The Siege of Vicksburg

This month’s post is going to take us a little further afield to the location of the Siege of Vicksburg.  Jill and I took a trip last month to Vicksburg, Mississippi, to see the location of one of the most important events in the war.

For us this was just a long weekend.  We stopped in Little Rock to visit with family, spend the night, and then continued the next day to Vicksburg which is only about three and half hours from Little Rock.  If you look at the map you will see that Vicksburg is right over the Louisiana border into Mississippi.  The town sits on a bluff overlooking what used to be the Mississippi River.  The river has changed course since then and now runs just about a ¼ mile to the south of Vicksburg. What used to be path of the Mississippi River is now called the “Yazoo River” which flows into the Mississippi. 

For this post I’m going to spend more time on the experience at Vicksburg than I will the actual Civil War history of the site.  That said, you need to at least understand what happened here to appreciate the site if you decide to visit.

During the war, Vicksburg, a town of under 5,000, was a key Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi.  The bluffs of the town and the cannons situated on those bluffs allowed the rebels in the town to control traffic on the Mississippi which was a key to supplying troops in the west.  If the Union could control the Mississippi, they could basically strangle the Confederates as part of the Anaconda plan which was to shut off all ports into Confederate held territory.

I’ve included a map of the battlefield and the city which is from the National Military Park in Vicksburg.  In that map you will see that the Union army basically surrounded the city on the north and east side.  The south side was mainly swamp at the time of the war, so large scale troop movements were not possible in that area.  After a couple unsuccessful attempts to take the city by force, General Grant basically gave up and decided that he would lay siege to the city and starve them out.

The siege is a fascination story and to me the most interesting part of what happened in Vicksburg.  On May 17, 1863, 70,000 Union soldiers surrounded the town and would not allow supplies in or out.  This effected both the 30,000 Confederate soldiers, commanded by General John C. Pemberton, as well as the citizens of Vicksburg.  By the end of June, around half of the Confederate soldiers were sick or hospitalized due to lack of a good diet and unsanitary conditions.  Fresh food was scarce, and it is said that as the siege wore on, there were fewer horses, mules, and dogs in the city as they were being eaten by both the soldiers and the citizens.  By the end of the siege, shoe leather was a regular menu item.

The Union Army bombarded the city both from gunboats on the river and from the eastern side where the soldiers had dug trenches where they stationed batteries to continually bombard the city day and night.  The citizens of Vicksburg moved to caves, called “bombproofs” which were dug into the clay soil that was present in the city.  They lived in these caves as they were much safer than staying in their homes which could be hit by bombs at any time.

The siege ended when Pemberton officially surrendered his army on July 4, 1863, after a 47-day siege.  General Grant initially demanded an unconditional surrender, under which all the rebel combatants would be taken prisoner.  He backed off this request because he realized that he didn’t have the means or the time to deal with 30,000 prisoners.  He then allowed the captured Confederates to take an oath that they would not fight anymore against the Union Army.  It was later proven that most of these men would fight again, which led to the end of these “oath” surrenders.  During the battle and siege of Vicksburg, the Union Army experienced 4,910 casualties while the Confederate had 32,363.

Today Vicksburg has slightly over 20,000 residents.  The big draw to the town is the Vicksburg National Military Park, which is to the east and north of town.  To be honest, the town is pretty run down.  Abandoned buildings are common, which gives the town kind of a depressing vibe. The downtown, which sits on the bluff overlooking the river is quaint, but the shops are not really geared toward tourists. I was a bit disappointed because I expected a significant Civil War theme in the town, but besides one Civil War Museum in the downtown area, they have just not done much to capitalize on the Civil War history of the town. 

The National Military Park is nice and is one of the larger ones in the county similar to Gettysburg and Shiloh. It is driving tour that is about 18 miles long and cost $20 per car to enter.  The park is very hilly and wooded which makes it difficult to visualize what is truly happening even though the park has done a great job of marking where each individual unit was located.  The problem is that you can’t see what the units might have been looking at. For example, you will see a cannon facing the woods.  I assume it was pointed at an enemy force but couldn’t really tell because from your car you can’t see what they might have been aiming at.

Make sure you look at the images for more information, but overall, I have to say I was disappointed with the city.  There is so much history in Vicksburg, but it is just not presented in a way that makes easy to enjoy.

Click on image to read captions