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Monday, May 19, 2008

VICKSBURG; The Campaign

I want to tell the story of the most amazing military campaign in American history, U.S. Grant’s campaign against Vicksburg, Mississippi in the spring of 1863. 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 to those who were celebrating the capture of Memphis, Tennessee on June 6, 1862 that such victories were not enough. He lectured his cabinet, “Vicksburg is the key...The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pockets….We may take all the 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 spring of 1863 than this one.
New Orleans had been captured on May 1, 1862. That closed the Mississippi river at its mouth. The battles of Island Number Ten, and the river fleet Battle of Memphis, on June 6, 1862, put the river in Union hands down to the Tennessee/Mississippi border. Only a narrow waist of land between Fort Hudson and Vicksburg, Mississippi remained under Confederate control. Along its entire torturous course between those two high points, to a breadth of forty miles, where the bottom land slowly melded into “The Big Muddy”, the land was part swamp, part river, and solid ground only between floods. Only at the bluffs along the East bank of the river was solid ground, and only at Vicksburg did a railroad line actually touch the stream on both shores. Which is why the Confederacy had turned Vicksburg into “The Gibraltar of the Confederacy.”


On paper it looked like a simple point to defend. The city was just south of a huge S bend in the river. Any warships coming downstream would have to slow to make that 90 degree turn. Accepted military thinking and some experience said that Union warships would never survive the bombardment from heavy artillery atop the bluffs at Vicksburg. The town’s northern land shoulder was protected by the 200 mile wide and 50 mile thick swamp of the Yazoo river delta, overlooked by Haynes Bluff. That seemed to restrict any land assault from the North to the inland route, down the line of the Mississippi Central Railroad.
Union Forces under General Steven Halleck followed that line and managed to get as far as Corinth, Mississippi by June 1st, 1862. But every time Halleck ventured out from Corinth the Rebel cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest would slip around “Old Brains”, cut his supply lines and burn the railroad bridges behind him and Halleck would have to slink back into Tennesee again. 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 the Confederates refused to give up the city, trapping the warships. By the end of the summer 1862 Halleck had been transferred to the East and Grant had been forced by rebels and circumstances to retreat to Memphis and move to to the West bank of The River.
General Grant really had three enemies to defeat. His most dangerous opponent was the War Department in Washington, noe personified by Hallack, who, like the Department before him, meddled away Union strengths. And then there was the river. Even today it remains a half mile wide South of Vicksburg, powerful, ponderous and twisting, an gumentative stream. It was far worse 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 (42,000 men scattered between Haynes Bluff, Vicksburg and Port Hudson, Mississippi) to defend an objective of unlimited importance. Grant understood intuitively that all that mattered was to occupy the Vicksburg bluffs. He himself wrote decades after the war, “The campaign of Vicksburg was suggested and developed by circumstances.”
The Navy had begun a canal that might eventually bypass the big 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. From his new base at Milliken’s Bend, on the West bank of the Mississippi across from Vicksburg, Grant started his men digging again. But when a dam at the northern end of the ditch collapsed, flooding out the Union camps, the canal was abandoned. Next Grant tried a different tact. 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. Another route down the Tallahatchie was blocked by a Rebel fort in the interior of Mississippi. 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.So did a December attempt at a coup de main assault on Haynes Bluff by Sherman's corps. Still all those labors had kept Pemberton constantly trying counter and anticipate Grant’s next move. And Grant took notice of that.


It was a dry spring that year in Mississippi, burned by drought. And just at the moment that Grant needed the Rivers to supply his army the low water threw yet another difficulty in his way. The very fates seemed determined to defend Vicksburg. But as spring spread across the Mississippi valley in 1863, Vicksburg had just six weeks left as a Confederate Supply base. What at the end of March looked impossible would, by the middle of May be inevitable, an all but an acomplised fact. And the story of how that came about remains one of the most amazing stories in all of long history of that old man river.

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