The Vicksburg campaign and siege, December 1862 – July 1863, was unique for the Civil War in its complexity, spanning six months and thousands of square miles. In the final phase of the campaign Grant displayed an obvious intuition—reading his opponent thoroughly and adjusting his plans accordingly—in marked contrast to his earlier, unimaginative pummeling of Johnston’s forces at Shiloh. Although the battle of Gettysburg receives more attention, Vicksburg was the key Union victory of the American Civil War.
Like any other military operation Grant’s campaign to seize Vicksburg was heavily influenced by the geographical nature of the area of operations. The city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, was strategically located on the eastern side of a particularly sharp hairpin turn in the Mississippi River formed by the five mile long De Soto point. The Walnut Hills stretched north of Vicksburg running roughly parallel to the Yazoo River, which emptied into the Mississippi about ten miles north of Vicksburg. The city itself was ringed by rough terrain and high ground suited to the defense and easily reinforced with entrenchments. All around Vicksburg were rivers, swamps, and high ground making it a formidable area to assault: to the south, the Big Bayou and swamps, to the north, the swampy region and bluffs between the Yazoo River and Chickasaw Bayou, as well as the hilly and broken ground northeast of the city between the Chickasaw Bayou and the railroad leading to Jackson. Smaller rivers and swamps covered most of the remaining approaches to the city. More than anything else Vicksburg owed its significant defensive strength to the rough and broken terrain surrounding its borders.
In addition to the natural barriers that protected Vicksburg were the numerous entrenchments added by the Confederates. Fortified, well emplaced batteries situated on high bluffs over-watched the approaches to the city. After the Confederates demonstrated their ability to cut off any drive south to take Vicksburg from the east side of the Mississippi, Grant was resigned to operate against Vicksburg—at least initially—from the west side of the River. The winding course of the Mississippi both north and south of Vicksburg only served to push an attacking army approaching from the west away from the objective. For such a well situated fortification as Vicksburg to be taken would require sustained pressure, determined yet flexible leadership, applied over a long duration. As fate would have it Grant was just the kind of leader the Union needed to accomplish the mission.
Major General Ulysses S. Grant had only recently taken command of the Army of the Tennessee (mid-October 1862) before setting Vicksburg as his objective. Despite his own recollection of the campaign given in his memoirs, it is clear that Grant’s campaign plan evolved significantly over the months between Chickasaw Bluffs and the ultimate surrender of General Pemberton’s army occupying Vicksburg. However, through all of the changes in plan, Grant displayed a remarkable ability to never lose sight of the ultimate objective: Vicksburg and Union control of the Mississippi.
Grant’s Army of the Tennessee consisted of four corps: Sherman’s XV Corps, Major General John A. McClernand’s XIII Corps, Major General James B. McPherson’s XVII Corps, and XVI Corps. Although Grant began the campaign with significant numbers overall, a large percentage of soldiers were tied up conducting rear area security operations guarding railroads and supply depots. Raiding Confederate cavalry had made security of lines of communication a necessary nuisance though it drained needed combat power from the maneuvering forces.
Both sides had access to small numbers of cavalry but only Grant used his to full effect. Confederate Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton had access at the start of the campaign to over six thousand cavalry, though most of it irregular. This number of Rebel cavalry would have given Pemberton a significant opportunity to gather intelligence on troop movements and made it easier to assess Grant’s aims but as it turned out, too many of these cavalry companies were tied up chasing an elusive Union target.
The actions and achievements of Grant’s faithful subordinates were keys to his ultimate success. (The insubordinate McClernand stands as a glaring exception to this point.) Sherman, a proven combat leader at Shiloh, launched a diversionary attack against Snyder’s Bluff north of Vicksburg, allowing Grant to reach his real crossing point at Bruinsburg some forty miles south of Vicksburg. Major General McPherson was also a focused and determined battlefield commander who served Grant very well during the Vicksburg campaign. Colonel Grierson was another trusted subordinate who led a key, diversionary cavalry raid, 17 April – 2 May, from La Grange, Tennessee, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The raid thoroughly confused the Confederate command by circling completely around Vicksburg to the east through Decatur, Gallatin, and Union Church.
With only 1,700 troopers, but using multiple small detachments to deceive the Confederates, Colonel Grierson caused enough concern that Confederates were tied up trying to capture or block the escape of the elusive cavalrymen. Later on in the raid, Pemberton believed Grierson was heading for Grand Gulf on the Mississippi, so he ordered seven cavalry companies to find and destroy the enemy horsemen. An ambush near Union Station failed when Grierson learned of the plan and set off to Brookhaven. After defeating three companies at Wall’s Bridge, Grierson and his troopers raced for Baton Rouge where the raid finally ended. The hard-charging Union troopers had covered six hundred miles in sixteen days. More importantly, cavalry that could have been giving Pemberton key intelligence back around Vicksburg were instead chasing Grierson around the Mississippi heartland. Grant acknowledged the key role Grierson’s raid played in the campaign as a shaping operation aimed at deceiving the enemy.
Vicksburg was a key supply center and thriving commercial hub for the Confederacy. It also served as a vital link between the Trans-Mississippi area and the Eastern half of the Confederate States. The Confederates valued Vicksburg because it was a key strongpoint that thwarted Union control and use of the Mississippi River. Union control of the Mississippi would allow Federal armies to envelop the Confederate States and penetrate deep into the heartland of the South. Control of the Mississippi River was a Union objective exceeded in importance only by the avoidance of European intervention and retention of the border states.
Grant’s accomplishments during the Vicksburg campaign were primarily confined to the operational level. His employment of multiple, sometimes complex shaping operations, such as Grierson’s deep raid and the use of Navy gunships on the Mississippi, along converging lines of operation was exceptional. His ability to maneuver and combine his forces in such a way as to have a decisive superiority at the time and place of decision was remarkable. This was true despite several sharp tactical reversals. Grant’s victory at Vicksburg proved that he was a skilled practitioner of operational art.
Grant resorted to an astonishing array of options in his fight to subdue the enemy army entrenched at Vicksburg. The campaign saw early, successful attempts at cooperation between Army and Navy forces, especially in the use of gunships to cover the crossing of two army corps by ferry at Bruinsburg during the final drive against Vicksburg from the south and east. In addition, extreme attempts to find a technical answer to the problem of reaching Vicksburg with a sizeable army led to an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to build a canal across the De Soto point to arrive just south of the city. Also, unsuccessful attempts were made to open channels to the north of Vicksburg that would take Grant’s army to the objective from the east. Through all these sometimes frustrating attempts Grant proved his ability to remain focused on the objective.
The events of the Vicksburg campaign can be broken into several distinct phases defined by Grant’s initial failed attempts to maneuver his army against the city and Pemberton’s forces. Key to understanding the flow of events is the fact that Grant did not have a complete plan of campaign in mind when he made his initial move south to take the city. The plan evolved but it evolved in stages according to changing circumstances, not Grant’s indecision or lack of clarity of what the ultimate objective was: the capture of Vicksburg.
Early in November 1862 Grant began the march south from Tennessee by sending his center toward Holly Springs, Mississippi. By late November he was approaching the Tallahatchee River crossings. In early December he crossed the Tallahatchee and occupied Oxford, where he halted the advance along the Yacona. Confederate cavalry under Forrest and Van Dorn launched into action and destroyed the supply depot at Holly Springs which made any further advance south by Union forces problematic. Over New Year’s, Grant was forced to withdraw back across the Tallahatchee, arriving at Memphis on 10 January. The first phase of the campaign culminated with the especially bitter Union defeat at Chickasaw Bluffs. There Sherman was repulsed on 29 December 1862 with heavy losses (1,776 to 207 Confederates) after trying to reach Vicksburg from the Yazoo River. These reverses ended Grant’s first Vicksburg campaign.
During the first quarter of 1863 Grant made four separate attempts to turn Vicksburg: by way of Lake Providence, a canal operation, Steele’s Bayou, and the Yazoo Pass. Next Grant planned a wide envelopment from the south and east that would use multiple diversionary shaping operations to divide Pemberton’s attention and force him to react to multiple, mutually supporting operations. On 16 April, in the first decisive event of the campaign, Union gunboats successfully passed the Vicksburg batteries. Between 30 April and 1 May, Grant succeeded in getting two corps across the Mississippi at Bruinsburg, located south of Grand Gulf and Bayou Pierre.
On 1 May, at the Battle of Port Gibson, while Grant was still south of Bayou Pierre and a ways from Vicksburg, Confederates under the capable command of Brigadier General Bowen were forced to surrender Grand Gulf. Grant immediately made it into his supply base for the upcoming campaign. On 12 May, at the Battle of Raymond, located along Fourteen Mile Creek near the junction of the Utica and Gallatin roads, the Confederates were forced to retreat all the way to the Jackson defenses under the control of General Johnston. This development made Grant change his mind and move on Jackson next instead of Edwards and Bolton as he had originally planned. Two days later, 14 May, at the so-called Battle of Jackson, Union forces faced a delaying action by Confederates after Johnston decided that the size of his force was too small and the entrenchments at Jackson too inadequate to make a defense of the city practicable. With that decision Johnston also allowed Grant to successfully split the two enemy armies. At the Battle of Champion Hill, 16 May, Grant decisively beat Pemberton; Union forces occupied the field of battle that night. Grant had prevented the union of Pemberton’s and Johnston’s armies and forced the former back into Vicksburg. The next day Pemberton’s forces fought a rearguard action at the Battle of Black River Bridge. On 19 May, Union forces conducted their first assault on Vicksburg which failed and temporarily boosted the morale of Pemberton’s isolated army. A second assault on Vicksburg, carried out on 22 May, convinced Grant to give up on taking the city by direct action. He then ordered his subordinates to begin siege operations.
The campaign was effectively over on 3 July with the first meeting of Grant and Pemberton to discuss Confederate capitulation. The next day Grant was able to write Halleck that the Rebel army in Vicksburg had surrendered.
Grant had maneuvered his forces in such a way as to have a decisive superiority in combat power at five battles in the field since his daring cross to the east bank of the River. The Vicksburg campaign and the critical period from 30 April and 19 May sealed Grant’s reputation as a great strategist—or more correctly, a master of operational art. Grant exploited both the path of least expectation and the use of interior lines—his penetration to a location between Vicksburg and Jackson has been called “Napoleonic.” Grant first wanted to march directly on Vicksburg, but after learning that a second Confederate army was located at Jackson—Johnston’s—Grant decided to quickly march northeast and put his own army between the two wings of the enemy.
The Vicksburg campaign included an exceptional example of an army succeeding by recourse to the path of least expectation. Once Grant had maneuvered his forces across to the east side of the Mississippi and had marched northeast between two fortified location—Port Hudson and Vicksburg—his key subordinate and confidant Sherman believed Grant was courting disaster. But Grant was able to view his position as an opportunity because he knew he was using the path of least expectation. Grant got inside the enemy’s mind and dominated his decision cycle. Especially after the final crossing of the Mississippi, Grant forced Pemberton to react until his several corps were in a position to begin besieging the city. In concert with other diversionary operations he was sure Pemberton would not clearly see his intentions until it was too late. Grant also used numerous diversions and feints to achieve his objective. In one example, once Grant had made up his mind that he would attempt to cross the river south of Vicksburg, he left Sherman’s XV Corps north of the city, at Milliken’s Bend as a feint.
Grant’s energy during the Vicksburg campaign reminds one of Patton during the Ardennes campaign driving around in his open-top jeep, face frozen from the cold and wind. Patton suffered for sure but understood the immense and intangible effect he was having on the fighting soldiers just by being seen by them at the front. Grant moved to the point on the battlefield where his judgment and intuition told him he could make the right influence. Like many great American military leaders—such as MacArthur—Grant was trailed by a long-standing impression that he was the kind of leader who would be up front, leading his men from the front, sharing in their hardships and dangers. Grant was thoroughly military without being warlike. He was remembered by an officer who observed the general during the campaign as “…a plain business man of the republic….” Grant was a combat leader who combined energy, determination, and insight. And the capture of Vicksburg was perhaps the premier demonstration of those key qualities.
It cannot be understated that Grant benefited from going up against such an unoriginal and uninspiring commander as Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton. Grant had little difficulty throwing Pemberton on the defensive and forcing him to stay there. A “political” general, and an old Army acquaintance of Grant’s—they had both served in the same division for a period during the Mexican War—Pemberton could be determined. Indeed his defense of Vicksburg was admirable, if hopeless. He had no experience leading an army in the field and very little experience inspiring confidence in soldiers. Most importantly, Pemberton did not serve his subordinates well during the Vicksburg campaign—stemming ultimately from his own lack of confidence in his leadership ability. For example, Pemberton did not support Bowen’s assessment of Grant’s intentions (which was basically correct) after the Union army had landed on the east side of the River south of Vicksburg. Because Pemberton was determined to execute Davis’ orders to the letter, and thus would not be flexible enough to consider the competent advice of Johnston who was very nearby in the same theater, and because he felt it necessary to report directly to Richmond as opposed to corresponding through his superior, the Confederates suffered from a lack of unity of command and purpose.
The one general who might have saved Pemberton’s army at Vicksburg was General Joseph Johnston. But he exhibited only lukewarm commitment to the war in the Western theater after assuming command of forces in the Vicksburg area of operations on 24 November 1862. After examining his situation Johnston was not at all confident in his ability to maneuver forces successfully within his vast area of command. Requests sent to Davis asking for reinforcements from a nearby Confederate army in Arkansas were unsuccessful. In any case, he had arrived too late to change the course of the Vicksburg campaign.
Vicksburg was the most daring and brilliant campaign of the Civil War. It has been listed among the most decisive battles of military history. It was the second time (the first was at Fort Donelson) Grant had captured an enemy army in the field. (His third capture would coincide with the end of the war.) Although Grant’s plan of campaign—even considering its numerous mutations—was basically sound, the source of his success is found more in his generalship than anything else. It was not the plan of campaign that won the contest but the general who carried it out with both determination and flexibility.
The fall of Vicksburg had an immediate and lasting effect on the course of the war. It was the high water mark for the Confederacy in the West. The army that Grant has assembled and maneuvered to Vicksburg now stood in a position to threaten numerous objectives deep into the South. Unfortunately for the Confederates Grant was a general who was absolutely fixated on exploiting any victory over the enemy and thus they had to be truly threatened by the fall of Vicksburg.
The surrender of Vicksburg led directly to Union control of the Mississippi River, leading Lincoln to remark, “Grant is my man, and I am his the rest of the war.” The Confederacy had been split in two. Coupled with the loss at Gettysburg, news of the fall of Vicksburg dealt a devastating blow to Southern morale.
A major theme of Grant’s life was his path of learning and changing, and Vicksburg was a key landmark in that process. The hard lessons learned at Belmont, Fort Donelson, and at Shiloh, as well as the lessons he had learned administering captured territory and his conflicts with other Union commanders, all culminated during the protracted struggle to take Vicksburg. Victory there erased the censure surrounding Shiloh. Grant fully matured at Vicksburg and at least in some sense he probably knew it—though he could not have a clear view of what still lay ahead for him through the last campaigns of the war. He must have felt buoyed and vindicated; confident that his diligent and determined style of warfare would continue to yield success.
Close cooperation of land and naval forces—joint operations between Grant’s army and Admiral Porter’s naval squadron—was key to the large-scale decisive operations of Vicksburg, especially considering the complex and dispersed area of operations. As Grant himself pointed out, he was in no position to order Admiral Porter to do anything even though the Navy was operating near the mouth of the Yazoo River above Vicksburg. Nonetheless, Grant was able to win Porter over to a plan of Army-Navy cooperation from the very first meeting. Porter’s commitment to the joint Army-Navy operation against Vicksburg and the command emphasis that he personally gave those operations was genuine and instrumental in the success of the overall campaign. The success of Army-Navy cooperation during the campaign highlights Grant’s ability to develop a successful team effort amongst peers and subordinates even where others might find a lack of interest or cooperation. He accurately saw the potential for riverine operations as a necessary shaping operation to his own drive from the south and he worked diligently with Admiral Porter to see that potential realized.
Why is Grant’s victory at Vicksburg in 1863 one of the greatest triumphs in military history? It defied much of military orthodoxy. Where traditional doctrine dictated that one not change line of operations unless severely pressed to do so, Grant changed his line of operations no less than three times through the course of the campaign. He crossed his army over a major river south (or opposite) of friendly lines, maneuvered between two converging armies, and succeeded in defeating each in detail, one of them well entrenched. His exploitation of interior lines was complete, resulted in the surrender of an entire army, and had an immediate and profound effect on both the operational and strategic levels of the war. After numerous failures and setbacks throughout the winter of 1862-63, Grant grew more audacious and even more determined—his approach became more daring and unorthodox. Vicksburg was a singular victory in the Western Theater if not the entire war, won with “cold audacity.”
Is Grant able to take credit for Vicksburg? Interestingly, President Lincoln feared that Grant had made a terrible mistake when, after having crossed the Mississippi south of Vicksburg, he turned northeast of the Big Black instead of marching south and linking up with General Banks then operating against Port Hudson. Grant was, in all probability, operating on nothing but his own instincts and belief in his own abilities when he made the decisions that finally took him to victory. Although Sherman cannot be seen as an unbiased observer of Grant, it is interesting to read his evidence of why Grant deserved sole credit for the ultimate success of the campaign. Sherman recalled that Grant himself wrote a significant number of the orders and reports of the campaign, implying that it was Grant alone who really understood all phases and nuances of the campaign plan. All evidence points to or at least does not refute the idea that Grant was the true architect of the victory at Vicksburg.
1. Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1891-1895), 112-15; Robert Johnson and Clarence Buel, eds., Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. III, The Tide Shifts (Secaucus, NJ: Castle Reprint, ), 465; U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 129 vols. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), XXIV, pt. 2, 170; and James M. McPherson, ed., The Atlas of the Civil War (Philadelphia: Courage Books, 2005), 91.
2. Battles and Leaders, 473.
3. Jay Luvaas, Leonard Fullenkamp, and Stephen Bowman, eds., Guide to the Vicksburg Campaign (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1998), 165.
4. National Parks Civil War Series, The Campaign for Vicksburg, 23.
5. Official Records, XXIV, pt. 1, 34 and 58.
6. McPherson, 56.
7. Official Records, XXIV, pt. 1, 44.
8. Bruce Catton, Grant Moves South (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1960), 420.
9. National Parks Civil War Series, 11.
10. Ibid., 38-9.
11. Ibid., 27.
12. Ibid., 13.
13. Ibid., 36-7.
14. David Eggenberger, An Encyclopedia of Battles (New York: Dover, 1985), 463.
15. McPherson, 99.
16. Ulysses S. Grant, Memoirs and Selected Letters (New York: Library of America, 1990), 306; Official Records, XXIV, pt. 1, 58.
17. Luvaas et al., 1.
18. Catton, 441.
19. Luvaas et al., 359.
20. Ibid., 448.
- “You have to consider deterrence in the twin contexts of the full theory of strategy and the moving historical landscape. Strategy has many dimensions, and because deterrence is strategic behavior any and all of those dimensions can smooth the way, or impede the path, to deterrence success. Any dimension—people, culture, information and intelligence, time, and so forth—can provide details that unravel an intended episode of deterrence. Because deterrence worked yesterday, it does not follow that it will work tomorrow, and one may be hard pressed to prove that deterrence did work yesterday.” --- Colin S. Gray, “Deterrence in the 21st Century,” Comparative Strategy 19, no. 3 (July-September 2000): 259.