- Historic Sites
The Siege Of Vicksburg
June 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 4
Grant’s command at this time numbered between forty and fifty thousand men. Confederate General John C. Pemberton, in charge of the defense of Vicksburg, had an army of similar size, but it wasn’t concentrated. Some of the units were manning posts to the north; others were scattered along the river to the south; and still others were many miles to the east.
The Confederates could not be sure of Grant’s intentions. Not only had Sherman tarried to demonstrate north of the city, but Union cavalry commander Benjamin H. Grierson had undertaken a raid from the Tennessee border down through Mississippi and into Louisiana. Grierson was highly successful in alarming the Confederates and diverting attention from Grant.
The Federal army began crossing the Mississippi, about fifty miles downriver from Vicksburg, on April 30. Grant now launched a lightning campaign against Pemberton’s scattered and confused forces. In two and a half weeks the Confederates were beaten five times—in the battles of Port Gibson, Raymond, Jackson, Champion’s Hill, and Big Black River. The last battle was only ten miles east of Vicksburg, on the eastern bank of the Big Black. The Confederates were routed; they fled across the river, some by bridge and some by swimming.
Confederate officer S. H. Lockett was on the scene:
The affair of Big Black bridge was one which an ex-Confederate participant naturally dislikes to record. … After the stampede … orders were issued for the army to fall back to Vicksburg. … General Pemberton rode on himself. … I was the only staff officer with him. He was very much depressed … and for some time … rode in silence. He finally said:
“Just thirty years ago I began my military career by receiving my appointment to a cadetship at the U.S. Military Academy; and today—the same date—that career is ended in disaster and disgrace.”
I strove to encourage him, urging that things were not so bad as they seemed to be; that we still had two excellent divisions … which had not been engaged and … could occupy our lines at Vicksburg … ; that Vicksburg was strong and could not be carried by assault; and that Mr. Davis had telegraphed to him “to hold Vicksburg at all hazard,” adding that “if besieged he would be relieved.” To all of which General Pemberton replied that my youth and hopes were the parents of my judgment. …
It was Sunday, May 17. That afternoon the defeated troops poured into Vicksburg. Among those watching was an unknown diarist, a “young lady of New Orleans”:
I shall never forget that woeful sight … humanity in the last throes of endurance. Wan, hollow-eyed, ragged, footsore, bloody—the men limped along, unarmed but followed by siege guns, ambulances, gun-carriages, and wagons in aimless confusion. At twilight two or three bands on the courthouse hill and other points began playing “Dixie,” “Bonnie Blue Flag,” and so on; and drums began to beat all about; I suppose they were rallying the scattered army.
Adds another eyewitness—no admirer of General Pemberton:
Many of the troops declared their willingness to desert rather than serve under him again. The stillness of the Sabbath night was broken in upon, and an uproar in which the blasphemous oaths of the soldier and the cry of the child, mingled, formed a scene which the pen cannot depict. …
There were many gentlewomen and tender children torn from their homes by the advance of a ruthless foe, and compelled to fly to our lines for protection; and mixed up with them in one vast crowd were the gallant men who had left Vicksburg three short weeks before, in all the pride and confidence of a just cause, and returning to it a demoralized mob. …
General Grant, as Southerner S. H. Lockett explains, wasn’t far behind:
Early on May 18th the Federal forces appeared. … The next day … they came forward rapidly … with shout and cheer, and soon after rushed upon the main line of defense. … But… they were compelled to fall back. A second time they came forward in greater numbers and with more boldness and determination, but with even more fatal results. They were repulsed with great loss. … These assaults … were met by troops which had not been in any of the recent disastrous engagements, and were not in the least demoralized. These men … helped to restore the morale of our army.
The 20th and 21st of May were occupied by the Federal forces in completing their line, at an average distance of about eight hundred yards from our works. … On the 2 ad of May the gunboats [on the Mississippi] moved up within range and opened fire upon the river front. At the same time several dense columns of troops assaulted our lines in the rear. … Once, twice, three times they came forward and recoiled from the deadly fire poured upon them by the Confederates, who were now thoroughly restored to their old-time confidence. … Every assault was repulsed with terrible loss to the attacking parties. …