The Battle of Vicksburg: An Analysis, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

The following analysis explores the Battle of Vicksburg and discusses the importance of the battle, why it was fought, and its effects on both sides and on the Civil War. It also discusses how this battle gave the Union control of the Mississippi and divided the Confederacy in half.

Statement of the Issues

The Battle of Vicksburg, fought between May 18 and July 4, 1863 in the Confederate state of Mississippi, involved the Union army of the Tennessee headed by General Ulysses Grant whose military goal was to isolate the city of Vicksburg and the Confederate troops that were dug in as its defenders. On the Confederate side, Commander General John C. Pemberton after experiencing several military losses marched his men in retreat to Vicksburg, where he encountered Grant.

For 47 days, Pemberton waged war against Grant in order to defend Vicksburg, but in the end, Pemberton surrendered to Grant, thus concluding the battle and accomplishing two important results–the Union control of the Mississippi River and the division of the Confederacy in halve (“Battle and Siege of Vicksburg”). Some of the most important issues related to this pivotal battle includes why it was fought, how the battle affected both sides, and in what ways the battle affected the Civil War itself and how it helped to bring an end to the conflict.

Clearly, the Battle of Vicksburg demonstrated that Grant was an outstanding military leader and that the Confederacy was beginning to weaken in relation to supplies, manpower, and ammunition. The main reason for selecting this topic is because of the battle’s pivotal importance related to the growing intrusion of the Union into Confederate territory and as a stepping stone for Grant who went on to become the Commander of all the Union armies.

Introduction

According to J. Rickard, long before the beginning of the Civil War, the great Mississippi River was the most important waterway in the United States, due to being the “main route for the trade of the Midwest and for much of the cotton trade” which in 1863 was booming in the Confederate state of Mississippi (“Siege of Vicksburg”). When the Civil War broke out in April of 1861, the Confederacy had complete control of the Mississippi which effectively blocked all northern trading west, north, and south of the river. Thus, one of the main goals of the Union during the war was to restore northern trading along the Mississippi and to “cut the Confederacy in half” by isolating Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, and the “land route to Mexico, an important route for bypassing the Union blockade of the south” (“Siege of Vicksburg”).

This situation helps to explain why the Battle of Vicksburg was such an important event of the later years of the Civil War. For Union General Ulysses Grant, reopening the Mississippi River to Union trade was a prime objective, but exactly how to accomplish it was not clear. As Rickard notes, although President Abraham Lincoln had ordered Grant to capture the town of Vicksburg which served as the point of operations for the Confederacy along the Mississippi River, Grant was unsure as to how to place his troops in a position of military superiority. For example, in 1862, “an attempt to travel overland to the east of the river had come to grief” when Grant’s supply lines were cut off, and in 1863, an attempt to “find some way to bypass Vicksburg” by constructing a canal or ditch failed miserably (“Siege of Vicksburg”).

In addition, because of these failures, Grant’s reputation as a Union General suffered, especially due to northern newspapers that were printing rumors about Grant’s ineptitude and his drinking (Fraser 34). But nonetheless, orders were orders, for as Lincoln had pointed out to Grant in mid 1863, “Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket” (Burden, “Battle of Vicksburg”).

A Synopsis of the Battle of Vicksburg

On May 7, 1863, General Grant launched the Big Black River campaign against Confederate General Pemberton and his 30,000 troops. At this time, Grant managed to separate Pemberton from his troops holed up in Jackson, Mississippi, and defeated them at Raymond on May 12 and Jackson on May 14. Grant then “turned east and inflicted two serious defeats on Pemberton’s field army at Champion’s Hill” on May 16, and Big Black River on May 17. In effect, these victories greatly weakened Pemberton’s troops which left him no choice but to head back to Vicksburg after having lost 5,000 men in battle (“Siege of Vicksburg”).

On May 19, Grant and his Union army took up a position in front of the Confederate forces at Vicksburg. Grant wasted no time and launched a full-scale attack against the city which failed despite the fact that “Pemberton’s men had suffered two serious defeats in the last three days,” thus affecting their ability to repulse an attack (“Siege of Vicksburg”).

For almost seven long weeks, the Confederates under Pemberton fought bravely and with great tenacity, knowing full well that if Vicksburg fell to the Union, the Mississippi River would become a Union stronghold. Throughout June, Grant’s men  “constructed a series of trenches just as elaborate as the Confederate defenses of the city” (“Siege of Vicksburg”). Each of these trenches brought Grant and his troops closer to the Confederate forces dug in to protect Vicksburg at all costs. Grant’s men also laid a series of mines beneath the Confederate lines of defense; however, the “defenders of the city had detected them and build a second line of defense further back” which helped to repulse a Union assault amid some heavy losses on  both sides (“Siege of Vicksburg”).

One of Grant’s exemplary personal traits as a Commander was patience, waiting for the right time to move hard against the Confederates. On July 1, Union mines destroyed one of the Confederate’s forts, but Grant “decided to wait until he could explode a series of mines and use the confusion to launch a general assault along the line” which Rickard refers to as “D-Day” for the Union assault against Vicksburg (“Siege of Vicksburg”).

On the 4th of July, Pemberton reluctantly accepted the terms of surrender from Grant. Exactly why Pemberton choose Independence Day is not clear, but later on, Pemberton claimed that he “had timed the negotiations with that in mind, expecting to get better terms” (“Siege of Vicksburg”). In essence, Pemberton’s surrender to Grant marked a crucial point in the history of the Civil War by helping to crush the morale and confidence of the Confederacy. In total, 2,166 officers and 27,230 men gave up their arms at Vicksburg, thus bringing an end to the siege and battle at this crossroads in the Confederate South (“Siege of Vicksburg”).

The Importance of the Battle of Vicksburg

From a military standpoint, the city of Vicksburg was of great strategic importance, due to being geographically located on a “high bluff overlooking a hairpin turn of the Mississippi River” which flowed southward out of Vicksburg and down to New Orleans. Certainly, Confederate President Jefferson Davis recognized the strategic importance of Vicksburg, for he more than once referred to it as the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy” and the “nail head that holds the South’s two halves together” (“The Fall of Vicksburg”).

Prior to General Grant’s siege against the city, the Union had attempted to attack Vicksburg on two separate occasions in May and June of 1862; however, both attempts failed, due to the fact that the Confederate army had “strongly fortified Vicksburg, providing it with 172 cannon and a defending army” of 30,000 troops under the command of Lt. General John Pemberton (“The Fall of Vicksburg”).

As previously mentioned, in order for the Union to divide the Confederacy in half, it had to take control of Vicksburg which in 1863 was “located on the river between two Union strongholds” which effectively cut off the ability of the Union to use the Mississippi River as a conduit for transporting military supplies and for trading goods with cities to the north and the south (“The Fall of Vicksburg”).

Militarily then, the cannon that had been positioned by the Confederacy on the bluff overlooking the river below “gave the Confederate army total command of the river” and if Union ships carrying supplies and men “attempted to navigate between New Orleans and Memphis, they risked being blown out of the water as soon as they reached the vicinity of Vicksburg” (“The Fall of Vicksburg”).

President Abraham Lincoln also realized the strategic importance of Vicksburg as the “key” to closing the gap between New Orleans in the south and Memphis, Tennessee in the north. As Jeffrey C. Burden relates, capturing Vicksburg “would sever the Trans-Mississippi Confederacy from east of the Mississippi River and open the river to northern traffic along its entire length” (“Battle of Vicksburg”).

Another aspect concerns General Ulysses Grant whose victory over Pemberton opened the proverbial door to military advancement and recognition. First of all, Grant managed to capture more than 30,000 Confederate troops, not to mention thousands of weapons, cannon, supplies, clothing, and food (“The Fall of Vicksburg”). Ironically, this was not to be Grant’s first military success related to capturing enemy forces, nor was it to be his only victory related to the surrender of a high-ranking Confederate officer like Pemberton. In April of 1865, Grant accepted the surrender of the entire Confederate fighting force at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia via General Robert E. Lee which brought an end to the Civil War.

So swift was the change from being controlled by the Confederacy that a mere four days after Vicksburg fell to Union forces, the great Mississippi River was once again opened to Union commercial cargo ships. For example, the river boat Imperial arrived safely in New Orleans on July 16 from the city of St. Louis, “not having been fired at from the banks of the river nor molested in any way.” Also, Grant’s victory at Vicksburg essentially made it impossible for the Confederacy to ship “cattle and grain, the munitions of war, and above all troops” from Texas and Louisiana “to the battlegrounds of Georgia, Alabama, and Virginia” (“The Fall of Vicksburg”).

This situation greatly affected the ability of Confederate troops to adequately defend themselves at later battles like the Battle of Fort Wagner in South Carolina, the Battle of Honey Springs in Oklahoma, and the Battle of Manassas Gap in Virginia. In addition, all of the vast territory west of the Mississippi River faced even worse shortages of supplies and weapons and the few battles that did occur in places like New Mexico “contributed little to the Southern war effort.” Therefore, when the Mississippi River was shut down by the Union, “the strangulation of Jefferson Davis’ rebel kingdom had begun in earnest” (“The Fall of Vicksburg”).

Effects Upon Union and Confederate Forces

During the Battle of Vicksburg, the Union and the Confederacy suffered tremendous losses, both in manpower and materials. As recollected by Edward S. Gregory in 1879, the Union and the Confederacy experienced much danger and carnage before and during Grant’s attack against the city. As Gregory explains it, the Federals (i.e., Union forces) fought mostly within the confines of Vicksburg which was not “outside the range of the enemy’s artillery from any direction except the south.” On the opposite side of the Mississippi River, being the western side, Grant set up “seven, eleven, and thirteen inch mortars” that were “in position and trained directly on the homes of the people.” Gregory adds that

“All night long their deadly hail of iron dropped through roofs and tore up the   deserted and denuded streets. . . Who could forget the deadly design and       properties of these missiles might admire every night the trail which they made        across the western heavens; rising steadily and shiningly in great parabolic curves,        descending with ever-increasing swiftness, and falling with deafening shriek and     explosion” (“Vicksburg During the Siege”).

Gregory also relates some of the travesties faced by Confederate forces dug down in the trenches that surrounded Vicksburg during the firing of the mortars. “One great trouble,” states Gregory, “was the scarcity and bad quality of the water. . . the drink of the soldiers had to be hauled in barrels from the river. It was muddy and warm, and . . . caused many of the disorders which prevailed with effects so fatal,” such as dysentery and typhus (“Vicksburg During the Siege”).

As to the Union forces, Gregory fully describes the night of April 16 almost one month before Grant’s siege against Vicksburg, when a “Federal fleet of gunboats and three transports, towing barges, ran by the batteries at Vicksburg and moored at Hard Times, Louisiana.” Six days later, additional transports and barges joined the others. During this time period, the “damage done by the Confederate artillerists” included “One transport sunk, one burned, (and) six barges rendered unserviceable.” As a result, Union , Admiral Porter “opened the guns of his ships on the Confederate entrenchments at Grand Gulf” (“Vicksburg During the Siege”), inflicting many casualties and literally blowing the trenches and the men hunkered down inside them to bits.

After the surrender of Pemberton to Grant, Secretary of State William Henry Seward was convinced that “even old Virginia would soon be asking forgiveness on her knees,” a reference to surrendering to the Union. As to the Confederate soldiers who had fought so valiantly at Vicksburg, they continued to hold faith in the Confederacy’s ability to win over the Union. As Gregory puts it, the Confederate army “kept its high crest and stern front to the last and died only with annihilation,” while former Vicksburg prisoners of war, released once Pemberton surrendered to Grant, “spread the tale of disaster and the influence of dismay among simple folk whose faith never rallied” (“Vicksburg During the Siege”).

The Battle of Vicksburg and Its Effect on the Civil War

After the Union took control of the city of Vicksburg and the mighty Mississippi River as the main thoroughfare for trading and transporting troops and supplies, the Civil War began to wind down. Strange as it may seem, Southerners were under the assumption in early 1861 that the war would only last several weeks, due to believing that the North was ill-equipped and lacked the fortitude to conquer Jefferson’s great Confederacy. But President Lincoln proved them wrong and had he lived to see the end of the war, he certainly would have been both highly satisfied and despairingly sad over the number of lives that were lost in battle on both sides.

However, during the closing days of the Battle of Vicksburg, the Union and the Confederacy were squaring off against one another in a small Pennsylvania town called Gettysburg which in fact was the pivotal battle of the Civil War, due to the Union achieving victory over the Confederacy. But as previously mentioned, the fall of Vicksburg made it possible for the Union to cut the Confederacy in half and to drastically disrupt its ability to send supplies and ammunition to its troops stationed out west and in the east, thus negatively affecting the outcome of lesser battles in the Carolinas and Virginia.

In essence then, the major effect that the Battle of Vicksburg had on the outcome of the Civil War concerns one man–Ulysses Grant whose abilities as a general were questioned by everyone from Lincoln on down during the early months of 1861. Therefore, as most historians and scholars of the Civil War would agree, the “most far-reaching effect of the surrender of Vicksburg was not in its strategic impact. . . but in its personal impact on the man who received that surrender,” namely General Ulysses Grant (“Fall of Vicksburg”).

Historically, Grant proved his military skills and natural talent at Vicksburg; Grant also re-established the confidence of the Union in his leadership and ability to outmaneuver the enemy during what seemed at times a lost cause for the Union. Overall, the re-establishment of the Union’s confidence in Grant “catapulted him in March 1864 to the post of Commanding General” of the entire Union army (“The Fall of Vicksburg”). President Lincoln’s confidence in Grant was also re-established, for when Union troops began to face seemingly unsolvable problems at the Battle of Chickamauga in September of 1863, Lincoln placed his trust into the hands of Grant who provided Lincoln with a great Union victory at Chickamauga. So pleased was Lincoln with this victory that appointed Grant “to command all of the Union armies between the Mississippi River and the Alleghany Mountains,” a decision that ultimately brought a close to the bloodiest military conflict in American history (Rickard, “Siege of Vicksburg”).

Conclusion

In many ways, the fall of the city of Vicksburg in July of 1863 was the keystone of the Civil War, meaning that if Grant had failed to capture this city high on the bluffs of the Mississippi River, the war might have dragged on for several more years. And if Grant had failed in his quest to seize the city and its strategic position for the Union, his career as a Union general would certainly have ended. Thus, the Battle of Vicksburg as the keystone of the war made it possible for the collapse of the Southern plantation system and for what followed in the later years of the 1860’s, namely Reconstruction. It also created a true American legend in the shape of Ulysses Grant who began his life in a run-down store in Galena, Illinois, and ultimately through dogged perseverance became in many ways the savior of the Union.

Works Cited

“Battle and Siege of Vicksburg.” Civil War Trust. 2013. Web. 16 December 2013.

Burden, Jeffrey C. “Battle of Vicksburg.” America’s Civil War. 2000. Web. 16 December 2013.

Fraser, Mary Ann. Vicksburg: The Battle that Won the Civil War. New York: Henry Holt  & Company, 1999.

Gregory, Edward S. “Vicksburg During the Siege.” The Annals of the War, Written by Leading Participants, North and South. 1879. Web. 16 December 2013.

Rickard, J. “Siege of Vicksburg, 19 May-4 July 1863.” 2006. Web. 16 December 2013.

“The Fall of Vicksburg: Turning Point of the Civil War.” 2013. Web. 16 December 2013.

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