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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

MONDAY MAY 18, 1863

Sherman’s Corps has been directed to cross the Big Black River some 11 miles above the point at which McCernand’s and McPherson’s Corps have thrown across pontoon bridges. By 8 am the pontoon bridges are open and Grant is one of the first to cross over them and quickly moves cross-country to join the rapidly advancing Sherman's Corps.
It is early that afternoon that Sherman and Grant together reach the rear of the Confederate batteries atop Haynes Bluff’s of the Walnut Hills. Confederate troops are in the process of evacuating the position, and retreating inside the Vicksburg defenses. And Grant is happy to allow them to leave. With Haynes Bluff in Union hands, “Supplies and reinforcements could now flow to Grant’s army unimpeded by either geography or Confederate action.” Grant wrote, “(Sherman) turned to me, saying that up to this minute he had felt no positive assurance of success. This, however, he said, was the end of one of the greatest campaigns in history, and I ought to make a report of it at once. Vicksburg was not yet captured, and there was no telling what might happen before it was taken; but whether captured or not, this was a complete and successful campaign.”
Grant began his own account of his campaign with the following words; “The campaign of Vicksburg was suggested and developed by circumstances.” Others have been more impressed. “During the 17 day period after the landing at Burinsburg, Grant’s Army…marched 180 miles and won five major engagements…inflicting 7,200 casualties to 4,300 of his own, pinned Pemberton’s army inside the defenses of Vicksburg, and with his right flank now anchored on the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers North of the city, reestablished his communications and supply…Those who think of Grant as a butcher need to examine this masterpiece of operational art.” (Mackubin T. Owens, Associate Dead at the U.S. Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island.)
Grant would later observe; “All of (Pemberton’s) troops had to be met. We were fortunate, to say the least, in meeting them in detail…They were beaten in detail by a force smaller than their own, upon their own ground” This was, of course no fortunate accident. Grant achieved this amazing feat because he had to. Grant could not have known before he crossed the Mississippi that Pemberton would play into his hands, although he must have suspected it given Pemberton’s reactions to all of the digging and maneuvering before that fateful May. Still, the resolve to make the crossing was all Grant's.
There was a fundamental mistake made in the defense of Vicksburg, as detailed by (amongst others) General Joe Johnston; “An immense entrenched camp requiring an army to hold it, had been made instead of a fort requiring only a small garrison." But Grand Gulf had been just such a fort and it fell without even being defended directly because Pemberton knew Grand Gulf could not stand alone and he abandoned it. Why did he not do the same with Vicksburg? The core of the problem of Vicksburg is that all fortresses, even a Gibraltar, require an army in the field to defend them – generals and soldiers and teamsters and all the sinew of war. And Vicksburg had little of that sinew. The destruction of so much as one mile of track on the Vicksburg & Jackson Railroad was a catastrophe for the South, reducing the value of Vicksburg. Pemberton knew this. We know he knew this because he had faced the same choice in South Carolina and had not hesitated a moment before reaching the logical military solution. What was different about Vicksburg?
What was different was Davis – Confederate President Jefferson Davis. In the words of recent historian he was, “a poor judge of character…” I would add that Davis was a martinet, with a blind adherence to the form rather than the function of command. When Davis was the supertendent of West Point he was infamous for handing out demerits wholesale to no end than ti make life for the cadets that much harder. But it seems a little simple to condemn Davis for the realities of the war, once the war began. Davis knew that Vicksburg must be held. And if that was an impossible task, it was still a task the Confederate President was required to ask of his generals. But Davis had been in Washington when the war had started. In the words of Bruce Catton, he was one of those men who helped to bring on the firestorm. And if once the fire was started he could do little to control it, then Davis can most certainly be blamed for arson. In the pantheon of “Southern Heroes” Jefferson Davis should not be praised. If, as he said, the Confederacy died of a theory, it was his theory. And all the dead of Vicksburg, on both sides, can be laid at his doorstep, much more so than Generals Pemberton or Johnston.
And the hero of Vicksburg must be Grant. Any telling of the Vicksburg campaign of the spring of 1863 must be his story. Between April Fools day and July 4 of that year the two armies suffered 19,232 dead and wounded, a slight majority union. But at Vicksburg, six weeks after Grant and Sherman stood atop Haynes Bluff , a full Confederate army of 31,600 men, with 172 cannon and 60,000 muskets were surrendered to General U.S. Grant. He was the man who conceived and directed that campaign and who eventually brought the war to an end.
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