American Civil War: Siege of Vicksburg

Battle of Vicksburg. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Siege of Vicksburg - Conflict & Dates:

The Siege of Vicksburg lasted from May 18 to July 4, 1863 and took place during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Armies & Commanders



Siege of Vicksburg - Background:

Situated high on the bluffs overlooking a sharp turn in the Mississippi River, Vicksburg, MS dominated a key stretch of the river. Early in the Civil War, Confederate authorities recognized the city's importance and directed that a large number of batteries be constructed on the bluffs to block Union vessels on the water. Moving north after capturing New Orleans in 1862, Flag Officer David G. Farragut demanded Vicksburg's surrender. This was refused and Farragut was compelled to withdraw as he lacked sufficient ground forces to attack its defenses. Later in the year and in early 1863, Major General Ulysses S. Grant conducted several abortive efforts against the city. Unwilling to give in, Grant resolved to move down the west bank of the river and cross below Vicksburg.

A daring plan, this called for his army to cut loose from its supply lines before swinging north to attack Vicksburg from the south and east. The plan was supported by Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter who ran several of his gunboats past the city's batteries on the night of April 16. In an effort to confuse and disrupt the reinforcement of Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton's garrison, Grant tasked Major General William T. Sherman with conducting a feint against Snyder's Bluff, MS while Colonel Benjamin Grierson was dispatched on a daring cavalry raid through the heart of Mississippi. Crossing the river at Bruinsburg on April 29 and 30, Grant's army advanced northeast and won victories at Port Gibson (May 1) and Raymond (May 12) before capturing the state capital of Jackson on May 14 (Map).

Siege of Vicksburg - On to Vicksburg:

Moving out from Vicksburg to engage Grant, Pemberton was beaten at Champion Hill (May 16) and Big Black River Bridge (May 17). With his command badly battered, Pemberton withdrew into the Vicksburg defenses. As he did so, Grant was able to open a new supply line via the Yazoo River. In retreating to Vicksburg, Pemberton hoped that General Joseph E. Johnston, commander of the Department of the West, would come to his aid. Driving on Vicksburg, Grant's 44,000-man Army of the Tennessee was divided into three corps led by Sherman (XV Corps), Major General James McPherson (XVII Corps), and Major General John McClernand (XIII Corps). Though on favorable terms with Sherman and McPherson, Grant had previously clashed with McClernand, a political appointee, and had received permission to relieve him if necessary. To defend Vicksburg, Pemberton possessed around 30,000 men which were divided into four divisions.

Siege of Vicksburg - A Bloody Repulse:

With Grant approaching Vicksburg on May 18, Johnston sent a note to Pemberton instructing him to abandon the city in order to save his command. A Northerner by birth, Pemberton was unwilling to allow Vicksburg to fall and instead directed his men to man the city's formidable defenses. Arriving on May 19, Grant immediately moved to attack the city before Pemberton's troops were fully established in the fortifications. Sherman's men were directed to strike the Stockade Redan at the northeast corner of the Confederate lines. When an initial effort was turned back, Grant ordered Union artillery to pound the enemy position. Around 2:00 PM, Major General Francis P. Blair's moved forward. Despite heavy fighting, they too were repulsed (Map). With the failure of these assaults, Grant paused and began planning a new series of attacks for May 22.

Through the night and early morning of May 22, the Confederate lines around Vicksburg were pounded by Grant's artillery and the guns of Porter's fleet. At 10:00 AM, Union forces moved forward on a three-mile front. While Sherman's men moved down the Graveyard Road from the north, McPherson's corps attacked west along the Jackson Road. To his south, McClernand advanced along the Baldwin Ferry Road and the Southern Railroad. As on the 19th, both Sherman and McPherson were turned back with heavy losses. Only on McClernand's front did Union troops have any success as Brigadier General Eugene Carr's division gained a foothold in the 2nd Texas Lunette. Around 11:00 AM, McClernand informed Grant that he was heavily engaged and requested reinforcements. Grant initially refused this request and told the corps commander to draw from his own reserves (Map).

McClernand then sent a misleading message to Grant implying that he had taken two Confederate forts and that another push might win the day. Consulting Sherman, Grant sent Brigadier General Isaac Quinby's division to McClernand's aid and directed the XV Corps commander to renew his assaults. Again moving forward, Sherman's corps attacked two more times and was bloodily repulsed. Around 2:00 PM, McPherson also moved forward with no result. Reinforced, McClernand's efforts in the afternoon failed to yield a breakthrough. Ending the attacks, Grant blamed McClernand for the day's losses (502 killed, 2,550 wounded, and 147 missing) and cited the general's misleading messages. Unwilling to sustain further losses assaulting the Confederate lines, Grant began preparation to lay siege to the city.

Siege of Vicksburg - A Waiting Game:

Initially lacking sufficient men to fully invest Vicksburg, Grant was reinforced over the next month and his army eventually grew to around 77,000 men. Though Pemberton was well-supplied with ammunition, the city's food supply quickly began to dwindle. As a result, many of the city's animals were killed for food and disease began to spread. Enduring the constant bombardment from Union guns, many of Vicksburg's residents elected to move to caves burrowed in city's clay hills. With his larger force, Grant constructed miles of trenches to isolate Vicksburg. To support the siege operations, Grant had large supply depots built at Milliken's Bend, Young's Point, and Lake Providence (Map).

In an effort to aid the beleaguered garrison, Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith, commander of the Trans-Mississippi Department, directed Major General Richard Taylor to attack the Union supply bases. Striking all three, his efforts failed as Confederate forces were turned away in each instance. As the siege progressed, the relationship between Grant and McClernand continued to worsen. When the corps commander issued a congratulatory note to his men in which he took credit for much of the army's success, Grant took the opportunity to relieve him of his post on June 18. Command of XIII Corps passed to Major General Edward Ord. Still wary of a relief attempt by Johnston, Grant formed a special force, centered on Major General John Parke's recently arrived IX Corps, which was led by Sherman and tasked with screening the siege. In Sherman's absence, command of XV Corps was given to Brigadier General Frederick Steele.

On June 25, a mine was detonated under the 3rd Louisiana Redan. Storming forward, Union troops were turned back as the defenders recovered from the surprise. A second mine was detonated on July 1 though no attack followed. By the beginning of July the situation in the Confederate lines had become desperate as over half of Pemberton's command was ill or in the hospital. Discussing the situation with his division commanders on July 2, they agreed that an evacuation was not possible. The next day, Pemberton contacted Grant and requested an armistice so that surrender terms could be discussed. Grant refused this request and stated that only unconditional surrender would be acceptable. Reassessing the situation, he realized that it would take a tremendous amount of time and supplies to feed and move 30,000 prisoners. As a result, Grant relented and accepted the Confederate surrender on the condition that the garrison be paroled. Pemberton formally turned the city over to Grant on July 4.

Siege of Vicksburg - Aftermath

The Siege of Vicksburg cost Grant 4,835 killed and wounded while Pemberton sustained 3,202 killed and wounded as well as 29,495 captured. The turning point of the Civil War in the West, the victory at Vicksburg, along with the fall of Port Hudson, LA five days later, gave Union forces control of the Mississippi River and cut the Confederacy in two. The capture of Vicksburg came a day after the Union victory at Gettysburg and the two triumphs signaled the ascendancy of the Union and the decline of the Confederacy. The successful conclusion of the Vicksburg Campaign also further elevated Grant's status in the in Union Army. That fall he successfully rescued Union fortunes at Chattanooga before being promoted to lieutenant general and made general-in-chief the following March.

Selected Sources