There are many battles during the Civil War that both the Union and the Confederates feel were their own personal victories. Battles like Antietam show that there are instances where no one really won but victory was judged on the proportion on either side. Some people feel that it is hard to pinpoint one battle that was the catalyst in leading to Southern defeat. If you look at strategic advantages and the overall necessity it appears obvious that the Battle and fall of Vicksburg is the beginning of the end for the South, so to speak.
Vicksburg was an extremely important stronghold for southerners. The city was located on the banks of the Yazoo River which fed right into the Mississippi River (Hattaway 128). The terrain and the location of the city were extremely helpful to Confederates because it made Vicksburg much easier to defend, but it also made it a huge target for the Union army. The Union army was well aware that if they wanted to control the entire Mississippi River that they would need to control Vicksburg as well.
Lincoln and his army were well aware of the importance of Vicksburg in the campaign to control the Mississippi, but the Confederates were slow to realize this concept even after New Orleans fell and the Union controlled majority of the river (Shea and Winschel 18). In fact, the South didn’t even begin to send reinforcements to Vicksburg until Union boats started to approach the city in May of 1863.
According to one historical account, General Johnston had spoken to Pemberton before the Union assault on Vicksburg and told him not to be too invested in Vicksburg because if it were to fall the subsequent loss of position and troops would be devastating, and if able he should retreat northeast of the city if losses of troops become too large (Jordan 22). Pemberton took these orders to his subordinates and asked their opinion on the matter. Their reaction was much different than Johnston’s.
Pemberton’s troops felt there was no way they could just give up that position and that it would be of great strategic use for the Confederacy (Jordan 22). Pemberton started to see the importance of the stronghold at Vicksburg and keeping the Union from having free navigation of the entire Mississippi River. He vowed to keep Vicksburg intact expressing that it was “the most important point in the Confederacy,” and he was right. Vicksburg was not only important for control of the Mississippi River.
The town was also located at the end of a very important rail line. Having control over Vicksburg would essentially allow the Union to control portions if not all of the Confederacy’s supply lines in that area. Vicksburg was also a strategic benefit because its location allowed for easy defense. Ulysses S. Grant and John Pemberton both understood this concept equally, and they would both fight a long battle to prove it. Early in 1863 Union troops had attempted several advances on the city of Vicksburg but were largely unsuccessful because of the city’s terrain.
The terrain around the city was hard to travel because there were many hills and marshes where the confederates already had positions, so it made it hard for the Union to gain ground. Also, the Confederate army had the waterways around the city under control and checkpoints along the river allowed confederate outposts to warn the city that Union ships were coming and they were able to fend them off. General Lee planned his defenses well by using the terrain’s “funnel effect” that caused large groups of men to cross the marshy wetlands over a narrow log bridge (Hattaway 129).
This allowed confederate troops to pick off union soldiers even though they were heavily outnumbered. The Union lost 1776 soldiers compared to the Confederates 207 in instances like General Morgan’s charge (Hattaway 129). In the spring of 1863 assaults via gunboats were ordered by Grant but these too were largely unsuccessful and the Union ended up losing one of their ships from Confederate fire (Winschel). Grant decided at this point to take another route to capture the city of Vicksburg. Grant began launching a two pronged attack by both land and sea.
While still controlling the Mississippi with their gunships, the Union began a campaign to control the areas around Vicksburg (Jordan 23). As Grant began his ground assault in the areas around Vicksburg, he decided to split his army into two. Half would come in from the north through Tennessee and another portion, commanded by Major General William T. Sherman, would head down the Mississippi to seize Vicksburg (Winschel). Grant’s troops went on to march over 200 miles and won battles at Port Gibson, Raymond, and Jackson in a two week period before turning their attention solely to Vicksburg (Winschel).
On the way to Vicksburg Grant’s army ran into Pemberton at Champion Hill on May 16, 1863 (“The Battle of Champion Hill”). The losses at Champion Hill sprung the Confederate troops to retreat back to their base in Vicksburg where they now seemed weak and defeated (Arnold 563). With the city surrounded by Union troops and its railroad and Mississippi River supply lines cut off it was only a matter of time before the city fell. Pemberton would later proclaim that on that day 30 years before he had been appointed to the U. S. military academy and on the same date it would come to an end in disaster and disgrace (Winschel).
The Confederate troops and the people of Vicksburg were trapped within the town with no lifeline to the rest of the south. As anticipated, many people began to starve and disease began to spread. Grant wanted a quick and easy capture of the city so he remained aggressive in his attacks (Winschel). However, the Confederate troops were able to hold off the Union army even on limited supplies. Grant launched one aggressive attack after another in the hopes of capturing the city. Several times the Confederates were able to seal their lines at the tip of the bayonet (Winschel).
Eventually, the assault became too overwhelming for Pemberton and his troops and he would reach out to Grant for terms of surrender. Grant, however, would only offer terms of immediate and unconditional surrender to which Pemberton assured Grant he would bury more of his men before he’d let him into the city on those terms (Winschel). On July 4, 1863 the white flags of surrender flew throughout Vicksburg as the Confederate troops turned over all their arms and supplies to Union troops moving into the city (Winschel). Vicksburg was now occupied by the Union army and the control of the Mississippi was in the hands of the North.
This Union victory was a major turning point for both sides in the war. The North now controlled the Mississippi and a major rail line in the South essentially splitting the Confederacy into two disconnected pieces (“The Battle of Vicksburg”). This changed the course of the war for the two armies and their commanders. The Confederate army would no longer be able to send reinforcements or supplies as fast because the Union controlled many major supply lines and people like Pemberton would receive harsh criticism for their efforts in Vicksburg (Smith).
Grant on the other hand was seen as a hero in the north and was praised, some of which coming from people who wanted him removed previously, for his ability to secure Vicksburg (“The Battle of Vicksburg”). Grant’s success would boost his fame and eventually earn him General-in-Chief of the Union armies (“The Battle of Vicksburg Summary”). Pemberton’s story was much different after Confederate defeat in Vicksburg. His name became synonymous with failure in the South and many people even went as far as to question his loyalty (Smith).
One Confederate surgeon said “either he is a traitor or the most incompetent officer in the Confederacy” after the Battle of Champion Hill (Smith). It was widely known of Johnston’s warning to Pemberton about being overly eager to guard Vicksburg because of the lack of resources, most importantly soldiers (Jordan 24). However, others believe Johnston should share some of the blame because he knowingly left a strategic position like Vicksburg in the hands of a General that was known to drop the ball from time to time (Jordan 24).
Another thing that helped fuel the fire of critics was the fact that Pemberton was born in Philadelphia, a northern city so his loyalty to the South was easy to question for many (Smith). Although these rumors of being a traitor were damaging for a time the most influential perceptions of Pemberton was his incompetency. Though he attended the U. S. Military Academy and he was proficient in many areas he simply lacked the experience to be successful in battle and it showed while he was in command of the troops at Vicksburg (Smith).
Many Southerners at the time believed Grant was only successful at Vicksburg because he had Pemberton as his opponent (Jordan 24). Grant himself received some doubt from northern supporters but President Lincoln stuck with him throughout the campaign because he was a fighter and an aggressive one at that (“The Battle of Vicksburg”). It was that same no quit attitude that finally led to Confederate surrender at Vicksburg. Had there been two different generals facing off in Vicksburg the result may have been very different.
If someone like McClellan was in charge of the Union army they may have never been able to push the Confederate troops back into Vicksburg and have them surrounded like Grant did or after the assaults on Vicksburg McClellan would have probably pulled back out of fear of losing more men. The same could be said for the South if they had a more competent General leading them. Regardless, of the scenarios the one constant is that the result of the Battle of Vicksburg was one of the largest contributors to the outcome of the war in the Union’s favor. Had he North not taken control of the Mississippi and cut off the supply lines that went through Vicksburg the Confederacy would have been able to transport supplies and reinforcements that could have prolonged the war even more. The North’s success came from cutting the south off from the world and even themselves. If they couldn’t even transport food and troops within their own boundaries how would they have ever been able to take the offensive on the Union troops. Later in the war this will prove to be the downfall and subsequent end to southern resistance.