I shall now relate the most most amazing military campaign in American history. This is the story of U.S. Grant’s capture of Vicksburg, Mississippi. And I will begin with the observation of an amateur military genius who was involved in the planning of the operation. 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 military 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 capture of Memphis (above), on June 6, 1862, the Mississippi river was in Union hands from its headwaters down to the state of Mississippi border. South of there for another 150 mile miles down to Vicksburg, and beyond another 80 miles down to Fort Hudson, 25 miles north of Baton Rouge, remained in Confederate hands. Like a button and eye they bound the western Confederacy (Texas, Louisiana and western Missouri ) to the rest of the slave states. And of that 230 mile stretch Vicksburg was the key point, because only at point was there high ground on both the east and west banks that could support a railroad. Everywhere else, to a width of up to forty miles, any approach to the river was part swamp, part river and only occasionally solid ground..
There was no bridge across the river at Vicksburg (above), the Mississippi was already too wide. But at Vicksburg railroad cars were ferried across the old man river. Here the supply line for Texas beef and Louisiana winter vegetables might be slow, but it was still open. So, after the debacles at Memphis and New Orleans, the Confederacy vowed to turn Vicksburg into “The Gibraltar of the Confederacy.” On paper it looked simple. The city lay just south of a huge "S" bend in the river. This meant that any warships coming down river had to slow to make the hairpin turn. Experience said federal gunboats and supply ships would be sitting ducks to any heavy artillery atop the Haines Bluff just north of Vicksburg. And the Bluff itself was protected by the 200 mile long and 50 mile wide swamp of the Yazoo River delta, which entered the Mississippi here. The water here was not deep enough for gunboats and the land not solid enough for supply trains. That forced any land assault on Vicksburg 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, just south of the Tennessee border, on June 1st, 1862. But every time the tardy Hallack ventured south from that base, Rebel cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest slipped around “Old Brains”, captured his supplies and burned his bridges. Each time Halleck tried to move on Jackson he had been forced to slink back again to Tennessee. 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 at Memphis. They held out. By the end of the summer of 1862 Halleck had been transferred to the east, and the task of capturing Vicksburg fell by default to his replacement, Lt. General U.S. Grant.
General Grant (above) really faced three enemies at Vicksburg. His most dangerous opponent was the U.S. War Department in Washington, which meddled away the Union strengths. And then there was the Mississippi River, which even today - after almost two centuries of vast public works projects - remains a twisting, tortuous and argumentative stream. It was far 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. Pemberton was a skilled officer who had been given limited means (40,000 men scattered between Vicksburg and Jackson, and Port Hudson, Mississippi) to defend an objective of unlimited importance. From the instant he took command Grant understood intuitively that all that mattered was to occupy Haines Bluff, giving him a secure supply line back north, and putting Vicksburg under Union cannon and permanently cutting the rebel rail line that touched the Mississippi. And it did not matter how he did it. So during the winter of 1862-63, Grant started by digging.
The US Navy had already begun a canal (above) that might eventually cut off the river bend just above Vicksburg, by joining the Walnut and Roundaway Bayous, before rejoining the river below Vicksburg, at the tiny hamlet of New Carthage. This would allow federal transports to deliver infantry and artillery to the east side of the river below Vicksburg. Grant ordered 10,000 additional army men to work on the canal. But when a dam at the northern end of the dig collapsed, flooding out the Union camps, the canal had to be abandoned.
Next Grant tried slightly less digging. There was a circuitous maze of bayous that logically seemed to eventually connect an abandoned Mississippi bend 50 miles north of Vicksburg, now called Lake Providence, to the Red River just before it joined the Big Muddy above the high ground at Fort Hudson, south of Vicksburg. But no matter how close they came, no mater how much mud the Union troops moved, the bayous always seemed to end just before reaching the Red River. Another possible route up the Tallahatchie river was blocked by a rebel fort in the middle of yet another swamp. 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 River cutoff north of Vicksburg, also failed. And an another dig to bypass the river bend just north of Vicksburg, called the Duckport Canal, also failed. It seemed, reading the northern newspapers who documented every attempt in detail, that everything Grant touched was a failure.
Still, ,Pemberton, who was reading the northern papers, had to keep constantly shifting his 40,000 men nervously back and forth, like a poker player constantly rearranging the cards in this hands. Grant took notice of that nervous twitch. So as spring began in the Mississippi valley of 1863, he ran what seemed one more bluff. 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 the interior of Mississippi, The stated mission was to do as much damage as possible to the Central Mississippi Railroad that ran from Jackson to Vicksburg, perhaps even cut it so badly it would take several weeks to repair. That was reason enough for the raid. The unstated mission was to force Pemberton to shift his troops yet again, to offer the rebel commanders another opportunity to grow confused and weary. Grierson's raid was not intended to come close to Vicksburg. But from the moment Grierson rode out of La Grange, Tennessee, Vicksburg had just five weeks left as a major Rebel supply base. That April raid was going to set the scene for Grant's May campaign.