National Park Service black bar with arrowhead logo
NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Campaign for Vicksburg



An Ohioan named William Tecumseh Sherman called the Mississippi River the spinal column of the American nation. It was and is an apt description of the mighty stream that flows from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, down through the heartland of America. As civil war loomed on the horizon following the election of the antislavery Republican Abraham Lincoln to the presidency of the United States in 1860, political and military leaders of the antislavery North and proslavery South recognized the truth of Sherman's observation.

Once the sparsely populated far west, the Mississippi River Valley was growing faster than any other section of the troubled country Lincoln inherited. More people meant more economic activity; more economic activity increased the significance of the Mississippi, the vital transportation artery that linked the West with ports in the Gulf and on the Atlantic seaboard.


Political leaders North and South talked of keeping the river neutral in case war did come. The initial wave of Southern secession from the Union came in the winter of 1860-61, leading to the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, in April 1861. All hopes of river neutrality evaporated in the smoke of the guns that fired the opening shots of the Civil War. After Sumter and Lincoln's call for troops to put down the rebellion, the upper South states of Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia joined previously seceded Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina to form the final version of the Confederacy.

President Lincoln's commanding general, Winfield Scott, came up with the Anaconda Plan as the Union's initial strategy for subduing the rebellious South. Scott envisioned using superior Federal naval power to strangle the Confederacy economically by blockading Southern ports. The blockade included the mouth of the Mississippi where it entered the Gulf south of New Orleans, Louisiana.



The Confederacy meanwhile set about fortifying strategic points along the Mississippi where the river bordered the Confederate states of Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi and sliced through lower Louisiana. It quickly became apparent that the point on the river that would be toughest for the Union to conquer was Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Abraham Lincoln recognized Vicksburg's significance. In a strategy session with some of his military officers, the Union president pointed to a map and commented, "See what a lot of land these fellows hold, of which Vicksburg is the key." The Red River in Louisiana and the Arkansas and White rivers in Arkansas both emptied into the Mississippi and could be used for shipping Confederate supplies. "From Vicksburg," said Lincoln, "these supplies can be distributed by rail all over the Confederacy." He pointed out also that goods could be gathered along the Yazoo, which trekked from rich Mississippi Delta farmland into the Mississippi just above Vicksburg. Lincoln continued, "Let us get Vicksburg and all that country is ours. The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket." Points north and south of that town could be conquered, he concluded, but "they can still defy us from Vicksburg."

Incorporated in 1825, Vicksburg at the time of Fort Sumter had a population of about 4,500, making it one of the larger towns in Mississippi. The town sat on high bluffs known as the Walnut Hills. A Confederate engineer described the terrain: "After the Lord of creation had made all the big mountains and ranges of hills, He had left on His hands a large lot of scraps; these were all dumped at Vicksburg in a waste heap."

The waste heap provided Confederates with excellent artillery positions from which to rake Union gunboats and other shipping that might attempt to pass along the city's waterfront. Shore batteries could also wreak havoc on Federal vessels, which had to reduce speed at Vicksburg because of an exaggerated hairpin turn in the river before it coursed past the bluffs.



Union forces had other obstacles to conquer before reaching Vicksburg, however. North of Vicksburg, Rebels fortified Island No. 10 and New Madrid, Missouri, which lay across the river from the Tennessee-Kentucky state line. (Missouri and Kentucky had many Southern sympathizers and were counted as Confederate states by the Confederate government; both states actually remained in the Union.) Island No. 10 lay at the foot of a deep bend in the Mississippi and thus was ideally situated to stop Federal downriver traffic. The river made another sharp turn in front of New Madrid, which made the town an equally attractive defensive position. Both places fell on April 7, 1862, when Union forces under Brigadier General John Pope forced the surrender of Confederates led by Brigadier General William Mackall. Pope's victory opened the Mississippi to the Union as far south as Fort Pillow near Memphis, Tennessee.

To the south of Vicksburg, Federal naval vessels closed in on the city of New Orleans. New Orleans was defended by several small Confederate forts and two significant structures—Fort Jackson and Fort St. Phillip—which lay about ninety miles downriver from the Crescent City. The Confederates had very few naval vessels of any worth with which to combat superior Federal river forces under the command of Flag Officer David Glasgow Farragut and Commodore David Dixon Porter. Between April 25 and 28 Confederate defenses collapsed, Forts Jackson and St. Phillip surrendered, and a small contingent of Rebel troops led by Mansfield Lovell evacuated New Orleans.


Farragut now took several cruisers and gunboats upriver unopposed to Vicksburg. The Confederate garrison commander, Brigadier General Martin L. Smith (promoted to major general in November 1862), refused to surrender the Hill City, and Farragut ordered a bombardment that would last from mid-May through July of 1862. Union troops also tried to dig a canal across the neck of the hairpin turn at Vicksburg but that project, and the bombardment, failed to reduce the city. The appearance of the Confederate ironclad Arkansas threatened the security of Farragut's fleet. Frustrated Federal forces returned to Baton Rouge. Vicksburg stood firm, but the Union noose was tightening along the river.

The Confederacy's grip on Vicksburg was also being threatened by developments east of the river in west Tennessee.

The Confederacy's grip on Vicksburg was also being threatened by developments east of the river in west Tennessee. Forts Henry and Donelson on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers respectively fell to an invading Union army led by Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant and Federal naval forces under Flag Officer Andrew Foote.

The loss of the forts forced Confederate General Albert Sydney Johnston to evacuate the important Tennessee capital city of Nashville and retreat to Corinth in the northeast corner of Mississippi. Grant followed and set up camp near Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River a few miles northeast of Corinth. Johnston gathered reinforcements and on April 6 attacked Grant, pushing the surprised Federals back to the banks of the Tennessee. Johnston was killed in this first clay of the battle of Shiloh. The next day, Grant, with the benefit of reinforcements, counterattacked, forcing the Rebel army, now commanded by P. G. T. Beauregard, back to Corinth. Beauregard later evacuated Corinth as the huge Yankee army group (made up of three Federal armies), now commanded by Henry Halleck, closed in. (Grant had been removed from overall command but was still with the army.) On June 6 Federal forces occupied Memphis, after the city surrendered to a naval force commanded by Commodore Charles Davis. The way now lay open for a land campaign against Vicksburg.


But Halleck wasted a golden opportunity when be decided to break up his army group in order to solidify the recent Federal successes in Tennessee. Confederate Major General Earl Van Dorn, commanding at Vicksburg, used this lull in the Union campaign to order an attack on Baton Rouge. A small Rebel army led by Major General John C. Breckinridge attacked the Louisiana capital on August 5, 1862. Brigadier General Thomas Williams's Federal forces, including vital gunboats, beat back Breckinridge, and the Confederates lost the Arkansas, which stalled and had to be scuttled. Yet the Rebels salvaged an important consolation prize when they occupied Port Hudson on the eastern bluffs of the Mississippi north of Baton Rouge. The Port Hudson fortifications provided an important defensive barrier against southern approaches to Vicksburg.

The Federal army meanwhile tightened its grip on north Mississippi with two victories in the fall of 1862. On September 19, 1862, Grant, once more in command, directed his army and that of Major General William Rosecrans to Iuka, where it clashed with Confederates led by Major General Sterling Price. The battle developed because each general was trying to prevent the other from sending reinforcements to armies in Tennessee. Price inflicted heavy casualties on the Yankees before retreating because of superior numbers. He marched to the southeast, then turned southwest to Baldwyn, where he united with troops moving northward led by Van Dorn, who assumed overall command and led the combined forces north toward Tennessee. On October 3, Van Dorn turned east and assaulted Rosecrans's Federal garrison at Corinth. The bloody two-day battle resulted in heavy Confederate casualties and a retreat. The Rebels barely escaped being trapped at the Hatchie River west of Corinth. The debacle led to Van Dorn's removal from command, ended immediate Confederate threats in north Mississippi, and set the stage for General Grant's first attempt to take Vicksburg.


In planning his campaign, Grant had to take into account myriad geographical factors. North of Vicksburg on the east side of the Mississippi lay the Delta region, a flat, periodically flooded area coursed by many streams of various navigability, including Steele's Bayou and the Coldwater, Tallahatchie, Yalobusha, and Yazoo rivers. Then, too, there were a multitude of creeks, many with steep banks, as well as uncleared swampland infested with tangled undergrowth, mosquitoes, and various reptiles. On the western side of the Mississippi in Louisiana, the land was if anything more flat and swampy and would require much corduroying, that is, building roads of logs.

The bluffs at Vicksburg trailed off to the northeast of the city and were part of a line of bluffs that extended roughly from Columbus, Kentucky, to Baton Rouge. Generally, the limestone, sandstone, and loess bluffs formed an escarpment which offered the Confederates excellent defensive opportunities, as the Union navy had already learned. They would also be formidable against any Federal land operations. The predominantly dirt roads of Mississippi also portended problems for Grant. Heavy rains would turn them into ribbons of quagmire. Luckily for the Federals, the weather would be dry during the weeks of the final campaign in the spring and summer of 1863.


Both sides attempted to take advantage of geographical factors. The Confederates fortified the bluffs and filled navigable streams with obstructions. The Federals planned amphibious operations to take advantage of their naval superiority. Also, as the course of the coming campaigns proved, with so much territory to defend around Vicksburg the Confederates were vulnerable to diversions, and Grant proved to be a master of diversionary strategy.

Ulysses Simpson Grant was 40 years old when he began his first major effort to reduce Vicksburg in the fall of 1862. An Ohio native, Grant graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, class of 1843, and was a distinguished veteran of the Mexican War. Despite his military success, Grant had personal problems, which he allegedly tried to solve by turning to alcohol, and he eventually resigned from the army in 1854. Outside the military, Grant failed at most everything he tried, including farming, customhouse clerk, real estate salesman, politics (he ran for and was defeated in a St. Louis election for county engineer), and as a clerk in his brothers' leather store in Galena, Illinois. The war would end his streak of misfortune. Though his wife came from a slaveholding family, and he owned a slave (who he soon freed), Grant wasted no time in offering his services to the Union. The Federal government in Washington ignored his initial entreaties so he accepted an appointment as colonel of the 21st Illinois regiment in June 1861. Finally in August he was appointed brigadier general, thanks to friendship with a member of the Illinois congressional delegation. Grant gained his first national attention with the twin victories at Forts Henry and Donelson. His surrender demands on Fort Donelson led to him being dubbed "Unconditional Surrender" Grant and a promotion to major general. Then came the setback of the first day's fight at Shiloh and calls for his removal from command. Though Henry Halleck came to take over the army, Abraham Lincoln never seriously considered sacking Grant. Lincoln dismissed the general's critics with, "I can't spare this man. He fights."



The early phases of the Vicksburg campaign proved disappointing for Grant, but he displayed the tenacity and firmness of purpose that characterized the remainder of his military career. Undaunted by the problems inherent in taking the Confederate fortress on the Mississippi, Grant plunged ahead. Fortunately for the Union, this able commander had many able lieutenants serving under him, and he established and maintained a good working relationship with most of them.

Chief among them and Grant's closest confidant was Major General William Tecumseh "Cump" Sherman, 42. Like Grant, Sherman's prewar years had been troubled. Adopted by a prominent Ohio family early in life, Sherman had many opportunities available to him. With the influence of his foster father, Sherman managed a West Point appointment, graduating in 1840. Sherman missed the Mexican War, serving out his post-West Point years in California. Sherman left the army in 1853 to enter a banking business in San Francisco that ultimately failed, as did his attempts at the practice of law in Kansas. In 1859 he became superintendent of the school that is today Louisiana State University. He made many Southern friends but strongly opposed secession. Sherman passionately longed for order in his life and saw the Federal government as the country's best hope for maintaining order. When war came, Sherman volunteered to fight for the North, promising his misguided Southern friends a hard war and a soft peace. He would deliver on both promises.

Appointed colonel of the 13th U.S. Infantry in May 1861, Sherman was eventually given a brigade which he commanded in the first battle of Manassas in July 1861. Cump was one of the few shining stars for the Federal army in that lost battle. A few weeks later he transferred to Kentucky to help hold that wavering border state in the Union. Sherman took his duties seriously, perhaps too seriously. His rough handling of the press and his insistence that already superior Union forces needed thousands more men led to charges of insanity by his press enemies. Sherman survived this dip in his career and went on to serve valiantly at Shiloh, despite having his camps overrun on the first day. In May 1862, he was promoted to major general and would lead an unsuccessful flank attack on Vicksburg during Grant's initial operations. During the final, successful campaign, Sherman led the XV Corps.


Atop the Wisconsin monument in the Vicksburg National Military Park sits the effigy of an eagle, and therein lies an unusual Civil War tale.

The eagle, named Old Abe in honor of President Abraham Lincoln, had been purchased in 1861 by recruits from Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The young eagle had originally belonged to an Indian who took it from its nest and later traded it for goods at a country store. The Eau Claire soldiers, who later formed Company C, 8th Wisconsin, adopted Old Abe as their mascot. The 8th became known as the "eagle regiment" and delighted in hearing that Confederates had heard all about their "Yankee buzzard."

Slightly wounded in the 1862 battle of Corinth, Old Abe survived the Vicksburg campaign unscathed. He was officially retired from duty in 1864 and donated to the state of Wisconsin. The pampered eagle had his own room in the basement of the state capitol building. In 1881, Old Abe got sick from smoke fumes from a fire that burned paints and oils in the basement. He never fully recovered, dying shortly after the fire. He was then mounted and placed on display in the capitol until 1904, when the capitol building and his remains burned.


Other significant commanders under Grant's command during the Vicksburg campaign included Brigadier General Alvin P. Hovey, 41, an Indianan who had been impressive at Shiloh and who commanded a division in the XIII Corps; Brigadier General Peter J. Osterhaus, 39, a native of Germany, who led a division in the XIII Corps; Major General James Birdseye McPherson, an Ohioan and West Pointer (ranked first in the class of 1853) who turned 34 in November 1862, commander of the XVII Corps; Illinois native and Brigadier General (promoted to major general during the campaign) John A. "Black Jack" Logan, at 36 already earning a reputation as one of the Union army's best civilian commanders, who commanded a division of McPherson's Corps; Eugene A. Carr, 32, a New Yorker and brigadier who led a division of the XIII Corps; and Major General John A. McClernand, 52. McClernand, like Lincoln, was a Kentuckian by birth who, also like Lincoln, grew up in Illinois.


McClernand, a stereotypical political general, led the XIII Corps during the Vicksburg campaign. His frequent attempts to take the credit for success, his attempts at political manipulations, and his criticism of Grant made him unwelcome in Grant's family of commanders. McClernand would be removed from command before the conclusion of the campaign.

Coming to Mississippi to oppose Grant was Confederate Major General John Clifford Pemberton. Pemberton, 48, a Pennsylvania native who had sided with the South because of the influence of his Virginia-born wife, arrived in Jackson, Mississippi, on October 9, 1862, to take command of the newly created Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana. He was soon elevated to lieutenant general. There was nothing in Pemberton's background that made him a logical choice for the task of defending Vicksburg and the surrounding area.

A West Pointer, class of 1837, Pemberton had seen action in the Second Seminole War and the Mexican War. During the latter he had served as an aide to General William J. Worth and had twice been cited for bravery. Yet in both wars his primary experience and accomplishments had been as a staff officer, not a combat soldier. After the Mexican War, Pemberton served in a variety of posts from the Atlantic coast to the western territories. At West Point, he had been very popular with his classmates and seldom missed a party, but his years in the military seemed to harden his personality. Before the Civil War Pemberton had become something of a martinet, so much so that an angry private at one post had almost killed him.


After making the agonizing decision to fight for the Confederacy, Pemberton came to his wife's native Virginia, instructed recruits, and then supervised the placement of artillery batteries along rivers and coastal areas east of the Confederate capital of Richmond. By this time, he had risen from a colonel of artillery in the Virginia state army to brigadier general in the Confederate army. From his West Point days forward, Pemberton had showed a talent for playing politics in the military, and this may account for his rapid rise in rank, which continued until he was promoted to lieutenant general on the threshold of the Vicksburg campaign.

Pemberton's career took a fateful turn when he reported to Charleston, South Carolina, in November 1861 to serve in the Department of South Carolina and Georgia (and parts of Florida) under Robert B. Lee, future famous commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Eventually Lee returned to Virginia, and Pemberton, by reason of his seniority among the local brigadiers, was promoted to major general and took command on March 14, 1862. Pemberton's experiences in South Carolina were not pleasant. After a shaky start, he exhibited some of his administrative talents in supervising the numerous logistical problems of the department, but the strategic and tactical concepts he employed deeply angered South Carolina officials. For example, he wanted to evacuate Fort Sumter so as to constrict his defensive line. But Fort Sumter was the symbol of secession and the birth of the Confederacy, and South Carolina governor Francis Pickens was enraged at the very idea of giving it up. Pemberton's inexperience in dealing with civilian officials was apparent, as was his lack of public relations expertise in general.



A major turning point for the beleaguered general came when he told the mayor of Charleston that, given the choice, he would give up the city rather than sacrifice his army in its defense. The mayor told the governor, who passed it along to Richmond. Lee, now acting as military adviser to Jefferson Davis, sent Pemberton a lengthy message stating in no uncertain terms that Charleston must be held at all costs. Unfortunately for the Confederacy, Pemberton took Lee's words more literally than Lee probably meant them.

Pemberton's performance in his department continued to attract criticism until President Davis finally removed him from command in August 1862. Pemberton wanted to return to Virginia, but Davis, who still had confidence in his general and was miffed at Pemberton's South Carolina critics, decided to send Pemberton to Mississippi. Even though allegedly endorsed by Lee and Adjutant General Samuel Cooper, Davis's decision remains difficult to understand. While combat opportunities in South Carolina had been sporadic, they surely would be plentiful in the Vicksburg area, and Pemberton still had no experience at leading an army in the field. He also had shown little ability to boost morale, to inspire confidence in his leadership. His administrative talents had served him well enough, but his new command required much more.



Unlike Grant, Pemberton did not have a close lieutenant like Sherman to support him during the coming campaign. Pemberton's generals were dramatically divergent in talent, ranging from mediocre to superior. He was never able to mold them into a successful fighting team. John S. Bowen was Pemberton's best combat general. The 32-year-old Bowen, a native of Georgia, graduated from West Point in 1853. He resigned from the army after three years and was working as an architect in St. Louis, Missouri, when the war came. Captured with pro-Confederates at Camp Jackson near St. Louis in 1861, Bowen was released and became colonel of the First Missouri (Confederate) Infantry. He initially saw action at Columbus, Kentucky, and was promoted to brigadier general in March 1862. He led a brigade in Breckinridge's division at Shiloh, where he fell wounded. He also participated in the Corinth campaign, fighting the fierce rear-guard action that saved Van Dorn's army. He later brought charges against Van Dorn, who was eventually cleared by a court-martial. A born fighter, Bowen had little patience with incompetent superiors or subordinates. Yet his men loved him despite his martinet tendencies. Had Pemberton had a few more Bowens to send into the field, the Vicksburg campaign might have turned out very differently. Before the campaign concluded, Bowen's performance earned a promotion to major general.

One of Bowen's top subordinates, Colonel Francis Marion Cockrell, 28, a lawyer by profession, also performed brilliantly during the campaign. A native of the "Show Me" state, Cockrell would command the Missouri brigade in Bowen's division and would be promoted to brigadier general shortly after the fall of Vicksburg.


Other Pemberton lieutenants included Major General Martin Luther Smith, 43, a New Yorker and West Pointer, class of 1842, with Southern sympathies and a Georgia wife, who had engineering skills and commanded the Vicksburg garrison during various aspects of the campaign; Major General William W. Loring, 44, a North Carolinian, Mexican War veteran, and troublemaker, who came to Mississippi after service in Virginia and commanded a division in Pemberton's army; Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman, 46, a Maryland native and West Pointer (class of 1836), an old friend of Pemberton with whom he would feud during the campaign, who commanded a brigade in Loring's division; Major General Carter L. Stevenson, 45-year-old Virginian, West Pointer (class of 1838), veteran of the Mexican War and the Confederate invasion of Kentucky in 1862, who commanded a division under Pemberton; Brigadier General John Gregg, an Alabama native, 34, who led a brigade of Texans and Tennesseans; Brigadier General Martin E. Green, 47, a Virginian who lived in Missouri in 1861 and organized a Missouri cavalry regiment before commanding a brigade in Bowen's division; and Stephen D. Lee, 29-year-old South Carolinian and West Pointer (class of 1854), an experienced artillerist, who served in Virginia until being assigned to command Pemberton's artillery in Vicksburg in November 1862.

Joseph E. Johnston was forced into playing a role in the campaign that he did not want and which set the stage for an everlasting controversy about his conduct.

Other officers destined to play significant roles in the coming campaign included Earl Van Dorn, Brigadier General Franklin Gardner, and General Joseph Eggleston Johnston. Van Dorn, a 42-year-old Mississippian, was placed in charge of Pemberton's cavalry after the former's defeats at Pea Ridge, Arkansas, and Corinth. Events showed that cavalry suited Van Dorn's talents much more than army command. A New York native, Gardner, 39, was given command early in 1863 of Port Hudson, where he would suffer the same fate as Pemberton.

Joseph E. Johnston was forced into playing a role in the campaign that he did not want and which set the stage for an everlasting controversy about his conduct. The 55-year-old Virginian had not had a positive war experience. There had been quarrels with Jefferson Davis over Johnston's position of seniority among Confederate generals, and he had lost command of the Confederate army in Virginia following a severe wound at Seven Pines in May 1862. By the time he recovered, the army had passed permanently to the command of Robert E. Lee.

Previous Top Next


History and Culture