Educator's Guide: The River and the Campaign


"whether any of us will ever be able to live contented in times of peace and laziness. Our generation has been stirred up from its lowest layers and there is that in its history which will stamp every member of it until we are all in our graves. We cannot be commonplace... One does every day and without a thought, what at another time would be the event of the year, perhaps a life." Henry Adams, Secretary U.S. Embassy London, England 1863

More than one hundred and thirty years have passed since the Civil War divided our nation, yet this conflict still haunts us. This background section will not cover the causes, the politics, nor the major battles of the Civil War, for these topics have been written about in depth and in countless volumes. Your textbooks and curriculum should be your guide to these topics. Feel free to adapt or modify the activities in this guide to help your students understand the other facets of the Civil War. This section will introduce you to one segment of that great conflict, Vicksburg's role in the Civil War.

The River

To study the Vicksburg Campaign without a map of the United States is similar to trying to find your way out of a dark room without a flashlight. Spread out a large map of the United States, preferably on the floor where your students can gather around it. Divide the nation in two, Confederate and Union. Now have them imagine they are the Presidents of these two nations. What is the most important geographical feature your army needs to control to remain a united nation?

General William T. Sherman called the Mississippi River "the spinal column of America." Have your students highlight the Mississippi River in one color and the tributaries in another color. Make sure the students follow the rivers to their source. The Mississippi River indeed looks like a spinal column with tributaries the rib cage. In the 1800's these rivers were the roadways that transported a nation's goods. Long before the railroad and interstates, the Mississippi River was the economic strength of the country. By the 1840's, the river was transporting goods worth more than one hundred million dollars. Even the railroad could not replace the value of the river.

Old Man River, The Great River, Big Muddy, The Father of Waters, The River, The Mississippi... however it is known it is not commonplace. The Mississippi River drains half a continent. The river basin is larger than Great Britain, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Italy, Greece and Turkey combined. In the words of Mark Twain, "It is the crookedest river in the world." The Mississippi River Valley with its fertile lands has been home to humans for more than 10,000 years. Native Americans used its banks to build great cities and the water to travel to Canada and Mexico to trade with other tribes. The explorer Hernando DeSoto was the first European to catch a glimpse of the great river. He died and was buried on its banks.

For one hundred and fifty years, no one explored the river, despite rumors of a mighty river to the west. In 1673 a French merchant, Louis Joliet and a priest, Jacques Marquette reached the junction of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers. Canoeing down river in eerie solitude for two weeks, they landed one night and discovered footprints. Following the footprints the next morning, the two men came upon an Indian settlement. Treated to a banquet and given a friendly farewell, the explorers continued downstream. Travelling a short distance they heard a roar: "a torrent of yellow mud rushed furiously athwart the calm blue current of the Mississippi, boiling and surging and sweeping in its course logs, branches and uprooted trees." This was the mouth of the Missouri River, "that savage river."

They passed the Ohio, through canebreaks and sandbars; they fought mosquitoes, floating along day after day for a month. Finally reaching the mouth of the Arkansas River, the two men turned back. Joliet and Marquette knew the Mississippi River did not drain into the Gulf of California, but the Gulf of Mexico. The two explorers carried the news of their discoveries back to Canada. But believing was not proof. It was up to French explorer Richard LaSalle to prove the final end to the river. He sailed passed the bluffs where Vicksburg would be, visited the Natchez Indians, passed the bayous and into the Gulf of Mexico, where he claimed the mighty river for King Louis of France.

Five flags have flown over the bluffs of Vicksburg: French, Spanish, English, Confederate and American. The French constructed Fort St. Pierre in the early 18th century, followed by the Spanish and English. The Spanish called it Fort Nogales (meaning walnut); the English referred to the area as Walnut Hills. By the 1790's, the Spanish lost their rights to the area. The fort was abandoned and a small band of Americans occupied the fort until the army arrived. Major Kersey renamed it Fort McHenry. By the early 1800's Fort McHenry was abandoned for the defenses at Natchez.

In 1812, Newit Vick and his family arrived in the Walnut Hills. Naming the area "Vicksburgh", a city grew. By the 1830's, Vicksburg was a major port on the Mississippi River. A rail line connecting the western United States to Mississippi was placed at Vicksburg. The city became an economic force on the river. Vicksburg was known throughout the nation not only for its transportation center, but for its beautiful location. Sitting high on three hundred-foot bluffs, it was nicknamed "The Terraced City."

A dark night in April 1861 would bring Vicksburg into more prominence. The firing on Fort Sumter started the long dark road of the Civil War. Ask your students if they were the President of the Confederacy how would they protect the Mississippi River? Which side of the river would be the best to build forts? Which cities controlled railroad lines? Which cities were major ports? New Orleans, Memphis, Baton Rouge, Columbus, Port Hudson, Natchez, Vicksburg? Jefferson Davis called Vicksburg "The Gibraltar of America." By the summer of 1862, Vicksburg was the nail holding the Confederacy together.

How would you as President of the United States try to gain control of the river? Do you need to control the river? What cities would be the key to opening up the river? New Orleans, Memphis, Baton Rouge, Columbus, Port Hudson, Natchez and Vicksburg? Abraham Lincoln said of Vicksburg: "We may take all the northern ports of the Confederacy, and they can still 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 to raise the staple without interference."

To understand why the Mississippi River was crucial to both sides look at your map. By 1861, the Mississippi River was rich in legend, it had become a "national river. " Pioneers had crossed it to discover gold in California and the fertile lands of Oregon. It was the springboard to the west. The river was the economic lifeline of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Missouri. Without access to the ports on the Mississippi River there was no market for the crops grown in the breadbasket of America. As a boy from Wisconsin told his father as he left home to enlist: "the Confederacy can have South Carolina and Virginia and Georgia and whatever else it wants...he did not care a spit for them. But he was damned if they can have the Mississippi." To the Westerners in the North and South the issue was clear: the river was the key to the continent and to their nations. To control the Mississippi River Valley became a crusade. Vicksburg with its high bluffs, deep ravines and swamplands was a natural fortress. The city also served as a transportation center vital to the Confederacy. Fortified with earthworks and cannons, Vicksburg became a citadel that kept the Confederacy in control of the great river.

In the fall of 1861 two events in Missouri would help determine who controlled the river. On a cold damp day in October, the first ironclad vessel in the Western Hemisphere was launched. The Carondelet and her six sister boats would help shape the future of the river. The other was an insignificant looking general whose time in history had come.

The Campaign

No one knows for sure when Ulysses S. Grant formulated his plan to strike into the heartland of the Confederacy. Growing up in a small Ohio River town, he understood the importance of the river system. In the winter of 1862 the slow campaign to open up the Mississippi River Valley began with the capture of Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland. The assault on these forts was successful because of the relationship Grant had with Admiral Andrew H. Foote of the river navy. The combined army/navy offensive was so effective that it would be used over and over again.

In October 1862, Grant was appointed commander of the Army of the Tennessee and charged with clearing the Mississippi of Confederate resistance. That same month, Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, a Pennsylvanian by birth, assumed command of the Confederate forces ordered to keep possession of Vicksburg and the river. Vicksburg became the focus of military operations for both men.

Pemberton ordered his men to strengthen the fortifications at Vicksburg. A nine - mile curved line was constructed to protect the city from an attack on its land sides. The line ran from bluffs north of the city to the southern river bank. Artillery positions and earthen forts were built. Deep wide ditches were dug in front of the line so assaulting troops would have steep walls to climb before reaching the fortifications. Rifle pits were built to provide deadly crossfire. One hundred fifteen cannon and 31 heavy guns were placed on the hills and along river batteries. Deep gullies and ravines created broken and complicated terrain. Trees were cleared and abatis were constructed. The first assault for Vicksburg did not come from the east, but from the sea.

Admiral David Glasgow Farragut, with his ocean going sailing ships, had captured New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Natchez. He had come to Vicksburg expecting an easy victory; but the city refused to be intimidated by Farragut, his ships or his previous successes. After months of shelling the city, Farragut was forced to retreat in July 1862, before his deep sea flotilla was left high and dry in the summer drought.

The first battle went to the terraced city. While the Confederates were celebrating, an ominous cloud was approaching from the north . The ironclads of the river flotilla had opened the Mississippi River from Columbus, Kentucky to Memphis, Tennessee. Only Vicksburg and Port Hudson remained in Confederate hands.

The stage was set for a classic campaign. Men and women from twenty eight states, nearly 100,000 troops, would participate in a military crusade still studied today.

During the winter of 1862 - 1863, Grant conducted a series of amphibious operations aimed at reducing Vicksburg. Referred to as the Bayou Expeditions, they were a series of differing approaches: Yazoo Pass Expedition, Steele's Bayou, Lake Providence and Grant's Canal. All of them failed to capture Vicksburg, but succeeded in making the Union troops physically fit. By the spring of 1863, Grant set into motion a series of diversionary tactics. With the assistance of Admiral Porter and the river flotilla, Grant began to march to Vicksburg.

On March 31, 1863, the Army of the Tennessee moved from its encampment at Milliken's Bend, Louisiana. On April 16th, Porter's flotilla of gunboats and transport vessels ran passed the batteries of Vicksburg. By the 28th of April, the Union Army was established at Hard Times, Mississippi above the fortifications at Grand Gulf. Although Admiral Porter's gunboats bombarded the Confederate forts to prepare the way for a crossing, the Confederates were able to keep the Union Army on the western side of the Mississippi River. Grant then marched his troops further south, and on April 30th, his troops were transported across the river, unopposed, at Bruinsburg.

Rapidly moving eastward to secure the bridgehead, the Union Army met elements of Pemberton's Confederate forces near Port Gibson on May 1st. The Confederates fought a gallant holding action, but were overwhelmed and fell back toward Vicksburg. After meeting and defeating a small Confederate force near Raymond on May 12th, Grant's troops attacked and captured Jackson, the state capital, on May 14th, scattering its defenders.

Turning his army westward, Grant moved along the line of the Southern Railroad of Mississippi. At Champion Hill on May 16 and at Big Black River Bridge on May 17, his soldiers attacked and overwhelmed Pemberton's disorganized Confederates, driving them back into the Vicksburg fortifications. By May 18th, the advanced units of the Federal Army were now at the door to Vicksburg. The Union Army had marched hundreds of miles and fought five major battles in less than a month. On May 19th, Grant, thinking that Pemberton's troops were demoralized and arrogant about the Union victories, assaulted fortress Vicksburg. The attempt failed. A second assault was launched on May 22nd. It also failed.

Both commanders had their orders and neither would relent. Grant realized it was useless to expend more lives in attempts to take the city and ordered siege operations to begin. Admiral Porter's fleet began blasting the city and cut the communication along the river, while Grant hammered the fortifications from the land. Pemberton dug in and was prepared to wait it out. He sent a message to General Joseph Johnston asking for relief. He wanted Johnston to attack Grant from the east, so that the Union general would be trapped between the two Confederate armies. Relief never came. For forty seven days, the troops and civilians of Vicksburg endured bombardment and starvation. By the end of June, Pemberton realized that relief was not coming and his troops were too weak to fight their way out. Pemberton knew he must "capitulate upon his best attainable terms." On the afternoon of July 3rd, he met with Grant to discuss terms for the surrender of Vicksburg.

Grant demanded unconditional surrender; Pemberton refused. The meeting broke up. During the afternoon, the Federal commander modified his demands. The terms allowed the Confederates to sign paroles not to fight and the officers were allowed to retain their sidearms and mounts. Pemberton accepted these terms, and at 10 a.m. on July 4, 1863, Vicksburg was officially surrendered.

When Port Hudson surrendered five days later, the Mississippi River was opened. As President Lincoln said: "The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea." For the people who fought the campaign to defend or capture the great river, it was a crusade. A crusade whose price was 20,000 casualties, thirteen thousand of whom became unknown soldiers buried among the hills and bluffs of the Terraced City.

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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