Four Days in July: The Surrender of Vicksburg

No one expected much of William Tecumseh Sherman in December of 1861.  No one who knew him in the opening months of the Civil War or knows of him through high school history would expect this to be the case. History records Sherman nearly self-destructed as the Civil War began.

He took a brigade of volunteers on to the field at First Bull Run and was one of the few Union commanders to distinguish himself in that debacle. Sherman was injured in the battle and the Union was routed and the general began to question his own competence and the capabilities of the mostly volunteer army he now served.  Today we’d probably call it post-traumatic stress disorder.  In 1861 they didn’t call it anything.

Lincoln promoted Sherman to the rank of brigadier general in the volunteers (there was a difference in the Civil War between a rank in the volunteers and a rank in the regular army.  In June of 1861 when Grant took over an Illinois regiment of volunteers he became a colonel of the volunteers while still technically a captain of the regular army.  Sherman was still a colonel in the regular army when he received his rank of brigadier general in the volunteer forces and after Vicksburg he would be made a brigadier general of the regular army while retaining his rank as major general of the volunteers.  It was a strange, complicated system).  He asked Lincoln to never be put in a prominent command position and Lincoln reportedly agreed before making him second in command of the Department of the Cumberland.  When his superior, Robert Anderson, best known as the commander at Fort Sumter, was forced to quit the position due to poor health Sherman took command and suffered a breakdown.

In November he asked to be relieved and was replaced by Don Carlos Buell.  Sherman went west to St. Louis and was declared unfit for duty by Henry Halleck.  His wife questioned his sanity.  Worse, the Cincinnati Commercial publicly declared him insane.

In March of 1862 Sherman was assigned to Grant’s Army of West Tennessee and ended up getting nearly overrun at the first day of Shiloh.  He held his forces together and kept disaster at bay.  That evening he ran in to Grant, who was calmly sitting under a tree smoking a cigar.

“Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” asked Sherman.

“Yes,” Grant replied, “Lick ‘em tomorrow, though.”

It was the beginning of the Union Army’s version of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.  No one would have guessed.  Grant lacked the spit and polish bearing of Lee and Sherman lacked the stern, pious gravitas of Jackson.  No one ever created a mythical, infallible version of Grant and Sherman.  During the Vicksburg campaign one newspaper referred to the pair as a drunkard whose main advisor was a lunatic.

Yet between November of 1862 and July of 1863 that drunkard and his lunatic subordinate pulled off one of the greatest military campaigns in history.  The pair managed to outmaneuver two Confederate armies, overcome the self-important blundering of John A. McClernand, and take the fortress city of Vicksburg.  In doing so they denied the Confederacy all use of the Mississippi River, cut the southern nation in half, and achieve what may well have been the most important victory of the Civil War.

When we last discussed the western theater of operations Grant was stuck by scheme and circumstance on the west side of the Mississippi with the goal of taking a city on the east side.  Simply getting back to the correct side of the river was a chore.  Grant took after finding a solution with his characteristic determination.

Before he could deal with this there was the minor matter of John McClernand.  He still thought he was in command of the Vicksburg expedition.  In early January Grant allowed the puffed up general to assemble his and Sherman’s forces in to the so-called Army of the Mississippi and assault Arkansas Post, a point midway between Little Rock and the Mississippi on the Arkansas River.  The Union forces outnumbered the defenders of Forth Hindman by more than 6 to 1, the Union gunboats outgunned the Fort Hindman artillery and the Union won the lopsided, pointless battle.  Grant disbanded the Army of the Mississippi and ordered McClernand back to the Army of the Tennessee so they could get back to work on the actual campaign.

Vicksburg is situated on a bluff above the Mississippi, making it difficult, if not downright impossible, to assault from the river.  It was also strategically located at the tip of a long, nearly 180 degree switchback in the river itself, meaning that gunboats could not easily run past the city’s guns.  They’d be exposed on the approach, forced to slow to make the turn, and exposed again on the regress.

Grant found himself north and west of the city in the winter of 1862-1863 with difficult terrain directly across from his position.  He needed to get his command to good terrain and that was south of Vickburg.  His boats and supplies would also need to come downriver.  His first plan was to dig a canal across the base of the peninsula that was formed by the river’s switchback.  When that failed he tried to connect Lake Providence, the Tensas River, and the Red River but that, too, was a failure.  He then tried to get gunboats to the northern approaches to Vicksburg through an area known as Steele’s Bayou.  The channels proved so narrow his gunboats got stuck and some were nearly lost to infantry assaults.

Grant decided he needed a new plan.  In May his gunboats and transports ran past the guns at Vicksburg and met Grant south of the city at Hard Times Landing.  At the same time he ordered some of his cavalry still stationed in Tennessee to launch a diversionary assault on Mississippi.  Colonel Benjamin Grierson led 1700 troops and a battery of 6 light artillery pieces on a ride that would come to be known as Grierson’s Raid.

It was the sort of move that would have made Nathan Bedford Forrest or JEB Stuart proud.  Grierson’s Brigade rode 600 miles from La Grange, Tennessee to Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  They raided stores, tore up railroads, burned buildings and bridges and made a general nuisance of themselves.  Pemberton had to devote a full division to protecting his rail lines and Grant was able to use the distraction to slip back across the Mississippi unopposed.

He was now back on the east side of the Mississippi but still had to face Pemberton’s army out of Vicksburg.  Another army under Joe Johnston out of the east was tasked with keeping Grant from reaching the city at all.  Grant’s supply lines were now limited and he cut himself off as much as possible, choosing to live off the land.  Sherman would later borrow this strategy in his famed March to the Sea from Atlanta to Savannah.

In order to keep Joe Johnston and Pemberton from linking up Grant first marched on Jackson, the capitol of Mississippi.  On May 12 the lead elements of Grant’s forces under James McPherson engaged Johnston’s forces outside Jackson.  Sherman was close behind and the two were able to push through the outnumbered Confederate position.

McClernand was nowhere close to the battle.  He had as much chance of standing up to Joe Johnston as John Pope did to Robert E. Lee and Grant knew it.  Sherman and McPherson, however, were fine commanders and they demonstrated it at Jackson.

Grant occupied Johnston’s old headquarters on May 14th and one of McPherson’s subordinates discovered an order Johnston wrote but never delivered to Pemberton.  It called for Pemberton to assault Grant near Clinton, Mississippi, an attack that would have pitted the capable Confederate commander against the worthless McClernand and possibly destroyed Grant’s assault on Vicksburg.

Fortunately for Grant, Johnston had entrusted his order to a Union spy.  Sometimes war turns on events like that.

Grant now turned from Jackson and moved on Vicksburg.  On May 16 Grant contacted Pemberton at Champion Hill but lost the chance to annihilate the defenders of Vicksburg in the open field when McClernand misinterpreted an order.  Pemberton pulled back to the city over Johnston’s request to abandon Vicksburg, move north, and live to fight another day.

On May 18 Grant reached the outskirts of Vicksburg.  The next day he tried a direct assault on the city and was repulsed.  On May 22 he tried again.  In the midst of the battle McClernand reported that he’d gained ground and captured two forts.  Grant sent reinforcements and ordered Sherman and McPherson to renew their own attacks and keep pressure on Pemberton so McClernand wouldn’t be thrown back.

He then discovered that McClernand had made no gains at all and was lying.  McClernand’s lies had a real cost in lives and supplies.  Grant was livid.  McClernand had moved from being a nuisance to a clear danger to his own army.

Fortunately McClernand’s relentless self-promotion allowed him to sow the seeds of his own destruction.  He drafted an order of congratulations for his troops that was really a bit of self-promotion that included reference to himself as a “born warrior.”  He then had it published in a Memphis newspaper.  Publishing official military documents for public consumption was against regulations and McClernand’s missive was ostensibly an official order. When Sherman discovered what had happened he immediately took the paper to Grant.  Grant now had enough ammunition to get rid of his troublesome subordinate.  McClernand wasn’t gone forever, but he didn’t return to the field until 1864.  By then the direction of the war meant he was little danger to anyone, Union or Confederate.

Still, the actions of May 19 and 22 proved that Vicksburg could not be taken by force so Grant settled in for a siege.  Sherman had dislodged the Confederate defenders from Hayne’s Bluff.  Grant now had a secure dock on the Yazoo River north of Vicksburg.  He could once again get all the supplies he needed without risking the guns of Vicksburg or Confederate raids on vulnerable railroads.  This would prove invaluable, as the siege lasted for 40 days.

In early July Pemberton finally decided he could hold out no longer.  Grant had accumulated reinforcements and supplies all through June and had more than 75,000 men manning the trenches backed up by 220 artillery pieces compared to 35,000 men at that first, ill-fated assault on May 19.  On June 28 Grant learned that Pemberton only had six days worth of food, so Grant planned an assault for July 6.

On July 3rd a messenger from Pemberton arrived in the Union camp and asked for a commission to negotiate surrender.  Pemberton informed Grant, “I make this proposition to save the further effusion of blood.”

Unconditional Surrender Grant replied, “The useless effusion of blood you propose stopping can be ended at any time you choose, by an unconditional surrender of the city.”  Grant wasn’t much for negotiation.  He also knew that he had Pemberton by the short hairs.

Pemberton came out to personally negotiate with Grant.  The two had a history together going back to the war with Mexico, so things began pleasantly enough.  The Confederate commander eventually realized that Grant’s terms would not change and threatened further hostilities.

Both men knew that all Pemberton could offer was that pointless effusion of blood.  He still tried to negotiate but all that got was an ultimatum for an assault at nine AM on Independence Day. The Union army was at breakfast when Pemberton’s messenger arrived. Vicksburg had surrendered. Independence Day wouldn’t be celebrated in the city for another eighty years.

It was July 4th, 1863, four score and seven years after a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal was brought forth on the American continent.

For three days in Pennsylvania the men of the Army of the Potomac had consecrated one of the most hallowed grounds in America. On a fourth day in Mississippi the gains at Gettysburg were solidified without having to fire a shot. When Lee withdrew and Pemberton surrendered the Civil War was over. Two more years would pass and thousands more would die before it actually ended, but after July 4th, 1863 the Confederacy had no chance to win the war on the field of battle. All they could hope to do was drag the war on long enough that the North would give up.


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