Control of the Mississippi: the Fall of Vicksburg and Capture of Port Hudson

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  • 0:07 The Plan and the City
  • 2:02 The Attempts
  • 3:36 The Attack
  • 5:00 The Siege
  • 6:30 The Surrender and the Result
  • 8:06 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will hear the story of the fall of Vicksburg and the capture of Port Hudson. Vicksburg and Port Hudson were Confederate strongholds on the Mississippi River, and as we shall see, the Union had a difficult time bringing them under federal control.

The Plan

Early in the Civil War, General Winfield Scott developed the Anaconda Plan, which was designed to squeeze the life out of the Confederacy by cutting off its external supply lines. The plan called for a Union blockade on Southern seaports and Union efforts to gain control over the Mississippi River from St. Louis all the way down to New Orleans.

By early 1863, the blockade was firmly in place, New Orleans was under Union control, and the Northern regions of the Mississippi were mostly in Union hands. There remained one major problem: Vicksburg, Mississippi.

The City

Vicksburg was titled the 'Queen City of the Bluff' and one of the 'Jewels of the South,' but it was also a sharp thorn in the Union's side. Located on a bluff at a bend in the Mississippi, the city was an extremely important strategic site for the Confederacy. Its natural defenses and high fortifications prevented Union attack from the river but also allowed the Confederates a perfect spot from which to bombard Union boats on the Mississippi. Bogs and bayous filled the surrounding landscape, hindering Union ground troops from approaching Vicksburg easily, while high bluffs on the city's eastern side helped Confederate defenders see who was coming.

Vicksburg was a center of river traffic for the Confederacy, but it was also a railroad hub between the Eastern Confederate states and Texas and Arkansas to the west. The Western Confederate states produced beef and other foodstuffs that the Confederacy desperately needed, and often, unofficial foreign allies sent weapons and supplies through Mexico and Texas to avoid the blockade.

The Confederacy needed to hold on to Vicksburg to win the war, and the Union needed to capture Vicksburg to fulfill its plan and squeeze the life out of the Confederacy.

The Attempts

The Union's first attempt at Vicksburg was a set of attacks from the Union Navy in 1862. They were unsuccessful. Vicksburg's bluff defense was too strong and could easily hold off an attack from the river.

In October 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant took charge of the Union army in the region and began preparations to take Vicksburg. He decided to split his army in two and approach the city from the river with troops directed by General William T. Sherman and from land with troops under his own direction.

The Confederates, sensing an imminent attack, took countermeasures. Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton increased the number of defenders at Vicksburg and ordered raids on Union supply and communications lines.

The raids had their intended effect. Grant decided to abandon his two-pronged attack. Unfortunately, Sherman didn't get the message in time, and his soldiers attacked Vicksburg in late December 1862. It was a horrible failure that cost hundreds of Union lives.

Grant turned his attention to a new strategy. If he could not capture Vicksburg, perhaps he could divert river traffic away from it. He set his men to digging canals, destroying levees, and finding new routes on smaller waterways. Nothing worked. His plans were continually hindered by floods, overhanging willow trees, and long, inefficient detours.

The general had one more trick up his sleeve, however. It was risky, but just maybe it would work.

The Attack

The plan involved landing Union troops along the riverbank south of Vicksburg and attacking from that direction. Ideally, no one would see them coming. It was a bold move, for Grant was outnumbered two to one, but he was a risk taker, and this was his last chance at Vicksburg.

After a brief difficulty finding an appropriate landing place, Grant began leading his men toward Vicksburg from the south on April 30, 1863. First, they moved toward Jackson, east of Vicksburg, to prevent soldiers from providing reinforcements to their primary target.

Having driven the Confederates out of Jackson, Grant began marching east. He met Pemberton's forces at Champion's Hill on May 16, 1863, and after a long, hard fight, pushed the Confederates back toward Vicksburg. The Confederates made one final stand at Big Black River, 12 miles east of Vicksburg, but the Union kept on coming. The Confederates scrambled back to their fortified city.

Grant arrived at Vicksburg on May 18th with 45,000 Union soldiers. The Confederates defending the city numbered about 30,000 troops. The Union attacked Vicksburg twice, on May 19 and again on May 22, but failed to master the city's defense works. The Confederates held fast. It was time to settle in for a siege.

The Siege

Grant soon had over 70,000 soldiers under his command, and he formed them into a 12-mile-long ring around Vicksburg. Basically, his strategy was to 'out-camp the enemy,' to lay siege until the Confederates ran out of food and supplies and were forced to surrender. He even added round-the-clock artillery bombardments and hand grenade attacks to the siege to try to soften the city up a little sooner. By the middle of June, two hundred Union cannons were bombarding Vicksburg day and night.

The city's residents lived in terror. With shells falling around them constantly, many fled to the hillside, where they dug caves and crawled in to hide. Soon, they ran out of food and started relying on unusual meat sources including mules, rats, and dogs. Water was in short supply, too, with the city's reserves coming from only a few wells and springs.

Vicksburg resident Dora Miller described the city's predicament in a May 28th diary entry:

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