By mid-May 1863, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant finally approached the Confederate defenses of Vicksburg. The climax of the campaign would occur along Grant’s eight-mile-long front encircling the Confederate defenders.
On the evening of May 17, Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton’s beleaguered army poured into their lines around Vicksburg after their defeats at Champion Hill and along the Big Black River. 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 the 19th. 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 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 their colors on the redan but could advance no further. 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 a.m. the guns fell silent and Union infantry advanced on a three-mile front.
Sherman attacked again down the Graveyard Road, Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson’s Corps moved against the center along the Jackson Road, and Maj. Gen. John A. 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 thirteen 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 home, 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 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.