Siege of Vicksburg: Facts, Summary & Map

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  • 0:01 The Most Important…
  • 0:26 The Campaign Begins
  • 2:29 1863
  • 4:22 The Siege of Vicksburg
  • 6:37 Vicksburg's Aftermath
  • 7:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
The Siege of Vicksburg, from May to July of 1863, resulted in the surrender of Confederate forces at Vicksburg on the Mississippi River. It was one of the biggest Union victories of the American Civil War.

The Most Important Union Victory

No doubt, many people are familiar with the Battle of Gettysburg. A Union victory which culminated on July 3, 1863, Gettysburg has been described by historians as the turning point of the American Civil War. Yet, the following day, hundreds of miles to the west, there was an even more important Union victory. On July 4, 1863, Confederates surrendered at Vicksburg, a strategic location on the Mississippi River. Let's learn more about this crucial Union victory and how it happened.

The Campaign Begins

Starting in late December 1862, Union forces under the command of Major General Ulysses S. Grant began advancing deep into Mississippi to strike against the crucial city of Vicksburg. Sitting atop bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, Vicksburg was vital to the Western Theater of the war. As Abraham Lincoln himself indicated, 'Vicksburg is the key.'

Union naval forces had attempted to take the city in 1862 by moving down the Mississippi (the river flows north to south) to Vicksburg, but land forces were clearly needed to accomplish the task. Having occupied New Orleans in early 1862, Union naval forces had a base from which to operate on the Mississippi, but Vicksburg still needed to be taken for complete control of the river.

Commanding the Confederate forces at Vicksburg was Lt. General John Pemberton. A Pennsylvania native, Pemberton had a rare distinction of being a northern-born officer who decided to fight for the Confederacy. While he was extremely outnumbered at the start of the campaign, Pemberton was determined to hold on to Vicksburg. There were roughly 30,000 Confederates in the region that could be used to defend the city.

In late December, Union forces attempted an overland advance against Vicksburg. On December 29, Major General William Tecumseh Sherman launched a frontal assault against fortified Confederates near the city. After suffering heavy losses, Sherman turned back. This influenced the struggle for Vicksburg greatly, as Grant would generally avoid such attacks for the rest of the campaign.

In early 1863, Grant undertook a series of measures, known as his Bayou Operations, to dig canals and ditches along the Mississippi to get closer to Vicksburg without exposing his men to the fire of the heavy guns protecting the city. While many of these were failures, Grant's perseverance prevented him from giving up on the task at hand.

1863

In April 1863, Grant resumed his offensive by marching Union troops down the western bank of the Mississippi along roads constructed through the Louisiana swamps. On April 16, several Union gunboats and supply boats passed Vicksburg at night to avoid the heavy guns; while Confederates did fire on them, they were largely unharmed. Grant's new plan was to move south of Vicksburg, cross the Mississippi, and advance on the city from the south. By this time, through reinforcements, his army had swelled to over 70,000 men; Pemberton had roughly 40,000 to stop the federal force, although the Confederates did have the advantage of using defensive terrain and fortifications.

During this approach to Vicksburg, there were several notable battles. On April 29, Federal gunboats were turned back when attacking Confederate positions at Grand Gulf on the Mississippi. After being stopped, this forced Grant to take a circuitous route, advancing on Port Gibson to the south. On May 1, the Battle of Port Gibson was fought. It was a Union victory that sent Confederates in retreat, giving Grant a firm foothold in Mississippi south of Vicksburg.

Following this, Grant began to set his sights to the north. Confederate reinforcements had begun arriving in Jackson, Mississippi, to the east. As Grant advanced north, he did so toward the middle of the state; he wanted to cut the rail lines leading to Vicksburg. This led to clashes with Confederates near Raymond, Mississippi, and at Jackson in mid-May. It was after defeating these forces that Grant could finally turn his attention on Vicksburg itself once again.

In mid-May, Confederate General Joseph Johnston was ordered to go to Mississippi to assist in the defense of Vicksburg. Johnston could not prevent the Confederate defeats near Jackson and thus was forced to watch from the outside as Grant made his final push on Vicksburg.

The Siege of Vicksburg

On May 19, the first Union assault against the Vicksburg fortifications occurred. Led by Sherman's men, the attack was focused on the northern defenses of the city. It was largely a failure, with Union forces losing nearly 1,000 men, while the Confederates sustained fewer than 100 casualties.

Three days later on May 22, Grant ordered another attack. Naval and land artillery hit the Confederate lines to prepare for the infantry attack, which saw several different waves of troops being sent forward throughout the day. On several places along the Confederate defenses, Union soldiers rushed forward, only to be repulsed. While there were a few gains made, the attack was generally unsuccessful once again. After these two attacks, Grant decided to begin a siege of the city.

For the Confederates, the situation appeared grim. Johnston encouraged Pemberton to escape from the city, believing the loss of over 30,000 Confederate soldiers would be worse than the loss of the city, yet Pemberton did not heed his advice. Being a northerner fighting for the South, Pemberton did not want to appear weak in the face of Northern armies, especially in surrendering one of the most important cities in the entire Confederacy.

Behind Grant's forces, Johnston was attempting to gather enough men to attack the Federals from the rear. Grant realized this threat and set aside an entire corps to keep an eye on Johnston to prevent him from disrupting the siege. Inside the city, Confederate soldiers and civilians suffered greatly. The lack of food and supplies led to widespread disease sweeping through the ranks. Pemberton knew he had to surrender or his men would die of starvation.

On July 3, 1863, Pemberton sent word to Grant that he wanted to discuss surrender. The following day, July 4, 1863, Union forces accepted the surrender of Vicksburg. Over 30,000 Confederates were paroled, as they were starving and in poor condition.

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