The Old Trace
Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign
March - July 1863
Claiborne County, Mississippi
Section of the Natchez Trace followed by Grant’s Army of the Tennessee as it moved towards Jackson, Mississippi.
The Anaconda Plan was the name given to the Union's overall strategy in the Civil War: If the Northerners were able to take control of the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, along with the Mississippi River, the Confederacy would eventually be choked into submission. Following the fall of Fort Sumter in April 1861, Union General-in-Chief Winfield Scott put the plan into action, and the Confederacy, having no organized navy early in the war, quickly relinquished control of most important positions. A number of key locations, however, remained in Southern control, and would remain stubborn obstacles for the Union until late in the war. Amongst these was Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Vicksburg was river town, halfway between Memphis and New Orleans, and a crucial hub of commerce, connecting north, south, east and west. The city was also a natural fortress, built into a bluff at a sharp crook in the river, with its northern border protected by swamps. Vicksburg was the lynchpin of the Mississippi River, and its capture would isolate the western part of the Confederacy.
In the spring of 1863, after several failed attempts to reach Vicksburg from the north, Maj. General Ulysses S. Grant embarked on a bold new campaign. Leaving supply lines behind, he marched his Army of the Tennessee south of Vicksburg on the Louisiana side of the river. At the same time, Federal gunboats holding ammunition and rations were sent to run the city's heavy artillery under the cover of night. After an elaborate series of demonstrations and diversions, Grant's army connected with the ironclads at Bruinsburg, 40 miles south of Vicksburg. The resupplied Northern army crossed the river into Mississippi without opposition, and quickly moved northeast towards the state’s capital, Jackson.
The feint towards Jackson served two purposes: First, it masked Grant’s real intention of taking Vicksburg. And second, Southern General Joseph E. Johnston had become aware of Grant’s movements, and was preparing to send forces from Jackson to head the Northerners off. Instead of fighting a battle on two fronts, Grant thought it best to meet Johnston’s army head on, clearing the way for his move to Vicksburg. On May 1st Grant's men defeated Johnston’s force at Port Gibson, and on May 11th they drove the Confederates back at Raymond. The Northern army pushed on to Jackson, capturing the city on May 14th. With its rear cleared and Jackson occupied by Union forces, Grant turned his soldiers east, towards Vicksburg.
Lt. General John C. Pemberton, the Confederate commander at Vicksburg, massed his forces in between Grant and the city in anticipation of the coming attack. Heavily outnumbered, they failed to stop the Union advances at Champion Hill on May 16th and Big Black River Bridge on May 17th. Compounding Pemberton’s trouble was Maj. General William Tecumseh Sherman, whose corps was preparing to flank him from the north. Pemberton had no choice but to withdraw his much diminished army to Vicksburg, burning the bridges over the Big Black and taking everything edible in his path back to the well-fortified city.
Grant’s 35,000 soldiers reached Vicksburg on May 18th and set up a perimeter around the city, surrounding Pemberton‘s 18,500 soldiers along with the civilian population of Vicksburg, which had not been evacuated. Pemberton, however, had the advantage of terrain - 6.5 miles of entrenchments and fortifications built into the hills and knobs surrounding the city. He also expected reinforcements from Johnston to arrive. Grant, who was expecting reinforcements of his own, hoped to take Vicksburg quickly and launched two major attacks on May 19th and 22nd. The Confederates’ defenses were impregnable, and the Union infantry was repulsed with heavy casualties. Grant decided to lay siege to the city, and his men fortified their positions in anticipation of a long wait.
Johnston had hoped to assist Pemberton by attacking Grant, but was unable to organize his army quickly. Instead, with the city now surrounded by the Union’s superior force, he ordered Pemberton to evacuate Vicksburg and save his army. Pemberton refused, believing it impossible to withdraw safely and furious with his superior for failing to provide support. Vicksburg held out for more than forty days. However, with no possibility of reinforcement and supplies nearly gone, Pemberton surrendered the city to Grant on July 4th.
On the same day in the East, General Robert E. Lee withdrew his Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac, crippled from three days of fighting in Gettysburg. It was the turning point of the Civil War.