During the late spring and early summer of 1863, Union and Confederate armies battled for control of Vicksburg, Mississippi.
The beautiful city on the Mississippi River now preserves some of America’s most significant historic sites. Among these are forts, batteries, miles of fortifications, historic homes and structures and even the wreck of a Civil War ironclad. The fate of a continent was determined here and Vicksburg today draws visitors from around the world. It is a place where the modern world steps into the past and where visitors still walk in the foot-prints of the men and women that forged a nation.
The Battle of Vicksburg, Mississippi, was the culmination of a two year effort by Union armies and navies to wrest control of the Mississippi River from Confederate forces.
Located on a strategic bend of the great river, the city became a focal point of the Civil War when Confederate troops fortified the bluffs with an astounding array of heavy artillery. New Orleans and Memphis both fell, along with other Confederate posts up and down the river, but by the spring of 1863 Vicksburg still remained firmly in Southern hands.
The task of conquering the “Gibraltar of the Mississippi” fell to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. With an array of impressive subordinates and a massive army, he moved down the Mississippi River.
Grant tried first to bypass the Confederate guns by digging a canal that would divert the flow of the river and bringing about the fall of the citadel without the firing of a shot. The effort failed.
Grant next tried to land troops downstream at Grand Gulf. Confederate troops dug in, however, and the firepower of the U.S. Navy could not blast them from their defenses.
Frustrated but undeterred, Grand moved further south and finally came ashore near Port Gibson. Fighting his way through Confederate defenders at Port Gibson, Raymond, Jackson, Champion Hill and Big Black River, he closed in on Vicksburg from the east.
The Confederate commander of the city, Gen. John C. Pemberton, withdrew his men into the fortifications surrounding Vicksburg. In addition to powerful batteries overlooking the Mississippi, Vicksburg was encircled by miles of massive earthwork forts, batteries and infantry trenches. Although Pemberton’s army was much smaller than Grant’s, he and his thousands of determined men left no doubt that they planned to fight for control of the city.
Grant moved his forces into position around Vicksburg, surrounding the Confederate army but also trapping hundreds of civilians in the city now turned into a war zone. Union troops began to dig siege works and place artillery to bombard the town as Southern soldiers and civilians prepared to withstand the coming onslaught.
The Battle of Vicksburg began on May 19, 1863, when Grant sent thousands of men storming forward in an effort to overwhelm the Stockade Redan, a powerful Confederate fort with 17-foot high walls and an 8-foot wide ditch. Defended by the 36th Mississippi Infantry, the redan (a redan was a triangular fortification) provided impossible to take. By the time the smoke cleared, Grant had lost 157 men killed and 777 wounded compared to only 8 killed and 62 wounded for the Confederate defenders.
Determined to try again before Pemberton could further strengthen his fortifications, Grant opened fire on Vicksburg on the night of May 21st with more than 220 pieces of artillery. Union warships on the river joined in and Southern soldiers and civilians alike tunneled into the ground to try to save them-selves from the barrage.
The next morning at 10 a.m., the Union army attacked in lines three miles wide. Far from demoralized by the bombardment, the soldiers in the Confederate fortifications opened on the oncoming Federal infantry with musket and cannon fire. The fighting became hand to hand in a few places as the Federals tried to break through the Southern lines, but for the most part Grant’s men never even got close to the main Confederate works. When the smoke cleared, more than 3,000 Union soldiers lay dead or wounded while Southern casualties were estimated at fewer than 500.
The fight for Vicksburg now turned into a brutal, ongoing siege. Union troops inched closer to the Confederate lines by digging zigzag approach trenches and pushing their positions closer and closer. Mines were dug under Confederate forts and one, the 3rd Louisiana Redan, was destroyed in a major explosion on June 25th. Southern officers, however, had heard the sound of the digging beneath their feet and had anticipated the blast. When Union troops stormed into the crater, they found Confederate troops waiting for them in a new position just to the rear of the destroyed fort.
Another explosion followed on July 1st, but in the end it was starvation and not Union attacks that brought the siege to an end. With his soldiers and the civilians of Vicksburg reduced to eating mules, rats and even boiled shoe leather, Pemberton surrendered to Grant on July 4, 1863.
The victory ended Confederate control of the Mississippi as the last remaining strong-holds surrendered after learning of the fall of Vicksburg. A short time later President Abraham Lincoln penned wrote the immortal words, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.”
Vicksburg became an important Union bastion after the surrender and remained so through the end of the war. It thrives today as a commercial and tourism destination.