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The Siege of Vicksburg

This page is about the Battle of Vicksburg (where all references live) during the American Civil War.

Table of contents
1 Pemberton's withdrawal behind defensive lines
2 On the Confederate lack of resources
3 Grant's first assault; an early Union victory
4 How matters stood before the siege
5 The first head-on assault on Vicksburg
6 The second head-on assault
7 The beginning of the siege; on Union casualties and an oddity in Grant's character
8 A Confederate counterattack; black troops and a disgraceful event
9 The Confederates begin to lose heart
10 The siege tightens
11 A (reputed) incident of Grant's going on a bender
12 Grant gets rid of a Union enemy
13 The siege tightens further; the Union gains a cook
14 The end of the siege

Pemberton's withdrawal behind defensive lines

The Confederate general in charge at Vicksburg, John C. Pemberton, had withdrawn to a position of great strength behind the Big Black River. Grant, despite over-aggressiveness in future catastrophes like Cold Harbor, knew that a frontal assault would be disastrous.

Grant knew it was a matter of time, as did the Confederates, unless they were reinforced. Vicksburg was the keystone of the Confederacy. Things looked grim for the rebels. A nearly impenetrable line of blue troops constricted Vicksburg. For insurance notes were smuggled in and out by three rebel soldiers, all of which Grant read due one courier who was a Confederate turncoat, but no food got in.

Pemberton got a message through the blue cordon to Johnston that he could not hold out unless Johnston attacked the Union from the rear.

On the Confederate lack of resources

Confederate command in Richmond promised Johnston troops that never arrived. Confederate General Braxton Bragg could spare no more troops. Robert E. Lee needed all his troops for his impending invasion of Pennsylvania (see Battle of Gettysburg). Down in Louisiana, Confederate general Richard Taylor (son of president Zachary Taylor) couldn't spare any troops. The Confederates in Vicksburg were trapped by a blockade of blue troops and their own perennial lack of resources.

Grant's first assault; an early Union victory

An assault would be dangerous against the dug-in Confederates, but Grant had to "do something." Sherman was heading north for a flank attack, so all Grant had to do was put up a show of force to keep the rebels in front of him occupied while Sherman did the rest. The ever-aggressive Grant had his troops rush the rebels in the Battle of Big Black River, driving them back towards Vicksburg with suprisingly few losses, burning a bridge behind them, stopping the Yankees. Pemberton knew that Sherman was coming from the north; he had no choice but to withdraw or be outflanked. Pemberton took everything edible in his path, animal and plant, as he retreated to the well-fortified city of Vicksburg.

The Confederates evacuated Haine's Bluff, attacked by Sherman, and Union steamboats no longer had to run Vicksburg's bluff, now able to dock by the dozens up the Yazoo River. Grant of course couldn't live off the land in front of Vicksburg, but supplies were no longer shot at.

How matters stood before the siege

Over half of Pemberton's army of 17,500 as of just 30 hours ago was gone, and every rebel expected Joe Johnston to ride in and save the day -- which he never did. Large masses of Union troops were on the march to invest the city, repairing the burnt bridge; Grant's forces were across on May 18. Joe Johnston sent a note to Pemberton, asking him to sacrifice the city and save his troops, something Pemberton would not do. Vicksburg was under siege.

In the twenty days since the Bruinsburg crossing, Grant had marched his troops 180 miles, inflicting 7,200 casualties at a cost of 4,300 of his own, winning five of five battles: Port Gibson, Raymond, Jackson, Champion Hill, and Big Black River, and not losing a single big gun or stand of colors.

Now it was time for the Union to take Vicksburg itself, and for the Confederacy's last-ditch defense. According to Bruce Catton, Pemberton could put only 18,500 troops in his lines. Grant had over twice that, with more coming.

The first head-on assault on Vicksburg

Grant wanted a quick end and was preparing for an assault. His troops prepared a position in front of the town. On May 19, the order went out to attack, expecting success; according to Foote, it included the words, "When the works are carried, ..." Foote and Catton seem to disagree on the plan of attack -- Catton saying it was on the left of Sherman's troops on the north, Foote saying it was along the whole line. What happened isn't subject to argument.

The Union marched into an absolute hell of Confederate fire. Many blue troops found something under which to hide, not sneaking back to Union lines until darkness. Grant inflicted under 200 casualties at a cost of 942. The "demoralized" Confederates had re-gained their fighting edge.

True to his aggressive nature, Grant planned his next assault. They had attacked head-on, along the three main roads into the city (at least according to Foote). This time they would first soften up the rebels with artillery fire and scout out better positions. The attack was set for May 22. Grant did not want a long siege, and this attack was to be by the entire army.

Despite their bloody repulse, Union troops were in high spirits, and full of meat and vegetables they had foraged. On seeing Grant pass by, a soldier commented, "Hardtack." Soon all Union troops in the vicinity were yelling, "Hardtack! Hardtack!" The Union served hardtack that night, beans, and coffee. Everyone expected that tomorrow Vicksburg would fall.

The second head-on assault

Shells rained on the city all night, and while causing little damage, they demoralized the rebels. In the morning, they poured on the rebel soldiers stationed around the city.

This time with the navy raining shells on the rebels, the Union was again bloodily repulsed. They pierced the rebel lines a few times, but were beat back by the mobile Confederates. McClernand attained a breakthrough, but Grant could not believe it. Still, he ordered an attack, first by Sherman's troops, then McPherson's, both bloodily repulsed. McLernand borrowed a division; many Union lives were wasted for his ambition. The day saw 3,199 Union casualties; 649 were killed or missing.

The beginning of the siege; on Union casualties and an oddity in Grant's character

Enraged, Grant blamed McClernand for misleading dispatches. But his optimism grew -- he had the city invested. His troops picked up a new weapon -- the shovel. It was a siege.

Pemberton was determined to hold his few miles of the Mississippi as long as possible, hoping for help from elsewhere in the Confederacy -- help that never came.

A new problem confronted the Confederates. The dead and wounded of Grant's army lay in the heat of Mississippi summer, the odor of the dead assaulting the rebel noses, the wounded crying for medical help and water. Grant first refused a request of truce, thinking it a show of weakness. Finally he relented, and the Confederates held their fire while the Union cleaned up the horrific mess, blue and gray mingling and trading as if old friends.

This evidenced an odd trait in Grant's character -- he was a staunch advocate of animal rights, sometimes assaulting anyone he saw hurting an animal, and he could only eat meat when cooked clear through with no blood. But he accepted the violence of war for what it was, with relative aplomb.

A Confederate counterattack; black troops and a disgraceful event

In an effort to cut Grant's supply line, the Confederates attacked Milliken's Bend up the Mississippi. This was mainly defended by untrained black troops, who fought bravely with inferior weaponry and finally fought off the rebels with help from gunboats, though at horrible cost; the defenders lost 652 to the Confederate 185.

Grant observed that despite their being green troops, they had "behaved well." Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana wrote, in part, "The bravery of the blacks completely revolutionized the sentiment of the army with regard to the employment of negro troops." Having seen how they could fight, many were won over to arming them for the Union. By the time the Confederate high command realized they had no choice but to do the same thing, it was March 1865, and too late.

Confederates were reported as having simply murdered surrendering black troops at Milliken's Bend, angry at the arming of former slaves; this disgrace also happened at Fort Pillow, Poison Spring, and The Battle of the Crater during the Siege of Petersburg.

The Confederates begin to lose heart

The loss at Milliken's Bend left the rebels with no hope for relief but from the cautious Johnston. Opinion within Vicksburg passed from "Johnston is coming!" to "where is Johnston?" The Confederates had a position of fantastic natural strength and interior lines, but Grant's three-to-one plurality in numbers had them in a chokehold.

Robert E. Lee had observed that the climate in June would defeat the Union attack. All through June, the Union dug lines parallel to and approaching the rebel lines. Soldiers could not poke their heads up above their works for fear of snipers. It was a sport for Union troops to poke a hat above the works on a rod, betting on how many rebel bullets would pierce it in a given time.

Union troops set off explosions below Confederate lines. The Confederates always healed the breaches, but were pulling tighter.

The siege tightens

Weeks passed and Confederate food grew short. The soldiers were on quarter rations. Rats were openly sold in town. Pets disappeared. Mule meat seemed nutritious. More urgent notes were snuck through lines -- where was their deliverer? Johnston told them to cross the river -- and give target practice to the Union navy?

Johnston felt his force too small to attack Grant's huge army. While Johnston's force was growing, (at cost to the rest of the hard-pressed Confederacy) Grant's was growing faster, supplied by the now-open Yazoo.

Pemberton was boxed in with lots of inedible munitions and little food. After Pemberton later surrendered his starving force, many Confederates clucked that the Yankee convert Pemberton was a coward. The poor diet was showing on the rebels. By the end of June, half were out sick or hospitalized. Scurvy, malaria, dysentery, diarrhea and other disease cut their ranks. At least on city resident had to stay up at night to keep starving soldiers out of his vegetable garden. The constant shelling didn't bother him as much as the loss of his food.

A (reputed) incident of Grant's going on a bender

It wasn't only the Confederates under strain. In early June, for perhaps the only time in the war, Grant (reputably) went on a bender up the Yazoo River. The subject of Grant's drinking is controversial and complex, and most of the stories are false or questionable, concocted by political enemies; any reverse he had on the battlefield led to accusations of drunkenness. Of this "Yazoo-Vicksburg adventure", historian James M. McPherson in his book Battle Cry of Freedom writes in a footnote on pg 589,

"The only detailed eye-witness account of Grant binge drinking during the war was written thirty years later ..."

Grant undeniably was a problem drinker and likely fit the medical definition of an alcoholic (his pre-war drinking is briefly touched upon under Fort Donelson), yet Charles Dana, sent by Washington to watch over him, had nothing but high marks for Grant. In his nearly-3,000 page Civil war trilogy, this is the only time that Shelby Foote speaks of Grant going on a bender -- and he is sometimes accused of Confederate bias. He certainly never drank during critical military operations. His drinking problem oddly may have made him a better general -- battling it made him understand discipline, and his reputation as the pre-war failure "Useless" Grant may have made him less risk-averse, a problem in cautious Union generals like George McClellan and Joseph Hooker that Confederates like Lee and "Stonewall" Jackson did not have, to the sorry detriment of the Union. Read Shelby Foote's Fredricksburg to Meridian, pp. 416-21 for an account of the presumed "Yazoo-Vicksburg adventure".

Grant gets rid of a Union enemy

Whether he was intoxicated up the Yazoo or not, Grant's next move was calculated with the sober precision of a wildcat pouncing on unsuspecting prey -- and it wasn't Confederate prey. General McClernand wrote a self-adulatory note to his troops, claiming much of the credit for the soon-to-be victory, and after waiting six months for him to slip, Grant finally, carefully and with forethought, pounced. He sacked McClernand. Grant so diligently prepared his trap that McClernand was left without recourse. McClernand's troops were inherited by General Edward O.C. Ord. In May 1864 McClernand was again restored to command in far-away Texas.

The siege tightens further; the Union gains a cook

The Union continued to strangle the Confederates, digging under Confederate positions and setting off explosives; on June 25 adding to the siege's celebrity by lofting a black cook clear from rebel lines to land safe and intact behind Union lines, but horribly frightened. Grant describes the incident in his Personal Memoirs as such (ch. 38):

Some one asked him how high he had gone up. "Dun no, massa, but t'ink 'bout t'ree mile," was his reply.

Some enterprising Yankees put him in a tent, charging five cents to see him. He remained General McPherson's cook until McPherson's death at the Battle of Atlanta in 1864.

The Confederates wilted in the late June heat, losing all will to fight. They knew they were going to lose; why take risks? Blue and gray soldiers traded with each other in offhand truces.

Joe Johnston in Grant's rear had been reinforced, but was lacking in supplies, stating, "I consider saving Vicksburg hopeless." Confederate command in Richmond felt otherwise, asking the quiescent Johnston to attack, requests he resisted. Finally on July 1, Johnston began cautiously advancing toward Union lines. On July 3 he was ready for his attack. The next day was July 4, the defining Yankee holiday, Independence Day, but Yankee guns were oddly quiet. All was silent.

The end of the siege

In the city, on July 3, Pemberton sent a note to Grant, who, as at Fort Donelson, first requested unconditional surrender. But Grant reconsidered, not wanting to feed 30,000 hungry Confederate mouths in Union prison camps, and offered to parole all prisoners. Clothed in their butternut rags, dejected and starving, he never expected them to fight again, and carry home the stigma of defeat to other Confederates. It would have taken months to ship that many troops north. Considering how liberal Grant was to Pemberton, paroling his whole force, Pemberton was rude to Grant in return.

Surrender was formalized by an old oak tree, "made historical by the event." In his Personal Memoirs, Grant described the fate of this luckless tree:

It was but a short time before the last vestige of its body, root and limb had disappeared, the fragments taken as trophies. Since then the same tree has furnished as many cords of wood, in the shape of trophies, as the "True Cross."