On July 4, 1863, Major General U.S. Grant’s army captured Vicksburg, Mississippi. This campaign often gets hastily passed over in history conversations. Gettysburg and Fourth festivities take precedent. I’m at fault for neglecting this event as well. Still, the fall of this small, quiet town played a pivotal role in the destruction of the Confederacy some twenty-one months later. Why was Vicksburg so important? Think of the town like the hub of a wagon wheel, that’s how significant its location was. It occupied the first high ground south of Memphis, overlooking the Mississippi River—the most important highway in the nation. On land, two railroad lines traversed through the region. One line ran east and connected with other roads “leading to all points of the Southern States.” The other railroad line started from the opposite side of the river and extended “west as far as Shreveport, Louisiana.”
Vicksburg was the last stronghold guarding the Mississippi River. The side that held this town thus commanded the tons of supplies moving to-and-fro. The Confederacy also could only challenge the Federal Navy’s control of the river by means of the land-based artillery at Vicksburg. Furthermore, Port Hudson, Louisiana and other forts south of the city would become untenable if Vicksburg fell. By 1863, Vicksburg was the last remaining junction that connected the communication lines across the breadth of the Confederacy. Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana lay to the west. Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia lay to the east.
From the get go, President Abraham Lincoln understood the strategic situation, aka big picture. He aptly referred to the mighty Mississippi River back in 1862 as “the backbone of the Rebellion [and the] key to the whole situation.” As long as the Confederates held it, they could “obtain supplies of all kinds, and it [was] a barrier against our forces.” Taking the strongholds along the Mississippi had to be done in order to bring all the southern states back into the union.
The Confederacy, on the other hand, had General Robert E. Lee. He looked at the situation through a narrow lens. On April 10, 1862, he wrote to Major General John C. Pemberton, commanding general in the western theater: “If [the] Mississippi Valley [was] lost [the] Atlantic States [would] be ruined.” Herein lay the problem for the Confederacy. Lee only had one strategy: win the war in Virginia.
Lee saw the Vicksburg and Mississippi Valley dilemma as “a question between Virginia and the Mississippi.” This was a crucial point. Would the entire Confederacy collapse if Richmond were taken, or would it fail if the government moved somewhere else, such as Atlanta? Lee wouldn’t consider these and many more questions. So, come early spring 1863, he refused to transfer any of his divisions out west And there was still time to at least try and relieve pressure out west but no relief came.
Instead, Grant’s army gobbled up the Mississippi Valley. The entire Vicksburg Campaign spanned November 2, 1862–July 4, 1863. It was exceptionally brutal. Civilians were trapped and starving in the city; much of Vicksburg lay in ruins. Finally after nine months, the Confederates surrendered. The Union forces captured a foundry, 60,000 rifled muskets, 172 cannon, a substantial amount of ammunition, and 31,600 Confederate soldiers.
The surrender of Vicksburg was like a domino effect. Union troops shortly thereafter walked into an abandoned Jackson, Mississippi; most of the state of Mississippi was now in Union hands. And six days after Vicksburg fell, the Confederate garrison at Port Hudson surrendered. The entire Mississippi River and Valley was gone. The Union armies and navy had severed the “backbone of the Rebellion”. Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas lay isolated, while the southern states to the east were exposed to invasion from the north and west. It was just a matter of time before the Confederacy capitulated.
 Many thanks to Bill Jayne for his editorial comments. Bill is a life long student of military history. He is president of the Cape Fear Civil War Roundtable. He served in the 27th Marines at Khe Sanh. After Vietnam, he attended Berkley where he earned an English degree.
 U. S. Grant, Personal Memoirs, vol. 1, 250.
 David Porter, “The Opening of the Lower Mississippi,” Battles and Leaders, vol. 2, 24. For more on Vicksburg, see Shea and Winshel, Vicksburg is the Key, and Terrence J. Winshel, Triumph and Defeat: The Vicksburg Campaign (New York: Savas Beatie, 2004), and Dr. C. Gabel, Staff Ride Handbook for the Vicksburg Campaign, December 1862–July 1863 (Pickle Partners Publishing, ebook).
 R. E. Lee to Major General John C. Pemberton, Richmond, VA, April 10, 1862, O.R., Ser. 1, vol. 6, 432.
 R. E. Lee to James Seddon, Fredericksburg, May 10, 1863, O.R. Ser. 1, vol. 25, pt. 2, 790.
 Edward Porter Alexander, Fighting for the Confederacy, criticizes Lee several times for his Virginia-centric view of the strategic problem. The 1907 edition of this book is on google books for free.
 On March 11, Lee attended a council of war in Richmond to discuss the strategic situation. For meeting and date, see Archer Jones, “The Gettysburg Decision,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 68, no. 3 (July 1960): 332. On April 6, Secretary of War Seddon wrote to Lee and again asked him if he could send just two brigades to Bragg. See James Seddon to R. E. Lee, Richmond, VA, April 6, 1863, O.R., Ser. 1, vol. 25, pt. 2, 708–09. Then, on April 14, Adjutant and Inspector Samuel Cooper, on behalf of President Davis, beseeched Lee to relinquish two divisions for middle Tennessee. See Adjutant and Inspector General S. Cooper, Richmond, VA, April 14, 1863, O.R., Ser. 1, vol. 25, pt. 2, 720. Davis had seen how dire the situation was in Tennessee and Mississippi as he had traveled to these states in December 1862, see Joseph Johnston, “Jefferson Davis and the Mississippi Campaign,” Battles and Leaders, vol. 3, 474–75.
 Grant, Personal Memoirs, vol. 1, 250.
 Battles and Leaders, vol. 3, 537.
 General Johnston had two choices at Jackson, Mississippi: he could prepare for a siege that would trap his army or evacuate his army, see J. E. Johnston to Davis, Jackson, July 16, 1863, and Brandon, July 16, 1863, found in Johnston, Narrative, 567. For Vicksburg, see O.R., Ser. 1, vol. 24, pts., 1–3 and vol. 26 pts., 1–2, and U. S. Grant, Personal Memoirs, vol. 1, 422–570. For quote, see David Porter, “The Opening of the Lower Mississippi,” Battles and Leaders, vol. 2, 24.
 The South lost another 5,500 soldiers as prisoners, including one major general and one brigadier general, “20 pieces of heavy artillery, 5 complete batteries, numbering 31 pieces of field artillery, a good supply of projectiles for small-arms, [and] 150,000 rounds of small-arms ammunition.” See Major General Nathaniel P. Banks to Major General Henry W. Halleck, General-in-Chief, Headquarters, Port Hudson, LA, July 10, 1863, O.R., Ser. 1, vol. 26, pt. 1, 55.
 Illustration 1: Strategic Significance of Vicksburg, map taken from R. E. Lee’s Grand Strategy and Leadership by JoAnna McDonald. Savas and Beatie Publications, El Dorado Hills, CA. Date: TBD. Illustration 2: Steamboat, https://shiphistory.org/2021/02/26/steamboats-enslavement-and-freedom/. Illustration 3: Mississippi: Backbone of the Rebellion, https://www.nps.gov/articles/the-siege-of-port-hudson-forty-days-and-nights-in-the-wilderness-of-death-teaching-with-historic-places.htm. Illustration 4: Vicksburg, http://npshistory.com/publications/civil_war_series/24/sec9.htm. Illustration 5: Captured cannon, https://mississippiconfederates.wordpress.com/2014/05/14/artillery-during-the-siege-of-vicksburg.