In early 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant, with help from the Western Gunboat Flotilla, captured Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee and then won a victory at Shiloh, allowing a Union siege of the Confederate bastion at Vicksburg, Miss. Meanwhile, Flag Officer David Farragut took New Orleans, threatening all of Louisiana and positioning the converging Union forces to split the Confederacy.
Wetlands and the Mississippi itself impeded advances on Vicksburg. Unable to protect his supply line, Grant halted a march through central Mississippi, ordering General William T. Sherman to boat his 31,000 men downriver. In the last week of 1862, Sherman sent his men against bluffs north of the city. Repulsed, his corps held its ground through winter, fixing significant Confederate forces in the defense of Vicksburg.
Grant then crossed to the west bank of the Mississippi and cleared eastern Arkansas while seeking to move his gunboats and transports downriver past the city. Vicksburg’s batteries, set on a bluff above the river’s east bank, could pierce the decks of Union gunboats. Grant ordered canals built to bypass the bluff, but those attempts failed. With most of his army waiting on the west bank of the river south of the city, Grant challenged Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter to run the Vicksburg batteries. Porter’s first 10 ships did so in the dark on April 16, 1863, losing just one vessel. By early May, Grant had some 40,000 men on the east bank south of the city. Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton had 33,000 defenders in and around Vicksburg, while another Confederate force held Jackson—until driven out by Grant on May 14. He then punished Pemberton at Champion Hill and the Big Black River Bridge, forcing him to flee to entrenchments along the eastern approaches to Vicksburg.
Grant assaulted the works, but the Confederates had spent months fortifying the ridges around the city. The assaults failed, so Grant—reinforced to some 77,000 men—pressed the siege with trenches and bombardments. Union miners dug beneath Rebel positions and packed the tunnels with explosives, destroying one fort on July 1.
Inside Vicksburg, citizens dug into the hills to escape shellfire, while troops faced reduced rations. The commissariat had stockpiled little food, and Pemberton had ordered most horses and mules driven outside the city due to lack of fodder. Along with corn and peas, rats and cats virtually disappeared by the end of June. Thirsty soldiers drank directly from the river, with dire results.
By July 1, Confederate commanders reported fewer than 200 able-bodied men per regiment. Two days later, Pemberton opened negotiations with Grant, who requested unconditional surrender but accepted the parole of all Confederate troops instead. On the Fourth of July, Union troops occupied Vicksburg.
Grant took some 10,000 casualties after crossing the Mississippi, while inflicting an equal number of enemy casualties. He paroled nearly 30,000 Rebels, most of whom fought again. Five days after Vicksburg’s fall, Port Hudson, last bastion on the Mississippi, also surrendered, and Union eyes turned eastward.
■ Divide and conquer.
■ A mobile force should never surrender its mobility (the term “sitting ducks” comes to mind).
■ A fortress is defensible only as long as its food holds out.
■ When defending a city, evacuate civilians; they have to be fed. Do not evacuate animals; they are emergency rations.
■ Accurate threat assessment beats shoveling canals in a swamp while the enemy improves his defenses. Damn the batteries, full speed ahead!
■ Never parole enemy troops; they are veterans. You will see them again (maybe from the wrong side of a POW cage).
■Finally, boil the danged river water!
Originally published in the November 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.