Breaking the Confederate Stronghold over Vicksburg

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR

By Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

The Battle of Murfreesboro during the American Civil War had resulted in a lot of bloodshed, but had not been as decisive as it should have been. It was after this battle that the Union conducted a number of operations in Vicksburg, led by Ulysses S. Grant, to rupture the Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi. 

Two bridges crossing the Mississippi River in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Vicksburg was the site where Confederate control over the Mississippi was consolidated, and Ulysses S. Grant made many attempts to break this stronghold, finally making some headway in May 1863. (Image: Bradley D. Saum/Shutterstock)

The site of the initial phase of Ulysses S. Grant’s operations was Vicksburg, the great remaining Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi. The Federals had already taken control of the upper reaches of the river, controlling from Columbus, Kentucky, all the way to Memphis, Tennessee. Confederates only controlled this middle piece of the river, between Vicksburg and Port Hudson, Louisiana. While these were the two remaining strong points, Vicksburg was the more important one of the two. Until Vicksburg fell, Union plans to control the river could not be completed, which is why it was Grant’s first target. 

Grant hoped to break the Confederate stronghold from two directions. He would come out of Tennessee into Mississippi and come against Vicksburg from the east. A second force, under his friend William Tecumseh Sherman, would threaten the city from the north. 

As could be expected, most of the defenses at Vicksburg had been built to stop the passage of Union vessels past the city on the Mississippi River. Since most of the batteries, cannons, and so on faced away from the city, toward the water, Grant hoped to come in from the other direction, where the defenses would not have been as strong. Things, however, did not go as planned. 

Learn more about Confederate leadership.

Trouble for the Union Offense

The Confederate cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest disrupted Grant’s communications in Tennessee, tearing up dozens of miles of tracks that Grant had been using. To further the damage, a raid was carried out by the Confederate cavalryman Earl Van Dorn, which destroyed a huge Union supply base at Holly Springs, Mississippi, on December 20, 1862. These two strikes made Grant abandon his plans to come overland from Tennessee and try to get at Vicksburg from the east.

Grant, however, also learned a valuable lesson while retreating. He had noticed during his return that his army could have siphoned off a lot of food and fodder from the Confederate countryside. He kept this in mind for his next approach to Vicksburg.

Things were not going too well for Sherman, either. Sherman’s part of the plan relied heavily on the Confederates having to divide their attention between the different Union threats to Vicksburg. Grant’s retreat gave a chance to the Confederates to concentrate on Sherman, whose attacks were rendered useless, and resulted in massive casualties for the Union.  

After this failure, Grant had to figure out how to get his men and supplies to approach the city from either the south or from the east, the sides where there was good terrain.

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Approach to Vicksburg

Grant tried a series of things that winter, and his engineers and soldiers planned and dug to find alternate routes to avoid key Confederate defenses, while still allowing the Union troops a good position. 

Ulysses S. Grant commanding the siege of Vicksburg in 1863.
Ulysses S. Grant tried a series of tactics to approach Vicksburg, before finally trying a bold plan in which he used his navy to reach there. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

None of his tactics worked out very well, though, and by late March, Grant decided that he would need the cooperation of the naval forces commanded by David Dixon Porter, to reach Vicksburg. He envisioned this as a campaign without the need for supply lines.

He would reach the east of the river, from where he would strike toward Jackson, Mississippi, and then back toward Vicksburg from the east. He believed they could live off the land, in this bold, unconventional plan, backed by the lesson he learned while retreating from  Tennessee. 

When Grant shared his plan with his principal subordinates, and with Sherman and Porter, they didn’t like the idea, which they felt was too risky. Sherman, in fact, recommended returning to Memphis, Tennessee, and starting with a solid supply line. 

Grant, of course, refused to do so, thinking that it would be too hard on Northern morale. Lincoln also doubted this idea, and naturally, being the men in the ships, Porter and his forces were reluctant as well. 

Grant decided to go with it, and on April 16, Union naval vessels, lined with cotton bales, ran past the Vicksburg batteries at night. 

Learn more about Grant’s bold actions.

Victory in Vicksburg

Under the light of huge bonfires lit by the Confederates, gunners hit almost every Union ship, most of which were set afire. But while one sank, the rest of the 12 got past the battery safely. A few nights later, on April 22, six transports and 12 barges tried to pass, and one transport and six of the barges were sunk. The vessel carrying the medical supplies for Grant’s troops went down, but the other ones got through, and Grant now had a fair amount of material below Vicksburg.

A painting showing the siege of Vicksburg.
Ulysses S. Grant used his infantry, as well as the support of Porter’s navy, to get his men and supplies in position, and finally was able to move on to the next phase of his campaign. (Image: Kurz and Allison/Public domain)

Just as planned, Grant moved his infantry from the west side of the river to the east, accomplishing his most sought after phase of the campaign. All the campaign’s labors, hardships, and exposures from the month of December 1862 onward were for the accomplishment of this target. By May 1, Grant had 23,000 infantry at Port Gibson, Mississippi, and he was prepared to go to the next phase of his campaign. 

This accomplishment had actually been born of desperation after Grant had tried many other things to no avail. This bold move had now paid off, at least putting him in a good starting position. By any means, though, this did not guarantee a victory. It simply put Grant in a position for him to be successful. 

Common Questions about Breaking the Confederate Stronghold Over Vicksburg

Q: What lesson did Ulysses S. Grant learn from his retreat from Vicksburg?

During this retreat, Ulysses S. Grant noticed that his army could have siphoned off a lot of supplies from the Confederate countryside, and he kept this in mind for his next approach.

Q: What did Ulysses S. Grant do after his retreat from Vicksburg?

Ulysses S. Grant tried a number of tactics after his retreat from Vicksburg. None of his tactics worked out very well, though, and by late March, Grant decided that he would need the cooperation of the naval forces, commanded by David Dixon Porter, to reach Vicksburg.

Q: How did Ulysses S. Grant won against the Confederates at Vicksburg?

As per Ulysses S. Grant’s bold and ambitious plans, he managed to move his infantry from the west side of the river to the east, even as his supply boats took on fire. While some boats went under, many of them survived, and along with Grant’s newly learned tactic of siphoning supplies from the Confederates, he had 23,000 infantry-men, and sufficient supplies at Port Gibson, Mississippi. All this helped Grant to prepare for the next phase of his campaign in capturing Vicksburg.

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