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Vicksburg Siege


From her strategic location on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, Vicksburg became a fortress. For 47 days in 1863 Vicksburg and her people were entangled in a siege that changed the course of America’s history.

In October 1862, Vicksburg became the focus of military operations for Maj. General Ulysses S. Grant who was ordered to clear the Mississippi of Confederate resistance, and Lt. General John C, Pemberton, who with about 50,000 scattered Confederate troops, was expected to keep the river open. 

Campaign for Vicksburg
Vicksburg was protected by heavy gun batteries along the riverfront, swamps and bayous to the north and south and by a ring of forts mounting 172 guns that guarded all land approaches. Grant failed in a direct attack on Dec. 29, when he sent Sherman toward Vicksburg by way of Chickasaw Bayou, where he was defeated.  Grant next tried a series of amphibious operations aimed at forcing the city’s surrender. Despite Grant’s large riverboat flotilla and supporting warships, all failed, including an effort to bypass the Vicksburg batteries by digging a canal.  By spring, Grant decided to march his army of 45, 000 men down the Louisiana side of the Mississippi, cross the river below Vicksburg, and attack the city from the south or east. 

Grant tried to cross the river at Grand Gulf, south of Vicksburg, but his gunboats failed due to strong Confederate defensive works and determined resistance.  Rather than a direct assault on the powerful fortifications in his way at Grand Gulf, Grant chose to bypass the formidable works. Instead he marched his army further south and used riverboats to cross to the East side of the river nine miles below Grand Gulf, effectively outflanking the formidable position.

Grant marched further south and then eastward where he defeated elements of Pemberton’s forces and captured Jackson, the state capital on May 14. He then turned west towards Vicksburg. On May 16, at Champion Hill, Grant defeated Pemberton’s army in a bloody action.  The next day, Federal troops drove Confederate troops back into the Vicksburg fortifications. After several attacks, Grant, reluctant to expend more of his men’s lives, surrounded the city and began siege operations.  Confederate soldiers and civilians were surrounded by a powerful army, unable to obtain arms, ammunition, food or medicine, but refused surrender.

Besieged City
Enduring the hardships of sweltering heat, mosquitoes, exhaustion, hunger from reduced rations, sickness, depression and a longing for home, soldiers and civilians survived the best that they knew how. Some kept diaries that helped to relieve the tension of battle. Others held tight to their religious beliefs as evidenced by the Bible carried by a Confederate at Vicksburg during the Siege.

Newsprint became so scarce during the siege that J. M. Swords, the newspaper’s publisher, began printing Vicksburg’s newspaper, The Daily Citizen using wallpaper.  The news of the day was relayed to citizens and soldiers in the besieged city.  Upon Vicksburg’s surrender on July 4, 1863, the publisher fled, and the Union forces marched into the city.  Finding the type of the Citizen still standing, Union soldiers added the now famous note of July 4 in the lower right-hand corner and printed a final edition.

JULY 4th, 1863
Two days bring about great changes,
The banner of the Union floats over
Vicksburg.  Gen. Grant has “caught the
rabbit;” he has dined in Vicksburg, and
he did bring his dinner with him.  The
“Citizen” lives to see it.  For the last
time it appears on “Wall Paper.”  No
more will it eulogize the luxury of mule meat
and Fricasseed kitten-urge Southern warriors
to such diet nevermore.  This is the last
wall-paper edition, and is, excepting this note,
from types as we found them.  It will be valuable
 hereafter as a curiosity.

Artillery batteries hammered Confederate fortifications from land and gunboats blasted the city from the river. By the end of June, Pemberton knew he would need to “capitulate upon the best attainable terms.” The surrender of Vicksburg and Port Hudson, together with the defeat of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg, July 1-3, signaled a turning point in the Civil War.  Although fighting continued for another 21 months, Federal control of the Mississippi River helped to ensure the survival of the Union.

Occupied City
After its surrender Vicksburg served as an important base for Federal military operations throughout the region and was an exchange point for prisoners-of-war. A force of 5,000 U.S. Colored Troops patrolled the streets and manned the city’s defenses. During this time, Vicksburg’s white citizens endured the suspension of civil liberties and were required to take loyalty oaths or face arrest or banishment from the city; while the Freedmen’s Bureau, an active Federal government agency, worked to feed, clothe, and educate the former slaves. The return of commerce along the Mississippi River enabled Vicksburg and its citizens, black and white, to rise from the ashes of war  and rebuild the city with a new social order. Although Mississippi was readmitted to the Union in 1870, Federal troops continued to occupy portions of the state until 1877.


The successful joint operations of U.S. land and naval forces played a significant role in determining the outcome of the Vicksburg campaign, and therefore the Civil War, this nation’s greatest struggle to define itself.

Vicksburg sits high on the bluffs of the Mississippi River. Jefferson Davis described it as “the nailhead that held the South’s two halves together.” President Lincoln recognized the importance of capturing Vicksburg, saying, “See what a lot of land these fellows hold, of which Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket. We can take all the northern ports of the Confederacy, and they can defy us from Vicksburg. It means hog and hominy without limit, fresh troops from all the states of the far South, and a cotton country where they can raise the staple without interference. I am acquainted with that region and know what I am talking about, and, as valuable as New Orleans will be to us, Vicksburg will be more so.”

Anaconda Plan

Union General Winfield Scott proposed a plan to achieve a Northern victory. It was called the “Anaconda Plan” as it would strangle the Confederacy by cutting it off from external markets and sources of material. It included blockading Southern coasts and securing control of the Mississippi River. The term "Anaconda" was a derisive name, originally coined by the press mocking the General-in-Chief Winfield Scott for how long the plan would take to implement.

After two unsuccessful attacks against Vicksburg in May 1863, Grant concluded that Vicksburg could not be taken by storm. He later wrote, “I now determined upon a regular siege, to ‘outcamp the enemy,’ as it were, and to incur no more losses.” Vicksburg was cut off from supplies and communications. Grant’s plan included tunneling beneath Vicksburg’s garrison to place charges of black powder and destroy fortifications.  

Army and Navy Cooperation
The success of Grant’s operations depended on an unprecedented cooperation of the Army and the Navy.  Grant relied on the gunboats and ironclads for firepower and the transports to move men and supplies.

Besieged City
Through constant bombardments into the besieged city, surrender terms were finally sought by Confederate General John C. Pemberton. On July 3, General Grant and Pemberton met beneath an oak tree  near the Third Louisiana redan [fortification], to discuss terms of surrender. Grant wanted unconditional surrender. Pemberton did not agree. The two parted without agreement. Later that evening, Grant sent word to Pemberton that he would parole the Confederate forces. At 10:00 am, on July 4, 1863, the weary Confederates put down their weapons and marched out of their fortifications to be paroled. All men had to sign a parole stating that they would not take up arms against the U.S. until exchanged. 

On learning of Vicksburg’s surrender, President Lincoln wrote, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.”  The Union victory at Vicksburg weakened the Confederacy by splitting it in half and isolating the Southern states of Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas.  The North was also strengthened when the Mississippi was opened by reducing economic pressure on the Midwest and Plains states.

For the Confederacy, the surrender of Vicksburg, Robert E. Lee’s loss at Gettysburg and the fall of Port Hudson, Louisiana, signaled the beginning of the end of the Confederacy and the Civil War.

Command and Control

The successes of Union operations during the Vicksburg Campaign were a direct result of the strength of their command and control, and the unprecedented cooperation of the Union Army and Navy.  This was in stark contrast to the failure of Confederate operations which were a direct result of their weaknesses in command and control. 

At the onset of the Civil War, President Lincoln clarified what war meant and why it was worth the cost. Operations on the northern and southern portions of the river, as well as, operations along the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers set the stage for an advance on Vicksburg.  These successful Union operations provided a classroom and testing ground for the commanders and the roles they would play at Vicksburg.  In January 1863, Ulysses S. Grant took command of the 60,000 man Army of the Tennessee.  He began preparations for the capture of Vicksburg and control of the Mississippi River. Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, Commander of the Confederate troops at Vicksburg, also began preparations for the impending battle.  They had built a line of defensive earthworks nine miles long surrounding Vicksburg.

Once the Vicksburg Campaign began, Union Commanders realized that Vicksburg was easier taken in strategy meetings than in actuality, due to the geography of the land. Both sides made mistakes. Lives were lost and families torn apart.  Between February and April 1863, there were four unsuccessful bayou expeditions.  In an unparalleled bold maneuver Grant marched his army overland through Louisiana, while the Navy slipped past the Confederate defenses.  They established a river crossing and beachhead south of Vicksburg.  Cut off from direct support, the Union forces maneuvered the Confederates into Vicksburg using bold strategy and desperate battles.  After several attempts, Grant determined that Vicksburg could not be taken by storm. He began siege operations.

For 47 days Vicksburg and her people were entangled in a siege that changed the course of our nation’s history. Enduring the hardships of sweltering heat, mosquitoes, exhaustion, hunger from reduced rations, sickness, depression and a longing for home, soldiers and civilians survived the best that they knew how. On July 3, Pemberton concluded that his troops and the city could not last much longer. That afternoon, Pemberton and Grant met between the lines to discuss surrender terms. Initially the two were unable to reach an agreement because Grant demanded unconditional surrender and Pemberton would not agree. The following day, on July 4, 1863, surrender terms were reached that allowed the Confederates to sign paroles not to fight again until exchanged. Union forces then marched into the city. 

With the fall of Vicksburg, Grant had accomplished one of the most successful military victories in history. Today the Vicksburg Campaign is still considered one of the masterpieces of American military history and is closely studied by military strategists.

River Warfare

The ironclad warship, USS Cairo and her sister ships reflect rapid advances in industrial and naval technology in mid-19th century America, a pivotal period in naval warfare history.

When the Civil War began in 1861, most ships were constructed of wood and powered by sail. Design and construction hadn’t changed much in 200 years. The launch of the U.S.S. Carondelet in 1861, the first ironclad built in the Western Hemisphere, signaled a new era of naval warfare.  She combined old and new technologies. New developments included the steam driven engine, armor plating, and shell guns.  These vessels were perfect for operating in the shallow coastal waters and rivers of the South.

Steam Engines
The steam engine was not a new invention, and was described by an Egyptian scientist in 120 B.C.  In the 1600s and 1700s, steam engines were developed for use in pumping water out of mines.  By the 1800s, the steam engine had developed sufficiently to use in boats and ships.  Steam became a primary source of power and sail secondary.  In the early1800s steamboats became popular and revolutionized river transportation, particularly on the Mississippi and other Western Rivers.  Development continued and by the time James Buchanan Eads built the Cairo and her six sisters, the steam engine design had been standardized.  Cairo used two single-cylinder, non-condensing, reciprocating main steam engines and five coal-fired flue boilers.  The engines were simple and robust, so that they were easy to maintain.  Steam from the boilers was used once in the engines and then exhausted up the smokestacks to help improve the draft of the boilers. The five long, cylindrical boilers each used large pipes through their length, called flues, to heat the water and produce steam for the main engines and various steam pumps.

Iron  Plating
Vulnerable parts of the Cairo’s superstructure were covered in iron plating for protection from enemy gunfire.  Unlike wooden sides, which could turn into huge splinters when hit, armor plating was less likely to shatter when hit by a projectile. Wooden backing worked as an effective “shock absorber” when vessels were hit. The iron plating of the gunboat’s wooden pilothouse, forward casemate, and the casemates of the port and starboard sides over the engines and boilers consisted of 122 tons of 2-1/2" iron plating.  Unfortunately for several sister ships, the weight of armor plating prevented its use over the entire superstructure.  Dozens of crewmen were scalded to death when the boilers were hit by enemy gunfire that penetrated gaps in the armor. 

Explosive Shells
Explosive shells were more destructive to wooden ships than solid shot. Wood could absorb iron shot, limiting damage to small holes and large splinters, but explosive shells tore large holes in wood and produced many more splinters. For centuries, solid shot was used exclusively against ships until the introduction of Henri-Joseph Paixhans’ shell gun. The shell gun allowed for horizontal firing of shells and improved accuracy.  Before, shells could only be fired from mortars at high angles making ships quite difficult targets. The introduction of rifled ordnance at about the same time as the shell gun made both more accurate and deadly.

U.S.S. Cairo
Cairo was armed with 13 guns capable of firing shells. Her armament included three 42-PDR Army rifles, three 64-PDR Navy Smoothbores (also called 8”), six 32-PDR Navy Smoothbores, and one 30-PDR Parrott rifle.  The mix of rifles and smoothbore shell guns offered capabilities against a range of targets.

During the Vicksburg Campaign, ironclads were used extensively to provide additional firepower during bombardments, and patrol the Mississippi and its tributaries for enemy activity.  They were also used as shields when the Navy convoyed fragile troop transports past the Confederate guns defending Vicksburg.

Despite the armor plating and new technology, Cairo was not invincible. On December 12, 1862 she was patrolling the Yazoo River 7 miles north of Vicksburg.  The Cairowas leading an armed flotilla against Confederate gun battery positions and torpedoes along the river.  Shortly before noon, as the captain, Lt. Commander Selfridge ordered the guns to ready; the Cairowas struck twice by torpedoes or mines.  Despite the losses of more than a dozen armored vessels, the USS Cairo and other ironclads became the most influential fighting machines during the Civil War.

Life Aboard

Life aboard the U.S.S. Cairo gunboat was full of challenges for her inexperienced crew. When they were not in battle, the men had a daily routine, kept busy with a variety of leisure time activities, and gathered in the mess to eat three meals a day.

The Crew
A full complement for the U.S.S. Cairo consisted of 175 men. There were 17 officers and 158 sailors. The youngest crew member was 14 at enlistment and the oldest was 64. Many were immigrants.  They came from Ireland, France, England, Canada, Russia, Germany, Norway, Nova Scotia, Scotland and Sweden.  The crew's former occupations were diverse. They included a blacksmith, brewer, farmer, machinist, painter, sail maker, school teacher, stage driver, stone cutter, whip maker, and finally, a sailor.  As many serving on the Cairo and her sister ships had no prior naval experience, they had to learn the duties of manning a gunboat on board.  One sailor on the U.S.S. Carondelet wrote his brother the following: “If you are ignorant of your duties, it is nothing more than is the case with everyone, with the exception only of the Captain and a few eastern Officers… Indeed, I have been surprised to find so many totally ignorant of their duties and like myself have to pick up gradually   two thirds of them do not know anymore about their requirements than I do [Experience] is not particularly essential; …all that will be required below the Captain can be learned and performed in the course of a few weeks.”

Daily Routine
The crew had a rigid schedule. Up at 5:30 am, they dressed, and then rolled and stored their hammocks. Breakfast of hard biscuit or hard tack and coffee was served between 6:00 – 6:45 am.  Then to the top deck or hurricane deck to perform the morning ritual of scrubbing, swabbing and "holystoning" the decks. Holystoning involved using a flat stone to clean and scrape the deck of dirt and salt residue. As 1st Class Boy, 14-year old George Yost wrote in his journal, “….the decks were holy stoned until they were white as a linen sheet…”

The crew spent much of their time training on the 13 guns.  The Cairo’s armament included three 42-PDR Army Rifles, three 64-PDR Navy Smoothbores (also called 8”), six 32-PDR Navy Smoothbores and one 30-PDR Parrott Rifle. Each gun required six men for firing. Each man had to perform the duties of his assigned position flawlessly. Lieutenant Thomas O. Selfridge, Captain of the Cairo, was a strict disciplinarian who woke the crew in the middle of the night to hold surprise drills. It was critical that the men were able to respond in a safe and timely manner. Gun drill continued until 4:00 p.m. during the winter and 5:00 p.m. in the summer.

The men had free time after the evening meal. Those who could write, penned letters to their loved ones, others read. Men whittled and carved the time away. They played musical instruments, and games such as dominoes. By 9:00 p.m. those not on watch duty were expected to be asleep in their hammocks.

Personal Hygiene
Once the decks were cleaned, the men were given a brief period to clean and ready themselves for the daily inspection. Cleanliness was very important. If during an  inspection, a crewmember was found to fail, the penalty was fearful. For on the night of the offense, the offender would be ordered to strip off his clothing and he would be given a sand bath, which was extremely painful. After undergoing such harsh treatment, the offender would take extra measures so as not to repeat this offense.

Meals aboard the Cairo
Meals aboard the ironclad were usually served three times a day. The morning meal was served at 6:00 a.m. The midday meal included salted beef and beans or salted pork and beans. The evening meal was served at around 5:00 p.m. Occasionally, if it was deemed safe, the men went ashore to hunt deer. They also fished from the sides of the gunboat to supplement their meals. The men ate in messes or groups of thirteen. Officers ate separately from the enlisted men.


The Cairo crew’s food preparation and eating utensils provide insight into 19th century navy foodways.  Taking meals together was a social occasion.  Enlisted men ate in messes or groups of 13.  Each mess was assigned a wooden chest to house all the eating utensils. The chest typically held 13 tin mess cups, tin plates, spoons, a dishpan, a scrub brush and sponge, a coffee container and several bottles of Navy issued mustard and pepper. They also contained earthenware jugs of molasses.  Two men served as cooks aboard Cairo, William Daily served as the Ship Cook and John Richardson served as Officer’s Cook. 

Officers ate separately from the enlisted.  They dined on white ironstone dishes with silverware and not tin plates and cups. Meals aboard were usually served three times daily. The morning meal was served at 6:00 a.m.  The noon meal included salt beef and beans or salted pork and beans. The evening meal was served at around 5:00 p.m. Officers had wine and champagne with meals. Several bottles that had contained soft drinks,  labeled “J. H. Kump, Memphis, Tenn”were recovered from the officers mess.

Sometimes, if it was deemed safe to do so, the men went ashore to hunt for deer or they could fish from the sides of the gunboat to supplement their meals. Records indicate that at least on one occasion, a landing party went ashore and killed a sheep to supplement their meat supply.

Navy Rations
On August 29, 1842, Public Law No. 81 was approved. This act established and regulated the navy ration. A typical daily ration for naval personnel consisted of the following:

Monday - 1 pound of pork, one half pint of beans, 15 ounces of bread

Tuesday - 1 pound of beef, 8 ounces of flour, 2 ounces of dried fruit, 14
ounces of bread

Wednesday - 1 pound of pork, one half pint of beans, 14 ounces of bread

Thursday - 12 ounces of preserved meat, 14 ounces of bread, 1 ounce of
desiccated vegetables

Friday - 1 pound of beef, 14 ounces of bread, 1 half pint of molasses, 1 half pint of vinegar

Saturday - 1 pound of pork, 1 half pint of beans, 14 ounces of bread, 2
ounces of dried fruit

Sunday - 12 ounces of preserved meat, 14 ounces of bread, 8 ounces of rice, 1 ounce of desiccated vegetables

Medical Equipment

Surgeries have been performed since ancient times. A piece of flint stone was probably the first surgeon’s tool. Physicians of the day knew nothing about infections or the need for sanitizing equipment to prevent spread of disease and as a result two-thirds of the 618,000 fatalities suffered on both sides during the Civil War were caused from disease. Surgical instruments were issued by the government to each medical officer. They were contained in different cases depending upon whether their use was for a major or minor operation. Pocket or roll up surgical kits were carried by the surgeon into battle.

Very few of the medical instruments used by Cairo's Surgeon J. Otis Burt or Surgeon's Steward  John W. Gerten (who before joining the ranks had been a butcher) were found. Many medicine bottles were found.  Some were found to contain their original liquids and compounds. Samples were taken from each of the bottles and were sent to pharmaceutical companies to be analyzed. Results from chemists indicated that these bottles contained the following:  quinine, rhubarb, ammonia, sulphur, an antidote for itch, blue mass for syphilis, zinc chloride and ferric chloride which was prescribed by the Cairo’s surgeon as an iron tonic. Bottles with glass stoppers could be identified without professional assistance. These bottles were found to contain iodine, sulphur, castor oil, camphor, turpentine, and linseed oil.

Past Times

Smoking Devices
Smoking and chewing tobacco was very prevalent aboard the ironclad as evidenced by the amount of tobacco and the number of smoking pipes recovered from Cairo.

Writing Devices
During free time following the evening meal, men took advantage of this time to write letters home to their loved ones. A number of pencils, made by the Eberhard Faber Company, still in existence today as Faber Castille survived over a century while buried in the mud and silt of the Yazoo River.

Recreational Devices
During the evenings following supper, when the men were not training on the guns, the men enjoyed playing dominoes, carving or playing music to pass the time.

Personal Gear and Items

Personal Gear
Personal gear was issued to the crew about once per month by one of Cairo’s three quartermasters, 64 year-old, Thomas Kennedy, 26 year-old D.D. Knapp, or 31 year-old Christen Kruse, from Denmark. 

Clothing and Footgear
Very few textiles survived. Lots of leather scraps, shoes and a variety of buttons were recovered. Some black silk neckerchiefs survived, one still knotted from the last time that it was worn by a Cairo sailor.

Sewing Notions
Cairo Sailors were responsible for mending their own uniforms. They carried sewing kits called “housewives.”  These kits usually contained small scissors, pins, needles, linen thread, spare buttons and thimbles.

Cairo Technical Items

Tools and Utilitarian Devices
A wide variety of tools, equipment and technical items were recovered from the sunken ironclad. These provide insight into what the crew and officers did to keep the ironclad afloat and man a gunboat.

Blacksmithing was an important function aboard the ironclad, given the large amount of metal aboard. The Cairo’s blacksmith set up shop on the top deck.

Much of the communication with the crew was handled through the boatswain. Throughout the day, the crew would hear the sharp pitched piping of the boatswain’s whistle as they were ordered to perform tasks aboard the gunboat.

Navigational Devices
The 400 pound brass bell served as a signaling device to signal, in heavy fog, to other vessels of the Cairo’s approach. The signal board also helped navigation as directions were passed through from the pilot house to the engine room informing engineers what actions to make. The hydrometer was used to help determine specific gravity when measuring water depth.