The Vicksburg Campaign series – background and buildup


It was on July 13, 1863, that Abraham Lincoln sat down to write a letter to the general of the Army of the Tennessee: Ulysses S. Grant. In this letter, Lincoln stated, “I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right and I was wrong.” This was in response to Ulysses S. Grant’s successful capture of the Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River called Vicksburg. The Vicksburg Campaign took months but ultimately culminated in success for the Union and Ulysses S. Grant. The Vicksburg Campaign was a turning point in the American Civil War.

Ulysses S. Grant

The fortifications at Vicksburg sat high above a bluff on the bank of the river. Control of Vicksburg was vital during the Civil War, as we will see because control of this fort meant control of the Mississippi. Control of the Mississippi meant control of economic trade. So, Vicksburg is the key to the Mississippi River.

This new series will seek to analyze the Vicksburg Campaign, starting with the background and moving through the surrender of the fortress on the bank of the river and the end of the campaign. While the Vicksburg Campaign was a masterful one, it is necessary to first look at the background of the campaign to understand how and why the Vicksburg Campaign played out as it did. From there, we will continue our analysis with part two of this series.

Siege of Vicksburg

The Beginning of Secession and the Civil War

When Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, South Carolina responded by seceding from the Union on December 20, 1860. Mississippi would follow on January 26. Mississippi and Louisiana’s secession was a significant problem for the Union.

The Mississippi River had been the main economic trade route for the northern states, such as Iowa, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, and parts of the Northwest Territory. These goods were sent to the port city of New Orleans, one of the main economic hubs in America in the 1860s. This meant control of the Mississippi River was vital to both the North and the South.

On January 11, 1861, a militia from Vicksburg decided to fire on an unarmed vessel named the A. O. Tyler from the North. This was not sanctioned by the Confederacy and thus did not initiate war. However, on April 12, 1861, P.G.T. Beaureguard and his Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter. In response to this attack by the Confederacy, President Lincoln ordered a blockade of Southern ports.

Then, in May of 1861, governors from Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania met and created a memorandum to President Abraham Lincoln. This memorandum stated that the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers should be the main focal point of operations against the Confederacy.

In response to this memorandum, Confederate President Jefferson Davis had legislation drafted and passed that halted Confederate trade with the Union.

It was then that General in Chief Winfield Scott created a plan that included “a powerful move down the Mississippi to the ocean” and “a complete blockade of the Atlantic and Gulf ports.” This became known as the “Anaconda Plan” and was designed to squeeze the Confederacy to death.

Then, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina seceded. This brought the total number of seceded states to eleven.

Building the Navy on the Bank of the Mississippi River

The Union then began to beef up its navy, converting riverboats into gunboats. The Lexington, Conestoga, and the A. O. Tyler were equipped with 32-pounder guns, as well as eight-inch guns. These riverboats were also equipped with five-inch-thick oak bulwarks to protect the ships. Then, on August 7, 1861, a man named James Buchanan Eads, an engineer who lived in St. Louis, was tasked with creating seven ironclad gunboats. Four of the seven gunboats were created at Carondelet, Missouri, on the Mississippi River. The other three gunboats were constructed north of Cairo. This was located on the Ohio River. Eads also converted two other boats into ironclads.


In response to this creation of a naval fleet, Confederate General Leonidas Polk believed that the Union would invade Kentucky and occupy Paducah and then Columbus, KY. This would be in violation of the neutrality that the border state had declared. Polk decided to send Confederate soldiers to take the town of Columbus on September 4.

The Union used this invasion of the neutral border state to make a move. Union forces under the newly appointed Ulysses S. Grant decided to move. On September 5, Grant learned of Polk’s move. At 10:30 p.m., Grant moved two infantry regiments and an artillery battery from Cairo, Illinois, to Paducah, Kentucky. Two timber-clad gunboats accompanied the force. These boats were Tyler and Conestoga. On September 6, 1861, at 8:30 a.m. Grant and his force landed and took possession of Paducah.

From Paducah, Grant sent soldiers to Smithland, Kentucky. This town was situated at the confluence of the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers. This gave the North a base to launch operations along the Mississippi River to Memphis, the Cumberland River to Nashville, and the Tennessee River to Corinth, Mississippi.

Forts Henry and Donelson

Next, Grant, along with Flag Officer Foote, decided to make a move and organized a force of 17,000 soldiers at Paducah and Cairo. These soldiers would move south on steamboats down the Tennesse River, accompanied by seven gunboats under the command of Foote. On February 6, 1862, Foote captured Fort Henry in Tennessee, and on the 16th, the combined force captured Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. Subsequently, on February 24, the city of Nashville fell to Union forces. Nashville was crucial because it was used as a rail hub and supply depot for the Union forces to supply themselves as they ventured into the Confederate heartland.

Map of Henry, Donelson, and Shiloh

The Battle of Shiloh

From Fort Henry, Ulysses S. Grant had his Federal force move toward Corinth, Mississippi, a railroad crossing. While moving toward Corinth, Grant’s Army of the Tenessee met Confederate troops under Albert Sydney Johnston at Pittsburgh Landing, Tennessee, on April 6, 1862. This was known as the battle of Shiloh and was initially going poorly for the Union until Johnston was shot and killed. P.G.T. Beauregard took command and renewed action the next day. However, Grant had been reinforced by Don Carlos Buell and the Army of the Ohio during the night. The Union was able to push the Confederates back and win the battle. However, they suffered staggering casualties. The highest to that point in American history.

Map of Shiloh

After Shiloh, Union troops under General Henry Halleck left Shiloh and went south, capturing the town of Corinth on May 30. This allowed them to flank Memphis on the Mississippi River. With the fall of Corinth and Memphis being flanked, the city surrendered on June 6. The North was capturing confederate cities. However, the Mississippi River remained in rebel hands.

Battle of Shiloh

Command Change in Vicksburg

Then, General Halleck and General Pope were brought from the west to the eastern theater of the war. It was also at this point that President Jefferson Davis decided to replace the general in command of Vicksburg: General Earl Van Dorn. Davis decided to promote Major General John Clifford Pemberton to lieutenant general and gave him command of the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana.

John Clifford Pemberton

Confederate forces invade Kentucky

With Pemberton now promoted to lieutenant general, Davis also had to deal with General Braxton Bragg in the west. In August 1862, Bragg launched an offensive into Kentucky. The goal of this offensive was to win the support of the Kentucky people and have Kentucky secede from the Union. This campaign came to a culmination at the Battle of Perryville. This battle took place on October 8 and was a tactical victory for the Confederates. However, after the battle, Bragg lost confidence and decided to leave Kentucky and end the campaign five days later.

Map of the Invasion of Kentucky

While the Union had won successes in the west, the Northwestern states wanted all of the Mississippi River opened to trade. There remained a 240-mile stretch of the river that was still closed from Vicksburg to Port Hudson. To remain in control of this stretch of the Mississippi, Jefferson Davis needed Bragg in Tennessee, Pemberton in Mississippi and East Louisiana, and Theophilus H. Holmes in the Trans-Mississippi to all work together. To ensure that Bragg and Pemberton were in step, Davis created the Department of the West and put General Joseph Johnston in command.

This plan to put Johnston in command of the Department of the West did not work as smoothly as Davis would have liked. This was due to the fact that Davis allowed Bragg and Pemberton to correspond directly with the Confederate capital of Richmond and cut Johnston out of the loop. The new plan also left Holmes and the Trans-Mississippi out of the equation.

When Johnston arrived in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on December 4, 1862, he learned that Ulysses S. Grant was moving 40,000 soldiers along the Mississippi Central Railroad toward Jackson, Mississippi, and Pemberton. Pemberton decided to leave his defenses along the Tallahatchie River and retreated with his 22,000 men, about half the size of Grant’s force, back 50 miles. General Pemberton wanted to create defenses behind the Yalobusha River located in Grenada, Mississippi. If Grant were able to capture Jackson, then Vicksburg would be flanked, and it would be a disaster for the Confederacy.

Johnston not only learned of Grant, but he also learned that William S. Rosecrans had replaced Don Carlos Buell and was now in charge of the Army of the Ohio, now renamed the Army of the Cumberland. Rosecrans had 60,000 men and was in front of General Braxton Bragg and his 47,000 men near Nashville.

Davis Heads West

Davis knew that the situation brewing in the west was dire, so, on December 10, Davis headed to Chattanooga and arrived there on the 11th. The next day Davis and Johnston left for Murfreesboro and the following day, reviewed Bragg’s army. Davis ordered Bragg, who was already outnumbered by Rosecrans, to send 9,000 troops to Mississippi. This was because the Mississippi was the most important goal for the Confederacy in the west, even if it meant sacrificing Tennessee. They then headed to see Pemberton on December 14.

Davis and Johnston learned that Grant had planned to launch an offensive against Pemberton on December 8. Grant wanted to attack Pemberton at Grenada while Sherman attempted to lead an amphibious operation from Memphis to Vicksburg. However, cavalry raids by Nathan Bedford Forrest and Earl Van Dorn had spoiled Grant’s plans. Forrest had ruined the railroad supply of Grant’s in west Tennessee. Then Van Dorn’s 3,500-man unit flanked Grant and attacked their supply base at Holly Springs on December 20. Grant was forced to return to Memphis.

Pleased that Grant had been turned back, Davis returned to Richmond. However, upon his arrival, he learned of the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou. General William T. Sherman had led a “large force” south on the bank of the Yazoo River around Chickasaw Bayou. This was north of Vicksburg. However, not receiving the support from Grant he had expected, Sherman was defeated on December 29.

Davis also learned that on December 26, Rosecrans had finally made a move and left Nashville. Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland had moved toward Bragg and Murfreesboro. Rosecrans wanted to catch Bragg off guard but was unable to do so. Bragg attacked first on December 31. Bragg was unable to break the last Union line but did inflict heavy casualties on the Union force.

As Edwin C. Bearss wrote, “The Union thrusts on all three fronts had been stopped. Richmond was still secure, and the Mississippi River was still closed. The Confederate tide was at its peak.”

A New Year in the Civil War – 1863

After the new year, on January 2, Bragg waited to learn of Rosecrans’ retreat. However, he learned the opposite. Rosecrans did not retreat after the heavy casualties sustained just days before but had instead decided to cross Stones River.

In response, at 4 p.m., Bragg decided to attack. John C. Breckenridge was sent to attack with his reinforced division. The Union and Confederate forces fought for an hour and twenty minutes. However, the rebel forces were repulsed, and both armies encamped along Stones River for the night. The next day at 2 a.m. Brag was awoken with a note from two commanders advising the general to leave Murfreesboro. Bragg stated, in response, “We shall hold our position at every hazard.” However, by 10 a.m., Bragg would have a change of heart. Believing that Rosecrans had been reinforced, he pulled his army out of Murfreesboro and headed for Tullahoma.

Rosecrans moved into Murfreesboro on January 5 and realized that Bragg and his force were gone. When Lincoln learned of the capture of Murfreesboro, he telegraphed Rosecrans and said, “God bless you, and all with you!”

Map of Stones River

Bragg retreated 30 miles south to Duck River and established his headquarters 18 miles south of there at Tullahoma. However, this was the last move Rosecrans would make for quite some time, five and a half months, to be exact.

Planning the Campaign

If Rosecrans was slow-moving and unwilling to budge, Ulysses S. Grant was the opposite. After being pushed back from Mississippi, Ulysses made Memphis his headquarters in early 1863. Grant’s army was separated because of Sherman’s defeat at Chickasaw Bayou. That force had retreated to Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana.

Grant was not satisfied with Rosecrans’s “victory” at Murfreesboro. He stated, “Murfreesboro was no victory and had no important results.” Grant wanted a definitive, altering victory for the North. To accomplish this, Grant set his sights on Vicksburg.

Works Cited

Bearss, E.C. & Hills J. P. (2010). Receding Tide: Vicksburg and Gettysburg – The Campaigns that Changed the Civil War. National Geographic.

2 thoughts on “The Vicksburg Campaign series – background and buildup

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  1. “Grant attacked Pemberton at Grenada while Sherman attempted to lead an amphibious operation from Memphis to Vicksburg.”

    Grant never attacked Pemberton at Grenada, and attacking Pemberton at Grenada was not part of his plan. In fact, the Chickasaw Bayou Campaign was never part of Grant’s plan to begin with. Lincoln, McClernand, and Halleck conspired to subvert Grant’s plan to take Jackson from the north, and instead Halleck ordered Grant to send Sherman south on the river for the direct assault at Vicksburg. Grant reluctantly complied, effectively ending his overland campaign.

    “However, not receiving the support from Grant he had expected, Sherman was defeated on December 29.”

    There was never any plan for Grant to support Sherman’s attack. Grant was left with too few men to do anything more than present a facade of activity and wait to see how Sherman fared. If anything, the plan was for Sherman to send support to Grant if he succeeded, because Grant planned to proceed south only if Pemberton retreated in the direction of Vicksburg, and Sherman would have needed to provide supplies and transports via the Yazoo in that eventuality

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