Vicksburg: Grant’s Greatest Campaign

By Sherman Fleek USMA Historian

March 7th, 2019 | News, News and Features
  A map of the Vicksburg Campaign from April through July 1863.  Courtesy Graphic

President Abraham Lincoln famously declared in November 1861, that “Vicksburg is the key! The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket. We can take all the northern ports of the Confederacy, and they can defy us from Vicksburg.”
Early in the war, President Lincoln realized the importance of Vicksburg, a sleepy hamlet on the east side of the Mississippi River, which by 1863 was the most formidable bastion in the Confederacy and was Gen. Grant’s objective for nearly a year, which almost became an obsession with him.
Years later in his memoirs, Grant recalled, “Vicksburg was important to the enemy… So long as it (Vicksburg garrison) was held by the enemy, the free navigation of the (Mississippi) river was prevented. Hence its importance.”
Some scholars and many readers of Civil War history still place much significance on the Battle of Gettysburg, which ended in a Confederate defeat the day before Vicksburg surrendered to Grant on July 4, 1863.
The fact is, the war was fought and won in the western theater of operations where Grant came to dominate, whereas the great battles and blood-letting in the east, mainly in Virginia, was a 19th century stalemate like on the Western Front in World War I. The fall of Vicksburg did more to bring about the end of the war than did the battle at Gettysburg.
The difficulty of this campaign to capture the armed citadel at Vicksburg became a masterpiece of operational art. The central Mississippi landscape and terrain of a major river valley, many bayous and tributaries providing a vast area with many waterways and marsh lands was significant.
The ability to move tens of thousands of soldiers and hundreds of wagons through this terrain was very challenging without using naval riverboats and transports. Gen. Grant could have not succeeded without the U.S. Navy, using Adm. David Porter’s brown-water riverboat flotilla.
After Grant’s victory at Shiloh, he was roundly criticized by the press and even his superior, Gen. Henry Halleck in far off St. Louis, mainly due to two factors: first, Grant and his army was surprised by the Confederate attack; secondly, the casualties involved were so high that it shocked the nation, even President Lincoln.
Halleck, who graduated in the U.S. Military Academy Class of 1839, was a military theorist who had never seen combat, and was jealous of Grant’s ability and popularity after the capture at Fort Donelson.
Halleck joined Grant’s army in mid-April and with the re-organization of the Department of Mississippi took personal command of all three armies under his command. Grant was relegated to deputy commander, which was nothing more than a title with no real responsibilities and authority. Halleck led the armies forward, more than 110,000 men, to the Confederate railroad town of Corinth, Mississippi, at a lethargic pace of just a mile or two daily. Then each night the men would entrench their positions.
It took nearly a month to travel only 35 miles to Corinth. The Rebels had fled Corinth the day before the Federals arrived. Frustrated, Grant decided to resign and return home to Illinois to Julia. His comrade and later great friend, Gen. William T. Sherman, USMA Class of 1840, intervened and convinced Grant not to resign.
In July, President Lincoln appointed Halleck general-in-chief to command the  entire army from Washington and serve as chief military advisor to the president and Secretary of War, William Stanton. Grant was redeemed and took command of his old Army of the Tennessee and the Army of the Cumberland and served as chief of the District of Tennessee.
Grant’s new objective in the late summer of 1862 was Vicksburg, the strong Confederate garrison on the lower Mississippi. However, during this time Confederate raids delayed his advance for months as his depots at Holly Springs and western Tennessee had been attacked. Grant ordered Sherman to attempt an assault from the north against Vicksburg through the Chickasaw Bluffs in December.
With a full division, Sherman was repulsed by the strong enemy earthworks on the bluffs. This was Grant’s first campaign against Vicksburg. Eventually, Grant arrived near Vicksburg at his headquarters near Milken Bend.
Grant’s adversaries were not just the Confederates but a fellow Union general, John A. McClernand, an Illinois war Democrat and a friend of Abraham Lincoln.
Unwisely and for political reasons, Lincoln gave volunteer general McClernand command of the expedition to take Vicksburg regardless of Grant’s overall command of the department and the field armies.
For several weeks, the unity of command and who was really in-charge of the campaign caused confusion. When Grant learned of McClernand’s secret machinations and orders, he was furious. But Grant allowed time and caution to be his tools. Finally, Secretary Stanton, who disliked and distrusted McClernand, convinced Lincoln to appoint Grant as sole commander.
From January to April 1863, Grant made no less than five additional attempts to capture Vicksburg—they all failed. The hope was to either avoid the fortified Vicksburg bluffs some 200 feet above the river with the heavy artillery that would rain down on the Union gunboats and transports.Some of his attempts included:
• Digging a canal through the river bend across from the Vicksburg defenses; dropped by March.
• Open a channel from the Mississippi to Lake Providence, then rivercraft could then reach the Red River through bayous proved too small for large transports; given up late March.
• Yazoo Pass Expedition, north of Vicksburg, a long circuitous route of 200 miles along the Yazoo River. Dikes were blown up in early February to connect the Mississippi and Yazoo, but thick trees and brush impeded the boats; besides Confederates felled hundreds of trees as obstacles; ended in early April.
• Steele’s Bayou Expedition on the east bank was led by Adm. Porter, but again the heavy brush, forests and shallow waterways hampered the route. It was abandoned in April.
• The Duckport canal project to connect the Mississippi with bayous on the west bank. The water levels were too low to support the transports; project abandoned on April 6.
Grant finally decided that if Porter could run the Confederate gauntlet with his gunboats and transports, then the Army would march his forces to the river crossings below Vicksburg.
On the night of April 16, Porter’s flotilla dashed past the immense defenses on the bluffs and lost only a couple small craft.
By April 30, Grant was transferring his 44,000 soldiers across the river using Porter’s transports and gunboats. What occurred next, in roughly three weeks, was an amazing operational feat and a text-book example of leadership and decisiveness at great risk that is now a hallmark in American military history.
By May 19, 1863, Grant’s army was at the trenchworks of Vicksburg, which was completely surrounded, cutting off the 30,000 troops and thousands of civilians.
Before then, Grant faced separate parts of three Confederate armies and defeated them in five battles and also swiftly marched some 120 miles or more, capturing Jackson the capital of Mississippi while losing minimal casualties.
He unwisely made a direct assault on the Vicksburg defenses on May 22, losing some, 3,200 men.
Then Grant waited and finally on July 4, fellow USMA graduate of 1837, Pennsylvania-born, John Pemberton, surrendered citadel Vicksburg.
The Vicksburg Campaign was Grant’s brilliant masterpiece which propelled him again on the national scene.
The U.S. Army Field Manual, 100-5, Operations, published in 1986, declared that Grant’s campaign “was the most brilliant ever fought on American soil.”
(Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series on Ulysses Grant until his statue dedication at West Point on April 25.)