July, 1863: Battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Following the First Battle of Bull Run in July, 1861, there was no serious campaigning in the Eastern theater that year. In 1862, George B. McClellan, the commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, tried to take Richmond by attacking westward on the peninsula between the York and James Rivers. His campaign failed, and Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, invaded Maryland. McClellan repulsed him at the Battle of Antietam on September 17. During the ensuing winter, Ambrose Burnside replaced McClellan and attempted to get at Richmond from the north. Lee stopped Burnside’s advance at the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13. President Abraham Lincoln then put Joseph Hooker in Burnside’s place. Early in the spring of 1863, Hooker tried to move around Lee’s left flank, but Lee counterattacked and defeated him at Chancellorsville on May 3.

Following the First Battle of Bull Run in July, 1861, there was no serious campaigning in the Eastern theater that year. In 1862, George B. McClellan, the commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, tried to take Richmond by attacking westward on the peninsula between the York and James Rivers. His campaign failed, and Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, invaded Maryland. McClellan repulsed him at the Battle of Antietam on September 17. During the ensuing winter, Ambrose Burnside replaced McClellan and attempted to get at Richmond from the north. Lee stopped Burnside’s advance at the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13. President Abraham Lincoln then put Joseph Hooker in Burnside’s place. Early in the spring of 1863, Hooker tried to move around Lee’s left flank, but Lee counterattacked and defeated him at Chancellorsville on May 3.

Gettysburg

Lee then launched his second invasion of the North, moving in the general direction of Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania. The Army of the Potomac followed, keeping between Lee and the national capital at Washington. On July 1, the two armies came in contact at Gettysburg, a small Pennsylvania college town southwest of Harrisburg. George G. Meade, who had just taken command of the Union forces, rushed his men to the town, as did Lee, for what would become the greatest land battle ever fought in the Americas. On the first day, there was fierce fighting on the northern end of the line, where, despite heavy losses (amounting to 80 percent in one brigade), the Union forces held. On July 2, Lee attacked with his right wing, with similar results.

On July 3, Lee ordered a massive assault on Meade’s center, which was fixed on Cemetery Hill. After a planned artillery bombardment of one hour, there ensued an infantry attack of approximately twelve thousand troops under the operational command of Lieutenant General James Longstreet. Longstreet, commanding First Corps and Lee’s “Old War Horse,” had argued strongly against any fight at Gettysburg and bitterly opposed the attack on July 3. Longstreet had three divisions, the strongest of which was Major General George Pickett’s Virginia division. Union artillery and massed infantry fire inflicted casualties of more than 50 percent on the assaulting force and broke up attacking divisions. After an hour of bitter fighting, shattered and dispirited Confederates streamed back from Cemetery Hill. At the same time, east of Gettysburg, General Jeb Stuart’s once seemingly invincible Confederate cavalry was soundly defeated.

General Jeb Stuart, the leading Confederate cavalry commander. (National Archives)

Artist’s depiction of the Battle of Gettysburg. (F. R. Niglutsch)

July 3, 1863, was Lee’s worst day as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee suffered twenty-eight thousand casualties; Meade, twenty-three thousand. Lee, his army sorely depleted, retired to Virginia. He could now do no more than defend Virginia and hope that the North would abandon its effort to conquer the South, for the Army of Northern Virginia would never again be capable of assuming the offensive.

Vicksburg

In the Western theater, meanwhile, the Union was on the offensive. Early in 1862, Ulysses S. Grant had captured Confederate positions at Fort Donelson on the lower Cumberland River and Fort Henry on the Tennessee River. The Confederates fell back to Mississippi, but counterattacked at Shiloh on April 6–7 without success. The Union then took control of all points north of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River. In October, 1862, Grant began an advance down the Mississippi Central Railroad headed for Vicksburg, a fortified city on the Mississippi River. Vicksburg was important because it was on a high bluff, and Confederate artillery there denied passage of the river to the Union boats. While Grant moved along the railroad line with forty thousand men, William T. Sherman, with thirty-two thousand, moved along the river. In December, Confederate cavalry moved into Grant’s rear flank and burned his supply dumps at Holly Springs, Mississippi. Grant fell back to bases in Tennessee. Sherman, not realizing that he was unsupported, attacked Vicksburg and suffered heavy casualties.

Artist’s romantic depiction of Union troops storming a Confederate post at Vicksburg. (F. R. Niglutsch)

Grant was determined to take Vicksburg by any means, and during the winter of 1862–1863 he tried to bypass Vicksburg by digging a canal opposite the city. This scheme failed, but Grant did not give up the idea of taking the heavily fortified city. Preparing for a spring campaign, he built up a vast quantity of supplies, most placed on barges, which were floated downriver. He had decided on a daring campaign to move south of Vicksburg, cross from Louisiana to Mississippi, and then march his army into the heart of Mississippi, taking the capital city of Jackson, which was forty miles east of Vicksburg.

Once Jackson was taken and his rear secured, Grant would move on to Vicksburg, attacking from the east. The prepared supply barges that would be offloaded south of Vicksburg would keep Grant’s highly mobile army well supplied with ammunition and food. It was a daring plan with many dangers, but taking advantage of surprise, mobility, and a unified command, Grant was confident that he could keep Confederates confused and incapable of massing forces against Grant’s smaller army.

On April 30, Grant was on dry ground on the east bank of the Mississippi River. He then began a campaign in which he achieved six victories in seventeen days. Moving north, he defeated two Confederate brigades at Port Gibson on May 1. Continuing his move inland, he headed toward Jackson, the capital of Mississippi and a major railroad center directly east of Vicksburg. With Jackson secure, he would not have to worry about his rear flank when he struck out for Vicksburg.

Joseph E. Johnston, Confederate commander in the area, was unable to discover Grant’s intentions, and John C. Pemberton, in immediate command at Vicksburg, was equally confused over the Union commander’s intentions. The result was that Grant, although far outnumbered in the area (seventy thousand to forty thousand), fought each successive battle with overwhelming superiority. On May 12, one of his three corps defeated a Confederate brigade at Raymond, and two days later, his entire army scattered the six thousand Confederates defending Jackson.

Grant burned the city, destroyed the railroad facilities, and turned west toward Vicksburg. Pemberton finally realized where Grant was and with most of his force, but without help from Johnston, he engaged Grant halfway to Vicksburg at Champion’s Hill on May 16. Again, Grant drove the enemy from the field, as he did the next day when Pemberton tried to mount a defense a few miles outside Vicksburg at the Big Black River, where Union troops routed the Confederates, forcing a headlong retreat to the earthworks. Pemberton then withdrew inside his defenses at Vicksburg.

Gettysburg, 1863

On May 19, Grant and his troops, filled with confidence, assaulted the fortress. The Confederates, safely inside their trenches, easily repulsed the attack. Three days later, Grant tried again, with heavy losses. Grant then realized that he could not take the city by assault and settled into a siege. Reinforcements arriving from the North increased the size of his force to seventy thousand, while abundant supplies allowed his artillery to maintain a constant barrage on the enemy positions.

The Confederates were short of supplies. By early July, the citizens were starving, the troops were eating mule meat, and the gunners could fire their artillery pieces only three times a day. On July 3, Pemberton asked Grant for surrender terms. Grant allowed the twenty thousand Confederate soldiers to leave Vicksburg upon signing paroles, an agreement not to fight again until properly exchanged. Pemberton accepted. On July 4, Grant raised the Union flag over Vicksburg. With the fall of Port Hudson in Louisiana immediately thereafter, the Mississippi River was in Union hands, and the third of the Confederacy to the west was permanently cut off.

Union and Confederate casualties after the Battle of Gettysburg. The invention of photography before the Civil War helped to bring home the full horrors of war for the first time in history. When President Abraham Lincoln visited the battle site during the following November and delivered his famous Gettysburg Address, he made a point of honoring the dead of both sides. (National Archives)

Impact

The union strategic and operational victories at Vicksburg and Chattanooga marked the emergence of Ulysses S. Grant as the premier general of the war at that time. Chattanooga confirmed that Grant could win campaigns. In Washington, D.C., Abraham Lincoln, who had dismissed a string of generals and was dissatisfied with Meade’s performance after Gettysburg, made Grant the overall commander of Union forces. Leaving Major General William T. Sherman behind in the West, Grant went east to confront and finally defeat Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.

Categories: History Content