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The Vicksburg Campaign was a series of battles and maneuvers in the American Civil War directed against Vicksburg, Mississippi, a fortress city that dominated the last Confederate-controlled section of the Mississippi River. The Union Army of the Tennessee under Major General Ulysses S. Grant gained control of the Mississippi River by capturing this stronghold and defeating John C. Pemberton's forces stationed there.
The campaign consisted of many important naval operations, troop maneuvers, failed initiatives, and eleven distinct battles over the period December 26, 1862, to July 4, 1863. Military historians divide the campaign into two formal phases: Operations Against Vicksburg (December 1862 – January 1863) and Grant's Operations Against Vicksburg (March – July 1863).
After Pemberton's army surrendered (one day after the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg), and when Nathaniel P. Banks captured Port Hudson, the entire Mississippi River belonged to the Union. These events are widely considered the turning point of the war. And Grant's Vicksburg Campaign is considered one of the masterpieces of American military history.
Prelude to the campaign
Vicksburg was of great strategic importance to the Confederates. In their hands, it blocked Union navigation down the Mississippi and it allowed communication with the states west of the river, upon which the Confederates depended extensively for agricultural supplies. The natural defenses of the city were ideal, earning it the nickname "The Gibraltar of the Confederacy." It was located on a high bluff overlooking a horseshoe-shaped bend in the river, DeSoto Peninsula, making it almost impossible to approach by ship. North and east of Vicksburg was the Yazoo Delta , 200 miles north to south and up to 50 across, a practically impenetrable swamp. About twelve miles up the Yazoo River were powerful Confederate batteries at Haines Bluff . The Louisiana land west of Vicksburg was also difficult, riven with streams and poor country roads, and on the wrong side of the river from the fortress.
The city had been under Union naval attack before. Admiral David Farragut moved up the river after he captured New Orleans and on May 18, 1862, demanded the surrender of Vicksburg. Farragut had insufficient troops to force the issue and he moved back to New Orleans. He returned with a flotilla in June of 1862, but their attempts June 26–28 to bombard the fortress into surrender failed. They shelled Vicksburg throughout July and fought some minor battles with a few Confederate vessels in the area, but their forces were insufficient to attempt a landing and they abandoned attempts to force the surrender of the city. Farragut investigated the possibility of bypassing the fortified cliffs by digging a canal across the neck of the river's bend. Brig. Gen. Thomas Williams, attached to Farragut's command, began digging work on the canal by employing local laborers and some soldiers, but it was an enterprise that would take many months to complete.
By the fall of 1862, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck had graduated from command of the Western Theater to be general-in-chief of all Union armies. On November 23, he indicated to Grant his preference for a major move down the Mississippi to Vicksburg; in Halleck's style, he left considerable initiative to design a campaign, an opportunity that the pugnacious Grant seized. Halleck has received criticism for not moving promptly overland from Memphis to seize Vicksburg during the summer when he was in command on the scene. But he was justified in believing that the Navy could capture the fortress on its own, not knowing that the naval force was insufficiently manned with ground troops to finish the job. What might have achieved success in the summer of 1862 was no longer possible by November because the Confederates had amply reinforced the garrison by that time.
Grant's army marched south down the Mississippi Central Railroad, making a forward base at Holly Springs. He planned a two-pronged assault in the direction of Vicksburg. His principal subordinate, William T. Sherman, was to advance down the river with four divisions (about 32,000 men) and Grant would continue with the remaining forces (about 40,000) down the railroad line to Oxford, where he would wait for developments, hoping to lure the Confederate army out of the city to attack him in the vicinity of Granada, Mississippi .
On the Confederate side, forces in Mississippi were under the command of Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton, an officer from New England who chose to fight for the South. Pemberton had approximately 12,000 men in Vicksburg and Jackson, Mississippi, and General Earl Van Dorn had approximately 24,000 at Granada.
Meanwhile, political forces were at work. Abraham Lincoln had long recognized the key importance of Vicksburg; he wrote "Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until the key is in our pocket." Lincoln also envisioned a two-pronged offensive, but one up and down the river. General and politician John A. McClernand, a "war Democrat", had convinced Lincoln that he could lead an army down the river and take Vicksburg. Lincoln approved his proposal and wanted Nathaniel P. Banks to advance up river from New Orleans at the same time. Filled with dreams of military and consequent political conquest, the ambitious McClernand began organizing regiments, sending them to Memphis, Tennessee. Back in Washington, D.C., Halleck was likewise nervous about McClernand, giving Grant control of all troops in his own department. McClernand's troops were split into two corps, one under McClernand, the other under Sherman. McClernand complained, but to no avail. Grant appropriated his troops, one of several maneuvers in a private war within the Union army between Grant and McClernand that would be waged throughout the campaign.
Battles in the Operations against Vicksburg, December 1862 – January 1863
The following battles comprise the "Operations against Vicksburg" phase of the Vicksburg Campaign:
- Battle of Chickasaw Bayou (December 26–29, 1862) — Sherman disembarked at the Yazoo River to approach the Vicksburg defenses from the northeast. On December 27, the Federals pushed their lines forward through the swamps toward Walnut Hills, which were strongly defended. On December 29, Sherman ordered a frontal assault, which was repulsed with heavy casualties, and then withdrew.
During this period, Grant's half of the offensive was failing. His lines of communication were disrupted by raids by Van Dorn and Nathan Bedford Forrest, who destroyed his advance base at Holly Springs, forcing him to live off the country. Grant abandoned his overland advance.
- Battle of Arkansas Post (January 19–20, 1863) — In early January, McClernand arrived on the scene with the corps he had recruited. He sought to achieve military glory by launching a combined land and naval movement against Fort Hindman , on the Arkansas River at Arkansas Post. On January 4, he ordered Sherman to attach his corps to the operation, under McClernand's command, calling his 32,000-man force the Army of the Mississippi. This was a direct provocation against Grant, but Sherman acceded to the senior officer. The combined efforts of Sherman's XV Corps, McClernand's XIII Corps, and gunboats under Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter forced the Confederates to surrender on January 20. Union losses were high and the victory did not contribute to the capture of Vicksburg. Grant was furious, ordered McClernand back to the Mississippi, and assumed personal command of the campaign at Milliken's Bend .
Grant's Bayou Operations, January – March 1863
That winter, Grant conducted a series of initiatives to approach and capture Vicksburg, termed "Grant's Bayou Operations". Their general theme was to use or construct alternative waterways so that troops could be positioned within striking distance of Vicksburg, without requiring a direct approach on the Mississippi under the Confederate guns.
- The efforts to complete the Williams Canal across DeSoto Peninsula, bypassing Vicksburg's guns, were stepped up by adding Sherman's soldiers to the labor force, although the Confederates could have simply moved their guns to attack the canal's mouth downstream. The river was not cooperative either; Sherman's troops risked drowning as they dug.
- Grant attempted to connect Lake Providence, northwest of the city, to the Red River, which would have allowed him to deposit troops south of the city, near Port Hudson. James B. McPherson's troops worked on this, despite constant harassment from Confederate guerrillas, but the effort was abandoned when it was realized that the waterways were too constricted with fallen trees for transports.
- McClernand and several gunboats destroyed some dikes in late January outside Helena, Arkansas, some 400 miles above Vicksburg, hoping to float gunboats down the now-flooded Yazoo Delta, in what was called the Yazoo Pass Expedition. But the primeval delta apparently sided with the Confederates, as low-hanging trees destroyed anything above deck. Confederates felled more trees in the way. A quickly constructed Confederate fort ("Fort Pemberton") on the Tallahatchie River by Greenwood, Mississippi, fired on the Union boats, and the effort collapsed in mid-March 1863.
- Admiral Porter started an effort on March 16 to go up the Yazoo Delta via Steele's Bayou, just north of Vicksburg, to Deer Creek. This would outflank Fort Pemberton and allow landing troops between Vicksburg and Yazoo City. The delta seemingly conspired against the Union forces yet again, with angry animals dropping from trees on the Union boats and Confederates felling more trees in their path. This time the Union forces became immobilized, the Confederates intent on capturing the lot of them. Sherman's command sent infantry assistance to repel the Confederate cavalry and guerrillas bedeviling Porter, but this approach was abandoned as too difficult.
- Grant's final attempt was to dig another canal from Duckport Landing to Walnut Bayou, aimed at getting lighter boats past Vicksburg. By the time the canal was almost finished, on April 6, water levels were declining and none but the lightest of flatboats could get through. Grant abandoned this canal and started planning anew.
Plan for the campaign and initial movements
All of the Bayou Operations were failures, but Grant was known for his stubborn determination and would not quit. His final option was bold but risky: March the army down the west side of the Mississippi, cross the river south of Vicksburg, and attack from the south and the east. Success would require good luck. Porter would have to sneak past the guns to get sufficient gunboats and transport ships south of the city. Once they had completed the downstream passage, they would not be able to return due to the river current. And maintaining supply lines across the river might be difficult, forcing his army to subsist off the land for a long period.
On March 29, McClernand set his troops to work building bridges and corduroy roads. They filled in the swamps in their way as well, and by April 17 had a 70-mile road from Milliken's Bend to the proposed River crossing at Hard Times, Louisiana , below Vicksburg.
On April 16, a clear night with no moon, Porter sent seven gunboats and three empty troop transports loaded with stores to run the bluff, taking care to minimize noise and lights. But the preparations were ineffective. Confederate sentries sighted the boats and the bluff exploded in massive artillery fire. Fires were set along the banks to improve visibility. The Union gunboats answered back. Porter observed that the Confederates mainly hit the high parts of his boats, reasoned that they could not depress their guns, and had them hug the east shore, right under Confederate cannon, so close he could hear rebel commanders giving orders, shells flying overhead. The fleet survived with surprisingly little damage, and only thirteen men were wounded; none killed. The Henry Clay was disabled and burned to the water's edge. On April 22, six more boats loaded with supplies made the run; one did not make it, though no one was killed, the crew having floated downstream on the boat's remnants.
The final piece of the strategy was to divert Pemberton's attention from the river crossing site that the Union troops would use. Grant chose two operations: a feint by Sherman against Snyder's Bluff, Mississippi , north of Vicksburg (see the Battle of Snyder's Bluff below), and a daring cavalry raid through central Mississippi by Colonel Benjamin Grierson, known as Grierson's Raid. The former was inconclusive, but the latter was a spectacular success. Grierson was able to draw out significant Confederate forces to chase him and Pemberton's defenses were dispersed too far around the state. (Pemberton was also wary of Nathaniel Banks's impending advance up the river from Baton Rouge to threaten Port Hudson.)
Opposing forces for the campaign
- IX Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. John G. Parke (corps joined the army in mid-June)
- XIII Corps, Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand
- XV Corps, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman
- Detachment of the XVI Corps, Cadwallader C. Washburn
- XVII Corps, Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson
- Detachment from the District of Northeast Louisiana, Brig. Gen. Elias S. Dennis
John C. Pemberton's Army of Mississippi , approximately 30,000 men, consisted of five divisions, under Maj. Gen. William W. Loring , Maj. Gen. Carter L. Stevenson , Maj. Gen. John H. Forney, Maj. Gen. Martin L. Smith, and Maj. Gen. John S. Owen.
General Joseph E. Johnston's forces in Raymond and Jackson, Mississippi, about 6,000 men, were elements of the Department of the West, including the brigades of Brig. Gen. John Gray, Col. Peyton H. Colquitt, and Brig. Gen. William H. T. Walker.
Battles in Grant's Operations against Vicksburg, April – July 1863
The following battles comprise the "Grant's Operations against Vicksburg" phase of the Vicksburg Campaign:
- Battle of Grand Gulf (April 29, 1863) — Admiral Porter led seven ironclads in an attack on the fortifications and batteries at Grand Gulf, Mississippi , with the intention of silencing the Confederate guns and then securing the area with troops of McClernand's XIII Corps. The naval attack was unsuccessful, but Grant was able to march his men overland across Coffee Point to below the Gulf. After the transports had passed Grand Gulf, they transported the troops to shore at Bruinsburg, Mississippi , a location recommended to Grant by a local slave who was sympathetic to the Union cause. (This was the largest amphibious operation in American military history and would hold that record until the Battle of Normandy in World War II.) The men immediately began marching overland toward Port Gibson, Mississippi. The Confederates had won a hollow victory; the loss at Grand Gulf caused just a slight change in Grant's offensive.
- Battle of Snyder's Bluff (April 29–May 1, 1863) — To ensure that troops in Vicksburg were not moved to Grand Gulf to reinforce the Confederates there, a combined Union army-navy force feigned an attack on Snyder's Bluff, north of the city. Swampy terrain and enemy heavy artillery fire forced them to retire. Sherman had received orders to land his troops at Milliken's Bend, so the gunboats returned to their anchorage at the mouth of the Yazoo.
- Battle of Port Gibson (May 1, 1863) — Grant's army began marching inland from Bruinsburg and easily pushed aside the small Confederate force at Port Gibson. The Union advance did not proceed north directly to Vicksburg, but northeast in the direction of Jackson, Mississippi, where railroad connections could be cut to isolate the Vicksburg garrison. And if the Confederate troops in Jackson were defeated, they would be unable to threaten Grant's flank or rear during his eventual assault on Vicksburg. The advance proceeded in three columns: McClernand's corps was on the left, Sherman's in the center, and James B. McPherson's on the right.
- Battle of Raymond (May 12, 1863) — Confederate commander at Vicksburg, Brig. Gen. John Gregg, led his force from Port Hudson to Jackson and out to Raymond to intercept approaching Union troops. On May 12, McPherson's corps met Gregg's force while crossing Fourteen Mile Creek, initially suffering heavy casualties. Some Union troops broke, but Maj. Gen. John A. Logan rallied a force to hold the line. Heavy fighting continued for six hours, but the overwhelming Union force prevailed. Gregg's men left the field, but had been able to hold up a much superior Union force for a day.
- Battle of Jackson (May 14, 1863) — On May 9, General Joseph E. Johnston received a dispatch from the Confederate Secretary of War directing him to "proceed at once to Mississippi and take chief command of the forces in the field." As he arrived in Jackson on May 13, from Middle Tennessee, he learned that two army corps—Sherman's and McPherson's—were advancing on Jackson. Johnston had only about 6,000 troops were available to defend the town and ordered its evacuation. The Union forces captured the city on May 14, burned part of the town, and cut the railroad connections with Vicksburg. Johnston's evacuation was a tragedy because he could, by late on the 14th, have had 11,000 troops at his disposal and by the morning of the 15th, another 4,000. The fall of the former Mississippi state capital was a blow to Confederate morale.
- Battle of Champion Hill (May 16, 1863) — Grant, now moving west from Jackson, defeated Pemberton in the most significant battle of the campaign so far. Pemberton's force retreated toward Vicksburg.
- Battle of Big Black River Bridge (May 17, 1863) — The Confederate retreat reached Big Black River Bridge the night of May 16–17. Despite erecting breastworks on the east side of the river, Pemberton's force was unable to resist an assault by McClernand's corps, crossed the river, and set fire to the bridges, preventing close Union pursuit. The fleeing Confederates who arrived in Vicksburg later that day were disorganized. The Union forces captured approximately 1,800 troops at Big Black, a loss that the Confederates could ill-afford. This battle sealed the city's fate: the Confederate force was bottled up at Vicksburg.
- Battle of Vicksburg (May 18–July 4, 1863) — The Union army converged on Vicksburg, trapping Pemberton's force. Grant attempted two assaults to break through: May 19 and May 22. The latter assault initially went well, but it was repulsed with 3,200 casualties. Johnston ordered Pemberton to evacuate the city and save his army, but Pemberton thought it impossible to withdraw safely. Johnston planned to attack Grant and relieve Pemberton, but was unable to arrange it in time. Grant besieged the Confederate army. On July 4, after six weeks in which the soldiers and civilians of Vicksburg had no food supplies, and were bombarded constantly, Pemberton surrendered the city and his army.
- Battle of Milliken's Bend (June 7, 1863) — In an effort to cut Grant's supply line, the Confederates attacked the Milliken's Bend supply area up the Mississippi. This was mainly defended by untrained black troops, who fought bravely with inferior weaponry and finally fought off the rebels with help from gunboats, although at horrible cost; the defenders lost 652 to the Confederate 185.
- Battle of Goodrich's Landing (June 29–30, 1863) — After Union forces began occupying the Louisiana river parishes, thousands of escaped slaves flocked to them. The Federals, therefore, leased some plantations and put the freedmen to work growing cotton or other crops; the proceeds from the sale of the crops helped defray expenses for food, clothing, etc. African-American troops were assigned to protect these plantations, releasing other troops to fight. Confederates, determined to recapture some of these freedmen and destroy the crops, undertook an expedition from Gaines's Landing, Arkansas , to Lake Providence. Although the Confederates disrupted these operations, destroyed much property, and captured many supplies and weapons, the raid was only a minor setback for the Union. The Confederates could cause momentary disturbances, but they were unable to effect any lasting changes.
- Battle of Helena (July 4, 1863) — Confederate Lt. Gen. Theophilus H. Holmes 's troops attacked Helena in an attempt to relieve pressure on Vicksburg. Although the Rebels had more troops and did initially capture some of the fortifications, the Union forces repelled them.
Although the Confederate killed and wounded in the siege of Vicksburg were a relatively small 2,872, and Union 4,910, Grant captured his second Confederate army in its entirety (the first being at Fort Donelson): 2,166 officers and 27,230 men surrendered. The Union also captured significant quantities of artillery, small arms, and ammunition.
This was the second of a one-two punch to the Confederacy. July 3 saw the collapse of the Robert E. Lee's invasion of the North at Gettysburg. July 4 saw the Stars and Stripes rising over Vicksburg. To the Confederates, surrendering on Independence Day was a bitter defeat. Union troops behaved well, mixing with Confederates and giving rations to starving soldiers who days before would have been glad to kill them. Speculators who had been hoarding food for higher prices saw their stores broken open and the contents thrown on the streets for the starving rebels. In his Personal Memoirs, Grant observed, "The men of the two armies fraternized as if they had been fighting for the same cause." But resentments lingered: the city refused to celebrate July 4th for another 81 years.
The most significant result of the campaign was control of the Mississippi River, which the Union obtained completely after Banks captured Port Hudson on July 8, also by siege. The Confederacy was now cut in two; one week later, an unarmed ship arrived in Union-held New Orleans from St. Louis after an uneventful trip down the river. President Lincoln announced, "The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea."
Grant deployed Sherman and 50,000 troops against Johnston's 31,000 in Jackson. Johnston tried to lure Sherman into a frontal assault, but Sherman had seen the results of such at Vicksburg. He demurred, and began surrounding the city. Johnston escaped with his army, which was more than Pemberton had achieved, but all of central Mississippi was now under Sherman's control. He would use a subsequent operation against Meridian, Mississippi, as a dress rehearsal for the scorched earth tactics he would later employ in his March to the Sea through Georgia, and then South Carolina.
Grant was the undisputed victor of the Vicksburg Campaign. He would go on to rescue Union forces besieged at Chattanooga and then to replace Halleck as general in chief of all Union armies, at the newly created rank of lieutenant general. Despite his ultimate success in winning the war, Vicksburg is considered his finest campaign—imaginative, audacious, relentless, and a masterpiece of maneuver warfare.
The blame for losing Vicksburg fell not on John Pemberton, but on the overly cautious Joseph E. Johnston. Jefferson Davis said of the defeat, "Yes, from a want of provisions inside and a General outside who wouldn't fight." Anguished soldiers and civilians starving in the siege held hopes that he would come to their aid, but he never did. Accusations of cowardice that had dogged him since the 1862 Peninsula Campaign continued to follow him in the 1864 Atlanta Campaign against Sherman. However, Johnston was far outnumbered, and while he was one of few Confederate generals whom Grant respected, he was out-generaled.
- Ballard, Michael B., Vicksburg, The Campaign that Opened the Mississippi, University of North Carolina Press, 2004, ISBN 0-8078-2893-9.
- Bearss, Edwin C., The Vicksburg Campaign, 3 volumes, Morningside Press, 1991, ISBN 0-890-29308-2.
- Catton, Bruce, Never Call Retreat, Doubleday, 1965, ISBN 0-671-46990-8.
- Eicher, David J., The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War, Simon & Schuster, 2001, ISBN 0-684-84944-5.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian, Random House, 1958, ISBN 0-394-49517-9.
- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States), Oxford University Press, 1988, ISBN 0-195-03863-0.
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