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The Civil War
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Page 1234

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The Battle of Vicksburg

Vicksburg was a natural citadel surrounded by a terrain of incredible difficulty: on the one side, steep, heavily eroded hills; and on the other side, an almost impenetrable swamp, the Yazoo Delta. Adding to Grant's problems, there were torrential winter rains.

Grant's soldiers were camped in the mud up to their knees on the Louisiana side of the river and were forced to drink water contaminated by human excrement. It was a formula for disaster and the men started dying by the hundreds from malaria, dysentery, pneumonia and smallpox. The dead were buried without coffins on high earthen levees; and when the river rose, corpses were swept down stream.

That winter, Grant tried several times to take Vicksburg by cutting through the thick delta jungle. He even began building a diversionary canal that would have changed the course of the Mississippi River, moving it away from the city and turning Vicksburg into a landlocked and militarily vulnerable place.

But every attempt failed and desertions increased. Many of the men were unwilling to tolerate such conditions in a war that was now being fought, as one racist soldier complained, in his words, "for the nigger." Criticism of Grant's incompetence and rumors that he was drinking filled Northern newspapers; and there were calls for his removal.

Many felt an armistice was inevitable, that the Rebels couldn't be conquered. Lincoln was also under pressure to open the river to Midwestern farmers so they could send their corn and wheat to market through New Orleans. If the river remained closed for much longer, Lincoln feared that some states in the Midwest would stop supporting the war.

With war morale at an all-time low in the North, Grant appeared to be checkmated. His military career, and with it, the fate of the nation, hung in the balance. Then, in early April, everything changed. The rains stopped and the bottomlands on the Louisiana side of the river began to dry. This allowed Grant to try a daring invasion plan.

It was one of the riskiest moves of the war and even Sherman pleaded with him not to make it. Grant would march his army down the Louisiana side of the river and make a crossing into Mississippi, below Vicksburg, where there was high, dry ground to operate on. But to get his troops across the river he'd need gunboats and troop transports, and they'd have to be sent down river past the guns of Vicksburg. Grant asked for help from the navy, and his friend, Admiral David Dixon Porter, came through for him.

On a cloudless April night, Porter's gunboats floated downriver toward Vicksburg. Their engines were muffled but they were spotted immediately and there was a spectacular three-hour firefight. The people of Vicksburg watched it from the bluffs. Grant, with his wife and kids, watched it from a boat upriver. Sherman watched it from a canoe, just across from Vicksburg.

Amazingly, all but one of the boats made it through, and on April 30th, Grant's army crossed the Mississippi, in what was the largest amphibious landing in American history before the Second World War. The men were in high spirits now. As one of them wrote in his diary, "We've come to redeem this lovely valley of the Mississippi from the fiends and traitors who are desecrating it."

[Picture of Robert E. Lee]

That same morning, in Virginia, Robert E. Lee was again preparing to meet the Army of the Potomac, in what would later be known as the Battle of Chancellorsville. That same evening, in Washington, Lincoln waited at the telegraph office for news from both Mississippi and Virginia.

Had the Confederates under General John Pemberton concentrated their forces they might have driven Grant's invasion army back into the river. But they were there only in token force because Grant had executed a series of brilliant diversionary moves. Grant's army was now behind Confederate lines, facing an enemy that outnumbered him, with no communications with the outside world and with only a precarious supply line. This would have paralyzed George McClellan, but Grant was focused, determined, set for the kill.

He moved with lightning speed, his army living off the land. In less than three weeks, he marched l80 miles, split two Confederate armies, won five battles, and penned up over 30,000 troops and 3,000 civilians in Vicksburg. It was one of the greatest marches of modern warfare. When he chased the Rebel army back into Vicksburg, Grant ordered two suicidal assaults on the city's powerful land defenses, but his men were slaughtered in some of the most vicious fighting of the war.

So Grant settled in for a siege. Every night his men dug approach trenches toward the Confederate lines. And every day and night his artillery and the Navy's mortar boats pounded the city. For 47 days the two armies faced each other at distances, in some places, of less than 25 feet.

The Rebels were cut off from the world by a circle of fire and were soon reduced to a diet of mule meat and pea-bread, and rats, if they could catch them. Grant meant business. This was the first time in the war that civilians were directly fired upon. After the war, a Yankee soldier tried to explain the Union bombardment, "It was cruel and inhumane for our forces to fire on defenseless women and children, but they, like their soldiers, wanted to destroy the Union."

The relentless bombardment was nerve shattering. It was psychological warfare, designed to break the spirit of the civilian population. But it only strengthened the resolve of many of the siege victims, especially the women, who hated Yankees intensely.

Civilian casualties were surprisingly light. Not because the Union didn't fire on civilian targets, as some historians argue. But because of the inaccuracy of Civil War artillery and mortar fire and because the people of Vicksburg hid in snake-infested caves they dug with the help of their slaves. Heat, hunger, sickness and exhaustion finally broke the Confederates.


The Aftermath of Vicksburg

On July 4th, l863, Pemberton surrendered the city and his entire army. Vicksburg wouldn't celebrate the Fourth of July for almost another century. The next day, Sherman went on a march through the center of Mississippi, to the capital at Jackson, destroying everything in his path. This was a rehearsal for his famous march of devastation through Georgia the following year.

On the morning that Vicksburg surrendered, Robert E. Lee was retreating from Pennsylvania after losing the bloodiest battle ever fought on the Western Hemisphere, at a place called Gettysburg. Lee had invaded Pennsylvania after winning a spectacular victory at Chancellorsville. An invasion of the North, he told Jeff Davis, might draw off Yankee troops from Vicksburg. He and Grant had gambled, but there was only one winner.

After the war, a Mississippi soldier summed up the significance of the battle he'd fought in. "Vicksburg was more momentous in its results than the Battle of Gettysburg. It severed the Confederacy in twain, gave the enemy complete control of the Mississippi River, and enabled the foe to establish himself in the very vitals of the South and to gnaw it to death from within."

Vicksburg was an ominous harbinger for the South. It would be beaten in this war not by a series of climactic battles, like Gettysburg, but by unremitting warfare on soldiers as well as civilians, executed with unblinking efficiency by the heroes of Vicksburg, Grant and Sherman. They were the generals who brought old Dixie down.

With the benefit of hindsight, it's tempting to see the twin victories of Vicksburg and Gettysburg sealing the fate of the South. But the war would drag on for two more years, and would become even more vicious. The letters of soldiers who surrendered at Vicksburg give part of the reason why. Exhausted, homesick, humiliated by defeat, Confederate Private F. N. Caylor was still determined to fight on. "Don't get discouraged," he wrote his brother, "we'll win our independence. The Lord is on our side."

After Vicksburg, Lincoln warned the American people against overconfidence.

"Let us not be over-sanguine of a speedy final triumph. Let us diligently apply the means, never doubting that just God, in His good time, will give us the right result."

This was the same just God Private Caylor was banking on. But with both sides convinced of the morality of their cause, Lincoln was right. There was a lot more fighting ahead.



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