Mississippi: Vicksburg Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This city is part of the Vicksburg National Military Park, a 1,858-acre site which contains all areas involved in the siege of Vicksburg during the Civil War.

Site Office

Vicksburg National Military Park

3201 Clay Street

Vicksburg, MS 39183-3495

ph.: (601) 636-0583

Web site: www.nps.gov/vick/

e-mail: vick_interpretation@nps.gov

Vicksburg sits quietly atop a series of bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. During late 1862 and 1863, this quiet town rapidly became the heart of the Confederacy during the Civil War when Union troops repeatedly tried to capture Vicksburg in order to gain supremacy over river traffic. After more than fourteen months of attempts, Northern forces finally succeeded in breaking the spirit of the town; in retrospect, many identify Vicksburg’s fall as the beginning of the end of the South’s bid for independence from the United States.

Early History and Civil War

Vicksburg’s earliest history stretches back to 1790, when the Spanish founded Fort Nogales near the present-day site. In 1814, the Reverend Newit Vick chose the current site of the city, high upon bluffs stretching out toward the Mississippi River. When the Civil War began in 1861, Vicksburg was just one of many Mississippi River cities under the control of the Confederacy. Light fortifications guarded the city, but by the summer of 1862 Vicksburg and the surrounding area became the largest Confederate stronghold on the river.

Two events during 1862 set the stage for Vicksburg’s rise as a military bastion. In February, Union general Ulysses S. Grant captured Tennessee’s Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, leading to complete Union occupation of western Tennessee and the adjoining river. Two months later, Union flag officer David G. Farragut attacked and defeated the supposedly invincible Confederate forts at the mouth of the Mississippi to take New Orleans and control the southern entrance to the river.

As Vicksburg was the only rail and river junction left between Memphis and New Orleans (both now Union controlled), residents and Confederate leaders knew that Vicksburg was the Union’s next logical target. If the Union were to gain control, it could isolate the rich Confederate states of Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, and the border state of Missouri, which provided not only valuable supplies, but also strong secessionist support. In addition, the Union would control the rail line that connected the large northern cities to the Gulf of Mexico. Knowing that a battle was inevitable, some Vicksburg residents fled, but most stayed to fortify the town. The Confederates rushed troops to Vicksburg. They dug trenches, built guard walls, and constructed batteries of cannon on the bluffs, to cover land invasions and river movements.

The Union Campaign Against Vicksburg

The Union did strike quickly, sending the same force, under Farragut, that had captured New Orleans to Vicksburg. Boats began arriving on May 18, 1862, to try to take the city by shelling. Four days later, the onslaught began, but little damage was done because of the city’s position on the high bluffs.

Farragut realized almost instantly that the city could not be captured by shelling alone, but other tactics were not an option. Troops were unable to land on the west side of the river, due to the flooded river delta. Farragut had been given only two divisions of men, numbering about fifteen hundred. With the city as heavily guarded as it was, landing on the east side would be suicide. Faced with limited options that would yield few results, Farragut retreated back south down the river toward New Orleans.

President Abraham Lincoln and his War Department were unhappy with Farragut’s initial showing, and they ordered him to try another attack. This time, another fleet led by Flag Officer Charles C. Davis would meet Farragut and Commander David D. Porter’s mortar schooners from the north; the three together would shell the city heavily in the hope of weakening it enough to allow for a land attack.

With only three thousand troops this time, Farragut could do little but sail past the cannon batteries at Vicksburg and begin shelling the city again on June 27. By this time, the Confederate forces in and around the city numbered ten thousand. On July 1, Davis’s fleet met up with Farragut and Porter; for more than two weeks they shelled the city, but accomplished little.

To hamper Union activity further, the Confederates launched the gunboat Arkansas down the Yazoo toward Vicksburg. The boat sailed for only twenty-three days before being sunk, but it repeatedly hassled and damaged the Union fleet the entire time. Union commanders admitted that a naval assault alone was worthless; but with battle raging on in the east, there were not many troops the Union could spare for a land assault. Also, because of the summer’s heat and rampant disease, only eight hundred of Farragut’s three thousand troops were available for active duty.

Naval Bombardment

Over the sixty-seven days that Farragut and Davis stayed within range of Vicksburg, they used between twenty thousand and twenty-five thousand shells, yet the town reported only seven dead and fifteen wounded. After his second failed expedition, Farragut wrote that he believed it would take between twelve thousand and fifteen thousand troops to take the city over land–a number that in reality was probably much too low.

As Farragut retreated south again toward New Orleans and Davis drifted back north toward Memphis, the Confederates launched a minor land attack against the Union stronghold at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on August 5, only to be turned back. With the absence of Union gunboats, however, Confederate communication lines that had been cut were once again established, and the South controlled the river from Vicksburg to Port Hudson, Mississippi, a distance of about 250 river miles.

A New Plan to Take Vicksburg

Lincoln needed a new man to lead a full-scale assault on Vicksburg. In October he appointed Ulysses S. Grant, the taker of the Tennessee forts, to the command of the Department of the Tennessee forces. At the same time, John C. Pemberton, a Pennsylvania-born Confederate commander, was given command of the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, which put him in charge of the defense of Vicksburg. The two would cross each other’s paths with regularity over the next ten months. As Grant’s quest began, his front line extended along the northern border of Mississippi for two hundred miles.

Grant immediately began devising a multipronged attack against Vicksburg. Major General William Tecumseh Sherman would ferry his troops down the Mississippi on (now) Rear Admiral Porter’s fleet; Grant himself would drive a division into central Mississippi to confuse Pemberton into thinking he was attacking the city from the rear. Grant hoped he could draw enough of Pemberton’s troops away from the city so Sherman’s men could overwhelm the rest of the Confederate forces and establish themselves in the hills north of town. The final part of the plan included additional naval support from Farragut, sailing in once again from the south. For the North, the invasion gained even more importance when news came from the east in December–Union troops under Ambrose Burnside had been routed at Fredericksburg, Virginia, summarily ending any Northern hopes in the eastern theater until the spring of 1863.

In late November, Grant’s men began to move into central Mississippi; on December 20, Sherman and Porter made their move down the river. With little communication, the river forces assumed Grant was succeeding in his movements, but they were mistaken. Poor defenses at the Union supply depot at Holly Springs, Mississippi, had led to its capture by a group of 3,500 cavalrymen led by Confederate major general Earl Van Dorn. At the same time, another group led by Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest stormed across western Tennessee, interfering with Grant’s supply line on the Mobile and Ohio Railroad. With no supplies to back him, Grant decided to abandon his march and retreat, leaving Sherman without any land support. Seeing this, Pemberton brought the troops he had marched eastward to meet the invading Union troops back to Vicksburg to help guard the city.

There was no better news from Farragut. As troops sailed toward Vicksburg from the south, they encountered heavily fortified batteries at Port Hudson. Feeling they could not sail past the batteries without heavy losses, they instead opted to turn back. Without any of the help he thought he would have, Sherman had to go it alone.

Sherman’s Debacle

On December 29, Sherman launched his attack five miles north of Vicksburg at Chickasaw Bayou. The little dry ground available there was heavily covered with Confederate fire from the bluffs. Sherman forged ahead anyway, losing 1,700 men to only 200 for the Confederates. All of his assaults at these northern bluffs were completely repelled, forcing Sherman to retreat northward.

Following the debacle, Sherman was superseded in power by Major General John A. McClernand. In early January, 1863, McClernand led Sherman’s former troops and Porter’s fleet up the Arkansas River fifty miles from its junction with the Mississippi to attack Arkansas Post, a small Confederate shipping post and military stronghold. The fort was taken, but the attack did little in the long run to weaken Vicksburg.

Grant Takes Charge of the Assault

After regrouping, Grant launched another set of unsuccessful attempts at taking Vicksburg. On January 31, forty-five thousand of his men set out for Young’s Point, twenty miles north of Vicksburg on the west side of the Mississippi. For the next two and one-half months, Grant tried repeatedly to move his troops across the river onto dry ground where they could launch an attack. The Union troops tried several tacks, including building canals that would bypass the city’s batteries, but the waters rose and flooded the delta, swallowing up their work. Making matters worse was the exceptionally rainy winter of 1862-1863 that made any river crossing all the more difficult. By March, disease was spreading, the troops were weary, and some were calling for Grant’s ouster.

Pemberton, too, was not without difficulties. Though he was safely on the defensive, he had no idea where Grant would strike next, forcing him to defend a two hundred-mile line around the city in order to cover all the entrances. Covering such a wide area spread his troops very thin. Hampering Pemberton’s intelligence even further was the absence of any substantial navy for reconnaissance–Union troops moved freely about the river system and bayous without the Confederates knowing where they were.

For a man swirling in a storm of controversy, Grant devised a daring plan. This time he chose a circuitous route–marching his troops down the west side of the river and making his way through the bayous. Simultaneously, Porter was to sail a group of transport ships pulling supply barges past the dangerous batteries at Vicksburg, meet up with Grant at some point south of the city and transport the troops across the river. After establishing themselves on dry ground east of the river, Grant’s troops would loop back toward Vicksburg and attack the city from the rear. To confuse the Confederates, Sherman would launch a phony attack with 1,700 cavalrymen at the northern end of the city.

The daring aspect of the plan was that if the Union troops did make it across the river, they would cut themselves off from any further supplies or communication. After all the other more direct routes had failed, however, Grant had nothing to lose. His plan and early movements went undetected by the Confederates at Vicksburg, who had become complacent following their easy victory over Sherman in December.

The movements of McClernand’s corps southward began the operation on March 29. They were to build roads and bridges across the swampy waters in order to facilitate easier movements of the main army. A few days later, Porter and his fleet of six transports, towing twelve barges loaded with supplies headed down the river. Late on the night of April 15 the boats attempted to steal past the batteries under the cover of darkness. They were almost immediately discovered by the Confederates, who lit fires next to the river so the batteries would have a clear shot at the fleet. Even under a massive hail of fire, the boats successfully moved past the city, losing only one transport. Farther down the river, they met McClernand’s troops; the main portion of the army followed closely.

Grant first tried to land his troops at Grand Gulf, sixty river miles down from Vicksburg; however, it was too well fortified, and Grant was forced to go elsewhere. He finally found an acceptable landing site at Bruinsburg, about thirty land miles from the city. It was now April 30, nearly seven months from the time Grant had started the Vicksburg expedition.

Pemberton knew that the Union was planning a landing and attack, but could do little. Though there were now more than forty thousand Confederate troops in the area of Vicksburg, the Confederate general was unsure of Grant’s plan. He was forced to leave nearly twenty thousand of these men stationed at possible attack points around the city, leaving only twenty thousand troops to roam the area.

To secure his landing, Grant sent McClernand and twenty thousand troops toward Port Gibson, about twelve miles east of the river. There, McClernand met Confederate general John S. Bowen’s 7,500 men, beginning what would be the first battle on Grant’s march toward Vicksburg. Though severely outnumbered, Bowen’s men temporarily resisted the advance; they lost 790 men to the Union’s 850 before retreating to Grand Gulf. Fearing obliteration by Grant, the Confederates abandoned the Grand Gulf site shortly afterward, fleeing north to Vicksburg.

By landing at Bruinsburg, Grant had the added advantage of being below the east-west flowing Big Black River. Pemberton’s intelligence could not determine whether Grant was heading for the state capital of Jackson or would swing north toward Vicksburg, forcing the Confederate troops to remain thinly fanned out over a wide area. In addition, the Northern troops were protected on their left flank by the river. To aid Grant, a force of cavalrymen led by Colonel Benjamin Grierson was marching simultaneously throughout northern and central Mississippi, disrupting Confederate rail lines, supply lines, and communications.

Grant’s next move was indeed toward Jackson–he wanted to take the capital on his way to loop back for the rear assault on Vicksburg. Movements began on May 7. On the way, he met up with a small Confederate force led by General John Gregg at Raymond, a small crossroads town. Gregg’s troops numbered only three thousand–they too put up a brave effort before being chased eastward toward Jackson.

Jackson Falls

Confederate president Jefferson Davis knew of Grant’s successful march through Mississippi; to aid Pemberton, he began to send troops led by General Joseph E. Johnston toward Jackson. Grant moved quickly toward the capital, with his troops arriving there from the west and southwest on the morning of May 14. Johnston’s men arrived too late; there were only enough Confederate soldiers in Jackson at the time of Grant’s arrival to take what supplies they could and flee the city. From then on, Johnston would remain in the eastern portion of Mississippi, trying to assemble enough men to threaten the ever-growing Union force.

Grant ordered the capital destroyed; then his forces turned north. On May 16, they met up with twenty-three thousand of Pemberton’s men at Champion’s Hill who were moving from south to north, desperately trying to stop the Union march. Fierce fighting continued for four hours before the thirty-two thousand Union troops were able to overcome the Confederates, who retreated toward bridges at the Big Black River. Grant lost twenty-four hundred at Champion’s Hill, Pemberton thirty-six hundred. As waves of Union troops moved toward the Confederates at the Big Black, threatening to outflank and trap them, the Confederates retreated to Vicksburg, burning the bridges behind them. The bridges were replaced quickly and the march rolled on.

On May 15, worried about Vicksburg’s fate, Davis had summoned General Robert E. Lee to Richmond to discuss strategy. Davis suggested that Lee might want to send James Longstreet south to dislodge Grant, but Lee had another idea. His victory at Chancellorsville that month made him overconfident; he instead persuaded Davis to give the go-ahead for an attack into Pennsylvania, in the hopes of taking Philadelphia and Harrisburg on the way to Washington, D.C. If the Confederates were successful, they would force Grant to come to the aid of the northern capital, thus freeing Vicksburg.

Grant’s Direct Assault

On May 18, Grant’s troops arrived in Vicksburg. Confederate battalions had fanned out to fortify all nine possible entrances to the city. Over the next few days, Grant attacked the fortified positions, losing more than four thousand men in the process. Seeing the futility of an all-out assault, Grant opted to wait it out with a blockade, sending the city into a standstill. With Porter’s gunboats providing constant shelling and naval cover, he had the city surrounded.

As the siege continued into June, Grant ordered more reinforcements to his rear to protect against an assault from Johnston. As the city’s remaining residents and troops starved without supplies, Grant dug in deeper, holding Johnston at bay. With each passing day, life in the city became more difficult–residents were forced to dig shelters in the hills to avoid the constant shelling. Food and supplies were scarce; residents were driven to eating rats and birds for sustenance.

Vicksburg Finally Falls

His troops weakened by starvation and on the verge of revolt, Pemberton surrendered Vicksburg on July 4, 1863. On the same day, Lee’s invasion of the North had been checked at Gettysburg with heavy casualties and a forced retreat south. On July 5, Johnston received word of the city’s fall and on July 6, he retreated toward Jackson. The Union now controlled the Mississippi from mouth to source.

The combination of Confederate failures at Vicksburg and Gettysburg in July, 1863, was indeed the beginning of the end for the South; less than two years later the Confederacy would capitulate completely. Vicksburg’s residents remained defiant, though; they refused to celebrate July 4 for eighty-one years following their surrender, holding to the end that it was not the Union troops who had won at Vicksburg, but starvation.

Modern Preservation Efforts

The Vicksburg National Military Park today contains numerous markers explaining the battle and monuments to the men who died there. A Union gunboat, the USS Cairo, has been restored and is another feature of the military park. The city of Vicksburg also contains numerous antebellum homes in a variety of architectural styles, and many of these homes played roles in the war. The Duff Green Mansion, a Palladian-style home built in 1856, sustained shelling during the siege and was used as a hospital for both Union and Confederate forces during the siege and for the remainder of the war. McRaven, built in a combination of Frontier, Empire, and Greek Revival styles, also was a hospital and a Confederate campsite. Like many homes in Vicksburg, it bears battle scars and contains shell fragments. The 1840 Cedar Grove Mansion still has a Union cannonball lodged in a parlor wall. Anchuca, an 1830 Greek Revival mansion, was the site of a speech by Jefferson Davis.

For Further Information
  • National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. Vicksburg National Military Park, Mississippi. Rev. ed. Washington, D.C.: The Service, 1996. A guide distributed by the National Park Service. A good overview of the eighteen-month struggle for the city.
  • Ward, Geoffrey C. The Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990. A colorful and complete history of the conflict. The book formed the basis for a popular multipart television series.
  • Wheeler, Richard. The Siege of Vicksburg. Reprint. New York: HarperPerennial, 1991. Another detailed account of the battle, with testimony from eyewitnesses and key players.
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