Earlier this week, we spent three days in a town that wasn’t even on my radar screen until about a week ago; that was the day we decided to head south into the sunshine instead of north into the the winter abyss (see Cold And A Virus In The Mid-South).
Vicksburg, Miss., might be familiar to Civil War buffs who know that the largest, most complex campaign of the war took place here, and that’s why we chose this destination – because Fred knew it was a key (pun intended; more on that to come) to ultimate Union victory. And now I know more about it, too, and I like it! It’s a city with around 25,000 people now, but long ago it was one of the big, booming towns along the Mississippi River; a fine town with a lot of wealth and very contented citizens. That was before the Civil War came their way, and I’ll come back to that, but first about the town….
The weather was cold, windy and rainy – we couldn’t entirely escape the Arctic Blast here – so we didn’t really relish getting out of the car for a lot of photographs around this neat little place, but perhaps a good way to get a feel for it is through the beautiful riverfront murals that appear on the walkway along the Mississippi River.
Going back in time to the people of Vicksburg… they lived in one of only two towns along the Mississippi River that were still under control of Confederate forces by the summer of 1862 during the Civil War. Life was good and all was well in “The Gibraltar of the Confederacy” – a town set atop a high bluff overlooking a river bend. Riverfront artillery batteries protected it, as did a maze of swamps and bayous to the north and south, and a ring of forts with guns guarding all of the land approaches to the east. President Abraham Lincoln called Vicksburg “the key” and he proclaimed “the war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.”
Since the beginning of the Civil War, control of the Mississippi River was of vital importance to both sides, but for the Union, supplying troops in the faraway South via the river was critical. And cutting the south in two with Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana on the west was of utmost importance as the west region was critical to the Confederacy for supplies and recruits.
Under the direction of Major General Ulysses S. Grant, Union forces had been working down from Illinois and up from the the Gulf of Mexico, capturing post after post to control the river. By late summer 1862, only Vicksburg and Port Hudson remained in Confederate hands; the Union had captured the rest.
After Grant and his army failed in a couple of attempts to overtake Vicksburg head on in the fall and winter of 1862, he devised a new, risky plan with a couple of big gambles.
He marched his 45,000-man army down the Louisiana side of the Mississippi past Vicksburg, where he planned to attack the city from the south or east, well behind enemy lines.
On April 30, 1863, his men crossed from Louisiana eastward into Mississippi at Bruinsburg, south of Vicksburg. Three battles in that area in early May helped Grant’s army take over Jackson, Miss., directly east Vicksburg, and on May 18th, his army assaulted the Confederate lines around the city.
Two quick attacks in three days were both repulsed, and reluctant to expend more lives trying to storm the seemingly impregnable fortress that was Vicksburg, Grant had little choice but to out-camp his enemy.
From May 18 – July 3, Vicksburg Was Under Siege By Union Troops Who Dug In Trenches And Built Artillery Batteries North, South, And East Of The City To Hammer At Its Fortifications, While Union Gunboats Blasted The City From The River To The West.
With No Way To Resupply Themselves And All Communications Cut Off, Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton And His Confederate Forces Were Doomed.
Frightened Citizens Of Vicksburg Took To Living In Caves Dug Into The Hillsides Within The Mountaintop City. Troop Rations Got Cut Then Cut Again, Many Soldiers Fell Sick, And All Were Close To Mutiny.
On July 3, after 46 days of siege, Pemberton met with Grant to discuss surrender terms, and on July 4, 1983, Vicksburg was officially turned over to Union forces. [Note this is one day after fighting ended in Gettysburg.] Port Hudson surrendered five days later, and with that, a major Federal objective in the war was met – the Mississippi River was opened and the Confederacy was severed in two. “The Father of Waters,” declared President Lincoln, “again goes unvexed to the sea.”
Today, the Vicksburg National Military Park features a Visitor Center with a great film overview of the war, some dioramas, and small museum; the Vicksburg National Cemetery where nearly 17,000 Union soldiers – 13,000 of them unknown – are buried; and a 16-mile-long Battlefield Tour that includes state and regimental markers, monuments, and tablets. Confederates who died during the siege are buried in Vicksburg’s Cedar Hill Cemetery.