An Iron Will and an Indomitable Fortress: Grant and Vicksburg
“After a battle these scenes are distressing, and one is naturally disposed to do as much to alleviate the suffering of an enemy as a friend”
- U.S. Grant
Despite Grant’s critical victory at Shiloh, Henry Halleck promptly took control of his army and moved it towards Corinth, Tennessee. While Grant, disheartened by this demotion, continually asked to be relieved from duty, Halleck’s troops sluggishly marched towards Corinth, giving Beauregard’s retreating troops time to recuperate. Before they took Corinth, Confederates had enough time to burn the city and evacuate. Sherman, believing in Grant’s abilities, insisted for him to stay, and soon, in response to George McClellan’s failure to take Richmond in the Peninsula Campaign, Lincoln called Halleck to Washington for help. With this, Grant was able to regain his position.
(Chernow 214 -6); (Grant ch. 27).
As Grant continued to deal with Confederate resistance around Corinth, an increasing number of fugitive slaves flocked to his army. With Lincoln having issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September, Grant followed federal policy and began employing these former slaves as auxiliaries. (Chernow 223). With Southern resistance hardening further, and the war’s scope extending into civilian life, Grant adopted the Lincoln administration’s strategy of devoting more attention to the issue of slavery. To give an example, he established camps in which former slaves could work the land and receive wages. Grant argued that this would refute the pervasive stereotypes that African Americans were lazy and would provide an easier transition into a free life. Some have criticized his views as paternalistic, but at the very least a remarkable change had occurred in Grant: this man, who was so reticent on the issue of slavery, now was willing to utilize his position in the army to push for emancipation. This was bold at a time when many Union generals, such as George McClellan, vigorously opposed such measures (Simpson 47 - 9); (Chernow 223).
At the end of the summer of 1862, Grant continued to move south through Mississippi, stretching his supply lines and forcing his army to live off the land (Chernow 227). Despite being hindered by the incompetence of some of his generals such as William Rosecrans, Grant successfully defended against various Confederate onslaughts. At the same time, the war’s bloodiest day at Antietam on September 17th resulted in a diplomatic turning point: the release of the official Emancipation Proclamation by Lincoln in 1863 shifted the focal issue of the war to slavery (previously it had been about the preservation of the Union) and consequently discouraged the European powers from diplomatically aligning themselves with the Confederacy (Grant ch. 29); (Chernow 227, 242). However, despite sacking George McClellan after the midterm elections, Lincoln continued to face disappointments, as the army, under Ambrose Burnside, suffered a devastating loss at Fredericksburg that same year. The battle saw the fight being taken to the streets of the city - a sign of how warfare would develop within the Civil War and beyond. This defeat, in addition to the waning popular support for the Republicans (a sign that more of the populace were supporting the compromise-seeking Democrats), meant that the nation's eyes were on Grant to produce results (Chernow 230 - 1); (American Battlefield Trust).
Grant by then had taken the town of Oxford, Mississippi, placing him ever closer to his objective of Vicksburg - the last key needed to split the Confederacy down the Mississippi River. Grant at this time committed an act that would later haunt him: incensed by a cotton scheme concocted by his father and two Jewish businessmen, Grant issued General Order No. 11, which expelled all Jews from Grant’s military district. Jews only constituted a fraction of those who were stealing cotton, and Grant’s order was quickly rescinded, with everyone, from the president to Grant's staff and his own wife appalled by this action. Grant would spend the rest of his life working to make amends (Chernow 231 - 6).
Grant’s operations towards Vickburg from November 1862 to April 1863 (Cwmaps)
Meanwhile, Grant’s plans for Vicksburg were already being jeopardized. Vicksburg's difficulty came from both its constructed and natural fortifications: the river twisted and turned, water levels were fickle, bluffs and swamps littered the land, and the Confederates had constructed several miles of protection on the Mississippi’s east bank. Grant decided that Sherman, accompanied by gunboats, would head down the Mississippi River and assault Vicksburg from Chickasaw Bayou. Grant would head south via the Mississippi Central Railroad, forcing the defenders to fight the Union on land and water. However, Confederate raids soon forced Grant back, and the inability to communicate quickly between Sherman and Grant resulted in Sherman leading a failed attack without knowing Grant had retreated. (Chernow 239 - 41, 245); (Grant ch. 31).
Grant decided his best choice was to head south of the city while avoiding its artillery and head back up to attack it from the east. Grant also decided he would establish a series of supply stations on the west side of the Mississippi, however, due to water levels, the initiative had to wait until late March. In the meantime, Grant did not remain idle, proposing a series of experimental projects and routes towards Vicksburg that displayed Grant’s ingenuity, such as attempts at diverting water from the Mississippi River by digging channels and rupturing a levee (Chernow 246 - 9); (Rubis and Ryan 58 - 9). Yet, these projects failed, and Grant was mocked in the northern press, with The New York Times stating,
“The programme was grand; but the performance has been lamentably puny. GRANT let the lines behind him be cut, he retreated, changed his base, and remains stuck in the mud of Northern Mississippi, his army for weeks of no use to him or to anybody else” (page 1).
Map of Grant’s maneuver from April to July 1863. Starting out at Miliken’s Bend moved down the Mississippi (Cwmapps)
In late March, Grant ordered Major General John McClernand’s corp to prepare the swampy Louisiana land to the west of the Mississippi for his army to cross. He planned to maneuver his army out of range of Vicksburg, and cross the Grand Gulf into the Mississippi territory. To do this, Grant had to gamble that his gunboats would survive the gauntlet of Vicksburg's batteries and make it down the Mississippi with him. With skillful planning and maneuvering of Grant and rear admiral David Porter, the boats, hugging the bank of the river, bypassed Vicksburg on April 16th. (Chernow 253 - 6) (American Battlefield Trust).
Then, Grant ordered a cavalry raid to bog down opposing general John C. Pemberton. To confuse him further, Grant ordered Sherman to make an attack north of Vicksburg, to ensure that his troops could safely cross into Grand Gulf. Here Grant showed his flexibility, as after realizing that the army could not take Grand Gulf, he adapted and opted to move to Bruinsburg further south. Having secured a safe footing, Grant went on a lightning campaign, taking out Port Gibson on May 1st, securing Grand Gulf on May 3rd, and seizing the town of Raymond on May 12 (Chernow 260, 261. 263) (American Battlefield Trust). Grant’s decision to take Raymond (east of Vicksburg) displayed his arguably best quality as a general: the ability to conceptualize a strategy beyond a single battle. Grant understood that if he took out the state capital at Jackson, and cut off Vicksburg’s rail lines, the fortress would quickly starve into submission.
Map of Grant’s maneuver from Raymond (Grant ch. 35)
Grant sent one-third of his army under McClernand to stop Pemberton's potential rush towards the capital and the rest under Sherman and McPherson to take Jackson. Despite the Confederates sending reinforcements under Joseph Johnston to save the city, by May 14th, the Union had taken Jackson. Pemberton, who had remained in Vicksburg, finally moved to attack Grant’s supply line. However, Grant’s decision to demolish Confederate telegraph lines along the way made communication between Pemberton and Johnston impossible, and Pemberton moved southeast of Vicksburg as Johnston moved northeast for reinforcements. By the time Pemberton realized this, Grant was already closing in on his isolated army. Both the battles at Champion Hill and Big Black River Bridge forced Confederates back to Vicksburg, smothering hopes for a Confederate outbreak. By May 17th, Grant stood less than ten miles from Vicksburg, ready to put it to siege. (Chernow 264, 266); (American Battlefield Trust); (Grant ch. 35).
Still, Vicksburg's eight-mile land defenses stood, lined with nine forts, earthworks, and artillery pits. After several failed assaults, Grant switched his strategy: at the beginning of June, Grant’s army began digging under Confederate defenses and planting mines, and on June 25th the Union army detonated around 2,200 pounds of powder. With a gap created, Confederates and Unions fought each other for twenty hours before Grant called off the attack. Despite all of this, Grant remained stoic, reportedly not even flinching when a Confederate marksman barely missed him as he strolled about (Grant ch. 38); (American Battlefield Trust); (Chernow 269, 278).
Grant also continued his policy regarding former slaves, accepting them and enlisting them to perform critical military duties, such as digging trenches, and serving as soldiers. As the Union captured more land, Grant took the initiative to divide the land and give it to former slaves (Chernow 279 - 82).
Map of Vicksburg. Red lines represent Vicksburg’s land defenses (Library of Congress).
Ultimately, it was not the storming of Vicksburg that brought victory. For months, Vicksburg’s citizens and soldiers endured a constant barrage of artillery from the river and land. With supplies cut off, Confederate soldiers were given only a couple of peas with rice and one cup of water per day. Soon, they called on Pemberton to surrender, and on July 3rd, Confederates began to raise white flags (American Battlefield Trust); (Grant ch. 38). The Confederacy was now divided along the Mississippi, severely neutralizing their ability to prosecute the war.
Grant was magnanimous in victory, refusing to let his soldiers gloat, allowing the other side to retain their dignity, and only being strict when the Confederates attempted to have their slaves returned (Chernow 287 - 9). Grant’s decisive victory occurred simultaneously with Union forces under General Gordon Meade repelling Lee’s first and last incursion into the north at the Battle of Gettysburg. For his achievements, Grant was named major general on July 7th, and he followed this by defeating Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s army during the fall in the Chattanooga Campaign. These victories had Grant explode into stardom, and soon, rumors spread of Grant potentially running as a presidential candidate in the Election of 1864. Although Grant maintained his focus on the war, political figures began to flock around him, resulting in his elevation to lieutenant general - a position only held by George Washington and Winfield Scott up until that point. Grant did not see this as an act from unscrupulous politicians, foreshadowing something both Sherman and Rawlins feared: Grant could sometimes be too naive for politics (Grant ch. 38); (Chernow 294, 300 - 20, 328 - 30, 337).
However, at that point, Grant’s meteoric rise could not be stopped. On March 8th, 1864, Grant arrived in Washington D.C.on invitation. Dressed in his typical scruffy clothing, Grant met with President Lincoln for the first time at the White House, where, due to his short stature, he was forced to stand on a coach for everyone to admire, much to his dismay. Grant then was placed in charge of the Army of the Potomac, the main Union army that, before Gettysburg, was marred with ineffective officers (Chernow 339 - 342, 344). Grant’s appointment signified that his job in the west was finished and that Lincoln intended to draw the war to a close quickly by playing his strongest card where it now mattered most: Virginia.
Chernow, Ron. Grant, New York, Penguin Books, 2017.
“Confederate fortifications in rear of Vicksburg, Miss.” Library of Congress, photograph, 1861 - 1865. https://www.loc.gov/item/2013649015/
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Rubis, Karl and Kurt J. Ryan. “Cutting Loose With Expeditionary Logistics in the Vicksburg Campaign” Army Sustainment, 2016.
Simpson, Brooks D. “‘The Doom of Slavery’: Ulysses S. Grant, War Aims, And Emancipation, 1861-1863.” Civil War History, Vol. 36, No. I, 1990.
“THE SIEGE OF VICKSBURG” The New York Times, Vol. 12, No. 3607, April 16, 1863. From The New York Times TimesMachine.
United States. Army. Corps of Engineers., “Map of the siege of Vicksburg, Miss., 1863.” Library of Congress, 1883. https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3962s.cw0436000/?r=0.716,0.684,0.136,0.064,0
“Vicksburg: Animated Battle Map,” American Battlefield Trust, June 27, 2019, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tlhlk3bp-f4
“Vicksburg Campaign April - July 63,” Cwmapps, February 9, 2013, Map by Hal Jespersen, www.cwmaps.com.
“Vicksburg Campaign December 62 - March 63,” Cwmapps. Map by Hal Jespersen, www.cwmaps.com.