The American Civil War Overview

CHAPTER VIII
THE WESTERN THEATER: THE VICKSBURG CAMPAIGN

       Vicksburg, a veritable fortress city, controlled the middle stretch of the Mississippi River. It was situated on high, unscalable bluffs from which its heavy artillery could control the river below. It was also very difficult to approach overland. Directly to the north was the vast Yazoo Delta, impassable to any large body of troops. Federal gunboats could not sail past Vicksburg without risking destruction. 100 miles downstream at Port Hudson, Louisiana a second Confederate river fortress prevented Union naval forces from moving upstream.
       U.S. Grant initially planned a two-pronged advance on Vicksburg. Major General Sherman would move down the Mississippi River, turn the Federal fleet up the Yazoo River and attempt to land troops to the north of Vicksburg. In the meantime, Grant would move south down the railroad through Grenada, hopefully forcing Lieutenant General Pemberton's Confederate forces to move to try and intercept him.
       This plan was a dismal failure, largely due to the efforts of Forrest's and Van Dorn's cavalry. Forrest commanded a raid in December, 1862 that cut Grant's supply lines in Tennessee to bits. Van Dorn, now seeming to have found his true calling as a commander of cavalry following the Corinth fiasco, was anxious to redeem his reputation. During the same December time period, he led a second raid to destroy Grant's large supply depot at Holly Springs, Mississippi. With his supplies destroyed, and thanks to Forrest, no way of bringing in more, Grant was forced to retreat to Memphis. Sherman likewise had no success in attempting to land troops at Chickasaw Bluffs and was repulsed with severe losses. Grant however, refused to be discouraged by these setbacks and kept at work toward his objective of Vicksburg. He would eventually make five more attempts and suffer five more failures before he achieved his final objective.
       The first of the next five attempts was the effort to construct a canal across the tongue of land in front of Vicksburg to divert the river channel and bypass the city's artillery batteries. During this project, a dam gave way causing significant damage to the Federal camps and forcing the project to be scrapped.
       The second involved trying to move the fleet via a circuitous route through Lake Providence, about 50 miles north of Vicksburg. The movement would involve transversing several bayous before rejoining the Mississippi River by way of the Red River a few miles above Port Hudson. The bayous were found to be too blocked by cypress trees and flood debris to carry out the plan.
       The third project also was aimed at exploiting the complex river system around Vicksburg. This time an attempt would be made to move via a bayou called the Yazoo Pass, just south of Helena Arkansas. However, after initial success in moving into the Tallahatchie River system, further attempts were blocked by a Confederate fort and the Union fleet was forced back.
        The fourth attempt would be through utilization of the Steele Bayou to reach Black Bayou, connecting with Deer Creek, connecting with Rolling Fork Bayou, connecting with the Sunflower River which flowed into the Yazoo River above Haines Bluff. Underwater vegetation fouled the Union fleet's paddle wheels, and they were forced to abandon this idea.
       The final project involved the construction of a second canal just below Duckport that would allow the passage of light draft vessels, but falling river levels made this attempt impractical also.
       Finally, although Grant was still no closer to his goal, the wet season had ended and Admiral Farragut had been successful in running the batteries at Port Hudson with two Federal gunboats and could now control the Mississippi below Vicksburg. Grant incorporated these new developments into his planning.
       Grant requested and received agreement from Admiral Porter, to try and run his ships past the Vicksburg artillery batteries. Porter pointed out to Grant that if this attempt was successful and the ships were downstream of Vicksburg, there would be no way to move them back upstream while the Vicksburg batteries were still operational. On April 16 the plan was carried out on a dark, moonless night and was almost completely successful. Only one transport vessel was lost, and there were no casualties among the Federal personnel. A few nights later more army-owned transport vessels were run past Vicksburg with the loss of another transport and six of twelve supply barges.
       To try and deceive the Confederates as to his true line of operations, Grant ordered diversions by Sherman at Haines Bluff and a cavalry raid by Colonel R.H. Grierson, which proved to be very successful in distracting Pemberton's attention.
       Grant had intended to cross his troops from the west bank of the Mississippi River and land at Grand Gulf, Mississippi, but was unable to neutralize the Confederate forces at that place. The next day however, he moved the landing point to Bruinsburg and landed his forces without opposition on April 30.
       Due to confusion caused by Grant's diversions resulting in a dispersion of the Confederate army, Pemberton was unable to rapidly field substantial forces to contain Grant's bridgehead. A Confederate task force under Brigadier General John Bowen met Grant's advance elements at Port Gibson on May 1, but after a tough all-day fight, was forced to retreat when no reinforcements could be sent by Pemberton.
       Despite orders to cooperate in operations against Port Hudson, Grant now took it upon himself to implement a bold new operational strategy. Knowing that General Johnston was assembling an army in central Mississippi to come to Pemberton's support, Grant decided to rapidly move inland and interpose himself between the two Confederate forces, abandoning his river-based line of communications as he did so. He would instead have to live off the land until he could re-establish contact with the Union fleet. Pemberton meanwhile, despite urgings by Johnston to immediately concentrate his own forces and move against Grant's bridgehead, pulled the Confederate defenders back into the vicinity of Vicksburg.
       On May 12, Grant began moving the Federal army of about 44,000 troops toward the interior of Mississippi. This force met and defeated a small task force under Brigadier General John Gregg at Raymond that same day and two days later broke up the concentration of Johnston's forces at Jackson. The Confederates abandoned the important railhead and supply depot and escaped to the north.
        Again Johnston ordered Pemberton to move out of Vicksburg to strike Grant's rear and link up with his own relief forces. Delaying until May 15, Pemberton finally assembled three of his five divisions and marched out of Vicksburg with the intention of cutting Grant's now non-existent supply line. Changing his mind again on May 16, Pemberton finally decided to obey Johnston's orders and attempted to link up with him at Brownsville by countermarching his field force back through Edwards Depot. By now however, it was too late. Grant was already in contact with his lead division near Champion Hill.
        Grant had rapidly moved his forces to the west toward Vicksburg, having left Sherman with two divisions in Jackson to complete the destruction of railroad tracks and stores. Grant therefore had about 29,000 men to oppose almost 23,000 Pemberton had brought out of Vicksburg. In a desperate battle with key positions changing hands several times, the Confederates were finally forced to retreat towards Vicksburg. Loring's division was cut off and would eventually link up with Johnston's army several days later. Pemberton tried to make a final stand at the Big Black River, but his forces were again routed and Grant's troops drove the Confederates into the Vicksburg defenses. Grant reestablished contact with the Federal fleet on the Yazoo River on May 18.
       Grant ordered assaults to take the city on May 18, and again on May 22. The Confederate defenders proved obstinate however, and after suffering heavy losses, Grant settled down to a siege to starve the garrison into submission. In the meantime, Johnston was rapidly accumulating additional troops to attempt to relieve the siege. At one point his own and Pemberton's forces would actually outnumber the besieging Federal troops. However, coordinating an assault by Johnston with an attempted breakout by Pemberton proved impossible, and on June 15 Johnston notified the Confederate authorities that he considered saving Vicksburg hopeless.
       By the end of June, the constant pressure and lack of food was beginning to tell on the Vicksburg defenders. On July 4, Pemberton formally surrendered his army of 2,166 officers and 27,230 enlisted men, 172 cannon and 60,000 small arms. Five days later another 7,000 Confederate troops would surrender to Major General Nathaniel Banks at Port Hudson, Louisiana. The Mississippi River was once again open to sea and the Confederacy was effectively split in half. Grant's persistence and bold strategy had finally paid dividends.

This Page last updated 02/23/05

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CHAPTER IX, The Eastern Theater: The Gettysburg Campaign