“Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until the key is in our pocket.” ~President Abraham Lincoln
July 4, 1863 marked a double victory for the United States: Lee retreated from Gettysburg, PA leaving the victory to George Meade and the Army of the Potomac, and Ulysses S. Grant split the Confederacy into two by defeating Vicksburg, MS. Yet, in modern popularity, Gettysburg often overshadows its equally important counterpart. While Gettysburg marks a turning point in the war and a long-sought victory for the Union in the east, Vicksburg was a highly strategic victory that heavily affected the Confederate ability to wage war.
The Mississippi River was the dividing line of the Confederacy and Vicksburg was its stronghold. The city is located on a high bluff overlooking a horseshoe bend in the river, impossible to approach by water and surrounded by swamp that was practically impenetrable. Vicksburg, and its counterpart at Port Hudson, blocked Union navigation on the Mississippi and allowed for communication to the states to the west of the river crucial for men and supplies. Previous attempts to capture Vicksburg in 1862 under Admiral David Farragut had failed, but in a campaign that lasted from December 26, 1862 to July 4, 1863, the focus again turned to breaking Vicksburg’s stronghold.
General Ulysses S. Grant first planned a two-pronged attack while marching his army down the Mississippi Central Railroad and establishing a forward base at Holly Springs. He would send Major General William T. Sherman down the river with four divisions and take the remaining force down the railroad line to Oxford. He hoped to lure the Confederates—12,000 men at Vicksburg under Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton and 24,000 men under Major General Earl Van Dorn at Grenada—out of their strongholds and into an attack near Grenada.
Getting in Grant’s way was War Democrat Major General John A. McClernand who convinced President Lincoln that he could lead an army down the Mississippi and take Vicksburg. Lincoln approved and ordered Major General Nathaniel P. Banks to advance upriver from New Orleans. Nervous about McClernand, General-in-Chief Henry Halleck gave Grant control of all troops in his own department. Subsequently, Grant appropriated McClernand’s troops for his own strategy, the beginnings of a private dispute between the two that continued through the campaign.
The first phase of operations failed to take Vicksburg. Sherman’s force disembarked at Johnson’s Plantation on the Yazoo River, tried to push through the swamps toward Walnut Hills, and was repulsed at Chickasaw Bluff with heavy casualties. At the same time, Grant’s overland offensive was disrupted by raids by Earl Van Dorn and Nathan Bedford Forrest. He ultimately had to abandon his advance after Van Dorn destroyed his supply depot at Holly Springs.
After Sherman’s assault failed, McClernand ordered him to attach his force to a assault down the Mississippi. Despite the affront to Grant, Sherman joined what McClernand called the Army of the Mississippi and commenced a combined naval and land movement against Fort Hindman on the Arkansas River. Between January 9 and January 11, 1863, this combined attack successfully took the fort and accepted the surrender of the Confederate force there. This victory did not substantially contribute to the fall of Vicksburg, only eliminated an impediment to Union shipping. An unhappy Grant, ordered McClernand back to the Mississippi and assumed personal command of the campaign on January 13. For the next two months, Grant conducted his “Bayou Operations,” attempts to use or construct alternative waterways to position troops near Vicksburg without approaching directly from the heavily fortified Mississippi River side. Each of his attempts was a failure.
Grant was not about to admit defeat and constructed a new plan to crack Vicksburg: he would march his force down the opposite side of the Mississippi and cross south of Vicksburg. There he could attack the city from the south or east, or join with Banks and attack the city together. While McClernand started the land forces down to their crossing place at Hard Times, Louisiana, Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter sent seven gunboats and three empty troop transport guns past the Confederate guns. Despite being spotted and fired upon from the bluff, Porter managed to get his boats through by hugging the east shore right under the guns where the Confederates could not hit them. In order to mask his crossing Grant planned a feint by Sherman against Snyder’s Bluff, Mississippi and a cavalry raid through central Mississippi by Colonel Benjamin Grierson. The cavalry raid was successful in drawing out Confederate forces from Vicksburg, allowing Grant to cross.
In April and May 1863 Grant slowly worked his way closer to Vicksburg, tightening the circle around the fortified city. Engagements at Grand Gulf, Snyder’s Bluff, Port Gibson, Raymond, Jackson, Champion Hill, and Big Black River Bridge forced Pemberton into a siege at Vicksburg. Grant assaulted the Confederate defenses on May 19 and May 22 with some success but high casualties. With the noose tightening, General Joseph E. Johnston ordered Pemberton to evacuate the city to save his force, but Pemberton thought the task impossible. Pemberton and Vicksburg held out for six weeks, hoping for help from Johnston that would have given the Confederates a numerical advantage. Despite orders to assist Pemberton, Johnson did not come to the rescue and on July 4, Pemberton surrendered both the city and his force to Grant.
After receiving the news of Vicksburg’s fall, Port Hudson also fell to the Union after a 48 day siege by Banks’ force against the 7,500 Confederate soldiers trapped behind the works. Port Hudson and Vicksburg were the Confederacy’s two anchor points on the Mississippi; once one fell the other could not stand. The Union had cut the Confederacy in two and successfully controlled the Mississippi River. The Confederacy not only lost unity and control of the major water route through their states, this loss also meant that the Trans-Mississippi was cut off and could not receive direction from Richmond, nor Richmond receive supplies and men from their western states.
The casualties for the siege itself were 2,872 Confederates and 4,910 Union; for the full campaign beginning in March casualties amounted to 9,091 Confederate and 10,142 Union. Grant successfully captured his second Confederate army; 29, 495 Confederates were captured and paroled. Grant’s star was on the rise and would soon rise further under the eyes of Abraham Lincoln, who apologized for mistrusting him and interfering in the campaign.
July 4, 2013 was a bitter Independence Day for the Confederates; they felt the double blow of surrender at Vicksburg and defeat at Gettysburg. For the Union, July 2013 was the turning point they needed: Vicksburg fallen in the west and finally victory in the east. A change was felt in the tides of war.
Thanks to Zac Cowsert for help on this post.