The Fall of Vicksburg: 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 outcome of the war.
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 nail head 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, having taken New Orleans in April of 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, 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 the 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 a period of 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 guns of the city. 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 of 1863 Grant had developed the plan that would carry his army to victory.
Grant realized that what he really needed was 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.”
VIDEO: The Siege Of Vicksburg
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 that he was putting his whole army at risk.
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.
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.
What do you think was the turning point of the Civil War?
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 received 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 the general who understood how to use that strategic advantage to finally bring the Confederacy to its knees.
© 2013 Ronald E Franklin