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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The VICKSBURG Campaign: Chapter one

I want to try an experiment. Please bear with me while I try to tell the story of the most amazing military campaign in American history, U.S. Grant’s campaign against Vicksburg, Mississippi. I will try and tell it in sequence and in real time. And I will begin with the observations of an amateur military genius, Abraham Lincoln, who tried to explain it to those who were celebrating the capture of Memphis, Tennessee on June 6, 1862. He told them, “…Vicksburg is the key. Here is the Red River, which will supply the Confederacy with cattle and corn to feed their armies. There are the Arkansas and White Rivers which can supply cattle and hogs by the thousand. From Vicksburg these supplies can be distributed by rail all over the Confederacy….Let us get Vicksburg and all that country is ours. The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pockets….We may take all northern ports of the Confederacy, and they can still defy us from Vicksburg. It means hog and hominy without limit, fresh troops from all the states of the far South and a cotton country where they can raise the staple without interference.” And I have never found a more cogent or accurate description of the strategic situation in the winter of 1862
New Orleans had been captured on May 1, 1862. That closed the Mississippi river at its mouth. And with the battles of Island Number Ten, and the river fleet Battle of Memphis, on June 6, 1862, the river was in Union hands down to the Tennessee/Mississippi border. Only a narrow waist between Fort Hudson, Louisiana on the West shore, and Vicksburg, Mississippi on the East, remained under Confederate control. Along its whole torturous course between those two high points, to a breadth of up to forty miles, the bottom land slowly melded into “The Big Muddy”, half swamp, part river and part solid ground only between floods. And only at Vicksburg was the ground on the East side of the river solid enough so that a railroad line could touch the stream. And so, after the debacles at Memphis and New Orleans, the Confederacy turned Vicksburg into “The Gibraltar of the Confederacy.” On paper it looked simple. The city was just south of a huge S bend in the river, which meant that any warships coming from the North would have to slow to make that bend. Accepted military thinking and some experience said they would never survive the bombardment from heavy artillery atop the bluffs at Vicksburg. And the town’s northern land shoulder was protected by the 200 mile wide and 50 mile thick swamp of the Yazoo river delta. That seemed to restrict any land assault from the North to the inland route, right down the line of the Mississippi Central Railroad.
Union Forces under General Steven Halleck followed that line and managed to occupy Corinth, Mississippi on June 1st, 1862, but every time he ventured out from that base, Rebel cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest would slip around “Old Brains”, capture his supplies and burn the railroad bridges. And Halleck would have to slink back again. At the same time the Union Navy ran war ships up the Mississippi River past the guns at Fort Hudson and tried to shell Vicksburg into quick submission. But this time the Confederates refused to give up the ground. By the end of the summer Halleck had been transferred to the East and by fall of 1862 Grant had been forced to retreat back to Memphis.
General Grant really had three enemies to defeat. His most dangerous opponent was the War Department in Washington, which meddled away the Union strengths. And then there was the river, which even after a century and a half of vast public works remains a twisting, tortuous, argumentative stream. It was worse so in 1862. Grant’s most easily defeated opponent was Lt. General John C. Pemberton, a Pennsylvanian who had chosen to fight for the South. He was a skilled officer who had been given limited means (12,000 men scattered between Vicksburg and Jackson, Mississippi) to defend an objective of unlimited importance. And Grant understood intuitively that all that mattered was to occupy the Vicksburg bluffs and permanently cut the rail line that ran from Vicksburg to Jackson, Mississippi. And it didn’t matter how he did it. He started by trying everything he could think of.
The Navy had begun a canal that might eventually cut off the river bend just above Vicksburg by joining the Walnut and Roundaway Bayous before reconnecting with the river below Vicksburg at the tiny hamlet of New Carthage. But when a dam at the northern end of the dig collapsed, flooding out the Union camps, the canal was abandoned. Next Grant tried less digging. There was a circuitous maze of bayous that logically seemed to eventually connect an abandoned Mississippi bend, Lake Providence, 50 miles North of Vicksburg, to the Red River just before it rejoined the Big Muddy above the high ground at Fort Hudson. But some how, no matter how close they came, the bayous always seemed to end just before reaching the Red. (We know now that in past ages the Mississippi did use the Red River’s bed to reach the gulf to the West of its current delta – and has been trying for fifty years to re-establish the same delta again.) Another route up the Tallahatchie was blocked by a Rebel fort. And an attempt to follow Steele Bayou to Black Bayou to Deer Creek to Rolling Fork Bayou to the Sunflower River to outflank Haines Bluff on the Yazoo also failed. And an attempt to dig another bypass of the big bend just North of Vicksburg, the Duckport Canal, also failed.
Still all those labors had kept Pemberton constantly trying counter and anticipate Grant’s next move. And Grant took notice of that. And that is why, on April 17, 1863, Grant sent Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson and 1,700 troopers of the 6th and 7th Illinois and the 2nd Iowa cavalry on a raid deep into Mississippi, to do as much damage to the Central Mississippi Railroad as possible, even cut it if he could. What was not clear at the time was that from the moment Grierson rode out of La Grange, Tennessee, Vicksburg had just five weeks left as a major Rebel supply base.

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