Captain Richard W. Burt on the Siege of Vicksburg Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Siege of Vicksburg–which lasted from May 18 through July 4, 1863–represented a critical campaign for the Union at the midpoint of the Civil War. General Ulysses S. Grant’s forces invested heavily in the siege of that fortified city for more than a month. Despite the enormous sacrifices and hardship endured by the Union Army during the siege, Grant’s men remained dedicated to the effort. Then-Lieutenant Richard W. Burt, who was an accomplished writer and poet, described his experiences of the battles in a series of letters sent to the Newark True American.

Summary Overview

The Siege of Vicksburg–which lasted from May 18 through July 4, 1863–represented a critical campaign for the Union at the midpoint of the Civil War. General Ulysses S. Grant’s forces invested heavily in the siege of that fortified city for more than a month. Despite the enormous sacrifices and hardship endured by the Union Army during the siege, Grant’s men remained dedicated to the effort. Then-Lieutenant Richard W. Burt, who was an accomplished writer and poet, described his experiences of the battles in a series of letters sent to the Newark True American.

Defining Moment

In 1863, the Union Army in Tennessee, headed by General Ulysses S. Grant, embarked on a dangerous but critical mission to gain greater control over the Mississippi River, which was a major supply line to the Confederate effort. The focal point of the effort was Vicksburg, Mississippi, a heavily fortified town overlooking the river. The Union had been attempting for months to breach the Confederate fort, but the army’s efforts had fallen short.

Grant started a new approach in April of 1863, which began when a Union naval flotilla sailed down the Mississippi River, past Vicksburg, and met Grant’s army in Louisiana. On April 30 and May 1, Grant’s troops crossed the river and landed at Bruinsburg, Mississippi. Unopposed at Bruinsburg Crossing, the Union Army quickly moved inland from that coastal region, pushing Confederate forces back toward the Mississippi capitol of Jackson. This prevented Southern forces from closing in behind the Union Army and squeezing it from both sides. Once their presence in Mississippi was secure, Grant’s troops marched toward Vicksburg.

The Confederate leadership was at the time stretched. Robert E. Lee headed to Richmond, Virginia, to lead that city’s defense after General Joseph Johnston was wounded. Johnston returned to Mississippi to attempt to bolster Confederate forces there. Meanwhile, the commander of Vicksburg, Lieutenant General John Pemberton, looked to fortify the city’s defenses while, along with Johnston, attempting to cut off the Union’s supply chain along the Mississippi River. After a series of campaigns, Johnston and Pemberton proved unsuccessful in severing that line, while the Union forces drew closer to Vicksburg.

Pemberton, however, was a skilled engineer and commander. The Union forces made several attempts to find weaknesses in the Vicksburg area, but they quickly encountered staunch defenses, including mines and hidden troop tunnels. The Confederate soldiers in the town proved remarkably resilient to the larger Union attackers, as a number of attempts to penetrate the city were repelled at the Vicksburg borders. An apparent stalemate ensued, as the Union Army surrounded the city and waited for the Confederate forces to surrender. For this reason, the Battle of Vicksburg is often also called the Siege of Vicksburg.

Grant’s constant shelling and the lack of supplies on the Confederate side, however, took their toll on the troops and civilians within Vicksburg’s walls. After more than a month and a half, the nearly thirty thousand Confederate troops in Vicksburg surrendered to Grant, after the Union leader offered them some amnesty as long as they laid down their arms.

Author Biography

Richard Welling Burt was born on April 23, 1823, in Warwick, New York, to parents Foght and Elizabeth Welling Burt. When Burt was eleven years old, he and his family moved to the community of Coshocton, Ohio. While working on the family farm, Burt received a basic education before joining the military to fight in the Mexican-American War (1846–48). After serving as a private during that conflict, he returned home and married Malona Evans.

Although he continued to work on his family’s farm, Burt became interested in reading and current events. In 1853, he purchased the Coshocton paper, the Progressive Age, and became the periodical’s editor. Three years later, he sold the paper and entered other pursuits before the start of the Civil War.

In 1861, Burt joined the Ohio Infantry, where he assumed the rank of second lieutenant. In January 1863, Burt and his company took part in the Battle of Arkansas Post, a major offensive near Vicksburg, Mississippi. For his role in that battle, Burt was elevated to the rank of first lieutenant. His first enlistment expired shortly thereafter, but Burt reenlisted and was promoted again, this time to the rank of captain. He was given command of the Seventy-Sixth Ohio Volunteer Infantry. During his tenure, Burt took part in a number of major battles, including the Battles of Vicksburg and Jackson and the Atlanta Campaign. He was wounded in battle in Resaca, Georgia, (losing most of his teeth to a bullet) in May of 1864, and was more severely wounded in August of the same year at the Battle of Jonesboro. Despite his wounds, he remained in command of his company until the end of the war.

In addition to his leadership abilities, Captain Burt was an accomplished songwriter and poet. He wrote many pieces of verse and war songs during the war, including “Jefferson Davis in Petticoats” and “Sherman and the Boys in Blue.” Because of his prior experience with the Coshocton newspaper, Burt was also named a regimental correspondent by the Newark True American.

After the Civil War, Richard Burt moved with his wife and family to Peoria, Illinois, where he established a successful soap manufacturing business. Malona Burt died in 1873, and Richard remarried three years later. His second wife, Betsy Cotton, died in 1891. In 1906, he published a complete set of his wartime poems. He died on July 8, 1911, receiving recognition in his obituary as one of Peoria’s “oldest and most prominent residents.”

Document Analysis

In the spring of 1863, Lieutenant Richard Burt and his men of the Seventy-Sixth Ohio Infantry joined others in General Grant’s Army of the Tennessee in a campaign to take Vicksburg, a Mississippi city straddling the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. Vicksburg was seen as the key to controlling the Mississippi River, a critical goal for both the Union and the Confederacy. Burt and his men traveled down the Mississippi and came ashore several miles to the west of the city, marching across difficult terrain that included steep ravines and malaria-ridden ponds and waterways. Confederate soldiers reinforced Vicksburg’s defenses and established camps throughout the city, living alongside Vicksburg’s residents.

Richard Burt’s written accounts of the Vicksburg campaign and siege provided eyewitness reports for Northern readers of a critical mission in a distant region. He used the series of letters not just to inform readers but to capture their attention about this battle and its Union participants. Burt also called upon readers to become more involved, particularly by sending his men newspapers. News of the war was difficult for soldiers to acquire, especially while he and his men traveled on foot on rough terrain.

While Vicksburg was a heavily fortified city, Confederate forces were also well-established throughout the southern Mississippi River region. Burt and his compatriots were faced with the challenges of both establishing a presence in the area (including stable supply lines) and pushing toward their primary target. Burt’s May 17, 1863, letter to the editor of the Newark True American reflects these challenges. As the Union troops reached a position within three miles of Vicksburg, Burt’s men had already encountered heavy shelling from Confederate outposts and camps (pickets). The Union forces did not yet have camps established in the region, so Burt and his men were forced to bivouac–sleep in the open–often using branches and other woodland supplies to build makeshift shelters.

Making matters worse for Burt and his men at the time was a lack of food. A staple for Union soldiers was hardtack, a tough, cracker-like food source. Although it was neither tasty nor easily eaten, hardtack at least provided temporary sustenance for the constantly on-the-move soldiers. Still miles from Vicksburg, in his May 17 letter Burt reports that his men’s hardtack supplies had already dwindled–the supply chain between Burt’s men and the Union supply post at Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana, twelve miles to the north of their location, was not yet open. Burt even mentions that an officer in his regiment was willing to pay the exorbitant sum of fifty cents for any hardtack the other troops might have.

Despite the lack of supplies, Burt’s commentary is upbeat, particularly in light of the presence of General Ulysses Grant. Burt says that Grant acted quickly to move out the men from their makeshift camp, giving orders that the troops gladly followed. Burt later provides a more detailed account of their movement toward Vicksburg. The Union troops moved slowly over a two-mile stretch, encountering heavy resistance from the Rebels, particularly on a bridge that the Confederates had set ablaze. After another skirmish, the men bivouacked at a plantation. It was their hope that they would find supplies here to help them continue their push toward Vicksburg, but Burt states that they found little.

As Burt’s regiment drew closer to Vicksburg, the Confederates’ cannons briefly went silent. The Rebels had fallen back closer to their home base. Some in the Union camp incorrectly presumed that the Confederates might give up Vicksburg in the face of the oncoming Union surge. The sudden explosion of Rebel cannons as they drew closer proved that the enemy was not willing to surrender anything. The Union soldiers fought on, despite taking heavy losses while they pushed toward high ground. On May 19, Burt reports, his regiment–exhausted from the rough terrain and from hunger–emerged through a blockade and eventually reached a position atop a ridge, where they could see Vicksburg’s defenses. The troops remained in that position for several weeks, dodging enemy fire–Burt mentions that a minie ball landed right near him–and monitoring Confederate activity in and around the city.

In another letter to the editor, dated May 30, Burt reports a much more secure situation. By this time, Burt and the rest of Grant’s troops had completely surrounded Vicksburg from the hills overlooking the city. Meanwhile, the navy had taken up position on the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. The Union Army had established a number of supply lines, ensuring that their stay around Vicksburg could be as long as General Grant desired. Confederate forces would unsuccessfully attempt to cut off these lines, attacking Milliken’s Bend (about fifteen miles northwest of Vicksburg) on June 7. However, the attack was repelled and the Union position there was sustained, facilitating the continued delivery of food, supplies, weaponry, and equipment.

The Confederate supply situation was, however, less fortunate, according to Burt’s account. Vicksburg’s supplies were rapidly dwindling, although Burt did not know exactly how long the people in that city’s walls could last, having been cut off from the rest of the world. Then again, the Confederates inside Vicksburg proved remarkably resilient and dedicated, keeping the integrity of Vicksburg’s fortifications. At one point, Burt says, a group of Union troops foolishly tested this condition. A brigade of soldiers attempted a charge on one of the city’s posts. They were defeated and withdrew, suffering heavy casualties in the mission. In light of this incident, Union forces opted to fall back and to continue waiting for the Rebels to surrender on their own.

Burt provides a glimpse of the camaraderie and bravery shown by many of the men with whom he served during this campaign. Among those he cites are Brigadier General Frederick Steele and General William Sherman. He also notes the leadership of Colonel Charles Woods, whose bravery and dedication Burt says inspired his men and impressed the generals. Burt even writes that Woods should receive a promotion for his role at Vicksburg.

In his June 10 letter, Burt describes an ongoing stalemate. He wrote as enemy fire whizzed overhead–although he comically disregards the attack, knowing that the bank behind which he sits will absorb any accurate fire, “so let them crack away”–during the twenty-third day of the Vicksburg campaign. By this point, he says, events were largely routine. The heaviest gunfire and fighting took place for an hour or two in the morning, and another hour or two before evening. When a “butternut” (Confederate soldier, so-called because many wore yellow-brown uniforms) raised his head above a wall, Union soldiers would shell the position. During the rest of the day, the Union men would read or play games, riding out the early summer heat.

The lack of major combat that was associated with the siege had the potential, in Burt’s eyes, to undermine the public’s attention to the significance of the Vicksburg campaign. Unlike other large-scale battles that took place during the war (including the one-day Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862), the conclusion to the Battle of Vicksburg would take time and patience. In his letters, Burt comments on this fact. His troops stood atop the hill waiting out the enemy to “raise the white flag” of surrender, but the men of the South proved more reluctant to give up their position than the Union anticipated. While Burt’s account of Union soldiers playing cards and reading books did not seem terribly exciting news for the True American’s readers, Burt reminds them of the importance of the mission. The capture of Vicksburg is indeed a “big thing,” he advises his readers. Grant’s troops, who wait patiently while enemy mortars and guns fly over their heads, fully appreciate what the fall of Vicksburg represents. The readers, who “are out of range of Rebel shells and rifle balls can afford to wait, if we can.”

The Union infantry’s advantageous position over the Vicksburg Confederates was greatly aided by the presence of the Navy on the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. Boats provided much-needed cannon fire that complemented the guns from the hills. Some boats also served as floating hospitals. Furthermore, ships delivered supplies on a steady basis, brought in from a landing along the Yazoo River, just east of Vicksburg. Among the equipment brought in by the Navy was an assortment of light and heavy guns and ammunition. Although there were instances in which these ships were endangered–Burt describes one incident, in which a supply boat named the Cincinnati, which had landed under cover and was offloading a cargo of heavy guns, was detected by the Rebels and given fire, forcing her to depart until nightfall–these boats were largely able to come and go with little heavy fire.

Although the siege moved slowly, Burt describes the morale of the troops as upbeat. Their supply routes open, the Union troops were never lacking for food or equipment. Reinforcements continued to flood the area–Burt states that some forty thousand additional men had arrived by early June. Meanwhile, from Burt’s viewpoint, the Confederates’ condition deteriorated steadily. Based on accounts from Confederate deserters, the Rebels were eating small rations of spoiled meat and bread, with the exception of what little food the local citizens offered the Confederate troops. Approximately six deserters would arrive at Burt’s camp each night.

Burt’s accounts reflect an improving situation for the Union troops over the course of the siege. When they arrived at Vicksburg, Burt reports, there were a significant number of wounded men. In his May 30 submission, Burt states that seven men were wounded, some severely, from enemy fire. One man, Lieutenant Charles Luther, was shot through the mouth and died after about twenty minutes. Only one other man (named James Taverner) was lost, but this death occurred during a skirmish on the trail to Vicksburg. After the Seventy-Sixth Ohio settled in on the hilltop, however, there were very few casualties. One man died of pneumonia, and another, William Carman, died from a gunshot. As supplies and weapons continued to bolster their position–and the Confederates’ supplies dwindled–Burt would report only one death (Isaac Holtsberry) and a moderate number of illnesses from his group.

To be sure, the Union encampments were not perfect. The soldiers were still bivouacked, for example, although some were sleeping in tents confiscated from the enemy. In addition, the Vicksburg guns continued to fire on their position, although without great effectiveness. Keeping Burt and his men buoyed was their expectation that their situation would improve, and that they would soon be sleeping in actual quarters within the Vicksburg city walls. Also keeping their spirits high was the leadership of Grant, whom Burt says gave the men every reason to believe that there would be no failure in this mission: in only a matter of time, every Confederate soldier in Vicksburg would be a prisoner of war.

On the thirty-fourth day of the siege, Burt wrote, there was little change in the Confederate position. The Union troops intensified their shelling of Vicksburg, firing upon it for nearly six hours a day. Burt notes that, occasionally, the Rebels would return fire, but those shots fell far short or out of range. Burt adds, however, that such sporadic retaliatory shots “stirred us up some,” as it reminded the Union troops that there was indeed life still in the city. Still, the only real challenge facing Burt and his men seemed to be combating boredom as they waited for the Confederates to surrender. The Rebels were also forced to wait, and Burt speculates that for them, the wait was much more taxing. Burt notes that the Confederates held on nonetheless, convinced that retaining Vicksburg was a cause worthy of such great sacrifice.

In addition to a detailed account of the events of the Battle of Vicksburg, Captain Burt provides an illustration of a number of prominent Civil War figures with whom he served during the siege. Among them is Captain Clemens Landgraeber, who was known by his nickname, “the Flying Dutchman.” He was given this moniker both because of his Dutch heritage and because of the battery he commanded, the Second Missouri Light Artillery. Landgraeber’s unit was capable of moving their weapons through a battlefield with great speed and skill. Burt states that the Second Missouri battery had moved into position atop the hill on which his own troops had bivouacked. While Landgraeber assessed targets in Vicksburg, he was severely injured by returning enemy fire.

The Rebel guns made it difficult to set up tents–Burt states that any tent put up on the hillside was quickly destroyed by a cannonball from Vicksburg–but otherwise the bivouacked Union soldiers’ surrounding conditions were, in Burt’s estimation, quite favorable. The air atop the hills was clean and disease-free. Meanwhile, in the lowlands around Vicksburg, malaria and other diseases could be found in great quantities along the stagnant pools of the Mississippi watershed. Although the troops were without tents, they could use the soft sugarcane stalks found in the ravines to make very comfortable beds. The Union soldiers would not be returning home for the Fourth of July, but they took solace in the belief that they would be celebrating that holiday from inside Vicksburg.

Essential Themes

The Battle of Vicksburg (or its more appropriate name, the “Siege of Vicksburg”) was unlike many other key confrontations during the Civil War. The Battle of Antietam, for example, was over in just one day; many other battles during the war lasted only one or two days. The Siege of Vicksburg, on the other hand, lasted nearly two months. As Richard Burt reminds his readers, however, the capture of Vicksburg was a critical event, even if people back home did not have much knowledge of it.

As seen through the eyes of Burt, the battle was one of endurance. Burt and his men did experience a great deal of enemy fire while approaching the Vicksburg city limits, but once they were atop the hill overlooking Vicksburg, enemy fire seemed to be more of a nuisance than a major threat. Then again, any effort to take the fortress directly by force proved fruitless, as the resilient Confederates in Vicksburg fought with vigor. Union leadership like Grant therefore told their men to simply wait for the Rebels to surrender rather than be drawn into a violent confrontation.

The policy of laying siege to the Confederates and residents of Vicksburg had its risks. As Burt reports, the Rebels in the city were dedicated to retaining this important center along the Mississippi. Despite their dwindling supplies in the city (including ammunition and food), the majority of the Confederates stationed there held their defenses with zeal, effectively repelling Union advances. Grant’s men therefore wisely held back, and as a result, the number of Union casualties remained low despite occasional cannon and gunfire leveled at the occupied hilltops.

Despite being forced to wait out the Confederates over the course of months, Burt and his men remained optimistic. After all, their supply lines were intact, and they therefore had ample food and ammunition (although they slept out in the open), along with reading material and other items to help stave off the occasional boredom. They also were bolstered by their camaraderie and the faith they had in General Grant’s leadership. Although Burt says that they eagerly awaited the fall of Vicksburg, the troops were willing to wait, as they were convinced that a Confederate surrender was inevitable.

Burt’s account of the Battle of Vicksburg helped show the readers in the North the importance of Union efforts in a very distant theater of the war. Burt reminds the readers of the bravery of the Union soldiers involved as well as the benefits that would come from their success at Vicksburg. The capture of Vicksburg, after all, would cut off Confederate supply lines up and down the Mississippi River and help strengthen the Union’s position during the war.

Bibliography
  • Burden, Jeffrey C. “Battle of Vicksburg.” HistoryNet. Weider History Group, n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2013.
  • Burt, Richard W. “Captain Richard W. Burt: Civil War Letters from the 76th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.” Ed. Larry Stevens. Larry Stevens’ Web Site. Larry Stevens, n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2013.
  • Miller, Charles Dana. The Struggle for the Life of the Republic: A Civil War Narrative. Ed. Stewart Bennett and Barbara Tillery. Kent: Kent State UP, 2004. Print.
  • “Vicksburg.” Civil War Trust. Civil War Trust, n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2013.
Additional Reading
  • Dudley, Wade G. “From the Siege of Vicksburg.” Military History 27.4 (2010): 17. Print.
  • Foote, Shelby. The Beleaguered City: The Vicksburg Campaign, December 1862–July 1863. New York: Modern Library, 1995. Print.
  • Freeman, Joanne. “Time Line of the Civil War, 1863.” Selected Civil War Photographs. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2013.
  • McBride, Earnest. “The Battle of Milliken’s Bend: The Central Role of Black Troops in the Siege of Vicksburg.” Jackson Advocate 73.19 (2011): 9B–11B. Print.
  • Smith, Timothy B. Champion Hill: Decisive Battle for Vicksburg. New York: Savas Beatie, 2006. Print.
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