THE SIEGE OF VICKSBURG: May 18 - July 4, 1863

"Let us climb the parapet and see the siege by moonlight. In front of us, beyond the enemy’s works, but hidden from us, lies the city of Vicksburg. Look carefully, and you can distinguish the spires of the courthouse and two or three churches. The rebels had a signal station on the former when we came, but our shells made it too warm for them, and they withdrew. The mortars are playing to-night, and they are well worth seeing. We watch a moment, and in the direction of Young's Point, beyond the city, suddenly up shoots the flash of light, and in a moment the ponderous shell, with its fuse glowing and sparkling, rises slowly from behind the bluffs; up, up it goes, as though mounting to the zenith; over it comes toward us, down through its flight trajectory into the city, and explodes with a shock that jars the ground for miles. There are women and tender children where those shells fall, but war is war."

-A Union correspondent of the Cleveland Herald (Worcester Aegis and Transcript; July 4, 1863; pg. 1, col. 4.)

Ahhhh, the Siege of Vicksburg. One of the decisive Union victories of the American Civil War. On July 4th, 1863, the Confederate city of Vicksburg, Mississippi surrendered after being relentlessly besieged by Ulysses S. Grant's Union forces for nearly seven weeks.

Well, you could say it started before then. Ever since the middle of October 1862, Grant had set his eye on the city of Vicksburg, that deliciously strategic Confederate center of commerce that was dubbed "the Gibraltar of the Confederacy." So Grant, he tries to get Vicksburg several times and fails. The Battle of Chickasaw Bluffs, the Yazoo Pass Expedition, Steele's Bayou Expedition... failure, failure, failure. But then, spring 1863, everything starts coming up roses as the Union army and General Grant start piecing together a plan that has a good shot at seizing the coveted city. And it turned out real pretty, too.

Grant's men (3 corps commanded by Sherman, McPherson, and McClernand, as well as the naval power of Admiral David D. Porter) converge in Vicksburg in May and June of 1863, entrapping the Confederate army of Lt. General John Pemberton. They make 2 big assaults on Vicksburg and both of them fail. But the Union isn't beat yet. What follows is that rather long siege I've told you about and the eventual surrender of the city.

An interesting anecdote about the beginning of the siege is the fate of the couple thousand men Grant lost in the initial attacks on Vicksburg. Their corpses were not retrieved, but instead left to bake in the hot Southern sun. Many of them had lain dead since the 19th of May and, as the weeks passed, the bodies bloated and blackened and the smell became almost overpowering. "The Yanks are trying stink us out of Vicksburg," wrote one Confederate soldier. Word spread among the men that a note had been passed from Pemberton to Grant, imploring the Union general to bury his dead, as the odor was becoming unbearable. A temporary unofficial truce was declared for 2 1/2 hours as the dead were buried. The war seemed to be placed on hold during this short truce and Rebels and Yankees played cards together and swapped coffee for tobacco. It was a surreal interlude, but at the arranged time all men ran for cover and the brief truce ceased. It was then that the siege of Vicksburg really began.

During the 47 days of the siege, many of the citizens of Vicksburg took refuge from the constant artillery fire in caves that they dug on the face of surrounding cliffs. These were mostly used by the women and children as places of safety when the shelling got especially dangerous. Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi relates an anecdote about life in the Vicksburg caves attributed to a citizen of the city:

'"Sometimes the caves were desperately crowded, and always hot and close. Sometimes a cave had twenty or twenty-five people packed into it; no turning room for anybody; air so foul, sometimes you couldn't have made a candle burn in it. A child was born in one of those caves one night. Think of that; why it was like having it born in a trunk."'

Another of Grant's tactics in the siege was destroying the Confederate defenses by digging beneath them and mining the hell out of them. The most famous of these ventures was a large mine constructed around the area of the 3rd La. Redan on January 25th. 2200 pounds of powder exploded beneath the fort and left a crater 40 feet around and 12 feet deep precisely where the Confederate line had been. The Union forces quickly poured in an attempted to secure the breach, but were driven back by the Confederates. They tried something similar again on July 1st, but the Confederates were wise to what they were doing by then and it was unsuccessful.

Oh, and the whole cutting off the city from shipments of supplies and communication with the outside world... y'know, standard siege protocol. That was where the real power of the campaign lay, in the sheer effectiveness with which the Union literally starved their enemies into surrender. Hunger and disease ravaged Pemberton's army, and it only possessed a shadow of its former might when word of surrender reached General Grant's ears.

So what's so bloody important about Vicksburg? Vicksburg had a lot of strategic importance: it was right on the Mississippi River and smack in the middle of the Confederacy. When Vicksburg was taken by the Yanks, the South was split in two. The entire Mississippi Valley soon belonged to the Union. This also packed a little more of a punch than it would have otherwise because it came around the same time as the Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg. Quite a double blow to the Confederates and the dual victories played a big role in helping to get Lincoln re-elected. The city was won at a great cost, and losses amount to 10 142 Union casualties compared to the 9091 Confederate casualties.

The Siege of Vicksburg also did nice things for Grant's reputation as a skilled commander and his victories in the west served him so well that he was eventually appointed General-in-Chief of the Union armies.

And Ken Burns's superb PBS Civil War series.