Vicksburg Campaign – Dec 1862 to July 1863
My next stop on this journey was to see the battlefield at Vicksburg, Mississippi, its surrounding areas and attend a battle reenactment of this important Civil War battle in nearby Raymond, MS.
Union General US Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign was a long slog for the Union Army. The campaign took eight months beginning in Dec 1862 and ended with the surrender of Vicksburg on July 4th 1863. For the Confederates, defending the city of Vicksburg would be a top priority, this being the last Southern city on the Mississippi under Confederate control. For the Union, capture of the City would mean splitting the Confederacy in half and complete control of the Mississippi River from its source to the Gulf of Mexico.
The Mississippi River is quite grand here at Vicksburg. The hairpin bend in the river that made Vicksburg so difficult for Grant is readily visible here. The heights and it’s bluff over-looking the river continues to give a grand view of the lowland and fertile farms of east Louisiana. “Steam boats” can still seen along the river here, but they are casinos now, built into the shoreline, so they will never ply the river as their brethren did 150 years ago. The Mississippi is slow and contemplative here.
The Vicksburg Campaign was complex, tested the limits of Grant’s generalship and the Union victory secured his leadership for the remainder of the War.
A joint operation with the US Navy, Grant would now have the use of the heavy gunboats on the river to bombard the City while he tried to position his troops for a ground attack. Here Grant attempted the monumental task of digging a canal- Grant’s Canal- that would circumvent the Mississippi River and get his gun boats and troop transports past the ship-killing guns of Vicksburg. The canal attempt failed when heavy rains raised the river, leaving his soldiers and canal workers stranded on the river levees. Grant was undaunted.
Other operations and expeditions, such as the fighting at Chickasaw Bayou, Arkansas Post, the Lake Providence Expedition, the Yazoo Pass Expedition, the Duckport Canal, were all failed attempts at securing a foothold and gaining entry to this vital southern city. Grant’s determination to get below Vicksburg and get his troops on the east side of the river would lead him, with the help of the Union Navy, south, to the small town of Bruinsburg, MS. After these many attempts, with his troops finally on the east side of the Mississippi, Grant is quoted as saying:
“When this was effected I felt a degree of relief scarcely ever equalled since. I was now in the enemy’s country, was on dry ground on the same side of the river as the enemy. All the campaign, labors, hardships and exposures from the month of December previous to this time that had been made and endured, were for the accomplishment of this one object” Memoirs of US Grant
When he finally got his troops below Vicksburg, Grant wrote in his “Memoirs of US Grant” about the difficult terrain encountered by the Union troops in and around Port Gibson:
“The country in this part of Mississippi stands on edge, as it were, the roads running along the ridges except when they occasionally pass from one ridge to another. Where there are no clearings the sides of the hills are covered with a very heavy growth of timber and with undergrowth, and the ravines are filled with vines and canebrakes, almost impenetrable.”
After touring this area for a few days it became quite plain what Grant was talking about. The countryside here at Port Gibson and Grand Gulf, MS, is marked by dense woods, steep ravines and seemingly impenetrable vegetation. The canebrakes have now since been devoured by the all-pervasive modern Kudzu plant but the landscape still looks prehistoric, otherworldly. Seeing the Windsor Ruins, the grand old mansion’s stone columns still visible , rising from this vegetation along the Rodney Road- the very road many of Grant’s troops took when they marched toward Vicksburg- added to this otherworldly feeling in Port Gibson. Exploring the bayous and rivers these troops crossed: the Big Black, Little & Big Bayou Pierre that run into the Mississippi…. they are formidable obstacles, running deep with slippery banks.
But Grant would have to fight his way through Mississippi before getting to the outskirts of Fortress Vicksburg. Battles at Jackson, Ms, Raymond Ms, the fighting at Champion Hill and along the Big Black River would all be preludes to the eventual siege of Vicksburg.
The famous Natchez Trace served as a highway for Grant’s troops as they made their way north. The ghost town of Rocky Springs, along the Trace, was a stop for Union troops. What exists there now is an old church and cemetery, the only thing visible left of the town itself is an empty steel safe, buried in a tangle of trees and bushes….forays to the Pearl River and the Cyprus Swamps near Canton, Ms, further revealed the difficulties of moving an army in the mystifying topography of the Mississippi Delta.
When Grant’s troops finally made it to the outskirts of Vicksburg, he found a fortress. Confederate trenches surrounded the entire City with the addition of numerous earthen forts that dominated all approaches to Vicksburg. After two attempts at attacking these defenses Grant settled in for a siege of the City, blocking off all access to the Confederates within. Having the City surrounded, with gunboats on the river and his army to the east, it would only be a matter of time before the Rebels would starve and have to give up this strategic chokepoint.
The Vicksburg Battlefield is wonderfully preserved with Union and Confederate trenches and lines of battle still visible. The terrain is marked by steep ravines- many now choked with vegetation- were cleared by Confederate forces in the leadup to the battle to provide clear fields of fire for the city’s defenders. The Park Service has continued to clear some of these ravines to give visitors an idea of what the battlefield looked like in 1862-63. For the Union troops this meant attacking up steep hills with no cover, necessitating siege tactics, the digging of zig zag sapper trenches that would protect Union troops as they attempted to storm the Confederate lines.
These “saps” can still be seen today.
Many instances of “fraternization ” during the Battle of Vicksburg amongst the combatants was common occurred. Looking at the proximity of the sapper trenches, some just 30 feet from the Confederate lines, it’s easy to see how the opposing troops could converse and trade contraband, the opposing armies are so close here……
After the capture of Vicksburg in July of 1863, Lincoln, who believed Vicksburg to be the key to the south, famously said,
“The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea”
My trip to Vicksburg would also include a reenactment in the town of Raymond , Mississippi, demonstrating some of the fighting of the Vicksburg Campaign. The Battlefield at Raymond is one of the few Civil war battlefields in the country operated and held in private hands. The Friends of Raymond, non profit organization, has protected this battlefield over the years and because it’s not part of the Park Service, this is a rare case where a reenactment will happen on the actual battleground of the War.
The fighting at Raymond in 1862 centered around Fourteen Mile Creek, a small waterway that bisects the town. The reenactment battle began in a fight along this same creek. Standing with the pinhole cameras in the center of this waterway while re-enactors traded shots across the creek was a moving experience. At one point, deep down in the creek, I could only see the ends of each sides opposing muskets, spitting out fire and smoke. The “battle” raged on each side of the creek, going back and forth, troops splashing into the creek, with gun smoke backlit in the trees…
The next “battle” was a reenactment of the Battle of Champion Hill. This fight culminated in a clash along an old railroad cut on the battlefield, again, gun smoke filling the trees creating dramatic light.
The reenactments ended with a fight at the 2nd Texas Lunette. Here the re-enactors, with the help of the Park Service at Vicksburg, constructed an earthen fort, a replica of the 2nd Texas Lunette found on the Battlefield at Vicksburg. Confederate re-enactors would sleep in the Lunette overnight and prepare for the next days battle……..
Civilian re-enactors dug caves into the ground here to reenact the lengths to which the residents of Vicksburg would go to protect themselves from the bombardment and siege of their city. Civilian re-enactors slept in these caves over the weekend fitted with bedding, dining table, and lanterns for light. One re-enactor, Amy Clark, resided in these caves with her two small children, cooking on open fires, and bundling up in the evenings to keep out the damp and cold. Reenacting for 18 years, Amy said, living in the caves was not all that bad.
The fight at the 2nd Texas Lunette was the center piece of the reenactment. The fort itself, with a deep trench in front, was a formable obstacle. Union re-enactors had planned to scale this fort and plant a Union flag at top, but according to the “gods of war”, it was not to be. As fighting began, as in all reenactments, as in all wars, things can get confused. Union troops attacked, but the fort was too well made, and the trench too deep for the re-enactors to scale.
This echoes the actual fighting at Vicksburg in 1863. Union troops attacking these Lunettes found themselves stuck in the trenches dug in front of the forts. Too deadly to stick your head up, they could not go forward or back they way they came for fear of being shot in the back. Stuck in these trenches, Union troops had to endure confederate troops rolling fused cannon balls over the fort walls into their midst. These Union troops would have to wait till the dark of night to make their escapes.
My position during the beginning of this battle reenactment was tucked away in a tree line with a group of Union re-enactors. These fellows were the siege ladder group. Carrying ladders they constructed in camp, they would storm the Lunette, scale the walls and get inside the fort…..that was the plan, anyway. As Union re-enactors marched toward the Lunette, with the a scream, LADDERS! the troops emerged from the woods, running low, heads down, me following, and jumped into the trench and attempt to scale the fort. Unfortunately, Confederates, in the heat and mayhem of battle, decided to occupy a section of this trench, and just “shot” these Union re-enactors down as they sought cover in the trench. War is hell.
One of things i’ve realized after attending a number of Civil War reenactments is that they tend to be better in the south than those up north. This is due to the southern re-enactors’ copious use of black power but also the reenactments seem a bit more laid back, it seems cooler heads prevail in the South. I remarked to a southern re-enactor how much better the reenactments are down south then they are up north. He said jesting, “well thats what you folks up north don’t realize, we aint reenacting down here, we practicing for the next time”.
Three excellent source books on the Vicksburg Campaign:
“The Beleaguered City: The Vicksburg Campaign, December 1862-July 1863” by Shelby Foote
“Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi” by Michael B. Ballard
“Memoirs of U.S. Grant” by US Grant
The next stop on the journey is to the Battle of Fredericksburg,Virginia.
Link to Fredericksburg: Fredericksburg