The Siege Of Vicksburg

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COPYRIGHT © 1976 BY RICHARD WHEELER

In his new book, Voices of the Civil War, Richard Wheeler tells the stories of that war’s major battles in the words of people who were there—newspaper correspondents covering the armies, civilian men and women, and soldiers, in both their official and their private capacities. The book will be published later this month by Thomas Y. Crowell Company. The following excerpt is Mr. Wheeler’s skillfully woven narrative of the miserable, discouraging battle for Vicksburg.

 

The same days of July, 1863, that saw the Civil War in the East reach a climax at Gettysburg saw a climax of similar consequence in the war’s western theater. Since the preceding December, General Ulysses S. Grant, as commander of the Army of the Tennessee, had been actively occupied with efforts against Vicksburg, Mississippi, the last great river port in Confederate hands. Its capture would lead quickly to Federal control of the full length of the Mississippi River, which would split the Confederacy in two, denying the eastern part the cattle, grain, and other supplies it needed from the western Confederate states—Texas, Arkansas, and the greater part of Louisiana. At the same time the Federals would gain a convenient highway for further operations. Winning the Mississippi was the chief goal of the Union forces in the West.

Grant’s earliest move had been to send the wing of his army commanded by William Tecumseh Sherman down the river from Memphis in boats while he himself led an overland expedition toward Vicksburg’s rear. The venture failed, with Sherman being brought up short before the Confederate defenses at Chickasaw Bluffs, just north of the objective, and with Grant being stopped, far to the northeast, through the disruption of his supply lines by Confederate cavalry units, some of them under the command of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, whose raids and other exploits were fast making him famous.

By the end of January, 1863, Grant was operating from the Mississippi at Young’s Point and Milliken’s Bend, about ten miles upstream from Vicksburg. The general had the aid of a strong fleet, well equipped with ironclad gunboats, under Admiral David Dixon Porter, son of the daring and colorful Commodore David Porter, hero of the War of 1812.

Located on a set of bluffs on the Mississippi’s eastern bank, Vicksburg was nearly impregnable. It discouraged all Federal thoughts of assaulting itfrontally—from the river—and its northern flank was protected by a great area of wet bottomland.

The Federals failed not only in their attempts to get through the flanking swamps but also in their efforts to by-pass the city through similar bottomland across the river, on the western, or Louisiana, shore. The Louisiana efforts involved the laborious digging of canals for Porter’s vessels, the idea being to get them, along with the troops, safely around Vicksburg’s guns and into a position where the city might be approached from the south. One by one the various ventures had to be abandoned.

In Grant’s words:

The long, dreary, and—for heavy and continuous rains and high water—unprecedented winter was one of great hardship to all engaged about Vicksburg. … Troops could scarcely find dry ground on which to pitch their tents. Malarial fevers broke out among the men. Measles and smallpox also attacked them. … Visitors to the camps went home with dismal stories to relate. … Because I would not divulge my ultimate plans to visitors, they pronounced me idle, incompetent, and unfit to command men in an emergency, and clamored for my removal. … I took no steps to answer these complaints, but continued to do my duty, as I understood it, to the best of my ability. … With all the pressure brought to bear upon them, both President Lincoln and General Halleck stood by me.… I had never met Mr. Lincoln, but his support was constant.

Lincoln had actually become a shade unsure of Grant but continued to be impressed by his quiet, unremitting resolve. It was at this time, according to Albert D. Richardson, of the New York Tribune, that the Lincoln anecdote about Grant’s drinking was born. When one of Grant’s detractors complained that Grant drank too much whisky, Lincoln replied: “Ah, yes. …By the way, can you tell me where he gets his whisky? He has given us … successes … and if his whisky does it, I should like to send a barrel of the same brand to every general in the field.”

 

On March 20 General Halleck said in a dispatch to Grant:

The eyes and hopes of the whole country are now directed to your army. In my opinion, the opening of the Mississippi River will be to us of more advantage than the capture of forty Richmonds.

By this time Grant, in cooperation with Admiral Porter, had devised a plan aimed at breaking the long and frustrating deadlock. It was a plan of great daring, one viewed with heavy misgivings by many of Grant’s subordinates. Even the aggressive Sherman, who had become Grant’s right-hand man, considered the operation a dangerous gamble.