The Hill City controlled the Mississippi River. Taking it wouldn’t be easy.

In the fall of 1862, Union forces began yet another forward movement toward Vicksburg, Miss. Both the United States and the Confederacy realized that Federal forces had to take complete control of Vicksburg and the Mississippi River to win the war. Union forces already controlled much of the river, and in the spring, Admiral David Farragut tried to capture Vicksburg. Receiving little support from the Union Army, however, he had failed. Union forces thus controlled the Mississippi River north from Vicksburg and south from Port Hudson, La. Some 130 miles of it remained in Confederate hands. 

Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, left, and Admiral David Dixon Porter developed a plan to take Vicksburg. Resilient Confederates, however, used swampy bayous and daunting bluffs for their own action plan. (Library of Congress)

Understanding the situation, Navy Admiral David D. Porter asked Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman in November 1862 whether Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had any plans for military action against Vicksburg. If so, did he want Porter to cooperate with him? Porter said he knew little about Grant’s plans. Sherman was in the dark, too, but he agreed with Porter that “a perfect concert of action should exist between all the forces of the United States, and all should work together.” 

Sherman and Porter were more than willing to work together to take Vicksburg. Grant was not convinced it would be that simple, however. Volunteer major general and former Congressman John McClernand had convinced President Abraham Lincoln to allow him to recruit troops in the old Northwest, and then lead his independent force to capture Vicksburg. Porter and Sherman did not trust McClernand, and Grant and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck did not believe that he had the necessary military talent to make an effective offensive. 

As was the case in every action he took in the Civil War, no matter the problems, Grant did not delay. He and Sherman had already cleared Confederate forces out of northern Mississippi, so he, and even more significantly Halleck, on December 12, ordered Sherman to ignore McClernand and move against Vicksburg. Grant told Sherman, who was then in northern Mississippi, to quickly move to Memphis, taking along one division of the command he already had. Once he reached the Bluff City, he was to take over all the forces there, including those that had been forwarded to the city by McClernand. Grant told Sherman to “organize them into brigades and divisions in your own way.” Then, as soon as possible, he was to move down the Mississippi River “and with the cooperation of the gunboat fleet under command of Flag-Officer Porter proceed to the reduction of that place…as your own judgment may dictate.”

Sherman quickly wrote back to Porter, and he agreed with Grant’s call for swift action. “All this should be done before the winter rains…,” Sherman said.

Sherman arrived in Memphis on December 12 and planned to move south into Mississippi on December 18. He wrote to a friend on December 14, expressing his excitement: “My hobby always has been the Mississippi, and my faith cannot be shaken that the possession of this great Artery will be the most powerful auxiliary in the final steps that must restore the Sovereign power of our Governnmt [sic].” 

Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn, left, destroyed the Federal supply base at Holly Springs, Miss. Maj. Gen. Martin Smith, right, organized a stout Vicksburg defense. (National Portrait Gallery; Library of Congress)

Grant, meanwhile, initiated plans that the forces he commanded would continue to try to hold Confederate forces north of the Vicksburg, so Sherman could be successful in taking the Hill City. Grant was to move his 40,000-man army south along the Mississippi Central Railroad and hold Confederate General John C. Pemberton at Grenada, while Sherman moved down the Mississippi River and captured Vicksburg.

As was the case in so many Civil War engagements, there were other matters that required Grant’s and Sherman’s attention during the late fall and early winter of 1862-63. Sherman continued his battles with reporters, to the point of banning them from his military activities and then issuing the first court-martial of a reporter in American history. Sherman also threatened to retaliate against any Confederate guerrillas who bothered his attacking force. Even more significant was Grant’s use of black soldiers authorized by Lincoln’s January 1, 1863, Emancipation Proclamation. 

In November 1862, Grant had already appointed Chaplain John Eaton as Superintendent of Negro Affairs in his Army of the Tennessee. Sherman, however, resisted including black soldiers in his army and used them only as pioneers. And Grant made the uncharacteristic blunder of issuing special orders to expel all Jewish people out of the Mississippi Valley. He spent the rest of his life making amends for the error.

Sherman had around 30,000 men, and he packed them into Admiral Porter’s transports. He was confident that Grant was moving southward to attack Vicksburg from the east while he attacked it from the river in the west. Then he heard rumors from one of his subordinates, Brig. Gen. Morgan L. Smith, “that Holly Springs [a key Union supply depot] had been captured by the enemy.” 

Major General Earl Van Dorn’s 3,500 horsemen had left Grenada on December 17, and early in the morning of December 20, Van Dorn surprised the 500 Union soldiers at the Holly Springs supply base. He took what his men could carry and left the rest a smoking ruin. 

During this same period, Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest inflicted significant damage on Grant’s flow of supplies from Tennessee and Kentucky. He destroyed sections of the Mobile  & Ohio Railroad. Grant had to withdraw north to Grand Junction, so Sherman was left pushing forward toward Vicksburg by himself. Meanwhile, Pemberton prepared to leave Grenada, mimicking by land Sherman’s movement on the river. A Union and a Confederate force were racing each other toward Vicksburg.

Sherman continued to believe that Grant would join him at Vicksburg and argued that “Chickasaw Bayou is our line of attack, and we cannot do or attempt nothing [sic] till we make a lodgment on the hills at its head.”

A Confederate soldier on the bank of the Yazoo River triggered the torpedo that sent ironclad USS Cairo to the bottom on December 12, 1862. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
A Confederate soldier on the bank of the Yazoo River triggered the torpedo that sent ironclad USS Cairo to the bottom on December 12, 1862. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Nearer the city, Federal Navy Lt. Com. Thomas O. Selfridge Jr. was leading a number of gunboats, including Cairo, up the Yazoo River. The sailors saw Confederate torpedoes in the water and attempted to blow them up before any Union vessel hit one. Selfridge placed Cairo in the lead because of its size and in order to drive away sharpshooters. Suddenly an explosion sent Cairo to the bottom of the river. For the first time in naval history, a torpedo had been electronically exploded to destroy a boat. Thus the Federals opened the Yazoo River channel, but only as far as where the Chickasaw Bayou entered that river. More importantly, the Confederates had limited the sites of Sherman’s attacks to the bottomland bordered by the Mississippi River, the Yazoo River, and the Walnut Hills.

On December 19, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and General Joseph E. Johnston, the commander of the Departments of Tennessee and Mississippi, arrived at Vicksburg to try to deal with the crisis. The two leaders carefully inspected the city’s defenses from Snyder’s Bluff north of the city to Warrenton below. Johnston was hardly impressed with what they saw, but Davis was pleased. Then the two men moved north to catch up with Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton.

The presence of such distinguished guests raised morale in Vicksburg, and the city celebrated the occasions with a round of social events. In the midst of the gaiety, a mud-splattered courier, delivered a message to Maj. Gen. Martin L. Smith, that 81 Union vessels, both gunboats and transports, were steaming down the river. William T. Sherman’s invasion was coming to pass.

General Smith had about 5,000 volunteers and soldiers in the city, and he quickly had to decide what to do with them. Should he defend the Walnut Hills on which Vicksburg was located? The Confederates had dug in nine batteries on Snyder’s Bluff 12 miles north of Vicksburg to anchor that geography. Or, should Smith man Vicksburg’s main defenses around the city? He decided on the first option, to hold the Hills and the bluff. That way he would keep control of the entire Yazoo River Valley and also prevent the Federals from cutting the Southern Railroad, east of Vicksburg—the main supply and communication route into the city.

On Christmas Day, Smith filled the Walnut Hills defensive works with soldiers and placed West Point graduate Stephen D. Lee, an artillerist by profession but now serving as an infantry leader, in command. Confederate engineers had already built trenches at the foot of the bluffs, that went almost straight up 200–300 feet. Lee could not have been happier in his defensive position: the right anchored on Thompson Lake, east of Chickasaw Bayou, the left on the Mississippi River to the west. He chose five places on the bayou where he thought Sherman would particularly want to cross, and he then reinforced three of these most vulnerable places. All the advantage lay with the Confederate defenses under Lee.

The Hill City

This image of Vicksburg was taken after Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant captured it on July 4, 1863. Federal barracks and tents can be seen along the riverbank. (Library of Congress)
This image of Vicksburg was taken after Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant captured it on July 4, 1863. Federal barracks and tents can be seen along the riverbank. (Library of Congress)

Vicksburg had a population of some 4,500 people (including 1,400 Blacks), in 1861. It was the second largest metropolis in Mississippi and the state’s commerce center. Built upon the Walnut Hills, Vicksburg overlooked the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers. These waterways embraced a flat land filled with watery swamps, that turned into rolling hills as one headed to the east from the 200–300 foot high hills along the rivers.

The Mississippi provided the city’s economic livelihood. The boats brought manufactured products to the city on the bluff, and purchased cotton and corn produced in Vicksburg’s rich topsoil that, in some places, was 20 feet deep. Vicksburg’s residents came from all over the South as well as a few New Englanders and people from all over Europe, some 80% of whom came from Ireland, England, and Germany. In fact, one out of every three Vicksburg residents were non-southerners. The 1,400 Black people who lived in Vicksburg were kept on society’s fringes. Hundreds of the enslaved stayed with their masters when the war began, having no place to go. Railroads also helped the city boom. The Southern Railroad of Mississippi connected Vicksburg to Jackson, the state capital, some 47 miles to the east. By the time of the Civil War, Vicksburg was a major supplier of Confederate armies, with much of those goods coming from west of the river. Should Vicksburg and the Mississippi River be closed to the South, the Confederate cause would be lost. By 1862, the direct railroad connection between the Mississippi Valley and the Confederate capital of Richmond was already broken.

In the 1860 presidential election, Unionists held an edge in the city: 816 voted for the Old Whig-Conservative John Bell; 518 for Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge; and 83 for the Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas. Abraham Lincoln was not even on the ballot. As those numbers demonstrate, Vicksburg inhabitants believed that remaining in the Union was the best way to maintain their economy, but after much argument and debate, the city reluctantly supported secession. Most Vicksburg residents were confident that the city could never be captured. Its geography was too formidable. But a hard- driving Union commander would prove them wrong. —J.M.