Wednesday, July 4, 2012

149th Anniversary of the Siege of Vicksburg

Today marks the 236th anniversary of the founding of the United States. It also marks the anniversary of one of the greatest events of the American Civil War, the surrender of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Major General Ulysses S. Grant's campaign to isolate and subdue Vicksburg, and thus assure Union control of the Mississippi, has been documented on this blog.

The Battle of Big Black River Bridge was the last event before the commencement of the siege of Vicksburg. Lt. General John C. Pemberton pulled his 18,500 weary troops into the 6.5 miles of defensive works surrounding Vicksburg on May 17, 1863. Grant's 35,000 troops converged and prepared for the final assault. The May 19th union assault was repulsed with almost 1,000 Union casualties. Confederate losses were less than 100. A more cautious assault on the 22nd was also repulsed. Unfortunately, Maj. General John A. McClernand dispatched false reports of success in breeching the Confederate defenses, leading Grant to pour more troops into the cauldron. Union casualties numbered over 3,000 while Confederate losses amounted to approximately 500.

Realizing the futility of direct attacks, Grant decided to starve the city into submission. He was assisted in this task by Union gunboats that lobbed a steady stream (over 22,000 in all) of shells into the city, forcing Rebel soldiers and citizens to burrow caves in the yellow clay hills. over the next six weeks, both sides, sweltering under the hot summer sun, worked to extend and fortify their lines. Snipers kept a watch out for anyone brave enough to expose themselves. One major attempt to breach the lines occurred on June 25th when Union soldiers, having mined under the 3rd Louisiana Redan, blew the fortification into the sky, leaving a 40-foot crater in its place. Federal troops, rushing into the crater, were easily disposed of by Rebel troops who rolled artillery shells with fuses into the crater.

The fate of the Rebels became apparent as June gave way to July. Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston was not coming to rescue the beleaguered. Grant continued to receive fresh troops and supplies while Pemberton's men weakened from malnutrition. On July 3rd Pemberton started negotiations with Grant believing that he would receive better terms from the Federals on Independence Day than any other day of the year. The surrender was formalized on July 4th and Union forces entered the city. The Union troops, long at odds with their Souther counterparts, were gracious, sharing their rations with the defeated soldiers.

Coupled with the defeat and retreat of General Robert E. Lee's forces at Gettysburg on July 3rd, Abraham Lincoln rejoiced at the news of the fall of Vicksburg, stating, "The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea."

A portion of the original battlefield lies in the Vicksburg National Military Park on the northeastern corner of this map. The park is worth a visit in that the undulating terrain underscores the immense challenges faced by Union forces who desired to bring the siege to a quick conclusion.