Photo Essays

The Struggle for Vicksburg

Posted 5/28/2013 By Civil War Monitor

Vicksburg, Mississippi, strategically sits along the Mississippi River between Memphis and New Orleans. Incorporated in 1825, she became a vibrant river town, pivotal railroad center, and thriving commercial port. Given her prime location, both the Union and the Confederacy considered Vicksburg “key” to their war effort and essential to controlling “the father of waters.” The Rebels rushed to her defense while the Yankees made numerous failed attempts to take the port city in 1862. Vicksburg, “the Gibraltar of the Confederacy,” seemed an impenetrable fortress with Confederate canons mounted along the surrounding bluffs.  

The tide turned during the spring and summer of 1863. General Ulysses S. Grant, at a crossroads in his career, embarked upon a bold campaign to take Vicksburg. Beginning with a massive movement of troops in late March and culminating with a 47-day bombardment, the Yankees forced the surrender of the city on July 4. Combined with Robert E. Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg, the fall of Vicksburg marked a major turning point in the war—and unfettered Union access to the Mississippi River. With the Confederacy now split in two, the Union was primed for ultimate victory.

—Compiled by Laura June Davis.

As illustrated above, Vicksburg, Mississippi, sits along a bend in the winding Mississippi River. Her strategic location was well known. Upon looking at a map of the Confederacy, President Abraham Lincoln reportedly remarked, "See what a lot of land these fellows hold, of which Vicksburg is the key.... Let us get Vicksburg and all that country is ours." (Image credit: Harper's Weekly. Unless specified otherwise, all subsequent images are also from Harper's Weekly.)
Despite prior failures in capturing the city, Ulysses S. Grant formulated a grand campaign to take Vicksburg in 1863. From March 29 until April 30, Grant marched the Army of the Tennessee from Milliken's Bend to Hard Times, Louisiana. Trekking along the muddy west bank of the Mississippi River, the Federals slogged through soggy terrain so that they might rendezvous with the Union navy. (Image credit: Charles Carleton Coffin's Drum-Beat of the Nation courtesy of the Florida Center for Instructional Technology and the Educational Technology Clearinghouse.)
Meanwhile, David Dixon Porter was preparing for the navy's role in the campaign. At 9:15 p.m. on April 16, Porter's fleet cast off and prepared to run Vicksburg's mounted batteries. With lights extinguished and engines muffled, the vessels tried to sneak past the Confederate force. However, they were soon discovered and the moonless night was alight with fire as the Rebels attacked the Yankee fleet with burning barrels of tar and turpentine soaked cotton bales—as illustrated above. Porter's ships endured the shelling and managed to sail south of the city, losing only a single transport vessel. (Image credit: Library of Congress.)
With the Union navy safely below "the Gibraltar of the Confederacy," the Army of the Tennessee had to traverse the mighty Mississippi. Grant selected Grand Gulf as his crossing point but Forts Wade and Cobun defended the landing zone. In an effort to aid the proposed Union crossing, Porter's fleet bombarded the two forts on April 29—as depicted above. Unfortunately, the Union gun boats only succeeded in silencing the guns at Fort Wade.
With his mission to cross at Grand Gulf thwarted, Grant disembarked his men and marched them five miles south. There, the Union army and navy finally converged. On April 30 and May 1, the Army of the Tennessee launched a massive amphibious operation, landing 22,000 men across the river at Bruinsburg. Once ashore, Grant's men marched inland. As dawn broke on May 1, the Yankees unexpectedly encountered Rebel resistance just west of Port Gibson. Fierce fighting raged throughout the day until an outnumbered Confederate force finally yielded at dusk—the 17-day "blitzkrieg" had begun. The image above depicts Union general John A. Logan and his army entering the hard-fought beachhead at Port Gibson.
Over the next 10 days (May 2-11), the Army of the Tennessee embarked on a 200-mile march inland. Protecting its left flank via the Big Black River, the Yankees headed northeast with the intention of striking the Southern Railroad of Mississippi, thereby cutting off communications and supplies to Vicksburg.
On the morning of May 12, Confederate forces attacked Union major general James B. McPherson's XVII Corps as it crossed the fields southwest of Raymond. Both sides relied heavily on cannon fire, resulting in an often cloudy and confused battlefield. However, the Union's numerical strength triumphed as the Confederate right flank ultimately faltered, forcing the Rebels to retreat. The illustration above depicts the Confederate charge on General Logan's division during the fight at Raymond.
Two days later, on May 14, the foes met again at the Battle of Jackson. Despite heavy rainfall, as illustrated above, McPherson's corps launched a successful attack on the Confederate forces that resulted in fierce hand-to-hand combat. Meanwhile, Confederate artillery prevented William Tecumseh Sherman's troops from crossing Lynch Creek. The battle came to a crisis when Confederate Brigadier General John Gregg realized his army's supply train had left Jackson around 2 p.m. With little option but to retreat, the Rebels quickly evacuated the city.
As depicted above, the Union troops symbolically raised the Stars and Stripes over the Mississippi State Capitol. After a brief celebration, the Army of the Tennessee set the town ablaze, destroyed the railroad, and cut the telegraph lines—destruction was more effective than occupation.
In the early hours of May 16, Grant received news of the enemy's location and marched his army west. At 7 a.m., the southernmost Yankees encountered Rebel pickets near Davis Plantation and the Battle of Champion Hill commenced. The Confederate commander, Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, quickly deployed his three divisions into defensive positions. By 10 a.m. the battle had begun in earnest as the Yankees stormed the Confederate position. Charges and countercharges were made but both sides held strong until early afternoon. Grant's troops crested Champion Hill only to be pushed back again. With the aid of fresh troops, the Federals finally succeeded in shattering the Rebel opposition, resulting in a decisive Yankee victory. The image above depicts Union cannon firing on the Confederates during the conflict.
The following day, May 17, Pemberton halted the Confederate retreat, ordering his men and Brigadier General John Vaughn's newly arrived force to hold the bridge at Big Black River. The Federals soon arrived, opening fire on the Rebel fortifications. Soon thereafter, Union Brigadier General Mike Lawler brazenly ordered his troops to fix bayonets and charge the Confederate position—illustrated in the above drawing. Within minutes, the overwhelmed southerners threw down their weapons and retreated across the river—a few even drowned as they tried to swim away. To prevent a Yankee pursuit, Confederate Major Samuel Lockett torched the bridges. Regardless, Grant's forces had won five battles in 17 days, bringing their "blitzkrieg" to an end.
Buoyed by his army's recent successes, Grant was keen for a quick and decisive victory at Vicksburg. After a hasty scouting expedition, he ordered an initial attack on May 19. Union artillery shelled the city for hours before a line of Yankees unsuccessfully tried to storm its defenses. Undeterred, Grant decided to launch a second assault. After a more thorough reconnaissance, the Army of the Tennessee attacked Vicksburg on May 22. For four hours Union artillery bombarded the city, weakening the Confederates' fortifications. Then, the Union front tried to penetrate the Rebel positions, but they were again driven back, resulting in thousands of casualties. Above is Kurz & Allison's romanticized interpretation of the Union assault on Vicksburg. (Image Credit: Library of Congress)
After a brief truce to bury the dead, the Army of the Tennessee redoubled its efforts to lay siege to Vicksburg. Throughout May and June, Porter's fleet shelled the city while the army extended its lines. The Yankees eventually encircled the city, cutting off Pemberton's army—and the local inhabitants—from supplies, communications, reinforcements, and medicine. The Confederates had to ration their dwindling supplies while also facing dysentery, malaria, and fever. Soon, the Rebel sick overflowed the local hospitals, public buildings, and private homes-turned-infirmaries. Without access to medication, the fallen found little comfort and "dead wagons" soon made daily rounds across the city. The image above is one of the few contemporary drawings of Civil War medicine in action—Winslow Homer's drawing of a Union surgeon working in the field during an unknown battle.
Meanwhile, the Union siege of Vicksburg (May 26-July 3) was well underway. Union soldiers zig-zagged their way toward the Rebel lines, tunneling to within yards of the Confederate position; the Federals' objective was to dig underneath the enemy's works, plant explosives, and destroy them. On June 25, the Federals achieved their objective, detonating a mine beneath the 3rd Louisiana redan. After the explosion, the Union soldiers swarmed into the depression and tried to breach Vicksburg's defenses, but the Confederate defenders successfully drove back Grant's troops—after 26 hours of fighting. The Yankees detonated another mine on July 1 but did not launch a follow-up assault. The image above portrays the Union mine explosion underneath Fort Hill.
To escape the relentless Union shelling, many civilians took sanctuary underground. As diarist Mary Ann Loughborough explained, "The caves were plainly becoming a necessity, as some persons had been killed on the street by fragments of shells." So while the Yankees tunneled their way toward the city, the natives of Vicksburg honeycombed the hills with their own caverns. Like the hollow depicted above, many local families dug one- to two-room caves, outfitting them with the comforts of home: carpets, furniture, fixtures, bookshelves, and candlelight. Loughborogh recalled that her "quarters were close, indeed; yet I was more comfortable than I expected I could have been made under the earth in that fashion."
The Union bombardment of Vicksburg (depicted above) was relentless, and the siege continued into the early days of July. After weeks of declining rations, rising death tolls, and constant shelling, the Confederate defenders—and the civilians they were fighting for—verged on starvation. On July 3, unable to hold out any longer, a white flag of truce finally waved above the Rebel lines.
Later that afternoon, General Pemberton rode out to meet with General Grant to discuss terms of surrender. Initially, Grant demanded immediate and unconditional surrender, but he later sent final terms, which offered parole to the garrison. Pemberton and his officers quickly agreed to these terms and on July 4, 1863, a victorious Union army took possession of Vicksburg.
With the fall of Vicksburg, the Federals soon gained full control of the Mississippi River. Elation over this achievement was felt by many—as this drawing illustrates. Depicting the July 16 arrival of the Imperial at New Orleans from St. Louis, this image reveals the impact of Vicksburg's fall: unrestricted Union access to the Mississippi and her trade, communication, and transportation routes. Even when compared with the Union victory at Gettysburg, the fall of Vicksburg proved to be a key turning point in the war.

 

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