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Battle of Vicksburg

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The Battle of Vicksburg or Siege of Vicksburg was the final significant battle in the Vicksburg Campaign of the American Civil War. In a series of brilliant maneuvers, Union Major General Ulysses S. Grant and his Army of the Tennessee crossed the Mississippi River and drove the Confederate army of John C. Pemberton into defensive lines surrounding the fortress city of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Grant besieged the city, which surrendered six weeks later, yielding command of the Mississippi River to the Union.

Contents

Prelude

Just before the battle, Grant had captured Jackson, Mississippi, and Pemberton retreated to the west. Attempts to stop the Union advance at Champion Hill and Big Black River Bridge were unsuccessful. Pemberton knew that the corps under William T. Sherman was preparing to flank him from the north; he had no choice but to withdraw or be outflanked. Pemberton burned the bridges over the Big Black River and took everything edible in his path, animal and plant, as he retreated to the well-fortified city of Vicksburg.

The Confederates evacuated Haine's Bluff, attacked by Sherman, and Union steamboats no longer had to run the guns of Vicksburg, now able to dock by the dozens up the Yazoo River. Grant could now receive supplies more directly than the previous route around Vicksburg, over the crossing at Grand Gulf, and back up north.

Over half of Pemberton's army of 17,500 had been lost in the two preceding battles, and every rebel expected General Joseph E. Johnston, in overall command of Confederate forces in Mississippi, to ride in and save the day—which he never did. Large masses of Union troops were on the march to invest the city, repairing the burnt bridges over the Big Black River; Grant's forces were across on May 18. Johnston sent a note to Pemberton, asking him to sacrifice the city and save his troops, something Pemberton would not do. (Pemberton, a northerner by birth, was probably influenced by his fear of public condemnation as a traitor if he abandoned Vicksburg.) Vicksburg was under siege.

In the twenty days since the river crossing at Bruinsburg, Mississippi, Grant had marched his troops 180 miles, inflicting 7,200 casualties at a cost of 4,300 of his own, winning five of five battles: Port Gibson, Raymond, Jackson, Champion Hill, and Big Black River, and not losing a single gun or stand of colors.

Now it was time for the Union to take Vicksburg itself, and for the Confederacy's last-ditch defense. Pemberton could put only 18,500 troops in his lines. Grant had over twice that, with more coming.

Assaults

Grant wanted a quick end and prepared for an immediate assault, performing only a cursory reconnaissance. His troops prepared a position in front of the town and on May 19 Sherman's corps conducted a frontal assault against the Rebel works, marching from the north along Graveyard Road into murderous Confederate fire from Stockade Redan. Many of the Federals found something under which to hide, sneaking back to Union lines after dark. Grant inflicted under 200 casualties at a cost of 942. The Confederates, assumed to be demoralized, had regained their fighting edge.

True to his aggressive nature, Grant planned his next assault, but this time with greater care; they would first reconnoiter thoroughly and soften up the rebels with artillery fire. The attack was set for May 22. Grant did not want a long siege, and this attack was to be by the entire army.

Despite their bloody repulse, Union troops were in high spirits, and full of meat and vegetables they had foraged. On seeing Grant pass by, a soldier commented, "Hardtack." Soon all Union troops in the vicinity were yelling, "Hardtack! Hardtack!" The Union served hardtack, beans, and coffee that night. Everyone expected that Vicksburg would fall the next day.

Shells rained on the city all night, including naval gunfire from the river, and while causing little damage, they demoralized the rebels. On the morning of May 22, shells poured on the rebel soldiers stationed around the city for four hours before the Union attacked again along a three-mile front. Sherman attacked once again down the Graveyard Road, James B. McPherson in the center along the Jackson Road, and John A. McClernand on the south along the Baldwin Ferry Road and astride the Southern Railroad of Mississippi. They pierced the rebel lines a few times, but were beaten back by the Confederates, who could move reinforcements easily on their shorter interior lines. McClernand's corps attained a small breakthrough at the Railroad Redoubt and requested reinforcements. Grant ordered a diversionary attack, first by Sherman's corps, then James B. McPherson's, both bloodily repulsed. McClernand attacked again, reinforced by one of McPherson's divisions, but with no success; many Union lives were wasted for his ambition. The day saw over 3,000 Union casualties. Enraged, Grant blamed McClernand for misleading dispatches.

Siege

Grant's optimism grew as realized he had the city invested. His troops picked up a new weapon—the shovel. It was a siege.

Pemberton was determined to hold his few miles of the Mississippi as long as possible, hoping for help from elsewhere in the Confederacy—help that never came.

A new problem confronted the Confederates. The dead and wounded of Grant's army lay in the heat of Mississippi summer, the odor of the dead assaulting the rebel noses, the wounded crying for medical help and water. Grant first refused a request of truce, thinking it a show of weakness. Finally he relented, and the Confederates held their fire while the Union cleaned up the horrific mess, blue and gray mingling and trading as if old friends.

In an effort to cut Grant's supply line, the Confederates attacked Milliken's Bend up the Mississippi on June 7. This was mainly defended by untrained black troops, who fought bravely with inferior weaponry and finally fought off the rebels with help from gunboats, although at horrible cost; the defenders lost 652 to the Confederate 185. The loss at Milliken's Bend left the rebels with no hope for relief but from the cautious Johnston. Opinion within Vicksburg passed from "Johnston is coming!" to "Where is Johnston?" The Confederates had a position of natural strength and interior lines, but Grant's three-to-one superiority in numbers had them in a chokehold.

All through June, the Union dug lines parallel to and approaching the rebel lines. Soldiers could not poke their heads up above their works for fear of snipers. It was a sport for Union troops to poke a hat above the works on a rod, betting on how many rebel bullets would pierce it in a given time. Union troops set off explosions below Confederate lines, such as the attacks against the 3rd Louisiana Redan on June 25 and July 1. But these attacks were unsuccessful. The Confederates always healed the breaches, but were pulling tighter.

Pemberton was boxed in with lots of inedible munitions and little food. The poor diet was showing on the rebels. By the end of June, half were out sick or hospitalized. Scurvy, malaria, dysentery, diarrhea, and other diseases cut their ranks. At least one city resident had to stay up at night to keep starving soldiers out of his vegetable garden. The constant shelling didn't bother him as much as the loss of his food.

Surrender and aftermath

Joseph E. Johnston, the only possibility for a Confederate rescue, felt his force was too small to attack Grant's huge army. While Johnston's force was growing (at cost to the rest of the hard-pressed Confederacy), Grant's was growing faster, supplied by the now-open Yazoo. Johnston was lacking in supplies, stating, "I consider saving Vicksburg hopeless." The Confederate government felt otherwise, asking the cautious Johnston to attack, requests he resisted. Robert E. Lee had remarked that the Mississippi climate in June would be sufficient to defeat the Union attack and he resisted calls to ride to the city's rescue from the Eastern Theater; his Army of Northern Virginia instead invaded the North in the Gettysburg Campaign with the partial objective of relieving pressure on Vicksburg. Finally on July 1, Johnston's relief column began cautiously advancing toward Union lines. On July 3 he was ready for his attack. The next day was July 4, Independence Day, but Yankee guns were oddly quiet. All was silent.

In the city, on July 3, Pemberton sent a note to Grant, who, as at Fort Donelson, first demanded unconditional surrender. But Grant reconsidered, not wanting to feed 30,000 hungry Confederate mouths in Union prison camps, and offered to parole all prisoners. Clothed in their butternut rags, dejected and starving, he never expected them to fight again, and carry home the stigma of defeat to other Confederates. It would have taken months to ship that many troops north. Considering how liberal Grant was to Pemberton, paroling his whole force, Pemberton was rude to Grant in return.

Surrender was formalized by an old oak tree, "made historical by the event." In his Personal Memoirs, Grant described the fate of this luckless tree:

It was but a short time before the last vestige of its body, root and limb had disappeared, the fragments taken as trophies. Since then the same tree has furnished as many cords of wood, in the shape of trophies, as the "True Cross."

One of Grant's final moves of the campaign was against a non-Confederate enemy. In June, General McClernand wrote a self-adulatory note to his troops, claiming much of the credit for the soon-to-be victory. Grant had been waiting six months for him to slip, ever since they clashed early in the campaign, around the Battle of Arkansas Post. He received permission to relieve McClernand in January, but needed a visible provocation. Grant finally sacked McClernand on June 18. He so diligently prepared his trap that McClernand was left without recourse. McClernand's corps was inherited by Maj. Gen. Edward Ord. In May 1864 McClernand was again restored to a command in far-away Texas.

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