Ulysses S. Grant’s capture of the Rebel stronghold at Vicksburg, Mississippi, in July 1863, ranks as one of the war’s great military achievements. The culmination of many months’ effort that entailed frustrating setbacks for Union forces, the victory underscored Grant’s determination, willingness to take risks and clarity of purpose when others—including Abraham Lincoln and Grant’s friend and subordinate William Tecumseh Sherman—had expressed doubts about the result.
After John C. Pemberton surrendered the 30,000-man Confederate army defending Vicksburg, Lincoln famously observed that the “Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea,” speaking to the importance of Vicksburg and the river in the national imagination. As for the impact of the operation on Grant’s standing at the Executive Mansion, the president had remarked two days before getting word of Vicksburg’s fall that if the general was triumphant in Mississippi, “Grant is my man and I am his the rest of the war.”
General in Chief Winfield Scott had helped convince Lincoln that the Mississippi River should figure prominently in Union military planning. On May 2, 1861, in an endorsement on a letter from George B. McClellan to the commander in chief, Scott argued in favor of enveloping the Confederate states “all (nearly) at once by a cordon of posts on the Mississippi to its mouth from its junction with the Ohio, and by blockading ships of war on the seaboard.” The next day the venerable general wrote to General McClellan: “[W]e propose a powerful movement down the Mississippi to the ocean…. the object being to clear out and keep open this great line of communication in connection with the strict blockade of the sea-board, so as to envelop the insurgent States and bring them to terms….”
Although never formally codified as a strategic blueprint, these ideas became part of what during the war and ever since has been labeled “The Anaconda Plan,” whereby Scott proposed to squeeze the life out of the Confederacy by seizing control of the waters that surrounded and bisected it.
Generations of historians have treated Vicksburg as a major event that helped shape ultimate Union victory. Many have also complained that too much attention has been accorded Gettysburg, word of which reached most loyal citizens just before the news about Vicksburg. The latter charge surely is correct. Richard A. Sauers’ The Gettysburg Campaign, June 3- August 1, 1863: A Comprehensive, Selectively Annotated Bibliography (2nd edition, 2004) contains 6,193 entries; a compendium relating to the Vicksburg Campaign, should anyone be inspired to produce one, would muster only a fraction as many titles.
Despite this literary imbalance, Vicksburg looms very large in many modern historical accounts. James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom (1988), for nearly a quarter-century the most widely read one-volume history of the war, notes that because of Grant’s efforts the “Confederacy was cut in twain.” Terry L. Jones’ more recent The American Civil War (2009), a detailed treatment with a military focus, expands on McPherson’s point: “The rebelling states were now split in two, and the war in the west had permanently turned in the Union’s favor. The key to the Confederacy was finally in Lincoln’s pocket.”
David Goldfield’s America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation (2011) deploys a more spacious geographical framework. “Vicksburg was essential to Confederate fortunes in the West,” writes Goldfield: “Holding on to Vicksburg kept the Federals out of a major stretch of the river and the Gulf of Mexico and shut off the Old North west from using the river as a commercial outlet.”
How should we assess the importance of Vicksburg? It was a military debacle for the Confederacy in terms of lost manpower and materiel, dealt a major short-term blow to Southern civilian morale and boosted spirits on the Union home front. Unlike Gettysburg, which left Lincoln deeply dissatisfied and did not impress most Confederates as a catastrophic defeat, Vicksburg offered an uncomplicated story line of Union triumph. Even the most optimistic Confederate could find nothing positive in the campaign.
Yet Vicksburg did not deliver a fatal blow to Confederate chances for independence. The war continued for nearly two more years, marked by major shifts in military momentum. In August 1864, more than 13 months after Pemberton’s force capitulated, Lincoln predicted Republican defeat in the upcoming elections and expressed deep concern about the war’s outcome.
During that bloody summer, events at Vicksburg in the first half of 1863, like the Battle of Gettysburg, were largely irrelevant. Only victories by Sherman and Phil Sheridan in September and October 1864 retrieved the political situation, placing U.S. military forces on the clear path to Appomattox and Durham Station.
Neither should Vicksburg’s fall be labeled the decisive moment in the struggle to control the Mississippi. That palm should go to Union operations against New Orleans in the spring of 1862. David G. Farragut’s naval maneuvering allowed Benjamin Butler to take formal control of the city on May 1, closing the river as a great economic artery for the Confederacy. Never again could the Rebels move goods into or out of their largest city and most important port.
Catherine Ann Devereux Edmondston, who followed the war closely from eastern North Carolina, voiced a common reaction among Confederates. “This terrible fall of New Orleans,” she wrote in her diary, “What a blow it is to us, Sugar gone, Texas Beef & wool for the food & clothing of the Army, leather, Horses! All lost to us….” In her postwar memoirs Varina Davis probably voiced what both she and President Jefferson Davis had thought of the turn of events in May 1862: “The loss of New Orleans was a terrible disaster.”
Vicksburg’s fall, then, wielded less influence than many believe, while still representing a major setback for the Confederate States.
Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.