Looking Back on the Vicksburg Campaign

Civil War

Looking Back on the Vicksburg Campaign

Lincoln's moral leadership and political legacy, as well as Lee and Jackson's expert command have never left our popular imagination.

Lincoln's moral leadership and political legacy, as well as Lee and Jackson's expert command have never left our popular imagination.

Brooke C. Stoddard

When the sun set on the Confederacy, the stars began to rise and shine, none more brightly for Northerners than that of Abraham Lincoln, and for Southerners than those of Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson. So it has largely remained, lo these 135 years. Of the Northerners, it is the politician, the orator and moral leader Lincoln looked to for genius. Of the Southerners, the lure of the generals and the Eastern theater has never significantly slackened upon the popular imagination.

So it was with me, whose Southern relatives made sure to send me a biography of Robert E. Lee before my 10th birthday, and whose fascination with Jackson, the man and general, is especially healthy.

Shelby Foote’s extraordinary The Civil War: A Narrative (should be required reading for every American) did much to dislodge me from Eastern theater prejudice, but it was the sentences of another writer that crystallized my admiration of a Northern commander, Ulysses S. Grant.

As Audacious As Lee

This was Samuel Eliot Morison (arguably a “Northern” writer, but an “Eastern” one, too), who in his Oxford History of the American People, wrote about the Vicksburg strategy: “Grant’s plan was audacious as any of Lee’s, and he had difficulties such as Lee never encountered.”

It was audacious, all right. After months of arduous and fruitless attacks, maneuvers and exertions, Grant decided to attempt to run the Union fleet past the Vicksburg batteries, get his army below the city, cut himself off from his means of supply, place himself between two large enemy forces and invest Vicksburg from the rear. William T. Sherman was appalled (“I tremble for the result. I look upon the whole thing as one of the most hazardous and desperate moves in this or any other war”).

No Rear, No Line of Supplies

Admiral Porter warned that the fleet, once below the city, could not be brought back up again. Grant’s enemy, General Pemberton, thought that if Grant gained Mississippi soil the Confederates could crush the Federals in a vice, or at the least attack their rear and thus bring them to grief.

But there was no rear. There was no line of supplies, and, when needed, Grant converted his “rear” to his front and attacked in a new direction.

Morison again: “In 18 days, [Grant’s] Army of the Tennessee had marched 150 to 200 miles, won five battles, taken 8000 prisoners, checkmated Johnston [overall Confederate commander in the theater], and chased Pemberton’s army into Vicksburg. And, although outnumbered throughout the campaign, Grant always managed to have superior numbers at the point of impact, proof of his tactical genius. This campaign was as good as Stonewall Jackson’s best, and Jackson’s brilliant exploits were waged in home territory.” Shelby Foote would add that the Federals lost neither an artillery piece nor a stand of colors and never failed to take an objective.

Sherman and Grant

Grant, of course, had help. Sherman, despite his misgivings, performed expertly, and at the gates of Vicksburg declared to his superior, “Until this moment I never thought your expedition a success … . But this is a campaign. This is a success if we never take the town.” Corps Commander McPherson was exemplary. Porter admirably delivered naval objectives.

And then there were the men. By now inured to the hardships of military life, they marched, endured heat, thirst and hunger and ran at the Secesh with appropriate elan. Grant could not have asked for more. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than at Big Black River, where the Iowans and Wisconsin men dashed at the Confederate formidable works on their own initiative and yielded Grant an important link in his chain of victories.

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