It had been a long campaign–as far back as October 1862, Grant had begun his attempt to reduce the stronghold. His first plan envisaged an advance along the Mississippi Central Railroad combined with a water movement against Chickasaw Bluffs by Major General William T. Sherman. The overland campaign was stopped by 3,500 Confederate cavalrymen under Major General Earl Van Dorn, who captured Grant’s advanced base at Holly Springs, Mississippi, December 20-25, while Nathan B. Forrest’s cavalry destroyed 60 miles of railroad north of Jackson, Tenn. Sherman failed, also, at Chickasaw Bluffs.
George F. Daniel, 53d Regiment Illinois Volunteers, described the affair at Holly Springs: ‘Our regiment was left here to guard the railroad and 10,000 Secesh came in and took them prisoners and paroled them and burnt a part of the town and destroyed a large supply of provisions and clothing and left.’
Undaunted by these failures Grant attempted other stratagems. Four expeditions through the Bayous (February to April 1863) were unsuccessful. On March 29, 1863, he began the campaign that was to end in success, moving his army to the south of Vicksburg. Admiral D. D. Porter’s fleet ran the Vicksburg batteries with little damage. Grant advanced rapidly, cutting loose from his base and placing his army between the two Confederate forces opposing him. So successful was he that by May 19 he had Vicksburg surrounded. A general assault on that day failed. Another attempt on May 22 was beaten back.
Orderly Sergeant W. W. Gardner of Company C, 1st Battalion 13th U. S. Infantry, in a letter written on May 25, 1863, to Dr. Levi Fuller of West Union, Iowa, tells of the attack:
‘…The order was given to charge. In an instant our brave boys moved over the hill at the double quick through a most deadly cross fire of grape, canister shot, and shell but we heeded it not….
‘As we were crossing a deep ravine we received a most terrible cross fire, the balls coming like a dense hail storm. It was here that Captain Washington fell mortally wounded while cheering on his men. Here, too, fell our brave Color Sergeant, Sergeant James E. Brown of Howard County; he fell dead pierced by a ball through the head. No sooner had he fallen than the colors were hoisted by another who met with the same fate, until five different men were either killed or wounded with the colors. The fire at this moment being so terrible our men almost began to falter, but thank God they did not fall back an inch, but pressed forward to within 50 yards of the fort; here they had to take shelter behind fallen trees and stumps, to keep from being annihilated. We were now under fire from our own batteries, and infantry in our rear. But ten of our men got to the fort in safety, and I was one of that number; our ten men could do nothing in such a place as this. While lying in the ditch that surrounds the fort, I expected every minute would be our last. The fire from our own men behind us was so terrible, that we dared not move for fear of being shot by them. Here we lay with our bayonets fixed and our guns at a ready expecting that the rebels would discover our retreat and raise up over their breastworks to shoot us. But fortunately for us they did not see us. We remained here until sundown when we made good our exit from our almost living grave. Had we remained there until dark we would have been taken prisoners. We now returned to our regiment, which was lying on the side of the hill and at dark made our way off the battle field as best we could.’
Mrs. W. W. Lord, who was a resident of Vicksburg, saw this repulse in a different light:
‘…Towards evening the glorious news was brought in that in three tremendous charges by the enemy they had been repulsed with terrific slaughter. Then began the reincarnation of our army-men who had been gloomy and desponding men once more stood erect and hurled defiance at the foe.’
The pinch of the siege soon began to be felt. On May 28 another lady of Vicksburg (of Union sympathy) wrote in her diary:
‘I am so tired of corn-bread, which I never liked, that I eat it with tears in my eyes…. I send five dollars to market each morning and it buys a small piece of mule-meat. Rice and milk is my main food; I can’t eat the mule meat.’
The siege was carried on with increasing intensity until surrender of the doomed fortress on July 4. Jubilantly, Seth J. Wells, Company K, 17th Illinois Regiment, wrote:
‘Hail Columbia, Happy Land! Vicksburg is ours! General rejoicing along the line. Gen. Grant and his cavalry are to go in, and capitulation commences. Thus ends one of the most brilliant campaigns the world has known since the days of Austerlitz. No one but Napoleon has equalled it. It has resulted in the complete destruction of the Rebel army at Vicksburg. They have lost without doubt about forty thousand men. The boys are beginning to think Grant is a Napoleon.
‘We passed a number of Confeds. They are as good a looking set of Reb. Troops as we have seen. Most of them are glad they have surrendered. Only a few look sober and sullen.’
Mrs. Lord, naturally, had different reactions:
‘…About _ past 8 o’clock, before I was dressed, Mr. Lord came into the cave, pale as death and with such a look of agony on his face, as I would wish never o see again, and said ‘Maggie, take the children home directly; the town is surrendered, and the Yankee army will enter at 10 o’clock.’ Judge my feelings, even now, after two years of trial and disappointed hopes, the tears will come and my heart sinks within me with sorrow. I was speechless with grief, no one spoke, even the poor children were silent…. As I started up the hill…the tears began to flow and all the weary way home, I wept incessantly meeting first one group of soldiers and then another many of them with tears streaming down their faces….
‘You can imagine our feelings when the U. S. army entered, their banners flying and their hateful tunes sounding in our ears. Every house was closed and every house filled with weeping inmates and mourning hearts. You may be sure none of us raised our eyes to see the flag of the enemy in the place where our own had so proudly and so defiantly waved so long.’
Chauncey H. Cooke, 24th Wisconsin Infantry, wrote in a letter to his brother:
‘The late battles won by the Army of the Potomac, along with the victory over Pemberton here at Vicksburg somehow makes us boys feel that the end of the war is near…. Pemberton had nearly 30 thousand. All surrendered to Grant on the 4th of this month. And they were glad to be prisoners and paroled to go to their homes. They cursed the war….’
One Vicksburg lady, although Unionist in sentiment had compassion for the Confederates as she penned:
‘What a contrast to the suffering creatures we had seen so long were these stalwart, well-fed men, so splendidly set up and accoutered. Sleek horses, polished arms, bright plumes–this was the pride and panopoly of war. Civilization, discipline, and order seemed to enter with the measured tramp of those marching columns; and the heart turned with throbs of added pity to the worn men in gray, who were being blindly dashed against this embodiment of modern power.’
But Mrs. Lord confided sorrowfully:
‘…How sad those two weeks were to see our brave soldiers without arms, paroled and passing sadly out of the place they had so long and so bravely defended. To feel for ourselves that the time had come when honor and duty required that we should leave the happy home and kind friends of 12 years and go out, saddened and homeless with our five children.’
Together with Gettysburg, Vicksburg sounded the death knell of the Confederacy. When Port Hudson surrendered on July 9 the South was cut in half and the Mississippi River was opened to commerce. Grant’s army thus was freed for further operations.
This article originally appeared in the July 1962 issue of Civil War Times Illustrated.
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