The Vicksburg Campaign 1862-63 was the major action in the western theater of the American Civil War. Involving numerous battles, it climaxed on July 4, 1863, with the surrender of the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, Mississippi to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. The victory cut off the western parts of the Confederacy, and made the Mississippi River the basic transportation route for the further invasion of the Confederacy. The campaign has long been studied by military theorists as Grant outmaneuvered four enemy armies and rewrote the rule of warfare, especially regarding logistics and supply lines, while ensuring his choice as overall Union commander.
The western theater stretched not two hundred miles across Virginia, but a thousand miles from Cincinnati to New Orleans. The first western strategic goal of the Union was to seize full control of the Mississippi and Tennessee rivers, and state of Tennessee. The second goal was to use the Tennessee River to launch an attack at the rebel heartland in Georgia. The Mississippi River was of less strategic value, but control was a high priority because the "Father of Waters" was central to the image of nationhood held by westerners. Furthermore, control would completely knock Texas and Arkansas out of the war without the need to defeat the strong armies there. Throughout the war, Washington and Richmond both tended to ignore the west; they sent inadequate soldiers and supplies.
The two national governments, and their respective media and influential elites, were oriented toward the East front, which they mistakenly assumed would prove decisive. Responsibility for the various armies (and Union Navy) out west was divided on both sides. But while the Federals learned to cooperate under the brilliant consensus-oriented leadership of Grant, the Confederates squabbled continually, and failed to communicate and cooperate. Grant thus beat them piecemeal. The divided Confederate command never had a unified strategy. Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, Confederate commander at Vicksburg, was a Pennsylvania man whose loyalty to the Confederacy he thought he had to prove, and so he could not afford to abandon Vicksburg, Pemberton was further handicapped by limited command experience and inadequate intelligence reports. He stressed the concept of point defense and he thought Vicksburg could withstand a Union siege. General Joseph E. Johnston, commander of Confederate forces in Tennessee and Mississippi and Confederate President Jefferson Davis differed fundamentally in outlook; Davis assuming that the Confederacy could hold both Mississippi and Tennessee, while Johnston believed that one of them would probably have to be sacrificed in order to protect the other. The two men were not clearly aware of their differing assumptions until it was too late to prevent the Union capture of Vicksburg. One theater commander was urgently needed, but Robert E. Lee, the chief Confederate strategist, was so focused on his invasion of Pennsylvania that he ignored the critical issues.
Grant's biggest challenge was geography and nature itself. The Union armies were challenged by swamps and mud, by the twists and turns of the rivers and bayous that hid a hundred bushwhackers, by the insufferable heat, and especially by diseases that northerners were unaccustomed to. The region was unhealthy. Lee believed that the Yankees would be wiped out by malaria, so there was no need to ship a portion of his troops west. Indeed, every year doctors treated 900 cases of malaria per thousand of Grant's soldiers (victims usually were recorded multiple times, most men never caught the disease). The Yankees, however, had ample supplies of quinine, and kept the death rate to 4 per 1000 effectives per year. The Confederates, short of quinine, doctors, hospitals and food, suffered much more.
Grant set his first mission the capture of Vicksburg, one of two Confederate strongholds on the Mississippi. For half a year every strategy he could devise failed. At one point he even tried digging a new channel for the river so the fortress would be left high and dry. At one point he tried to encircle the right flank of besieged Vicksburg by crossing the upper Yazoo Delta country, thus obtaining a foothold on high ground. It was to be a combined naval-land effort with Admiral Porter cooperating with General Grant. To the difficult engineering feat were added army-navy dissension and Confederate obstruction tactics. The two Yazoo expeditions ended in retreat; a proposed third was never attempted.
Aware that political enemies in Washington might get him recalled, Grant kept on the move. Grant's supply lines, based a railroad from Columbus, Kentucky, grew longer and more vulnerable the further south he moved. At least he had supply lines; the Confederates had to live off the land, and also leave enough for their civilians to survive. In December, one rebel cavalry raid cut the railroad from Columbus and another captured Grant's main supply depot at Holly Springs, Mississippi. Grant was forced to pull back to Memphis, rely on the river for supplies, and rethink his strategy. He tried waterborne attacks, which also failed.
The Chickasaw Bayou Campaign near Vicksburg, in December 1862 and January 1863 was a Confederate victory. In the brief series of battles 3,500 Confederate troops under Brigadier General Stephen Dill Lee repulsed several attempts to capture Vicksburg by over eight thousand Union troops under Major General William Tecumseh Sherman and inflicted 1,776 casualties while suffering only 207. Correctly anticipating where Sherman would launch his chief attack, Lee performed almost perfectly. Personally directing the battle, Lee effectively used terrain, boldly deployed troops, skillfully handled artillery, and acted speedily whenever necessary.
The Confederates failed to effectively use their strength in Arkansas. At the battle of Prairie Grove, the Union won control of northern Arkansas. Confederate Major General Thomas C. Hindman, with 10,000 soldiers, faced Union Brigadier General James G. Blunt with about 5,000 infantry. Blunt was joined on 7 December 1862 by Major General Francis J. Herron and his 6,000 men who marched 125 miles in a little over three days. The battle came on December 7, 1862, but Hindman took up a defensive position instead of attacking, and used up all of his supplies. He had to withdraw southward. The Union victory prevented Hindman's army from going to the aid of Vicksburg, helping make possible Grant's success the next spring. This victory came at the right psychological moment to give a big boost to sagging Union morale. Further efforts to cut Grant's supply lines all failed. This was due to the basic weaknesses in the Southern command structure. The junior officers were inefficient, and there was a shortage of men, equipment and provisions, but had General Theophilus H. Holmes shown more initiative and foresight, it would still have been possible for the Confederate troops to have held up the Union armies coming down the river in midwinter.
The fall of Memphis in 1862 to Union forces revealed fundamental faults in the Confederacy's planning and preparations. After the severing of the South's transportation link between east and west, Arkansas felt it had been abandoned, morale gave way in Memphis and the surrounding region, desertion became commonplace, conscription laws became impossible to enforce, and food shortages occurred. Planters realized their cotton stocks were worthless, unless they sold them to Union Treasury agents, who paid top dollar. The money relieved civgilian distress but further destroyed Confederate morale.
Finally in spring, 1863, he realized that his supply lines were a handicap; defending them tied down half his army, and their very existence told the enemy where he would be. He could live off the land too (leaving civilians only two months worth of food) and use freed slaves as laborers. In the most audacious move of the war, Grant circled around Vicksburg from the south and east, and cut loose from his supply lines. He would win the campaign or lose his entire army.
Passing Vicksburg was a challenge accepted by the Navy's Acting Rear Admiral David Porter. The heart of his fleet, six "City-class" Eads ironclads, had a reliable top speed of six knots, and the swollen river had a four-knot current. While a combined ten-knot speed would help the fleet dash past the batteries, the ironclads would be too vulnerable if they tried to return upstream at two knots; it was a one-way trip. Vicksburg's riverine defenses mounted 34 heavy guns and 16 field pieces dispersed along a 3.5-mile front. The Rebel gunners had dug their most powerful guns into the sides of the river bluff so that they fired from elevations 30 to 40 feet above the water. Wartime experience to date had proven that plunging shot could wreak fearful damage on Union ironclads. Experience also showed, however, that well-prepared and well-led vessels could race past shore batteries. Single vessels already had managed to pass Vicksburg, but an entire fleet composed of seven ironclads and three transports was something else. Porter ordered each ironclad to lash coal-filled barges to her port side to protect the hull from enemy fire. Sailors stacked hay, cotton bales, or sandbags around machinery and magazines. On April 16, under cover of darkness Porter slipped the Yankee fleet past the 31 heavy guns of Vicksburg, dodging one shell every ten seconds, and absorbing one a minute. All were hit repeatedly, but were saved by their thick iron armor (one sank). Cannon fire from the heavy guns was surprisingly ineffective. The shells for the 10-inch Columbiads weighed 128 pounds, but the rate of fire was slow. The ironclads' own broadsides provided concealing smoke, causing most of the Rebel shots to miss high. Confederate munitions were seldom of satisfactory quality, so that their hits lacked penetrating power. A week later a flotilla of Army steamers made the same run (manned by soldiers, as the civilian crews declined the job.) Grant's army marched south in roundabout fashion, then 22,000 men and their supplies were ferried by Porter to the east bank of the Mississippi in the greatest amphibious operation in American history up to that date.
When Grant sent 1,700 cavalry under Colonel Grierson on a hugely successful 600-mile raid through the length of Mississippi, the Confederates lost their telegraph, their railroads and their knowledge of where Grant's army was.
In a masterful display of strategic maneuver against a divided enemy, Grant marched 130 miles in ten days, won four battles, and laid a tight siege on Vicksburg.
A side action of May and July 1863 involved the destruction of Jackson, the capital of the state of Mississippi. The main target was Vicksburg, but the rail facilities of Jackson were deemed important enough as a potential danger to require their destruction in May. After the fall of Vicksburg in July Johnston withdrew to Jackson where he was pursued by Sherman. The destruction, begun a few weeks earlier, continued and was extended. The burning of Jackson drove the Confederates out of central Mississippi, weakened civilian morale, and wrecked an important railroad and manufacturing center.
Grant's defeat of a 23,000-man Confederate army under General John Pemberton at Champion's Hill, on May 16, 1863, achieved through forced marches and intricate strategic operations, was the high point of the Vicksburg Campaign. Grant drove the Confederate forces back into the Vicksburg defenses, where Grant successfully laid siege to them for 48 days. Grant had systematically destroyed railroads and bridges behind him, so that Joseph E. Johnston's Confederate army could not relieve the siege. Washington assisted by rushing in reinforcements hurriedly pulled off garrison and anti-guerrilla duty. Pemberton's forces, on the verge of starvation, surrendered on July 4, 1863, with 30,000 prisoners. Grant paroled the prisoners, many of whom promptly rejoined the rebel army; other had enough and went home to stay.
Five days later Port Hudson, the last fortress on the Mississippi, surrendered after a 47 day siege of its own, and the Confederacy was cut in twain.
In defying the strategic law that armies had to maintain and protect their supply lines, Grant not only ignored Halleck in Washington and disregarded the advice of his top aide General Sherman, he violated one of the geometrical principles of warfare as expounded by the leading European theorist, Baron Antoine Jomini.  (Grant admitted he had never bothered to read Jomini.) Jomini depicted warfare primarily as a matter of capturing key localities and winning battles by maneuver and timing. His mathematical models fascinated smart engineers like Halleck (3rd out of 31 in his West Point class), McClellan (2nd out of 59) Lee (2/46) and Sherman (6/42); luckily for Grant, he graduated so low in his West Point class (21/39) that he was ineligible to join the engineers.
Jomini's principles ignored the broader political question of national ability and will to fight, and downplayed practical matters of manpower, training, intelligence, logistics and weaponry. Grant concluded instead that, "there are no fixed laws of war which are no subject to the conditions of the country, the climate, and the habits of the people." The epiphany hit Sherman on May 18, when he stood with Grant overlooking the Mississippi; they had circled Vicksburg and reestablished their supply line. Sherman became an avid convert to Grant's radical methods. To win the war, they decided, they had to break the Confederacy's ability and will to resist, while winning enough battles to maintain morale in the army and on the homefront.
Lincoln understood that Grant had the answer. He first gave Grant command in the west, then in early 1864 demoted Chief of Staff Halleck to clerical chores and put Grant in overall charge of military strategy, with Sherman in command of the western theater.
Memory and Image
Confederate general Stephen Dill Lee worked tirelessly in the 1880s-1890s to create a national military park at Vicksburg, Mississippi, a shrine to commemorate the campaign and the men on both sides who fought in it. Lee's motives were to honor the soldiers of both sides, which would help ease the pain of defeat for the Confederates and also serve as a step toward national reconciliation. A tight-fisted Congress repeatedly refused to fund the project, however, until the conclusion of the Spanish-American War loosened purse strings and encouraged patriotic sentiments. Lee served as the first supervisor of the Vicksburg National Military Park, a position that required him to acquire land, correspond with veterans of the battle, and plan the placement of monuments, cannons, and other attractions.
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- Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative (3 vol. 1974), vol 2. ch 5 excerpts online
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- Miers, Earl Schenck., The Web of Victory: Grant at Vicksburg. 1955.
- Robson, Thomas, Hay. "Confederate Leadership at Vicksburg." The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 1925 11(4): 543-560. Issn: 0161-391x in Jstor
- Shea, William L. and Winschel, Terrence J. Vicksburg is the Key: The Struggle for the Mississippi River. (2003). 232 pp. online edition
- Simpson, Brooks D. Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865, (2000), ISBN 0-395-65994-9. first volume of major scholarly biography excerpt and text search
- Smith, Timothy B. Champion Hill: Decisive Battle for Vicksburg (2006) excerpt and text search
- Winschel, Terrence J. Vicksburg: Fall of the Confederate Gibraltar (1999) online edition
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- Archer Jones, "The Vicksburg Campaign." Journal of Mississippi History 1967 29(1): 12-27. Issn: 0022-2771
- Frank R. Freemon, Gangrene and Glory: Medical Care During the American Civil War (1998) online pp. 116-22, 223
- Herman Hattaway, "Confederate Myth Making: Top Command and the Chickasaw Bayou Campaign." Journal of Mississippi History 1970 32(4): 311-326. Issn: 0022-2771
- Jack B. Scroggs, and Donald E. Reynolds, "Arkansas and the Vicksburg Campaign." Civil War History 1959 5(4): 391-401. Issn: 0009-8078
- Granville D. Davis, "An Uncertain Confederate Trumpet: a Study of Erosion in Morale." West Tennessee Historical Society Papers 1984 38: 19-50. Issn: 0361-6215
- James R. Arnold, "Rough Work on the Mississippi." Naval History 1999 13(5): 38-43. Issn: 1042-1920 Fulltext: Ebsco
- This was the last major parole of the war; afterwards prisoners went to prisoner of war camps for the duration. Terry Whittington, "In the Shadow of Defeat: Tracking the Vicksburg Parolees." Journal of Mississippi History 2002 64(4): 307-330. Issn: 0022-2771
- Jomini's other principles included concentrating superior numbers (which Grant understood well), the advantage of short interior lines of communication over longer exterior lines (which Grant ignored, since he had a much larger source), and the advantage of turning (sideways) movements over frontal assaults (ignored by Grant). Grant would have agreed wholeheartedly with Jomini's admonitions about the psychological value of surprise and the danger of passivity (except at Shiloh, Grant always attacked first.)
- Terrence J. Winschel, "Stephen D. Lee and the Making of an American Shrine." Journal of Mississippi History 2001 63(1): 17-32. Issn: 0022-2771