Here is a look at what was happening in the Civil War 150 years ago. But first, a note.
When Did That Happen?
There are many different dates given for the starting point of the siege of Vicksburg – anywhere from the 15th of May on through the end of the month. Most accounts list either the 18th or the 19th.
Perhaps, in the general approach used here, the exact starting point is not as important as the ultimate outcome.
Sherman attacked Vicksburg on the 19th, and Jefferson Davis says the Yankees arrived at Vicksburg on the 18th. I will combine those two dates for the start of the siege.
It’s open-ended on exactly when Admiral Porter began his bombardment, but one of my sources states there was a bombardment on the night of the 19th, so that will be my first mention of it.
It’s not clear-cut that this was the first time the citizens of Vicksburg had to shelter from naval fire while Grant’s Army of the Tennessee was also knocking at their door, though it may have been.
I just want to get and share the overall idea here, not pin down specifics too closely. This is one of those gray areas.
Military events: Mississippi operations/Vicksburg (sources 8, 16): General Grant is moving on Mississippi’s capital, Jackson, with 24,000 men.
His ultimate goal is Vicksburg, further to the west. However, CS General Joseph Johnston has 6000 men in Jackson who will attack US forces from the rear, if Grant’s Army of the Tennessee heads west right away and engages CS General Pemberton at Vicksburg.
Grant has General McPherson follow the railroad into Jackson from the northwest, while he and Sherman travel by road to assault the city from the southwest. Heavy rain and Confederate sharpshooters make the march a challenging one, but the Federals keep coming.
Johnston to General Pemberton in Vicksburg:
I have lately arrived, and learn that Major-General Sherman is between us, with four divisions at Clinton. It is important to reestablish communications, that you may be reenforced. If practicable, come up on his rear at once – to beat such a detachment would be of immense value. Troops here could cooperate. All the troops you can quickly assemble should be brought. Time is all important.
This message is sent to Pemberton by three different messengers, one of whom is a Union spy – Grant now learns that if Pemberton follows orders, many the troops guarding Vicksburg can be fought outside that city’s fortifications.
But first things first: Jackson must be taken.
Tennessee operations: CS General Nathan Bedford Forrest arrives back at Shelbyville and reports to General Bragg, who receives him with “unwonted kindness” (4).
Other: President Lincoln and Secretary Stanton consider suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in the Vallandigham case. (5)
Military events: Virginia operations: Thoughts of a captain in the Army of the Potomac after Chancellorsville (13)
The army is in a very unsettled condition. The men are morose, sullen, dissatisfied, disappointed, and mortified. We are a good deal discouraged because we feel that we should not have lost the battle. I don’t see how we can hope to succeed if we are not better handled. But at the same time it must be confessed we are a remarkable army. I doubt very much if any other could have sustained two such tremendous disasters as Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville and held together as we are doing. Why, do you know that not withstanding our discouragements we are now fast recovering and could make a big fight today if we had someone to inspire us with confidence? The enemy must have been badly crippled or else they would have followed up their success. But I presume Genl. Lee is soldier enough to know that an army able to withdraw from his front successfully after sustaining so great a defeat must still be [in] condition to deliver another battle if pressed, with different results, possibly.
Meanwhile, in Richmond, CS President Davis and his cabinet meet with General Lee from May 14-18 and again on the 26th to decide upon a summer strategy. (25)
President Lincoln writes to General Hooker about strategy. (5)
Mississippi operations/Vicksburg (sources 8, 11, 16): At 3 a.m., before US troops have even been sighted, General Johnston orders a withdrawal from Jackson. Mississippi Governor Pettus has already removed the treasury, archives, etc., sending important government materials eastward toward Meridian and even into Alabama. These will have to travel by road, since Grierson’s recent raid has destroyed the rail line at Newton Station, between Jackson and Meridian.
Grant’s forces start arriving there in mid-morning, during a heavy rain. Sherman uses his artillery, and McPherson launches a bayonet charge. Federal forces regroup but upon their advance again in the afternoon they learn that the last Confederate forces just left.
Grant’s 12-year-old son Fred has met some of the retreating men, after leaving his father’s side and pressing ahead in hopes of collecting the Southern flag on the capitol for a souvenir. Luckily for Fred, he meets a US officer advancing toward the capitol, and while he is too late – another trooper gets the flag – he is there to greet his father later on.
It has only taken Grant five hours to take the entire city, which is then burned and occupied. General Sherman describes some of the destruction that follows:
the arsenal buildings, the Government foundry, the gun carriage establishment, including the carriages for two complete six-gun batteries, stable, carpenter and paint shops were destroyed … 4 miles east of Jackson, 3 south, 3 north, and 10 west. … Jackson, as a railroad center or Government depot of stores and military factories, can be of little use to the enemy for six months.
Meanwhile, from Edwards Depot, General Pemberton tells General Johnston:
I do not think that you fully comprehend the position that Vicksburg will be left in; but I comply at once with your order.
Military events: Mississippi operations/Vicksburg: Grant, with his son at his side, and his troops leave the ruins of Jackson and head west for Vicksburg. General Pemberton moves east from Vicksburg with at least 17,000 men, his goal being to cut Grant’s communication lines and force the US troops to attack him, as Pemberton knows he doesn’t have enough men to cut his way through to Vicksburg. (8, 11, 16)
Battles: Champion Hill/Baker Creek. Grant and Pemberton meet halfway between Vicksburg and Jackson on a farm owned by the Champion family. Some 8000 men will die there before sunset.
A US soldier remembers it:
On the edge of a low ridge we saw a solid wall of men in gray, their muskets at their shoulders blazing into our faces and their batteries of artillery roaring as if it were the end of the world. Bravely they stood there. They seemed little over a hundred yards away. There was no charging further by our line. We halted, the two lines stood still, and for over an hour we loaded our guns and killed each other as fast as we could.
Military events: Tennessee operations: General Forrest arrives at Springville, having been given the late General Van Dorn’s command. His cavalry brigade will now do picket duty on the left wing of General Bragg’s army through the end of the months, with nothing larger than small encounters occurring between enemy forces almost daily. (4, 16)
Other: In Albany, New York, Democrats hold a meeting in the park in front of the state capitol to protest the sentencing of Clement Vallandigham in Ohio. The meeting is endorsed by Governor Horatio Seymour, a Democrat, who is unable to attend but sends a note, saying
The action of the Administration will determine in the minds of more than one half of the people of the loyal States whether this war is waged to put down rebellion at the South, or to destroy free institutions at the North. We look for its decision with the most solemn solicitude.
A series of resolutions is adopted at this open meeting, the Albany Resolves, and sent to US President Lincoln. Within a fortnight, Lincoln informs the influential Democrats that he intends to “make a respectful response.” (19)
Military events/battles: Mississippi operations/Vicksburg: Black River Bridge. (Sources: 8, 11) Over the night of May 16-17, General Pemberton’s men withdraw to the Big Black River and all but 5000 of the most exhausted troops cross it in the dark. The exhausted men bed down behind cotton bales and are awoken by the yells and shots of Grant’s army. Some get across the bridge, but many drown trying to swim the river. Another 1700 are killed or captured by the Yankees.
Fred Grant is there and is shot in the leg. He later said
The wound was slight, but very painful, and I suppose I was very pale, for Colonel Lagow came dashing up and asked what was the matter.
“I am killed,” I said promptly.
Perhaps because I was a boy he presumed to doubt my word, and said:
“Move your toes,” which I did with success, upon which he recommended our hasty retreat. This was accomplished in good order.
Grant sets to work building three temporary bridges while Pemberton heads back to Vicksburg with less than half of the men he had started out with.
While foraging during the night, Sherman finds himself on property owned by Jefferson Davis and even discovers a copy of the US Constitution with the owner’s name written on the title page: “Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy.”
In his memoirs, Jefferson Davis writes of this:
One of the immediate results of the retreat from Big Black was the necessity of abandoning our defenses on the Yazoo, at Snyder’s Mills; this position and the line of the Chickasaw Bayou were no longer tenable. All stores that could be transported were ordered to be sent into Vicksburg as rapidly as possible, the rest, including heavy guns, to be destroyed.
Meanwhile, in Washington, “Cong. George S. Boutwell (Mass.) meets President on White House steps and goes upstairs with him to locate on map Gen. Grant’s position in rear of Vicksburg, Miss., after crossing Black River today.” (5, including quote) It’s the first mention in the Lincoln Log of Grant’s moves; I wonder if it was the first news they had in Washington of what Grant was up to.
Military events, May 18-19: Mississippi operations/Vicksburg (sources 8, 11, 16): Around this time, Grant finally gets the telegram from General Halleck that tells him to wait for General Banks and then, if possible, take Port Hudson before heading to Vicksburg.
Fred Grant, though in pain from his wound, accompanies his father and General Sherman on a long ride to the bluffs north of Vicksburg. Sherman tells Grant, “Until this moment I never thought your expedition a success. I never could see the end clearly until now.”
They face formidable defenses:
Jefferson Davis (who had been US Secretary of War):
On the morning of the 18th, our troops were disposed from right to left on the defenses. One the entire line, one hundred and two pieces of artillery of different caliber, principally field-guns, were placed in position at such points as were deemed most suitable to the character of the gun. … Grant’s army appeared on the 18th. The development of the intrenched line from our extreme right was about eight miles, the shortest defensible line of which the topography permitted. It consisted of a system of detached works, redans, lunettes, and redoubts, on the prominent and commanding points, with the usual profile of raised field-works, connected in most places by rifle pits. To hold the entire line there were about eighteen thousand five hundred infantry … .
General Pemberton, in Vicksburg, is prepared. With 32,000 soldiers and 5000 townspeople, including 1000 children, to care for, he has had his men go out, before US forces could seal them in, and commandeer as much food and other supplies from the surrounding countryside as they could. The plan is to stand until General Johnston can come to their aid, even though Johnston is on record saying that Vicksburg should be surrendered. Both Pemberton and Jefferson Davis, however, refuse to surrender Vicksburg.
While the powers that be debate in council, Vicksburg citizens are helping to care for the exhausted troops that have returned from the fighting in the west.
I had everything that was eatable put out – and fed as many as I could. Poor fellows, it made my heart ache to see them.
Battles: The siege of Vicksburg. On May 19, Grant sends Sherman in for an assault at 2 p.m. with an artillery barrage followed by an infantry charge. Almost a thousand US troops are killed before day’s end. One regimental flag has been shredded by 55 bullets (and firearms of the day were not that accurate!). (16) The people of Vicksburg celebrate until two gunboats move in and start firing on them. The boats take hits from Confederate cannon but are not damaged enough to stop firing. Many residents take shelter for the night in caves that people have been digging ever since the first bombardment of the city began. (11)
Mary Loughborough :
We ran to the small cave near the house and were in it during the night … The caves were plainly becoming a necessity, as some persons had been killed on the streets by fragments of shells … I shall never forget my extreme fear during the night, and my utter hopelessness of ever seeing the morning light. Terror stricken, we remained crouched in the cave, while shell after shell followed each in quick succession … Morning found us more dead than alive.
General Sherman writes to his wife this night:
This is a death struggle and will be terrible.
(3) Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson (2003 – see side bar for link).
(4) The Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. N.B. Forrest, and of Forrest’s Cavalry by Thomas Jordan, J. P. Pryor (1868).
(5) The Lincoln Log timeline.
(7) Grant Chronology, Mississippi State University.
(8)”The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government” (Vol. II), Jefferson Davis.
(10) Conquest of the Lower Mississippi. BrownWaterNavy.org.
(11) Under Siege: Three Children at the Civil War Battle for Vicksburg, Andrea Warren (2009)
(13) Inside the Army of the Potomac, the Civil War Experience of Captain Francis Adams Donaldson, edited by J. Gregory Acken (1998).
(14) Mosby Heritage Area Association: Chronology of Mosby’s Life.
(15) Battle of Vicksburg. Civil War Home.
(17) Life of Lieutenant-General Nathan Bedford Forrest, by John A. Wyeth (1908/2011).
(18) Captain Raphael Semmes and the CSS Alabama, US Naval Historical Center.
(19) A. Lincoln, A Biography, Ronald C. White, Jr. (2009)
(20) Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, Volume 6, Abner Doubleday (1882).
(21) The Vicksburg Campaign (Wikipedia)
(23) The Siege of Vicksburg, Civil War Home.
(24) Siege of Vicksburg, Wikipedia.
(25) Decisional Dilemma Vicksburg or Gettysburg? Davis (PDF)
Categories: American Civil War