Skip to main content

The Fall of Vicksburg: Turning Point of the Civil War

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant

Gettysburg, Turning Point of the Civil War

In early July of 1863, the campaign that more than any other determined the outcome of the American Civil war was concluded. That campaign was not the battle of Gettysburg, fought during the first three days of the month, but Vicksburg, which fell to Union forces on July 4.

Gettysburg is commonly called the turning point of the Civil War, the “high tide of the Confederacy.” Yet I think a compelling case can be made that the capture of Vicksburg by Union General Ulysses S. Grant had a greater impact on the war’s outcome.

Vicksburg Was the Key to Winning the War

Vicksburg was a strategic point of the greatest importance. Situated on a high bluff overlooking a hairpin turn of the Mississippi River, it was known as the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy.” Confederate President Jefferson Davis called it “the nailhead that holds the South’s two halves together.”

Recognizing its crucial importance, especially after two failed Union attacks on the city in May and June of 1862, the Confederates strongly fortified Vicksburg, providing it with 172 cannon and a defending army, under Lt. General John Pemberton, of more than 30,000 troops.

Union forces controlled both ends of the Mississippi River, taking New Orleans in April 1862 and Memphis in June of that year. But because of the powerful Confederate presence at Vicksburg, located on the river between the two Union strongholds, the free navigation of the Mississippi was denied to the North for both military and commercial purposes. The big guns placed on the heights at the city gave the Confederate army total command of the river – any Union vessels attempting to navigate between New Orleans and Memphis risked being blown out of the water as soon as they reached the vicinity of Vicksburg.

By the same token, control of the river at Vicksburg allowed the Southerners free access from the west to the east side of the Mississippi for the passage of food, troops, and materials of war imported from Europe through Mexico. Having control of Vicksburg was truly a lifeline for the Confederacy.

President Abraham Lincoln considered the taking of Vicksburg, which would result in opening the Mississippi to Union river traffic while closing it to the Confederates, one of his highest priorities. “Vicksburg is the key,” he said. “The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.”

The job of getting that key into Abraham Lincoln’s pocket was entrusted to Major General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union Army of Tennessee.

General Grant Struggles to Take Vicksburg

Moving south from his base at Memphis, Grant began his campaign to capture Vicksburg in December 1862. The fortress, with the mile-wide Mississippi River to its west and impenetrable bayous and steep hills to the north and east, was well protected from direct assault. It was a tough nut, and it took Grant some time to figure out how to crack it. Over four months, he tried a series of “experiments,” as he called them, such as attempting to dredge a canal across the hairpin curve of the river that would allow boats to bypass the city’s guns. This, as well as at least four other attempts, failed.

With Grant seemingly getting nowhere, Northern newspapers and politicians began clamoring that he be replaced. But the President stood by him. “I can’t spare this man,” Lincoln said, “he fights. I’ll try him a little longer.”

Finally, Lincoln’s confidence paid off. After all the misfires, by April 1863, Grant had developed the plan to carry his army to victory.

Grant realized that he needed to get his army to the south of Vicksburg, where he could attack the city from its rear. But the plan he devised to achieve that aim was so militarily risky that almost all his subordinate commanders, including his great friend William Tecumseh Sherman, strongly advised against it. In a letter to his brother, Sherman confessed his doubts about the plan. “I feel in its success less confidence than in any similar undertaking of the war,” he said. And, writing to his wife, he added, “I look upon the whole thing as one of the most hazardous and desperate moves of this or any other war.”

A Risky Plan

The plan that aroused so much trepidation was simple in concept. Grant proposed to march his troops to the south of Vicksburg on the opposite side of the Mississippi from the city. The problem would then be how to get them back to the east side of the mile-wide river. That would require naval vessels to carry them across. But all the Navy’s ships on the river were above Vicksburg. For the Navy to get in position below Vicksburg to ferry the troops across the river, ships would have to run the gauntlet of the fortress’s big guns, which were poised to blast any vessel attempting such a feat to smithereens.

The final risk factor, and the weightiest, was that once Grant had his army on the east side of the Mississippi, with Confederate forces massing against them, their backs would be to the river. With no reliable supply line from the North, they would basically have to live off the land by foraging for food. And if the army should suffer a defeat, there would be no place to which they could safely retreat – victorious Confederates would drive them into the river.

In other words, Grant’s commanders felt he was risking his whole army.

But despite their fears, Grant’s generals had great confidence in him; and he certainly had unshakeable confidence in himself. The plan was set in motion. The result was a campaign commonly held by historians to be one of the most brilliant of the war.

Grant’s Daring Plan Succeeds

On April 16, 1863, the Navy, led by Vice Admiral David G. Farragut, “ran the batteries” (sailed past the guns) at Vicksburg with the loss of only one ship. They then successfully ferried Grant's army across the river, landing at Bruinsburg on the Vicksburg side. Writing his memoirs years later, Grant recounted what this achievement meant to him at the time:

I felt a degree of relief scarcely ever equaled since. Vicksburg was not yet taken it is true, nor were Its defenders demoralized by any of our previous moves. I was now in the enemy’s country, with a vast river and the stronghold of Vicksburg between me and my base of supplies. But I was on dry ground on the same side of the river with the enemy. All the campaigns, labors, hardships and exposures from the month of December previous to this time that had been made and endured, were for the accomplishment of this one object.

Grant then began a series of lightning fast attacks (often called Grant's blitzkrieg) that kept Confederate General Pemberton, charged with the defense of Vicksburg, guessing and always overmatched at Grant’s point of attack. Over a period of 17 days, Grant’s army marched more than 200 miles and won five battles at places such as Champion's Hill and Big Black River.

Pemberton, intent on employing the conventional tactic of attacking and cutting his enemy's supply lines to force him to retreat, remained befuddled throughout. He couldn't find Grant's line of supply to attack it because Grant had none. His troops had brought five days rations with them, and after that would be living off the land. Pemberton never quite understood what Grant was doing, and was never able to effectively counter the moves the Northern army made.

Finally, Pemberton and his army were driven into the defenses of Vicksburg, and were pinned there as Grant besieged the place.

Admiral Porter's Fleet Running the Rebel Blockade of the Mississippi at Vicksburg, April 16th 1863

Admiral Porter's Fleet Running the Rebel Blockade of the Mississippi at Vicksburg, April 16th 1863

The Siege of Vicksburg

Once he had the Confederate army bottled up in Vicksburg, Grant twice launched assaults designed to overrun the city's defenses. Both failed. Grant then settled into a siege. With the rebels in the city cut off from supplies of food and ammunition, the end, however long it might take, was certain.

For weeks the Northern army, along with the gunboats on the river, subjected the city and its garrison to continuous bombardment. Vicksburg became a city of caves, as civilians who had failed to flee at the approach of the Northern army sought protection from the projectiles hurled by Grant's big guns. The rebel soldiers, however, were required to stay in their trenches on a 24-hour basis. It was a miserable existence for both the civilian and military elements of the population.

After nearly seven weeks of being bombed every day, and having reached the point where both soldiers and civilians were reduced to eating dogs, mules and rats, Vicksburg and its garrison finally surrendered to General Grant on the 4th of July, 1863. That, coincidently, was the day following Robert E. Lee’s final defeat in the battle of Gettysburg.

The Mighty Mississippi Is Opened to the Union

The results of Grant’s victory were far-reaching. He had captured an entire army, removing more than 31,000 men from the Confederacy’s fighting force. (Grant received the surrenders of three Confederate armies during the war. No other general, North or South, captured even one).

On July 8, just four days after Vicksburg fell, the river boat Imperial left St. Louis with commercial cargo, bound downriver for New Orleans. She arrived there safely on the 16th, not having been fired at from the banks of the river, or molested in any way. President Lincoln exulted that “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.”

With the Union now patrolling the entire length of the river, the Confederacy found itself essentially cut in half. Its western area, called the Trans-Mississippi, was almost totally cut off from the east. Never again would great shipments of cattle and grain, munitions of war, and above all troops, pass from Texas and Louisiana to the battlegrounds of Georgia, Alabama, and Virginia. The Union would basically ignore the Trans-Mississippi half of the Confederacy for the rest of the war, and that vast region would contribute little to the Southern war effort. With the closing of the Mississippi to Confederate passage, the strangulation of Jefferson Davis’ rebel kingdom had begun in earnest.

A Great General Rises to the Top

But perhaps the most far reaching effect of the surrender of Vicksburg was not in its strategic impact, great as that was, but in its personal impact on the man who forced that surrender. With his success at Vicksburg, Ulysses S. Grant was recognized as the foremost of Union Generals. The confidence in his leadership established at Vicksburg catapulted him, in March 1864, to the post of Commanding General of the entire US Army. And in that position he developed and executed the strategy that finally won the war.

By opening the “Father of Waters” to the Union, while closing it to the Confederacy, the Vicksburg campaign gave the North a massive if not decisive strategic advantage. And by the confidence it gave Abraham Lincoln and the American people in the abilities of Ulysses Grant, it helped put in place a commanding general who understood how to use that strategic advantage to finally bring the Confederacy to its knees.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Ronald E Franklin


Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on July 04, 2019:

You make a good point, David. As you say, Grant didn't try to totally do without a line of supply. What he was careful to avoid, however, was being tethered to an indispensable supply route that, if cut, would force him to retreat.

That was Sherman's fear when he urged Grant to stop his forward movement until he had enough transport to insure that if his single-road supply route was clogged or broken, the army wouldn't starve. Grant replied that only hard bread, coffee, and salt had to be supplied by that thin link; everything else would come from the land.

I think the key is that Grant calculated that even if bread, coffee, and salt were cut off, for the limited time required to complete the campaign they were not essential. So in that sense Grant had no supply route that made his army vulnerable if Pemberton cut it.

As to Lee sending troops to Vicksburg, Lee rejected that suggestion on two counts. First, the Confederates simply didn't have the logistical resources to move a large number of troops that far in time to do any good. More importantly to Lee, he thought just staying on the defensive would make it a choice between Virginia and Mississippi - the Confederates wouldn't be able to hang onto both. So, as was his nature, Lee wanted to take the initiative with aggressive action rather than wait to be overwhelmed.

David McCarley on July 04, 2019:

Mr. Franklin, excellent article. I wonder if Grant did, however, divorce himself totally from a base of supply. Recent scholarship has shown that Grant did have a MSR.

Also, what do you think of the strategic impact of the campaign on precipitating Gettysburg? Confederate President Davis wanted to send support from Lee to Vicksburg - Lee proposed an invasion of the North to achieve the same result of keeping Union supplies, men, and attention fixed in the East. This led to the Gettysburg campaign which concluded within a day, as we know, of Vicksburg.

The practical effect of Lee's invasion on the siege of Vicksburg was non-existent, whereas if he had fought on the defensive and sent help to Johnston, things might have gotten stickier for Grant stuck between a more powerful force led by Johnston with Pemberton at his rear.

Terry Kersey on November 25, 2018:

Grants appointment to commander of the Armies put him in a position to pursuit an unrelenting assault on Lee. Before, Union generals fought a battle and then licked their wounds. Grants just throw more men into the battle. He was called a butcher, but that is what modern war is about. He made a conscious decision to keep Lee under constant pressure until Lee's army literally melted away.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on November 04, 2013:

Thanks, glassvisage. You are so right that the war provides an almost inexhaustible amount of interesting info to learn about and write about.

glassvisage from Northern California on November 04, 2013:

This is a very thorough description of this pivotal point in the Civil War. I love learning about the Civil War, and there are so many parts of the war to learn about. I think the way the information is presented in this Hub makes it easy to read and understand. Thank you!

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on June 28, 2013:

Thanks, heidithorne. And, yes, I was thinking about the anniversary!

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on June 28, 2013:

Very interesting and well written, as usual. Plus, it's the 150th anniversary of it next week on July 4th. Timely!

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on June 27, 2013:

Thanks, Anderson. And you're right - the Vicksburg campaign is a very important piece of history.

Anderson Sonnen from new york, new york on June 27, 2013:

Fantastic! I'm going to send this to my little brother so he can learn about this important piece of history.

Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon from United Kingdom on June 27, 2013:

Maybe it was enough that Grant felt his soldiers could do what he asked of them.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on June 26, 2013:

Thanks, MsDora. I think it's the personal details that can move history from "dry" to "fascinating." And Grant, through his excellent memoirs, definitely comes across as a real person, not just a historical character.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on June 26, 2013:

Thanks, phoenix2327. The idea that a huge army could find enough provisions to live off the land in the face of the enemy seemed impossible until Grant did it. Even after the army was in motion, Sherman urged Grant to slow down until his supply trains could be put in place. So, if Grant’s own generals didn’t think it would work, I suppose it’s not surprising that Pemberton didn’t anticipate it.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on June 26, 2013:

Mikio, you have a definite point about Antietam. The outcome of that battle gave Lincoln the "victory" he needed in order to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. And, as you mention, once emancipation was on the table, British intervention was no longer a possibility. Thanks for reading.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on June 26, 2013:

Thanks for another amazing history lesson. You include details that really make it interesting, such as what the Vicksburg victory meant for Grant. Great Job! Voted Up.

Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon from United Kingdom on June 26, 2013:

Amazing hub. It's funny how the simplest plan turn out to be the most effective. I can't understand how the Confederacy couldn't figure out where the Union soldiers were getting their food from.

Mikio on June 26, 2013:

The Union victory over Vicksburg is definitely significant. Grant said it himself in his famous Memoir. But the Union victory at the battle of Antietam just may be the most significant battle in the Civil War because it prevented the UK from entering the war on the side of the South. It is difficult to determine which battle was more important to the Union.