Letters from the Vicksburg Campaign

Letters from Union soldiers to their families during the Civil War were one of the main ways that information about the progress of the war was transmitted to Northerners. Such letters served a number of purposes–to give firsthand accounts of military actions, to offer philosophical musings on the conduct of and motivations behind the war effort, and to reassure their readers that the soldier-writer was doing his best to return home as soon as possible even while he carried on a noble crusade to restore the Union. The letters of John Alexander Ritter, a Union army surgeon, fit this model. Spanning almost two years, from his enlistment in October 1861 to his return home because of ill health in September 1863, his letters detail a number of actions, but perhaps none more pivotal than the campaign to take Vicksburg, Mississippi in the summer of 1863.

Summary Overview

Letters from Union soldiers to their families during the Civil War were one of the main ways that information about the progress of the war was transmitted to Northerners. Such letters served a number of purposes–to give firsthand accounts of military actions, to offer philosophical musings on the conduct of and motivations behind the war effort, and to reassure their readers that the soldier-writer was doing his best to return home as soon as possible even while he carried on a noble crusade to restore the Union. The letters of John Alexander Ritter, a Union army surgeon, fit this model. Spanning almost two years, from his enlistment in October 1861 to his return home because of ill health in September 1863, his letters detail a number of actions, but perhaps none more pivotal than the campaign to take Vicksburg, Mississippi in the summer of 1863.

Defining Moment

Though it is hard to overestimate the importance of the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 as a contributing event in the ultimate defeat of the Confederacy, another vital battle was taking place at nearly the same time some one thousand miles to the southwest, at Vicksburg, Mississippi, near the Louisiana border. Both of these actions laid the groundwork for the defeat of the Confederacy in different ways. Gettysburg stopped Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s desperation offensive into the north before he could reach the main Northern cities of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington. Vicksburg was important owing to the city’s location on the Mississippi River, which allowed for the movement of war supplies. By laying siege to and capturing Vicksburg, Union general Ulysses S. Grant and his army of 70,000 troops established complete control over the Mississippi.

In his letters to his wife, Margaret, John Alexander Ritter details the actions of his unit, the 49th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, during the Vicksburg campaign, including battles as they approached the city. He discusses the Union victories at Jackson, Champion Hill, and other battles, culminating with the siege of the city of Vicksburg. Though he covers the battles themselves and, being a surgeon, the condition of the troops and the numbers of wounded and killed, he also presents views on the newly freed slaves and African Americans in general, and white Southern culture. His wife and family would have gladly received all of this information, and no doubt many of his letters were shared with others in his community, as they gave a perspective on the battles and movements during the Civil War that newspapers would not have available to them. This perspective would have been especially valuable during the crucial events of July 1863, as Union troops in both Mississippi and Pennsylvania won victories that proved turning point in the war, leading to the defeat of the Confederacy some twenty-one months later.

Author Biography

John Alexander Ritter was born on January 3, 1819, in Jessamine County, Kentucky. His father died when he was very young, and after his mother moved Orangeville, Indiana, in 1838, Ritter followed the next year, when he was 20 years old. In his late 20s he both married Margaret (or Margarett) Carter of Orleans, Indiana, and pursued his medical degree, studying at the University of Louisville. After graduating in 1850, he and his growing family returned to Orangeville where he established his practice. He was very active in his community and was elected Justice of the Peace for Orange County, Indiana, in 1846.

With the coming of war in 1861, Ritter enlisted in the 49th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, and was chosen to be Captain of Company G. Given his medical expertise, it is no surprise that Ritter served as Regimental Surgeon from the departure of the unit in October 1861 until his resignation due to ill health in September 1863. Over the course of those two years, the 49th Indiana fought mostly in the Western theatre of the war, in Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. But the most vital action of which they were a part was the Vicksburg campaign, under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant, in the summer of 1863.

Given that he spent his years in medical school in Louisville, Kentucky–one of the border states–it is understandable that he had some sympathy for Southern culture, though not for the Confederate cause. It also should not be a surprise that his views on the proper role of African Americans should have been shaped by his proximity to the South. Though the abolitionist movement was relatively strong in New England, in the western states it was much more controversial. These perspectives come through in his letters home during throughout the war. However, they do not cause his conviction about the justness of the Union cause to waver throughout his wartime experience or after.

Document Analysis

Captain John A. Ritter, like many of his comrades-in-arms on both sides of the line, wrote numerous letters to his family throughout the Civil War, describing the battles, marches, and miscellaneous details of the everyday life of a soldier during the War Between the States. As a member of the 49th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, Ritter saw various battles between the time when the unit was mustered on November 21, 1861, and when Ritter was forced to leave his unit for home owing to ill health in early September 1863. The 49th Indiana served most of its duty in the war’s western theater, and as such fought their most important battles–the most important battles of the war in the West–during the march to and siege of the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi. The Vicksburg Campaign, which includes the battles of Thompson’s Hill, Champion Hill, and Big Black River Bridge, as well as the Siege of Vicksburg, lasted from at least the beginning of May 1863 through the surrender of the city on July 4, 1863. During this time, Ritter wrote numerous letters to his wife, Margaret, presenting his views on both military and social matters. His letters elaborate on his concern for his fellow soldiers that drove him to become the regimental surgeon, his support for the Union cause and the leadership of General Ulysses S. Grant, his opinions on different aspects of Southern culture, and his understanding of race relations during the first year after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in Confederate-held territory. As such, they are an extremely valuable window into the war and the issues that occupied the minds of the soldiers that fought it.

Control of the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, located on the Mississippi River across from Louisiana, was both economically and psychologically important to the Union war effort. The Mississippi River was an important artery of transportation for both the Union and the Confederacy. The presence of Confederate artillery cut off those farmers from their markets, and more important, cut off the most populous Union states from the states that supplied the better part of their supplies of food and materiel. The Mississippi was also a vital waterway for the Confederacy, as much of their food and materiel came from their western states of Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas. The Union troops had already taken the key cities of Memphis and New Orleans, controlling much of the Mississippi, but the presence of any Confederate strongholds on the river was a problem, and Vicksburg was the key city along the river, as it sat on a bluff high above the river at a point where the river made a sharp turn, meaning that artillery located in the city would have clear lines to fire upon Union shipping going in both directions. Confederate troops had heavily armed the city, calling it the “Gibraltar of the Mississippi,” dooming any attempt to take the city from the river.

Grant had known that Vicksburg was his ultimate goal for well over a year. During the spring of 1862, Grant had sent Union gunboats to attack the city. That fall, Grant’s troops invaded northern Mississippi, but were unable to get close to the city. In the spring, Grant and General William Tecumseh Sherman launched a series of diversionary attacks that allowed the bulk of Grant’s armies to cross the Mississippi River south of the city, and proceed toward the city from both sides. The approach was not easy, however. Ritter and his 49th Indiana participated in a series of pitched battles as they advanced on Vicksburg. The Confederate troops, under the command of General John C. Pemberton, tried to stand their ground as best they could, but were repeatedly forced to retreat. By the time they reached Vicksburg in early May it was clear that they could not retreat any further–they would have to make their stand in the city.

Ritter’s letters during the Vicksburg campaign make it clear that he and his comrades knew that this was a pivotal point in the war. However, they also show that the Union troops were in no hurry to take the city. After the Battle of Big Black River Bridge on May 17, Grant’s armies surrounded and laid siege to Vicksburg for the next month-and-a-half. As Pemberton and his armies withdrew into the fortified city, many of the city’s residents tried to escape the oncoming storm. Ritter’s comments on the siege portray this exodus and demonstrate that the soldiers knew that the surrender of the city was merely a matter of time: “[i]t is verry doubtful how long that Vicksburg can hold out. We have deserters coming out every day or night.” However, Vicksburg was surrounded by miles of fortified earthworks, artillery batteries, and trenches from which it would be very difficult to extract the Confederate troops. Although Pemberton’s army, at perhaps 33,000 troops, was less than half the size of Grant’s force of 77,000, the defensive nature of fighting in the fortified city meant that a direct assault would be a bloody battle, and that laying siege to the city was the best way to avoid large numbers of casualties.

When they arrived at the city, Grant ordered a number of assaults to try to take the city quickly. However, infantry assaults proved costly, as Union casualties greatly outnumbered the defending Confederates’ losses. Bombardment from Union cannons and gunboats proved ineffective, as both the citizens of Vicksburg and the soldiers defending the city had dug tunnels in order to withstand just such a barrage. Seeing the futility of the attacks, Grant instructed his troops to build fortifications as well, as defensible positions were vital to the success of the siege. Ritter writes, “[w]e are still all quiet at our old camp making Rifle pitts Brest works etc. all Quiet no appearance of any rebels neare us. It is thought that grub is getting short in the city of Vicksburg. We expect to starve them out.” That is exactly what happened, as the lack of food and supplies forced Pemberton to surrender to Grant on July 4, 1863, ending the 47-day siege and giving complete control over the Mississippi River to the Union.

Ritter’s Views on Southern Society and the Freed Slaves

Although Ritter’s portrayal of the Siege of Vicksburg is important, what sets his letters apart from the countless other letters written by Civil War soldiers to their loved ones is the nuanced view he demonstrates of the Confederate troops, Southern culture, and the newly freed African Americans. While it is abundantly clear that Ritter supports the war effort and the aim of restoring the Union, his view of the Confederate soldiers themselves makes it equally clear that he does not blame them for the war. Early in the siege, Ritter describes “attending a sick confederate that fought at Thompson hill that says that he had not had any thing to eat for five days.” During the fight around the city, Ritter describes a time when the Confederates asked for a truce so that they could bury their dead, which was granted. During the truce, the Union soldiers continued to work on their fortifications, but also found time to engage in some conversations with their opponents, stating that “the Reb soldiers came out and was quite frienly.” Ritter goes on to tell a story of a Confederate soldier who yelled across the lines to ask if the Union soldiers could spare a cup of coffee. After negotiating that the Union troops would not shoot the Southerner should he come across for the coffee, the Confederate joined his Union opponent for that cup, having “quite a nice little chat.”

This amicable view of Confederate soldiers is quite in line with Ritter’s take on Southern society in general. As a resident of Indiana who had attended medical school at the University of Louisville, Ritter knew Southern society well long before the beginning of hostilities. He largely viewed Southerners as peaceable people, but as people whose government had led them down the wrong path. Ritter is able to separate his opinion of Southerners, even those that supported the Confederate war effort, as people from his opinion of them as opponents of the Union. For the most part, he describes Southern men as gentlemen, clearly seeing them as superior to the slaves that he and his comrades were fighting to free.

Just as Ritter’s view of Southern culture appears to have been shaped by his proximity to the South, so his opinions of the ex-slaves were also much like those whom he fought. He told the story of a colleague of his, Dr. Thomas, who became ill and had to go home. Ritter assigned his “servant,” a slave that had been born free but tricked into slavery, to take care of him on the journey up the river. Rather than describing this African American as a gentleman, he stated that he “was a good cook. Could wash & sew equil to a woman. I hated to give him up…” When African Americans left their plantations as the Union troops marched through the South, they became what Ritter called “counterbands,” or contraband. These ex-slaves became servants to the Union troops, helping them cut down trees and dig fortifications. Ritter states, “if they do no other good they have saved our soldiers form any drops of sweat.” However, he does state that many ex-slaves have participated in the battles, and had “done some good fighting.” However, Ritter definitely considers the ex-slaves to be more suited to serving whites. He states that his “negro still stays with me. He has been with me over 8 months. He wants to come home with me. I think he really loves me.”

John A. Ritter’s letters provide a window into the mind of a Union soldier, but more than that, they illustrate the views that many soldiers, especially those from areas in close proximity to the Southern states, had of the war, their opponents, and the freed slaves. Despite his sympathies for the Southern troops and civilians, Ritter never wavers from his goal, the capture of Vicksburg and, ultimately, the victory of the North and the restoration of the Union. His letter of July 4, 1863, simply opens “Vicksburg is ours. Our troops occupy the city.” His next phrase, however, is more celebratory: “[a]nother star to make the 4th more glorious.” Ritter’s health, however, took a turn for the worse after Vicksburg, and within two months of the end of the siege, the war would be over for him.

Essential Themes

John A. Ritter’s letters demonstrate that, even in the heat of battle, many Union troops were able to separate their disdain for the Confederate government and the Southern cause from their views of the people of the South or its culture. Though the views of different soldiers on these matters could vary markedly, and though many in New England were more likely to be ardent abolitionists than those from the states of the Midwest, there was a basic understanding that the soldiers on the other side of the battlefield were not really the enemy, but were still in many ways their countrymen.

Upon returning home at the conclusion of his service in September 1863, Ritter remained devoted to the Union cause. Though his views of Southern culture might have been sympathetic, his views of the injustice of the Southern war effort were without question. His family history states that he assisted in the arrest of a prominent doctor in the Indiana county in which he lived. Apparently, a Dr. William Bowles was active in the Knights of the Golden Circle, which was a paramilitary secret society in the region that was sympathetic to the Southern cause. Bowles had been in contact with Southern spies and was working to raise troops to support a planned Confederate invasion of Indiana. Ritter was, apparently, instrumental in Bowles arrest, and Bowles was eventually convicted of treason and hanged. Ritter lived the rest of his years in Orangeville, dying in 1891.


  • Eckerman, Nancy Pippen.Indiana in the Civil War: Doctors, Hospitals, and Medical Care. Charleston: Arcadia, 2001. Print.
  • Foner, Eric.Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. Print.
  • Fraser, Mary Ann.Vicksburg: The Battle That Won the Civil War. New York: Henry Holt, 1999. Print.
  • Indiana-Vicksburg Military Park Commission.Indiana at Vicksburg. Indianapolis: Wm. B. Bedford, 1910. Print.
  • McPherson, James M.Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Ballantine, 1989. Print.
  • Waldrep, Christopher.Vicksburg’s Long Shadow: The Civil War Legacy of Race and Remembrance. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005. Print.

Additional Reading

  • Ballard, Michael B. Pemberton: A Biography. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2000. Print
  • Ballard, Michael B.Civil War Mississippi: A Guide. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2000. Print
  • Hoehling, A. A.Vicksburg: 47 Days of Siege. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 1969. Print.
  • Hurst, Jack.Born to Battle: Grant and Forrest: Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga: The Campaigns that Doomed the Confederacy. New York: Basic Books, 2012. Print.
  • Urquhart, Kenneth Trist, ed.Vicksburg: Southern City Under Siege, William Lovelace Foster’s Letter Describing the Defense and Surrender of the Confederate Fortress on the Mississippi. New Orleans: The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1987. Print.
  • Walker, Peter F.Vicksburg: A People at War. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1960. Print.