The Campaign for Vicksburg

Ironclads Running the Batteries at Vicksburg

Abraham Lincoln called Vicksburg “the key to the war,” and his Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis, labeled it “the nailhead that holds the South’s two halves together.” So it was that the Confederate States of America invested heavily in Vicksburg’s defense, while the Union invested even more heavily in bringing the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy” to its knees in what became a 16-month-long campaign defined by many battles and fought along many fronts. My father first sat me astride a Vicksburg cannon 69-years ago, and the sacred soil of Vicksburg continues to bear fruit in my heart as the scene of a great event in my Southern homeland and as the birthplace of my wife.

David Farragut
England, Germany, fifteen other nations, and the continent of Africa, were represented in Vicksburg’s antebellum population; and the city was praised for its beauty, culture, literacy, diversity, cleanliness, and prosperity. Even Vicksburg’s slaves—many of them anyway—lived better than they would have in other places. Joseph Davis (brother to the Confederate president), even encouraged his 365 slaves to pursue an education, assume managerial duties, and run their own judicial system.

The wealthy riverports of Vicksburg and Natchez (the latter had more millionaires than New York City) were pro-Unionist until Mississippi voted to secede. After his gunboats captured New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Natchez, Admiral David Farragut reluctantly obeyed Abraham Lincoln’s order to move his fleet upriver to the city of Vicksburg, a city he knew he couldn’t defeat. When Farragut demanded the city’s surrender, its military commander responded: “Mississippians don’t know, and refuse to learn, how to surrender to an enemy. If Commodore Farragut or Brigadier General Butler [Butler wasn’t present] can teach them, let them come and try.”

Shots were exchanged, but Farragut couldn’t elevate his cannon sufficiently to hit the higher parts of the city, so he soon returned to New Orleans. His fellow admiral and foster brother, David Dixon Porter, critiqued the absurdity of sending an unassisted Navy to capture Vicksburg: “Ships and mortar vessels…can not crawl up hills 300 feet high.”

David Dixon Porter

During the fall and winter of 1862, Admiral Porter, and Generals Sherman and Grant, floated downriver from Memphis to find the bluff-top city protected by swamps, cliffs, seasonal flooding, the mile-wide Mississippi, nine hilltop forts, 13 riverfront gun batteries, and eight miles of land-facing rifle pits and artillery batteries. Porter’s guns couldn’t hit Vicksburg, but his men could be killed by riflemen on the riverbank. To the horror of Abraham Lincoln and the nation’s newspapers, Grant spent the next six months undertaking a series of unlikely measures to capture the city. Some examples...

He channeled through a bend in the Mississippi in an effort to change its course, leaving Vicksburg high and dry. He tried to make Vicksburg irrelevant by dredging a ship channel through a series of Louisiana lakes. He nearly lost a fleet of gunboats when he sent them through a flooded forest in order to attack the city from the east. As hundreds died in these and other misadventures, an enraged Northern press portrayed Grant as a drunken imbecile. 

Neither accusation was accurate. Grant was modest, soft-spoken, tenacious, aggressive, and a quick learner. He realized that the North had far more troops than the South, but that it was running out of patience with the war, and this led him to sacrifice his men to the point that he came to be called Grant the butcher. He was also an occasional binge drinker whose friends kept liquor away from him when they could and kept other people away from him when they couldn’t. General Sherman—who suffered from clinical depression, paranoid delusions, and periods of emotional collapse—described his relationships with Grant as follows: “Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other.”

PVT Orion P. Howe
Far more deadly than the Confederate defenses were enemies that the troops couldn’t see. At any given time during the cold and wet winter of 1862-63, over half of Union troops and sailors  were too sick to fight. Some were trapped in warships; some amidst the filth of livestock on overcrowded transport ships; and some in the levee-top encampments to which they had fled from floodwaters. When people died in these encampments, they were wrapped in blankets and buried underfoot from where, the earth being saturated, they often floated to the top. 

Dysentery, pneumonia, mumps, measles, scurvy, cholera, smallpox, typhoid, and tuberculosis, raged among tightly packed troops who lacked clean water and toilets. Lice were ubiquitous; some men suffered from gonorrhea or syphilis; few of the sick received adequate medical care; and many had to suffer outdoors. Even so, they were all better off than the thousands of sick and starving slaves who lay half-naked and hungry in the mud. Springtime warmth brought hope but with it yellow fever and malaria, diseases to which Northerners were more vulnerable than their Southern counterparts. General Sherman’s visiting nine-year-old son, Willie, joined the ranks of the dead despite Sherman’s assurance to worried Ohio relatives, “I have a healthy camp, and I have no fear of yellow or other fevers.”

13-inch Siege Mortar
In May, 1963, Grant undertook an amphibious invasion that wouldn’t be surpassed in size until D-Day, but even after his army was ashore below the city, he had to fight five battles to reach it. As he chased refugees, livestock, and a defeated rebel army into Vicksburg, Grant worried that in the absence of a quick victory, he was at risk of being trapped between the city’s defenses on the west and the army of General Joseph Johnston on the east. To avoid this, he ordered two all-out assaults in two days. These attacks cost many Union lives but didn’t compromise Vicksburg’s network of 19-foot-high earthen forts (which were themselves protected by seven-foot-deep trenches and a forest of abatis (see photo). Grant’s men were already angered over their losses when he further infuriated them by refusing a Confederate offer of a cease-fire that would have allowed them to retrieve their dead and wounded. As their injured begged for water and their dead bloated, blackened, and burst, Grant’s men accused him of getting them killed “for nothing.” He agreed to the cease-fire and said there would be no further assaults.

Thus began a 47-day siege during which Union snipers worked two hour shifts, and coal miners tunneled beneath Union forts where they planted tons of explosives. Grant and Porter bombarded the city around the clock with, among other guns, 17,000-pound siege mortars that could lob shells more than two miles. Their guns hit every building in the city at least once. Dead mules, horses, and cattle clogged the streets, but human casualties remained low thanks to the city’s 500 hillside-tunnels. Diarists described the deadly beauty of 220-pound shells traveling in a high arch, trailing smoke in the daytime and becoming one with the stars at night. Vicksburg being encircled by artillery, shells often crossed paths en route to their targets, and inventive troops added to their arsenal by making mortars from the trunks of sweet gum trees. The following site has a working model: (

As their city collapsed around them, a petition was created demanding that Grant allow the city’s women and children to escape. Vicksburg’s women refused to go, saying that they could withstand the trials of war as well or better as any man. Today’s women might have fled to save their children, but 19th century Americans were less protective. Grant even took his twelve-old-son, Fred, on the Vicksburg Campaign and kept him there even after Fred was shot in the leg during one battle and barely eluded capture in two others. It was also at Vicksburg that Private Orion P. Howe, a 14-year-old Ohio drummer boy—who had joined the army with his younger brother—received the Medal of Honor for completing a dangerous mission while seriously wounded.

Kitten Fricassee

When Vicksburg’s residents and defenders ran low on food, they ate mules, horses, dogs, cats, rodents, and even tree bark. One of the South’s most beautiful, literate, and diverse cities was down to a single newspaper, and it had to be printed on wallpaper.

After 47-days of hunger, terror, and death, Vicksburg’s Pennsylvania-born commander, John Pemberton, surrendered the city on July 4, 1863
, amid baseless cries of treason. July 4 remained an occasion for mourning in Vicksburg until 1945, when the city renamed the day “The Carnival of the Confederacy.” Finally, in 1976, 113 years after its surrender, the day that America declared its independence from Britain in 1776 was again celebrated in Vicksburg.


Elephant's Child said...

Long time no post. It is good to see another post from you - and for me at least an informative one. Just the same so many of the details of war remain the same. Death and destruction for both the invaders and those they invade, with the innocent dying in huge and often barely noticed numbers.

Strayer said...

I had no idea the battle to capture Vicksburg went that way. The description of how children were not so protected in that time, is colorful, to say the least. Our civil war was ungodly brutal, to man, woman, child and animals alike.

Emma Springfield said...

I learned a lot here. Thank you.

rhymswithplague said...

Although this post is heartbreaking to read as an adopted son of the South, I find myself eagerly awaiting Part 2 of what Vicksburg means to you. We have stayed overnight there more than once on road trips between Georgia and Texas. I think you are right about Gettysburg, by the way.

Snowbrush said...

I see that my response to the first three of you is gone as are several other comments that I've made on my blog and on other people's blogs. I'm therefore going to reproduce what I wrote here, and then add a response to Rhymes.

First, I want to say that Vicksburg Part 2 will include many women's voices. I very much wanted to include women in this post, but I simply couldn't because although there were women spies, smugglers, nurses, saboteurs, at least one female surgeon, and a few women soldiers (disguised as men), during the Civil War, men did nearly all of the actual planning and fighting.

"Just the same so many of the details of war remain the same"

Peggy would agree. Nonetheless, to those who study them, some battles are decidedly more interesting than other battles, and I rejoice that Vicksburg is MY battle, although it took me a long time to appreciate it because I had no basis for comparison. The most famous Civil War battle was fought over a two day period near a small farming community--of no military importance--called Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Two days in the middle of nowhere means little compared to a 16-month campaign to defeat a major military target, so why is Gettysburg better known? I can think of several reasons, but most importantly, in my view, is that Gettysburg was the only major Civil War battle that was fought in the North, and the North won both the war and the battle, whereas the South lost both, and was therefore hesitant to commemorate battles that it had lost. Even so, if you could go to Vicksburg today, I think you would be moved. Here is the most impressive of its 1,300 monuments: Inside is a listing--in marble--of the 36,000 Illinois troops who fought at Vicksburg

"Our civil war was ungodly brutal, to man, woman, child and animals alike."

As for animals, perhaps mules and horses suffered most. You know, Strayer, when I try to understand the mentality of the South back then, I think of Trumpism, because while it's hardly an exact comparison, the South's thinking then and now both came from a place of bigotry and ignorance. I love much about the South, but even if I said "the hell with it, I'm moving back to my homeland," Peggy wouldn't go (I don't mean to suggest that I would be likely to want to go).

"I learned a lot here. Thank you."

I neither blog nor visit blogs as often as I used to, but I want you to know that I think about my longtime readers and I care about my readers.

"I find myself eagerly awaiting Part 2 of what Vicksburg means to you."

It should be easier to write because it will be in the voices of those who were there. Because some of those voices were women's, and because the women in the city had a different perspective than did the men in the trenches, I very much look forward to including them.

"We have stayed overnight there more than once on road trips between Georgia and Texas."

Some of the battlefield was sacrificed to build Interstate 20, which I assume to be the road you take. At least one entire downhill hill (Sly Parlor Hill) of the Civil War era (which offered sweeping views in every direction) was also sacrificed in the name of progress, in its case for a new post office and customs house. I knew you grew up in Texas, but do more recent trips there mean that you still have relatives in Texas?

Elephant's Child said...

Check your spam folder to see whether that is where your missing comments are. Blogger has developing an interesting *infuriating* habit of sometimes classifying comments on your own blog that way.
Go to the comments tab. At the top of the page there should be a downward arrow. Clicking on it will reveal the comments blogger has decided are spam.

Tom said...

Thanks for the interesting account. I've been to Gettysburg, but not Vicksburg. Two other reasons Gettysburg got the "credit" -- it stopped Confederates in their furthest reach into the North when they were actually threatening Washington, DC, and then there was the famous Lincoln address that we all remember. In my mind, Vicksburg and then Gettysburg were the two battles that really turned the tide in the war. Look forward to Part 2.

Snowbrush said...

"Two other reasons Gettysburg got the "credit" -- it stopped Confederates in their furthest reach into the North when they were actually threatening Washington, DC, and then there was the famous Lincoln address.."

These things are undeniably true, Tom, and it's also true that there were more troops in the field (160,000 at Gettysburg versus 108,000 at Vicksburg). Unfortunately, General Meade had an opportunity to pursue and destroy Lee's crippled army (which had become trapped by floodwaters) after the battle, and he failed to take it, although--unlike Lee's army--he was well-supplied and had received fresh troops. Had he pursued Lee, the war might well have ended in 1863 instead of 1865. The following link will take you to the letter in which Lincoln criticized Meade for his failure: Another difference in the aftermath of the two battles was that the Gettysburg dead were buried as quickly as possible, whereas two years after the battle, thousands of Vicksburg's Union dead were still lying in the open with, at best, a few shovelfuls of dirt thrown over their bodies. By then, everything of value and everything that might have identified them had been taken, and their bones had been scattered about by scavengers and predators. Of the 17,000 Union dead at Vicksburg, all but 3,000 have the word "Unknown" on their marble tombstones in the  national cemetery.

"Check your spam folder to see whether that is where your missing comments are."

Thank you, Sue. I did, and they're just gone. What happened was that comments I left--both on my blog and on other blogs--suddenly started appearing under an email address that was valid but not connected to my blog. This meant that readers of my comments couldn't use them to reach my blog. I remedied the problem by altogether deleting that address from Blogger after which, to my surprise, all the comments I had left under that address disappeared, although I was able to salvage a few from the trash in my email account.

Anonymous said...

Hello, Snow! I’m still alive, hanging on. My blog was hacked & I can’t get it back. Long story. Glad to see you’re still kicking. I left Google after having everything in my life hacked, including Amazon, and spent a year fighting with Google, Blogger, Gmail & Amazon. I quit everything to be safe and lost much information, 20 years’ worth, to China. Not even sure if this will go through. Hope you & Peggy are okay. ~Marion

Emma Springfield said...

I learned so much from you about the Battle of Vicksburg. I knew about it of course. You made it into a more personal remembrance. I know I said it before but thank you.

Snowbrush said...

Marion, after the passage of years, finding that I had received a comment from you was like "Christmas come early," but since you said nothing about my post, I have no idea if you read it, and this leaves me sad because--although I had no expectation that you would read it--I often thought of you while during its creation because it concerns events that occurred near your home.

The most noteworthy event that happened on your side--the Louisiana side--of the river during the Vicksburg Campaign was the Battle of Milliken's Bend, which was fought seven miles north of Tallulah. In that battle, a force of 1,500 Texas cavalry attacked 1,100 former slaves who had only joined the army a few days earlier and didn't know how to fire their mostly antiquated weapons. The Confederacy had by then decreed that the white officers who were in charge of black units were to be tried as insurrectionists (the penalty was hanging) and that black troops were to be re-enslaved. However, Southern anger toward black troops and their white officers was such that atrocities were common, and therefore many of those who were taken prisoner at the Battle of Milliken's Bend were said to have been tortured and murdered during the hours after they surrendered. Although the Confederate tried to cover up these murders by placing the bodies in a building and burning the building, the bones of some white officers bore wounds consistent with crucifixion, and there were also witnesses who swore that others had been lynched. Grant took the word of the Confederate commander that these reports were untrue so they were never investigated.

Again, I am thrilled that you came to visit me, Marion, and should you start another blog, I would be pleased to become your first follower.

Snowbrush said...

"You made it into a more personal remembrance."

It would be a happy day upon which I learned that I had an ancestor who fought for the North at Vicksburg, but aside from a single Alabama civilian (a woman) who remained true to the Union, all of my soldier relatives fought for the Confederacy, and none of them were at Vicksburg. Yet my abundant reading has left me sensitive to virtue wherever it exists. For instance, there was the Confederate private who raced through fire so withering that no one expected him to survive. He did this to bring water to a wounded Yankee.

Ruby End said...

I had no idea about this, what an incredible post, once again your writing ability awes me. I'll be reading it again now to let the detail sink into my ailing brain.