CHAPTER SIX: “Vicksburg: The Victory That Unleashed Ulysses S. Grant”
by Daniel T. Davis
Commentary · Images · Additional Resources · Suggested Reading · About the Author
By Brian Matthew Jordan, co-editor, “Engaging the Civil War” Series
On June 24, 1863, The Middletown Constitution carried the news of “one of the most horrible combats of the whole war.” Like the fight it described, the paper’s account of Milliken’s Bend was short, but austere. “The negroes were driven back until they were almost forced into the river, when they rallied and charged bayonets upon the rebels, often pinning them to the earth,” the report began. “When their bayonets were broken,” the account revealed, the black men in Union blue “clubb[ed] their guns and [beat] out the brains of the rebels. The latter came on with a yell of ‘no quarter.’” So it was that the Washington Chronicle could report that, “the negroes fought better than their white officers.”
Even in real time, Civil War Americans could apprehend that the military operations around Vicksburg, Mississippi—and the forty-seven day siege that brought them to an end—constituted something of a “turning point.” “Vicksburg is the key,” Abraham Lincoln famously remarked to David Dixon Porter. “The war can never be brought to a close until the key is in our pocket.” Vicksburg affords us a glimpse of the Grant we come to know in the summer of 1864: gritty, resolute, and indefatigable; determined to “live off the land,” keep moving on, and, when there was nowhere else to go, dig in for a siege. As Daniel T. Davis demonstrates in his splendid essay, Vicksburg was not just a “turning point” of the war, but also a “turning point” for Ulysses S. Grant.
Only recently, however, have Civil War historians begun to appreciate yet another Vicksburg “turning point.” At places like Milliken’s Bend, chronicled in a recent book by Linda Barnickel, the Vicksburg Campaign offered black soldiers the opportunity to demonstrate their mettle and fighting prowess. If reports of the courage and conviction with which African-American units battled the enemy hardly persuaded all northerners that free blacks and former slaves would make good soldiers, they nonetheless offered up compelling evidence of exactly what this war was about. The following year, from Fort Pillow to Poison Spring, from the trenches of Petersburg to Plymouth, North Carolina, black men in Union blue—and their gray and butternut clad enemies—would erase any lingering doubt about the war’s deepest meaning. Here too, then, Vicksburg pointed the way to the future.
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ECW Chief Historian Christopher Kolakowski offered reflections on Grant in 1863 in a June 22, 2013, post, “The Year of Grant.”
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ECW’s Dave Powell, author of Battle Above the Clouds: The Lifting of the Siege of Chattanooga and the Battle of Lookout Mountain, and Lee White, historian at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, comment on Chattanooga as “Grant’s Next Chapter,” following his victory at Vicksburg:
- “Grant Ascending” by Dave Powell
- “Chattanooga: More Than Just Another Victory for Grant” by Lee White
A magazine clipping compares and contrasts Grant before and after Vicksburg (credit: William Underhill)
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“Old Brains” and the “Young Napoleon”—Even as Henry Halleck (left) encouraged Grant, he conspired with General in Chief of the Army George B. McClellan to have Grant removed. Grant’s victories, which made Halleck burn with jealousy, also kept him relatively safe although not controversy-free. (credit both images: Library of Congress)
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A Park Service map at Navy Circle illustrates the difference between the Mississippi River from 1863 and today. Boats could not avoid passing in front of the city, which stands atop high bluffs, giving it the name “the Gibraltar of the West.” (credit: National Park Service)
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Grant’s repeated attempts to solve the Vicksburg problem included a canal project that would bypass the city entirely. These sketches, posted near the remains of the canal, show construction in 1862 (left) and 1863 (right). (credit both images: National Park Service)
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Harper’s Weekly featured a sketch of Grant and Pemberton talking about the surrender of Vicksburg. (credit: Library of Congress)
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The state of Illinois commissioned a bronze statue to stand at Vicksburg National Military Park. Sculpted by Frederick C. Hibbard and cast by the Florentine Brotherhood Foundry in Chicago, the statue was dedicated in 1919. The horse, “Kangaroo,” was one of Grant’s favorites, given to him as a gift following the battle of Shiloh by an aide, Col. Clark B. Lagow. Grant, an excellent horseman, rode Kangaroo frequently during the Vicksburg campaign. (credit: Chris Mackowski)
In the wake of Grant’s victory at Vicksburg, his name was floated as a possible commander of the Army of the Potomac. Chris Mackowski wrote about that here. After Grant’s victory at Chattanooga, AoP commander George Gordon Meade felt Grant deserved all the praise he received. You can find details here, in a letter Meade wrote to his wife.
You can read ECW’s archive of material on Vicksburg here.
You can visit Vicksburg National Military Park online here.
The Civil War Trust’s “In4” video series features a segment about the Vicksburg Campaign, hosted by historian Terry Winschel, that you can watch here. The series also features a segment about Ulysses S. Grant, hosted by reenactor Curt Fields, that you can watch here.
· Ballard, Michael B. Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi (University of North Carolina Press, 2004)
· Ballard, Michael B. Grant at Vicksburg: The General and the Siege (Southern Illinois University Press, 2013)
· Marszalek, John. Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies: A Life of General Henry W. Halleck (Belknap, 2004)
· Simpson, Brooks D. Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865 (Houghton Mifflin, 2000)
· Smith, Timothy B. The Decision Was Always My Own: Ulysses S. Grant and the Vicksburg Campaign (Southern Illinois University Press, 2018) — “World of Ulysses S. Grant” series
· Solonick, Justin S. Engineering Victory: The Union Siege of Vicksburg (Southern Illinois University Press, 2015)
· Woodworth, Steven E. and Grear, Charles. The Vicksburg Campaign, Civil War Campaigns in the Heartland Series (Southern Illinois University Press, 2013)
About the Author
Daniel T. Davis is the co-managing editor of Emerging Civil War. He has worked as a historian at both Appomattox Court House National Historic Site and at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, as well as for the U.S. Army. His interest in the American Civil War, which focuses on cavalry operations in the Eastern Theater, stems from weekend battlefield trips with his dad. He has authored or co-authored six titles in the Emerging Civil War Series, as well as articles for Hallowed Ground, Civil War Times and Blue & Gray Magazine.