Gettysburg and Vicksburg at 150

By Brown, John S. | Army, July 2013 | Go to article overview

Gettysburg and Vicksburg at 150


Brown, John S., Army


July Fourth, in my view, marks the 150th anniversary of the climax of the Civil War. On that day in 1863, GEN Robert E. Lee retreated from Gettysburg, Pa., with his defeated Army of Northern Virginia after a gigantic three-day battle with the Army of the Potomac, commanded by MG George G. Meade. That same day, half a continent away, the fortress city of Vicksburg, Miss., capitulated to MG Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the Tennessee. In my youth, I often heard Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg referred to as "the high tide of the Confederacy," and a glance at a map reveals the strategic wisdom of a Mississippi River that "flowed unvexed to the sea."

Elsewhere in this issue of ARMY, my colleagues, Colonels Cole Kingseed and Kevin Farrell, examine Gettysburg in more detail and flag up tactical and operational issues that have excited controversy since the battle ended. Here, I hope to put Vicksburg and Gettysburg in a strategic context and underscore the importance of July 4, 1863, as a pivotal point in American history.

The February and April 2012 "Historically Speaking" articles examined the critical importance of the Ohio, Cumberland, Tennessee and Mississippi rivers to communications west of the Appalachian Mountains and the revolutionary advantages steamboats afforded in travelling the arteries with or against the current. Union successes in Tennessee at Forts Henry and Donelson, and also at Shiloh, penetrated deep into the Confederacy and compromised all but one of the rail lines running across it. That final rail line ran through Vicksburg and readily connected Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas with the rest of the Confederacy. These western states became an increasingly important source of supplies for the Confederacy as the effects of the Union naval blockade deepened. Conversely, arms and ammunition shipped west did much to assist the western states in continuing the war.

President Abraham Lincoln and his generals recognized the significance of the Mississippi River from the beginning of the war. Union forces assisted by gunboats thrust south from Cairo, ?1., in early 1862 to seize New Madrid, Mo.; Island No. 10, between Missouri and Tennessee; Fort Pillow, Term.; and Memphis, Term. Memphis surrendered in June 1862, and Union gunboats steamed on to the mouth of the Yazoo River. Meanwhile, Union naval forces commanded by Commodore David G. Farragut went up the Mississippi from the Gulf of Mexico and facilitated amphibious landings. New Orleans surrendered on April 27, 1862, and Baton Rouge, La., soon followed. Vicksburg proved a harder nut to crack. Fortified and perched on high bluffs with a maze of swamps to its north, Vicksburg repelled a thrust from the south in May 1862 and a thrust from the north in December. At year's end, the Confederacy still held open a 100-mile window across the Mississippi River extending from Vicksburg in the north to Port Hudson, La., in the south.

Grant resolved to change all of this. As his subordinate MG William T. Sherman moved north of Vicksburg on April 30, 1863, Grant amphibiously slipped the bulk of his army past Vicksburg and landed well to the south of its defenses, at Bruinsburg, Miss. This simultaneously bypassed the difficult terrain north of Vicksburg and turned Confederate defenses along the river. It also left Grant at the end of a perilously exposed logistical tether running past the guns along the bluffs at Vicksburg. Unfazed, Grant took an overdraft of ammunition with him and abandoned his line of communications altogether. He sped north, interposing himself between Confederate GEN Albert S. Johnston's forces concentrated at Jackson and Confederate LTG John C. Pemberton's forces around Vicksburg. Meanwhile, three regiments of Union cavalry commanded by COL Benjamin H. Grierson launched a destructive raid deep into Mississippi. This drew off cavalry that could have improved the reconnaissance of the separated and increasingly confused Confederate forces.

Living off the land as necessary, Grant first massed against Johnston and drove him out of Jackson. …

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