I want to try an experiment, telling the story of the most amazing military campaign in American history, U.S. Grant’s attack, isolation, and capture of Vicksburg, Mississippi. I will try and tell it in sequence. And I will begin with the observations of an amateur military genius. Abraham Lincoln tried to explain the importance of Vicksburg to those 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…."
I have never found a more cogent and accurate description of the strategic situation in the winter of 1862, than that.
New Orleans had been captured by the U.S. Navy 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 (above), on June 6, 1862, the river was in Union hands from its headwaters down to the Tennessee/Mississippi state border. Only a narrow waist between Fort Hudson, just above New Oreleans, and on the north Vicksburg, Mississippi, remained in Confederate hands. Like a button and eye they were binding the Confederacy together. And they were vital, because along the whole torturous course between these two high ground, from the river banks to breadth of up to forty miles, the approach to the river as half swamp, part river and part solid ground..
More importantly, only at Vicksburg (above) was the ground on the east and west sides of the river solid enough so that a railroad line could touch the Mississippi itself - there was no bridge, but railroad cars could be ferried arcross. So, after the debacles at Memphis and New Orleans, the Confederacy decided to turned Vicksburg into “The Gibraltar of the Confederacy.” On paper it looked simple- the city lay just south of a thuge "S" bend in the river. This meant that any warships coming down from the north would have to slow to make that hairpin turn. Accepted military thinking and some experience said they would be sitting ducks to heavy artillery atop the bluffs at Vicksburg. The town’s northern land shoulder -Haines Bluff - was protected by the 200 mile wide and 50 mile thick swamp of the Yazoo river delta to its north. That forced any assault from the north far inland, down the line of the Mississippi Central Railroad toward the state capital of Jackson.
Union Forces under General Steven Halleck (above) followed that line and managed to occupy Corinth, Mississippi on June 1st, 1862. But every time he ventured south from that base, Rebel cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest slipped around “Old Brains”, captured his supplies and burned his bridges. And Halleck was forced to slink back again to Tennesee. At the same time the Union Navy in New Orleans ran war ships up the Mississippi River past the guns at Fort Hudson and tried to shell Vicksburg into a quick submission. But the Confederates refused to fall for that trick as they had done at Memphis. By the end of the summer of 1862 Halleck had been transferred, and the task of capturing Vicksburg fell to Lt. General U.S. Grant, almost by default.
General Grant (above) 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 today - after almost two centuries of vast public works - remains a twisting, tortuous and argumentative stream. It was worse so in 1863. 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 (40,000 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 touched the Mississippi. And it didn’t matter how he did it. So he started by trying everything he could think of.
The US Navy had begun a canal (above) 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 south of Vicksburg. But some how, no matter how close they came, the bayous always seemed to end just before reaching the Red River. 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 cutoff north of Vicksburg, 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 shifting troops nervously back and forth, like a poker player constantly checking his cards. 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 regiments (above) on a raid deep into Mississippi, to do as much damage to the Central Mississippi Railroad as possible, even cut it if he could. It was just a raid, and was not intended to come close to Vicksburg. But it helped to achieve the impossible. What seemed impossible 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. April was going to set the scene for Grant's campaign.