Military history

CHAPTER TWELVE


Vicksburg

THE NEWS of defeat at Gettysburg was succeeded the following day, July 4, 1863, by news of the surrender of Vicksburg, which had been a key to the Confederacy’s ability to close traffic along the Mississippi River between the Midwest and the exit to the high seas below New Orleans. The opening was more symbolic than substantial since the movement of goods in bulk from the interior to the ocean by rail had already overtaken the traditional river traffic. Nevertheless, securing the line of the Mississippi had been at the heart of Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan and was central as an aim both to Union strategy and to Union hopes for the prosecution of the war.

The victory also simplified the way forward in the West, for which no coherent Union strategy had been laid down. Indeed, the war in the West (which is known today as the south-central United States) had not followed any organised scheme but had developed as a result of opportunities presented by sequential successes. The first of these, from which all the rest followed, was the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson, both in Tennessee, in February 1862. Grant had decided to attack these two places because they stood on the Confederate frontier in the West but also because they controlled movement along the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers and led into territories Lincoln eagerly sought to occupy, particularly loyal eastern Tennessee. Militarily, rivers in the West played a quite different role from those in the East. The eastern rivers in Virginia, particularly, were chiefly valuable as water obstacles, most useful to a defender. In the West, the rivers were avenues of movement—the Mississippi foremost, but the Ohio, Tennessee, and Cumberland also, since they offered points of penetration to the Union into Confederate territory, for the mass movement of troops, artillery, and supplies. The Mississippi-Ohio-Tennessee-Cumberland complex was of particular strategic importance since, in a Jeffersonian phrase, they interlocked, their interconnecting points or confluences, if held, conferring great advantages to the occupier. How keenly Grant perceived the importance of the riverlands is difficult to judge. Grant was as hindered by lack of good maps as any other general campaigning at the time inside the South, but it may be supposed that he glimpsed opportunities. Moreover, as soon as Henry and Donelson were taken he was off down the Tennessee, to strike deep into Confederate territory and to fight the bloody battle of Shiloh on the riverbank at Pittsburg Landing. Victory there allowed the Union’s superior commander in the West, Henry Halleck, to open an advance on the railroad centre of Corinth, which the newly arrived General Beauregard evacuated before it could be captured. A newly formed army under General John Pope had already captured the fortified positions at New Madrid and Island No. 10 for the Union. The battle at Shiloh on the Tennessee River had thus indirectly opened the lower Mississippi to a Union advance. After the fall of Island No. 10, only Fort Pillow and Memphis stood between the Union force in Tennessee and Vicksburg on the lower reaches. Memphis fell quickly after the evacuation of Corinth, thanks to the intervention of a fleet of naval ironclad rams, constructed by a Pennsylvania designer, Charles Ellet. In a hard-fought battle on June 6, Ellet, several of whose close relatives served aboard his ships, engaged the Confederate flotilla at Memphis and defeated it, by gunfire and ramming. The attack was quite unexpected and shocked both the Union and the Confederacy by its surprise and swift conclusion. Before the end of the day, the Union flag flew over the Memphis post office. In a little over four months, vital stretches of the South’s largest waterways had fallen under Union control; all of them were under threat.

This dire situation had been brought about by the nature of Confederate strategy, such as it was, in the western theatre. The reconsideration of Confederate strategy in the West was the work of George Randolph, the Confederate secretary of war. He believed in the coordination of operations by all the armies deployed from the Appalachians to Arkansas, of which there were several. He began by ordering General Theophilus Hunter Holmes of the Trans-Mississippi Department to bring his army across the river to assist in the defence of Vicksburg. When informed, Jefferson Davis at once vetoed the order. He emphasised that commanders of departments were expected to stay within their own departments and that any movement of troops must be authorised by the president. Randolph correctly recognised that this statement of policy deprived the secretary of war of any function and promptly resigned. Davis replaced him with James Seddon, a semi-invalid but an experienced Virginia politician. Seddon was less likely to take offence than Randolph; he also had the gift of planting ideas in Davis’s mind in such a way that the president thought they were his own. Seddon’s principal idea on taking office was that the Confederacy must rescue its western provinces from capture by the Union and that required the reconstitution, under a single commander, of a Department of the West. Davis was persuaded not only that he had thought of the plan for himself but also that he had chosen the commander, Joseph E. Johnston. That was a remarkable achievement since Davis and Johnston had a long history of quarrelling. Johnston was, however, a general of undeniable talent, if of quite different views from any other Confederate leader.

At an early stage, Albert Sidney Johnston and Jefferson Davis had together decided on a cordon defence of the lower Confederacy, along a line close to the western flanks of the Appalachians and reaching out via Bowling Green, Kentucky, and Forts Henry and Donelson, Tennessee, to Columbus on the Mississippi, a distance of 300 miles. Because the bulk of Confederate troops, and the best troops at that, had to be kept in Virginia on the Richmond-Washington axis, there were insufficient forces left to guard the long western frontier, and they were not of the first quality, either in leadership, equipment, or human fighting power. Nor did they benefit from the configurations of geography, since there was little high ground on which to form defensive lines, while the waterways flowed in precisely the wrong direction, as was not the case in Virginia. The South had to resort to the expedient of holding key points, on railways or rivers, as a principal means of impeding Union advances. It was in that context that the giving up of important places such as Island No. 10 cost them so dear. Even worse, because it inaugurated the fallback, was the surrender of the so-called Gibraltar of the Mississippi Valley, Columbus, Kentucky, in February 1862. By summer 1863 the whole run of the Mississippi, southward from Columbus, with the exception of Vicksburg and Port Hudson, was under Union control. The most spectacular Union success on the river had been the capture of New Orleans, the largest city of the Confederacy, in April 1862. The capture of New Orleans was the first noted achievement of the United States Navy in the war so far. The victor was Flag Officer (Admiral) David Glasgow Farragut, a Southern-born regular naval officer who had served the Union for thirty years and was unflinchingly loyal to it. When at secession time he heard other Southern-born naval officers discussing the military situation, and whether to go with their states, he warned that they would “catch the devil before they were through with this business.” He had fought in the War of 1812 but retained a keen and original mind and the courage of a fire-eating midshipman.

Farragut opened the campaign on the Mississippi in February 1862 when he led a fleet of eight steam sloops and fourteen gunboats over the shallows of the river’s mouth and 15,000 soldiers under General Benjamin Butler. The first obstacles to further advance were the two Third System forts, St. Philip and Jackson, which had fallen into Confederate hands at secession. Farragut bombarded both heavily for six days; when both declined to surrender, he decided to force his way through the chain barrier they defended, which, by April 25, he had done with his fleet, largely intact. He then proceeded immediately to New Orleans, exchanging fire with the riverside defenders as he went. When he got to the city, he met Butler’s troops who were on hand. By April 27, New Orleans was in Union hands; its capture, the largest city in the South, was a tremendous fillip to the North’s prestige and consonantly depressing to the Confederacy. Butler proved a harsh occupier, running a stringent military administration, though the city had never been a stronghold of secession. By June the Farragut fleet had got as far upstream as Vicksburg, taking en route Baton Rouge, the Louisiana state capital, and Natchez, and had made contact with the upstream Federal river navy. Both, however, had been fired on so heavily by the guns of Vicksburg and those on the adjoining riverbanks that they had not been able to linger in the city’s vicinity nor to make any impression on its fortifications or garrison, which had been reinforced by the arrival of troops under Van Dorn. It had become clear that Vicksburg could only be taken, and so the river opened, by the effort of a large army operating on the eastern bank of the Mississippi. How to position such an army was to tantalise the thoughts of Union commanders for the ensuing year.

Quarrels over authority compounded the difficulties of the Union army on the Mississippi at the outset. Because of his successes at Henry and Donelson and at Shiloh, Grant was appointed commander of the Army of the Tennessee on October 25, 1862. Unfortunately a potential rival, John McClernand, who engaged considerable support in Washington, embarked on a personal scheme to capture Vicksburg at precisely the moment that Grant began on his own campaign. McClernand, a former congressman, was a protégé of Stephen Douglas’s, and though his mentor was now dead, McClernand retained considerable political stature as the leading Democrat in Illinois. His gifts of oratory brought in significant numbers of recruits in the Midwest for service on the Mississippi, to which he was sending formed regiments, and this success brought him a commission as brigadier general from a grateful Lincoln. McClernand had his own ambitions. He recognised the political advantage to be won by pursuing a successful military career and, though his military experience was limited to a few weeks’ service in the Black Hawk War, he unfortunately believed that he was a field commander of great talent, at least equal to Grant, and set out to get an independent command in the army and lead it to victory. Moreover, McClernand had his own line of communication to Halleck, the general in chief, and enjoyed the favour of Lincoln. He began by persuading Halleck in Washington to issue him an order that appeared to give him an independent mission in the West and then to take charge of Illinois regiments as they were raised and sent south. The regiments joined Grant’s army, but McClernand exploited ambiguities in Halleck’s communications to make it appear that they were forming for an independent operation against Vicksburg.

Grant puzzled over the McClernand problem throughout October and November 1862, discussing it with Sherman in a series of cases but coming to no conclusion. McClernand was cunning, never openly challenging Grant’s authority but appealing in turn to Halleck and to political supporters in Illinois and other western states in a persistent attempt to enlarge his freedom of action. On paper he had scraps of authorisation to justify his insubordination, all of which he exploited shamelessly, but ultimately he was clutching at straws. He won none of the freedoms to which he aspired, and he lacked altogether the gifts of generalship he proclaimed to possess. Grant arranged to trammel him by reorganising the Army of the Tennessee into four corps and giving command of a fifth, the Thirteenth, to McClernand, thus exactly defining his powers. McClernand nevertheless continued to behave as if he were a fully fledged army commander and to correspond with Halleck and Lincoln. Fortunately Halleck, though no friend of Grant, was a stickler for military propriety and eventually tired of McClernand’s machinations. Finally, in June 1863, McClernand went too far. In defiance of an army order forbidding subordinates from writing to the newspapers without permission, he published a self-congratulatory despatch about his actions at Champion’s Hill in an Illinois newspaper. Grant at once relieved him of command, bringing his extraordinary career as a self-appointed leader of men to an end. He had certainly done nothing to advance the capture of Vicksburg, which throughout the early summer of 1863 remained beyond Grant’s clutches.

The Vicksburg problem, though exacerbated by the quarrels over command, was fundamentally a geographical one. By the summer of 1863, Vicksburg was a mighty fortress, made so by the terrain that surrounded it and by the earthworks its Confederate garrison had built. The Walnut Hills, on which Vicksburg stands, are steep and in 1863 they were cut by many deep, wooded ravines. Their bottoms were choked with dense brush and cane, their sides, sometimes forty or fifty feet high, overgrown by standing timber, from which fell dead trees which frequently formed natural abatis—tangled obstacles with sharp projections to injure and impair the progress of attackers as they passed through. The defenders had also formed many artificial abatis, tree trunks pierced to take sharpened stakes, all lying about the approaches to Vicksburg’s defences.

A European fortress or an American fortress in the East would have had its surroundings altered to make “dead ground” and provide fields of fire across a smooth glacis which could be swept by artillery fire and musketry. The nature of the ground and the abundance of vegetation at Vicksburg made the construction of such a glacis impossible. Both, however, contributed greatly to the strength of the earthworks. Around the enceinte, or enclosing wall, stood a number of strong-points, artillery platforms, redoubts, strengthening features, redans, and lunettes, all terms derived from the international vocabulary of fortification science, largely French in origin, which was taught meticulously at West Point. These terms were to feature particularly in Grant’s 1863 siege with the 2nd Texas Lunette, the 3rd Louisiana Redan, the Stockade Redan, the Railroad Redoubt, all named after the unit that had built or garrisoned them or after a nearby feature. The theory of the attack of fortresses prescribed an advance by infantry on the outer defences and walls, in an attempt to enter by storm, and, if that failed, a deliberate siege, by digging and bombardment.

The fortified city of Vicksburg, under the command of General John C. Pemberton, commander of the Department of the Mississippi, was therefore very strong, but even more important than the strong-points and batteries in protecting it against Union attack was the nature of its surroundings. In December Sherman attempted an assault against Vicksburg from the rear, at Chickasaw Bluff. The piece of ground chosen to mount the assault, the only one available, lay across the Chickasaw Bayou. It was a narrow triangle which Sherman’s men had to enter from the apex, and little dry ground could be found. Several assaults were made between December 27, 1862, and January 3, 1863, but the defenders outnumbered the Union attackers and were supported by artillery. Union losses eventually totalled 208 killed and 1,005 wounded against Confederate losses of 63 killed and 134 wounded. Sherman was obliged to withdraw his force. It had been defeated by geography, despite all the engineers’ efforts at bridging and pontooning.

The land around Chickasaw Bayou was typical of the whole lower Mississippi Valley, which Grant described as “a low alluvial bottom many miles in width … very tortuous in its course, running to all points of the compass, sometimes within a few miles.” There is high ground, the Vicksburg bluffs on the east bank, but the banks are generally low-lying and marshy, cut in many places by the bayous which are the distinctive feature of the river, shallow backwaters, drying out in summer but flooding in spring. Navigation was very difficult since the river and its tributaries and seasonal waterways were overhung by dense vegetation which had often to be cut if a vessel was to make headway. The meanders of the great river and of its subsidiaries were as convoluted as those of any river elsewhere in the world, often of hairpin form and forcing navigators to voyage long, wasted distances to advance in the desired direction. Adding to Union difficulties during the Vicksburg campaign was the summer climate—hot, humid, and disease-bearing, because of the dense insect life.

Grant had tried to march south on Vicksburg down the east bank of the Mississippi in November-December 1862, using as his line of supply the Mississippi Central Railroad, which led into Kentucky. Confederate cavalry raids, however, conducted by Forrest and Van Dorn, wrecked his forward base at Holly Springs, northwest of Vicksburg, and forced him to abandon the effort. He then reverted to the riverborne scheme, from several directions, including efforts by Sherman and McClernand. He called the components of his scheme “experiments,” which indeed they were since he had no assurance that any would succeed and in all he was working in the dark in the highly uncertain circumstances of uncharted swamps, river loops, and muddy, inundated backwaters. His idea was to get forward by cutting canals that would allow his gunboat fleet, with its transports, to pass from above Vicksburg to the Mississippi’s main stream below the city without coming under fire of its batteries. He had tried re-engineering the Mississippi Valley first in the summer of 1862 but despite several months’ digging had eventually had to abandon the attempt, because no end to the work came into view. In the winter he made four more attempts.

The first was an effort to complete the canal begun the previous summer, which cut across the neck of ground surrounded by the meander below Milliken’s Bend, one of the major navigable reaches of the great river above Vicksburg. Rising waters of the spring floods eventually threatened to drown the diggers, who belonged to Sherman’s corps, and the effort had to be abandoned again. The second was an attempt at Lake Providence, fifty miles above Vicksburg, from which diggings were to allow gunboats to reach the Mississippi’s main course 400 miles below the city and thence, by a roundabout route through swamps and backwaters, to get to the vital dry ground in its rear. The troops were supplied by the corps led by General James McPherson. He was an engineer officer whom Grant had identified as a highly effective combat commander. Lake Providence defeated his engineering talents, however. The route was impeded by huge trees rooted on the waterway’s bottom, which had to be sawn through. Months of that sort of labour, together with digging and dredging, dispirited both McPherson and his soldiers, to a point where the project had to be abandoned, as the Milliken’s Bend had been. The third and fourth attempts were to dig and clear navigable channels through what was called the delta of the Yazoo, in fact a bewildering complex of waterways joining the Yazoo River to the Mississippi above Vicksburg, from which by altering water levels by blocking holes in the Mississippi banks it was hoped to reach the Tallahatchie River and then the lower reaches of the Yazoo, which gave on to the northern approaches of Vicksburg. The staff officer in charge was so afflicted by the mental ordeal of the engineering prospect that he began to show evidence of a breakdown. His troubles were heightened by Confederate felling of trees across the Yazoo, which made the waterways impenetrable to gunboats. At this stage the campaign resembled less a river war than an expedition through subtropical forest, so dense and intertwined were the branches of the trees lining the route. The attempt was defeated by the density of bankside vegetation and the complexity of the waterway’s course, and was eventually driven off by the guns of the hastily built Confederate Fort Pemberton.

Three months were spent on these fruitless and laborious engineering efforts. Grant’s critics in the East complained that he was wasting time and gaining nothing. Grant was resistant to criticism, having remarkable confidence in his own judgement; he claimed that his “experiments” kept John Pemberton, the Confederate commander of Vicksburg, off balance. He must, however, have been concerned about the effect of these operations on his troops, who were living in depressing, waterlogged conditions and forced to perform a great deal of heavy labour for no detectible outcome.

By early April 1863 Grant was in despair. Every effort he had made to get the Army of the Tennessee onto dry ground on the east bank of the Mississippi, from which he could mount an attack to capture Vicksburg, had been frustrated. Then a new idea came to him. If unsuccessful it would have dire consequences. If successful, however, it might well abolish all his difficulties and offer the prospect of complete success. Grant was not deterred by risk, and all his experience in the war thus far had fed his appetite for boldness. Unlike McClellan and Halleck, he was not encumbered by theory or by high military knowledge. He was thus not hampered by fears of cutting himself off from his base, which was precisely what he now intended to do. His base and his army were above Vicksburg. He proposed to transport his force to a decisive point below Vicksburg. What prevented him making a junction of ships and troops was the fourteen miles of guns lining the banks of the Mississippi on either side of Vicksburg, to which the soldiers could not be exposed without fearful loss. The ships might run the risk, however, if sailed by surprise, at speed and under cover of darkness. That was the essence of Grant’s plan. He would march his army farther down the west bank, to a point where, if the fleet arrived, a crossing could be made by steamer to dry ground on the east bank near Vicksburg itself. Fitz-John Porter’s fleet would meanwhile be protected and prepared to withstand heavy gunfire. Then, under cover of the night, it would run the batteries from north to south, to meet the troops at the chosen crossing place below Vicksburg. He would thus be placing himself behind enemy lines twice over, once by crossing to enemy territory, secondly by leaving the enemy’s main force in fortified positions athwart his line of communication and supply. Grant was determined not to be intimidated by the risks or the unorthodoxy of his intentions. Once on the Mississippi’s east bank, he would live off the country, carrying only ammunition and taking food and fodder where he found it.

He was blessed with luck: on the night of April 29, with his troops encamped below Vicksburg at Grand Gulf, a local black man came in with the news that a crossing might be made a little lower down at Bruinsburg, near Grand Gulf. The information proved accurate. In a five-hour engagement, on the night of April 16-17, Flag Officer David Porter had already run the batteries of Vicksburg to a point thirty miles below the city, his gunboats protected by bales of cotton piled on their decks and manned by watermen who volunteered from the ranks of the army. One gunboat was sunk but three got through, and by April 22 sixteen transports and barges were sailed down. On April 30 the fleet began to transport the army across the river at Bruinsburg. To distract Pemberton, the Confederate defender of Vicksburg, Grant simultaneously despatched Colonel Benjamin Grierson on a long-distance cavalry raid with 1,700 horse soldiers. Starting from La Grange, Tennessee, near Memphis, on April 17, he had ridden south between the Mobile and Ohio and Mississippi Central railroads destroying track and burning rolling stock. He also severely damaged the Southern Railroad before he joined forces with Banks at Baton Rouge on May 2. Grierson, by profession a music teacher, proved to have exceptional talent as a mounted marauder. In a sixteen-day march of 600 miles he devastated central Mississippi, tearing up fifty miles of railroad track and living off the country.

Pemberton had now taken his army out of Vicksburg to challenge Grant in the open field, much to the anxiety of Jefferson Davis and General Johnston. They ordered him back into Vicksburg, warning that he would lose both his army and Vicksburg if he fought beyond the protection of its defences. Pemberton disagreed. He had 30,000 troops to Grant’s 10,000 and was confident he could hold his own and perhaps drive Grant back into Tennessee. He therefore arrived in central Mississippi, manoeuvring between the river and the city of Jackson, the state capital. Grant was unperturbed. As he wrote in his memoirs, “I was now in the enemy’s country, with a vast river and the stronghold of Vicksburg between me and my base of supplies. But I was on dry ground on the same side of the river with the enemy. All the campaigns, labors, hardships and exposures from the month of December previous to this time that had been made and endured, were for the accomplishment of this one object.”

Grant’s reference to his “base of supplies” is highly significant. He opened his own account of Vicksburg with the observation: “It is generally regarded as an axiom in war that all great armies moving in an enemy’s country should start from a base of supplies, which should be fortified and guarded.” Now Grant was caught up in a vast, wide-ranging campaign in the interior of the Confederacy whose nature had forced him to diverge from geometry. Today technical experts would say that he was “operating on exterior lines,” circling around the Confederacy’s heartland, seeking where he might penetrate. A less imaginative man than Grant would probably have sought to define a geometrical base and line of operations. What Grant did, after bypassing Vicksburg, defied all contemporary rules of strategy. After effecting the rendezvous between Porter’s fleet and his Army of the Tennessee, he had used the gunboats and transports to ferry his army across the river to the east bank.

From Grand Gulf he had sent two of his corps, those of McPherson and the tiresome McClernand, to march inland eastward towards Jackson, where Joseph E. Johnston was struggling to organise a new army. Johnston had been put in overall command of Confederate Mississippi on May 9. He fielded about 20,000 troops to the Union’s 29,000 and might have made a fair fight of it, had Grant advanced and deployed in an orthodox fashion. Grant did not. Having abandoned the rules of Jominian warfare, he now also abandoned the rules of organised campaigning. Instead of bringing supplies with him, or organising a line of supply from the rear, he decided not to bother with supplies but to live off the land, as Sherman had done in the Arkansas campaign of 1862. He thus surprised Johnston at Raymond, outside Jackson, on May 12. Two days later the victorious Union troops defeated Johnston at Jackson, driving Pemberton to take his small army to a place on the railroad to the east of Jackson called Champion’s Hill, so named after a local plantation-owning family whose son was an officer in the 15th Mississippi. The town was highly defensible, standing as it did on a ridge seventy feet above the surrounding plain. On May 16, the Champion’s Hill position was attacked with success by the Union. McPherson’s corps caused the Confederate line to cave in. McClernand’s corps attacked less aggressively. This increased Grant’s lack of trust in him, which was to result in his dismissal on June 19.

From Champion’s Hill, Grant pressed on to the Big Black River, which ran between him and Vicksburg. The rebel position was attacked on May 17 and at once gave way, after which Pemberton’s ragged and half-starved army fell back within the lines of Vicksburg. Grant at once took the city under siege, and during May 19-22 he launched a series of assaults on the defences, all of which cost the Union heavily, so heavily that a soldier of the 93rd Regiment described the attack as like “marching men to their deaths in line of battle.” After the last and most deter mined assault of May 23, Grant reverted to the tactics of deliberate siege. During that night, Union soldiers, whose attacks had carried them to the very lip of the Confederate entrenchments, stealthily withdrew to safer positions. The besiegers had suffered over 3,000 casualties during the great assault of May 22, at least 1,000 of which were caused by McClernand grotesquely demanding reinforcements for a success he had not achieved.

Johnston did not appear nor would he throughout the weeks of siege that followed, though the Vicksburg newspaper, in an effort to sustain morale, constantly reported his approach. The newspaper was now printed on the back of squares of wallpaper. Newsprint was not the only commodity in short supply; so were bread, flour, meat, and vegetables. The garrison and the citizens, who had dug themselves shelters against shellfire in the sides of the city’s sunken roads, subsisted on mule meat, and peanuts, “goober peas,” supplemented by skinned rats. Grant essayed his first assault on May 19, which was repulsed with heavy loss but renewed on May 22, again without success, despite a supporting bombardment by 300 guns firing from positions on land and on gunboats. On May 25, Pemberton, from within the fortress, declared a truce to enable the burial of the dead and the collection of the wounded. The stench of decomposing bodies hung around the defences. The same day, however, Grant ordered the renewal of deliberate siege, to be mounted against the sector dominated by the 3rd Louisiana Redoubt, or Fort Hill, as the Union soldiers called it. There were several more assaults in the ensuing weeks; in the intervals, Johnny Reb and Billy Yank fraternised across the earthworks, gossiping, exchanging taunts, threats, and boasts but also necessities including Union coffee and Confederate tobacco, as long as such supplies lasted.

Confederate defences at Vicksburg were so strong that, as would happen at Petersburg in 1864, the Union set about undermining them in an effort to secure a breach. Once a breach was established across the river on dry land, a crossing to the outworks of Vicksburg was effected with surprising ease. The difficulty in investing the fortification remained. It was carried out by classic European siege technique, sapping a way forward by digging entrenchments and parallels, but with an American variant. Ahead of the sap diggers, the sappers, the besiegers pushed a shot-proof shield, the sap-roller, which protected the sappers as they entrenched their earthworks. At intervals the sappers dug a battery position, in which artillery was installed to keep the Confederates under fire at decreasing range. By June 7 the most advanced battery was 75 yards from the parapet of Fort Hill. The besiegers kept up a relentless rifle fire. The sappers also refined their task of sap-rolling by bringing up a railroad car loaded with cotton bales to absorb the enemy’s fire, but the rebels reversed the advantage so gained by firing incendiary bullets into the railroad car, setting it alight and burning it to the ground. Nevertheless, the saps were pressed forward and by June 22 the sappers were at the foot of the Fort Hill breastwork. Colonel Andrew Hickenlooper, commanding the approach, then conceived a new technique. Calling for volunteers with experience of coal mining, he paid them to drive a shaft under the Confederate position. By June 25, it was completed, 45 yards long and ending in a chamber packed with 2,200 pounds of gunpowder. At 3:30 p.m. on June 25 the vast charge was exploded and most of Fort Hill rose into the sky as dust and ashes. When the cloud cleared, the attackers saw to their dismay that the defenders, anticipating the explosion, against which they had counter-mined, had dug a new parapet across the interior of the fort, from which they could shoot down at the Union soldiers as they stormed into the crater. Grant pressed attacks all evening and night until the floor of the crater was slippery with blood, but still the defences held. Eventually, after the loss of 34 men killed and 209 wounded, the assault was called off.

Almost immediately, however, the Union resumed tunnelling and by July 1 had driven a new shaft under the left wing of the fort, which was packed with powder. The Confederates counter-mined, using six slaves to do the digging. On July 1, 1,800 pounds of gunpowder was detonated by the Union miners, which destroyed the Confederate counter-mines and killed the counter-miners, all save one slave who was blown clean through the air, to land in Union lines. No assault, however, followed the explosion, which largely destroyed the 3rd Louisiana Redoubt. Instead, the attackers came up rapidly and opened a drenching fire on the entrance to the redoubt, which the Confederates tried to close with a new breastwork, eventually with success. Siege warfare was resumed all along the Vicksburg perimeter, where in some places the two sides were separated only by the thickness of a single parapet. New mines were begun in several places and trenches widened to prepare for a further ground assault, which Grant proposed to make on July 6. Unknown to the Union, though it was with reason suspected, the defenders were at their last gasp. At Milliken’s Bend, 15 miles northwest of Vicksburg, on June 7, two regiments of black troops, eligible to bear arms since the Emancipation Proclamation, bravely repelled a Confederate attack, though at heavy cost to themselves.

Pemberton, meanwhile, was having boats built from the timbers of dismantled houses and so planning to force an escape to the eastern shore. Many of the garrison were on the point of mutiny, since they were starving. It was obvious that Pemberton would be forced to surrender very shortly. Word of the garrison’s demoralisation had reached Grant, and he was reluctant to mount further costly attacks. Johnston was approaching from the east, but, outnumbered as he was, it was most improbable that he could raise the siege. On July 1, Pemberton questioned his subordinate commanders to test their opinion as to the likely success of an effort to break out. Two replied advocating surrender, the other two in almost the same terms. The condition of the garrison was desperate. The soldiers, together with the 3,000 remaining civilian residents, were starving, the men in too weakened a condition to maintain a steadfast defence. In the days after July 1 the spirit of the garrison collapsed. On July 3 white flags appeared at several places on the parapets, and at the 3rd Louisiana Redoubt voices were heard calling for a cease-fire. A Union party went forward to investigate and returned with two Confederate officers, blindfolded as the protocol of siege warfare required. One of them was Pemberton’s aide-de-camp, carrying a letter for Grant. Pemberton had written to spare any further “effusion of blood,” the words Lee was to use at the surrender at Appomattox two years hence. He was also requesting the appointment of commissioners to arrange terms of surrender, a normal and conventional procedure at the termination of a siege. Grant’s view of terms was established and well-known. It was the same as he had offered at Fort Donelson in February 1862: “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.”

Grant, who had served with Pemberton in Mexico, was on this occasion less peremptory, though he made his meaning equally clear. Pemberton attempted to prolong discussions by meeting Grant outside the line, but the Union commander would not yield an inch. Pemberton quibbled and it seemed that the fighting might resume, until Pemberton’s subordinate suggested that some chosen junior officers should discuss the matter. Grant agreed, on condition that he was not bound by what they might agree to. His emissary, General Bowen, returned to Grant with Pemberton’s suggestion that the garrison be accorded the “honours of war,” which meant that it should be allowed to march out but under arms, subsequently to be retained. Grant refused the suggestion outright but said that he would make a final offer before midnight. He held strictly to his view that the enemy were in rebellion and could not enjoy any of the privileges of legitimate combatants. In the interval he held a council of war, though much against his better judgement, at which General James McPherson, whom Grant held in high esteem, suggested that Grant offer to parole Pemberton’s troops. Since even if Pemberton submitted to an unconditional surrender, Grant would face the burden of shipping Pemberton’s thousands into captivity, Grant agreed and the proposition was sent into the fortress. Pemberton, whose starving soldiers were on the point of mutiny, accepted and on July 4 the garrison marched out to be paroled. Pemberton’s officers were allowed to retain their swords and one horse cart. The other weapons and regimental colours were to be stacked outside the lines. Paroles were written and signed for the prisoners, 31,600 in number. Grant permitted them to return inside Vicksburg and then allowed them to drift away. As he was sure that, if left at liberty, they would return to their homes and not resume military service, he felt that this was a safe course of action. So, generally, it proved to be. The defeated Confederates were indeed content to find their own way from the battleground, a disturbing outcome of the Mississippi Valley campaign, with implications for the whole of the South. The occupation of the city that followed was notably good-natured, with Union troops distributing their rations to the emaciated survivors. The value of their victory perhaps disposed the victors to be generous. As Grant correctly observed, “The fall of the Confederacy was settled when Vicksburg fell.”1

News of the surrender of Vicksburg caused General Frank Gardner, who commanded the garrison at Port Hudson, last of the Confederate blocking places on the Mississippi, to surrender on July 8. Port Hudson, very strongly fortified, controlled a bend in the river with twenty-one heavy guns. At surrender, the garrison numbered 6,340, but the soldiers were weakened by shortage of food. They had also been subjected to assault from land and water for many previous weeks. Surrender was a relief. As at Vicksburg, the incoming Union soldiers offered their rations to the starving defenders.

Not only did this place the line of the Mississippi under Union control, so that, in Lincoln’s words, “the Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea,” it also cut the Confederacy in half, slicing off the western half, including the whole of Texas and the territories of Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and what would be Oklahoma from material and most other assistance from the Old South. Huge stocks of cattle, horses, and mules were lost to the Confederacy by the capture of Vicksburg and Kirby Smith, commander of the Western Department, was told by Jefferson Davis in the aftermath that thenceforth he would have to manage by himself.

After the capture of Vicksburg, Grant received the following letter from Lincoln:

My dear General,

I do not remember that you and I ever met personally. I write this now as a grateful acknowledgement for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further. When you first reached the vicinity of Vicksburg, I thought you should do, what you finally did—march the troops across the neck, run the batteries with the transports, and thus go below; and I never had any faith, except a general hope that you knew better than I, that the Yazoo Pass expedition, and the like, could succeed. When you got below, and took Port Gibson, Grand Gulf, and vicinity, I thought you should go down the river and join Gen. Banks; and when you turned Northward East of the Big Black, I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right, and I was wrong.

Yours truly,
A. Lincoln.
2

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!