The Vicksburg Campaign:
Before the Storm
By the fall of 1862, the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi was the hinge that held the two halves of the South together. No less an authority than Mississippian Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, said, “Vicksburg is the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together.”
Located on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi, Vicksburg dominated the river by blocking navigation. Along with its control of the mouth of the Red River and of Port Hudson to the south, it controlled the flow of supplies from the Western states of the Confederacy to the armies and population centers of the East.
The city was in a naturally defensible position. It was located on a high bluff at a horseshoe bend, the De Soto Peninsula, in the Mississippi River. The city’s location made it almost impossible to approach by ship. South of the city was the Mississippi Delta, sometimes referred to as the Yazoo Delta, a nearly impenatrable swamp some 200 miles north to south and up to 50 miles wide.
Twelve miles up the Yazoo River, the Confederates had positioned batteries and entrenchments at Haynes Bluff. West of Vicksburg, across the river, was the state of Louisiana. The land here was broken up by many streams. The roads were poor and the area was prone to winter flooding.
In the spring of 1862, Admiral David Farragut had captured New Orleans and cleared the lower Mississippi River of Confederate forts. This opened the river to Union naval forces who proceeded up the river and on May 18, 1862 demanded the surrender of the city. His demand was rejected but he returned with a flotilla in June when he bombarded the city through the month of July.
Farragut had insufficient troops to force the issue and began to explore other options. He investigated the possibility of bypassing the city by digging a canal across the back of the peninsula. In fact, on June 28th, troops and local laborers under Brig. Gen. Thomas Williams began the attempt but it was abandoned in late July due to tropical diseases and heat exhaustion.
During the rest of the summer and into the fall, the Army of Tennessee under Maj. Gen. Ulysses Grant fought a series of battles along the Tennessee-Mississippi border. In October 1862, Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck, the Union general-in-chief, reconfigured the responsibilities in the Western Theater. The District of West Tennessee became the Department of the Tennessee under Grant’s command. Grant’s army officially became known as the Army of the Tennessee.
At the time, Grant’s army numbered about 48,500 troops: 4,800 guarding rear areas in Kentucky and Illinois, 7,000 in Memphis under Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, 17,500 in Corinth, Mississippi and 19,200 in various garrisons in West Tennessee and Northern Mississippi. This force was too small to allow Grant to advance while continuing to hold all of the locations that Halleck had set up.
Grant believed that the Union victory at Corinth had taken place despite Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans and was prepared to relieve him of command. However, Halleck relieved Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell of command of the Department of the Cumberland and moved Rosecrans into that position.
New troops being recruited by Maj. Gen. John McClernand, a political opportunist, from Illinois, Indiana and Iowa gradually filtered south and Halleck began to assign them to the Army of the Tennessee. McClernand had attempted to set himself up in an independent command with appeals to Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Halleck. Halleck didn’t appreciate McClernand, a non-West Pointer, going outside the chain of command and retaliated by taking these troops out of his control.
After advising Halleck of his general plan of operations, Grant began his advance on November 2, 1862 with the unopposed occupation of Grand Junction, Tennessee. The town was the nexus of the Mississippi Central Railroad and the Memphis & Charleston Railroad. As the Union troops advanced, the Confederate forces withdrew. Grant’s troops occupied Grand Junction and the nearby town of La Grange, Tennessee by November 4th.
Grant’s next objective was Holly Springs, Mississippi, 27 miles to the south-southwest on the Mississippi Central Railroad. The Confederates were said to have 30,000 troops stationed there. Grant proposed to take 31,000 troops while Sherman would feint from Memphis with his 7,000 men.
In the midst of the planning for the advance, Grant received a dispatch from Halleck announcing that heavy reinforcements from the Midwest were heading his way. Unbeknownst to Grant, this was Halleck’s way of cutting McClernand out of the game. Grant decided to postpone his operation against Holly Springs until the reinforcements arrived.
After a further communication from Halleck that confused Grant as to the limits of his authority, he telegraphed Halleck for clarification. On November 10th, he received this reply, “You have command of all troops sent to your department, and have permission to fight the enemy where you please.” With that settled Grant determined to proceed with his campaign. It would become one of the most momentous of the war.
The long Vicksburg Campaign has been divided in two halves by historians: Operations Against Vicksburg (December 1862 – January 1863) and Grant’s Operations Against Vicksburg (March–July 1863). We will do the same in the interest of clarity.