The siege of Vicksburg

In the autumn of 1862 Grant made his first efforts towards his projected reduction of Vicksburg. His army was now large, and he advanced, driving Pemberton, the Confederate commander at Vicksburg, before him. Sherman was sent with a strong force to march down the Mississippi, while Grant moved by an inland route, to take the city in the rear. His scheme was frustrated by an unforeseen event. Holly Springs had been established as his depot of supplies. Van Dorn, with the Confederate cavalry, made a rapid movement to Grant's rear, and captured this place, then guarded by only a single regiment, on December 20. The vast stores that had been accumulated, valued at more than two millions of dollars, were destroyed by fire. Grant was forced to give up his overland route, and move to the river.

In the mean time, Sherman had reached the vicinity of Vicksburg. At this locality a line of high bluffs border the river, with but a narrow space between them and the stream. The Yazoo River joins the Mississippi above the city, while the surrounding soil is cut by numerous deep bayous, and the low lands are very swampy. A fortified line, fifteen miles in length, had been constructed along the bluffs. Sherman made a strong but ineffectual assault upon the fortifications, and found that the Confederates were being reinforced so rapidly, while he was surrounded with such difficulties, that he was obliged to abandon the expedition. The only success gained was the reduction of a stronghold on the Arkansas River, which had served as a basis for steamboat expeditions against his line of supplies. Here five thousand prisoners and much valuable material were taken.

The fortifications at Vicksburg were now strengthened until it became an exceedingly strong post. Grand Gulf and Port Hudson, farther down the river, were also fortified. Against these strong-holds the efforts of the Western armies were now mainly directed. General Banks, aided by Farragut's fleet, entered upon the siege of Port Hudson, while Grant put forward all his strength against Vicksburg, assisted by the gunboats under Admiral Porter. The Army of the Tennessee now numbered one hundred and thirty thousand men, of whom fifty thousand men took part in the expedition against Vicksburg. Porter had a fleet of sixty vessels, carrying two hundred and eighty guns and eight hundred men.

Grant arrived and took command of the expedition on January 30, 1863. The first plan of operations adopted was to dig a canal across the neck of land made by a wide bend in the river at Vicksburg, with the hope that the Mississippi would take this new course and abandon the city. Two months were spent on this, yet a rise in the river rendered the labor unavailing, by overflowing all the surrounding space. Then strenuous efforts were made to transport the fleet and army below Vicksburg by way of the bayous and larger streams that bordered the river. Efforts of this kind were made both east and west of the river, but in both cases without success. The surrounding country meanwhile was so overflowed and marshy as to interfere greatly with land-operations. It was next determined to run the batteries with the fleet. The night of the 16th of April was fixed for this exploit. It was achieved with much greater success than had been expected. Several of the vessels were wrecked, but the great bulk of the fleet passed in safety. A land-force had been sent down west of the river, to meet the vessels. The next project was to attack the fortifications at Grand Gulf, fifty miles below. An assault by the fleet on this place proved futile. A land-force was then carried across the river, which attacked and carried Port Gibson and defeated several detachments in the field. The successes thus gained rendered Grand Gulf untenable, and it was evacuated, and taken possession of by Grant's army.

It was now early May. Three months had been spent in the operations against Vicksburg, and it was still as far from capture as ever. Grant's whole army was now in the vicinity of Grand Gulf, and a new system of operations was adopted. Cutting loose from all lines of communication, he marched out into the open country, determined to subsist his army on the people, defeat all the defenders of Vicksburg in the field, and carry that place by assault from the rear. General J. E. Johnston commanded the Confederate forces in the field, and several engagements ensued, in all of which the Union army was successful. The city of Jackson was captured, and Pemberton, who marched out from Vicksburg to co-operate with Johnston, was defeated and forced to retreat to his intrenchments. Grant rapidly pursued, and on the 19th of May took possession of the outer works of the Vicksburg lines, definitely shutting the enemy within his fortifications. The important post of Haines' Bluff was taken, and communication opened with the fleet.

The campaign had lasted twenty days. In that time Grant had marched two hundred miles, beaten two armies in five successive battles, captured twenty-seven heavy cannon and sixty-one pieces of field-artillery, taken six thousand five hundred prisoners, and killed and wounded about six thousand men. He had forced the evacuation of Grand Gulf, seized Jackson, the State capital, destroyed thirty miles of railroad, and ended by investing the strong-hold of Vicksburg. Starting with two days' rations, he had subsisted his army on the country, and reached his goal with a loss in all of four thousand three hundred and thirty-five men.

Taking it for granted that Pemberton's men were in no condition for an effective resistance, an assault was immediately made on the works, and another on the 22d, both of which were repulsed, the Union forces losing heavily. The works proving far too strong, and the approaches too difficult, for success by this method, siege-operations were determined on, and ground was broken on the 23d of May. Of the events which succeeded we select a description of the more interesting particulars from Badeau's "Military History of Ulysses S. Grant."]

GRANT had now about forty thousand men for duty, and, on the 23d, orders were given for the axe and the shovel to support the bayonet. The hot season was at hand, the troops had already endured many hardships, they were almost altogether unprovided with siege-material: so that the difficulties before the national army were not only for midable, but peculiar. The engineer organization was especially defective: there were no engineer troops in the entire command, and only four engineer officers, while twenty would have found ample opportunity for all their skills. Several pioneer companies of volunteers were, however, used for engineering purposes, and, although raw at first, became effective before the close of the siege. There were no permanent depots of siege-material; spades and picks were kept at the steamboat-landing on the Yazoo, and in the camps near the trenches; gabions and fascines were made as they were needed, by the pioneer companies, or by details of troops from the line. Grant's artillery was simply that used during the campaign, with the addition of a battery of naval guns of larger calibre, loaned him by Admiral Porter. There was nothing like a siege-train in all the West, no light mortars, and very few siege-howitzers nearer than Washington; and there was not time to send to Northern arsenals for supplies. With such material and means the siege of Vicksburg was begun.

Camps were made for the men, most of them within six hundred yards of the Confederate parapets. Stores were accumulated at the landing, and roads and covered ways opened from camp to camp.

The first ground was broken on the 23d of May, and batteries placed in the most advantageous positions to keep down the enemy's fire. Lines of parapet, rifle-trench, and covered way were then constructed to connect these batteries. The enemy seldom showed his guns, hardly attempting, indeed, to prevent the besiegers from getting their artillery into position; for the slightest exposure or demonstration on the part of the rebels excited the liveliest fire from the national batteries, and the advantage was always in favor of the latter, as they could bring to bear a much larger number of guns than the enemy. This, and the remarkable activity and vigilance of Grant's sharp-shooters, in a great measure kept down the fire of the besieged. The enemy, however, was undoubtedly scant of ammunition, and anxious to husband what he had, for more effective use at closer quarters.

The connecting parapets, as well as all other available positions within rifle-range, were kept occupied by a line of sharp-shooters during daylight, and by trench-guards and advanced pickets after dark. Whenever an approach gave opportunity, loop-holes were formed, by piling sandbags and pieces of square timber on the parapets, or logs and stumps when these were more convenient: the men were thus enabled to shelter themselves completely. This timber was rarely displaced by the enemy's fire; but, had the rebel artillery opened heavily, splinters must have become dangerous to the besiegers. The positions of the national sharp-shooters were generally quite as elevated as those occupied by the rebels; and the approaches, running along the hill-sides and up the slopes in front of the enemy's works, were lower than the besieged, so that the sappers and working parties could not be molested by the rebels without very great exposure on their own part to sharp-shooters of the attacking force. So effective was this system that by the end of the first fortnight nearly all the artillery of the enemy was either dismounted or withdrawn, and the rebels scarcely ever fired.

Pioneers and negroes did the greater part of the work, which was mainly left to men ignorant of siege-operations and obliged to depend on their native ingenuity. Yet the Yankee fertility of resource stood the workers in good stead. Gabions and fascines were made of grapevine and split cane, and mortars for close service were made of wooden cylinders with iron bands shrunk on them. The parapets were made but six or eight feet thick, on account of the feeble nature of the enemy's fire, the embrasures being closed, when not firing, by plank shutters or movable timbers. The ground was seared by ravines, rugged and difficult, but this condition aided the rapid advance of the works.

The aggregate length of the trenches was twelve miles. Eighty-nine batteries were constructed during the siege, the guns from those in the rear being moved forward as the siege advanced. The troops were moved on at the same time, and encamped in the rear of batteries, at the heads of ravines. On the 30th of June there were in position two hundred and twenty guns, mostly light field-pieces; one battery of heavy guns, on the right, was manned and officered by the navy. .

While the investment of Vicksburg was thus proceeding, the menacing attitude of Johnston had early attracted Grant's attention, and made it necessary to establish a strong corps of observation in the rear. . . . It was soon learned that Johnston had been joined by at least ten thousand fresh troops; and Grant was thus made reasonably certain that the rebels would endeavor to raise the siege, attacking from the northeast, with all the men they could command. . . . On the 26th [of May] Grant sent a force of twelve thousand men, under Blair, to drive off a body of the enemy supposed to be collecting between the Big Black River and the Yazoo. This command was not expected to fight Johnston, but simply to act as a corps of observation, and to destroy all forage, stock, roads, and bridges as it returned. Blair moved along the Yazoo about forty-five miles, and effectually accomplished the purpose of his expedition, preventing Johnston from moving upon Vicksburg in that direction, and also from drawing supplies in the fertile region between the two rivers. He was absent nearly a week, and reconnoitred the whole region thoroughly.

On the 31st Grant wrote, "It is now certain that Johnston has already collected a force from twenty thousand to twenty-five thousand strong at Jackson and Canton, and is using every effort to increase it to forty thousand. With this he will undoubtedly attack Haines' Bluff and compel me to abandon the investment of the city, it not reinforced before he can get here." Admiral Porter was accordingly requested to direct a brigade of amphibious and useful troops at his disposal, known as the Marine Brigade, to debark at Haines' Bluff and hold the place until relieved by other forces. . . . On the 7th [of June] the enemy, nearly three thousand strong, attacked Milliken's Bend, which, however, was successfully defended by black and white troops under Brigadier-General Dennis, ably assisted by the gunboats Choctaw and Lexington.

On the 8th of June another division of troops, under Brigadier-General Sooy Smith, arrived from Memphis, and was ordered to Haines' Bluff, where Washburne was now placed in command. This place had again become of vital importance; for if the national forces should be compelled to raise the siege, and yet remain in possession of Haines' Bluff, with undisputed control of the Mississippi River, they could still concentrate resources for a new effort, either against the city itself or its means of supply.

This bluff lies on the Yazoo, northeast of Vicksburg. It is very precipitous, and commands the approach to Vicksburg from the north. Below this river the bluffs border a broad alluvial space, cut by numerous streams, until they touch the Mississippi at Vicksburg, twelve miles below. Johnston, as soon as he learned that Pemberton had been driven into Vicksburg and lost his hold on this commanding point, had ordered him to evacuate the city, as no longer tenable, and thus save his troops. Pemberton declined to do this, until the extension of Grant's lines from river to river around the city rendered it impossible. Haines' Bluff was now ordered to be strongly fortified and obstinately held. Reinforcements continued to arrive until Grant's force amounted to seventy-five thousand men.

On the 21st of June, Grant received curious information through the rebel pickets: the national works had now approached so close to those of the besieged that the two picket-lines were within hail of each other; and one of the rebels made an agreement with a national sentinel that they should lay down their arms and have a talk. The rebel declared that Grant's cannonading had killed and wounded a great many in the rifle-pits; that the besieged had fully expected another assault, and been prepared to meet it; but, as no assault was made, the troops had been canvassed by their officers, to see if they could not be got outside to attack the "Yankees." Not only was this declined, but many were ready to mutiny because their officers would not surrender. The men, however, were reassured, and told that provisions enough remained to last them seven days more: in that time two thousand boats would be built, and the besieged could escape by crossing the Mississippi River. The rebel finished by announcing that houses in Vicksburg were now being torn down to get material for the boats.

This singular story excited attention, and preparations were made to render abortive any such attempt at escape as had been described. Admiral Porter was warned, the pickets were redoubled at night, and material was collected to light up the river should a large number of boats attempt to cross. Batteries also were got ready behind the levee on the western bank; but the attempt was never made.

On the 22d information was received that Johnston was crossing the Big Black River, with the intention to march upon Grant. Sherman was sent out with a strong force to confront him.

A line of works was now constructed from the Yazoo to the Big Black River, quite as strong as those which defended Vicksburg, so that the city was not only circumvallated, but countervallated as well. In case of an attack, Johnston would have been obliged to assault Grant's rear, under the same disadvantages that Grant himself had encountered in attacking Vicksburg. Grant's position, however, was at this time peculiar, if not precarious. He was again between two large rebel armies: besieging one, he was himself threatened with a siege by the other; while, if both combined to assault him from different sides, it seemed quite possible that the garrison of Vicksburg, that splendid prize for which he had been so long struggling, might even yet elude his grasp. He might be compelled to throw so much strength on his eastern front that the besieged could succeed in effecting their escape by some opposite and comparatively unguarded avenue. To prevent this contingency was the object of unceasing vigilance. It would not do to go out after Johnston, lest the prey inside should evade the toils that had been spread so carefully; and yet, while Grant remained in his trenches enveloping the city, his own communications and base were threatened from outside. Haines' Bluff was once more an object of immense solicitude, and the Big Black had again become the line of defence; but this time it was a defence to national troops against the rebels; for Grant now, in part, faced east, and the men of the South were striving to fight their way to the Mississippi.

Johnston had written to Pemberton on May 29 that he was too weak to save him without co-operation on his part. On June 14 he wrote him, "By fighting the enemy simultaneously at the same points of his line, you may be extricated: our joint forces cannot raise the siege of Vicksburg."

The garrison, meanwhile, was suffering for supplies. Pemberton was particularly short of percussion-caps, and his scouts contrived, occasionally, to elude the pickets of Grant and transmit this information to Johnston. Supplies, in consequence, were sent as far as Grant's lines, but were generally captured; in several instances, however, caps were successfully conveyed to the besieged, sometimes two hundred thousand at a time, canteens full of caps being carried by rebel scouts in the national uniform and suddenly thrown across the picket-line. After the assaults in May, the ammunition scattered in the trenches was collected by the rebels, and even the cartridge-boxes of the dead, in front of the works, were emptied.

The meat-ration was reduced by Pemberton at first to one-half, but that of sugar, rice, and beans, at the same time, largely increased. Tobacco for chewing was impressed, and issued to the troops. After a while, all the cattle in Vicksburg was impressed, and the chief commissary was instructed to sell only one ration a day to any officer. At last four ounces of rice and four of flour were issued for bread,--not half a ration. Still, on the 10th of June, Pemberton sent word to Johnston, "I shall endeavor to hold out as long as we have anything to eat. Can you not send me a verbal message by carrier, crossing the river above or below Vicksburg, and swimming across again, opposite Vicksburg? I have heard nothing of you or from you since the 25th of May." In the same despatch he said, "Enemy bombard night and day from seven mortars. He also keeps up constant fire on our lines with artillery and musketry." On the 15th, "We are living on greatly-reduced rations, but I think sufficient for twenty days yet.". .

The price of food in the town had by this time risen enormously. Flour was five dollars a pound, or a thousand dollars a barrel (rebel money); meal was one hundred and forty dollars a bushel; molasses, ten and twelve dollars a gallon; and beef (very often oxen killed by the national shells and picked up by the butchers) was sold at two dollars and two dollars and a half by the pound. Mule-meat sold at a dollar a pound, and was in great demand. Many families of wealth had eaten the last mouthful of food they possessed, and the poorer class of non-combatants was on the verge of starvation. There was scarcely a building that had not been struck by shells, and many were entirely demolished. A number of women and children had been killed or wounded by mortar-shells, or balls; and all who did not remain in the damp caves of the hill-sides were in danger. Even the hospitals where the wounded lay were sometimes struck, for it was found impossible to prevent occasional shells falling on the buildings, which of course would have been sacred from an intentional fire.

Fodder was exhausted, and the horses were compelled to subsist wholly on corn-tops, the corn being all ground into meal for the soldiers. In the conversations that nightly occurred between the pickets, the rebels were always threatened with starvation, even if another assault should fail. For the pickets of both armies were good-natured enough, and often sat down on the ground together, bragging of their ability to whip each other. . . . Incidents like these relieved the tedium of the siege to those outside, and lessened some of its horrors for the rebels. A favorite place for the meetings was at a well attached to a house between the lines: hither, after dark, the men from both sides repaired, slipping outside their pickets in search of the delicious draught; for water was scarce, and at this point there was none other within a mile. The house was unoccupied, having been riddled with shot from both besiegers and besieged, and over the broken cistern the rebel and national soldiers held their tacit truce, a truce which neither ever violated.

Mining and countermining were now attempted. Grant fired a heavy mine on the 25th of June. It made a deep crater, into which the troops rushed. But the Confederates had suspected the intention, and withdrawn to an inner line, and no important advantage was gained. On July 1 another mine was sprung. This blew up an entire redan, and injured the inner Confederate works. No assault, however, was made, the last having proved so ineffective.

A continuous siege, and a mighty battle imminent. A citadel surrounded by land and water. The bombardment almost incessant. The beleaguered garrison reduced to quarter rations; living on mule-meat, and thinking it good fare. The population of the town hiding in caves to escape the storm of mortar-shells exploding in their streets. A squadron thundering at their gates, by night as well as by day. Mines trembling beneath their feet. What rare news came from Johnston far from cheering; all hope indeed of succor quite cut off. Ammunition almost expended. The lines of the besieger contracting daily; his approaches getting closer, his sharp-shooters more accurate; his sap-rollers steadily rising over the hills that Vicksburg had proudly declared impassable. Every day some new battery opening from an unexpected quarter; every day the position detected from which to-morrow still another battery would surely begin its fire. To crown all, after a few more contractions of the coil, another mighty assault would bring the enemy immediately beneath the walls, when, covered by their works, and more numerous than the besieged, the assailants, in every human probability, would storm the town, and all the unutterable horrors to which fallen cities are exposed might come upon the devoted fortress.

By the 1st of July the approaches in many places had reached the enemy's ditch. At ten different points Grant could put the heads of regiments under cover, within distances of from five to one hundred yards of the rebel works, and the men of the two armies conversed across the lines. The hand-to-hand character of the recent fighting showed that little further progress could be made by digging alone, and Grant accordingly determined to make the final assault on the morning of the 6th of July. Orders were issued to prepare the heads of approaches for the easy debouche of troops, to widen the main approaches so that the men could move easily by fours, and to prepare planks and sand-bags filled with pressed cotton, for crossing ditches.

Johnston was moving up at the same time. On the night of the 1st he encamped between Brownsville and the Big Black River, and on the 3d sent word to Pemberton that about the 7th of the month an attempt to create a diversion would be made, to enable the garrison to cut its way out. This attack, however, was never made. The movement to Brownsville was the last operation undertaken for the relief or the defence of Vicksburg.

On the morning of July 3, Pemberton wrote to Grant, proposing an armistice, in order to arrange terms for the capitulation of the city. Grant replied that "the useless effusion of blood you propose stopping by this course can be ended at any time you may choose, by the unconditional surrender of the city and garrison." After some further debate, in which Pemberton protested against the stringency of these terms, and desired that his men should be permitted to march out with their muskets and field-guns, he agreed to Grant's proposal, the latter promising to parole his prisoners. Ten o'clock on the morning of the 4th of July was fixed as the hour of the surrender. Sherman was directed to march against Johnston the moment the surrender should be consummated.

At ten o'clock of Saturday, the 4th of July, the anniversary of American independence, the garrison of Vicksburg marched out of the lines it had defended so long, and stacked its arms in front of the conquerors. All along the rebel works they poured out, in gray, through the sally-ports and across the ditches, and laid down their colors, sometimes on the very spot where so many of the besiegers had laid down their lives; and then, in sight of the national troops, who were standing on their own parapets, the rebels returned inside the works, prisoners of war. Thirty-one thousand six hundred men were surrendered to Grant. Among these were two thousand one hundred and fifty-three officers, of whom fifteen were generals. One hundred and seventy-two cannon also fell into his hands, the largest capture of men and material ever made in war.

On the 8th of July, as soon as the news of the surrender of Vicksburg had reached the defenders of Port Hudson, that place surrendered to Banks, and the Mississippi, from its source to the sea, became once more a highway of the United States of America.

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