The Defenders of Vicksburg
Why was the City of Vicksburg so important to the Confederacy? Supplies and men from the Trans-Mississippi states of the Confederacy, Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana, flowed down the Red River to the Mississippi and then to the docks of Vicksburg. From there they were loaded onto the trains of the Southern Railroad of Mississippi and moved eastward to supply the rest of the Confederacy.
Vicksburg was aptly nicknamed the Hill City because of its location atop the 200 foot bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. The city can be divided into two sections: Vicksburg-on-the-hill, where the majority of people lived and Vicksburg-under-the-hill, where those involved in the river trade resided. The riverfront district was a raucous red light district filled with riverboatmen, gamblers and other shady characters.
The population of Vicksburg-on-the-hill in 1862 was about 4,600 people with about 1,400 slaves included in this number. At least a third of the adult population was Southern-born while the rest were either European immigrants, primarily from Ireland, Germany and Britain, or from other states.
There were six daily and weekly newspapers, a variety of churches and synagogues and mercantile establishments. The Warren County Courthouse was the tallest structure between Memphis and Baton Rouge.
As a transfer point from west to east, Vicksburg saw vast quantities of flour, cornmeal, beef, sugar and salt pass through its docks and warehouses in a steady stream from the Trans-Mississippi states to the Confederates armies and population centers of the East. Also, vital munitions uniforms and medical supplies were also a part of the never-ending flow of material. Most importantly, the men of the Western Confederacy were part of this river and rail traffic.
During Farragut’s attempt to capture Vicksburg in June and July of 1862, it became clear to both sides that combat casualties were not the issue for them. The subtropical climate in the summer months was the real issue.
Diseases such as malaria, dysentery and typhus were the real enemy of the troops and the laborers employed by both sides. Losses to disease during that summer were staggering. By the time Farragut withdrew, 40% of the Confederate defenders were ill.
The most vivid example of the power of the climate on the fighting took place in late summer of 1862. Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn, the Department commander, had detailed Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge and his 4,000 man division to retake Baton Rouge. Van Dorn felt that the recapture of the city was necessary to protect the Red River route. They set out by rail from Jackson, Mississippi to Camp Moore, Louisiana, some 60 miles from their objective.
The Confederate camp was flooded and men fell ill in droves. By the time Breckinridge was ready to move, 40% of his men were ill and unable to continue. The Union troops in Baton Rouge were in somewhat better physical condition and were able to fend off the Confederate attack.
Van Dorn cast about for an alternative to Baton Rouge and settled on Port Hudson, about 16 miles north of Baton Rouge. He ordered Breckinridge and his depleted command to occupy the town. By mid-August, Port Hudson was in Confederate Army hands. They began to fortify the bluffs overlooking the river with artillery positions.
In October of 1862, Earl Van Dorn was removed by his old friend, Jefferson Davis, from Department command. Van Dorn’s defeats at Pea Ridge and Corinth plus his scandalous personal life proved too much even for his old friend to excuse. He was replaced by Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton as commander of the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana.
Pemberton was an oddity in the Confederate Army. He was a Pennsylvania native who had graduated from West Point in 1837. He was a veteran of the Seminole Wars and the Mexican War, both as a member of the 4th U.S. Artillery Regiment. He was married to a Virginian and at the beginning of the war he resigned his commission and joined the Confederate Army.
By June 1861, he was promoted to brigadier general. In January 1862, he was promoted to major general and given command the Confederate Department of South Carolina and Georgia, an assignment lasting from March 14 to August 29,with his headquarters in Charleston.
Pemberton’s abrasive personality irritated the Governors of South Carolina and Georgia, who petitioned President Davis for his removal. Davis assigned him to the western Department and replaced him with General P.G. T. Beauregard.
His forces consisted of fewer than 50,000 men under the command of Maj. Gens. Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price, with around 24,000 in the permanent garrisons at Vicksburg and Port Hudson, Louisiana. The field force was described as “a beaten and demoralized army” after the defeats at Iuka and Corinth.
Pemberton did have some assets at his disposal. The local commander at Vicksburg was Brig. Gen. Martin L. Smith, a brilliant military engineer, who had arrived at Vicksburg in May of 1862. Smith was another Northerner who had relocated to Florida before the war. Throughout the spring and summer of 1862, Smith supervised the construction of artillery positions along the Mississippi River. He then turned his attention to the construction of landward defenses, reasoning that the next attempt against Vicksburg would be by the Union Army.
Smith assigned Maj. Samuel H. Lockett, another military engineer, the task of constructing a system of fortifications around the city. The task was enormous, requiring meticulous planning and thousands of hours of manpower. The terrain around the city consisted of terraces, canebrakes, ravines and the steep river bluff. Lockett planned and executed a defensive system that wrung every possible tactical advantage from the terrain.
Most of the manpower that was used in the construction of the fortifications was done by hired or impressed slaves. Completed, the system encompassed 8 miles of fortifications. It was anchored on the Mississippi River above and below the city. The system consisted of a trench and parapet fronted by a ditch for most of the length.
Dozens of artillery positions were sited along the arc and 9 large earthen forts guarded the gaps where the Southern Railroad of Mississippi and a half-dozen roads passed through the lines. Thousands of trees were cut down to clear fields of fire and create a vast tangled abatis. The abatis would slow down the enemy attackers and break up their formations.
One problem with the impressive system was its lack of depth in many locations. Due to the difficult terrain, in many places the fortifications were not only the first line of defense but also the last.
Smith and Lockett also laid out positions in the surrounding country to protect Vicksburg’s flanks. Fortifications were constructed at Haynes Bluff, Snyder’s Bluff and Drumgould’s Bluff along the Yazoo River, about 12 to 15 miles north of the city. Earthwork fortifications were also built at Warrenton and Grand Gulf along the Mississippi below the city.
Vicksburg certainly earned the name, “The Gibralter of the Mississippi.”