Vicksburg National Military Park
The Battle of Vicksburg determined control of the Mississippi River and effectively split the Confederacy in two. The Civil War engagement took place in the late spring and early summer of 1863 at Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Vicksburg is a beautiful city on the Mississippi River where some of America’s most significant historic sites are preserved. These include forts, batteries miles of fortifications, historic homes and even the wreck of a Civil War ironclad. The fate of a continent was determined here and Vicksburg draws visitors from around the world.
The Siege or Battle of Vicksburg culminated a two year effort by Union armies and navies to wrest control of the Mississippi River from Confederate forces. The campaign to retake the Mississippi was an important part of the “Anaconda Plan” devised early in the war by Gen. Winfield T. Scott, the elderly American hero of the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War.
Scott believed that the only way to defeat the secession movement was by squeezing the life out of the Southern states, much as a giant snake like an Anaconda would do to its prey. He knew – unlike many other political and military leaders in 1861 – that the war would be long and bloody. To achieve his strategy, he called for a blockade of the Confederate coast followed by a campaign to take the Mississippi and split the Confederacy in two.
Vicksburg and the downriver fortress of Port Hudson, Louisiana, became the focal points of this campaign. Memphis and New Orleans, along with other Confederate posts up and down the river, fell early in the war but by the spring of 1863, Vicksburg and Port Hudson remained firmly in Southern hands. Until those strong points could be taken, Union navigation of the river was not assured and Confederate troops could cross and recross the Mississippi.
The task of conquering Vicksburg – the “Gibraltar of the Mississippi” – fell to Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. He was a hero to the Union cause, having taken Forts Henry and Donelson with a demand of “Unconditional Surrender. With an array of impressive subordinates and a massive army, he moved down the Mississippi River.
Grant first tried to bypass the Confederate cannon at Vicksburg by digging a canal to divert the flow of the river. Had the project succeeded, the citadel might have fallen without firing a shot. The effort failed. Grant next tried to land troops downstream at Grand Gulf, Mississippi. Confederate troops dug in, however, and the firepower of the U.S. Navy could not blast them out.
Frustrated but undeterred, Grant next moved even further downstream and crossed his army to a point near Port Gibson. Confederate defenders resisted but were unable to stop his landing. The battles of Port Gibson, Raymond, Jackson, Champion Hill and Big Black River followed as the Union army closed in on Vicksburg from the east.
Defeated in each of these actions, the Confederate army of Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton slowly fell back on the powerful fortifications that ringed Vicksburg as authorities in Richmond scrambled to assemble a relief army to save the city. Lt. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston took the field but was unable to raise enough men to do anything to help.
Pemberton withdrew to Vicksburg after the Battle of Big Black River. His army was much smaller than Grant’s – around 33,000 men vs. 77,000 – but the city was encircled by miles of massive earthwork forts, batteries and and infantry trenches. Confederate engineers moved massive naval guns from the river batteries to land-facing positions and work to further strengthen the defenses continued at a fevered pace. The Confederates left no doubt that they planned to fight for the city.
Grant moved his forces into position around Vicksburg, surrounding the Confederate army but also trapping hundreds of civilians in the city. Union troops dug siege works and placed artillery to bombard the town as Southern soldiers and civilians prepared to withstand the coming onslaught.
The Battle of Vicksburg began on May 19, 1863. Gen. Grant sent thousands of men forward in an attack against the Stockade Redan. The powerful Confederate fort had 17-foot high walls, an 8-foot wide ditch and was defended by the 36th Mississippi Infantry. The term “redean” refers to a triangular fortification oriented so the point faces the enemy. Although it was called a “stockade,” the fort was a strong earthwork backed by walls of log. It proved impossible for the Federals to take.
By the time the smoke cleared that day, Grant lost 157 men killed and 777 wounded compared to 8 killed and 62 wounded among the Confederate defenders.
Determined to take Vicksburg before Pemberton’s men could further strengthen their fortification, the Union commander ordered a massive bombardment on the night of May 21. Federal gunners opened fire with more than 220 pieces of artillery from the land of the city while U.S. Navy warships joined from positions on the Mississippi River. Confederate soldiers and Vicksburg’s civilians alike tunneled into the ground to save themselves from the cannonade.
The guns blasted the city through the night, not falling silent until 10 o’clock the next morning when Grant’s infantry advanced in lines reported to be three miles wide. The shelling brought destruction and death to Vicksburg but failed to demoralize the soldiers in Pemberton’s lines. They blasted the oncoming Federals with musket and cannon fire.
Fighting was hand to hand in a few places as Union soldiers tried and failed to break through the Southern defenses, but most of Grant’s men never even got close. The Union commander lost more than 3,000 men in the disastrous attack. Confederate loses were fewer than 500.
The fight for Vicksburg now settled into a brutal siege. Union soldiers inched closer to the city’s defenses by digging zigzag approach trenches. Tunnels were dug under Confederate forts and one, the 3rd Louisiana Redan, was destroyed by a massive explosion on June 25, 1863. Southern officers heard the sound of Grant’s men digging beneath their feet and built a new position near the rear of the redan. When Union soldiers stormed into the crater created by their mine, they found the Confederates waiting to drive them back.
Another such explosion following on July 1 but in the end starvation and not Union attacks brought the siege to an end. Pemberton’s men were eating mules, rats and even boiled shoe leather when he finally surrendered to Gen. Grant on July 4, 1863.
The victory ended Confederate control of the Mississippi. Port Hudson, which still held out, surrendered after learning that Vicksburg had fallen and further resistance was useless. Abraham Lincoln soon wrote his famed proclamation, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.”
Vicksburg was an important Union citadel for the rest of the war and Federal troops remained there through much of the Reconstruction era. The city is a major destination for business and tourism today. Miles of the battlefield are preserved at Vicksburg National Military Park where visitors can see original fortifications, tunnels, artillery batteries and the scenes of the disastrous attacks of May 19 and May 21. The Visitor Center features an excellent museum and offers a film and other information on the battle. A second museum houses the wreck of the ironclad USS Cairo.
The primary park entrance is at 3201 Clay Street, Vicksburg, Mississippi. See the map at the bottom of this page for directions. Hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. from April through October and 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in November through March. The entry fee is $20 per vehicle or $10 per person for pedestrians, bikers joggers, etc. The price covers 7 days of admission to the park. Annual permits are available for $35.
There are several detached areas of the park, including three on Washington Street just off Exit 1A of I-20. The southernmost of these is Navy Circle, where Union forces mounted heavy artillery during the siege to prevent Confederates from escaping Vicksburg via Warrenton Road (today’s Washington Street). Next is South Fort, the southern anchor of the Vicksburg defenses. The fort remains intact in a small park area. Just north of South Fort is Louisiana Circle, where visitors can see one of the Confederate river batteries and enjoy a spectacular view of the Mississippi River.
One additional detached area is just across the Mississippi River in Madison Parish, Louisiana. It preserves a small section of the canal that Grant’s army tried to dig to bypass Vicksburg and can be visited by taking Exit 186 off I-20 to U.S. 80 and turning east. Then just watch for the signs.
A variety of options are available for touring Vicksburg National Military Park. These include self-guided driving tours, professional guide services, cell phone tours, audio CDs and more. Please click here for tour information.
The city of Vicksburg offers a wide array of hotels, restaurants, bed and breakfast inns, museums, historic sites and modern attractions. Learn more at www.visitvicksburg.com.
For an excellent video look at the Battle of Vicksburg, please enjoy this free 20-minute program from the American Battlefield Trust: