The American Civil War 150th Anniversary – May 20-26, 1863

Here is a look at what was happening in the Civil War 150 years ago.

As mentioned last week, various dates are given for the start of the Vicksburg siege, but certainly the formal siege began on May 25, this week. There is also uncertainty about the exact date that General Banks attacked Port Hudson, Louisiana, as mentioned below.

The Old Court House in Vicksburg today.  Jeff Hart

The Old Court House in Vicksburg today. Jeff Hart

May 20

Battles: Mississippi operations/Vicksburg: General Grant, aware that CS General Johnston is nearby and raising troops, wants Vicksburg to surrender as soon as possible. He orders his troops to prepare for another assault, and in the meantime has his artillerymen constantly fire their 220 cannon at military targets in the city and at the Confederate lines. On the river, Admiral Porter also keeps up a steady barrage another 13 big guns. Federal sharpshooters use minié balls (which are actually rifled bullets, not balls) that pack a wallop and are capable of travelling long distance. Those make the “zzzip!” sounds you hear in movies like Gettysburg. The children of Vicksburg (and everybody else) soon learn to dodge minié balls but to stand still rather than try and outrun an artillery shell. More and more people take to the caves. (11, 16)

Other: “No single big action took place today, so we will look at a summary of smaller ones. Jefferson Davis, who had been unpleasantly although not seriously ill for several weeks, was officially ruled by his doctor to be on the mend today. U.S. Grant decided frontal assault was not the way to take Vicksburg, and was meditating on alternatives. Admiral Farragut wrote to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles that the ships he had available for the coming attack on Port Hudson were “…pretty well used up, but they must work as long as they can.” (12)

May 21

Battles: Mississippi operations/Port Hudson: Another important event where various dates are given for the start. Somewhere between May 21 and May 23, US General Nathaniel Banks and his XIX Corps attack Port Hudson, Louisiana. Everyone does agree the battle of Plains Store/Springfield Road happened this day in the campaign. (28)

Military events: Mississippi operations: US ships head up the Yazoo River but upon reaching Yazoo City, find that Confederates have destroyed their shops and the naval shipyard that had been set up there after the fall of New Orleans (and where such things as electric mines that would prove deadly to US vessels had been made). (27)

May 22

Battles: Mississippi operations/Vicksburg: General Grant launches another assault. It fails, putting almost 3200 US soldiers out of action (502 killed, 2500 wounded and 147 missing; Confederate losses have been estimated at 500 in total). Grant will blame General McClernand for this, although McClernand was the only general who made an all-out assault as Grant had ordered. General Sherman advanced the furthest, before the assault was called off. (8, 16)

Military events: President Lincoln offers command of the Army of the Potomac to General Darius Couch, one of Hooker’s subordinates who had questioned Hookers decision to fight defensively at Chancellorsville. Couch refuses but recommends George Meade. (6)

Five US divisions arrive to surround and isolate Port Hudson. (10) General Banks has 30,000 to 40,000 troops; inside Port Hudson are some 6800 Confederate soldiers under General Franklin Gardner. The Confederate general’s goal is to keep Banks busy here, so his troops cannot reinforce Grant at Vicksburg. Banks, however, hopes to topple Port Hudson quickly and then join Grant. (25) The result of these conflicting aims will be some of the most intense fighting of the war, day after day.

May 23

Battles: Mississippi operations/Vicksburg: The day is unusually quiet, with only the US mortar fleet on the river maintaining a steady barrage. US artillery doesn’t start until late afternoon. Grant, still aware that CS General Johnston is nearby and raising troops, and probably also assuming that CS President Davis is going to rush troops from Tennessee and the Atlantic coast to Vicksburg, fortifies his front and rear. (However, as we saw last week, Davis, his war cabinet and General Lee have instead decided it would be better to carry the war north, into Pennsylvania, threatening Washington and probably bringing the war to a negotiated end). CS General Pemberton’s men go out after dark and collect any ammunition they can find on the ground and on the dead enemy soldiers (who remain where they fell on the 22nd). For the first time, forage for animals is reported as short and feed supplies for artillery horses are shared with those on ambulances. (26)

Horses in that era worked hard, and had to be fed.

Horse food during that era was as important as motor fuel is today. (Click to enlarge)

US Golonel Grierson and his cavalry, having seen action at Plains Store, are also among US forces now in the Port Hudson area.

Military events: President Lincoln, some of his cabinet and General Halleck meet to discuss an attack on Charleston. (5)

May 24

Battles: Mississippi operations/Vicksburg: The city’s defenders have about a million more rounds than they have percussion caps to fire them. All efforts are made to smuggle caps in, but most fail. In the meantime, the US fleet bombards the city, and on land, Grant’s men starting undermining the Confederate defenses until they are driven off with hand grenades. Yes. Confederate batteries are replying in kind. (26)

Military events: “… In Tennessee the Federals under Rosecrans tended their sick and wounded and regrouped; their opponents under Bragg scattered to Sparta, Wartrace and Tullahoma. The main hostilities were in Austin, Miss., which was burned by Federals irate that their boat had been fired upon.” (12)

Other: Lincoln asks someone in Memphis about the truth of the rumor they passed on that the US flag flies above Vicksburg. Earlier in the week, he had asked General Hurlbut in Memphis about things he was reading in Southern papers of Grant’s ongoing campaign. (5)

Abraham Lincoln probably read this to get news of his general at Vicksburg.  Library of Congress

Abraham Lincoln probably read this to get news of his general at Vicksburg. Click to enlarge or visit the full page at the Library of Congress

May 25

Battles: In Atlantic waters off Brazil, the CSS Alabama captures and burns the Gildersleeve and bonds the Justina, on which he puts the crew of the Gildersleeve. (18)

Mississippi operations/Siege of Vicksburg: A formal siege begins, as General Grant issues Special Orders. No. 140:

Corps commanders will immediately commence the work of reducing the enemy by regular approaches. It is desirable that no more loss of life shall be sustained in the reduction of Vicksburg and the capture of the Garrison. Every advantage will be taken of the natural inequalities of the land to gain positions from which to start mines, trenches, or advance batteries. The work will be under the immediate charge of corps engineers, corps commanders being responsible that the work in their immediate fronts is pushed with all vigor. …

Meanwhile, General Pemberton in Vicksburg requests and is granted a truce so that the US dead around Vicksburg can be removed from the field. (26)

A US artillery battery behind breastworks at Port Hudson in 1863.  Library of Congress

A US artillery battery behind breastworks at Port Hudson in 1863. Library of Congress

Attempts are made to evacuate Port Hudson, but fail. The Confederate steamers Starlight and Red Chief are captured on the Mississippi (some sources say this happened on the 26th), and US forces start to completely surround the city. There is also a skirmish at Thompson’s Creek, north of Port Hudson. (27, 28)

May 26

Battles: Mississippi operations/Siege of Vicksburg: The situation continues. Today, the Federals decide to silence Pemberton’s upper artillery battery. (26) General Grant sends troop into the “Mechanicsburg Corridor” (PDF) where he expects General Johnston to travel, but Johnston is not there. (7)

Military events: Mississippi operations/Port Hudson: US troops seize the CSS Starlight in Thompson’s Creek, north of Port Hudson. (10) Siege operations against Port Hudson are complete. (27)

Other: Gold is discovered in Alder Gulch, Montana. US leaders are relieved, for they have been fearing, with good reason, a threat to gold shipments from California. Now the gold required for purchases on the international market can be shipped overland to the east. (Alder Gulch will eventually change its name to Virginia City.) (12, 27)


Head Quarters Co. ‘H’
118th Regiment, Pennsylvania Violunteers Flying Brigade
May 26th, 1863

Dear Brother:

… The change of camp alluded to in my yesterday’s letter turned out to be a heavy picket detail from this brigade. … You will observe from my daily correspondence that I suspicion a sudden move of the army. Candidly, I think there will be a base before long. We are doing no good here, with exception of covering Washington. …

With exception of the movement on picket there is really nothing to write about. We are calmly, deliberately and with much resignation awaiting the pay master. In the event of his coming I will have paid me $250 – or, more money than I ever before could call my own, but sad to relate, the major part of it is encumbered – mortgaged to the sutler – bad luck to him. …

Should the army remain in its present camp I feel assured I can obtain a leave of absence. In such case I will move rapidly in retreat towards the city of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection. …

Captain Francis Adam Donaldson, USA
Army of the Potomac, in Virginia


(1)  The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.

(2)  Morgan’s Raiders and The L&N Railroad in the Civil War, by Dan Lee (2011).

(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.

(6) Blue and Gray Timeline.

(7)  Grant Chronology, Mississippi State University.

(8)”The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government” (Vol. II), Jefferson Davis.

(9)   The Memoirs of Colonel John S. Mosby.

(10)  Conquest of the Lower Mississippi.

(11) Under Siege: Three Children at the Civil War Battle for Vicksburg, Andrea Warren (2009)

(12) Civil War Interactive.

(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.

(16) Born to Battle: Grant and Forrest: Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga: The Campaigns That Doomed the Confederacy, Jack Hurst (2012).

(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)

(22) Civil War Raids and Skirmishes in 1863.

(23) The Siege of Vicksburg, Civil War Home.

(24) Siege of Vicksburg, Wikipedia.

(25) The siege of Port Hudson, National Park Service online lesson plan.

(26) Pemberton: Defender of Vicksburg. John C. Pemberton, 2002.

(27) This Week in the Civil War.

(28) Port Hudson Photo Album, Civil War Album.

Categories: American Civil War

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