June 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 4
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.
Grant’s army was to pick its way through the swamps on the western side of the river to a point well below the city (with Sherman’s corps staying behind temporarily to demonstrate north of the city and confuse the enemy). Porter was to take the fleet directly past Vicksburg’s batteries in the night. The fleet would include three river steamers manned by army volunteers and carrying supplies—the supplies being vital, for Grant would be cutting himself off for a time from all connection with his northern depots. Once the army and the navy were reunited down the river, the army would be ferried across for a campaign around Vicksburg’s rear.
Admiral Porter proceeded with the preparation of the steamers for their hazardous passage of the enemy’s batteries. The great essential was to protect the boilers from the enemy’s shot, and to conceal the fires under the boilers from view. This he accomplished by loading the steamers … with bales of hay and cotton … adding sacks of grain. … Before this I had been collecting, from St. Louis and Chicago, yawls and barges to be used as ferries when we got below. By the 16th of April Porter was ready to start on his perilous trip.
Confederate officer S. H. Lockett, chief engineer of Vicksburg’s defenses, was later to write: “Gunboats had frequently passed the batteries during the operations of the preceding ten months, but up to that time no one had dreamed that the ordinary river steamboats could do so.”
The evening of the sixteenth saw a clear and beautiful sunset and a bright emergence of the stars. Though a slight haze settled over the Mississippi, visibility remained good. Spectators from the Federal camps gathered in boats along the Louisiana side of the river, well below the fleet’s rendezvous area but safely out of range of the Vicksburg batteries. A correspondent for the New York Times described the scene:
There were in all perhaps thirty boats … each of which was black with spectators, of whom not a few were ladies. These, and the stars, were the witnesses. … I am bound to say that the stars were the more serious and quiet portion of the gathering. The balance passed the hours of waiting in jokes, laughter, choruses, and lovemaking—which, together with a running fusilade of champagne corks, indicated anything but an appreciation of the fact that the drama about to open was a tragedy instead of a roaring farce.
Lights twinkled busily from the Vicksburg hillsides until about ten o’clock, when they disappeared. And about the same moment song and laughter on our side were hushed, as a shapeless mass of what looked like a great fragment of darkness was discerned floating noiselessly down the river. It was the Benton [Admiral Porter’s flagship]. It passed and disappeared in the night, and was succeeded by another bank of darkness—the Lafayette [a second gunboat, with a small wooden naval steamer and a coal barge lashed, for their protection, to its side—the one away from the enemy]. … Ten … noiseless shapes [including the three river steamers serving as transports] revealed themselves and disappeared, and then we knew that all the actors in the play had given us the first scene of the first act.
According to Vicksburg engineer S. H. Lockett:
The movement of the boats was soon discovered by the Confederate pickets who nightly patrolled the river in small boats. They immediately crossed the river and fired several houses in the village of DeSoto, so as to illuminate the river.
A Confederate signal rocket had already alerted the batteries of Vicksburg and also of Warrenton, a few miles below. The upper batteries roared into action.
Albert Richardson, the New York Tribune reporter, wrote:
… the Mississippi bank was ablaze. Our ironclads promptly replied with their heaviest guns, while the transports, hugging the Louisiana shore, ran by as fast as possible. The … burned houses [made] the night as light as day. Again and again the transports were struck … but the men stood gallantly at their posts. …
“The sight,” said General Grant, “was magnificent but terrible. I witnessed it from the deck of a river transport run out into the middle of the river and as low down as it was prudent to go.”
Grant’s wife and children were with him on the transport. An aide to the general, James Harrison Wilson, wrote: “One of the Grant children sat on my knees with its arms around my neck, and as each crash came, it nervously clasped me closer, and finally became so frightened that it was put to bed.”
Frederick Dent Grant, twelve years old at the time, later recalled: “On board our boat, my father and I stood side by side on the hurricane deck. He was quietly smoking, but an intense light shone in his eyes.”
The people of Vicksburg, both soldiers and civilians, had swarmed out into the streets. In the firelight they could be seen running about, some of them shouting and gesticulating. Among the civilians were ladies in their most fashionable evening attire, for a grand spring ball had been interrupted. Shrieks rang out when sections of masonry crumbled under the impact of Federal shells. Galloping horses pulled fieldpieces into position alongside the heavy guns already lining the river’s bank, and bodies of infantry ran down to the wharves to harry the fleet with small-arms fire.
In the words of an unnamed officer of the Federal gunboat Lafayette:
… a perfect tornado of shot and shell continued to shriek over our deck and among all the vessels of the fleet … but not more than one in ten struck or did any damage. … They mostly went over. On running out [our] guns, a good view could be had, through the ports, of the rebel batteries, which now flashed like a thunderstorm along the river as far as the eye could see.
But the incessant spatter of rifle balls, the spray from falling shot, the thunder of steel-pointed projectiles upon our sides, did not incline one to take a very protracted view of the scenery.
A few discharges of grape, shrapnel, and percussion shell was all we could afford at the time to bestow upon our rebel friends in exchange for their compliments. At each round the Confederate artillerymen gave a shout, which seemed surprisingly near. At one time we could not have been one hundred yards from the Vicksburg wharves.
Our vessel, with the steamer and barge lashed to our starboard side, became almost unmanageable, drifted in the eddy and turned her head square round, looking the batteries in the face. At this time we seemed to be receiving their concentrated fire at less than a hundred yards from the shore. The smoke from our own and the rebel guns, with the glare of the burning buildings from the opposite shore, rendered it difficult for the pilots to make out the direction we were going.
The enemy, supposing we were disabled, set up a fiendish yell of triumph. We soon, however, backed round and once more presented our broadside to them, and slowly drifted past, as if in contempt of their impotent efforts. Shells burst all around the pilot house, and at one time John Denning, our pilot, was literally baptized with fire. He thought himself killed, but he brushed the fire from his head and found he was unhurt.
A third newspaper correspondent who was among the Federal spectators wrote:
After an interval of maddest rage, the upper guns of the enemy almost cease their fire. It is evident our boats have passed the first-reached batteries. … That no large portion of them is missing is evident from the activity of the forts at Warrenton and the answering thunders of our own guns. …
Just as the … longer and longer intervals of silence gave intimation that the exciting scene was nearly over … a new glow of light … climbed gently toward the sky.
“They are lighting another beacon!” shouted many voices.
But … the speakers were mistaken. The light … with slow and equal pace, was moving onward, passing down the stream! There was no disguising the truth—one of our own boats was on fire!
… The boat that burned was the transport Henry Clay . Her crew got safely to shore. She was set on fire by a shell exploding among the cotton with which her engines were protected. She was loaded principally with commissary stores and forage, including a large amount of soldiers’ rations and oats for the cavalry.
About two and a half hours after the action began, the last Federal vessel passed out of range down the river. All gunfire ceased, the excitement in Vicksburg diminished, darkness returned to the river as the beacon fires died to embers, and the frogs in the marshes resumed their spring trillings.
The Union gamble had paid off. Correspondent A lhert Richardson could hardly believe it:
On the gunboats not a man was killed, and only eight were wounded. On the steamers and barges nobody was even hit. Before daylight the entire fleet, save the ill-fated Henry Clay , was received at New Carthage by Grant’s infantry with shouts of delight.
To the soldiers who had run the steamers on this daring race, the general promptly gave furloughs for forty days and transportation to and from home.
A second midnight expedition of six transports and twelve barges passed the batteries six days later, with the loss of one steamer and six barges sunk, one man killed and half a dozen wounded.
The Confederates, according to S. H. Lockett, now turned an anxious watch on New Carthage:
Here there was a fleet of formidable gunboats, and transports and barges enough to ferry a large force across the river. This gave a serious and threatening aspect to the movement.
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. …
On the 25th the Federal dead and some of their wounded … were still in our front and close to our lines. The dead had become offensive and the living were suffering fearful agonies. General Pemberton, therefore, under a flag of truce, sent a note to General Grant proposing a cessation of hostilities for two and a half hours, so that the dead and dying men might receive proper attention. This was acceded to by General Grant, and from six o’clock until nearly dark both parties were engaged in performing funeral rites and deeds of mercy to the dead and wounded Federal soldiers. …
The truce ended, the sharpshooters immediately began their work and kept it up until darkness prevented accuracy of aim. Then the pickets of the two armies were posted in front of their respective lines, so near to each other that they whiled away the long hours of the night-watch with social chat. …
The events of the 2 7th of May were varied by an attack on our river batteries by the fleet.
The battery that was attacked by the Union gunboat Cincinnati responded with a vengeance. According to a writer for the fleet’s small newspaper (published on board Admiral Porter’s flagship):
Said battery … sent some ugly customers after our gunboat, which vessel retired on finding the place too hot for her, having first received three or four shots in her bottom [and others elsewhere]. Not wishing to be [further] annoyed by the enemy, she wisely sunk in three fathoms of water … when the officers and crew coolly went in to bathe.
About fifteen men were drowned. Prior to this about twenty-five had been killed or wounded.
By this time General Grant had given up the idea of trying to take Vicksburg by assault:
I … determined upon a regular siege. … Officers and men … went to work on the defences and approaches with a will. With the navy holding the river, the investment of Vicksburg was complete. … The enemy was limited in supplies of food, men, and munitions of war. … These could not last. …
My line was more than fifteen miles long, extending from Haines’ Bluff [in the north] to Vicksburg, thence to Warrenton. The line of the enemy was about seven. In addition to this, having an enemy at Canton and Jackson, in our rear, who was being constantly reinforced, we required a second line of defence facing the other way. I had not troops enough. … General Halleck [in Washington] appreciated the situation and, without being asked, forwarded reinforcements with all possible dispatch [bringing Grant’s total force up to about 75,000 men].
The enemy’s line of defence followed the crest of a ridge from the river north of the city eastward, then southerly around to the Jackson road, full three miles back of the city, thence in a southwesterly direction to the river. Deep ravines … lay in front of these defences. … The line was necessarily very irregular. …
The work to be done, to make our position as strong ‘against the enemy as his was against us, was very great. … We had no siege guns except six thirty-two pounders. … Admiral Porter, however, supplied us with a battery of navy guns of large calibre, and with these, and the fieldartillery used in the campaign, the siege began.
The enemy did not harass us much while we were constructing our batteries. Probably their artillery ammunition was short; and their infantry was kept down by our sharpshooters, who were always on the alert and ready to fire at a head whenever it showed itself above the rebel works.
The labor of building the batteries and intrenching was largely done by the pioneers, assisted by Negroes who came within our lines and who were paid for their work; but details from the troops had often to be made. The work was pushed forward as rapidly as possible, and when an advanced position was secured and covered from the fire of the enemy, the batteries were advanced.
The Federals shelled not only the Confederate lines but also the city itself. A resident named Edward S. Gregory wrote:
Even the fire on the lines was not confined to them in its effects, for hardly any part of the city was outside the range of the enemy’s artillery. … Just across the Mississippi … mortars were put in position and trained directly on the homes of the people. … Twenty-four hours of each day these preachers of the Union made their touching remarks to the town. All night long their deadly hail of iron dropped through roofs and tore up the deserted and denuded streets. …
… the women and children of Vicksburg took calmly and bravely the iron storm. …The ordinary atmosphere of life, the course of conversation, the thread of every human existence took in … the momently contingency of these messengers of thunder and murder. … How many of them came and burst, nobody can have the least idea. … They became at last such an ordinary occurrence of daily life that I have seen ladies walk quietly along the streets while the shells burst above them, their heads protected meanwhile by a parasol held between them and the sun. …
Vicksburg hangs on the side of a hill whose name is poetical—the Sky Parlor. … Its soil was light and friable, and yet sufficiently stiff to answer the purpose of excavation. Wherever the passage of a street left the face of the hill exposed, into it and under it the people burrowed, making long ranges and systems of chambers and arches within which the women and young took shelter. In them all the offices of life had to be discharged, except that generally the cooking stove stood near the entrance, opportunity to perform upon it being seized and improved during the shells’ diversions in other quarters. Sometimes the caves were strengthened by pillars and wooden joists, and beds and furniture were crowded in them. … It was rather a point of honor among men not to hide in these places, which were reserved for the women and children.
New caves kept appearing. “Negroes who understood their business,” explains the wife of a Confederate officer, “hired themselves out to dig them, at from thirty to fifty dollars, according to the size.”
Though vulnerable to the heavier shells, the caves at least shielded their occupants from the fragments of the lighter ones. It was difficult, however, to keep the children inside. News of two misfortunes among the young reached the officer’s wife in the course of one day: “A fragment had … struck and broken the arm of a little boy playing near the mouth of his mother’s cave.” And, more tragically:
A young girl, becoming weary in the confinement of the cave, hastily ran to the house in the interval that elapsed between the slowly falling shells. On returning, an explosion sounded near her. One wild scream, and she ran into her mother’s presence, sinking like a wounded dove, the life-blood flowing over the light summer dress in crimson ripples from a death-wound in her side. …
Some of Vicksburg’s residents remained in their houses, taking to their cellars when the shells came close. In this group was the “young lady of New Orleans,” who recorded in her diary:
We are utterly cut off from the world, surrounded by a circle of fire. … The fiery shower of shells goes on day and night. … People do nothing but eat what they can get, sleep when they can, and dodge the shells. … Clothing cannot be washed, or anything else done. …
I think all the dogs and cats must be killed or starved. We don’t see any more pitiful animals prowling around. …
The cellar is so damp and musty the bedding has to be carried out and laid in the sun every day. … The confinement is dreadful. … I don’t know what others do, but we read when I am not scribbling in this. H. [the narrator’s husband] borrowed somewhere a lot of Dickens’s novels, and we reread them by the dim light in the cellar.
When the shelling abates, H. goes to walk about a little or get the “Daily Citizen,” which is still issuing a tiny sheet at twenty-five and fifty cents a copy. It is, of course, but a rehash of speculations which amuses a half hour.
Today [May 28] he heard while out that expert swimmers are crossing the Mississippi on logs at night to bring and carry news. …
I am so tired of corn-bread, which I never liked, that I eat it with tears in my eyes. We are lucky to get a quart of milk daily from a family near who have a cow they hourly expect to be killed. I send five dollars to market each morning, and it buys a small piece of mule meat. Rice and milk is my main food; I can’t eat the mule meat. We boil the rice and eat it cold with milk for supper. Martha [a Negro servant] runs the gauntlet to buy the meat and milk once a day in perfect terror.
The shells seem to have many different names. I hear the soldiers say, “That’s a mortar shell. There goes a Parrott. That’s a rifle shell.” They are all equally terrible.
A pair of chimney-swallows have built in the parlor chimney. The concussion of the house often sends down parts of their nest, which they patiently pick up and reascend with. …
It is our custom in the evening to sit in the front room a little while in the dark … and watch the shells, whose course at night is shown by the fuse. [On June 5] H. was at the window and suddenly sprang up, crying, “Run!” … I started through the back room, H. after me. I was just within the door when the crash came that threw me to the floor. It was the most appalling sensation I’d ever known. … Shaken and deafened, I picked myself up. H. had struck a light to find me. I lighted mine. … The candles were useless in the dense smoke, and it was many minutes before we could see. Then we found the entire side of the room torn out. …
There is one thing I feel especially grateful for, that amid these horrors we have been spared that of suffering for water. The weather has been dry a long time, and we hear of others dipping up the water from ditches and mudholes. This place has two large underground cisterns of good cool water, and every night in my subterranean dressing-room a tub of cold water is the nerve-calmer that sends me to sleep in spite of the roar.
One cistern I had to give up to the soldiers, who swarm about like hungry animals seeking something to devour. Poor fellows! My heart bleeds for them. They have nothing but spoiled, greasy bacon, and bread made of musty peaflour, and but little of that. The sick ones can’t bolt it. They come into the kitchen when Martha puts the pan of cornbread in the stove, and beg for the bowl she mixes it in. They shake up the scrapings with water, put in their bacon, and boil the mixture into a kind of soup, which is easier to swallow than pea-bread. When I happen in, they look so ashamed of their poor clothes. I know we saved the lives of two by giving a few meals. …
The churches are a great resort for those who own no caves. People fancy they are not shelled so much, and they are substantial, and the pews good to sleep in.
This period of the siege saw a night fare, the work of arsonists, in the city’s business district. The perpetrators were persons angered by the merchants engaged in profiteering. Citizen Edward Gregory said that the blaze swept out of control:
There was nothing to do except to remove the articles of value from the houses within its range. A great crowd collected, notwithstanding the concentration of the mortar fire; and yet there were no remembered casualties. The whole block was burned, of course; and the wonder is, only one.
“A state of siege,” Gregory asserted elsewhere in his narrative,
fulfils … all that is involved in the suspension of civilization. Its influences survive; its appliances vanish. … Home was a den shared with others, perhaps with strangers. … That people had to wait on themselves was a matter of course. … There was no [regular] business, no mails … no hotels or places of congregation and discourse, no passage of vehicles, no social pastimes. …
In this state of suspended animation, it is really wonderful how people continued to drag out their endurance from one hopeless day to another. Perhaps the very vigilance they had to exercise against the shells … kept the besieged alive. Every day, too, somebody would start or speed a new story of deliverance [by an army] from without that stirred up, although for a fitful season only, the hearts bowed down by deep despair. Now it was E. Kirby Smith, and now Joe Johnston, who was at the gates.
The faith that something would and must be done to save the city was desperately clung to. … It probably never had deep roots in the reason of the generals, the men in the lines, or the people. But at such times men do not reason. … Powerless to resist the tide of events, their only refuge is in the indulgence of a desperate hope, whose alternative is despair and madness.
Actually, for a time Vicksburg’s hope was not altogether a vain one. Joe Johnston, who had gathered a small army east of the Big Black River, considered several plans for rescuing the situation. About June 20 General Grant received information that led him to believe Johnston was preparing to attack him from the rear:
I immediately ordered Sherman to the command of all the forces [stretching] from Haines’ Bluff to the Big Black River. This amounted … to quite half the troops about Vicksburg. … We were now looking west, besieging Pemberton, while we were also looking east to defend ourselves against an expected siege by Johnston. But … we were strongly fortified. … Johnston evidently took in the situation, and wisely, I think, abstained from making an assault on us because it would simply have inflicted loss on both sides without accomplishing any result.
In the meantime, Grant added, “the work of … pushing forward our position nearer to the enemy had been steadily progressing.” At one spot the Federals, preparing to lay an explosive charge, succeeded in digging under the Confederate fortifications. Grant went on:
The enemy had countermined, but did not succeed in reaching our mine. … Our sap [i.e., mining trench] ran close up to the outside of the enemy’s parapet. … The soldiers of the two sides occasionally conversed pleasantly across this barrier. Sometimes they exchanged the hard bread of the Union soldiers for the tobacco of the Confederates. At other times the enemy threw over hand grenades, and often our men, catching them in their hands, returned them.
The story of the mine was told by a Union correspondent, James C. Fitzpatrick. Writing on June 25, he reported:
This morning the work was completed, an immense quantity of gunpowder was stored in the cavity prepared to receive it, and the fuse train was laid. At noon the different regiments … selected to make the assault upon the breach when it should have been effected, were marshalled in long lines upon the near slopes of the hills immediately confronting the doomed rebel fortifications. … The rebels seemed to discover that some movement was on foot, for … their sharpshooters kept up an incessant fire from the whole line of their works.
At length all was in readiness; the fuse train was fired, and it went fizzing and popping through the zigzag line of trenches until … it vanished. Its disappearance was quickly succeeded by the explosion. … So terrible a spectacle is seldom witnessed. Dust, dirt, smoke … stockades, timber, gun-carriages, logs—in fact, everything connected with the fort—rose hundreds of feet into the air, as if vomited forth from a volcano. Some who were close spectators even say that they saw the bodies of the poor wretches who a moment before had lined the ramparts of the work.
I remember one colored man … who was thrown to our side. He was not much hurt, but terribly frightened. Someone asked him how high he had gone up.
“Dunno, massa, but t’ink ‘bout t’ree mile,” was his reply.
According to Charles E. Hooker, a Confederate officer: “Six men of the Forty-third Mississippi, engaged in countermining at the time of the explosion, were buried alive.”
Immediately after the explosion, Hooker went on to explain,
a terrible outburst of cannon and musketry opened from the Federal lines, and a charging column entered the crater. But they got no farther, for the Confederates were ready and opened such a withering fire that it was instant death for one of the enemy to show his head. Not only that, but shells were lighted [at their fuses] and thrown over the parapet to explode among the Federals, causing a terrible loss of life.
Grant’s men were unable to get more than a temporary hold on the crater, and their plans to do further digging against the enemy in this area had to be abandoned. But the game oj mining and countermining was to be continued elsewhere.
The Negro who had landed in the Federal lines was taken to the headquarters of Union General John A. Logon, where he became a paid servant. To all those who questioned him about his experience he said that “somethin’ busted” and blew him out of the Confederacy “plumb into de Union.”
During the flurry of action that followed the explosion of the mine, the bombardment of the city had continued. That evening the “young lady of New Orleans” penned in her diary:
A horrible day. … We were all in the cellar when a shell came tearing through the roof, burst upstairs, tore up that room; and, the pieces coming through both floors down into the cellar, one of them tore open the leg of H.’s pantaloons. … On the heels of this came Mr. J. to tell us that young Mrs. P. had had her thighbone crushed. When Martha went for the milk, she came back horror-stricken to tell us the black girl there had her arm taken off by a shell.
For the first time I quailed. … I said to H., “You must get me out of this horrible place. I cannot stay. I know I shall be crippled.”
Now the regret comes that I lost control, because H. is worried and has lost his composure because my coolness has broken down.
Morale in Vicksburg’s defenses was also failing, but for a different reason. Confederate officer Charles Hooker wrote:
On the 28th Pemberton received a communication signed “Many soldiers,” containing these words: “Our rations have been cut down to one biscuit and a small bit of bacon per day, not enough scarcely to keep soul and body together, much less to stand the hardships we are called upon to stand. If you can’t feed us, you had better surrender us, horrible as the idea is. … This army is now ripe to mutiny unless it can be fed.”
The Federal newspapermen were now calling the capture of Vicksburg “a foregone conclusion.” Charles H. Farrell reported to the New York Herald:
A few days ago a rebel mail was captured coming out from Vicksburg, in which were letters from prominent men in the rebel army who state that they cannot hold out much longer. … So far as the siege of this place goes, I presume the people at home, in their easy chairs, think it ought to have been finished long since. To such let me say, could they be present here … and see the configuration of the country, its broken topography, its high and abrupt hills, deep gullies, gorges, and dilapidated roads, they would then realize the difficulties of the work. Then there is a large army to feed, great matériel to be brought into position, all of which demands large transportation and the united efforts of thousands of men.
General Grant acts independently of opinions of the public. He fully realizes the responsibility of his position and … he is determined to accomplish his work with as great an economy of human life as possible. He feels now that the prize is within his grasp. …
The Vicksburg Daily Citizen, by this time being printed on wallpaper, reported on July 2:
The great Ulysses—the Yankee generalissimo surnamed Grant—has expressed his intention of dining in Vicksburg on … the Fourth of July. … Ulysses must get into the city before he dines in it. The way to cook a rabbit is “first catch the rabbit.”
In another passage the newspaper vouched for the palatability of mule steak and stewed cat.
That night General Pemberton, the Confederate commander, calkd a council of war. As recorded by S. H. Lockett:
We had been from the beginning short of ammunition. … We were short of provisions. … We were so shorthanded that no man within the lines had ever been off duty more than a small part of each day. … Our lines were badly battered, many of our guns were dismounted, and the Federal forces were within less than a minute of our defenses, so that a single dash could have precipitated them upon us in overwhelming numbers.
All of these facts were brought out in the council of war. … General Pemberton said he had lost all hopes of being relieved by General Johnston. … He then asked each officer present to give his vote on the question, surrender or not ? Beginning with the junior officer present, all voted to surrender but two. …
General Pemberton said, “Well, gentlemen, I have heard your votes and I agree with your almost unanimous decision, though my own preference would be to put myself at the head of my troops and make a desperate effort to cut our way through the enemy. … Far better would it be for me to die at the head of my army, even in a vain effort to force the enemy’s lines, than to surrender it and live and meet the obloquy which I know will be heaped upon me. But my duty is to sacrifice myself to save the army which has so nobly done its duty to defend Vicksburg. I therefore concur with you and shall offer to surrender. …”
According to the “young lady of New Orleans” the next day, July 3, began dismally for the people in the city:
Today we are down in the cellar again, shells flying as thick as ever; provisions so nearly gone, except [a] hogshead of sugar, that a few more days will bring us to starvation indeed. Martha says rats are hanging dressed in the market for sale with mule meat. There is nothing else.
In the lines the negotiations for Vicksburg’s surrender had begun. The forty-day siege was ending—on the same day, coincidentally, on which Lee sent Pickett against Cemetery Ridge and lost the Battle of Gettysburg.
The morning of July 4 found General Grant at his headquarters awaiting General P ember ton’s final acknowledgment of the surrender terms. As a newsman who paid Grant a visit wrote:
I … found everybody about his headquarters in a state of the liveliest satisfaction. … The General I found in conversation more animated than I have ever known him. He is evidently contented with the manner in which he has acquitted himself of the responsible task which has for more than five months engrossed his mind and his army. The consummation is one of which he may well be proud.
The Confederates laid down their arms that afternoon. Grant’s men watched the procedure without cheering.
Vicksburg’s citizens, deeply relieved that the ordeal was over at last, swarmed out of their caves and cellars and walked the streets in the sunshine. Military casualties, by Civil War standards, had been moderate, and among the civilians inside the city, although no exact figures exist, the casualties evidently were low. The “young lady of New Orleans” paid a visit to the waterfront:
Truly it was a fine spectacle to see the fleet of [Union] transports sweep around the curve and anchor in the teeth of the batteries lately vomiting fire. Presently Mr. J. passed us: “Aren’t you coming? There’s provisions on those boats —coffee and flour.”
… The townfolk continued to dash through the streets with their arms full, canned goods predominating. Towards five, Mr. J. passed again. “Keep on the lookout,” he said, “the army of occupation is coming.” And in a few minutes the head of the column appeared.
What a contrast to the suffering creatures we had seen were these stalwart, well-fed men, so splendidly set up and accoutred! Sleek horses, polished arms, bright plumes—this was the pride and panoply of war. Civilization, discipline, and order seemed to enter with the measured tramp of those marching columns; and the heart turns with throbs of added pity to the worn men in gray who were being blindly dashed against this embodiment of modern power.
Confederate officer S. H. Lockett wrote:
A few minutes after the Federal soldiers marched in, the soldiers of the two armies were fraternizing and swapping yarns over the incidents of the long siege. … [A] hearty cheer was given by one Federal division “for the gallant defenders of Vicksburg!”
I myself,” wrote Grant, “saw our men taking bread from their haversacks and giving it to the enemy they had so recently been engaged in starving out.”
A few of the more mischievous Yankees went to the office of the Daily Citizen and arranged for the last issue printed on wallpaper to carry the announcement that Grant had “caught the rabbit.”
Grant rode down to the river to exchange congratulations with Admiral Porter on their joint victory. The general then returned to his headquarters outside the city and sent an aide to the nearest telegraph office with a report for Washington.
Grant wrote later:
This news, with the victory at Gettysburg won the same day, lifted a great load of anxiety from the minds of the President, his Cabinet, and the loyal people all over the North.
Port Hudson, Louisiana, a smaller post about a hundred and fifty miles farther down the river, was still in Confederate hands, but only for the moment; as a result of Vicksburg’s fall it capitulated to another Federal force on July 8. Except for mopping-up operations, this concluded the long campaign for the Mississippi.
“The Father of Waters,” said Lincoln, “again goes unvexed to the sea.”
As for Grant, he considered the fate of the Confederacy sealed.