FRIDAY MAY 29, 1863
Today in Georgia, the Macon Telegraph delivers the latest news from Vicksburg (above). It is already a week old. “From the Northern accounts as well as our own, it is clear that all our defenses on the Yazoo were abandoned to the enemy...and that the town proper is held only by Pemberton and his little force, closely invested by the Yankee fleet to the front and by Grant's army on the other three sides. We have not the slightest intimation of the whereabouts of General Johnston and the main Confederate Army...Unless Johnston can raise the siege by defeating Grant, or cutting his communications, it is evident that the fall of Vicksburg is a question only of time.” The next day the same newspaper will carry the Georgia Governor's call for citizens to collect weapons for home defense.
SATURDAY MAY 30, 1863
General John McClernard (above) issues his General Order 72. It begins, “Comrades: As your Commander, I am proud to congratulate you upon your constancy, valor and success. History affords no more brilliant example of soldierly qualities. Your victories have followed in such rapid succession that their echoes have not yet reached the country. They will challenge its grateful and enthusiastic applause....” He continues in this vein for several paragraphs, recounting the campaign exploits of his corps.
But then, running short of superlatives, McClernard begins to compare his men's exploits favorably over efforts by soldiers in the rest of the army. “Yourselves striking out a new path, your comrades of the army of the Tennessee followed, and a way was thus opened for them to redeem previous disappointments...General Logan's division came up in time to gallantly share in consummating the most valuable victory...The Forlorn Hopes of the Twenty-second ascertained, to their cost...they were still a long way from victory....and after a sanguinary and obstinate battle, with the assistance of Gen. McPherson's corps...”
It was classic McClernard; bombastic, hyperbolic, verbose and clumsy. But he was merely trying to raise the spirits of his own men, after their failed attacks on the 22nd. His General Order 72 closes with, “I join with you, comrades, in your sympathy for the wounded and sorrow for the dead. May we not trust...that history will associate the martyrs of this sacred struggle for law and order, liberty and justice, with the honored martyrs of Monmouth and Bunker Hill. JOHN A. McCLERNAND, Major-General Commanding.”
Almost immediately, copies of the proclamation are then carried back up the Mississippi River to the newspapers nationwide. The staffs of General Sherman and McPherson are infuriated at the slights to their own men in the proclamation. And as if in a choreographed dance, over the next week, several groups prepare infuriated protests. Sherman and McPherson each file their own personal denunciations of McClerand. Grant writes, "I cannot afford to quarrel with a man with whom I am obliged to command.” Still he patiently waits until June 18th, when excepts from McClernand's proclamation appear in the New York Times. Then Grant publicly takes the position that McClerand's proclamation is a direct violation of his standing order – clearly aimed at McClernand – that all press releases are to be made through Grant's staff. It is an unfair charge, as McClerand did not directly release his proclamation to the press. But the Illinois-politician-turned-General has played these games himself for two years. And now, like Vicksburg itself, he has been isolated and trapped. On June 18, 1863 Grant finally uses the power given to him by Hallack back in January, and relieves General McClernand. Lincoln's doppelganger and a thorn in Grant's hide, is finally gone.
SUNDAY MAY 31, 1863
On this day, in a letter to his father, William Christie, serving in a Minnesota artillery unit, describes the siege of Vicksburg. “This morning at three o'clock, the batteries of Gen. Grant's army...opened at once on the doomed city... Now, just stand with me on the point where our battery is placed, and see the vivid flashes of the fuses, like lightning, and the showers of shell, as they made their quick curves through the air, hissing and hurtling, and finally exploding with a report almost as loud as the gun. The air waved like the sea, and vibrated with a hoarse murmuring sound...Boats on the river and the flash of their shots, were seen on the background exactly like lightning...we kept up the cannonading for over an hour....” William is not describing another grand assault, just the routine, methodical, daily, deadly business of a siege. The navy alone fires 22,000 shells into the city over the next 43 days. The army fires far more.
The citizens of Vicksburg dig 500 caves, large and small, into the sides of the gullies along the river shore. Union troops take to calling Vicksburg "Prairie Dog Town." Food inside the city runs short. The garrison eats its horses and mules and dogs, and, eventually, even its shoes. Only about a dozen civilians are killed in the bombardment. But the anxiety and lost sleep drains the defenders. But in the end, the ultimate limiting factor is water. The siege lasts 43 days. There is no sustained rain during that entire period.
General Johnston slowly gathers men in Jackson and eventually edges towards the Big Black River. But along the river he is faced by Sherman's reinforced corps. Johnston is cautiously probing for an opening in Sherman's defenses when Vicksburg surrenders, on July 3, 1863. Five days later Port Hudson also surrenders. And two weeks after that, General Sherman's men retake Jackson, Mississippi for the final time. For Grant it is a clean sweep.
In the siege of Vicksburg, Union causalities were about 10,000 dead and wounded, mostly because of the costly early assaults. Rebel dead, wounded, missing and captured were almost 33,000 . Grant has also won 172 cannon and 60,000 rifles, which could never again be used to defy Federal authority. In one exhuberant month of movement and aggression, Grant has achieved what seemed 5 weeks earlier to be impossible.
Grant began his own account of his campaign with the following words; “The campaign of Vicksburg was suggested and developed by circumstances.” There was no detailed plan. There was only Grant's reasoned determination to come to grips with his enemy and fight him. When matched with Grant's mastery of the fundamentals of logistics - supplying and supporting troops in the field - it was simply an unbeatable combination.
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, 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…” This was, of course no fortunate accident. Grant achieved this amazing feat because he never lost sight of his objective. Grant could not have known before he crossed the Mississippi that Pemberton would play into his hands, although he may have suspected it, given Pemberton’s reactions to Union maneuvering during April. Still, the resolve to make the crossing was all Grant's. And the drive to move and keep moving after the initial landing, was all Grant's as well.
There was a fundamental mistake made in the defense of Vicksburg, and (among others) General Joe Johnston; thought he knew what it was “An immense entrenched camp requiring an army to hold it, had been made, instead of a fort requiring only a small garrison." But Port Hudson had been just such a small fort with a small garrison, and it met the same fate as Vicksburg..
The core problem in defending Vicksburg is the same faced by all fortresses, even Gibraltar itself. They require an army in the field to defend them – generals and soldiers and teamsters and railroads supply trains carrying all the sinew of war. And Vicksburg had little of that sinew. The destruction of so much as one mile of irreplaceable track on the Vicksburg and Jackson railroad reduced the value of Vicksburg. Pemberton knew this. But why did he not abandon the position, as General Joe Johnston urged him to do?
What hindered Pemberton was Confederate President Jefferson Davis. In the words of a recent historian, Davis was, “a poor judge of character…” I would go further and say that Davis was a martinet, with a blind adherence to the form rather than the function of command. All that Davis could see was 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, but could do little once it had arrived.
Once the fire had been started there were impossible choices Davis would face, choices he was responsible for creating. 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. It was the theory he had determinedly built the entire structure of the Confederacy upon. His only excuse for being so blind and foolish, was that the irrational immoral defense of slavery denied him a rational morality. All the dead of Vicksburg, on both sides, can be laid at the front door of every slave holder's mansion, even more than at the doorstep of their enabler generals like Pemberton, Johnston or Lee.
The hero of this story is much simpler to identify, Ulysess Grant. Between April Fools day and July 4 of 1863, the two opposing armies suffered 19,232 dead and wounded, a slight majority of whom were Union dead. But at Vicksburg, six weeks after Grant and Sherman achieved Haynes Bluff , a Confederate army of 31,600 men, with 172 cannon and 60,000 muskets were surrendered to the Union. And Grant was the man who conceived and directed that campaign and who eventually brought the entire war to an end. He was quite simply a military genius, far the superior to any rebel commander he faced. The Mississippi River now ran, unvexed, to the sea.
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