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Mississippi’s tortuous terrain fought Grant’s men at every step.

Vicksburg, a strategic, well-fortified hub of the Confederacy, lay squarely in the path of a Union victory. What Union troops discovered when they arrived at Vicksburg and Port Hudson, La., was a landscape arrayed against the Union aims. Each location boasted not only rough terrain that would make frontal assaults perilous but also fortifications that took advantage of those natural lines of defense. While both strongholds would have to be taken to completely free the Mississippi for Union navigation, Vicksburg was arguably the more important because it served as the Confederacy’s only direct link to the vast resources—beef and other kinds of supplies—of the Trans-Mississippi West.

The Union attempts to capture Vicksburg began in June 1862 with a naval assault led by two seasoned veterans, Rear Admirals David  Glasgow Farragut and Charles Henry Davis. But a direct attack on Vicksburg’s bluffs and riverbanks proved a dangerous and potentially fruitless mission. Admiral Farragut and Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, who headed Union army efforts in the lower Mississippi after the capture of New Orleans, believed that Vicksburg could not threaten the Union’s Mississippi Campaign if the city no longer had access to the river. Together they developed a bold plan to cut a canal diverting the river entirely away from the Rebel stronghold. De Soto Point, just across the river from Vicksburg, provided an ideal place for a river cutoff.

On June 6, 1862, Butler sent Brig. Gen. Thomas Williams his orders: “You will send up a regiment or two at once and cut off the neck of land beyond Vicksburg by means of a trench across […].The river itself will do the rest for us.”

Winning a war with excavation implements proved more difficult than expected. The soils along the Mississippi River are vertisols—heavy clay—topped by silt and loess deposited by flooding. To dig the canal, Union soldiers and more than 1,000 slaves commandeered from surrounding plantations had to contend with clay as well as thick vegetation, unpredictable water levels and mosquito-borne illness. In two weeks, the walls of the excavated area began collapsing, ending the project. But the Union effort to engineer the Mississippi landscape to its advantage had only just begun. To take Vicksburg, Union forces would have to overcome natural assaults of every kind: insects, disease, heat, rain—and the mighty Mississippi.

In December 1862, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant received orders to capture Vicksburg at once. Relying on established military theory, he believed that taking the city would require two separate armies, one attacking from the west and another from the east. He sent Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman to command the western flank. Grant himself led the eastern column.

Grant planned on marching south through northeastern Mississippi from Corinth through Grenada to Vicksburg. He established a stationary base behind his army from which supplies could easily be transported to the moving column. Leaving a garrison to guard the supplies, Grant marched toward Vicksburg. Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn of the Confederate cavalry sneaked to Grant’s rear, however, and destroyed the supply depot at Holly Springs, Miss., on December 21, leaving Grant and his army in hostile country with no provisions.

Grant would later recall the Mississippians’ reaction to the news: “They came with broad smiles on their faces, indicating intense joy, to ask what I was going to do now without anything for my soldiers to eat.” Grant informed them that he was collecting all food and forage to be found in a 15-mile area. “Countenances soon changed,” Grant wrote, “and so did the inquiry. The next was, ‘What are we to do?’” Grant told them, “[W]e had endeavored to feed ourselves from our own northern resources while visiting them; but their friends in gray had been uncivil enough to destroy what we had brought along, and it could not be expected that men, with arms in their hands, would starve in the midst of plenty. I advised them to emigrate east, or west, 15 miles and assist in eating up what we left.”

Unaware that Grant’s column could not assist him, Sherman marched south from Memphis on December 19 to attack Vicksburg from the northwest, near the confluence of the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers. On December 29, Sherman attacked the heavily fortified Chickasaw Bluffs above Vicksburg. At all points, Sherman’s army met with resistance.

The failure of these operations proved to be a crucial turning point in Grant’s approach, and he switched to another strategy. The lessons learned in his first attempt at capturing Vicksburg led him to more innovative tactics that targeted not just the military defenses around the city but also the city’s landscape. He learned that all elements of a landscape could be used to military advantage, a lesson that he did not soon forget.

For the time being, however, Grant had to pull back and adjust his plans for taking Vicksburg. Grant’s fellow officers recommended that he withdraw to Memphis, regroup and attempt another attack from the north. Grant knew, however, that the Northern people would not stand for an action that resembled defeat. He also knew that he had to keep his men busy. Thus he launched another earth-moving project. Grant sent a joint contingent of Army and Navy to just south of Helena, Ark., to find a navigable route through the Yazoo Pass, which led into the headwaters of the Yazoo River some 300 miles north of Vicksburg and could provide an approach to Vicksburg, the Confederate stronghold. To access the pass, Union troops had to destroy the man-made levee blocking where the Yazoo emptied into the Mississippi. After making two cuts in the embankment 50 feet apart, Lieutenant J.H. Wilson of the Corps of Engineers exploded a mine “under the mass of earth between the two cuts, simultaneously, shattering and loosening it so that the rapid rush of water, which ensued, soon carried it entirely away.”

By 11 that night, a crevasse 40 yards wide allowed the Mississippi to once again connect to Moon Lake, several miles to the east. But Confederate forces cut timber to block Union navigation. Trees were not the only obstacles. Wilson noted that the flow of water submerged all but a narrow strip of land next to the bank, not more than 50 yards wide.

Union forces later made a second cut in the levee, in hopes of sending more water to submerge Fort Pemberton, on the Yazoo River about 100 miles north of Vicksburg. This plan, too, failed. Grant ordered another canal excavated near Duckport, La., just east of Milliken’s Bend, seven miles north of Vicksburg. This canal would run west from the Mississippi to Walnut Bayou, providing a water route to New Carthage downriver from Vicksburg, where Union troops could cross the Mississippi. However, Lieutenant W.L.B. Jenney and his men found themselves threatened by “an enemy that did not carry rebel guns”— poisonous snakes that fell from the overhanging branches onto the rafts holding the men and saws. Moreover, the water “had fallen some seven feet, leaving the bottom of the Duck Port Canal some three feet above the surface of the water in the Bayou[,]” and had made the bayou “so narrow near the Canal as to render it useless….”

Digging canals was futile, according to Colonel Lucius Hubbard, and it was neither “soldierly” nor healthy. Smallpox, he added, “contributed its quota of horror with which the army had to deal. The death rate was excessive, and the floating hospitals along the river banks constituted a large percentage of the fleet that was held in the vicinity for army use.”

The Union forces on the project camped on top of the levee endured not only incessant rains but were in direct line of Vicksburg’s guns. Building shelters that could draw fire from the enemy was not allowed, but “many of the soldiers dug holes in the levee, and covered them with gum blankets, thus living more like wild animals than Union soldiers fighting to maintain the best government on earth.”

Finally in April 1863, the rains let up and the Mississippi calmed enough so that Grant could make his move. Grant’s best option was to utilize the narrow roads that ran atop the interconnected levee system—the only consistently dry land in the region. One of these roads snaked its way south from the Union camps at Milliken’s Bend and De Soto Point, following the contours of the natural levees along the Roundaway Bayou, and then joined a levee road leading through Hard Times, La., to Disharoon Plantation, where Grant planned to cross the river and enter Mississippi. Though Hard Times was less than 30 miles south of De Soto Point as the crow flies, it could be reached only via a more than 75-mile circuitous march. The route exposed the army to a Confederate attack from the west and stretched the Union supply lines treacherously thin, but there was no viable alternative.

As long as the river remained in flood, however, Louisiana’s geography for once would support Union actions. An early reconnaissance mission showed Grant that the land surrounding the road “was so low and wet that it would not have been practicable to march an army across [it].” The levee, on the other hand, “afforded a good road to march upon.” The road followed the dry, cultivated natural levees, with the flooded and forested back swamps on one side for protection and the bayous on the other. The rains that had plagued Grant’s army over the winter now proved a blessing, pushing the Mississippi’s level ever higher and creating a nearly impassable barrier between Grant’s troops and Confederate forces under Lt. Gen. Kirby Smith in western Louisiana.

When Grant finally gave his troops their marching orders on March 29, the levee was a saturated, boggy mess. Manning Force of the 20th Ohio recalled that after “six days of plodding” they finally reached their destination nearly 70 miles distant. One day’s march took Force six miles over a road “strewn with wrecks of wagons and their loads, and half buried guns. At a halt of some hours the men stood deep in mud, for want of any means of sitting. Yet when we halted at night, every man answered to his name and went laughing to bed on the sloppy ground.” Few officers shared Force’s amusement, including General Sherman, who wrote to his wife Ellen, “I look upon the Whole thing as one of the most hazardous & desperate moves of this or any war,” complaining about the “narrow difficult Road, liable by a shower to become a quagmire.”

Grant’s engineers kept busy improving the route by building bridges and corduroy roads, but persistent rains throughout April made the work slow and difficult. Irritating insects and rising temperatures made matters worse. Manning Force, while serving on a road-building contingent at Milliken’s Bend, wrote: “When the sun set, the leaves of the forest seemed to exude smoke, and the air became a saturated solution of gnats.” Force recalled that the gnats invaded every unprotected orifice and any uncovered bit of flesh: “They swarmed upon our necks, seeming to encircle them with bands of hot iron. Tortured and blinded, we could neither eat nor see.” Attempting to bring some relief, the men put cotton around the perimeter of their camp and set it on fire to repel the annoying insects. “The pungent smoke made water stream from our eyes but drove the gnats away,” Force wrote. “We then supped in anguish, but in peace.”

Far more threatening was the heat. Force obtained some mosquito netting, hoping it would protect him as he slept that night. Somewhat successful, Force was one of the few who did sleep; more unfortunate soldiers “set by the fire all night fighting the gnats, and slept the next day.”

The gnats the soldiers endured likely were nothing more than a persistent irritation, but the heat posed a real danger. Sherman somewhat sardonically quipped, “The weather is becoming hot here, and soon marching will be attended with the risk of sunstroke & fever. The enemy counts on our exhausting ourselves without their taking the trouble to shoot us.”

At last, on April 28, 1863, Union troops began crossing the river that had kept them at bay for over four months. Charles Wilcox of the 33rd Illinois Volunteers recalled: “The sun arose throwing an impressive splendor upon the exciting scenes of the early morn.[…]Every heart here is full of anxiety and emotion; wondering eyes and eyes not altogether tearless, gaze ever and anon upon the Father of Waters where lie the formidable fleet of gunboats and rams, transports and barges, the latter heavily loaded with troops whose courage and valor are sufficient when combined with that of the rest of this mighty army, to redeem this lovely valley of the Mississippi from fiends and traitors who are desecrating it.”

Over the next 24 hours, 22,000 Union troops crossed the Mississippi. “I was now in the enemy’s country,” Grant recalled in his memoirs, “with a vast river and the strong hold of Vicksburg between me and my base of supplies.” The city of Vicksburg, however, lay 30 miles directly north-northeast of Bruinsburg, the plantation community that served as the debarkation point for Grant’s troops. The most direct route from Bruinsburg to Vicksburg required marching through the swampy lands fronting the Mississippi River, crossing four major waterways, and climbing up and down the continuous line of bluffs edging the river’s banks. No road followed this path. Thus Grant had to take a more circuitous route on existing roads, poor as they were.

Grant described the territory as a country that “stands on edge,” where the roads took the path of the ridges “except where they occasionally pass from one ridge to another.” Wherever water raced across the loess highlands of Mississippi, it carved into the landscape an irregular system of ridges and deep ravines. Heavy timber, undergrowth and ravines filled with vines and canebrakes created a nearly impenetrable barrier. Unlike the swamps, however, which provided some protection from enemy attack, the erratic terrain of the Mississippi’s eastern bank made it “easy,” Grant opined, “for an inferior force to delay, if not defeat, a far superior one.”

Grant set his course toward the state capital, Jackson, over 60 miles to the northeast. He had to act quickly, before Confederate reinforcements arrived to support General Joseph Johnston, who had begun amassing forces near Jackson. Grant’s men were to carry no more than three days’ worth of provisions “and make the country furnish the balance.” Because the higher ground east of the river promised ample provisions, Grant had good reason to be optimistic his plan would work. Sherman had noted early in April that at Haines Bluff, just above Vicksburg, he “saw every where cattle, hogs, sheep, poultry and vast cribs of corn.”

Grant explicitly forbade his troops from molesting private citizens and from requisitioning property with no military potential. Anything that could be used against Union troops, however, was subject to confiscation or destruction. “In other words,” Grant wrote, “cripple the rebellion in every way, without insulting women and children.”

Moving east from Bruinsburg on the Port Gibson Road, Grant’s troops clashed with Confederates on May 1, but the topography and vegetation gave no chance for full engagement. Port Gibson ended as a Union victory, however, with Confederate forces falling back toward Jackson.

The two armies met next at Raymond, about 15 miles southwest of the capital. The Federal troops won and moved on to destroy the main railroad and war-related industry in Jackson. Then the Union troops again defeated the Confederate forces, pushing them back to the Big Black River, the final obstacle between Grant and Vicksburg. Union and Confederate soldiers collided where the river turned west from a generally southerly direction. Once again victorious, the Army of the Tennessee crossed the Big Black and marched toward the city that had taunted them for months.

Yet after crossing the Mississippi and marching 108 miles to Vickburg, the Federals found capturing the city no easy task. Sgt. Maj. E. Paul Reichhelm of the 3rd Missouri Infantry noted in his diary, “Vicksburg—a fortress by nature—strengthened on all in any way accessible points by a year’s hard and skillful labor of the rebels, may well defy any sort of ‘brilliant dash’ or sudden attack.[…It] can only be taken by means of gradual and skillful siege.” One soldier noted, “It is certainly the roughest country I ever seen. The hills are not so very high, but the whole country is nothing but a succession of hills and hollows[…]. The Rebels have forts thrown up about 200 or 300 yds. apart all along their line, with heavy guns mounted and forts in the rear of these, making the place almost impregnable.”

On May 19 and again on May 22, Union troops rushed Vicksburg’s fortifications, resulting in widespread casualties. Even “[t]he heaps of dead and wounded men of themselves formed an obstruction difficult to surmount,” Hubbard recalled. The advancing troops eventually were ordered to “desist and seek cover,” most finding safety “among the ravines and behind the felled timber on either side of the road.”

Reporting to General in Chief Henry Halleck, Grant noted, “The nature of the ground about Vicksburg is such that it can only be taken by a siege.” Using the ravines as trenches and the ridges as natural earthworks, Grant put all his engineer officers—as well as any officer with engineering training—to work fortifying the Union positions. and “directed that all officers who had graduated at West Point, where they had necessarily to study military engineering, should in addition to their other duties assist in the work.” The task was dangerous as well as difficult because the Union and Confederate lines were never more than 600 yards apart. Such proximity also presented other engineering opportunities. “Given the closeness of the opposing lines and the very hilly terrain at Vicksburg,” historian David G. Martin wrote, “it is not surprising that enterprising Yankee engineers determined to dig a tunnel (or mine) under Confederate lines in an attempt to blow them up.” About 3:30 p.m. on June 25, after a month of digging, the Union forces exploded the mine underneath the Great Redoubt that guarded the Jackson Road. Andrew Hickenlooper, chief engineer of the XVII Corps, recalled: “At the appointed moment it appeared as though the whole fort and connecting outworks commenced an upward movement, gradually breaking into fragments and growing less bulky in appearance, until it looked like an immense fountain of finely pulverized earth, mingled with flashes of fire and clouds of smoke, through which could occasionally be caught a glimpse of some dark objects,—men, gun-carriages, shelters, etc.” Though the explosion destroyed the center of the Confederate fort, it did not open a breach in the larger fortifications, nor did it cause many Confederate casualties.

Grant’s siege operations proved more effective than any of his canal-carving efforts. He ordered troops to scour the countryside for provisions and any outlying Confederate forces. He also ordered the cattle “to be driven in for the use of our army, and the food and forage to be consumed by our troops or destroyed by fire; all bridges were to be destroyed, and the roads rendered as nearly impassable as possible.” Summing up his plans, Grant wrote to General Halleck, “I will make a waste of all the country I can.”

Despite the Rebels’ dire predictions, the besiegers fared much better than the besieged. In cooperation with Rear Adm. David Dixon Porter’s Mississippi fleet, Grant kept up an almost constant shelling and prevented any supplies from reaching the Confederate garrison—and the civilians— trapped in the hill city. Many of Vicksburg’s civilian residents took refuge in caves carved out of the loess hillsides on which the city was built, but their homes, businesses and material possessions enjoyed no such protection from the mortars and shells pummeling the city.

As early as 1862, Confederate troop strength in the city had exceeded 10,000 men. The strain on the city’s resources began to take a larger toll than Union shelling. Drinking water and housing became scarce, followed by shortages of food and medicine. The situation grew worse as the siege wore on and additional troops—ultimately numbering around 25,000—moved behind the city’s fortifications. According to Vicksburg historian Pamela Lea Grillis, “Diseases ran rampant. Measles, dysentery, lice and horrible skin diseases were epidemic.” In mid-July 1863, Sherman commented that he saw “dead animals lying unburied” and “acres of hospital tents,” almost all flying the yellow quarantine flag. Starvation, too, took its toll. Harper’s Weekly reported that “[Confederate Lt. Gen. John] Pemberton had expressed his determination never to surrender the town till the last dog had been eaten and the last man slain.”

By June 1, the Confederate soldiers’ rations had been reduced to a mere 14 1/2 ounces of food per day. By the end of the month, again according to Harper’s Weekly, the city’s beef supply was gone “and mule-meat was resorted to as a last expedient.” Civilians had to fend for themselves. One woman wrote in her diary on May 28, 1863, that she believed “all the dogs and cats must be killed or starved: we don’t see any more pitiful animals prowling around.” On July 3, she wrote, “provisions so nearly gone, except the hogshead of sugar, that a few more days will bring us to starvation indeed. Martha says rats are hanging dressed in the market for sale with mule-meat: there is nothing else.”

Just seven weeks after the siege began, and one day after the Union victory at Gettysburg, Vicksburg capitulated. The Natchez Weekly Courier reported, “In spite of water, climate, disease, and repeated repulses, Grant compelled Pemberton to surrender.”

The white flag “was a glorious sight to officers and soldiers,” Grant recalled. “The troops felt that their long and weary marches, hard fighting, ceaseless watching by night and day, in a hot climate, exposure to all sorts of weather, to diseases, and worst of all, to the gibes of many Northern papers that came to them saying all their suffering was in vain, that Vicksburg would never be taken, were at last at an end and the Union sure to be saved.”

In a poignant note to his wife in Iowa, Union soldier Taylor Peirce wrote, “To day no sound occurs to break the stillness. All is quiet and it seems as if all nature felt relieved.”


Excerpted from War Upon the Land: Military Strategy and the Transformation of Southern Landscapes During the American Civil War, by Lisa Brady, (c) 2012 by the University of Georgia Press.

Originally published in the August 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.