While many minds are on Gettysburg, early July always finds me reflecting on the siege and surrender at Vicksburg. In the larger picture, I have always found the Vicksburg victory more important because it leads to the important result of opening the Mississippi again to Union commerce.
The fall of Vicksburg also comes at the end of an interminably long campaign. It opened on Christmas Day 1862 when Sherman arrived at the Walnut Hills to find that his orders to assault the Vicksburg defenses was a tall order, given the very difficult and unintelligible terrain. Only after months of frustrating failures to find a way to come to grips with the bluff-top citadel, Grant finally determined to cross the river below Vicksburg, march on Jackson before turning to take on the “Gibraltar of the West.”After two failed assaults, it all came down to a siege. After weeks of patience and boredom Confederate General John Pemberton decided to surrender on July 4th, 1863 – despite the humiliation it implied – because he was convinced he could get better terms from Grant on that day. And perhaps he did.
Sherman received word of the surrender and penned this letter to his chief:
TO ULYSSES S. GRANT
Camp on Bear Creek
July 4, 1863
Major General Grant
My Dear General:
The telegraph has just announced to me that Vicksburg is ours; its garrison will march out, stack arms, and return within their lines as prisoners of war, and that you will occupy the city only with such troops as you have designated in orders. I can hardly contain myself. Surely will I not punish any soldier for being “unco happy” this most glorious anniversary of the birth of a nation, whose sire and father was a Washington. Did I not know the honesty, modesty, and purity of your nature, I would be tempted to follow the examples of my standard enemies of the press in indulging in wanton flattery; but as a man and 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. To me the delicacy with which you have treated a brave but deluded enemy is more eloquent than the most gorgeous oratory of an Everett. This is a day of jubilee, a day of rejoicing to the faithful, and I would like to hear the shout of my old and patient troops; but I must be a Gradgrind – I must have facts, knock, and must go on. Already are my orders out to give one big huzza and sling the knapsack for new fields. Tuttle will march at once to Messinger’, Parke to Birdsong, and I will shift my headquarters to Fox’s. McArthur will clear the road of obstructions made against the coming of the unseen Johnston, and as soon as Ord and Steele’s columns are out, I will push ahead. I want maps, but of course the first thing is to clear the Big Black River and get up on the high ground beyond, when we move according to developments. I did want rest, but I ask nothing until the Mississippi River is ours, and Sunday and 4th of July are nothing to Americans till the river of our greatness is free as God made it. Though in the background, as I ever wish to be in civil war, I feel that I have labored some to secure this glorious result. I am, with respect, your friend,
Sherman had hoped “Grant would have given me Vicksburg and let someone else follow up the enemy inland,” but that was not to be. As ordered, the wizened warrior followed his superior’s wishes and set off to intercept Johnston.