried about reports that the elusive and skillful Joseph E. Johnston was leading an army of thirty thousand toward Vicksburg from the east, Grant ordered Sherman to ready himself to move out immediately toward the Big Black River. Feeling that Sherman was the best man to find Johnston and oppose him, he used characteristically concise instructions: “You will go and command the entire force.” To Admiral Porter, Grant wrote of Johnston, as if he could see it happening, “I have given all the necessary orders to meet him twenty-five miles out, Sherman commanding.”
Grant knew that Sherman had hoped to take part in a final victorious entry into the city, riding in at the head of his troops and perhaps becoming for a time the military governor of Vicksburg, as he had been of Memphis. Disappointed, Sherman would write Ellen, “I did hope Grant would have given me Vicksburg and let some one else follow up the enemy inland.” But he obeyed without discussion and headed out with thirty-four thousand men. (Describing the closeness of his relationship with Grant, Sherman wrote his brother John that “with him I am as a second self. We are personal and official friends.”)
As Sherman moved his force through the countryside, seeking to find and engage Johnston, Grant expressed the strength of his support for him in a letter he wrote on June 23. Grant referred to troops he had with him at a place “Near Vicksburg” and others at nearby Young’s Point, and listed the units he had ready to reinforce Sherman if he should need them, closing with, “Use all the forces indicated above as you deem most advantageous, and should more be required, call on me and they will be furnished to the last man here and at Young’s Point.”
The shortage of food caused by the siege began to take its toll on Vicksburg’s defenders. Meat sold as beef was described in one account as “very often oxen killed by the enemy’s shells, and picked up by the butchers.” A bitter Vicksburg resident invented a fictional “Hotel de Vicksburg” and wrote out a bill of fare that began with Mule Tail Soup, offered Mule Rump Stuffed with Rice as a roast, and included among its entrées Mule Spare Ribs Plain and Mule Liver Hashed. Sergeant William H. Tunnard of the Third Louisiana Infantry, entrenched in the besieged city, recorded this in his regimental history: “How the other troops felt, we know not, but the boys of the Third Regiment were always hungry.” Soon dogs and cats began disappearing; the city’s stoic citizens and soldiers made jokes about “What’s become of Fido?” but no one doubted the animals’ fate. While Vicksburg was running out of food, hundreds of tons of ammunition were available.
As the Union forces pushed nearer the town’s defenses, constantly digging trenches that snaked toward the enemy positions, the proximity of the two armies produced both sniping at closer range and occasional impromptu truces. In places, the Union and Confederate soldiers were so near each other that, although they kept their heads down, they needed only to raise their voices slightly to communicate across the narrowing no-man’s-land. Blackberry bushes grew in profusion between the opposing trenches; the troops of both sides suffered from diarrhea and knew that blackberries helped to cure it, so quick conferences produced agreements that allowed men from both sides to go out and pick the berries.
One hot June day, after hours of desultory sniping, a private of the Eleventh Wisconsin said to his comrades, “I’m going down into the ravine and shake hands with them Rebs!” and he did just that. More men from both sides came out, shaking hands with their enemies, until hundreds of men were milling about in the no-man’s-land of this ravine. They talked about everything: how hot it was, the kind of illnesses they had, what they thought of their generals. Union soldiers traded rations of coffee for Confederate tobacco. Farmboys swapped knives and chatted about their hometowns, and some soldiers even pulled out tintypes of their wives and sweethearts to show to men who had been shooting at them an hour before. A young Confederate, talking with some Wisconsin boys, suddenly blurted out, “I want to see my ma,” and went off to sit by himself on a fallen tree trunk.
A Union officer came walking into the middle of this friendly gathering and began berating the men of both sides for all this fraternization. The young men fell silent, said good-bye to one another, slowly walked back up the slopes to their respective trenches, and soon began shooting at one another again.
While the siege continued, with Sherman maneuvering to the east and finding that the wily Johnston had no intention of fighting his superior force unless he could catch the Union regiments by surprise, Grant dealt with a variety of matters at his headquarters. On June 25, he wrote to Lorenzo Thomas in Washington, asking for the speedy assignment of Ely S. Parker to his army as an assistant adjutant general. “I am personally acquainted with Mr. Parker,” Grant said, “and think [him] eminently qualified for the position. He is a full blooded Indian but highly qualified and very accomplished. He is a Civil Engineer of conciderable [sic] eminence and served the Government some years in superintending the building of Marine Hospitals and Custom Houses on the upper Miss. river.”
Parker was duly assigned to Grant and quickly proved to be one of the ablest members of his staff. A thirty-five-year-old Seneca who had been educated at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Parker had at first been rejected by the army because he was not a white man. The recommendation from Grant, who had known Parker when he worked on projects at Galena, brought him into Grant’s “military family” as a captain, and he stayed with Grant through all that lay ahead.
Unknown to Grant, at just this time something extraordinary occurred in Kentucky. In parts of that state, Confederate raiders moved about periodically and unpredictably. Julia Grant’s sister Emma, who had first met Grant thirty years before, when, “pretty as a doll,” young Lieutenant Grant rode into the yard at White Haven to call on the Dent family, was now living near Caseyville, Kentucky, close to the Ohio River. She was the wife of James F. Casey, who in the custom of the day she always referred to as “Mr. Casey.” Emma described the situation in her area in these terms: “There were a good many bands of guerrillas prowling about the country at this time, as well as several other bands of irregular Confederate soldiers, but, as they never molested us, we were scarcely aware of their presence.”
Grant’s son Fred, who had been with him during much of the Vicksburg siege, had begun feeling sick, and to improve his health Grant had sent him north from Mississippi to Kentucky to stay for a week or more at Emma’s house. She said of her thirteen-year-old nephew, “He was very fond of us, and we of him.” On a morning when Fred rode into nearby Caseyville with his uncle, Emma recounted what happened:
A man dressed in the tattered uniform of a Confederate officer rode into the yard and [after dismounting] asked me for a drink of water. I gave it to him, and as he lifted the cup to his lips he said, casually:
“I guess Fred Grant is visiting you, isn’t he?”
Instantly a cold suspicion struck me like a dart through the heart, and I answered him as casually as he had questioned me:
“OH!” he said. “Isn’t he?”
“No, he’s gone.”
“Gone, has he? Is that so?” He looked at me with a smile slowly breaking out over his face. “Surely, he has,” he said again, as if speaking to himself. Then he remounted his horse, took off his hat, made me a sweeping bow, and rode away. I did not lose a moment, but as quick as one of the horses could be caught out of the pasture, I put a black boy on his back and sent him to find my husband. I sent Mr. Casey word to put Fred on a coal boat and get him down the river to Cairo as fast as ever he could. I also suggested that if he could communicate with a gunboat on the river it might be very well.
Later, Emma reported:
A squad of eight hard-riding, grim-looking, and tattered cavalrymen rode up to the gate. One of them, heavily armed, and looking as fierce as a Greek bandit, came up to the porch.
“Is this Mr. Casey’s?” he asked, politely. I told him that it was.
“Isn’t there a boy visiting here?”
“No, he has gone back to his mother, at Cairo.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. And I think there is likely to be some gunboats coming up the river very shortly, looking for some one. Perhaps you gentlemen will be interested in seeing them.”
The fierce-looking bandit laughed pleasantly, said that it was a nice day, and rejoined his companions at the gate. They talked in low voices for a while, then sprang on their horses and rode away.
As Emma put it, had they captured Fred, “It is mere speculation to consider what effect this might have had on the cause of the Union.” What needs no speculation is what Grant thought later in the war, when he was presented with a plan to abduct Jefferson Davis and bring him north as a prisoner. Grant cut off the discussion with the observation that he and his men were not kidnappers.
Inside Vicksburg, on June 28, Confederate general Pemberton received a letter that was signed, “Many Soldiers.” Down to a quarter of their normal rations a day—and in some units there was less than that to eat—his men told him, “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.” Pemberton could see that, strong as the besieging Union forces were, hunger was even stronger and that he would probably soon have to surrender to both that and Grant.
The following day, in a letter to Julia, Grant, whom the Caseys had not told about his son’s near capture, wrote her that “Fred. Has returned from his uncle[’]s. He does not look very well but is not willing to go back until Vicksburg falls.” Grant added that Joseph E. Johnston was “still hovering beyond the Black River.” Johnston faced a painful choice. As things stood, if he did not act, the city’s defense seemed certain to collapse. If he took the risk of fighting Sherman’s larger numbers in an effort to break through to Vicksburg, he might be defeated in the area east of the city. Then Vicksburg would have to surrender in any case, and Johnston would lose additional thousands of his own men who could otherwise be used in future campaigns. Grant told Julia that he thought Johnston would feel compelled to advance and fight Sherman, but that, either way, Vicksburg would have to surrender within a week. With his often uncanny sense of a military situation, he told Julia that “Saturday or Sunday next [July 4 or July 5] I set for the fall of Vicksburg.” As usual, he closed his letter with, “Kiss the children for me. Ulys.”
At ten in the morning of July 3, white flags began appearing along the crest of Vicksburg’s fortified slopes. Confederate major general John Bowen came riding out of the Confederate lines, sent by Pemberton and accompanied by one of Pemberton’s staff. Taken to Union headquarters, Bowen handed one of Grant’s staff a letter to Grant in which Pemberton said that he wanted to arrange “terms for the capitulation of Vicksburg.” Grant soon composed a letter in which he told Pemberton that there would be no discussion of terms other than unconditional surrender. He did, however, add, “Men who have shown so much endurance and courage as those now in Vicksburg, will always challenge the respect of an adversary, and I can assure you will always be treated with all the respect due to prisoners of war.” Bowen asked to speak directly with Grant but was told that if Pemberton wanted to meet Grant face-to-face, he was welcome to come out of Vicksburg for that purpose “at any hour in the afternoon which Pemberton might appoint.”
At three that afternoon, Pemberton, along with Bowen and several other officers, rode out to meet with Grant. They found him standing on a slope near their entrenchments, accompanied by a number of Union officers. His son Fred and Charles Dana were also there. With Sherman still absent while he blocked Johnston from making any last-minute advance, the next officer in seniority to Grant was Sherman’s fellow corps commander, young Major General James B. McPherson. For a time it appeared that there could be no agreement on accepting or softening Grant’s “unconditional surrender” statement and that the fighting would resume. Dana noted that “Pemberton was much excited, and was impatient in his answers to Grant.” Then Bowen suggested that he and McPherson try to talk things through between themselves.
What happened next was ironic: during a formal, intense half-hour session, Bowen and McPherson got nowhere, while Grant and Pemberton stood under a stunted oak tree and exchanged reminiscences about their experiences in the Mexican War. By the time Bowen and McPherson came back and grimly announced that they could find no grounds for a mutually acceptable mode of surrender, Grant informed them that he would have something worked out by ten o’clock that night that might satisfy both Pemberton and himself. The two groups parted, Pemberton going back into the besieged city and Grant returning to his headquarters.
The problem involved not the fact of surrender but whether these more than thirty thousand Confederate soldiers were to be sent to prison camps in the North or be paroled. Pemberton wanted his men to be paroled and, as a matter of honor, be allowed to march out of Vicksburg with their flags flying, before laying down their arms. In the strict sense, this would not be the “unconditional surrender” first insisted upon by Grant, but that evening Grant sent a letter to Pemberton agreeing to these conditions and sat in his tent awaiting an answer. Grant had decided to parole the enemy troops because it would immediately free all the men and ships at his command to continue combat operations rather than having to furnish guards and transportation to take the multitude of defeated Confederates to prison camps.
In Grant’s tent that night, young Fred later wrote that he was “sitting on my little cot, and feeling restless, but scarcely knowing why.” He went on:
Presently a messenger handed father a note. He opened it, gave a sigh of relief, and said calmly, “Vicksburg has surrendered.”
I was thus the first to hear the news officially, announcing the fall of the Gibraltar of America, and, filled with enthusiasm, I ran out to spread the glad tidings. Officers rapidly assembled and there was a general rejoicing.
At ten in the morning of the Fourth of July, 1863, ending the forty-seven-day siege, Pemberton had the Confederate Stars and Bars lowered from the highest point in Vicksburg’s defenses, and at his command the Stars and Stripes was raised. White flags appeared everywhere along the enemy entrenchments. The hungry, tattered Confederate regiments came marching out as if on parade, muskets on their shoulders, with their bands playing and battle flags flying. They halted, and the men laid down their weapons, in some places stacking them right on the parapets of Union trenches that had been dug forward to within a few yards of the defensive slopes. Quietly watching this, Grant observed of his own men, “Not a cheer went up, not a remark was made that would cause pain.” Union troops moved forward among the disarmed Confederates to give them food and share their kettles of coffee. A soldier from Wisconsin later said, “It was good to see them eat … We could never remember anything that gave us greater pleasure than the eagerness of the rebels to get a drink of coffee … [Later, that night,] many of us did not sleep at all, talking with the prisoners.”
As the day of surrender continued, the dimensions of the victory became even clearer. Grant said, “At Vicksburg, 31,600 prisoners were surrendered, together with 172 cannon, about 60,000 muskets and a large amount of ammunition.” As a result of reports that groups of Union soldiers had entered the city without authorization and were looting it, the Forty-fifth Illinois was ordered to be the first unit of its division to march in, set up advance headquarters at the courthouse, and begin to impose order on everyone.
Inside the city, Lida Lord, the young daughter of the minister of Christ Episcopal Church, a man who was also chaplain of the First Mississippi Brigade, came out of the cave in which she and her mother and brothers and sisters had stayed for safety during the siege. They encountered some disarmed Confederates who apparently had been sent back into the city to await the formalities of signing their paroles.
We met group after group of soldiers and stopped to shake hands with them all. We were crying like babies, while tears ran down their dusty cheeks, and eyes that had fearlessly looked into the cannon’s mouth fell before our heartbroken glances.
“Ladies, we would have fought for you forever. Nothing but starvation whipped us,” muttered the poor fellows, and one man told us that he had [to avoid surrendering it] wrapped his torn battle-flag around his body under his clothes.
A Southern woman who had endured the siege, watching for nearly two months the daily deterioration of the soldiers and civilians in Vicksburg, saw the Union soldiers march in. “What a contrast to the suffering creatures we had seen so long were these stalwart, well-fed men, so splendidly set up and accoutered. Sleek horses, polished arms, bright plumes—this was the pride and panoply of war. Civilization, discipline, and order seemed to enter with the measured tramp of these marching feet.”
Colonel Robert S. Bevier, a lawyer from Russellville, Kentucky, who was serving with the First Missouri Confederate Brigade, dismissed his surrendered troops and watched the surrender unfold.
I rode into the city to see the vast Federal fleet come down to the landing, with pinions and streamers fluttering, and blaring music and blowing whistles …
When returning to camp I was politely accosted by an officer in blue, who overtook me. We had some conversation, chiefly complimentary on his part, to the stubborn bravery of the troops, when, noticing that a large staff followed him, which I had not observed before, as the road was crowded with equestrians, I looked at him closely and found that it was General Grant himself.
At the waterfront, Grant went aboard Admiral Porter’s flagship, the Blackhawk, which had pennants flying from all its rigging, and its crew turned out in white dress pants and navy blue jackets. Grant joined in the victory party for a few minutes but then walked off to sit by himself. Porter said of the moment, “No one, to see him sitting there with that calm exterior amid all the jollity … would ever have taken him for the great general who had accomplished one of the most stupendous military feats on record.”
Throughout these climactic days, Grant and Sherman remained in constant communication. The day before the surrender took place, Grant had sent Sherman a telegram that began, “I judge, Johnston is not coming to Vicksburg, he must be watched though.” The challenge for Sherman now was to hold himself ready to come to Grant’s side if the negotiations failed at the last moment and a final massive attack became necessary, while not letting Johnston slip away as he often had. Informing Sherman that negotiations for Vicksburg’s surrender were under way, Grant made the assumption that the city would soon be in Union hands and gave Sherman his usual kind of directive—one that stressed action and momentum, and left it to the commander on the scene to work out the details: “When we go in [to Vicksburg], I want you to drive Johnston from the Mississippi Central Rail Road,—destroy bridges as far as Grenada with your cavalry, and do the enemy all the harm possible— You can make your own arrangements and have all the troops of my Command, except one Corps.”
Later the same day, Grant sent Sherman another message, explaining how the negotiations then stood and, thinking of the situation facing Sherman out in the country well to the east of Vicksburg, adding, “I want Johnston broken up as effectively as possible, and [rail]roads destroyed. I cannot say where you will find the most effective point to strike.”
Thinking that by the time he answered the city might have surrendered, Sherman fired off a telegram that said in part, “If you are in Vicksburg Glory Hallelujah the best Fourth of July since 1776,” and assured Grant that he was ready to move. While waiting for Pemberton’s answer that evening, Grant telegraphed Sherman yet again, saying, “There is but little doubt, but the enemy will surrender to night or in the morning—make your calculations to attack Johnston.” Continuing the exchange of messages, Sherman assured Grant that he had some units already on the move and would throw everything else forward at Johnston as soon as he knew that Grant would not need his support in taking Vicksburg if the surrender negotiations failed. Sherman wrote Grant’s chief of staff Rawlins a detailed plan of what he intended to do and said of Vicksburg, “The news is so good I can hardly believe it.”
Finally, Sherman got definite reports that the surrender was taking place. He sat down at his advanced “Camp at Bear Creek” to write Grant: “I can hardly contain myself … Did I not know the honesty, modesty, and purity of your nature, Would be tempted to follow the example of my standard enemies of the press in indulging in wanton flattery; but as a man and a soldier, and ardent friend of yours, I warn you against the incense of flattery that will fill our land from one extreme to the other. Be natural and yourself, and this glittering flattery will be as the passing breeze of the sea on a warm summer day.” After referring to the spirit of Grant’s treatment of Pemberton and his men as “the delicacy with which you have treated a brave but deluded enemy,” Sherman said, “This is a day of jubilee,” and assured Grant that he now had all his units moving to find Johnston. “Already are my orders out to give one big huzza and sling the knapsack for new fields.”
Still on the day of his greatest victory, thinking of momentum and not of mutual congratulations and praise, Grant sent Sherman yet another letter on purely operational matters. After telling Sherman that his decision as to which corps to use as a reserve “is just right” and asking to be told instantly about any new reports of Johnston’s movements, he closed with another example of his keep-the-ball-moving spirit: “I have no orders or suggestions to give. I want you to drive Johnston out in your own way, and inflict on the enemy all the punishment you can. I will support you to the last man that can be spared.”
It seemed hardly possible that any news could rival that of Vicksburg’s capture, but on July 3, the day before the city surrendered, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was thrown back decisively at Gettysburg by the Union’s Army of the Potomac under General George Gordon Meade. Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania, which had threatened Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Harrisburg, came to a bloody end. During the massive three-day battle, just under ninety thousand federal troops fought seventy-five thousand Confederates, but the Confederate losses in killed, wounded, captured, and missing were larger, totaling twenty-eight thousand compared to the Union’s twenty-three thousand, and, as before, the North had a greater capacity to replace its losses.
A most important victory had been won, but the greatest drama of Gettysburg centered on one man: Robert E. Lee, in whom the hopes of the South were so profoundly embodied. Grant’s old friend, Julia’s cousin Confederate general James Longstreet, had done everything in his power to avoid having to execute the final failed uphill attack that Lee ordered, the gallant doomed effort that came to be known as Pickett’s Charge. When Lee saw the shocked and wounded survivors of the fifteen thousand men he had sent up Cemetery Ridge come staggering back down the slope on the afternoon of July 3, he immediately took the entire blame upon himself. To his despondent general Cadmus Marcellus Wilcox, who had been a groomsman at Grant and Julia’s wedding, he said, “Never mind, General, all this has been my fault—it is I that have lost this fight, and you must help me out of it the best way you can.” When he saw Pickett, whose division had just been slaughtered, Lee told him, “It’s all my fault. I thought my men were invincible.”
As aggressive a general as Grant, at the end of this day of defeat Lee showed yet another aspect of what he was. It was later described by a Union soldier who said of himself, “I had been a most bitter anti-Southman, and fought and cursed the Confederates desperately.” A musket ball had shattered the man’s left leg, and as he lay on the ground near Cemetery Ridge, Lee and his officers came by, starting their retreat.
As they came along I recognized him, and, though faint from exposure and loss of blood, I raised up my hands, looked Lee in the face, and shouted as loud as I could, “Hurrah for the Union!”
The General heard me, looked, stopped his horse, dismounted, and came toward me. I confess that at first I thought he meant to kill me. But as he came up he looked at me with such a sad expression upon his face that I wondered what he was about. He extended his hand to me, and grasping mine firmly and looking right into my eyes, said, “My son, I hope you will soon be well.”
If I live a thousand years I shall never forget the expression on General Lee’s face. There he was, defeated, retiring from a field that had cost him and his cause almost their last hope, and yet he stopped to say words like those to a soldier of the opposition who had taunted him as he passed by! As soon as the General had left me I cried myself to sleep there upon the bloody ground!
While Pemberton’s troops marched out of their fortifications at Vicksburg to surrender to Grant’s men, Lee’s shattered army was retreating to Virginia, with Meade failing to pursue them as closely as Lincoln hoped he would. Deep in the details of the immediate aftermath of the Vicksburg surrender and planning his next moves, Grant simply noted in a letter to General Nathaniel Banks that he had received a telegram from Washington “stating that Meade had whipped Lee badly,” but Sherman, while concentrating on the Vicksburg victory in a letter to Ellen, said that “the news from the Potomac … appears so favorable that I sometimes begin to think that the Secech will have to give in and submit.” (It was in this letter that Sherman wrote Ellen, “I want to hear from you after you hear of the fall of Vicksburg. I have bet you will get tight on the occasion, à la fashion of Green Street California.”)
In the North, the victory at Gettysburg naturally resonated far more loudly than the news from far-off Vicksburg. The Philadelphia Inquirer announced in a headline, “Victory! Waterloo Eclipsed!” The Northern church bells rang for Gettysburg, but the men of the West understood what the removal of the great Southern bastion on the Mississippi River meant. When Port Hudson, the last remaining Confederate fortress between Vicksburg and New Orleans, surrendered a few days later as a result of Vicksburg’s loss, the Confederacy was cut vertically in half, and Union shipping could go safely from St. Louis down to the Gulf of Mexico. Abraham Lincoln said of the pivotal moment, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.”
Lincoln’s eloquent words also had meaning in terms of Union strategy, a concept that had been largely lacking in these twenty-six months of war. Insofar as there had ever been a vision of what the entire Union military and naval effort should be, in May of 1861 the aged and soon-to-retire Union general in chief Winfield Scott had devised what came to be called the Anaconda Plan. The North was to be the great snake wrapping itself around the South, and the South was to be effectively strangled by a combination of blockading its seaports and a careful buildup of Northern military strength aimed at establishing control of the Mississippi River. The concept had been, in Scott’s words, to “envelop the insurgent states and bring them to terms with less bloodshed than by any other plan,” but his strategy had been rejected as being too slow, and there was little to indicate that it would have brought the Confederacy to a peace table. With the fall of Vicksburg, Scott’s military and naval goals had to some extent been reached, but in their Western campaigns it had become ever clearer to both Grant and Sherman that Southern tenacity could be overcome only by penetrating the South, rather than encircling it. The Union was still fighting the war on an ad hoc basis, attacking as opportunity presented itself and defending when attacked.
Whatever the Union lacked in an overarching concept of how to win the war, Vicksburg was a great victory, and Lincoln fully appreciated the remarkable accomplishment. He promoted Ulysses S. Grant from major general of Volunteers to major general in the Regular Army—the highest rank he could then bestow—and, on Grant’s enthusiastic recommendation, promoted Sherman from major general of Volunteers to the higher permanent rank of brigadier general in the Regular Army. Of Grant, on the day after Vicksburg surrendered, Lincoln said, “Grant is my man, and I am his, for the rest of the war.”
Despite all this praise for and promotion of Grant, Lincoln was not finished. “My Dear General,” he soon wrote him, “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 the country.” Lincoln then set forth the concerns and fears he had felt about some of Grant’s movements during the long Vicksburg campaign, and closed with this:
I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong.
Yours very truly,