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8-08-2015, 23:37

The War in the West

BYTHE BEGINNING of 1863, both North and South had reached the same conclusion: the war was a failure. Both bitterly denounced their respective leaders and politicians, both demanded more effort from their soldiers. One could suggest here a general rule, that modern war between even fairly equal opponents tends to become a war of attrition. Under such circumstances, it might appear reasonable that both sides should sit down and negotiate a peace settlement. The more normal course, however, is that both sides tend to intensify the conflict rather than back away from it, thus fulfilling Clausewitz's dictum that to the act of violence there can be no inherent limit, and that both sides will tend toward extremes. The American Civil War at the end of 1862 or the beginning of 1863 might therefore be compared to World War I at the end of 1915, or World War II in early 1942. In all three cases, at the stage mentioned, neither side had achieved a clear advantage; neither side was willing to make concessions in its war aims, and the war went on. With the advantage of historical perspective, it is fairly easy to see this trend and to understand the reasons for it. But the Civil War suffered from the disadvantage of being the first of these great modern wars, so the leaders then, and even more particularly the critics of the leaders then, could not readily grasp what was happening, or why it was taking so long to attain a desired result. Indeed, they suffered from the additional handicap, already considered, of fighting this war while carrying the mental baggage of the Napoleonic Wars, which made it look as if they themselves ought to be able to achieve decisive results. From our own perspective again, the Napoleonic Wars look more at- tritional than they did to the Civil War generation, but the men of 1863 were more familiar with Austerlitz and Waterloo than they were with the wastage of a quarter century of war. Thus as the third year of the war opened—a war that Lincoln initially thought might take ninety days, and that many Southerners thought would never happen at all—the belligerents had achieved a form of equilibrium. The Confederacy had not won foreign recognition, and had not won independence on the battlefield; it suffered marginally under the Union naval blockade, and there were substantial shortages, but it had made up for many of its pre-war economic deficiencies. It had resorted to conscription, but there were so many loopholes in the law that it was not unbearably burdensome as yet. In the Union, the war was far less intrusive, the Union being a far wealthier society than the Confederacy; conscription had not even been seriously considered to this point. Yet the federal government still had not made sufficient inroads upon the Confederacy to regard its war effort with any satisfaction. The Emancipation Proclamation of late 1862, however it was regarded by later generations, was not perceived as an earthshaker; the admission of the western counties of Virginia as the Union state of West Virginia in early 1863 was not a great recovery of territory to show for almost two years of strife. And the year had ended in failure on the battlefield. Stones River, or Murfreesboro, was a marginal victory at best, Fredericksburg was an outright disaster, and Vicksburg, free for the taking in early summer, was now becoming the Confederate Gibraltar of the West. Lincoln, somber but determined, summed it all up in his annual message to Congress in December of 1862: "While it has not pleased the Almighty to bless us with a return of peace, we can but press on, guided by the best light that He gives us, trusting that in His own good time, and wise way, all will yet be well." Press on . . . Those words might have been the motto Ulysses S. Grant lived by. What to make of Grant? A small, often shabby, modest and unassuming man. If one looks at all the Union's commanders so far, Grant appears the least prepossessing. McClellan looked the part; so did Pope, and Fremont, and Fitz John Porter, and any number of others. And there were all those stories: Grant the failure in private life, Grant the drunk. But gradually Grant had made an impression on Lincoln. There was the famous story of a temperance delegation complaining to the president about Grant's drinking, and Lincoln's off-color reply, "I'd like to send some of his whiskey to my other generals," or the more trenchant observation that summed up the whole matter, "I can't spare that man—he fights." And that was the nub of the matter. Grant fought. Not that he was a mere brute, or, as Wellington said of Napoleon, "a mere pounder after all." But Grant knew, as McClellan never would, that war is fighting, war is ultimately about killing. Grant, in spite of his subsequent reputation as the butcher of 1864, would never have said what Lee did at Fredericksburg, about the danger of becoming fond of war. He was never in the slightest danger of becoming fond of it. That was what made Grant, bored by civilian life and depressed by army life, the most tragic and probably the greatest general of the Civil War, or indeed of American history: he knew what it was all about. And knowing that, he did what had to be done. What had to be done immediately was the taking of Vicksburg, and this was Grant's job in late 1862 and early 1863. By then, this otherwise insignificant town on a bluff overlooking the low country of the Mississippi had become the Confederacy's center of equilibrium, its last, largely symbolic, link with the western states, its last hold on the great waterway of the continent. Its geographic importance was greater than Verdun's in World War I, or Stalingrad's in World War II, but like them it came to be invested with meaning transcending its location. This was especially true for the Union, for it can be argued that the Confederate government, though aware of Vicksburg's importance, did far less than it should have to hold the area, that indeed, just as the Richmond authorities had done in early 1862, they now in 1863 left the western Confederacy to take care of itself until it was too late to do anything about it. One is left with the conclusion that if the capital of the Confederacy had remained in Montgomery, Alabama, instead of being moved to Richmond, it would have been a far different war. So here was Grant, in late January of 1863, ready to have another try. What was he up against? First of all, the country itself. It had been a rainy season, and the rivers were high, and the low-lying countryside largely flooded. In much of the territory, it was hard to tell the difference between land and water anyway; in the old aphorism, it was all "too thin to plow, too thick to sail." Much of the Union operations depended upon the ability of the navy to operate on the waterways, but it was a strange setting for sailors. There were snags where huge old trees had been uprooted and caught in the currents, there were sandbars, there were shifting river channels. In many cases the ships, odd-looking contraptions with paddlewheels and with hay bales for armor, could not make a passage until sailors had gone ashore and cleared low-hanging branches off the trees, and what sailor could feel comfortable working his vessel in a spot where snakes might drop off the trees onto his head? But it was just as bad for the soldiers, for much of their time "ashore" would be spent wading through bogs and backwaters. For a hundred miles up and down the river, the feeder streams twisted and turned, and overflowed their banks, and the infantry struggled and cursed and slept in the wet, and wagons could not move, and artillery might as well be forgotten. If the soldiers could not be moved by ship, they could barely move at all, so what passed for land approaches was just as bad as what was supposed to be water lanes. The Confederates more or less controlled the Mississippi from Port Hudson, in southern Louisiana, up to Vicksburg itself, though Union vessels could run freely along most of that distance. The Confederates were more thoroughly in command for the twenty miles south of the city, down as far as Grand Gulf. Vicksburg itself sat on a bluff, so at least it was dry. Here as well sat John C. Pemberton, with something around 20,000 troops and instructions to hold the city indefinitely. For a few weeks his numbers made little difference; the Confederates needed only to sit there while the Federals floundered in the swamps. Unless Grant could conquer nature itself, Vicksburg had little to worry about. For a while he could not conquer nature, but it was not for lack of trying. His first attempt, in December of 1862, had failed when the Rebels burned his supply bases behind him and Sherman was beaten at Chickasaw Bluffs. Sherman at least had the virtue, rare among field commanders, of writing an honest report: he told Washington, "I reached Vicksburg at the appointed time, landed, assaulted, and failed." So Grant now knew he could not make an approach by land, relying on the Mississippi rail system for his supplies. He was just too vulnerable to Confederate raids for that. He had to operate south from Mem- phis along the Mississippi, and so he arrived at Sherman's camp on January 29, and took over operations the next day. The two generals talked it all over; they were developing an increasing confidence in each other, so they played with their maps, and argued, and crawled around the table looking from one angle and another. There was intense pressure from Washington to get moving, the latest manifestation being the disastrous diversion offered by John A. McClernand, and neither Grant nor Sherman was the type to sit idle and wait upon events anyway. Somehow there must be a way to get at Vicksburg. So they tried. The irony of it lay in the fact that they were already at Milliken's Bend, a mere twenty miles from the city. Well, Vicksburg was on a large east-facing loop of the river; perhaps if they dug a canal across that loop, they could get ships and men and supplies below the city, and invest it from there. The troops were set to digging, and for two months they worked away, digging a mile-long ditch across the peninsula formed by the river's loop. After two months they had to give it up; the work was so flooded by sluggish water that it could not be made deep enough for the naval vessels to use it, and the whole effort went for nothing. Then they tried an even more ambitious canal scheme. If they dug at Duckport, about halfway between Milliken's Bend and Vicksburg, they could get into Walnut Bayou, and from there into Roundaway Bayou, and from there into Bayou Vidal, and from there into the Mississippi. It was a three-mile dig, but they went at it with a will, and finally, they opened a way, and the muddy waters flowed through, and the Navy triumphantly sent a small steamer from the river into the bayous. But by now summer was coming on, and the waters were falling, so where the first canal failed for high water, the second failed for low water. Meanwhile, they tried a different tack. General James B. McPherson's corps was ordered to try a route through Louisiana via Lake Providence. McPherson was to start forty miles north of Vicksburg, work his way down through Bayou Macon to the Tensas River, to the Washita, to the Red, and bring his men out on the Mississippi, away down below Natchez, after four hundred miles of swamp and mud. McPherson actually succeeded in making the trek, but the Federals were no better off below Natchez, where they were in control anyway, and on the west bank of the river. That was four tries. Meanwhile, Washington kept suggesting a route down the cast side of the river, so they looked there, too. Two thirds of the way back to Memphis, 325 miles north of Vicksburg, was Yazoo Pass. If they blew up the levee here, they could move into the Tallahatchie River, from there to the Yazoo, and so on down behind the city. This was more promising than a land approach on this side, for riverboats were not as vulnerable to Confederate raiders as railroads were. It looked good; the levee was blown, the steamers floated through easily, and off they all went down the Tallahatchie. But the Confederates knew all about it, and Pemberton sent General William W. Loring north with a division to stop them. Loring built a fort, which he handsomely named Fort Pemberton, on the Yazoo, ninety miles from Vicksburg, and when the Federal gunboats showed up, he shot at them with everything he had, capering around, waving his one arm, and earning a nickname by shouting to his gunners, "Give 'em blizzards, boys, give 'em blizzards!" He was "Blizzards" Loring till the day he died. After a week the Federals gave it up and went back the way they had come. Attempt number six was up Steele's Bayou. This started out as a possibility of supporting the Yazoo Pass expedition. Steele's Bayou entered the Yazoo a few miles above Vicksburg, and one could run north up it, and then work into Black Bayou, Deer Creek, the Sunflower River, and across to the Yazoo farther up. As the sailors of Porter's river fleet had a look at it, it seemed the most likely route of all, at least to Porter, who had some rather ill-formed idea that if he could get his ships far enough inland, they would eventually come out where they wanted to be, which was in back of Vicksburg. He was actually wrong in this, but since he did not know that, they decided to make a major effort of it. Porter took eleven ships and moved up the bayou. At the start it was deceptively easy, and the ships made good time, while Sherman marched along the banks with his infantry, trying to keep up. Once again the Confederates stole a march on them. The route soon deteriorated into snags and shallows, and the Rebels made it worse by felling trees into the water and sniping at the sailors. Sherman loaned Porter fifty pioneers for the lead ship, to cut a way with axes and saws, and they kept doggedly on. When they got to Rolling Fork, they ran into real trouble; the Federal gunboats were trying to push through swamp willows growing right out of the river. Then the Confederates started felling trees behind the boats, so that they could not make any progress forward, and they could not go back either. Porter was suddenly in danger of losing his fleet to Confederate troops. He was saved at the last minute by the arrival of Sherman's infantry, moving by night through the swamps, with candles stuck in the barrels of their rifles. They arrived just in time to stop an advance of two or three thousand Confederates, and Porter had to admit he was not going to reach Vicksburg by this route. So, after three and a half months of mud, swamps, snakes, and swearing, the Federals were no nearer Vicksburg than when they had started. Grant had other things in mind, however; he was not quite finished yet. Like his classical namesake, he was "fertile in invention," and he gradually evolved a totally new idea. To this point the Federal forces had been utterly stymied by their inability to approach Vicksburg through bad terrain, and at the same time keep open their supply lines back north. Indeed, in the larger sense it was slowly becoming apparent that the Union attempt to occupy and hold enemy territory was enormously wasteful of men, materiel, and effort. You could either concentrate and fight the enemy, or you could disperse your troops and try to hold his towns, roads, and bridges; the more territory you took, the more difficult it was to fight. Throughout the western theater, Federal commanders were constantly embarrassed and discomfited by Confederate raiders and guerrillas, ranging from such brilliant cavalry leaders as Nathan B. Forrest at the top, to men who were little more than brigands and murderers at the bottom. Maybe it was time to take these people on at their own game. Grant was not alone in moving in this direction. In east Tennessee, the new general there, William S. Rosecrans, was considering the possibility of cavalry raids into Confederate country, and Grant's rear-area commander back in Memphis, General Stephen Hurlbut, also was developing an idea for raids against the Southern rail system. This concurrence led to three related actions. Hurlbut and Rosecrans mounted a raid under Colonel Abel D. Streight that struck through northern Mississippi and Alabama, confusing the Confederate command in that area. Streight's men, mounted on mules for the most part, did considerable damage before they were finally caught and captured by Forrest. Meanwhile, Colonel Benjamin Grierson led what became probably the most famous Union cavalry raid of the war. Grierson, a former music teacher, took three regiments, the 6th and 7th Illinois and 2nd Iowa Cavalry, and an artillery section, 1,700 men in all, and started south from La Grange, on the Tennessee-Mississippi line, on April 17. His mission was to burn, destroy, and wreck railroads and property, and to confuse the Confederates as to what was really going on. This he did to a turn. Dropping detachments here and there, and traveling in several parallel columns, his men cut a swath through central Mississippi. There were numerous Confederate units in the area, but they were all sent here and there by contradictory orders and confusing reports, and Grierson actually did remarkably little righting. Pemberton in Vicksburg had some thought that Grierson might well be heading south, for a junction with Union troops farther down the Mississippi, but he could not be sure of it, and the reports he was getting kept him futilely shuffling troops around, Confederates wearing out shoe leather and horses and growing increasingly frustrated. When they tried to ambush the blue cavalry, Grierson was warned by local Unionists and avoided the trap. The Confederates nearly caught him away down near the Louisiana line, but he broke through and led his tired troopers the last seventy-five miles to safety in Baton Rouge, in a little more than twenty-four hours. Altogether the raid lasted a fortnight and covered six hundred miles, and did a great deal of largely temporary damage, for a loss of three killed, seven wounded, and a dozen or so stragglers. Its most important effect at the moment, however, was that it totally absorbed the attentions of General John Pemberton when they should have been directed elsewhere. That elsewhere, the third of the three developments, was west of the Mississippi, for there Grant was doing quite unusual things. He had conceived the idea of moving his army south of Vicksburg, crossing the Mississippi, and attacking Vicksburg from the rear. Having seven times failed in conventional approaches, he now thought this was the most promising avenue. He talked it over with his commanders. McClernand thought it could be done, but both Porter and Sherman, whose opinions he valued more, were skeptical. Much would depend upon Porter, for to make the plan work, he must run his ships downriver past the Vicksburg batteries; otherwise the Union army could not cross the river. Though dubious about the whole plan, Porter agreed to try. Next Grant had to get Halleck's approval in Washington, and pinning Old Brains down was as difficult as always. Finally Halleck agreed that Grant might use his own initiative, which, as every soldier knows, meant, I agree if it works, but it's your problem if it fails. That was enough for Grant. He moved at the end of March. McPherson's XVII Corps and McClernand's XIII Corps started off south and west, while Sherman's XV Corps made noisy demonstrations upstream across from Vicksburg. The march was unopposed by the enemy, but far from easy. It led across an apparently endless series of bayous and swamps, and the troops built bridge after bridge, and corduroyed miles and miles of roads for the wagons and guns. It took a month to march from Duckport to Hard Times, only twenty-two miles as the crow flew, but more than fifty by the route the army was forced to follow. Yet by the end of April, there they were, south of Vicksburg. And there was the navy, ready to get them across the river. Porter's forcing of the Vicksburg defenses became one of the naval set-pieces of the war, though in fact it turned out to be far more spectacular than dangerous. On the 16th of April the ships made ready; the gunboats were given extra armor in the form of hay bales and logs, and each vessel took alongside a barge loaded with coal, so it would not run out of fuel below the city. The ships got under way at full dark, at fifty-yard intervals, each echeloned on the quarter of its nextahead, so that if one were disabled, it would not foul those following. Silently they steamed downriver, within range of the Confederate guns. About eleven o'clock they were spotted, the Confederates touched off watchfires along the bank to light the scene, and the Rebel guns went into action, shifting targets as the ships came on, one after the other. The duel lasted for some time, and every vessel was hit, some repeatedly. The ironclad Carondelet turned a complete circle in the middle of the stream, caught in the currents and trying to avoid a collision, and a couple of the coal barges were lost. Below the city the transport Henry Clay, holed by a heavy cannonball, sank, but all her crew got off safely. In fact, when the Federal sailors answered to muster after the action, they found to their delight that not a single man had been killed. An exuberant Porter was now prepared to do anything Grant wanted. Grant actually wanted a lot. One of his corps, Hurlbut's XVI, was detailed to go off south to collaborate with General Banks. Banks was expected to operate north from Baton Rouge against Port Hudson, thus turning the Confederates from the far south. Instead, he went off on his own, up the Red River, on another wasteful dispersion of effort. More to the point, Grant now wanted to cross the river, and as soon as his troops reached Hard Times, Porter began a bombardment of Grand Gulf, on the Vicksburg side of the river. This turned out to be a tough little nut, and after a couple of days of futile shelling, Grant decided to move farther downstream. The Federals began crossing at Bruinsburg on April 30, and found the eastern shore empty. Within a day McPherson and McClernand both had their corps across, and Sherman was ordered to move south. By now, the water was falling, the roads were drying, and things were looking promising. On May 1, at Port Gibson, the Federals brushed aside the few thousand troops Pemberton had got south to dispute their passage. The Confederates abandoned Grand Gulf the next day, to avoid being trapped. In a week Sherman was across, and U. S. Grant had an army of 40,000 men within striking distance of Vicksburg, and in good marching and fighting country. Porter was pleased as punch with the role his ships had played; Sherman was still dubious—he thought they were out on a long limb—but now at least they had a clear shot at Vicksburg; they were done with swamps and bayous at last. Ironically, at this point both sides were plagued as much by the inadequacies of their command structure as by anything else. Grant had expected Banks's cooperation from downriver, thinking to draw supplies from that direction, but Banks was off chasing up the Red. This left Grant with no clear logistic support, only the long tenuous lines back up the west side of the river, over the route he had come, and that was not really strong enough to sustain his field army. He was therefore in danger, not so much of running out of food for his troops, but of running out of those supplies, especially ammunition, that could not be commandeered from the countryside. Before he could move freely on Vicksburg, he had to decide what to do about this. But the Confederates faced their difficulties as well. In November of 1862, President Davis had ordered General Joseph E. Johnston, returning to active duty after his wound at Seven Pines in the Peninsula, to take over the command of the western theater. Davis and Johnston did not get along, but Johnston was a senior commander, and Davis had no one else he could send in his place. Unfortunately, Johnston's orders and his command responsibility were equally vague, and he was not sure exactly what he was supposed to do, or whom he could order to do it. Most immediately, he was told that he commanded Pemberton, and he in turn told Pemberton not to get shut up in Vicksburg, but if necessary to withdraw from the city rather than be trapped in it. Pemberton, however, received orders from Davis himself telling him how important it was that Vicksburg be held. It may seem on the face of it as if these were silly confusions, readily capable of being resolved. Silly they may have been, but their resolution was another matter. The problem must be seen not in isolation, but against the shifting backdrop of a series of unfolding crises, constantly demanding attention, of action and reaction by either side, of uncertainty as to who was where and doing what. Was Grierson's Raid a serious matter, was Rosecrans on the move, did Grant really intend to move south, could the northern approaches to Vicksburg be held, what on earth was Banks up to, could troops be detached from the defense of Mobile, could Port Hudson be held, what did the western Confederate politicians demand, which of their demands could be met, which of their promises could be fulfilled? . . . and on and on and on, an almost endless sequence of possibilities and problems, none of them alleviated by the less than perfect harmony existing between Davis and Johnston. Had Davis had another Lee to send to the west, it might have been different. But he did not; there was only one Lee, and life has to be lived with what we have, not what we would like to have. By the beginning of the second week of May, Grant had 41,000 men in three corps, Sherman, McPherson, and McClernand, across the river around Grand Gulf. Pemberton had about 32,000 around Vicksburg. Johnston was approaching Jackson, Mississippi, a rail junction forty miles due east of Vicksburg, destined to be the focus ofJohnston's moves to cover Vicksburg. At that moment, there were only a thousand troops at Jackson, and Johnston could concentrate only about 6,000 altogether for the defense of the town. Still, he had to try. Both Johnston and Pemberton expected that Grant would move against Jackson, as it was the logical move if one were to try to isolate Vicksburg. If he did so, then perhaps Johnston could hold him while Pemberton moved south in behind him and cut his supply lines. Then, even though he had slightly superior numbers, the Union general would be caught between the two Confederate forces, his supplies depleted. Under these conditions, he might be defeated and the west saved for the Confederacy. Joe Johnston was not generally an optimist, but he had little choice this time; he had to hope for the best. The key element in the whole campaign was supplies: who could keep his lines of communication open? Grant, disadvantaged by Banks's failure to appear, decided now to change the basis of his operations. He could not expect to sustain his communications and still make progress. He was determined to make progress; therefore the communications must go. He called together his commanders and issued his orders. Sherman was told to bring forward a train of 120 wagons. The regiments would abandon all wagons and trains of their own; instead, each regiment would have two wagons which would carry spare ammunition; all pack animals would carry ammunition, nothing else. The troops would march with three days' rations in their packs; beyond that they must live off the country. This had not been tried before; cavalry raids, yes, but here was a whole army, 40,000 strong, setting out to face a determined enemy of unknown strength. They must either win, or they would be destroyed. Sherman doubted. On the face of it, it was an enormous risk, the boldest strategic decision of the war to this point. Grant's advance elements were already at Rocky Springs, sixteen miles from Grand Gulf and the same distance from Vicksburg. On the 11th of May, they started off into the void, and the supply line disappeared behind them. For three days they marched northeast, heading toward Jackson. By the 14th, the gamble was paying off. McClernand's corps was astride the Jackson Railroad at Clinton, facing west against possible intervention by Pemberton. More important, Sherman and McPherson were both at Jackson. Johnston had arrived there the night before; apprised of the situation by the local commander, Brigadier General John Gregg, he ordered a delaying action while supplies were evacuated from the town. The Confederates held along a line of trenches west ofJackson for most of the morning, while the Federals came on in a heavy rain. But by noon the sky was clearing, and the Union buildup was just too strong, lapping around the flanks of the Rebel trenches. Johnston sent word to Gregg that most of the war materiel was safely away, and by mid-afternoon, the Federals were in full possession of the town. They then proceeded to wreck it, destroying especially all the railroad facilities so that there would be no subsequent threat from that direction. Johnston now retreated to the northeast. Before he went he had ordered Pemberton to advance southeast against Grant's supply line. So on the 15th, as Johnston went away in one direction, Pemberton unenthusiastically advanced toward the Federal army, now full of fight and squarely, and securely, between the two Confederate forces. Having ruined Jackson, Grant now advanced west against Pemberton. The latter now realized he was in serious trouble, and that Johnston's orders were badly out of date. On the 16th McClernand's corps caught up with him at Champion's Hill. McClernand sent a courier to Grant, asking what he ought to do, and Grant sent back the one word: Attack! Then he hurried McPherson's corps forward in support. The Confederates had a decent position at Champion's Hill, but did not really want to fight. Neither did McClernand, and the result was a confused battle that, better handled by either side, might have significantly defeated the other. As it was, the Confederates were chased off their hill late in the afternoon, but most of them got away and headed for Vicksburg. Confederate losses were greater than Union, at nearly 4,000 casualties, and one Confederate division retreated away to the southwest, thus avoiding being trapped in the city. Pemberton was now down to 20,000 men, and by the night of the 18th, they were back in the Vicksburg defenses, with the Federal army closing in upon them. Sherman soon occupied the heights to the north, and thus after two and a half weeks on the eastern side of the river, the Union force had its communications fully reopened, and resupply was readily possible. Grant had at last found the key to unlock Vicksburg, and with it the Mississippi River, or so it seemed for a moment. He was determined not to rest on his laurels, and on the 19th mounted a hasty attempt to force the city's lines, thinking to end the whole business in a hurry. The Confederates beat this off with ease. Nothing daunted, Grant decided to make a major assault on the 22nd, more thoroughly prepared and better coordinated than the first one. At mid-morning on the 22nd, the Union troops advanced, Sherman's from the north side of the city, then McPherson's, then McClernand's. The Confederates were well dug in, with good fields of fire, and they easily repulsed the first charges. By early afternoon Grant was on the point of calling it off. Then he received messages from McClernand, saying he had two of the forts along the lines and with a little support could break through. Grant ordered the attacks continued. By late afternoon, he found that McClernand did not have the two forts at all; he had gotten troops temporarily into one, and had never got past the ditch of the other. At that, the attacks were finally called off, with 3,200 casualties, and Grant acknowledged that Vicksburg was too strong to be carried by a coup de main. There would have to be a regular siege. Sieges are part of the standard repertoire of military history, and Vicksburg is among the most famous, at least on the North American continent. In terms of time or numbers involved, it hardly compared even with those of its own era, Sebastopol, Paris, Plevna in 1877, and was surpassed later in the Civil War by the siege of Petersburg. Nonetheless, perceived then and now as one of the turning points of the war, it captured the public imagination: Could the Confederates hold out until relieved? Could Grant break them? Could Johnston raise a relief force? Americans on both sides anxiously awaited the latest news from Vicksburg. Those waiting for the news were far luckier than those making it, for it was a dull, grinding, bitter business of work, fatigue, casual danger, and, for those inside, gradual starvation. Grant, in the classic strategy used at least since Caesar besieged Alesia, shut the town up in a vise with one hand, and with the other maneuvered a field army to take care of Joe Johnston. With reinforcements—corps transferred from the east—he eventually commanded more than 70,000 men, enough to do both tasks with little danger. He extended his lines around Vicksburg until the whole town was covered, and his men dug and sapped and bombarded. Half of his army he put under Sherman, with orders to cover the eastern approaches in case the Confederates should manage a relief effort. With supply lines open along the river, and foraging parties scouring the country, the Union army settled down to see the matter through. At least they had plenty to eat. That was hardly the case inside Vicksburg. The last order Pemberton had received from Johnston was that he should withdraw from the city if at all possible, and not let his army be trapped. Instead of obeying this as rapidly as he could, Pemberton called a council of war of his officers, and the vote was that they should dig in and hope for rescue. It was a valid option only if there were indeed reasonable hope that they could be rescued, so they soon found themselves trapped. The defenses, though, were formidable, as Grant found in his first two attempts to force them; in fact, the Union forces never did succeed in carrying the place by assault. They did not have to. Instead Grant perforce let hunger do his work for him. Pemberton had 20,000 men, plus several thousand civilians and dependents, shut up inside an eight-mile-long perimeter, less than ten square miles, all of it subject to Union gunfire. It would have been highly unpleasant in the best of circumstances; but it was summer in Mississippi, and the heat and stench soon made it a fair approximation of Hell. The inhabitants quickly went to ground, living in caves in the bluffs overlooking the river, the only places more or less safe from random shellfire. Southern men, who always prided themselves on their chivalrous treatment of ladies, found it difficult to preserve the amenities when a bucket behind a blanket represented the height of toilet facilities. Life soon concentrated around the search for food; cows disappeared, then horses, then mules; the garrison sickened, and men and women began to die; weakened constitutions could not stand the sicknesses that spread through the town, and delicacies such as mule tail soup did not do a great deal to maintain strength. While Vicksburg went through its daily grind, Johnston sought to raise a force sufficient for its relief. Unfortunately for him, Braxton Bragg in east Tennessee was facing a Union advance double his strength, and Lee was in the process of invading Pennsylvania. There was no help from either quarter, and Johnston had to make do with whatever he could gather from Alabama and Mississippi. West of the big river, troops under General Kirby Smith made some moves toward Vicksburg, but these were treated with almost casual contempt by the Union troops over there, and by Porter's gunboats on the river. Johnston could draw little from farther south; Banks was finally besieging Port Hudson, so there was nothing much there to help. Finally, the hard-pressed Confederate general did gather a field force of about 30,000 men, and on June 28, he advanced westward from Jackson. He reached the Big Black River, a little more than halfway to Vicksburg, by the 1st ofJuly. But instead of finding the vulnerable rear of Grant's army, he found Sherman concentrating almost 50,000 men to dispute his advance. The Union army was just too strong, and Johnston, always one to calculate the odds carefully, knew it. He hung about the Big Black for a couple of days, hoping for a miracle, but not expecting one. What he got was news, on July 4, that Vicksburg had surrendered. He immediately retreated, and Sherman, reinforced to even greater strength, chased him back to and through Jackson. All through June Grant's men had continued their approaches to the city; they had exploded a couple of mines, and everyone knew that eventually they would make an assault, and that when they did so, it would succeed. When the opposing pickets exchanged remarks, the Rebels would ask, "When you all comin' to town?" and the Federals would reply, "We're gonna celebrate the Fourth there." The Vicksburg newspaper, printed on wallpaper and eagerly scanned by both sides, editorialized that before you could cook a rabbit, you had to catch it. Grant in fact had ordered preparations for an assault on the 6th, but fortunately for both sides, Pemberton recognized the game was up before that. On the 3rd he asked for terms; that afternoon the two generals, who had served together in the Mexican War, met between the lines. Grant had no terms to offer, only unconditional surrender, while Pemberton, grumbling at this lack of charity, demanded the honors of war. Negotiations threatened to break down over these niceties, but finally the Confederates agreed to surrender and be paroled. With rueful humor the last edition of the Vicksburg newspaper admitted that the Yanks had caught their rabbit. On July 4 the garrison marched out and stacked arms, whereupon the Union soldiers immediately opened their rations and the two sides sat down and began eating together, while Grant sent an aide off to the nearest telegraph point, at Cairo, Illinois, with a message to Washington beginning, "The enemy surrendered this morning. ..." The remainder of the river campaign went quickly. Sherman drove Johnston east, and Banks finally took Port Hudson on the 9th. From that point on, the Confederacy was cut in half, the rebellion in the states west of the river living on in a sort of semi-independent halflife. Men, even units and supplies, might slip back and forth across the river, but none of that meant much. Vicksburg effectively broke the back of the western Confederacy, and the war, however much was left of it, must now be fought and won or lost to the east. Indeed, there was a great deal left to it, as Robert E. Lee was even then demonstrating, but out in the western country, Vicksburg was recognized for the towering victory it was, and Lincoln could proudly write, in an often quoted phrase, "The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea." Then he added, "Thanks to the great North-West for it . . . New- England, Empire, Keystone, and Jersey. . . . Thanks to all. For the great republic—for the principles it lives by, and keeps alive—for man's vast future,—thanks to all. ..."

 

 

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