"(As) Valuable as New Orleans is to us, Vicksburg will be even more so." President Lincoln "Vicksburg is worth forty Richmonds." General Hallack "Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until the key is in our pocket." President Lincoln
Late in 1862 Vicksburg was heavily fortified, as were Port Hudson and Grand Gulf, farther south. This section of river was a Confederate stronghold, of which the principal parts of both armies in the west were focused. Grant had the might of the Federal Navy as well, which included Admiral Porter and his fleet of sixty ships, loaded with two hundred and eighty guns, and eight hundred men. Still, there would be many obstacles to overcome.
The first major setback in the winter campaign near Vicksburg was Sherman's disastrous defeat at Chickasaw Bayou on December 29, 1862. The terrain and conditions made it simply impossible for such an attack to succeed and Sherman later wrote his wife: "Well, we have been to Vicksburg, and it was too much for us and we have backed out." Grant had wired Sherman to abandon his march toward Vicksburg, but with communications stopped following the Van Dorn and Forrest raids a week earlier, Sherman never got the message. Chickasaw Bayou was the first of many setbacks that the Federal army would suffer on the road to Vicksburg, and Sherman would pay for this one dearly.
Illinois politician John McClernand was perhaps a competent general in some aspects, but he was far more important to Lincoln as a politial ally. McClernand, a Democrat, had supported the war effort of the Republican Lincoln, and brought critically needed political support for the war effort by Republicans and Democrats alike, especially the midwestern farmers seeking a re-opening of river trade down the Mississippi. Therefore when McClernand went to Lincoln wanting his own command to move on Vicksburg, he could not be refused. Lincoln kept McClernand actively engaged in the campaign, but he also knew that Grant was his real general -- the one that might could accomplish the exceedingly complicated task of taking Vicksburg. "I can't spare this man," Lincoln had said. "He fights."
Just as Grant was Lincoln's favored general, Sherman was Grant's favorite. On January 4, 1863, Sherman relinquished his XIII army corps to General McClernand, later stating that McClernand was "the meanest man we ever had in the west." However it would not be long until Grant has arranged for McClernand's power and position to be sidetracked, as Grant took firm control of the army -- and res-stored much of the lost power back to Sherman.
In the winter of 1863 Grant would try four seperate bayou "experiments, " all of which failed. Expeditions were made on the Louisiana side of the river, but as the late winter and early spring rains came the river rose, flooding more and more area, and creating a virtual moat around Vicksburg of impassable swamps and swollen creeks and river tributaries. The Lake Providence plan, on the Louisiana side, was intended to navigate ships through bayous and creeks -- which by one estimate would consume over 400 miles of travel -- just to get to the south of Vicksburg and onto Mississippi soil there. This, too, failed. Near Greenwood, Mississippi a smaller fleet trying to approach Vicksburg from the east, had been halted at Fort Pemberton, under the command of General W. W. Loring. At a small bottleneck in the Yalobusha River the Confederates had sunk vessels to block the river, and guarded this small bend with infantry and artillery. On the first Union attempt, which was met with disaster, Loring implored his men to "give them blizzards." From then on the general was referred to as "Old Blizzards." On another bayou expedition, The Steele's Bayou project, Admiral Porter's small fleet met so many obstructions -- natural and man made -- that Sherman had to rescue him. The Confederates had felled trees blocking the water passage, and once Porter was deep into the trap the Confederates had then attempted to fell the trees behind him, thus trapping the Federal navy. Only with Sherman's intervention was Porter saved. He wrote "Dear Sherman, Hurry up for heaven's sake. I never knew how helpless an ironclad could be steaming around through the woods without an army to back her." But of all the failed attempts, perhaps the most ill-advised was the long and laborious attempt to actually try to re-channel the Mississippi River with mules and men -- an impossible task. Desperate men often resort to desperate tactics.
Although the terrain of the river area would prove impossible for a large army to navigate, Grant had once predicted that the Yazoo Pass expedition would prove a "perfect success." Of course, it had failed, with all the other attempts, and following this Grant was convinced that his original plan -- the Mississippi Central Railroad route -- had the most chance of success. An amphibious assault in the vicinity of Vicksburg was simply not going to work. However it was now too late to re-consider the inland railroad route. Politial uncertainty in the north, low civilian morale, an impatience with Grant's blunders in the swamps, and the growing dis-satisfaction with the war effort in general now made it impossible for Grant to retreat to Memphis once again. He had to go forward -- and some plan had to work, and work quickly while he still retained power.
Grant's next plan was now to move three full corps down the west bank, far below Vicksburg, and march his men back up river to assault Vicksburg by land on Mississippi soil. It was an extremely risky plan, which Sherman sharply dis-approved of -- as well as most other ranking officers. Grant's effective force of around 35,000 that would be available under this strategy would be heavily outnumbered by Pemberton's 60,000, and Grant had no sure way of transporting supplies, or a reliable escape route if the plan failed. To have the principal Union command in the west trapped and surrounded in Mississippi might well bring an end to the war -- the loss of political support for Lincoln, the gaining of Southern independence, and the permantent dissolution of the Union . This was, arguably, the greatest gamble of the Civil War.
The first part of the plan would be a daring naval move. Grant now ordered his navy to run the Confederate batteries on the bluffs. Grant risked his naval fleet's destruction -- in whole or part -- and being trapped near Vicksburg with much of his strength ruined. On the night of April 16, while Confederate officers were attending a social gala, Grant ordered his fleet, under command of Admiral David D. Porter, to run the strongly positioned Confederate artillery batteries in one of the most dramatic displays of gunfire ever witnessed on the continent. The Rebels lit huge fires on both sides of the river to illuminate the Federal ships, and as one observer wrote, the river bank looked like a "sheet of fire." Houses on the Louisiana side were set afire, and huge vats of tar were ignited on the Vicksburg side. Grant's own young son, witnessing the event, described the river as being "lighted up as if by sunlight." Another observer wrote that "It was as if hell itself were loose that night on the Mississippi River."
Although not without loss, the gamble proved successful. Later, more ships and troops were moved in this manner. Not only was it successful, but it confused Pemberton, who thought Grant had abandoned his Vicksburg strategy and was evacuating northward. To further confuse and confound the Confederate leaders, Grant now ordered General Benjamin Grierson from LaGrange, Tennessee to move swiftly on a raid through central Mississippi, and then into Louisiana, which would become famous as "Grierson's Raid." Starting on April 17, the raid took only 16 days to cover 600 miles, of which the entire length of Mississippi was traversed. Grierson estimated that perhaps 20,000 Confederates had been sent, at one time or another, to catch him, and that his force killed 150 or so Rebels, captured and paroled 500 or more prisoners, destroyed 60 miles of rail and telegraph lines, and captured 1,000 horses and mules. The plan was the perfect diversonary tactic, and it served brilliantly to further confuse the Confederate leaders who were now trying desperately to figure out the nature of Grant's plan.
On April 29, the Union fleet assaulted the Confederate defense works at Grand Gulf, but sustained loss and damage, prompting Admiral Porter to state that, "Grand Gulf is the strongest place on the Mississippi." Grant, realizing the hopelessness of a continued attack retired to continue to move his troops farther south -- leading to further confusion in Washington itself, as well as among the Confederate leaders in Mississippi trying to plan strategies to stop Grant. On April 30, a safe landing was found at Bruinsburg and Grant began marching his troops -- 17,000 at this one place alone -- onto Mississippi soil. It was the largest amphibious landing until that time in the western hemisphere, and it was here that a series of battles began that would last for weeks until Grant was finally perched on the outskirts of Vicksburg. Upon hearing of McClernand's successful landing at Bruinsburg Grant said, "I felt a degree of relief, scarceley ever equalled since...I was on dry ground on the same side of the river with the enemy. All the campaigns, labors, hardships, an exposures that had been made and endured were for the accomplishment of this one object." We must remember this was said in light of the events of April 29, 1863, when in fact the first push for Vicksburg had begun on November 2, 1862 -- a period of nearly six full months of failure and frustration. Charles Dana, reporting to Washington on Grant, offered this observation that Grant was "...not an original or brilliant man, but sincere, thoughtful, deep and gifted with courage that never faltered."
On May 1, the Battle of Port Gibson was fought, which resulted in a Union victory. Following this, Grant maneuvered to cut the Southern Railroad between Jackson and Vicksburg to seperate the two Confederate commands in those cities, and to deprive Pemberton of the much needed supplies for his army. In essence, cutting off the rail supply would be the first step of the eventual seige.
On May 12, the Battle of Raymond was fought, again a victory for Grant, and on the 14th the Battle of Jackson was fought --Mississippi's capital city. Grant was now gaining momentum and moving virtually at will, and did not want to lose men occupying defeated Confederate positions, so the city of Jackson was put to ruin under torch and wreckage. Two days later, on May 16, the crucial Battle of Champion Hill was fought, and it was here, at Baker's Creek, that Confederate General Tilghman lost his life during heavy artillery fire. Grant's losses were relatively light considering out of 32,000 men less than 500 were killed, although an additional 2,000 were woulded or listed as missing. For the Confederates fewer were killed, but nearly 2,500 were missing, and 23 pieces of artillery were captured. Following this, on May 17, Grant won the Battle of the Big Black River Bridge, and was now surging toward Vicksburg, fighting a fragmented Confederate army.
Grant now finally reached Vicksburg and quickly ordered an assault. However, the relatively easy victories leading to Vicksburg would be nothing to compare to the strong defenses of Vicksburg itself. His first assault was soundly defeated by the entrenched Rebels on May 19, the date of the first assault. On May 22, he again tried an assault, and this time was driven from the field with a loss of over 3,000 men. It was at this time that Grant realized that conventional military tactics would not work, and that he would shift his strategy now to take the city by siege.
During the month of June Grant tried tunneling through to the Confederate positions, opening holes for his men to pour through, and even tunneling into the hills to set off huge powder charges. Each time his efforts failed. Now, after repeated pleas from Pemberton, General Johnston began lining up his men on July 1 for a march to Vicksburg to support Pemberton. But it was too late. Johnston had waited too long, and Pemberton's force was decimated with disease and starvation. The end was near.
On the afternoon of July 3, 1863, General Pemberton, under a flag of truce and an escort, rode outside the seige lines to meet with his old friend, and now adversary, Grant. They greeted, and began their discussion under the shade of a small oak tree as their advisors watched and guarded. Pemberton asked for the terms of surrender, and as usual, Grant's first suggestion was an Unconditional Surrender. This enraged Pemberton and soon the meeting was breaking up. Senior members of both staffs, primarily Grant's, stepped in to talk to their leaders, and Grant then agreed to take the issue under advisement and offer more generous terms of surrender by 10 pm that night. These terms were given to Pemberton that night and he agreed to them. Many have wondered why Pemberton would have surrendered the city on the 4th of July, but being a native northerner himself, he said that he was familiar with the men and patriotism of the North, and he felt that by offering such a chance for a monumental victory and celebration on the most patriotic of American holidays, that he would receive more generous terms. Perhaps this was true, but by this time Pemberton's army consisted of less than 20,000 combat able men, and Grant had planned another assault for July 5th, in which he probably would have been successful.
With the fall of Vicksburg in the west on the 4th of July, and the defeat of General Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg on July 3rd, the war had turned. No longer was the outcome in doubt -- if it were to be fought head-up on the battle field. Now, only a strong politcal turn against Lincoln would end the war to allow Southern Independence, and with the victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg northern morale, patriotism, and dedication to the war effort were at an all time high. Lincoln had the huge boosts he needed, and it was this momentum that ultimately preserved the Union -- the Union that we all now pledge our allegience to even unto this day.
The Mississippi Central Railroad Campaign