Perched on top a majestic bluff sits the small town of Vicksburg, Mississippi. With a seat right on the Mississippi River, the town is a prime location for commerce and trade. This was especially true in the Summer of 1863 when the Confederate army held the city, making use of its steep bluffs and the “lifeblood of America” that was the Mississippi River. Knowing that the river was the main transport point for food, clothing, medicine and fresh troops, Union forces sought to take the city and cut off Southern supply lines via the river, while also securing the railroad that ran through town. Vicksburg was the South’s last stronghold on the Mississippi and for the Federals, gaining control of the water way meant separating the South and opening trade routes for the North. It was Ulysses S. Grant who would lead the campaign that would gain the North victory over the Mississippi River, re-open trade routes and start a six-week siege that would end in a Confederate surrender on July 4, 1863.
The importance of the Mississippi River was evident; not only did it supply a route for transportation of troops and the necessities, it was the last piece of the puzzle for the North’s Anaconda Plan which would serve to surround and strangle the rebellious forces on all sides. The first step to accomplishing this plan was taking control of the Ohio and the Mississippi rivers. Next, Union forces would bombard Confederate forts such as Fort
Donelson and Fort Henry on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. After the fall of New Orleans and Memphis, the Federals turned their attention to Vicksburg. The Confederate lines were of good strategic standing as high bluffs and deep ravines served as a natural fortress, putting them at a strategic vantage point and forcing their aggressors to cross the steep ravines beneath them. Tar fires burning in barrels served to illuminate any approaching enemy and with cannons and heavy artillery stationed on the river, the Confederate defenses were positioned perfectly. The Rebels had also set up “nine fortifications connected by trenches and rifle pits in a semicircle around Vicksburg with the flanks rested above and below the river.” With this kind of fortification, it is not surprising the General Ulysses S. Grant had a hard time breaking Southern defenses.
Grant tried and was unsuccessful in the taking of Vicksburg during the winter of 1862-1863. However, that would all change in May of 1863. If the Federals were successful in taking Vicksburg, the South would be divided into two parts as Vicksburg stood as the only remaining connection between Eastern and Western parts of the Confederacy. President Jefferson Davis even called it, “The nail head that held the South’s two halves together”. Capturing Vicksburg would also open trade lines back up to the North and give the Federals the last piece of the puzzle for controlling the entirety of the Mississippi River. In his book, Battle Cry of Freedom, James McPherson describes Grant’s plan as “bold” and goes onto explain, “(He planned) to march his army down the West bank of the Mississippi to the point below Vicksburg while sending his fleet straight past the batteries (of the Confederates)”. It was to be an amphibious assault using Navy gunboats to bombard the shore while the fleet passed and crossed the river into Vicksburg. The Confederate trenches and fortifications along the river made it a daunting task causing
many skirmishes prior to Grant’s attack that would prove to be the largest operation of it’s kind up until World War One. When Grant’s surprise landing at Bruinsburg was successful in ensuring there was no threat to his rear lines, he moved forward to Vicksburg but this time his use of gunboats would be a focal point of the battle and the turning point in the fight for the Mississippi. With the help of Union Navy Admiral David Dixon Porter, the Federals made their way down the Mississippi withstanding heavy fire from the Confederate forces on the banks. Once under the town of Vicksburg, and with the help of Naval bombardments at Grand Gulf and Fort Wade, Grant was able to march his troops across the river thirty miles south of Vicksburg.
Geography not only played a vital role in the longevity and difficulty of the battle of Vicksburg for the troops, but it was also utilized by the frightened citizens who resided within the town. The fighting and artillery bombardment was so bad that citizens in the town of Vicksburg hid in small man made cave structures in order to ensure their safety. It is this reason that the town was later referred to as the “prairie dog village”. The citizens were also affected again during the siege that would follow the battle and last for the next 47 days. During the siege, those remaining in Vicksburg lived off the land as supplies and food were scarce. This meant even resorting to eating cats and dogs roaming the streets. The siege proved to be the last wedge that tore the Confederacy in two. In a letter to his father written on June 15, 1863, Grant discusses the siege of Vicksburg, “The fall of Vicksburg now will only result in the opening of the Mississippi River and demoralization of the enemy.” Through his use of the Mississippi River and his navel comrades, Grant was successful in taking Vicksburg and ensuring the success of the Anaconda Plan. Upon surrender on July 4, 1863, a Confederate Louisiana sargent writes, “The Northern soldiers brought these “luxuries” into the streets “and throwing them down, would shout, ‘here rebs, help yourselves, you are naked and starving and need them.’ What a strange spectacle of war between those who were recently deadly foes.” After a month of fighting, the troops came together, put their differences aside and were finally able to breathe, if only for a moment.
Both the Union and the Confederate commanders were able to use the geography of Vicksburg to their advantage. As the Confederates used the town’s position, ridges and valleys as tools to better defend the Mississippi, General Grant used the river as a Trojan Horse, and was able to use the Mississippi as a resource to get his troops into Vicksburg. This was a major turning point in the Civil War as now the North had control over commerce, trade and the waterways which was vital to the Northern cause and detrimental to the Confederates’. The Northern victory at Vicksburg ensured the fate of the Anaconda Plan and guaranteed rights to the Mississippi. The victory also further divided the South, lowered morale and all but sealed their fate.
Civil War Trust. “Saving America’s Civil War Battlefields The Battle of Vicksburg.”
Grant, Ulysses S. “U.S. Grant’s Letter to his Father .” Civil War Trust.
History. “Vicksburg Campaign.”
McPherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Winschel, Terrence J. “Vicksburg Campaign: Unveiling the Father of Waters.” (Hallowed Ground Magazine). 2004.