Obscure Union general learns that only hard, long fighting and logistics will win the war

When newly promoted Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant arrived in Cairo, Ill., in September 1861 to take command of the Military District of Southeastern Missouri, he didn’t even have a proper uniform. What he did have was a purpose. As he told acquaintances, the war with the Confederacy could not be won until the Mississippi River and its tributaries had been conquered. “The Rebels must be driven out,” he declared, “The rivers must be opened.”

Vicksburg: Grant’s Campaign That Broke the Confederacy
By Donald L. Miller
Simon & Schuster, 2019, $35

Less than two years later, Grant achieved that objective by capturing Vicksburg, the last major Confederate bastion contesting Union control of the river all the way from Cairo to the Gulf of Mexico. By May 1, 1863, Grant would have endured repeated political and military setbacks, and watched his soldiers and sailors sicken and die by the thousands in the malarial lower Mississippi Valley, but Union gunboats had finally run the batteries at Vicksburg and ferried the army to the east side of the river.

Professor emeritus Donald L. Miller (Photo by Austin Medina)

In Vicksburg: Grant’s Campaign That Broke the Confederacy (Simon and Schuster, 2019, $35), Donald L. Miller, John Henry McCracken Professor of History Emeritus at Lafayette College, recounts the year-long campaign and explains how Grant’s genius at logistics was a singular factor in his victory.

What was Grant’s primary strategic objective once he had his army on the east side of the Mississippi River at Bruinsburg, Miss.?

The whole point of this campaign was alacrity. The first thing Grant had to do was establish a beachhead so he could get supplies. After a one-day fight at Port Gibson, 12 miles east of Bruinsburg, Grant outflanked and forced the Confederates to abandon a strong point at Grand Gulf, which was an ideal port for supply boats coming down the river from the Union base at Milliken’s Bend, La. Still, Grant decided not to attack Vicksburg directly. Confederate Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton’s main Vicksburg force had dug in north of Grand Gulf on the north side of the Big Black River and Grant holds off confronting it, not without Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, who was a couple of days behind. Meanwhile, Grant learned that Jackson, the state capital and Vicksburg’s primary rail connection, was being fortified and that Gen. Joseph Johnston, the Confederate commander in the Western Theater, was on his way. Grant, who respected Johnston and considered him superior to Robert E. Lee, found himself outnumbered and caught between two Confederate armies.

How did Grant get out of this bind?

His initial choice was to move northeast toward the Southern Railroad of Mississippi, which connected Jackson and Vicksburg. If he could cut the railroad, he could force Pemberton to come out of his fortifications and fight a battle somewhere east of Vicksburg. But when Grant found out that Johnston was in Jackson, he decided he had to move on the capital before a relief army could be organized. He didn’t want to have Johnston in his rear while he’s fighting Pemberton. The Union army, led by Sherman’s corps, which has finally arrived, surrounded Jackson. Johnston, a cautious commander, decided he didn’t have enough troops to defend the capital, so he skedaddled across the Pearl River and set up an encampment 30 or so miles north. Sherman moved into the capital with orders to destroy everything of military value. Once Jackson was neutralized and Johnston pushed out, Grant moved west to attack Vicksburg head on.

Explain why logistics were so important in the Vicksburg campaign.

I tried to dispel one of the great myths of the Civil War, which is that when Grant landed in Mississippi he cut himself off from his supply line and had his army live entirely off the land. That’s not true. In fact, Grant established one of the longest supply lines in the course of the Civil War back to Milliken’s Bend on the Louisiana side of the river. He didn’t maintain it for long, but during its existence supply ships poured into Grand Gulf and from there hundreds of wagons every day moved up the roads Grant’s army was using. But when Grant took Jackson and moved on Vicksburg, he realized his supply line was too long to be effectively defended. In the last part of the campaign, Grant’s men were down to three or four days’ rations and when they got close to Vicksburg they were in fact very hungry. It’s hard to forage when you’re moving quickly.

How did Grant address the supply situation?

In the campaign for Vicksburg, the golden grail was a place called Haynes’ Bluff, a one-time Rebel fort on the Yazoo River just above Vicksburg. The Rebels abandoned it when they withdrew inside the main line of fortifications, and Admiral David Dixon Porter, commander of the Union Navy gunboats on the Mississippi, took it over. If Grant could get to Haynes’ Bluff, he could be easily and enormously supplied and reinforced.

In order to get to Haynes’ Bluff, Grant had to fight Pemberton. Talk about the decisive Battle of Champion Hill.

Pemberton was getting contradictory orders. Johnston was saying that he should get out of Vicksburg, fight Grant on the way to Jackson and unite their forces. But Davis had demanded that Pemberton protect and hold the city of Vicksburg, which was near Davis’ plantation. Instead of moving east, Pemberton decided to move south to try to cut Grant’s supply line to Grand Gulf, which the Federals had already stopped using. Because of bumbling in the quartermaster department, Pemberton was delayed and was still on the Jackson Road when his army collided with the Federals at the Sidney Champion plantation May 16. Pemberton was not ready. As Grant put it later, the fate of Vicksburg was decided at Champion Hill. It was a one-day battle, unlike three days at Gettysburg, but casualties were very high on both sides. Pemberton’s army was pushed back into Vicksburg and cut off. The next day, as Grant’s army marched toward Vicksburg, Sherman sent a cavalry detachment to Haynes’ Bluff, where it found one of Porter’s gunboats on the river, and within hours Grant had a secure river connection to Milliken’s Bend, Memphis and Cairo. Soon Grant’s troopers were conducting slash-and-burn campaigns through the agricultural districts of northwestern Mississippi, where farmers had been growing corn instead of cotton to feed Pemberton’s army. The troops also encouraged slaves to leave their plantations, which was very important to weakening the Confederacy.

Grant decided to attack the defenses head on May 19 and was thrown back.

Union forces in the siege lines around Vicksburg. with sappers preparing tunnels and batteries bombarding the Confederate works. (ClassicStock/Alamy Stock Photo)
Union forces in the siege lines around Vicksburg. with sappers preparing tunnels and batteries bombarding the Confederate works. (ClassicStock/Alamy Stock Photo)

Grant’s miscalculation was his belief that his troops were eager to fight. That’s not true. Uncensored soldiers’ letters indicate clearly that nobody wanted to make that charge. The Union army had marched through Louisiana for a month, then marched 18 days—200 miles—through Mississippi and fights five battles, taking horrific casualties. The men were hungry and exhausted. When they get their first look at the Vicksburg defenses, which consisted of a string of earthen forts sitting high on a ring of bluffs, all connected by rifle pits, they were appalled. It was one continuous line of fire. If you stand at the Union position to the east of Vicksburg today and look a half-mile west at the line of Confederate forts, and look at the elevation, the hill you’re going to have to climb in the face of the Rebel guns, it looks like an impossible situation. Although I think it was a little crazy, you can defend the first charge. Grant’s army was beaten up and tired, but the Confederates were in worse shape. They’d lost five battles, including the decisive one at Champion Hill. Grant’s thinking was this: This is probably a demoralized army and I want to take care of them quickly, because Johnston is going to be building up and I don’t want to go into a siege situation with him in my rear. But the second charge on May 22 was suicidal. Pemberton has left two of his five divisions inside the city (they were fresh, they hadn’t fought). Men become braver behind fortifications. Spirits really picked up and Grant’s army took heavy casualties on the 22nd. Grant was an offensive general but recklessly so, and pitiless. After the second charge, the Federal commander realized his only choice was to besiege and shell the city.

Talk about life inside the besieged city and how morale was sustained.

Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, smoking cigar, meets Confederate General John Pemberton to accept Vicksburg’s surrender, July 4, 1863 (Niday Picture Library/Alamy Stock Photo)

Army morale at first was high, and Southern women played a big role in maintaining it. Civilians in Vicksburg thought Johnston was going to rescue them and they couldn’t believe that Davis would allow Vicksburg to fall. The Southern women hated Yankees even more than the soldiers did and they did a lot to keep the soldiers’ spirits up. After a while, the siege took its toll. Yankee sappers were digging tunnels that were getting nearer and nearer to the Confederate forts. The city was under constant bombardment; civilians had to retreat to caves and they were running out of food. With Union gunboats controlling the river and the railroad cut, the city was starving. By the end of it, the civilians were ready to give in. Many letters from soldiers, however, express how irate they were when they found out Pemberton was going to surrender. They were ashamed and angry. They didn’t think they’d been outfought. They just thought they’d been starved out.

How significant was the fall of Vicksburg by comparison to Gettysburg?

Gettysburg was strategically important only in one aspect. If the Yankees had lost, it would have been catastrophic to Northern morale. But Lee didn’t have a supply line sufficient to move on and take Baltimore or Philadelphia or to move on Washington. Southerners looked upon Lee’s defeat as strategically unimportant. The Army of Northern Virginia retreated successfully to home territory in Virginia, was resupplied and rearmed, and was stronger than it had ever been. It gives Grant a hell of a fight for the next 15 months. But when you talk about the consequences of losing Vicksburg, you’re talking about loss of control of the country’s spinal cord. Union commanders finally had the ability to move their armies anywhere they wanted in western waters. Mississippi was out of the war. Southern Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, and the Trans-Mississippi region were for all intents out of the war. No important battles were fought west of the Mississippi after Vicksburg. Records clearly show that a lot of important supplies had come through Vicksburg from the Trans-Mississippi and now that was finished.

What was the most important outcome of the Vicksburg Campaign?

The emergence of Grant. He learns how to win at Vicksburg and he realizes that the war isn’t going to be decided by one or two-day engagements like Antietam and Shiloh. It’s going to be long, devastating, relentless campaigns that attrit Southern resources, destroy their food supply, and deprive them of their slaves. Even though he suffered one setback after another, he pressed on. The Confederates didn’t win a single long campaign in the whole Civil War. Grant did, so did Sherman. It was a new way of fighting and the best the South could hope for after Vicksburg was a negotiated peace.

Did the fall of Vicksburg decide the war?

I think the war was won in the West. I never used to believe that, but I believe now after researching this book.

This interview appeared in the March 2020 issue of America’s Civil War.