Adapted from the American Battlefield Trust’s book, Battle Maps of the Civil War: The Western Theater, published by Knox Press and available wherever books are sold.
Obtaining full control of the Mississippi River was an early and vital war aim for the Federals, since the waterway served as a highway to move men and materials from places as far away as Pittsburgh to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. By early 1863, only two Confederate strong points stood between the Federals and dominance of the mighty river.
The first was the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy” — Vicksburg, Miss. Situated atop dominate bluffs overlooking a sweeping bend of the river, Vicksburg was a tough nut to crack. Time and again, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had tried and failed to approach the bastion city. A late 1862 advance south from Tennessee ended with Confederates severing Grant’s supply lines. Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman attempted to storm the city, but came up short at Chickasaw Bayou. Canals were dug and abandoned. Levees were blown up to create floodplains, only to carry the boats too high in the water, literally among the branches of the trees. Nothing seemed to work. In late April 1863, however, Grant finally struck gold. Utilizing some diversions, he marched his army down the western side of the river, while Rear Adm. David Dixon Porter ran his flotilla of gunboats and transports past the Confederate guns of Vicksburg. The two forces reunited some 30 miles south of the city, and on April 29–30, Porter’s sailors were transporting Grant’s army across the river to Bruinsburg, Miss., unopposed.
Now on the Vicksburg side of the river, Grant’s men marched toward their first objective, Port Gibson, situated roughly 10 miles to the east, which commanded the local road network. Fighting for control of the strategic crossroads was fierce and included rare nighttime combat. On the afternoon of May 1, a desperate Confederate counterattack was repulsed, leaving the Southerners to retreat and evacuate the remaining garrison at Grand Gulf the next day. The Battle of Port Gibson was a resounding Union victory that secured Grant’s beachhead east of the Mississippi River and cleared the way to the Southern Railroad supplying Vicksburg.
From there, rather than move directly on Vicksburg, Grant and his Army of the Tennessee drove along a northeastern axis of advance. Grant’s ultimate goal was to isolate Confederate Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton and Vicksburg from the rest of the Confederacy. Grant also aimed to take the state capital of Jackson and disrupt the railroads and communications lines in and out of the city. The destruction of the Southern Railroad in central Mississippi was a vital objective.
Grant’s army advanced over a broad front in hot and dusty conditions, with water scarce. On May 12, Grant directed his three corps to various crossings of Fourteen Mile Creek to secure a source of water for his men and animals. This would also move his army into position for the planned lunge against the railroad.
Confederate Brig. Gen. John Gregg had been dispatched to Raymond, Miss., with 3,000 men and orders to strike the Federals in the flank or rear as they advanced. Faulty intelligence led him to believe that he would only face a small contingent of Union troops, but he was actually confronted by a powerful 10,000-man corps. Although outnumbered, Gregg ordered an attack, with units splashing en echelon across the creek to slam into the Federals. The blue line began to waver and break in places, but was rallied by the presence of division commander Maj. Gen. John A. Logan.
Union resistance stiffened, and once reinforcements arrived on the field in early afternoon, a counterattack compelled Gregg to abandon the field and retreat toward Jackson. With a victory in hand, Grant divided his columns. One continued north toward the Southern Railroad; the other pressed east toward Jackson.
As the first streaks of dawn appeared in the eastern sky on May 16, 1863, a train heading east near Clinton, Miss., found the tracks ahead destroyed. The brakeman and the baggage-master were escorted by Union soldiers into the presence of Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. When questioned, they informed the Union commander that the Confederate army defending Vicksburg, which they estimated numbered 25,000 men with 10 batteries, was in Edwards Station and preparing to attack the rear of Grant’s army. This was not a bad estimate of the Confederate forces, which consisted of 23,000 men and 15 batteries. Grant ordered his troops, 32,000 in all, to march on Edwards along three parallel roads.
Although the opening shots of the Battle of Champion Hill were fired along the lower road around 7:00 a.m., it was not until 9:45 that the Union vanguard turned a bend in the upper road and reached the country home of Sid and Matilda Champion. A half mile southwest of the house was the bald crest of Champion Hill, which dominated a strategic crossroads that would be vital to the final assault on Vicksburg.
Grant arrived on the field shortly after 10:00 a.m., and ordered this powerful battle line to advance. With a mighty cheer, the Federals slammed into the Confederates at the base of the hill, and a wild hand-to-hand brawl ensued.
Union soldiers swept over the crest of Champion Hill and drove hard toward the crossroads only 600 yards farther south. Despite a murderous fire of musketry and artillery, the Federals seized the crossroads and stood on the verge of victory.
But Confederate Lt. Gen. John Pemberton ordered a desperate counterattack that struck the Union position before they consolidated their hold on the crossroads. The gray wave surged over the crest of Champion Hill and pushed the Federals back to the Champion House. Their success, however, was short-lived, as two more Union divisions charged the hill. Threatened in flank and rear, the Southerners were compelled to fall back. When the Federals again seized the crossroads, Pemberton ordered his army off of the field and back toward the defenses of Vicksburg. Union victory at Champion Hill — and the next day at the Big Black River Bridge — forced the Confederates into a doomed position inside the fortifications of Vicksburg.
On the evening of May 17, John C. Pemberton’s beleaguered army poured into the defensive lines around the Confederate Gibraltar. Looking for a quick victory and not wanting to give Pemberton time to settle in, Grant ordered an immediate assault. Of his three corps, only Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s XV Corps, northeast of the city, was in position to attack on May 19. Sherman’s assault focused on the Stockade Redan, named for a log stockade wall across the Graveyard Road connecting two gun positions. Here, the 27th Louisiana Infantry, reinforced by Col. Francis Cockrell’s Missouri Brigade, manned the rifle pits.
Sherman’s men moved forward down the road at 2:00 p.m. and were immediately slowed by the ravines and obstructions in front of the redan. Bloody combat ensued outside the Confederate works. The 13th United States Infantry, once commanded by Sherman, planted its colors on the redan but could advance no farther. Capt. Edward C. Washington, the grandnephew of George Washington, commanding the regiment’s 1st Battalion, was mortally wounded in the attack. After fierce fighting, Sherman’s men pulled back.
Undaunted by his failure, Grant made a more thorough reconnaissance of the defenses prior to ordering another assault. Early on the morning of May 22, Union artillery opened fire, and for four hours bombarded the city's defenses. At 10:00 a.m., the guns fell silent, and Union infantry advanced on a three-mile front.
Sherman attacked again down the Graveyard Road, McPherson’s corps moved against the center along the Jackson Road and McClernand’s corps attacked to the south at the 2nd Texas Lunette and the Railroad Redoubt, where the Southern Railroad crossed the Confederate lines. Surrounded by a ditch 10 feet deep and walls 20 feet high, the redoubt offered enfilading fire for rifles and artillery. After bloody hand-to-hand fighting, Federals breached the Railroad Redoubt, capturing a handful of prisoners. The victory, however, was the only Confederate position captured that day.
Grant’s unsuccessful attacks gave him no choice but to invest Vicksburg in a siege. Pemberton’s defenders suffered from shortened rations, exposure to the elements and constant bombardment from Grant’s army and navy gunboats. Reduced in number by sickness and casualties, the garrison of Vicksburg was spread dangerously thin. Civilians were particularly hard hit. Many were forced to live underground in crudely dug caves due to the heavy shelling.
By early June, Grant had established his own line of circumvallation surrounding the city. At 13 points along his line, Grant ordered tunnels dug under the Confederate positions where explosives could be placed to destroy the Rebel works. At the end of the month, the first mine was ready to be blown. Union miners tunneled 40 feet under a redan near the James Shirley House, packed the tunnel with 2,200 pounds of black powder, and, on June 25, detonated it with a huge explosion. After more than 20 hours of hand-to-hand fighting in the 12-foot-deep crater left by the blast, the Union regiments were unable to advance out of it and withdrew back to their lines. The siege continued.
By July, the situation was dire for the Confederates. Grant and Pemberton met between the lines on July 3. Grant insisted on an unconditional surrender, but Pemberton refused. Rebuffed, Grant later that night offered to parole the Confederate defenders. At 10:00 a.m. the next day, Independence Day, some 29,000 Confederates marched out of their lines, stacked their rifles and furled their flags. The 47-day siege of Vicksburg was over.
With the loss of Pemberton’s army and a Union victory at Port Hudson five days later, the Union controlled the entire Mississippi River, and the Confederacy was split in half.